Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Public Diaries, Private Letters

Via Russell Smith recently in Globe and Mail, a report on the unearthing of a Ted Hughes poem about the night his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself.

I am not going to delve too deeply here in the poem itself, in part because I am not much of an expert on either of them. It is difficult reading, reading him trying to work through his cruelty toward his clearly distressed ex-wife. I do find it interesting that many of the articles speak of the fact that "feminists" hated him because of this, as though everyone else applauded him for leaving his wife and her tragic end...surely this poem expresses his own understanding and working through of the ways in which he was also responsible for her death.

There is a relationship here between the release of this poem, and the battle underway for the release of the remaining manuscripts of Franz Kafka, which was exhaustively and brilliantly written about recently in the New York Times magazine by Elif Bautman.

What do we share? What can we share about others? The battle to keep Kafka private is fascinating - he had instructed Max Brod to burn everything, but he knew also that Brod would not do it. Given we also know that Kafka burned much of his own writing, one can also presume that his request was a gesture of modesty (which Brod then used to build the myth of Kafka) and not a request. What is playing out now seems to be an extension of that very conversation, a case study in the subtleties of conversational implicature...

But what do we do with Hughes' letter? Someone was surely going to come along to find it, but Melvyn Bragg discovered it after learning of its existence from Hughes' ex-wife, so there is a sense that she, and perhaps Hughes himself, had wanted it to be published at some point.

Over the past while, I have been writing a lot of letters, and a lot of other things, and I have no desire to have them see the light of day, certainly not while I'm alive. However, I have written nearly everything online. And I have a public forum (here) to express things in the way I wish to express them.

If I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, does anyone have a right to crack open my account and read everything I wrote (not that anyone would!)? One can delete, but do things really get deleted? Should one be able to mark certain electronic letters as "confidential", or "to be destroyed"?

What do you think?

Thursday, November 25, 2010


M -

I am really looking forward to the end of this year. Last year was not good, and at the end of it, there was a catastrophe I only saw as such when it was far too late to have done anything about it. Winter (among other things) will do that to a person.

If I were to take this event, in the final days of 2009, as an omen for what 2010 would bring, I would have plenty to point to in its favour. And such is the cyclical nature of my mind that I have been waiting for 2010 to end before starting “anew”.

The problem with this approach of starting anew with a new year is that it’s just a socially acceptable form of procrastination! Carpe Diem, you say? No, I would prefer to seize tomorrow, because there is always hope in tomorrow. And next year? Even better!

Then, when January 3rd rolls around, and the grand plans for the revolution have not come to pass, because I am tired and hung over, well...there’s always 2012!

I have learned a lot this year, about humility and pain (and my tolerance thereof), about how other people see me and about the kinds of things I expect from other people. I have also spent a lot of time wondering how those around me have managed to convalesce in the eternal shadow of a great castle, tended to by only the finest medical professionals, while I sit here in a cave with an Aspirin and some old gauze, which speaks to the fact that the most difficult thing I learned about myself recently is that I no longer have any hope.

“Wow, that’s really depressing!” you say (or not, maybe you have tuned out by now). You are quite right - it is depressing. However, isn’t hope a kind of misplaced nostalgia? Where we look at our lives, shake our heads, and wish for something better? Could no longer having hope also signify an embrace of the future and ones own ability to choose that future?

It is also moving away from a particularly pernicious form of fatalism toward something that resembles a sense of duty, to oneself, and to those one cares about, a sense that isn’t borne out of fear of failure or loss, but out of respect and compassion. But it's a big deal for me because I have always been an extremely hopeful person.

Given everything that has happened, and this will come as no surprise to you, M, of all people, but I have been thinking about Kafka, and in particular, Der Prozess. The standard Coles Notes version of the The Trial is that it’s about the existential emptiness of bureaucracy, or something like that (feel free to disagree!)

I think the title is ironic. The reality is that the process is irrelevant - it’s a ritual along the lines of a military parade in a banana republic - it’s meant to show something, just not the military.

Josef’s crucial error, which becomes increasingly apparent as the book progresses, is the hope that the bureaucratic process will save him, that there is a (this, any) process that will exonerate him. (Interesting fact - we don’t actually know which chapter is meant to follow which, so this progression is more of an editorial/reader affect than one of Kafka’s own design.)

Rather than being about the trial, The Trial is about judgement in a bureaucratic, managerial, capitalist society. It's all about the judgment - the judgment of an individual in a social space, a judgment one has very little control over, PR and marketing talk about personal branding aside...

We often focus naively on the fact that what bothered Kafka about bureaucracy was the mediocrity of his colleagues and the impersonal nature of it, because it’s what bothers us about it. But we are not Kafka! (I certainly am not, right? M?)

Looking at things this way, and taking some wonderfully loose and quite ungrounded biographical flights of fancy (this is a blog, after all!), his famous comment about there being hope, but not for us, is not merely a comment on the death of god (another piece of conventional wisdom), but a lamentation on the death of the aristocracy, the death of chance in human power relationships. Because everything we do now is mediated by "reason", where personal vendettas are settled gently, reasonably, by bureaucratic fiat.

By process.

Indeed, everyone I speak of tells me to have faith in the process of healing, that this is what will get your through everything. And I have spent the past while trying to work through a "process" when in fact what I had really been dealing with was the judgment in a trial that had already occurred.

I think what Kafka is getting at with this comment, and what I myself miss, is the idea that when one appealed to a lord or king, there was always the possibility of grace - the epiphanic resolution. There is no grace anymore, there is no hope.

This year, for me, has hung not on the hope for grace, but on the hope that reason might prevail - Impersonal personal reason. It hasn't.

And worse, I prefer resolution by grace. I am, truly, horrifyingly, a Romantic...

But that is no hope at all, is it? As we have seen, hope in the process, in people, is dangerous. The only hope worth having is the possibility of one’s own reinvention in the world, judgment be damned (this is also a Romantic solution, is it not?). And this isn’t to damn everyone else, but to acknowledge their proper place in one’s own desires.

Josef’s problem, and mine it seems, is that we let the judgments stop us from moving on (there are two words I hope never to hear again, and refuse to express in conversation any more!), we wait for the decision that never comes, but one that also stops us from making a decision ourselves. At the end of the day, this is our problem, not the judge's.

So you see, I spend a lot more time now working on being a Stoic, and less time on being like Josef. Because we all know what happens to Josef at the end...unless you read Der Prozess like Deleuze and Guattari, who suggest that the end of the book is really the beginning.

Actually, right now, putting the end of this trial back to the beginning seems like exactly the right idea to me.

But life is no book - not even Kafka could make that happen.

Friday, November 19, 2010


M -

I don't know if you know this (how long has it been since we had a conversation like that?), but I have not been very inspired lately. Is it cynicism? Ennui? I cannot say. (Well I could...but I won't here!)

So it was with delight to read Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books on the recent Facebook film. It was heartening to read someone write so beautifully about things I myself had thought around social media and the way we seem to look at, and relate to, each other.

I was so impressed by this piece that I picked up a copy of her novel On Beauty, which, interestingly, is a kind of period piece of the mid-decade that the Social Network is, although in a very different way. I enjoyed the book immensely, and in it rediscovered a love of reading I thought had disappeared (as it often does, and likely will again).

For right now though, things are good!

Although I don't get many commenters here, would anyone like to let me know what they've read lately that has reaffirmed their love of the written word?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


M -

This Friday already feels very much like when I landed in Germany this summer. I could not believe I was finally there, finally, but there was something out of joint. Something missing.

It is (and was) as though another history is playing out, an incessantly imagined future of the very recent past, where things were so very similar (Germany, graduation, school, work) but everything had shifted.

The last time I was in Convocation Hall was over two years ago, and it was to watch someone else walk across that stage. And here I am, about to walk across that same stage, closely retracing those steps (too closely, perhaps).

How different things were two years ago! My graduation, two years away, was anticipated as the final destination of a journey I had started far too long ago, but which was finally on my horizon. Now, I do not know what to think of it.

I did not see it then - that graduation was as pure a celebration of life and accomplishment as there could ever be. I wore a linen suit, this magical suit that made me look far more attractive than I really am. I remember not wanting to take a picture of my friend crossing the stage, in part because I didn't want to ruin my experience of this moment, this moment of transformation, by putting something in between myself and the event. What we gain in a photo and its permanence, we lose in our experience of the moment. Instead of looking straight ahead, we look through something else, preserving the moment while losing our moment to time itself.

I see now just how tightly everything had been bound up even then, my entire life a ball of yarn that had been wound so tightly that one touch with the dullest knife and the ball would explode, threads everywhere. Even worse when the knife is sharp, and wielded with both skill and rage...

So I sit here now, tying knots, but trying not to wind things too tightly again. I know that some of the threads I am joining anew are not the same ones they had been wound into, some of these threads will never find their way back to that moment in the loom when they had been spun into a long, thin and strong line. Even the strongest thread, under enough stress, threatens to break. You and I know this all too well, M.

But I will cross that stage on Friday, and it will have been worth it. I only wish I knew what the "it" was now. What I do know is that I will see those footsteps that came before me, wishing their eyes were there to see me retracing our path.