Kafka Franz, Literary Fiction, Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along (Chapter 4 – End)

17692The second part of The Trial was much more thought-provoking than the first part. When Joseph K. attempts to dismiss his trial as a minor inconvenience, his uncle comes up with a plan to fight the court. He introduces K. to an attorney who agrees take his case. Unfortunately, the lawyer does absolutely nothing to help K. fight the court. Next, K. visits the court painter Titorelli who also promises to help the defendant. The painter describes in detail the three kinds of acquittals possible. The best K. can hope for is a temporary acquittal by the lower court. The higher court can overturn the rulings of the lower court. Titorelli has never known a case in which a defendant’s case has been permanently dropped.

While The Trial is clearly a commentary on the corrupt nature of the justice system, the discussion about the three types of acquittals increasingly convinced me that the story was also about metaphysical matters. There is something quite Calvinistic about K.’s world. It seems as if he has been predestined for condemnation. He cannot defend himself or do anything to change his sentence. The acquittals discussion reminded me of the scholastic philosophy I studied in a medieval philosophy course last semester.

And then there’s the parable of the doorkeeper. It seems to be addressing in part the free will/determinism question. While the man for whom the door was made can never pass through the door, he is always free to move about. He chooses to remain in front of the door until his death.

First of all, the free man is superior to the bound man. Now the man is in fact free: he can go wherever he wishes, the entrance to the Law alone is denied to him, and this only by one person, the doorkeeper. If he sits on the stool at the side of the door and spends the rest of his life there, he does so of his free will; the story mentions no element of force. The doorkeeper, on the other hand, is bound to his post by his office; he is not permitted to go elsewhere outside, but to all appearances he is not permitted to go inside either, even if he wishes to.

Paradoxically, the doorkeeper is less free than the man because he is required to guard the door at all times. The doorkeeper, as the priest who’s telling the story points out, does not know what is beyond the door. The man chose to renounce his freedom by sitting near the door for the rest of his life. He could have done so many other things, but he chose to fight the prohibition.

How this parable relates to the end of the story is not clear. After leaving the cathedral, K. is arrested and executed. Maybe the parable is about humanity’s search for justice and a meaning to life. Whatever is beyond the door (the meaning of life? Justice?) is inaccessible to the man, so why does he remain by the door?

Before he’s executed, K. realizes that he has always been and always will be identified with guilt.

With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. “Like a dog!” he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.

But what about the executioners? Did they choose to execute K., or did the Law force them to do it? If the executioners are like the priest’s doorkeeper, the executioners are no less determined by outside forces. If K. had accepted his guilt without protest, would he have experienced more freedom in his life? We will never know.

This story was the perfect Halloween read! I am not satisfied with Kafka’s worldview, but there is so much injustice in the world. Why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are like Joseph K., defenseless victims of an unjust world. If there is any meaning to the suffering of the innocent, we certainly can’t know it in this life.

Kafka Franz, Literary Fiction, Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along (Chapters 1-3)

17692I am reading The Trial by Franz Kafka with Silvia Cachia. Her reflection on the first three chapters is here.

Because I am reading The Trial on Kindle, I am not sure what parts belong to the first three chapters. I am currently in the chapter where K. tells his uncle about the trial, so I will discuss everything before that. A quick glance at Silvia’s post (which I will read thoroughly once I post my own reflection) confirms that I will not be spoiling anything that she hasn’t read yet.

My Thoughts

Having read a few pieces of what we now call “flash fiction” by Franz Kafka, I know that Kafka is an existential writer with a particular obsession with the injustice of the world. K., the protagonist of The Trial, is arrested one morning for an unknown crime. The authorities never tell him why he’s arrested, and they break into K.’s house without a search warrant. In fact, it seems like no one knows his crime. Every one is simply doing the job he or she has been assigned.

Although he is arrested, K. is free to go to work. It looks like nothing has changed in his life, but he has to attend court meetings. When he does go to court, however, he learns that there isn’t a trial. There are spectators, but he isn’t charged with anything. Often, K. meets people in the most random locations.

The book seems perfect for October. The atmosphere of this story reminds me of a haunted house. Different rooms contain different terrors. At the bank where he works, K. finds two of his colleagues in a long-forgotten broom closet. They are facing corporal discipline for their involvement in K.’s arrest. It’s all so weird and dizzying. And that’s the point. K. has entered a maze that he can’t leave. No one chooses to (or perhaps can) help him.

In this first part, I was struck by the way this insanity has already affected K. At first, K. tries to appeal to justice, but he is ignored by everyone he condemns. No one cares. Later, he becomes the one who is deaf to injustice. His colleagues are being flogged in a broom closet, but, instead of helping them, he simply closes the door to drown out the sound of their screaming. K., it seems, has begun to ignore injustice. His uncle is horrified to learn that K. has been arrested, but K. tells him that none of it really matters. After all, he is free to go to work.

Even though I have only read 30% of the book, I feel like I have read hundreds of pages. The story is very repetitive and dizzying. Clearly, Kafka had a real problem with bureaucracy.

I faced my own “trial” last month when I tried to get my car registered in Pennsylvania. One clerk told me one thing, and another clerk told me something different. I got false information from a third clerk, so I ended up spending over $40 to get the documentation I needed. Grrr. Thankfully, the license and tag offices were actual working offices. I eventually got my car registered. It could have been worse :P.

 

Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along

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Silvia Cachia is hosting a read-along of The Trial by Franz Kafka this month (the schedule is linked). I’ve only read some flash fiction by Kafka, so I look forward to reading something more substantial by him. Although I’ve never been a horror person, for some reason I want to read tons of unsettling things this month. I even plan to read a Steven King novel. I don’t know what this shift in reading tastes says about me. Maybe it’s the world climate…

Anyway, I look forward to reading The Trial with Silvia. The first post is next Monday, so I better get reading 🙂

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Read-Along, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Review of The Fellowship of the Ring

The FellowshipI read The Fellowship of the Ring for a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books. I plan on reading Two Towers and The Return of the King by the end of August. My review for the first book of the trilogy is below.

What was it about?

The story starts with Bilbo Baggins preparing for his eleventy-first birthday celebration. Decades have passed since he returned from his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, but even at this advanced age, Bilbo, to the dismay of the Sackville-Bagginses, still hasn’t shown any sign that he intends on quitting Bag End. (Bilbo’s adventure is recounted in The Hobbit. I reviewed the book last month). Bilbo and the Sackville-Bagginses never did get on. Still, he knows that with or without an invitation the onerous family will be present at his party.

The hobbits love food, drink, and good cheer, and Bilbo’s party seems to far surpass their expectations – that is, until suddenly, while in the middle of giving a speech to his guests, Bilbo vanishes.

Back in Bag End, Bilbo removes the ring from his finger and prepares to leave the Shire. Gandalf, who had arrived for the birthday celebration and knows about the invisibility ring, convinces his friend to leave the ring to his nephew, Frodo.

On Frodo’s fiftieth birthday, Gandalf returns to Bag End with a strong sense that something is just not right.  Although Bilbo had not physically aged since his return from the East, he had confided to Gandalf that he was tired and in need of a long holiday. Bilbo’s behavior had reminded the great wizard of a creature who, for the past so many years, he had been pursuing all over Middle-Earth: Gollum. As it turns out, the ring is not just a magical toy. The evil Sauron of Mordor created this ring to rule over Middle-Earth. In recent years, Sauron has become increasingly aware of the presence of the ring, and if he repossess it, Gandalf knows that he will be unstoppable. Unless the ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, all of Middle-Earth will come under Sauron’s dominion. Reluctantly, Frodo and his friend Samwise Gamgee agree to take the treacherous journey to Mordor.

What did I think of it?

The Fellowship of the Ring is a a fantastic beginning to the trilogy. Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo, meets many strange and powerful creatures, but unlike The Hobbit, the characters in The Fellowship of the Ring are described in great detail. While there is a lot of traveling and fighting in the story, the emphasis is on the characters themselves. The ring is very powerful, and anyone (except maybe Tom Bombadil) could potentially come under its influence. There are many paths to Mordor, but not every path should be followed. Choice is a very important theme in the novel. Should they go home or should they go to Mordor? Should the ring be destroyed or used? Is the journey even worth it?

This was my fourth time reading The Fellowship of the Ring. When I was younger, I had great difficulty getting through the book. Tolkien describes Middle-Earth in painstaking detail and his narrative style is dense. Except for Frodo’s meeting with Tom Bombadil which I still feel is needlessly drawn out, I now think that most of the descriptions are essential to the story. During my latest reread, I was struck by the many similarities between the creatures living in Middle-Earth and ourselves. The characters react very realistically to the situations they find themselves in. As in our world, it is often hard to discern between good and evil.

I would like, once again, to turn your attention to this fantastic interactive map of Middle-Earth. It has helped me understand the world a lot more than I could from the books alone. If you choose to read The Lord of the Rings, I recommend you take advantage of this great resource.

Favorite Quote

[Frodo]: “[Gollum] deserves death.”

[Gandalf]: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

 

Melville, Herman, Read-Along

Moby-Dick Read-Along: The Power of the Color White

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4I am a bit behind in Moby-Dick, but I am really enjoying the book. Because this is a very dense work, I don’t want to race through it. There are so many beautiful and insightful passages. In a series of passages, Ishmael reflects on the color white. He wonders why the white whale incites so much fear in sailors. More generally, he wonders why the color white makes people feel so uncomfortable. Below is one such passage:

“Is it that by [white’s] indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of the annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge  – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt.” 

Pinwheel Galaxy. Image: European Space Agency & NASA
Pinwheel Galaxy. NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute, 2006.

The best way to analyze this passage is to break it up. I am convinced that the major point Ishmael is making here is that the color white makes people feel uncomfortable because it represents the truth about the world and about themselves. Because it is the base of all color and also “the visible absence of color”, white represents divinity and infinity. Infinity, like the Milky Way galaxy, is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. I know that when I see pictures of space from the Hubble Space Telescope, I feel uncomfortable. I realize how infinitely small I am. I realize that I am not at the center of the universe.

I don’t exactly understand what Melville means by the “colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink”. He is certainly juxtaposing opposites to make a point about the mysterious power of the color white. White is the essence of everything but it is also emptiness, annihilation. Color is just a facade. The “wretched infidel” experiences discomfort before a white landscape because it gives him a sense of uncertainty. Maybe the “wretched infidel” here refers more particularly to Captain Ahab who is hard-bent on killing Moby-Dick. His hatred of the white whale consumes him. The whale haunts him. I think Ishmael is suggesting that Ahab hates the whale because it reminds him of his mortality. By dismembering Ahab, Moby-Dick challenged Ahab’s feeling of superiority. Ahab must destroy the whale to win back his dignity.

I feel, though, that there is something missing in my interpretation. The harpoonists are all men of color. So, maybe Ishmael is making some sort of racial commentary here. This may be a bit far-fetched, but it is possible that Ishmael thinks that the reason for racial prejudices lies in the belief that people of color are in some way tainted.

What do you all think? If you are currently reading Moby-Dick, what is your interpretation of the passages on the color white?

Melville, Herman, Read-Along

Moby-Dick Read-Along: Chapters 21-38

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4This is week II of the Moby-Dick read-along hosted by Roof Beam Reader. We are now getting to the notoriously heavy/boring parts of the novel. However, I didn’t mind much the chapters on the different kinds of whales and the chapters that praise whaling. Ishamael’s descriptions of the whales may not be accurate, but I didn’t think those pages were meaningless.

I have wanted to be an entomologist since I was nine or ten years old. During most of my high school years, I remember feeling disappointed that invertebrates were hardly ever mentioned in my biology classes. Finally, the summer before my senior year, I got the opportunity to do an internship at the local museum of natural history. My project? Identifying spider wasps down to the species level. That summer, I spent hours peering through a microscope at the wing venation and abdominal setae of wasps, with only a hundred year old guide to help me. You read that right – a hundred year old guide! The pages were yellow and not held together by much.

I mention this experience by way of explaining why I valued the Moby-Dick chapters on cetology. I have never studied whales; I get seasick like no one I know. But, taxonomy is no easy task. Ishamael mentions the challenges taxonomists face in studying whales. The same is true for any other organism. In Melville’s time, the only way scientists could build cladograms was by studying the morphological similarities and differences between species. However, as Ishmael argues in the chapters on cetology, classification based on morphology alone is not always accurate.

“Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.” 

My time at the museum and the evolutionary biology courses I took later in college gave me a great appreciation for the field of taxonomy, although this is not what I will be studying in graduate school. Ishmael is not a scientist. He admits to not understanding whale speciation like the naturalists he cites. Yet, I found the cetology passages to be valuable because of Ishmael’s commentary on taxonomy. I also learned a lot about the products that were produced from the different whales at a time when whaling was legal.

Enough about cetology. On to the other chapters of the reading.

Ahab is quite a memorable character. With a giant scar on his face and a peg leg, who can forget him. He is not interested in killing any whale. He wants to kill Moby-Dick, the white whale that dismembered him. Starbuck, the chief mate, may be ethically opposed to the killing of Moby-Dick, but Ahab is the captain. Like the whale he wants to destroy, Ahab is larger than life itself.

Ishmael gives the reader a very striking description of the three mates having dinner with the captain in his cabin.

“Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his war-like but still deferential cubs. In his own proper turn, each officer waited to be served. They were was little children before Ahab; and yet, in Ahab, there seemed not to lurk the smallest social arrogance. With one mind, their intent eyes all fastened upon the old man’s knife, as he carved the chief dish before him. I do not suppose that for the world they would have profaned that moment with the slightest observation, even upon so neutral a topic as the weather.”

The shipmates do not need to be told how to behave before their captain. They know that he is not a force to be reckoned with. He is respected (except maybe by the second mate, Stubb).

I could go on and on about the many observations I made in this week’s reading, but I will stop here. I am welcoming Melville’s digressions with open arms.

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Read-Along, Tolkien, J.R.R.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

TheHobbitI read The Hobbit for a read-along hosted by Rick @ Another Book Blog. The read-along ends on June 22, but because I will be participating in a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books starting this Thursday, I thought to get The Hobbit out of the way as soon as possible. This wasn’t difficult since The Hobbit was a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

What was it about?

Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is a hobbit like any other. He sits to six meals a day and enjoys blowing smoke rings and drinking locally-brewed ale. But one day, a mysterious wizard arrives at Bilbo’s doorstep. This wizard is Gandalf, an individual known throughout the Shire for his fireworks and outlandish tales. Since Bilbo has voiced on many occasions a desire to go on an adventure, Gandalf selects the hobbit to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest to The Lonely Mountain. Smaug the dragon lives there with untold gold and treasures it stole from the dwarves. The leader of the Company of Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, needs Bilbo’s help to reclaim the treasures of his people. Because of his small size, Bilbo is to be The Burglar. He may be an ordinary hobbit at the start of the tale, but Gandalf is convinced that he is exactly what the Company needs. The next morning, at a quarter to 11 , Bilbo reluctantly leaves an unfinished meal to join Thorin and his friends on the long journey to the end of the world. They pass through the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood Forest, encountering trolls, elves, goblins, and men along the way. Under the Misty Mountains, in the lake of a hate-filled creature named Gollum, Bilbo finds a ring that when worn makes him invisible. With no little struggle and thanks to the magic ring, Bilbo escapes from Gollum and joins the Company at the other side of the mountains. The ring proves to be a valuable companion, helping Bilbo save his friends from peril. But Smaug is notoriously dangerous, and Bilbo and the dwarves fear they will never again return home.

What did I think of it?

It is not without reason that J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of modern High Fantasy. His stories are compelling and his writing is gorgeous. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are heavily inspired by medieval myth and lore. The Hobbit is really about the journey. Tolkien goes into great pains to describe the world he has invented. The reader feels like he/she is getting an aerial view of  the landscape of Middle-earth. Bilbo, although possessing heroic qualities, is a character I could really relate to. He loves adventures in theory, but in practice, much prefers the comfort and security of his home.

I am grateful to the creators of the LOTR Project for having created an interactive map of Middle-earth. The map at the front of the book is valuable, but because I read The Hobbit on Kindle, I couldn’t easily flip back and forth between the map and the story. I suggest that readers take notes on important events in the story because these events and characters come up again in the trilogy. Here are a few of the questions I asked myself while reading the book:

What if Bilbo never had the ring? Could he have survived his journey to the Lonely Mountain without the ring?

Why does Gandalf choose Bilbo? Why does Gandalf agree to take Bilbo on that adventure?

The formatting of the Kindle version is not perfect, but Tolkien’s illustrations are included and they really enhance the reading experience. The Hobbit is a masterpiece. What I wouldn’t give to be able to write like Tolkien! I am glad Rick hosted the read-along.

Favorite Quote

[Thorin]: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”