The only class I ever stayed awake for was AP English. On the first day our teacher Mary Starita said:
There’s no such thing as going too far. If I ever hear anyone in here say that something goes too far I’ll toss them out of the room.
That fixed my soul.
My plan was to be the next Hemingway (with dashes of Fitzgerald, Salinger, and Vonnegut) — but modern, and me. It was 1986, not 1928, and I was me.
But semi-rural Maryland, just outside the college town of Newark, Delaware, didn’t look or feel like the kind of place for boldness of any kind. Everything strongly-said was out-of-place; every bendy vision that didn’t include cows and cul-de-sacs and normal behavior got put back straight by a sneer or, worse, someone feeling sorry for you.
But Starita — little star — was the first person to say out loud to me what I’d been waiting for, what I’d needed. I’ll be grateful forever for that permission. I didn’t have to care about cows anymore — or, if I wanted, I could turn them into aliens or dinosaurs or, or, cows, which, when you really look, are pretty goddamn weird.
Transformed in his bed
Billy Pinder was my sadistic pleasure. He was the one guy in school who wore a blazer and sometimes even a tie. He was in AP English but planned to attend business school.
Billy preferred a literal reading of everything. Metaphor wasn’t his cup of fur. And he didn’t like anything that wasn’t realistic.
So pretty early on we read The Metamorphosis by Kafka, which begins (in one English translation):
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
(Not a cockroach: some kind of gross beetle, though probably not a dung beetle.)
In the second paragraph was this important line: It was no dream.
Well, you know it: poor Billy was trapped, and I toyed with him. I made him answer questions.
Was he really a big insect, Billy? No, said Billy.
But, Billy, it said it was no dream.
Well, said Billy, you can’t just wake up as a giant bug.
Billy, are you saying it’s a metaphor or symbolic somehow? Or that it really was a dream even though it literally says it’s not?
It reminded me of those old Star Treks where Kirk would say something illogical to the evil planetary computer, which would then explode.
What I learned from Billy
Billy was kind of right, in a way, to prefer sticking with literal readings. (He just should’ve stuck to his guns even when the going got unreal.)
After all, The Metamorphosis as metaphor for life in Prague as a clerk with a crappy family is pretty boring. As religious allegory, even upside-down, it just becomes a pretty easy puzzle that satisfies nobody and explains nothing of the power of the story.
Once you accept the premise — and you have to, to get past the first sentence — the story is told entirely realistically. You believe this guy turned into an insect, and you believe his reactions and how his family behaves. You believe in his bed and the room he’s stuck in.
And you believe it when things go from monstrously bad to worse to even worse.
In other words, it’s a thrill ride, and I love that story.
On going too far
Had Kafka written about a guy who felt a little beetle-like or unloved or isolated at times, well, we’d never have heard of him. Yawnz Yawnka.
No matter what made Kafka start thinking about his character, Kafka turned him into a beetle. And he started there. He started where other writers wouldn’t even end up. And wrote a great story.
I can’t explain what makes this story light fires in my head any better than I can explain why Gregor Samsa woke up that way.
It seems so transparent — it’s very real — and yet you can’t get in there and figure out why for any of it. It’s opaque.
Which makes it more real, as obviously unreal as it is — it’s more like real life, which is not written with any schema of symbols or planned-out metaphors: in real life there are no clues for AP English students to get taught.
Real life is more like the imagination of The Metamorphosis than it is like any thousand “realistic” stories where something represents something and something means something.
You know what I’m talking about, right? “See, the bear represents their dead father, who is an archetype of ohgodshootmenow…”
No, the bear is a big smelly mammal with sharp claws who doesn’t care what you care about.
All of the above was just meant to be a brief introduction to some notes for software makers. And I haven’t even made it to Othello (or Iago, as I prefer to think of it) yet. So I’ll call this part one, post it, and pick it up later.