Nothing To Eat

Some stories are unsettling to the point of spirituality.  That’s my impression of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  My wife wanted my opinion of it and when she used the adjective “Kafkaesque” I knew I had to comply.  The comparison is eerie in that Franz Kafka essentially starved to death because no way could be found to feed him with his underlying medical condition.  The Vegetarian shifts focus in its three parts, but the protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman who finds her life run by other people in her family after she decides to become a vegetarian (in actual fact, a vegan).  Basing her decision on disturbing dreams she has, those in her Korean culture cannot accept vegetarianism and attempt, by various forms of coercion, to change her decision.  Throughout the account, Yeong-hye becomes silent—we’re never given her point of view—but those around her can’t accept her decision.

This is a challenging book to read, given my own personal history, but after scratching my head a bit when I finished it I came to reflect on this spiritual side of it.  My own vegetarianism was an ethical decision.  I realize that I can’t and shouldn’t impose my ethics on others, but I’ve not had much resistance from others (apart from colleagues who occasionally make reservations at eateries with no hint of the concept).  Likewise, I became a vegan a few years back based on further reflection of an ethical kind.  This is actually a spiritual practice.  I don’t often express it in those terms, but clearly it is.  In the novel when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law tries to direct her life, he takes her to a Buddhist restaurant because he knows nowhere else to find vegetarian offerings.

Yeong-hye believes herself to be becoming a plant, and that leads to the next logical step in this progression of thinking.  Eating is, or at least can be, a spiritual exercise.  Many religions advocate fasts of various durations to derive the benefits to the soul.  Daily life is a matter of routine for many, often based around our culturally driven mandate of three meals a day.  I’m not alone at working through lunch while trying to get more done at my job.  By the final meal of the day I find myself exhausted.  It’s about more than food.  This strange little book has put me into a reverie about the ethics of eating.  I don’t know if Han Kang is a vegetarian or not, but she does understand the soul of one.


The Reading Bug

With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter.  I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books.  Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day.  At first I didn’t know what it was.  I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect.  Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass.  I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it.  As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside.  It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.

Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like.  I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary.  I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed.  (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.)  My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant.  We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces.  But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost?  It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform.  It needn’t bother.

Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed.  Especially in a cold house during winter.  My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life.  Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room.  No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug.  How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust.  How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again.  I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.


Better Places

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Ottessa Moshfegh before.  Shame on me, I know.  As a wannabe writer, I feel compelled to know other writers’ names.  Hang in literary circles.  Etc.  The good news is, however, that I found Homesick for Another World in an indie bookstore.  I’d gone in for something else that they didn’t have, but I don’t like walking out with nothing, especially when it’s a small store.  Besides, I trust the taste of most independent store owners. 

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories all the way through.  As with most writers some work appeals to you more than others.  In my mind the first and last stories stick the firmest.  The latter, “A Better Place,” is haunting, almost Shirley Jacksonesque.  Others make you uncomfortable in your own skin.  This is a rare talent.

Finding a writer who, using simple words and expressions, takes you to another place is a rare gift.  The short story (the only kind of fiction I’ve actually published) is a versatile and engaging form of literature.  Books collecting them are often good for picking up when you have a little time and putting down for a while again.  I felt compelled to go through this whole work, being drawn into the weird and somehow familiar worlds of characters who seem to have no purpose, no goals.  It’s almost as refreshing as Kafka or Camus.  To be a writer who requires only one name to evoke a genre must be glorious.  These stories are strange without recourse to the supernatural, and they defy easy genre assignment.  (This makes publishers crazy.)

There’s an earnestness and a longing in this collection.  A kind of nihilistic spiritualism.  A wanting with no particular object in mind.  I read a lot of fiction, some of it very good.  The kind that leaves you a little stunned and questioning what reality is.  This is that kind of book.  Had I not gone into that indie shop that Saturday morning I never would have found it.  I certainly didn’t know to look for Ottessa Moshfegh.  Here again I’m reminded of the value of the bookstore experience.  The ability to browse without clicking or scrolling feels like a luxury to me now.  I may have to pay more than Amazon’s competitive pricing, but then this is like a finder’s fee for being in the real world.  Even if the book makes you question that reality when you’re done.


Read Until Ragnarok

Wpa-marionette-theater-presents-rur“The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” quoth Hamlet. Shortly after the Velvet Revolution, my wife and I were shown about Prague by a friend who’d grown up in Communist ruled Czechoslovakia. As we watched the changing of the guard, he told us how Václav Havel, the final president of Czechoslovakia, had been a playwright and appreciated the need for pageantry in such civil ceremonies. I remember being impressed with what this playwright had accomplished while America had just survived being ruled by a lackluster comedic actor whose major contribution had been the myth of trickle-down economics. Havel was at one point selected as ranking high among the world’s top hundred intellectuals. Somehow Bedtime for Bonzo just didn’t seem to be worth bragging over.

Within another year or two, Czechoslovakia would dissolve, but the world would remain impressed by the Czech playwright. Karel Čapek was another Czech author and playwright of considerable import. Čapek, “public enemy number two” of the invading Nazis, died before the National Socialists could reach him. His brother died in Bergen-Belsen. Čapek is the author of the play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Indeed, he coined the term “robot,” around which this play revolves. Over the holidays I finally had a chance to read R.U.R., and I was immediately struck by how prominent the meme of God appeared, and also how prescient Čapek was. Like his contemporary Franz Kafka, Čapek had an unsullied vision of human propensities. Not having seen a production of R.U.R., or knowing how it would play out, I was nearly buried under the layers of meaning that such a brief piece could convey. Harry Domin, the general manager of R.U.R., supplies the world with robots for the easement of human labor. These robots eventually acquire souls, through human tampering, but also rely on humans for their reproduction. All of humanity, save a sole survivor kept alive to make new robots, is destroyed. Alquist, the last man alive, realizes when one robot will lay down its life for its mate, they have become a new Adam and Eve, and humanity’s existence is truly at an end.

Although I’ve read about robots since I was a child, I didn’t know about R.U.R. until my daughter joined her high school robotics club. Robots have, in many ways, dominated my life since. Although Čapek’s play is funny in parts, it is dystopian and profoundly troubling. Our robots have evolved since the period of World War I, just after which the play was written, but our moral sensibilities have not kept pace. Helena, the eventual wife of Domin, feels that robots should be given a soul. At first they feel no pain, mental or physical. Once they acquire these, however, they begin their inexorable march to the elimination of humankind. Reading of how technocrats believe that our true function is now to service the robots who do much of our work today, while unemployment just won’t release its grip on the flesh, my thoughts go back to Karel Čapek, Václav Havel, and William Shakespeare. The playwrights create, but the actors just ape.


Dreadful Dander

When it first appeared, mash-up literature seemed strangely novel for such a derivative art form. I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with some amusement, but a nagging suspicion kept asking if I was being fair to the genius of Jane Austen. At the same time, I like zombies. A lot. I decided to give the genre another try with Coleridge Cook’s mash-up of Franz Kafka’s classic, The Metamorphosis. During a long, late-evening flight from Los Angeles to New York, I finished The Meowmorphosis with a sense of dread. Instead of seeming funny, the idea of trying to make light of Kafka’s profundity felt like a devaluation to the classics of existentialist writers. Nobody writes like Kafka, Camus, and Durrenmatt any more. These are writers who welcomed me to an adulthood that seldom makes sense, but which is often generous with pain and angst.

The story of The Metamorphosis is well known. In the Meowmorphosis, obviously, Gregor Samsa is transformed into a kitten and is thrown into the same dilemma. The book takes a detour into Kafka’s The Trial along the way, and my memory of The Castle is rusty enough that I may have missed if it was referenced as well. Kafka’s work passes over from the entertaining to the profound. Perhaps that is the mark of classic writers—they seldom make a career of their literary efforts, for most people who read do so for entertainment. The Metamorphosis is not easy going. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so viscerally to Kafka’s truly horrendous bug being presented as a fluffy kitten. The idea is funny, but Kafka seldom smiles.

My reaction shed some light on the concept of sacred writing. Historically, the first book to receive that accolade seems to have been the Bible. Specifically, the Torah. There are sacred writings older, I know, but the reception is what makes a book sacred, not its words. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that it is a mixed bag of profundity, tedious lists, and literary beauty. Even Fundamentalists seldom quote 1 Chronicles 1-9 with the same ardor as Genesis 1-11. It is our reception of texts that make them sacred. Perhaps Christianity was premature with its insistence on closing the canon. Some of the best literature, the most inspirational words ever to be penned, lay centuries in the future. Our world would likely be a better place if sacred texts continued to keep their borders open and would admit texts that had passed the test of time. In any honest Bible including the twentieth century, The Metamorphosis would find a place. What a world it could be.


Metamorphoses

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” I borrow the opening words from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis since upon rereading it yesterday I found it consonant with much of mythology. Even the title chosen by Kafka resonates with Publius Ovidius Naso’s (Ovid’s) Metamorphoses. Transformation at the hands of the gods. The idea lives on in the concept of conversion, the religious experience of profound change at the behest of God; some claim a willful hand in their conversion while others simply give God the whole credit. Kafka, one of the great existentialist writers of the twentieth century, considers the transformation without the gods and the terrifying results.

Having discovered the existentialists in high school, I was immediately taken by their writings. Characters find themselves cast into a world devoid of meaning, a world that they can’t understand and in which they often suffer unusual consequences. Little did I know that I was in training for my own experience in the academic world. Academia involves a major metamorphosis, one from which the victim cannot return, and after which she or he will find him or herself ineligible for employment. Reading The Metamorphosis as an often displaced instructor who’s only ever received positive evaluations, I saw much in the novel this time that I could not appreciate last time I read it. In short, I had metamorphosized.

Gregor Samsa, discovering he is now a bug, immediately worries about how to get to work. The painful description of his financial worries and ultimate rejection resonated a little too clearly. Is conversion a positive phenomenon? It is difficult to evaluate. In my experience, those who’ve converted tended to have been pretty decent people in the first place. As Ovid notes over and over again in his lengthy epic poem, when the gods make you into something else a sadness will pervade this new existence. If you survive. As Gregor slowly starves to death (in a fate hauntingly similar to Kafka himself) he finds no divine consolation. The situation is absurd—best just come to terms with that. Kafka could have been a struggling academic in the century after his death and he would have found the same situation applies.