Kafka’s Frozen Sea

While reading Bessel van der Kolk’s remarkable book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, I was struck by the ubiquity of the word “frozen” and suddenly it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers, Franz Kafka, where he states that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” It occurred to me that if we apply what Van der Kolk has discovered about the nature of trauma, which he details thoroughly in Body, we can understand on a deeply personal level what Kafka’s quote may have meant for him, and in turn what it can mean for us. 

This is an excerpt from Kafka’s “Letter to His Father,” published in its entirety in various editions:

There is only one episode in the early years of which I have a direct memory. You may remember it, too. One night I kept on whimpering for water, not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself. After several vigorous threats had failed to have any effect, you took me out of bed, carried me out onto the balcony, and left me there alone for a while in my nightshirt, outside the shut door. I am not going to say that this was wrong—perhaps there was really no other way of getting peace and quiet that night—but I mention it as typical of your methods of bringing up a child and their effect on me. I dare say I was quite obedient afterward at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and then the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterward I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the balcony, and that consequently I meant absolutely nothing as far as he was concerned.

Kafka’s father never read the letter. He states that his father left him out there for “a while,” so we don’t know for how long, or how he eventually re-entered the house. Did his father let him back in? I’m very curious about that part of the incident, but regardless, the effect was one of “inner harm” as stated by Kafka. What he refers to as “inner harm,” we now refer to as trauma.

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Kafka as a Boy, c. 1888


This episode, and Kafka’s recollection of it, is significant on a number of levels. Primarily it details a trauma which undoubtedly left a deep impression on the writer and greatly influenced his work. Van der Kolk describes how, in the midst of trauma, sometimes our fight-or-flight instinct is stilted, and we go into a third mode, which is to
freeze. One can picture little Kafka on the balcony, quite literally freezing in his nightshirt, but without anywhere to flee to for warmth, and without being able to re-enter his house to confront his father. The word “frozen,” then, has a dual meaning in this context. For Kafka he was both immobilized and shivering cold. When we speak of water that has frozen into ice it is to say that the movement of the molecules within has ceased. For Kafka, the only way out of this paralysis was through his writing.

The PTSD that we used to think only applied to war veterans very much applies to any person who with unresolved trauma, and whose body holds its lasting effects over time. Van der Kolk details what happens physiologically when a person is immobilized during a threat:

When the brain’s alarm system is turned on, it automatically triggers preprogrammed physical escape plans in the oldest parts of the brain. As in other animals, the nerves and chemicals that make up our basic brain structure have a direct connection with our body. When the old brain takes over, it partially shuts down the higher brain, our conscious mind, and propels the body to run, hide, fight, or, on occasion, freeze (italics mine). By the time we are fully aware of our situation, our body may already be on the move. If the fight/flight/freeze response is successful and we escape the danger, we recover our internal equilibrium and gradually “regain our senses.” 

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A “successful” use of freezing would be if Kafka’s father, in a fury, came looking for him, but could not find him, because Kafka was hiding, purposely immobilized, and therefore undetected. That is not the case here. The survival mechanisms normally at his disposal were all useless in this situation: there was no one to fight, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. Perhaps a craftier Kafka may have found a way out of the predicament, climbing down the side of the house, for example, and experienced the physical and psychological freedom that he needed. When these options are not available, the brain continues to secrete stress hormones, like cortisol, and equilibrium is not restored. The trauma, then, stays “trapped” in the body in a very real way, and “long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists.” I believe this episode was a major traumatic incident that came to inhabit Kafka’s body and mind, and manifested itself throughout his writing. 

We can see this “learned helplessness,” as Van der Kolk calls it, throughout Kafka’s works, and none better than his most popular and enduring work, The Metamorphosis, which opens with our antihero Gregor having been turned into a kind of beetle and struggling to move. So much of Metamorphosis involves Gregor struggling with the predicament of his own body. The entire first part of the story involves Gregor simply trying to figure out how to get out of bed. The genius of Metamorphosis is the way it fully expresses the unavoidable human problem of the body by dehumanizing its main character. For Gregor, mobility has been lost because his mind and his body are at odds with each other. 

Kafka’s parable speaks to what it means to be human and to be inside a body, to have a body, but on a more personal level it speaks to the paralysis of lingering trauma that began the night he was stranded on the balcony. It is the body, then, that Gregor (and Kafka himself) struggle with, and the reason is because it has become paralyzed by unresolved trauma, and therefore its owner has lost the agency to move about freely. 

If trauma is the the thing that left Kafka paralyzed, shame is what forced him to hide what he had become. In Van der Kolk’s terms, the body becomes “stuck in fight or flight,” and the result is that it can do neither. Over time, “shame becomes the dominant emotion [for trauma survivors] and hiding the truth the central preoccupation.”

Indeed, throughout the entire Metamorphosis, Gregor barely makes it past the boundary of his room, which is the boundary of his internalized trauma-turned-shame, except briefly in one extraordinary episode that I believe to be one of the most powerful in all of literature. In this scene, Gregor’s sister is playing the violin for a trio of lodgers who have come to rent out the guest room in the home. Much has been written about this scene, but not in the context of trauma. Consider the following lines, which, in Kafka’s quintessential objective tone, seem unremarkable at first:

Gregor’s sister began to play; the father and mother, from either side, intently watched the movements of her hands. Gregor, attracted by the playing, ventured to move forward a little until his head was actually inside the living room. He felt hardly any surprise at his growing lack of consideration for others; there had been a time when he prided himself on being considerate. And yet just on this occasion he had more reason than ever to hide himself, since owing to the amount of dust which lay thick in his room and rose into the air at the slightest movement, he too was covered with dust, fluff and hair and remnants of food trailed with him caught on his back and along his sides; his indifference to everything was much too great for him to turn on his back and scrape himself clean on the carpet, as once he had done several times a day. And in spite of his condition, no shame deterred him from advancing a little over the spotless floor of the living room.

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Spanish ed. of Metamorphosis from 1986


It is in this episode, and only in this episode, that Gregor attempts to
move through the paralysis of his internalized trauma, by overcoming the debilitating and confining boundary of shame, marked by the line which delineates his room from the living room. His shame is illustrated here by the dirtiness of the local debris which has accumulated onto his body since the morning of his transformation, a debris which he has unsuccessfully tried to rid himself of permanently. The debris has been caked on to Gregor’s body, an important detail that speaks to how shame attaches itself in a very physical way to the body, immobilizing its victim. We can see this as well in one of Kafka’s dreams involving his father, as he describes it in his Diaries, approaching a gate, on the other side of which is a wall, which his father climbs “almost in a dance” but does not help his son ascend:

I got to the top only with the utmost effort, on all fours, often sliding back again, as though the wall had become steeper under me. At the same time it was also distressing that it was covered with human excrement so that flakes of it clung to me, chiefly to my breast. I looked down at the flakes with bowed head and ran my hand over them. When at last I reached the top, my father…immediately fell on my neck and kissed an embraced me.

Consider how the dream morphs Kafka into an animal (“on all fours”), requires a Herculean effort, given the steepness and slippery quality of the wall, leaves his father on the other side of the wall without a helping hand, and presents the internalized shame as excrement attaching itself to his body and making it difficult to move upward. The intimacy with which Kafka runs his hand over the flakes of excrement suggests that he has accepted, rather than rejected, this deep internalized shame. Excrement is the perfect metaphor for internalized shame because it is produced inside the body, invisible to us, and yet must be rid of or it will become a kind of poison. In Vladimir Nabokov’s reading of Metamorphosis, he suggests that the insect Gregor has transformed into is specifically a dung beetle, which I believe to be perfectly on point. 

The crucial part of this dream, however, is the victory it represents, the kind of which we do not ever see in Kafka’s writing. It is a classic wish-fulfilment dream, where Kafka successfully traverses the wall of shame separating him from his father, thus earning his father’s love and affection once again. It is a reunion with the father after having been abandoned by the father.

In Metamorphosis, Gregor has been cut off from his family (yet so close to them at the same time, just a room away) exactly like he was that night on the balcony. Now he must set out to accomplish what Kafka accomplished in his dream: to reunite with his family. But can this be done? It is important to point out that a key part to what allows Gregor to begin this movement is not just the sound of his sister playing the violin, but his “lack of consideration” for others. This may seem strange, but it is precisely our ties to the people who have traumatized and shamed us that keep us immobile. Our deep fear of upsetting them, of being punished or shamed again, keeps us confined to ourselves and cut off from the people around us. Gregor displays a boldness here that allows him to disregard potential consequences and move towards the sounds of love, family, and community. He desperately needs to be a part of what is around him, rather than a prisoner in his own home. He also displays a courageous vulnerability, being that, covered in more filth than ever before, he has “more reason than ever to hide himself.” The scene continues as Gregor cautiously attempts to move out of the frozen place of shame and trauma, toward the desired goal of reuniting with his family. Consider the following words carefully in light of what we have discussed thus far:

Gregor crawled a little farther forward and lowered his head to the ground so that it might be possible for his eyes to meet hers. Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him? He felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. He was determined to push forward till he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at least, not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become, for the first time, useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders; but his sister should need no constraint, she should stay with him of her own free will; she should sit beside him on the sofa, bend down her ear to him and hear him confide that he had had the firm intention of sending her to the Conservatorium, and that, but for his mishap, last Christmas—surely Christmas was long past?—he would have announced it to everybody without allowing a single objection. After this confession his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar.

Here Gregor leaps into a detailed fantasy of his sister as rescuer, and the fantasy involves having a female companion (complete with incestual undertones) who accepts him, listens to him, and never abandons him. The fantasy represents all of Gregor’s deepest needs conflated, dream-like, into one perfect image. There is physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, and sexual intimacy all combined. All of his deepest needs (the “unknown nourishment” that he craves) could be met if only this fantasy might become a reality: family, companionship, love, affection, sexual expression—all from a single source. It is the ultimate fantasy, because it perfectly, and all at once, breaks the chains of the shame-based trauma in which he is shackled. It is also interesting that Gregor’s solution to his dilemma is to imprison his sister (“he would never let her out of his room”) the same way that he is imprisoned. The language of consensual, reciprocal familial love has been lost. It is the infantile wish to secure a source of nourishment that will never leave. Note, too, the detail of Gregor kissing Grete’s neck, just as Kafka’s father kissed his neck in his dream. 

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Photo of Grete Bloch, with whom Kafka had a romantic relationship, at the Kafka Museum, Prague.


Alas, the result of Gregor edging his way across the boundary of his own shame is disastrous, and his attempt only deepens his shame and a re-traumatizes him. His father tries to calm the lodgers, who are alarmed by Gregor and disgusted, refusing to pay for their stay. Meanwhile Gregor’s movement has halted and he is paralyzed once again: “Disappointment at the failure of his plan, perhaps also the weakness arising from extreme hunger, made it impossible for him to move.” Contrary to his fantasy of being rescued by Grete, Gregor’s sister now insists that he must be got rid of, referring to him as “it” while addressing their parents. She no longer acknowledges his humanity. Gregor is simply garbage, filth, and this is the stark reality of the psyche that is imprisoned by toxic shame. The shame-based person believes himself to be worthless. In John Bradshaw’s book,
Healing the Shame that Binds You, he explains toxic shame this way: “Toxic shame, the shame that binds us, is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that ‘I am flawed and defective as a human being…’ Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being… [and] creates a tormenting self-consciousness [that has] a ‘binding and paralyzing effect upon the self.’” And later, he addresses the consequences of shame internalization: “A shame-based identity is formed [and] the depth of shame is magnified and frozen (italics mine).”

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Kafka at age 40, just before his death


Of all the remarkable interpretations of Kafka’s masterpiece, in the end,
The Metamorphosis is a story about the paralysis of shame. It becomes clear through our investigation of Kafka’s traumatic childhood incident (just one of many), of being abandoned by his father, cut off from his family, banished from the warmth and comfort of his home, that this trauma led to a deep shame that left Kafka internally paralyzed, his emotional self a “frozen sea” that he attempted, through the sheer will of his own genius, to break apart with the sharpened axe of his own writing. 

But was he successful? Gregor does not emerge victorious the way Kafka himself did in his dream. For if he had, the story would have ended with the lodgers, Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, and (most importantly) Grete all receiving him with open arms in the living room, under the spell of Grete’s violin. The might have sung and danced, and embraced Gregor even in his ugliness. That would have been true acceptance, the mark of unconditional love. But Metamorphosis does not end in a reunion or with any intimacy. Instead, Gregor heartbreakingly turns round without a word, crawling back into the cell of his room, and at three in the morning, sinks his head Christ-like and dies. Upon hearing the news of his son’s death, Mr. Samsa says “Well, now thanks be to God.” 

The tragedy of Metamorphosis is that it reinforces Kafka’s own shame by depicting a narrative in which he rids himself from his family, so that they experience relief by being rid of him, rather than one in which he reunites with his family by moving through, and thereby overcoming, the frozen inner self. 

Kafka was not one for happy endings. However, we can benefit from this powerful story that, once read, is forever imprinted on our minds. Gregor’s attempt, as brief and pathetic as it was, to move through his shame, becomes heroic for us as readers, as was the writing of the novella itself. Even though it was not successful, what mattered was that he tried. So, too, we must try, even if it is just one small step. Gregor shows us what is possible as a beginning, as an act of courage. It is up to us to see how ours will end. But we must move forward, with whatever agency has been left us, when all else has been taken away. As Kierkegaard wrote, “Continually take that one step more, that single step that even you, who cannot move a limb, are still able to take.”

Just as Gregor sacrifices himself for the sake of his family being able to restore equilibrium, so too did Kafka sacrifice himself as a writer for us as readers. He was engaged but never married, and ended up in a sanatorium. It was as if he suffered the loneliness, separation, and unresolved trauma deliberately, preserving it in a way, so that he could heroically take the axe to his own chest through his writing, a tool too heavy and sharp to be successful for himself, rather than the soft and gentle hand of love. 

The Hotel (by Austin Smith)

The radiator holds
its boiling water
like an accordion
holding its breath
in a ditch. The room
itself is simple,
the sort rented out
night by night
to the poor to make
more poor or to die in
but it is not night
nor is she poor. She
could have afforded
a nicer room and it is
day. Closing the blinds
the way someone
takes out a contact
that’s been bothering
her, she lies down,
the only sounds
wrenches clunking
in the radiator
and a boy playing
piano in the lobby
like someone falling
down stairs. Clearly
he is unsupervised.
Clearly soon someone
will come grab him
by the wrist, shaking
him once, the way one
shakes a thermometer.
Clearly it is a boy,
or a drunk man
who’s never played
and wants only to feel
the cold ivory keys
the way a woman
will sometimes feel
the forehead
of a child she knows
is perfectly well.

2012

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Pablo Picasso. Mother and Child (study). 1904.


Austin Smith
was born on a dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He has lived in numerous places since, including Hyderabad, India; Zuccotti Park, New York City, and a tent in northern Alaska. He has published two books of poetry: Almanac (2013) and Flyover Country (2018) . He has also won the Henfield Prize for fiction.


Food for Thought:
How does the poet allow distinct images and sounds to coalesce into a single idea? How does the poem juxtapose feelings of coldness and warmth?

Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End? (by Mary Oliver)

Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.
It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.
The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.
The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.

But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white
feet of the trees
whose mouths open.
Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?
Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly, across Asia, then Europe,
until at last, now, they shine
in your own yard?

Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.

When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking
outward, to the mountains so solidly there
in a white-capped ring, or was he looking

to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea
that was also there,
beautiful as a thumb
curved and touching the finger, tenderly,
little love-ring,

as he whirled,
oh jug of breath,
in the garden of dust?

     —2012

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Anselm Kiefer. Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom. 1999.

 

Mary Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935. She attended Ohio State and Vassar but never received a degree. She’s one of the best-selling poets in America, and also a very private person, giving relatively few interviews or details about her personal life. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection American Primitive (1983) and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems (1992). Her latest collection is Felicity (2015). She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Food for Thought: How does the poet balance declarative and interrogative statements? How would you answer her questions?

Song of Tea (by Lu Tong, tr. Unknown)

The first cup moistens my throat.

The second breaks my loneliness.
The third goes deep into my soul,
To search for the literati of the five thousand scrolls.
The fourth makes me sweat,
All the injustice in life vaporizes through my pores.
The fifth lessens the weight of my flesh and bone.
The sixth lifts me to encounter the immortals.
Ah, I better not take the seventh cup, as I feel a wind blowing through my wings.
 
circa 820
Qian Xuan, Early Autumn, 13th Century

Qian Xuan. Early Autumn. 13th C.

 

Lu Tong
was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty in the 8th century. He was known for his lifelong study of tea. His poetry was known for being surprising, risky, and unusual. He wrote a book of criticism on the haiku of Basho. He was arrested for conspiracy and executed in 835.
 
 
Food for Thought: How does this poet balance the weight of his experience with the use of humor? What is the significance of restraining from the seventh cup?

James Joyce’s “Araby”

Joyce offers a clear look at things with his story “Araby” from his collection Dubliners. Although the lesson is a painful one, the boy narrator of the story has achieved a small yet decisive epiphany about life. His eyes have been opened. Apparently Joyce suffered from eye problems almost all his life (glaucoma, iritis) and his image is only made complete with the iconic rounded eyeglasses he wore. Thus it is quite appropriate that seeing be a major theme in this story. It begins by saying that the street the narrator lived on was “blind” yet “the other houses of the street . . . gazed at one other”. If we are to assume that the “uninhabited house of two storeys” is the narrator’s, then the suggestion is that he is blind to whatever it is the other houses of the street can see, which is each other. His house is “detached from its neighbors” and so it is important that the beginning of his epiphany starts when he visits Mangan’s sister up the block. He is no longer at the “blind end”. He is beginning to see.

The narrator’s relationship with Mangan’s sister is voyeuristic. They exchange a few words but mostly he watches her from the railings of her porch, or from the floor in his front parlour. Joyce writes, “The blind was pulled down . . . so that I could not be seen.” — a foreshadowing of the kind of playfulness with language that will later become his trademark. Note that the mild ecstasy the boy experiences with Mangan’s sister is at a distance, and while “blind”. As soon as he begins to see in a new way, it is necessarily painful, like an eye operation (Joyce had many).

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The night of the bazaar the boy sits staring at the clock before retreating to the “upper part of the house” where he “looked over at the dark house where she lived.” And then, “seeing nothing but . . .” the specific images impressed on his mind, which are the images of her neck, her hand, and her legs — all sensual parts of a girl’s body. At this point he is still indulging in imagery but his pubescent calling will drive him to action. Note the suspense Joyce creates while we wait with the boy for his uncle who is out drinking. This superb mastery of suspense is used in almost all of the stories in Dubliners. I remember waiting for my father to come home when I was about 13, so I could ask to go to a girl’s birthday party. He finally arrived and I asked (I was intimidated by my father then), to which he said no, and I was crushed.

Finally heading to the bazaar the boy remarks that “the sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey.” This sharply contrasts with the desertedness of the bazaar that he will soon encounter. Also, it is important to note that the boy is going to the bazaar with an objective, a responsibility he has given himself, namely to bring back something for Mangan’s sister, the object of his adoration. He is not just going to have fun and enjoy himself, and he is not going with friends but alone. He is like a solitary deacon set out on a journey to fulfill a promise he made. Once inside the bazaar the boy finds emptiness and silence. The final sentence is a brilliant fusion of themes and images: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” It is the first time the narrator “sees himself” and his eyes burn. It is a painful awakening.

 

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Joyce’s collection of stories, first published in 1914.

 

What, exactly, is this awakening? What has the narrator come to “see” or realize? The key to this is Joyce’s religious imagery. Let’s go back and take a look: the former tenant of this “blind” house was a priest. This quietly brilliant line is crucial to the depth of meaning within this story. The narrator’s family have inherited a blind religious faith, just as one inherits poor eyesight. The ghost of the priest is still present, with his old paperbacks still strewn around the back drawing-room: among them a romance novel and a religious text. Religion was passed on (especially in Joyce’s time and country) to generation after generation, and it was a rite of passage for someone whose eyes were opened to see that it is a sham. Araby, then, becomes a symbol for the Church — mysterious, like some far off Eastern land, full of sights and sounds, yet ultimately transparent and unredeeming.

The boy is at the age where his religious inheritance and his instinctive sexuality begin to merge, and the result is a “confused adoration.” The religious imagery continues: the “central apple tree” behind the house suggests a kind of tree of knowledge; when we first encounter Mangan’s sister the boys are in shadow and she is “defined by the light from the half-opened door;” Mangan’s sister (without a name because the word “sister” suggests a nun) has a divine, angelic quality about her in every description. “The soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side” is almost reminiscent of church bells. Joyce continues with words like “litanies,” “chalice,” “prayers,” and “harp,” the latter a more heavenly than Church-like symbol. When the boy consummates his “confused adoration” for Mangan’s sister, it is done in the room where the priest died and he “pressed the palms of my hands together” as if in prayer. Finally, Mangan’s sister reveals that she has a retreat in her convent. This fact makes her even more pure and more desirable. The “fall of coins” the boy hears at the bazaar recall the 40 pieces of silver Judas Iscariot received for betraying Jesus. And indeed the boy feels completely betrayed. Finally, the English girl denies three times something she said, just as Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the cock crowed.

So much of the experience of going to mass is visual. You are seated in the pews and your attention is directed forwards. It is much like going to the movies; once in a while you turn and regard the person next to you, perhaps forgetting for a moment that they are even there, and then you return your gaze to the action in front of you. The priest in his ornate robe, the lifting of the gold chalice, the stained-glass windows, the recitation of hymns and prayers, the incense — all stimulating to the senses, but mostly visual. In the end, the boy in “Araby” has abandoned all his budding sexual fervor into a religious setting and been denied any real substantiation at all.

Communion (by Oshima Ryota, tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

     No one spoke
The host, the guest,
     The white chrysanthemums

–circa 1750

John Singer Sargent - Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose - 1885

John Singer Sargent. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. 1885.


Oshima Ryota was born in 1718 and was a haiku master working primarily in Edo, known for his wit and urbanity. He was a disciple of the Basho school and a contemporary of Buson. He became on of the most influential haiku masters of the 18th century, and reportedly had some 3,000 students all over Japan. In 1759 he published a book of criticism on the haiku of Basho. He died in 1787.

Food for Thought: What is the drama happening in this poem? Why do you think the poet chooses to suggest this drama with just a few details, rather than a full explanation?

Paul Gilroy & Derek Walcott’s “The Arkansas Testament”

In part II of Derek Walcott’s 24-part poem “The Arkansas Testament,” published in 1987, we find the narrator, who has just checked into a motel off the highway, collapse onto his bed:

I fell back on the double bed
like Saul under neighing horses
on the highway to Damascus,
and lay still, as Saul does,
till my name re-entered me,
and felt, through the chained door,
dark entering Arkansas.

A black man roaming the South, this is a superb example of Paul Gilroy’s examination of the “Black Atlantic” disasporic culture in the West. The narrator is searching for both an identity and a home, as if one will necessarily include the other, and the image of collapsing on a bed–the most intimate place of any home–with his name acting as the substitute for the sexual act usually associated with a bed. This complication of name, identity, and self-awareness with space and geographic location seems to be the exact problem Gilroy is examining up close in his essay “The Black Atlantic.”

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Walcott’s 8th collection, published in 1987.

The problem, to use Gilroy’s words, is in “trying to face (at least) two ways at once.” Walcott, a displaced poet born in the West Indies yet teaching and writing in the U.S., is often referred to as a “West Indian” poet or a “black poet from the Caribbean” and this seems to take precedence over the fact that he writes in the English language. Interestingly the poem’s narrator uses a religious myth, the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus to St. Paul of the Apostles, to make sense of this inner identification happening. The irony is that he is in a random motel off a random highway in one of the most remote, detached areas of the country: Fayetteville, Arkansas. An outsider, he has found a home in being within, yet completely outside the cultural identity of his surroundings. His color (his race) is so much bound up in who he is in this place that he identifies with dusk as “dark entering Arkansas” illustrating Gilroy’s point about the association of blackness with darkness. Furthermore, the “double consciousness” Gilroy speaks of is happening here: as the narrator’s name enters him, (is he black? or a mixture of Caribbean-African, like Walcott?) he enters the place around him. As much as he is conscious of himself, he is conscious of how others view him. And yet the door is chained: this is what Gilroy refers to as being “locked symbiotically in an antagonistic relationship marked out by the symbolism of colours.” To be black in a white man’s country (or state) is to be an outsider in an otherwise homogenous area. But our narrator may not have the advantage of such absolutes.

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Paul Gilroy

The cross-pollination that happens with the mingling of race and culture between Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa challenges what Gilroy calls the “ethnic absolutisms” that are more comfortable with stark contrasts and boundaries rather than a multi-ethnic racial and cultural mixture. The latter is “a litany of pollution and impurity.” This is the same theme Faulkner explored in his novel Light In August, whose main character deals with profound internal and external conflict due to his inability to identify himself as purely white or black, since he is actually a mixture of both. Does the narrator in Walcott’s poem suffer from the same identity crisis? More important here is the element of place: specifically, where the narrator has come from and where he is now. It is this journey, this dislocation, that leads to a cultural diaspora marked by Gilroy’s image of ships in motion.

My college history professor once defined a nation as “the same people living in the same place.” Walcott’s narrator represents the mobilization of ethnicity and culture (and, as a result, the politics, ideas, and traditions associated with those cultures), but also how difficult this process is, given its threat to the homogeneity of a given place. Gilroy points to key concept of what he calls “cultural insiderism,” as the method cultures use to acquire a sense of self-awareness, self-ownership, and belonging, due to an “absolute sense of ethnic difference.” The insight here is that it is the difference from other cultures and ethnicities that is more powerful than the sameness of the culture or ethnicity itself. This paradox seems to be the root of the problem: man wants to dissolve boundaries to employ equality and unity with others, but needs those same boundaries to achieve his own sense of identity. Going to back to Walcott’s poem, here is another excerpt: “But two doors down, a cafeteria / reminded me of my race” and the section finishes:

I looked for my own area.
The muttering black decanter
had all I needed; it could sigh for
Sherman’s smoking march to Atlanta
or the march to Montgomery.
I was still nothing. A cipher
in its bubbling black zeros, here.

Walcott’s narrator needs this difference in order to recognize himself. The others in the cafeteria, a “soak,” a “beehive-blonde waitress,” and men talking deer hunting, are as important as the black coffee that triggers a response in his consciousness. Collectively they include yet exclude him. He relates to the color and the confinement of the coffee in the decanter. Instinctively he looks for his “own area.” It is the same problem as the schoolboy in the cafeteria debating over where to sit. Which substratum of the school’s population does he best fit into? As a human being he already is among his own kind, and therefore belongs. As a student at the school, he is among his own kind and therefore belongs. But eventually he is forced to go further, to narrow his cultural insiderism: does he sit with the boys or girls? The jocks or stoners? The students of the same color or ethnicity or religion? Which of these holds the most value to him? The answer is a complex one, and yet sets the lines of demarcation between him and the rest of the students, which simultaneously defines his sense of self in that place, and separates him from the students at every other table. Of course, if he chooses multiple tables over time, he is cast as an “outsider,” just like Walcott’s narrator, alone in a remote city in Arkansas, still searching for an authentic identity and a home.

Donna Haraway & Ridley Scott’s “Alien”

“Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.”     ―Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Much has been written already about Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner (my original choice) in relation to Donna Haraway’s landmark essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” but less about the essay’s relation to Scott’s first great film, Alien (1979). For this short essay I’d like to avoid the feminist jungle that Alien offers for analysis and instead focus on the characters of Ash and Kane.

 

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Original movie poster from 1979

Ash is an android whose simulated nature is revealed halfway through the film. It seems a deliberate move to surprise us in this way, leaving the audience fooled on a deep and disturbing level, by a character whom we came to know as human and realized is only a system of wires that oozes blood the color of Cream of Wheat (not unlike the alien’s “acid” blood). The scene is a violent one, with a disagreement between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Ash turning physical. Ash unsuccessfully attempts to suffocate Ripley by stuffing a rolled up (phallic) magazine into her mouth, and it marks the only time in the film when a female is threatened in an overtly sexual way. The suggestion is that Ash is compensating for his lack of sexuality as an android, and although he is ostensibly “male” he more closely resembles what Haraway calls the “post-gender” world of the cyborg. But our heroine prevails, and quickly: Ripley decapitates Ash (who is literally reduced to a talking head, a system of code and information, without a body) and annihilates him in a bath of flame with a blowtorch.

Once this revelation about Ash happens, the “nature” of everyone else on the ship becomes suspect, and, further, we as viewers begin to question our own nature. How different are we from Ash’s robotic body with wires for guts? If androids are machines that can be terminated, what does that make us? Don’t we have the ability to end their “life” as God ends ours? The result of this scene is a blurring of the boundary between man (organism) and machine, and it anticipates Haraway’s essay, published six years later.

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Donna Haraway in 1988

Yet Haraway’s is an argument “for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries,” and Alien represents the antithesis of this. In a film whose monster is heavily imbued with both phallic and vaginal imagery, a scene of “oral rape” in which a male character (Kane) is impregnated orally by an alien species, and another scene where the planted egg erupts violently from Kane’s chest, the deconstruction (and fusion) of gender and sexual boundaries is deliberately horrifying, not pleasurable.

I would argue that upon viewing the film a second time, one of the most subtly disorienting scenes is the moment just before the alien erupts from the character Kane’s chest, when the crew is casually sitting around eating breakfast, and we realize that Kane is pregnant. Though the pregnancy is short-lived, he is ultra-feminized in a sense, and the result is a viciously violent one that kills him. The suggestion, then, is that the attempt to transgress gender by fusing its boundaries, especially in a sexual way, is highly volatile. As Haraway says, “To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable…exploited as a reserve labor force.” Kane is raped and exploited by being used as a vessel out of which the alien egg can hatch. He is not emasculated so much as violently feminized, and I would argue that the result of this is a radical re-feminization of the film’s hero, Ripley.

The film consciously raises our anxieties and fears surrounding the issue of playing God, and losing our assumed boundaries of male and female, but also of the Self and the Other. The characters of Kane and Ash question our historical idea of the body and its permeable nature, and remind us that “man is matter,” capable of being mutated, exploited, simulated, and impregnated. Haraway’s dominant-submissive dualism speaks to women primarily, and Alien represents a reversal of that domination, not without its casualties.

Shoveling (by Ann Harrington)

I woke to the sound of shovels scraping the sidewalk:
More snow.
Son of a snowplow driver,
shoveling was one of your specialties,
like rising at five to feed the cats,
filling the bird feeder,
making the coffee,
charging my phone—
a catalog of kindnesses
I mostly slept through.
You were the constant one, the unapologetic booster, the besotted.
I was the strategist, the asker of difficult questions, the beloved.

We chose the old house on the corner
not knowing what we were in for. (Whoever does?)
We battled, together,
but cancer made you old too soon
and left me, the independent one, suddenly alone.
Now the years stretch ahead of me
like an endless sidewalk, filled with snow.
I shuffle into your old jacket, hat,
and too-big boots,
grab a shovel and get to work,
hoping some of you
will rub off on me.

–2014

Related image

Andrew Wyeth. First Snow (Groundhog Day). 1959.

Ann Harrington is an editor and writer, single mother, and die-hard Twins fan. She lives with her two kittens in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Food for Thought: How do the sounds of the opening line reflect the action? How does the act of shoveling change dimensions by the end of the poem?

Marx & Baudelaire’s “Let’s Beat Up the Poor”

In his Communist Manifesto, Marx carefully constructs the following sentence to demonstrate the importance of his ideas coming into fruition at the exact time he is writing these very words: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Though he is speaking of the history of class struggle and using the past tense, the phrase “now hidden, now open” evokes the call to revolution with brilliant subtlety. It is this phrase that I’d like to focus on as concretized in Baudelaire’s poem “Let’s Beat Up the Poor.”

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The prose poem describes a brief anecdote in the first person involving the narrator, after two weeks of self-induced isolation in his room, breaking out of the eggshell of his home and into the streets, with “the idea of an idea” in his mind and “feeling very thirsty.” He then comes across a beggar holding out his cap with a pathetic look, and throws himself on him, beating him nearly senseless. It is here that the poem takes root and stares the reader in the face: the “antique carcass” of the beggar fights back, bruising and bloodying the narrator, reclaiming a long-lost dignity and reason to live. The narrator’s “theory” as whispered to him earlier in the poem by “a Demon of action, a Demon of combat” is that “only he is the equal of another who proves it, and only he is worthy of liberty who can conquer it.” A pact is made by the two men and the beggar’s promise to carry out the “theory” is what makes it social, forward-thinking, and represents Baudelaire’s challenge to the reader. That virtually no one who reads the poem is bold enough to actually carry out his “theory” in practice seems to be exactly what Baudelaire is after. Its egalitarian standpoint reveals the irony that true equality is impossible not because it is denied us by society, but because we deny it ourselves.

This provocative poem attempts, in a single stroke, to materialize the idea of Marxist class struggle in a definitive and self-willed way. It is a demonstration of the carrying out of the revolutionary ideas Marx formulated, yet it does so in a reverse order. Not only does Baudelaire make manifest the otherwise concealed, ignored, and silently tolerated class struggle between the poor and the bourgeois, but he does so by going down the ladder, not up it. And in doing so he reveals the energy and fire that exists in the lowest class, i.e. the poor, the destitute, the homeless. Whereas Marx calls upon the proletariat to unite, invigorating the strength of the huge middle class (whose key advantage lies in their weight), Baudelaire shows that this strength also exists in the lowest dregs of society. And his poem is as much a call to action as Marx’s Manifesto. The title, after all, is not “An Encounter” or “Walking Down the Rue Saint-Honoré” or something vague like that, but rather a declarative, almost adolescent-toned invitation that is playful and exciting.

Baudelaire’s poem answers the question, what does class struggle actually look like? What material form is shaped by the tension of invisible antagonistic forces? The abstract becomes suddenly and uncomfortably tangible. Yet it does so in such an unusual and provocative way: instead of the slave revolt against his master, or the bored and privileged Alec D’urberville exploiting the naive and underprivileged Tess, Baudelaire’s hero is consciously provoking a revolt against himself. Rather than merely ignite the fuse of revolution by throwing a snowball at a policeman (i.e. the Boston Massacre) or organizing a committee of intellectuals or anarchists to overthrow the ones with power, he invigorates a member of a lower class to realize in a necessarily barbaric way that, at the bottom of his spirit, he is equal to anyone else alive. The beggar cannot fight back to defend himself unless there is something to defend. In this way the hero of the poem exposes the ability of humans to expose themselves.

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Charles Baudelaire

 

Marx, at heart, was a humanist. It is precisely this notion of self-exposing that is most revolutionary about Baudelaire’s poem, and it is a humanistic and spiritual inertia he triggers more than a social one. The social inertia triggered is contained in the following lines, spoken by the narrator: “Sir, you are my equal, be kind enough to do me the honor of sharing my purse with me; and remember that if you are truly philanthropic, you must apply to all your colleagues, when they ask you for alms, the theory which I have had the anguish of trying out on your back.”

Yet it is not just a social shadow that is brought into the light. The truly revolutionary element of Baudelaire’s poem is illustrating that the necessary ingredient for revolution (now hidden, now open) lies within the beggar himself. Thus, in the same way that Tolstoy’s story “Master and Man” personalizes the idea of sacrificing one’s life for another (as demonstrated by the Christ-figure Brekhunov), Baudelaire personalizes the Marxist idea of class struggle leading to revolution with a “miracle” as the beggar rises from a heap on the ground and straightens himself “with an energy that I should never have suspected in a machine so singularly disordered.” (Note the deliberate use of the word “machine.”) Just as Tolstoy’s story takes the grand event of Christ sacrificing himself for all of mankind and scales it down to two individual people, so does Baudelaire’s poem bring Marx’s international call for revolution within the anecdotal sphere of two ordinary men: moving from the macro to the micro.

The brilliance of this poem is its understanding that before revolution can be directed outward, it must be manifested inward. This is why the truly radical revolutionaries in history — Jesus, Joan of Arc, Gandhi — were largely alone in their accomplishments. Their following, if any, were often made up of a group who fed off the revolutionary’s energy, convincing themselves they were the same, and willing to sacrifice the material in exchange for spiritual or social reform. But for any of this to happen a dramatic internal change must happen first, otherwise one is left with an empty shell of a person shouting from the rooftops but filled with doubt inside his heart.