In abstract

One settles down to read or re-read Verne with an eagerness based on ruminating about him, rather than on any notion of what he is actually like to read. He displays that curious property — shared perhaps with Dickens? — of making his effect not so much when the book is open as after it is shut and put away, so that each novel starts to improve in retrospect the moment one starts to forget it.

Kingsley Amis

Grief as a pedestal

On the fourteenth of February, I received a telegram from Buenos Aires saying I should return immediately, because my father was ‘in no way well.’ God forgive me, but the prestige of being the recipient of an urgent telegram, the desire to communicate to all of Fray Bentos the contradiction between the negative form of the message and the positive adverb, the temptation to dramatize my sorrow as I feigned a virile stoicism, all no doubt distracted me from all possibility of anguish.

Jorge Borges

Borges’ stories tend to be sterile conjectures about mathematics, gnosticism, etc, and often read like essays. Only the puzzle matters: Apart from revealing his philosophical interests, Borges himself always remains an enigma. In the middle of Funes the Memorious he drops a revealing half-paragraph feels completely human, probably even autobiographical.

The Contemporary Kafka

One of the most interesting sections of Chuck Klosterman’s book But What if We’re Wrong concerns the difficulty of predicting from what quarter the next alienated, genius will seem to suddenly appear, even though they’ve been around (and overlooked) for years. What does obscurity mean in the age of the internet?

We won’t have to go back and reinsert marginalized writers who were ignored by the establishment, because the establishment is now a multisphere collective; those marginalized writers will be recognized as they emerge, and their marginalized status will serve as a canonical advantage.

So what does that tell us about the Contemporary Kafka?

It tells us that Contemporary Kafka will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.

Klosterman then asks what it means to actually be in a marginalized group. If we, the book-buying public, know about an under-represented community, how obscure can it really be?  A group may be highly marginalized, yet still be quite visible.

For example, if tomorrow’s writer of genius were toiling away in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro today, he or she would face many obstacles to fame, but would still find a receptive audience of some size. A lot of people might even seek out a book written by a writer from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, since, hey, that’s a pretty unique perspective!

But that’s not marginalized enough.

In order for there to be a Contemporary Kafka, there must exist some cohort which is so disdained, so overlooked, so far on the edge of society that a genius could still languish there in the 21st century. Their work would need to be actively ignored.

The uncomfortable, omnipresent reality within any conversation about representation is that the most underrepresented subcultures are the ones that don’t even enter into the conversation. They are, by definition, impossible to quantify. They are groups of people whom — right now, in the present tense — it is still acceptable to dislike or discount or ignore. They are groups who are not seen as needing protection or support, which makes them vulnerable to ridicule and attack. Who are they? As already stated in this paragraph, I am in no position to say. If I try, I can only be wrong. Any argument in their favor is an argument against my premise.

Still, the history of ideas tells us that there are many collections of current humans we do not currently humanize. They exist. So find them right now, inside your own head: Imagine a certain kind of person or a political faction or a religious sect or a sexual orientation or a social group you have no ethical problem disliking, to the point where you could safely ridicule it in public without fear of censure.

Whatever you imagined is the potential identity of the Contemporary Kafka. And if your fabricated answer seems especially improbable, it just means you might actually be close.

An Itinerary for Tourists

“Santa Marta, where Simón Bolívar died penniless in a borrowed shirt, is the oldest town in Colombia. In the past few years it has become a resort, but the expensive hotels are outside town, away from the bars and pool halls. The town makes strenuous claims to being Bolivar’s shrine, and like every other town of size in latin America it has an impressive statue of the liberator. There is a corrosive irony in this Bolívar-worship, but it is quite in key with the other misapprehensions on the continent. Bolívar came to Santa Marta because he was in danger of being assassinated in Bogota. He was regarded as a dictator in Peru, a traitor in Colombia, and in Venezuela — his birthplace — he was declared an outlaw. For setting Latin America free, his reward was penury and vilification. The monuments are an afterthought, and the words chiseled onto them are the battle cries he uttered when the revolution seemed a success. Which town council could raise a subscription to engrave his last judgments on any of these marmoreal plinths? ‘America is ungovernable,’ he wrote to Flores. ‘Those who serve the revolution plough the sea. The only thing to do in America is to emigrate.’

— Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

Brushes with greatness

“When the Ideal is manifested in the work-a-day world, it does not put to shame the creatures of a day — it brings them nearer to itself. Thus, when Homer causes Pedasus, a mortal thorough-bread, to be put in as an outrigger with the divine horses of Achilles, he is careful to tell us that Pedasus, though he ‘was only an ordinary horse’, kept up with the immortal pair.”

— E. V. Rieu

Hom. Il. 16.151-154:
“In the side traces he set the noble horse Pedasus, whom Achilles had brought away with him when he sacked the city of Eetion, and who, mortal steed though he was, could take his place along with those that were immortal.”

Literary Taste

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.

— E.M. Forster


When I was a young, enthusiastic theatre-goer, but before becoming a professional actor, I often heard poeple — members of audiences or people who pretended to theatrical judgement or sophistication — say of some actress or other, ‘I so admire her technique.’ I never knew what they were talking about, which shamed me.

I still don’t know. When I watch, say Maggie Smith, I have no awareness of any ‘technical’ accomplishment, no perception of any wheels which may be going round; what she does just seems to me mesmeric and true. If the ‘technique’ or mechanics show, then there must be something wrong.

— Alec Guinness