a profound wakefulness

Kafka: The Decisive Years“Kafka missed nothing, forgot nothing. There is little evidence of the absentmindedness and boredom he always complained about; on the contrary, his incessant presence of mind is almost painful to witness, because it renders him unapproachable. Someone must stay awake, but this wakefulness deprived him of a sense of home and alienated him from the world and from people, in a mundane and sometimes comical sense. Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which highlights the impossibility of writing an adequate biography, expresses the suffering associated with profound wakefulness from the point of view of someone experiencing it:

[...] in my case all the shutters and lids and doors of the mind would be open at once at all times of the day. Most brains have their Sundays, mine was even refused a half-holiday. That state of constant wakefulness was extremely painful not only in itself, but in its direct results. Every ordinary act which, as a matter of course, I had to perform, took on such a complicated appearance, provoked such a multitude of associative ideas in my mind, and these associations were so tricky and obscure, so utterly useless for practical application, that I would either shirk the business at hand or else make a mess of it out of sheer nervousness.

This statement applies to Kafka word for word. It is astonishing how little he ‘made a mess of’ in spite of everything: wherever his life took him, he stood the test, as a pupil, student, and official. But nothing came easily to him; every decision, even the most trivial, had to be wrenched from that stream of associations. He once wrote, ‘Everything sets me thinking’. Everything set him writing. But first he had to translate life.”

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years

field report 6

Large ships fill the harbor today. One of them is strange. It is an enormous military catamaran that, frankly, looks quite menacing. People stand around gaping at it. What is it, they whisper to each other. No one seems to know. Phones snap photos. (Later research concludes this is the Navy’s newest ‘joint high-speed vessel’). Now the Blue Angels fly overhead. Everyone looks up. Police officers fumble with their smart phones as they strive for a good shot. Cigar-smoking man arrives on the scene and bikes in a confused circle, looking up and around as if there is no place for him to smoke his cigar. Meanwhile, a bicycle cop has used his handcuffs to lock his bike to a handrail while he goes in to purchase a burrito. A uniformed man leads a German Shepherd sniffing for explosives in the foliage outside the seafood restaurant. Tourists are consuming record amounts of seafood. The restaurants are beside themselves with joy. It is a grand celebration. The largest fireworks display since 1814 is planned for the weekend. Twenty minutes long and choreographed to patriotic music, the fireworks will launch from a three-mile long stretch of barges. How many birds will die. It is, after all, the middle of fall migration and most songbirds travel at night. (Note: several years ago in Arkansas thousands of roosting red-winged blackbirds died from shock and disorientation following a fireworks display.) Never mind that! Look at the pretty colors, listen to the explosions (freedom is loud), and feel your chest swell with pride.

life’s splendor forever lies in wait

“Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”

- Franz Kafka

(thanks to kafkaesque-world for summoning Kafka’s splendor)

a story

One day the sun came up, looked around, and slid back down.

Soon darkness fell and could not get back up.

The moon rose and kept rising until it was gone.

The tide went out and no one could find it.

Drivers heading south ended up in the north.

Those traveling east arrived in the west.

(Bends in the roads had straightened out.)

All day the wind blew itself blue in the face.

Into this fury time flew, until death clipped its wings.

The next day the sun came up, reflected a moment, and decided to stay.

Creatures began stirring and soon were eating cake for breakfast.

If the world felt different they were unaware.

field report 5.0

Today the city simmers under a Code Orange air quality alert. It does not seem so hot, though, and certainly not that humid. But the sun is bright, warranting protection for the eyes, strained as they are from squinting all day at the twin telescreens.

A tourist family clusters close to ask directions to a nearby seafood restaurant, one of them eagerly exclaiming ‘Seafood!’ in a fit of giddiness.

The pedestrian suspension bridge sways under the collective tourist weight as it tromps dutifully toward the Fish Prison, a popular destination also known as the Aquarium.

A man cooling in the shade from his maintenance duties politely requests a match but receives no fire. An apology is made and graciously accepted.

A ring-billed gull makes a raucous proclamation from atop a lamp post. Is anyone listening.

Gaggles of office men dressed in identical business attire perambulate as one, exuding comfort and confidence from their pores. They still own the world, and probably always will. That is, until it implodes under the weight of their gargantuan needs.

(The impending extinction of individuality hangs over the land. To be different is to accept relegation to the edges, where the view is perhaps better and the air certainly cleaner.)

field report iv

A middle-aged man stands at a bus stop wearing a shirt proclaiming ‘I Speak Furbish’ with a large image of a Furby. Strong temptation to stop and engage in Furbish. Instead, laugh out loud and move on.

A police helicopter circles above the neighborhood all afternoon, a high octane metal mosquito perpetually out of swatting range. Nervous system on verge of imploding.

A child cries.

A dubious silence follows…

field report 3

Today the clouds demand close observation. Why is everyone not looking at the clouds. Absurd. All colors today are vivid: the dark and choppy white-flecked waters of the harbor, the green sloping lawn of the former Civil War lookout, the red of the restaurant roof below it. Now is the time when the first psithuristic hints of the autumnal approach appear. Observance and acknowledgment of this occurrence is essential.

A passing child of about 7 says, apropos of nothing: ‘I hope I get a lawnmower soon…a real one…vrrrrrm [presumed lawnmower noises].’ His family chooses not to acknowledge this proclamation. Theory: this is not the first time it has been uttered.

A large black dog (LBD) enjoys the grassy, treed oasis behind the seafood restaurant, complacently chewing a tennis ball as its person paces in circles while jabbering on her mobile phone.

Shirtless males run on the promenade.

Tourists relentlessly take photos of a boat, the so-called ‘Last Survivor of Pearl Harbor,’ by far the most photographed object in the vicinity.

My doppelgänger walks by, as he is wont to do.

Midway through the reading period, sudden drama rushes in when cigar-smoking man (CSM) arrives on his bicycle, only to find LBD lying in the exact spot where he traditionally sets up his legless portable chair. For a few moments the air crackles with anticipation. However, this soon dissipates as, undaunted, CSM approaches the occupied territory and sets up his chair immediately adjacent to LBD. Soon, the fragrant scent of cigar smoke floats upon the strong breeze as CSM cracks open his book, occasionally casting a shrewd eye upon LBD, who pants in patient oblivion as its owner continues chattering.

On the return trip, while walking, a man pauses to execute a precise ballet move: a half-knee bend followed by a jump in place, arms outstretched. The grace of this move is surprising given the man’s overall GISS. He then taps a light pole with the thick book in his left hand. Further on, he thumps the book in his hand like a revival preacher, resulting in a few turned heads. A strong temptation rises to follow him for research purposes, but alas, recess is over.

more data in the imaginary spreadsheet

Yesterday cigar-smoking man was again observed sitting in his chair and smoking. He had a bike with him, though a different bike from his original bike. Meanwhile, someone wrote the word ‘WEED’ in multicolored chalk on the brick promenade. There are now many tourists, both of the large and confused varieties. They approach anyone around them with desperate pleas for directions to destinations that tourists frequent, such as restaurants where they can attempt for a time to assuage their unending hunger. They walk around talking about when to eat, concerned that a late lunch will push dinner back too far. Managing one’s meals whilst vacationing is difficult. It requires careful planning and continuous discussion.

The fake pirate ship drifts into view and executes a tight 90-degree turn in the channel, as the few customers on board respond with halfhearted movements to the ‘deckhands’ capering to the awful pulsing reggae music.  It may be an elaborate game of musical chairs, but the distance is too great to permit an accurate, detailed report.

A police helicopter incessantly buzzes overhead, an unusual occurrence in this sanitized sector of the city. Perhaps it makes the tourists feel protected.

One-sided exchange overheard between two restaurant employees who were setting up outdoor seating:

“[...]“

“No, I would say I’m spiritual, but I don’t believe in organized religion.”

On a certain bridge, someone scrawled ‘It feels so good to do it’ with spray paint. After a while, the graffiti clean-up squad covered it up with neutral paint. Several weeks or months later, the same scrawl appeared but this time it said, ‘It feels so good to do it again’. The clean-up squad covered that one much quicker, only for the scrawl to reappear a few days later as ‘It feels so good to do it again and again’. No one will win this war.

In Winterreise, Nagl has moved on from thinking his life is still lying ahead of him:

‘Now that life is no longer ahead of me, now that it’s really started, there’s nothing else but senseless thoughts. I’ve done everything almost automatically. I made it a point of honor to have everything I did look as if I wanted it. In reality, it just happened.’

Is it the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning.

words from winterreise by gerhard roth

“I always think that life still lies ahead of me, as though I had organized my previous life only for a short while and I were about to start my real life not too far in the future,” thought Nagl.

“It all simply happens to me,” he kept thinking. “I live from day to day, without asking many questions. Mostly I take everything for granted so that I don’t think about it. I don’t resist, nor do I give in, nor do I tell myself I have no choice.”

—Gerhard Roth, Winterreise

field report 1

Each morning the elevator guys gather in a circle on the sidewalk in front of the building, sort of like a team huddle in organized sports except they don’t all put their hands in the middle and shout “Break!” (unfortunately). They are upgrading the elevators one at a time, a project which is slated to continue into 2015. The “new” elevators talk to the passengers in an electronic woman’s voice, announcing each floor as it is reached. They look sleek and modern, and the exterior light is red instead of the previous green. (At the library the other day, it was observed that the elevator inspection certificate had expired over a year ago. As a precautionary measure, the stairs were taken on the return trip to the first floor.)

The humidity is ridiculous. How can weather be such an affliction. Days of high humidity oppress, while days of low humidity, perhaps with a slight breeze, uplift and rejuvenate. The city has acquired its summer bouquetreminiscent of a rancid, bloated dead thing dragging its entrails down the center of these hot asphalt strips known as streets and roads. Holding one’s breath in certain areas is advisable. Downtown recalls arrival day at an abattoir, as sweating, panicky beings stumble down the sidewalks, pursued by an unseen assailant (presumably the Humidity God), in desperate search of calm, air-conditioned respite. But such respite offers a false sense of relief, lulling one into a settled state that is immediately shattered upon re-entry into the outside world.

Anthropological studies remain on hold, thus leaving a dearth of source material. One sighting was recorded of the now-elusive cigar-smoking man, though the GISS (a common birding term short for General Impression, Size and Shape [also spelled as ‘jizz’, particularly among Brits) was not quite right. Could there be another cigar-smoking man? Unlikely. He was unaccompanied and bicycle-less. His fleeting appearance triggers a meditation on change, the constant flux of life, and the acute twinge of feeling left behind. It is not so much resistance to forward motion as it is a relentless cycle of stepping forward only to be overcome by a sensation best described in visual terms as Homer receding into the bushes.

Nothing is so elusive as place. In the bushes, the branches are closed in around the body, waxy leaves brushing the arms, feet rooted in the loamy soil. The eyes might be able to glimpse out, a partially obscured view akin to tunnel vision. Maybe no one can see in. Regardless, the body does not know if it can be seen. It may assume as such or not, but either way it won’t ever know what, if any of it, is actually seen. And where is the bush situated. Does that matter, and if so, how much? When the body leaves the home place (and/or the bush?), never to return again, what effect does this have. Does this severance yield a wound that cannot be healed, no matter how many salves are applied, no matter how many times a fresh bandage is wrapped around it. Is this the reason the other bodies around the body always appear distant, blurred, out of reach and alien. Is this why even familiar landscapes do not ever fully conform to the feet.

As usual, more questions than answers…

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