Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.


Underground Man

I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”

It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay, and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.

Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical.  Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.

For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.

But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?