Thursday, June 3, 2010

June 3rd – Saint Franz Kafka Day

Franz Kafka was a Jew from Prague, who was born 1883 and dies June 3rd, 1924, at age 41. He was the oldest of 6 children. His dad was an loud, overbearing businessman, his mom worked 12 hours a day at the family business as well, and he was raised by a series of governesses. He majored in Law. To all external views he led a brief and unremarkable life. He worked at insurances companies as a claims adjuster. He also wrote up his companies’ annual reports. He also helped his brother-in-law found an asbestos factory. He flirted with Socialism and Anarchism in school, but gave little sign of following them as an adult. He had a 5 year long affair with one lady that involved them being engaged and breaking it off, and then being engaged again and then breaking it off for good. In his 30s he contracted TB, which troubled him off and on. To his co-workers he was a diligent, competent, boring man. He worried that he was repulsive, but others descriptions of him are always, as a neat, handsome, austere, intelligent man with dry wit, maybe a bit boring. His close friends knew that he fancied himself a writer, and that much of his spare time was spent writing, but his literary career never went anywhere. He published a few short stories, and even the novella “Metamorphosis” but none of them attracted any attention during his life. He had two other brief romantic relationships in his last years. Eventually his TB got so bad that he was put in a sanitarium, where his throat became so damaged from coughing that it was too painful for him to eat, and he starved to death, amid plenty of food at the age of 41. Lest he seem too saintly, we know he also had subscriptions to several trashy porno mags.

At his death, Franz Kafka was a wholly unremarkable man… and yet. There is some inconclusive evidence that Franz Kafka is the inventor of the civilian hard hat. Hard hats were already common in military contexts. But the idea of asking civilian workers to wear hard hats to minimize on the job injuries was first promoted by his insurance firm, and seems to have been his idea. And, of course, what he is known for today is his brilliant, disturbing, illuminating fiction-writing. Indeed, his last request to his best friend, Max Brod was “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread. “ Needless to say Brod didn’t (and apparently told Kafka while he was alive that he had no intention of burning Kafka’s writings, not matter how much he begged). At least 20 notebooks of Kafka’s were in the hands of his girlfriend Dora Diamant, when they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933, and by then he was (post-humously) famous enough that they might have survived somehow.

But his literature… He wrote an “accurate and informed” depiction of the Austrian legal process, given his expertise as an insurance lawyer, and it seems absurd, otherworldly, alien. He writes about self-loathing as a transformative experience. He was profoundly skilled at taking our assumptions about the world and showing them through a twisted mirror so that they seemed untenable, barely imaginable. Before we can change a problem we must be able to see it as a problem, and Kafka excelled at showing us problems we barely had the conceptual apparatus for.

I am grateful for IV technology so that no one need starve to death in a well-stocked hospital anymore.
I am grateful that TB is largely conquered for the moment (in the first world)
I am grateful that the most ordinary insurance lawyer, can contain depths of wisdom, imagination, and literature, than an ordinary life can be rendered extraordinary in the judgment of history.
I am grateful that even an insurance lawyer can be the good guy from time to time, thinking up new ways to minimize on-the-job injuries.
I am grateful for literature that helps us make sense of self-loathing.
I am grateful for literature that helps us see how ridiculous many of the aspects of our society are …
I am grateful for regular people struggling constantly to make sense of the meanings of our lives, failing, sharing their failings, and struggling on for meaning …

Other Notables for me for today
The death of Saint Pope John XXIII, the humble Pope who pushed for Vatican II, and championed Ecumenicism, and the Catholic Church reaching out to cooperate with religions that it had previously been antagonistic with. John XXIII is not sainted by the Catholic church, but several other denominations, including the Episcopalian Church of the USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America have recognized him as a saint.
This day is also the date for the heresy conviction of Peter Abelard a great Medieval logician, the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol by the author of the “Society for Cutting Up Men” manifesto, the Ixtoc 1, gulf of Mexico oil drilling disaster of 1979 (echoes, echoes), and the beginnings of the Tienanmen Square crackdown of 1989, of which more tomorrow and the fifth, …

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