Fifty Gestures of Love, in honor of William Gass (continued)

25 remaining, & here they are, picking up where we left off, with Tolstoy & his disgraced Natasha

26) The Prince has immersed himself in war work, Napoleon’s on the march, and Natasha attempts suicide, arsenic, then spends weeks in bed. Only her old friend Pierre, our hero more or less, can wring from her an agreement to meet.

27) Pierre’s no innocent himself, though rather a bumbler, badly married, an embodiment of how the good in Russia has gone sour, but Natasha always liked him and when they meet, in the parlor, they’re chummy a while.

28) But finally Pierre has to ask, “Could you really love… that evil man?” aware even as he asks that he’s bumbling again, sounding full of hoke, and yet at his question Natasha undergoes another of those reality-replenishments. Continue reading


Fifty Gestures of Love, in honor of William Gass.

25 now, 25 to follow, with many thanks

1) In The Odyssey, there’s Penelope’s more intimate test of this stranger who claims to be her husband — after he’s gotten through the messy, public business of slaughtering all her suitors down in the castle hall.

2) Of course Penelope has enacted some significant gestures of love herself, during the course of her man’s wanderings, most especially the way she’s undone, every night, the shroud she’s been weaving every day, the funeral shroud for the former king, while meantime promising the suitors: just as soon as the shroud’s done…

3) But now this fellow claims to be the once and future king, and he’s proven pretty impressive, plus their son Telemachus accepts the story, the boy’s helped to cut all the pretenders to ribbons, and now the stranger stands in the bedroom, and so it’s time she too sprang a test on him. Continue reading

The Dividing Line, the Defining Meals: Kafka Sermon Final

For a few days here on Big Other, now while we’re still in soul-shot of Passover and Easter, I’ve been posting about a short-short by Franz Kafka that he titled “On Parables.”  The original along

Franz Kafka, bifurcated.

with my opening thoughts on it can be found here, and the followup with my developing sermon or something, that’s here. Now I’l wrap up my thinking, at least for the time being.

I left off with the notion that, while we fallen creatures do the best we can,or some of us at least, striving for the good, Kafka’s stern divider remains. He lays a strict, harsh line between what’s parable, what’s merely human.   Continue reading

The Sister, the Lover, & Skepticism: Kafka Sermon #2

A couple of days ago, here on Big Other, I posted my first round of thoughts on one of Kafka’s briefest yet most resonant pieces, “On Parables.” On the one hand a pokerfaced jeu, on the other a stern admonition against that very idea, the story’s had hold of me for some time, it’s even shaken a couple of lay sermons out of me, and now this.

Kafka by R. Crumb

My second round of thoughts begins with Kafka’s own. He couldn’t have dreamed up his thumbnail tragedy without recalling how the clash of his opposed universes — Believer and Infidel, Teuton and Slav — had led to tragedies much larger. He derived inspiration in part from his readings in the Mishna rabbinic tradition, and he knew well the word for people who’ve chosen to become parables. We call them martyrs.

Jesus of Nazareth, himself a Jewish master of parable, leaves no question about how much may be at stake: Whoever loses his life will save it. Whoever commits to another world has finished with this one. Continue reading

The “Fabulous” vs. the “Struggle:” Kafka Sermon #1


Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with everyday; that is a different matter.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality; in parable you have lost.

Franz Kafka, c. 1922

Considering the  “fabulous yonder” we’re in, the world we call Big Other, my fellow travelers will readily recognize the voice and vision above. It’s Franz Kafka, sure, a short story or meditation or something finished in 1922, two years before his death. Tuberculosis took him at the young age of 41, when he was still a mid-level insurance exec in Prague, the hometown he termed “the little mother with claws.” Like most of his work, especially the work without narrative, this piece saw print well after his death, thanks in particular to Max Brod, a writer far more widely published and celebrated during Kafka’s lifetime. Brod, a Jew like his friend, had to flee Prague in 1939, yet he took time to gather up Kafka’s remaining unpublished manuscripts; Continue reading

Plensa, ALEXANDRA, alabaster, Des Moines: Best of 2011

Has 3000 pounds of alabaster ever been mistaken for gossamer?  Ever, anywhere?  In Des Moines, Iowa, in the final month of 2011, it might just happen. The vision was made manifest by Jaume Plensa, and here’s one man’s rough video, which I couldn’t get to stand upright: Continue reading

Stanley Elkin, ghosting through Boston, beautifully.

Stanley Elkin proved remarkably supportive and generous with me, c. 1977 in Boston.  He’d come to town as a visiting writer at Boston U., just another of the amazing lineup (Barth, Barthelme [Donald], Cheever [alcoholic, alas], more…) brought in by George Starbuck while he was running the writing program.  I was a recent graduate and still spending a lot of time in the department, while freelancing as a teacher and writer in town.  I’d read a couple of his novellas, stuff that later wound up in Searches & Seizures and The Living End, and I’d started A Bad Man after seeing Gass recommend it in one of his essays, then had it snitched off my seat by a stranger on the MBTA.

The photo used elsewhere on Big Other is the figure I recall. Elkin and I met at a department functionStanley Elkin, c.'78 and, drink in hand, he proved a delightful sourpuss, for instance regarding his friend Bill Gass.  “Listen,” he groused, “I’ve written better novels than Bill ever will.”  This with obvious fondness!  And energy, too — this was before Elkin’s MS put him in a walker.  I don’t even recall seeing him with a cane.   Continue reading