Letter to his Father

In 1919 Kafka wrote a long letter to his father, neatly titled ‘Letter to his Father’ (in translation, of course). There had been disagreement between father and son over  Franz’s engagement (dad disapproved), and the break up of the engagement frames the letter. The sense of appeasement disappears though and delves into a raw castigation of the paternal relationship on both sides. The letter begins:

Dearest Father,

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you…

kafka_father

It goes on for 47 pages in such a manner. It’s thought that his father never received the letter, but Franz wasn’t just writing in the dark: he gave the letter to his mother to pass it on to his father but she later returned it to him, undelivered.

The text itself is extremely heavy, emotionally, but it provides a good prompt for creative writing. I’m working on a piece inspired by this which I’ll post in the next few days. When I do, it will probably be loaded with disclaimers reminding you that it is a work of fiction.

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Old Cat

In haiku an old cat is a often a signifier of the season of autumn. Another theme that I have seen elsewhere (though I can’t remember where!) is the the idea of the importance of temporality, and this haiku tries to reflect that. Hopefully it doesn’t try too hard. There’s little worse in poetry than haiku that tries too hard.

An old cat forgets

while he is washing himself-

how many more days?

Now, I realise that a lot of my haiku published here is cat-based. Let me get some others off my chest and we can all move on to non-cat subjects:

Don’t be afraid mice,

he terrorised you back then

but now you’re quicker.

and:

Alone on the roof,

the old cat remembers nights

he would claw and win.

Ahh, now I’ve found in my notes the following, from Masaoka Shiki, which must have inspired the first of mine posted here:

My life –

How much more of it remains?

The night is brief.

Beautiful clarity and lack of pretention in this classic haiku. Reminds that there is much to learn.

 

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Get out Chairman Miaow

Here’s another of my haiku a day efforts. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago and, in hindsight, I’m not at all sure this would be considered a true haiku, for one solid reason which I’ll give afterwards. In any case, I shouldn’t really give a preamble; a haiku should stand by itself so here it is:

Get out Chairman Miaow!

I don’t care if it’s freezing;

this is not your house.

Now, there are elements of a haiku here: an indication of season, an object, a place even. But my main beef is that there is also something else: an implicit observer. The presence of the poet is felt, and more than this, his mood and attitude towards the object. In traditional haiku there should be a kind of oneness between the subject and object. Consider Basho, for example (trans. K. Yasuda):

A crimson dragonfly,

As it lights, sways together

With a leaf of rye.

Here there isn’t a sense of a poet contemplating a dragonfly; a dragonfly just is.

On the other hand, here is Kobayashi Issa (trans. R.Haas)  with a haiku where we can perhaps sense the poet’s opinion of the object:

No doubt about it,

the mountain cuckoo

is a crybaby.

There are many, many other examples of haiku indicating disdain for the mountain cuckoo. And in fact, now that I look into it more, many examples introducing the subject and the object into the haiku. Another from Issa:

A huge frog and I,

staring at each other,

neither of us moves.

You know what, maybe I’ll go easier on myself and let my original effort slide for the time being.

 

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Haiku 365

So I’m already on day 19 of my challenge to write a daily haiku for a year, and I’m going to post one of them here. Don’t worry, I’m not going to post this every day, before you unfollow me, but please do feel free to comment, and/or post your own haiku.

A few weeks ago, just after I got my poetry vibe back on, I found myself immersed in the poetry section of a lovely warren of a second-hand bookshop, and came away with a book called “The Japanese Haiku,” by Kenneth Yasuda.

haiku

I sat down in a coffee shop and looked at it thinking there was a high possibility that this might be just another uncracked tome to weigh down my shelving (it still crosses my mind that I might have a book problem, but let’s save that just now). On the contrary, as it turns out to be highly readable. Yasuda wrote this book in the 50s, back when things were explained rather neatly it seems, in a straightforward manner without artifice, and as such it’s a good introduction to the topic. I’ve been working my way through it every day before I put down my daily haiku, trying to use its concepts in practice, and improve little by little.

So this, following, is the first haiku I was even remotely happy with because I felt it was the only one that had managed to organically combine the three necessary elements: season, place, subject, and I even managed to sneak in an Acer, which is a classic Japanese symbol of Autumn. I notice now that I go to post it that it is missing a little finesse and also a “thought pause” which is another important element that I haven’t entirely figured out yet; the Japanese call it a cutting word, but I’m not sure if it is translatable when composing haiku in English.

Enough preamble, here it is, #010:

Suddenly burning

in crimson, the acer leans

to hug at my shed.

 

acer-branch

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Lowering my standards

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, even though I have been writing lately. No, I’m not turning into one of those #amwriting people, I’m just saying.

I went on a residential writing course recently which instantly reinvigorated my writing habit, that is, forcing myself to write everyday, regardless of whether I consider it good or not. The process is more important than the product at this stage, and this outlook has worked for me. I am now actually enjoying my writing again. At some stage there I was focusing far too much on the end product and how it might be perceived; a little bit like looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

The course also brought back my love for poetry, something I’ve shamefully abandoned since university. One poet we looked at was William Stafford, a prolific writer who started late in life, first publishing at 46, and going on to write an incredible 22,000 poems in his lifetime. So, there’s still hope for us all.

His quotidien would see him wake up at 4am every day and write until sunrise. He was once asked how he managed to continue writing at such a rate at those times when it inevitably became difficult to write, to which he said:

“I lower my standards.”

In that vein I’m introducing to my own process a project to write a haiku every day for a year. I decided on the form of the haiku because I want to strip away any sense of pretension from my writing. In a haiku, it is important to be concise and pure, and any attempt to sound clever simply does not ring true in the combination of the whole, which instead should resonate with a particular insight. This insight should become an experience, rather than describing an experience, and (in the traditional sense at least) it should harmoniously combine the elements of a season, a place, and a subject.

I take up the Haiku 365 project in the knowledge that many of them won’t be of a high quality, but in the end, after a year, I’m aiming to have one haiku that I’m proud of for each season. That’s a strike rate of 4 in 365, which is going to make for a pretty small collection but as the haiku supremo, Basho says:

“He who creates 3 to 5 haiku poems in a lifetime is a poet; he who creates 10 is a master.”

Thinking from this perspective, I quickly realise: the only way to fail is not to write.

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Darwin, born free

 

-Here is another academic essay, comparing the thinkers Rousseau and Darwin

It is difficult to think of an equal advancement in human thought that has had such a resounding impact on humanity’s perception of its place within the world, as the moment when Darwin finally put forward his theory that imperceptible change over time could lead to radical change. At the astonishing moment when he suggested that our roots lay in a common ancestor with the apes (The Descent of Man), we realised that we are connected to our own past not just in a notional way, with our behaviour and societal structure as Rousseau argues, but by a long series of links that are, in fact, physical and observable.

 

Crucial to Darwin’s theory is, of course the idea that elements of the past are persistent. Certain favourable traits in a species are preserved from one generation to the next, throughout its history, and this influences the development and the changes that occur to this species. These changes cause a branching of the line the species, some of which will thrive, some of which will survive, and some of which will become extinct. Certain residual traits will remain in common even further down the branch. Thus, for Darwin, this “indelible stamp” is the evidence of a link to what came before.

 

This idea of Natural Selection did not come out of the blue, in competition as he was with another naturalist, Simpson, to put forward the idea, and it was also influenced by ideas from Thomas Malthus that populations adapt in a cycle to fit the environment they exist in. In this way we could also suggest that the idea itself evolved to an extent before its exposition by Darwin, with its roots in Rousseau himself.

 

Going further back still we can see that this idea of the past informing our present circumstances was not alien to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Second Discourse (1754) where he produces the notion that many human characteristics, and actually many problems in his contemporaneous society were a direct result of habits that had formed in earlier societies and were rooted in our own historical nature. The state of pity, for example, was an instinctive emotion, or part of our human nature, that would come before reflection in a human being. Counter-intuitively perhaps, Rousseau believes that this sense of pity has changed over the course of time to have a corruptive influence on human society.

 

This might differ from Darwin’s theory in some way, if we consider that Natural selection only chooses positive characteristics to prevail. However, this is not necessarily the case: rather, what survives is that which helps the group to survive, and we can easily imagine how pity would be essential to the survival of a small community of early humans.

 

Rousseau’s most famous soundbite, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” (The Social Contract) doesn’t refer to the literal lifetime of a man. He refers instead to the birth of mankind, and draws a line of reference from that early time to the present time, the cage he is found in. He also said:

Animals born free and abhorring captivity smash their heads against the bars of their prison.” (The Second Discourse)

The cage, or the chains, for Rousseau are, of course, modern society, and refers to the way in which the individual liberty of a person is restrained. It is also interesting in comparing these two quotes (even though they are made in separate contexts) to note that Rousseau, long before Darwin’s idea, is already conflating man and animal in a way.

 

So, by comparing Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s concept of pity, from its natural state to  its effect on modern society, to Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection we can see that the two figures have a great deal in common regarding the the importance they place on the persistent effects the past has upon the present. Even more than this I would argue that Rousseau’s ideas persisted to Darwin’s present and might have influenced the direction his ideas took, demonstrating quite neatly an evolution of the idea of evolution.

 

Bibliography

Darwin, C. R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray

Rousseau, J.J. 1755. A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, accessed at Project Guttenberg, date: 15/3/16

Rousseau, J.J. 1762. The Social Contract, accessed at Project Guttenberg, date: 14/3/16

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Flaubert, Marx and the Enlightenment

-For a change of pace, this piece is a short academic essay analysing the Communist Manifesto and Madame Bovary.

The Enlightenment view of the human project as one of historical progress for society was perhaps a comforting worldview, though one not necessarily held by all. The works and inherent ideas of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert in relation to the role of historical progress might be considered somewhat similar, but to what extent did these two figures agree that historical progress was a project destined to fail?

Karl Marx was a great believer in history in itself as a revelation of truth. He did not claim, though, to have any special insight into the nature of the development of history; however, he did believe class struggle in each sequence of history would create a new set of circumstances for society. This is documented in The Communist Manifesto, where he details the importance of historical eras upon the status quo with the famous line:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In this way what we are now comes from what is before, and what comes next is a result of our current struggle.

In order to determine Flaubert’s position by looking at his seminal work, Madame Bovary, I will consider a character that has increasing prominence throughout the novel, in the form of the pharmacist, Monsieur Homais who is described as, “a partisan of progress” (p.145). Homais can therefore be considered to be a representation on the Enlightenement in this work and, as such, he provides a useful tool with which to analyse Flaubert’s own consideration of the movement that promised to deliver an historical improvement to modern society.

In one key episode in the novel, Homais, armed with all the rational tools that Enlightenment brings (along with a great sense of self-importance) is attempting, together with Charles Bovary, to help and repair the condition of clubfoot in Hippolyte. Homais considers the operation a great success and prepares his own plaudits, meanwhile it becomes apparent that the truth is rather different:

“[Hyppolyte] was writhing…in atrocious convulsions, such that the contraption boxed round his leg was knocking against the wall.” (p.149)

We can see here that the ‘contraption’ of the enlightenment has failed to benefit society, in fact it has made it even worse (Hyppolyte later requires an amputation). Bovary himself dimly considers that this is simply something that is down to fate.

For Marx, the role of history is to teach us what was ‘really real’ about our current state and thus to institute reform, and progress. The solution to the contradictions presented by history, as he argues in the Communist Manifesto, was to be played out by the working classes. Political reform in this way, in a ideal world, would eventually realise this progress. However, the murky workings of politics got in the way of this vision and as the Ugly Revolution of 1848 proved the unsustainability of the working classes operating together with the bourgeoisie, Marx became disillusioned with the possibility of achieving this Utopian idea of progress borne from the Enlightenment philosophy.

Likewise, we can see a similar disillusionment apparent in Flaubert, as Madame Bovary ends with an even more scathing appraisal of the apparent progress of human society: Homais receives the Legion d’honneur for his services in the final line of the novel. For Flaubert, society has become so easily tricked by the falseness of this apparent ‘progress’ that it rewards it, even when it fails. In this way we can see the similarity in the views of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert who in the end, we might say, were both sceptics of the Enlightment perspective of the role of historical progress.

Bibliography:

  1. Flaubert, G. (trans. Wall, G.) Madame Bovary (1992). London: Penguin Classics
  2. Marx, K., Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto. Referenced at Project Gutenberg [http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/61/pg61-images.html] Date referenced: 27/12/16

 

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Crossing Over

This is in response to Six Word Challenge


“Don’t look down!”

Pulsating, he teetered.

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Killing For Sport (Shia LaBeouf)

APOLOGIES and sorrys and excuses to anyone who has been furious about my lack of recent activity here (he whispers into the wind). Inspired by Writing101, I’m trying to shuffle some things together to get ready for NaNoWriMo, which may or may not work out for me, but which I’m going to take a hearty stab at in any case. If, in doing so, I happen to inadvertently murder my novel I’ll no doubt be posting here again very soon.

On that note, I thought I’d share this following delightful and bloodthirsty snippet of strangeness, which features a good example of the usage of second person narrative point of view. I tried this myself a while back for empathetic reasons, but in this musical example it is used very effectively for added dramatic, and comedic, effect.

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The Long Cut

This assignment is in response to Point of View, Writing101


 

I WAS sitting there waiting on Stavros when I heard her screaming something out of a window towards her back garden. Couldn’t hear what she said, but it sure was screechy, and there was a ‘fuck off’ in there somewhere. I went up to the top of the steps and couldn’t see anything up on my tiptoes even, so I climbed up onto the railing there and leaned against the tree to see over the fence, round the back of the Pauleys’. There was a bunch of cops sitting outside, and what she was shouting at was a big fat guy who was banging on her door.

Every Saturday morning I sit on my step and wait on Stavros. He lives round the corner from me is why I wait there for him, and normally he comes by and we go off on our bikes round to find Skinny Dave. He lives in the West End, and we sometimes go through the Long Cut, over the canal path, and sometimes we take the Rough Track through the industrial estate. The Long Cut’s not longer, by the way. We just call it that. And we only take the Rough Track because there’s a warehouse there where they sell stuff out the back, and sometimes we do this thing we do, where Stavros distracts the guy by asking him stupid questions while he buys a packet of 10p crisps, and I sneak behind him, grab a couple bottles of coke and leg it away round the other side of the building before anyone notices. I don’t feel bad about it; it’s not even real Coke. Some kind of ripped off shit.

So there I was anyway, still waiting for Stavros on the step. From the top of the railing I could see that the cops weren’t really doing much. They were just standing back, arms folded. Mrs. Pauley was at the door, arguing with the fat man, but she was less screechy now.

Mrs. Pauley was Tommy Pauley’s mom. I didn’t ever speak to Tommy, not because I was scared of him or anything, just never happened to speak. But he knew my brother. And my brother ain’t scared of anyone. I don’t really know what happened to Tommy, but I think he did something bad because he suddenly wasn’t in school anymore and I remember my folks whispering about him to my brother, warning him about, ‘that family.’

She’s a bit weird, Mrs Pauley, and the kids round here kind of steer clear of her. But that’s not because she’s bad or anything. It’s just her kids have always been a bit, well, y’know. They’ve got a reputation. Anyway, they’ve all gone now, Tommy was the youngest, and his dad was never there, so it’s just the old lady in the house.

From my viewpoint I could see that she wasn’t arguing anymore. She was propped up against her doorframe, and I could figure by the way her shoulders were moving up and down that she had started crying.

Stavros arrived. He skidding his bike, laid it down flat on the pavement beside mine, and skipped up the steps to see what I was looking at across the road.
“So what’s happening?” he said, a little out of breath.
“It’s Mrs. Pauley. Looks like she’s getting thrown out,” I said.
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah.”
“I guess the cops had no trouble finding the address.” He laughed. “Is there gonna be a fight, you think?”
“Nah, I don’t reckon.”
“Well screw it, let’s go.”
“Yeah, screw it,” I jumped down from the railing. “Let’s take the Long Cut over to Skinny’s.”

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