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.

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Lying, Of Course

It started with advertising, I think — though I can’t be sure. I refer, of course, to lying. I don’t mean the occasional lie. I mean the chronic lie, lying as a matter of course. Selling the car to the unsuspecting customer by telling him that it was owned by an old lady and never driven over forty; selling the house without mentioning the fact that the basement leaks whenever it rains; insisting in the face of overwhelming evidence that global warming is a fiction.  I realize, of course, that people have always lied. But what I am talking about is the blind acceptance of lying as a way of life. It seems to have become the norm. Everybody does it, so it must be OK.

As one who taught ethics for forty-one  years I have a bone to pick with this sort of logic. Just because everyone does it (which is a bit of an exaggeration) does not make it right. In fact, the cynic in me is tempted to say that if everyone does it it is almost certainly not right! From an ethical perspective it is never right to lie, not even in an extreme case, although one might plead expediency in such a case. But it is never right, not even the “little white lie” that we might tell about our neighbor’s hat in order not to hurt her feelings. I might tell the little white lie, but I must realize that it is not the right thing to do, strictly speaking. In this case it’s just the expedient thing to do, since hurting her feelings would be much more upsetting than simply telling her that her hat is lovely when in fact it’s perfectly awful. It’s the lesser of two evils, if you will. In any event, the little white lie is not the problem. The big black lie is the problem: it has become commonplace. And it is the fact that lying has become accepted behavior that is of greatest concern.

When my wife and I were babysitting with our Granddaughters some time back I sat and watched several Walt Disney shows the girls seemed to like. The plots involving teenagers and their bumbling parents were absurdly simple, but they tended to focus on a lie told by one of the characters that generated a situation that required several other lies to be resolved. It was supposed to be funny.  I was reminded of the “I Love Lucy” shows (which I did love) that were also frequently based on a lie that Lucy told Ricky and which generated a situation from which all of Lucy’s cleverness was required to extricate herself. I then began to reflect on how many TV shows generate humor in this way. These situations are funny, of course, as were the Disney shows, I suppose. But the point is that the lie was simply an accepted way of doing things. If you are in a tight situation, lie your way out of it.

On our popular TV shows, it’s not that big a deal. But when our kids see this day after day it must send them a message that lying is simply the normal way of dealing with certain sorts of situations that might be embarrassing or uncomfortable. In any event, when it becomes widespread and commonplace, as it has clearly done in today’s world, it does become a larger problem. When Walmart claims it always has the lowest prices and has to be taken to court to reduce the claim to always having low prices we become aware that the rule of thumb seems to be: say it until someone objects and after the courts have ruled we will make the change. In the meantime we will tell the lie and expect greater profits. And we all know politicians lie without giving it a second thought: whatever it takes to remain in a well-paid position requiring little or no work whatever.

As we listen to the political rhetoric that fills the airwaves and makes us want to run somewhere to hide, we realize that bald-faced lying has become a commonplace in politics. Tell the people what they want to hear, regardless of the consequences. It’s all about getting the nomination and then winning enough votes to be elected. If those lies result in harm to other people, say people of another religion or skin color, so be it. Consequences be damned! It is possible to check the facts, of course, but very few bother to take the time since if the lie supports the listener’s deep-seated convictions and prejudices it will readily be believed, true or false. And if it doesn’t, we simply stop listening. For example, one could simply search “FactCheck” and discover that the majority of Donald Trump’s claims are a fabrication or are blatantly false. But, then, truth does not enter in. We don’t seem to care much about that any more. Sell the house. Sell the car, Sell the political candidate. Whatever it takes. The end justifies the means.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.