Haruki Murakami’s 7 Stories: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women”

Could we possibly need yet another fictional investigation of men in 2017? Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women suggests we do with seven short stories that blend a narrative focus on men who seem equally inept at connecting with women and ultimately incomplete when women seem destined to leave, to be absent.

“Drive My Car” opens Murakami’s slim collection by immediately challenging reader’s with “most female drivers fell into one of two categories,” leading into a story uncritically awash in sexism. Kafuku, an aging actor, hires a woman, Misaki Watari, to be his driver—a sparse plot common in Murakami, whose work is often driven by characters and narration instead of traditional action.

The shallowness of men, the weaknesses of men who embody and perpetuate sexism and misogyny—these would seem to be the sorts of fictional investigations needed in the twenty-first century. Murakami, however, investigates loneliness through the lens of men such as Kafuku:

Kafuku adored his wife. He had fallen deeply in love with her when they first met (he was twenty-nine), and this feeling had remained unchanged until the day she died (he had been forty-nine then). He hadn’t slept with another woman in all the years of marriage. The urge had never arisen, although he had received his fair share of opportunities.

His wife, however, slept with other men on occasion. As far as he knew, there had been four such affairs.

Throughout the collection, Murakami paints these men sympathetically despite their many flaws. Kafuku begins a friendship with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, in fact:

They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.

The lonely, abandoned man is a staple of Murakami—and the stories include many signature elements of his fiction, such as The Beatles, quirky narration and the centering of storytelling, bar tending and jazz, and the ever-present hint of the supernatural, the unexplainable.

For readers already drawn to Murakami, this collection reaches out to them while often remaining subtle and nearly stationary. Someone new to Murakami may find the men too flawed to deserve the compassion Murakami seems eager to solicit.

As a Murakami fan and literary scholar of his work, I think the collection shines most powerfully with “Scheherazade” and “Samsa in Love”—both of which center loneliness in ways that rise above the more problematic portrayals of men and women.

“Whatever the case,” we learn in “Scheherazade,” “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart.” This story’s man is a shut-in, although why is never revealed, and the woman offers him awkwardly satisfying sex and, as noted above, stories.

Habara, the man, dubs the woman “Scheherazade,” although it is not her name and he never shares this with her. The stories about dreams involving lampreys and her own pseudo-sexual teen obsessions driving her to break in a house constitute a second-level set of Murakami’s quirkiness.

The story blends the power of sex/intimacy with storytelling/intimacy as Habara becomes more and more linked to, dependent on Scheherazade:

She got out of bed and put on her clothes—panties, stockings, camisole, and, finally, her skirt and blouse. Habara casually watched the sequence of her movements from the bed. It struck him that the way women put on their clothes could be even more interesting than the way they took them off.

As the reader is guided along with Scheherazade’s adventures, the interior of Habara is more fully revealed, despite the remaining lack of details about his situation. That interior becomes a place where he fears loss:

He could be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women might be taken away from him….Never again would he be able to enter the war moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response.

This fear of physical loss is immediately qualified:

Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while neglecting it entirely on the other.

“Scheherazade,” like many of the stories, walks the edge of objectifying women and reducing any individual woman as simply a stand-in for “woman,” to fulfill the need of any man. But Habara’s sadness is linked to the “gift,” “inexhaustible,” that is Scheherazade.

A companion to “Scheherazade” is the gem of the collection, “Samsa in Love.” Here Murakami brilliantly re-imagines Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a class of surreal existential literature often under-appreciated for its dark humor and ultimate focus on Gregor Samsa’s family.

The story’s first sentence echoes Kafka’s tale and appears to suggest the insect metamorphosis has reversed (insect becoming again human) with the remnants of the Kafkan nightmare throughout the house.

Samsa is uncomfortable in his human form and suffering an existential crisis of what he knows and how he knows it:

Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?

Deftly, Murakami crafts a layered homage to Kafka as parody of Kafka—the original itself often driven by satire and parody.

Samsa struggles moving about the house—the stairs are a death trap— and feels compelled to cover her nakedness. But what most drives him is hunger, a powerful Kafkan motif in his novella and other works:

What mattered was filling that empty cavern inside him. He ate with total concentration, as if racing against time. He was so fixated on eating that once, as he was licking his fingers, he sank his teeth into them by mistake. Scraps of food flew everywhere, and when a platter fell to the floor and smashed he paid no attention whatsoever.

In his journey through the house, Samsa discovers he is alone, but there seems to have been others who fled quickly—his family. The central conflict of the story, however, is that a woman comes to the door to repair a broken lock.

This visitor appears first to be “little,” but soon Samsa “realized that the issue was not her size. It was her back, which was bent forward in a perpetual stoop.”

The hunchback woman arrives to repair a door lock, and the rest of story reveals an interaction between the only two characters—at times typical Murakami awkward man/woman interaction and then often bawdy slapstick:

“What the hell is that?” she said stonily. “What’s that bulge doing there?”

Samsa looked down at the front of his gown. His organ was really very swollen. He could surmise from her tone that its condition was somehow inappropriate.

Samsa pleads that his arousal is “‘some kind of heart problem'”—not sexual, but the reader soon realizes, his affection is emotional, not merely some carnal attraction.

Against the surreal plot and the social upheaval the woman mentions several times, she offers Samsa words of solace:

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”…

“If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again,” she said in parting. This time there was real warmth in her voice.

The story ends with Samsa resolving to work on the little things, and he is hopeful.

None the less, the volume ends with the title story, and the foreboding returns: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women.”

Often, Murakami’s men challenge us to feel compassion for their longing, their loss, and their loneliness. But, ultimately, his storytelling suggests to me that, yes, there is something compelling about yet another literary investigation of men in 2017.

Lost in Space with Jaroslav Kalfar: So It Goes in One Man’s Nightmare of Errors

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar immediately appealed to me as a very near-future, 2018, science fiction story by an intriguing new novelist. Kalfar was born in Prague, Czech Republic, but came to the U.S. as a teenager, completing his education here and now residing in Brooklyn.

The story seems relatively simple for much of the novel: Jakub Prochazka, a scientist, is enlisted to be the first Czech astronaut to explore a phenomenon of space particles that could be crucial to all of humanity—but also may gain his home country the sort of influence and significance that has been dominated by the U.S. and Russia (powers that lurk throughout the novel).

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

As I was reading, I became intrigued at how Kalfar’s space odyssey seemed a powerful and superior companion to Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, and the film Gravity.

Spaceman of Bohemia sputters some with managing time and maintaining the delicate tension in tone, mostly tragi-comic early and then sporadically through the middle and end. But on balance, Kalfar avoids the critical pitfalls of The Martian (glorifying the sacred white male) and Gravity (subsuming the female lead in masculinity), while depending on the plot tricks of both—being lost in space and manipulating the possibility that the protagonist will not survive.

But as my mind was parsing Spaceman against the lesser novel and film, Prochazka alone in his spacecraft encounters (or imagines) an alien, eventually gifted the human name Hanus (one of many aspects of the novel that highlights and also satirizes Czech history, its national heroes and its political unrest driven by Cold War communism/capitalism anxieties).

Kalfar’s writing had already triggered my love for Franz Kafka, maybe too easy a notice, but it was at the philosophical exchanges between Prochazka and spider-like Hanus that I recognized Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five—Billy Pilgrim, time (not space) traveller and Tralfamadorians debating free will and human nature as well as concepts of time.

Kurt Vonnegut also had a career as a visual artist.

Pervasive throughout Spaceman, in fact, are both the weight and levity of Kafka’s existential metaphor of human existence as a nightmare and Vonnegut’s fatalistic refrain, “So it goes”—possibly (but definitely beautifully) captured by the ever-present allure of Nutella, nectar of the gods, it seems.

Kalfar embodies Czech/Russian-European ideologies and historical/political groundings—distinct from the worldview of U.S. literature or even Margaret Atwood’s Canadian-fueled literary speculative fiction.

Spaceman falls into the genre, then, literary science fiction, that is Vonnegut’s (and Atwood’s) domain; in other words, the conventions of lost in space and an alien are vehicles for a dark satire of the human condition, the fact of humans as pawns of their own devices (politics, technology, the pursuits of knowledge and power, love, and capitalized materialism).

There is a melancholy and even fatalism to the novel, of love, loss, distance, and time, yes, but more overwhelmingly something more biblical—the sins of the father are the sins of the son.

Prochazka’s father becomes a political pariah, and his grandfather tries to help Prochazka cope as a child while the grandfather skins a rabbit:

“You know that the world is always trying to take us. This country, that country. We can’t fight the whole world, the ten million of us, so we pick the people we think should be punished, and we make them suffer the best we can. In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.”

The weight of history, familial history, shapes and even twists Prochazka, reminding me of the violent urges experienced by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale: “I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual over my hands.”

While Billy Pilgrim literally travels back and forth in time, Kalfar stylistically shifts the narrative back and forth in time, where readers witness the young Prochazka struggle with the personal against the political:

I don’t care what reigns outside our house—capitalism, communism, or anything else—as long as my parents will return to me and keep me safe from men like the stranger [a man tortured by his father before the fall of communism]. Yes, perhaps my father could even torture him a little. I would allow it. I would ask my father to torture the man until he stopped hating me.

And like the alien Hanus, the grandfather becomes a philosophical voice of doom: “‘Different lords and the same shit for the commoners.'” And eventually, Prochazka appears to have drawn a similar conclusion: “Now I am a cadaver in waiting….The body is the worker and the soul the oppressor.”

Ultimately in that existential despair, however, Prochazka as scientist seems to survive, somewhat hopeful nonetheless: “If a sequence of random events is repeated many times, patterns can be detected and studied, thus creative the illusion that human observers can truly know and understand chaos.”

Spaceman of Bohemia ends with Prochazka pummeled by that weight of history, the existential facts dramatized in the novel—Nutella smeared on his arm to attract the spider (substituting for Hanus) in his dilapidated childhood home.

The fantastical of science fiction and the ambiguity of a psychotic main character or a human having a close encounter with an alien build to a harshly realistic ending, winding through echoes of Vonnegut to something we can imagine a twenty-first century Kafka would have penned.

Against Spaceman, The Martian (novel and film) and Gravity are exposed as propaganda and careless, even when they are compelling and grand.

Kalfar’s first novel is satisfying, although a bit uneven, and extremely promising—especially for those who are drawn to the sort of science fiction that embraces the conventions as a captivating way to help us continue, like Prochazka, to make meaning out of the chaos that is being a human on a tiny, fragile planet in the infinity of the universe.

Anything

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

Broken, I lie here writing after having been handed an entirely new life not of my choosing, an accident in the first week of my holiday break probably redirecting a significant part of my life as a recreational cyclist.

That first week of recovery was consumed by pain and immobility, but I was not able to relax and read, although I thought that would be one positive to the situation.

This week, however, as most everyone has now returned to work, I find myself entirely alone. I resumed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, a 2006 novel focusing on Nigeria during the 1960s.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun

Reading this essentially political novel in 2016-2017 has been chillingly prescient about the current U.S., and while I balk at the use of the term “universal” since it tends to be a veneer for normalizing privilege, Adichie’s narrative often exposes the enduring.

In Part Two: The Late Sixties, the section opens as the novel does with Ugwu, an Opi village boy who is a servant for a Nsukka University professor, Odenigbo.

Several years have passed in the story, and Ugwu is temporarily back in his village:

His visit home suddenly seemed much longer than a week, perhaps because of the endless grassy churning in his stomach from eating only fruits and nuts. His mother’s food was unpalatable. The vegetables were overcooked, the cornmeal was too lumpy, the soup was too watery, and the yam slices coarse from being boiled without a dollop of butter. He could not wait to get back to Nsukka and finally eat a real meal. (p. 151)

This is a powerful scene in the context of the first paragraphs of the novel as Ugwa walks to Odenigbo’s house to become his houseboy. Ugwa’s aunt tells the boy, “‘You will eat meat every day'”:

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. (p. 3)

So as I was reading Adichie’s dramatization of politics, privilege, and what is and becomes normal for anyone, I was reminded of Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Meursault’s thoughts from prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of my undergraduate time spent as a student-by-choice focused on existential philosophy and literature, leading eventually to my discovering and embracing the educational writing of Maxine Greene.

So as I recover in the weeks leading to my 56th birthday—a new year, a new age, and this new existence forced onto me—I am deeply moved by “you could get used to anything.”

Anything?

What an ugly thing to be human and having the capacity to get used to anything.

But there was a time in the U.S. when slavery was perfectly normal. There was a time in the world when the Holocaust was perfectly normal.

Because normal, like history, is the province of those with power, a way to render some Others “deliberately silenced,…preferably unheard.”

And today the U.S. is eagerly normalizing a person and ideologies that would have seemed illegitimate just months ago.

As happened to Ugwu, will we in a few short years have our tastes so dramatically transformed that this bitter dish being served to us now will become what sates our hunger?

Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is a brief parable about the “art of fasting”—in which the artist becomes so transformed that he fasts himself to death, explaining:

“Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

A gift of Kafka comes in the final paragraph when he offers the briefest of parables within a parable:

“All right, tidy this up now,” said the supervisor. And they buried the hunger artist along with the straw. But in his cage they put a young panther. Even for a person with the dullest mind it was clearly refreshing to see this wild animal prowling around in this cage, which had been dreary for such a long time. It lacked nothing. Without having to think much about it, the guards brought the animal food whose taste it enjoyed. It never seemed once to miss its freedom. This noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, even appeared to carry freedom around with it. That seemed to be located somewhere or other in its teeth, and its joy in living came with such strong passion from its throat that it was not easy for spectators to keep watching. But they controlled themselves, kept pressing around the cage, and had no desire at all to move on.

Like Ugwu,Meursault, the hunger artist—the panther “get[s] used to anything.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Introduction to Mother Night, a work confronting a Nazi reality now again before humanity, begins:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

I am afraid of who I have become, who I pretend to be, and if I too can “get used to anything.”

And I am near to terrified of the same for the world around me.

On Kafka, Misreading Postmodernism, and Giving Up

In 2008, through a Republican connection with then-governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, a graduate of the university, President George W. Bush gave the primary commencement address at Furman University, sparking a faculty protest and a student push-back to that protest.

Once Bush being the speaker was announced, the days and weeks leading up to commencement were characterized by several media reports on the controversy, including some Op-Eds in the local paper by professors—one of which was by two neoliberal professors from one of the most conservative departments on campus chastising the protesting professors and characterizing them as postmodern.

Looking back through the rise of Trumplandia and the current focus on fake news and post-truth politics, this misreading of postmodernism is worth revisiting.

First, the protesting professors immediately balked at being labeled postmodern because most (if not all) were taking an ethical stand, counter to the postmodern questioning of objective or universal moral imperatives.

The neoliberal professors represented, even as elites, a cartoonish and dismissive lens for the public about nuanced and complex bodies of knowledge, ways of navigating the world.

By the twenty-first century, postmodernism was recognized as a moment in the twentieth century when modernism was unmasked, but that term and body of thought had mostly helped shape movements that many academics and scholars embraced (see this as one example of how complex postmodernism is as a term).

Postmodernism spurred many “post” ideologies, in fact—postcolonialism, poststructuralism, and others that, in fact, re-imagined how to reclaim the ethics and moral imperatives that postmodernism seemed to reject.

The key here is “seemed” since just as the neoliberal professors misrepresented the protesting professors as postmodern, they also grossly reduced postmodernism to something that may sound familiar today: there are no facts, no truths.

Once the province of liberatory academics—those seeking a dismantling of white/male privilege as the default norm, the universal—postmodernism as an argument about how controlling what counts as facts and truth is the province of who has power has today become a bastardized and politicized paradox in that partisan politics in the U.S. (and across Europe) has reached the logical evolution into nothing more than reality TV in the hands of the far Right—neoliberals, neoconservatives, white supremacists, misogynists, and neoNazis.

Toni Morrison’s Making America White Again details how this has come to fruition in the U.S.

First, she confronts how post-truth Trumplandia looks:

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.

To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?

The debasing of the current U.S. reflects, as Morrison notes, “the true horror of lost status” among whites. And thus:

The comfort of being “naturally better than,” of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants—these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished.

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

Post-truth as a sort of mainstream faux-postmodernism and as fodder for political tyranny (fascism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism—real -isms to be feared) has already metastasized throughout Europe, as witnessed by Ece Temelkuran in Turkey:

This refashioning of a post-truth, post-fact Turkey has not happened overnight. The process has involved the skilful and wilful manipulation of narratives. We gave up asking the astonished questions “How can they say or do that?” some time ago. Truth is a lost game in my country. In Europe and America, you still have time to rescue it – but you must learn from Turkey how easily it can be lost.

It started 15 years ago, with a phenomenon that will now be familiar to you, when intellectuals and journalists reacted to a nascent populism with the self-critical question: “Are we out of touch?” To counter that possibility, they widened the parameters of public debate to include those who were said to be representatives of “real people”. We thought our own tool, the ability to question and establish truth, would be adequate to keep the discourse safe. It wasn’t. Soon we were paralysed by the lies of populism, which always sounded more attractive than our boring facts.

In the U.S., white authority barely batted an eye at a black child being shot dead by a policeman, Tamir Rice, but how much different is that callousness than what Temelkuran reveals about Turkey?:

What is the practical effect of this new truth on everyday life? Well, consider one example. In Turkey today, we are obliged to indulge a debate about whether minors should be married to their rapists. It is predicated on the “real people’s” truth that in rural areas girls get married even when they are just 13, and thus have sexual maturity. It is, we are told, a thoroughly elitist argument to insist that a minor cannot give consent.

The faux-postmodernism of post-truth normalcy erases ethical ways of being and enables a crass Social Darwinism and consumerism—about which Temelkuran warns:

An analogy came to mind: that this is like trying to play chess with a pigeon. Even if you win within the rules, the pigeon will clutter up the pieces, and finally it will shit on the chessboard, leaving you to deal with the mess. Farage, having told us to “cheer up”, and that this was “not a funeral”, did exactly that. Having dumbfounded the audience, he announced – as if fleeing a boring party – that he was off to meet Donald Trump in Washington.

Be warned. For 15 years we played chess with the pigeon in Turkey, but now we don’t even have the chessboard. Some of you still have time to shape your future. Use it.

As I read Temelkuran’s account of a people who appear to have willingly abandoned their moral core, I was haunted by his “We gave up,” reminding me of Franz Kafka’s Give It Up!:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was walking to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “From me you want to know the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up,” he said, and turned away with a sudden jerk, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.

Kafka’s dark surrealism, at once comic and tragic, presents the human condition through two clocks being out of kilter.

The existential angst of modernism has survived postmodern revolts as Kafka’s work from a century ago rings true today for those of us surviving capitalism—the relentless call to consume, the never-ending burden of debt, and the terror of being late imprinted on us by formal schooling.

From Kafka to Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal and to Morrison, the message remains bleak about the power of authority to erase the humanity of the individual.

In Kafka’s sparse narrative, the tower clock and policeman as Authority combine to invoke anxiety and despair in the unnamed narrator, only “I.”

A century ago, Kafka imagined the state’s blunt indoctrination—”Give it up!”—and then today, Temelkuran admits that in Turkey, “We gave up.”

It seems that in these there are hard and undeniable truths.

At a Great Beyond Starbucks: Deleuze, Freire, Kafka, and Malcolm X Discuss Obama

“Shouldn’t we be at a bar?” Gilles Deleuze raises his arms and hands scanning around the Great Beyond Starbucks.

“It’s Malcolm,” Franza Kafka explains. “Doesn’t drink.”

“Coffee either,” Deleuze shrugs. “And why are we here? Talking about some American football player and the president?”

“The brother has a name,” Malcolm X says walking to the table before sitting. “Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick.”

Paulo Freire scoots his chair over so the table mostly is equally divided among Deleuze, Kafka, Malcolm, and himself.

“And the president, Obama, is talking like a house slave,” Malcolm continues. “Telling Kaepernick to consider how he has hurt military members and their families.”

“It is the bureaucratization of the mind,” Freire interjects. “Obama must assume the political pose of the bureaucrat—seeking to offend no one and as a result offending everyone.”

“Poseidon,” Kafka offers absently.

“Poseidon?” Malcolm asks, scanning the others at the table.

“Obama has endless work, the work of a bureaucrat, the chief bureaucrat,” Kafka sighs.

Deleuze raises a hand, adding, “It is the necessity of administration, of administering. Always reforming, always in flux.” He pauses with a slight shake of his head. “If he declares anything, it is over, finished. To be finished is to be without purpose. The nightmare of the bureaucrat.”

“If Jimmy was there,” Malcolm says, “if Jimmy were there, he would say what needs to be said.”

“Jimmy?” asks Deleuze.

“Baldwin,” Freire leans toward Deleuze. “James Baldwin.”

“O, yes, where is Baldwin?” asks Deleuze.

“With Ali,” Malcolm explains. “Prince is performing, and Jimmy says he has had it with the living and their invoking his name while doing nothing.”

“Carlin is doing a set after Prince,” Kafka smiles.

Seemingly in unison, the four turn toward the billow of smoke gradually enveloping their table from the one beside them.

“So it goes,” comes through the fog of cigarette smoke. “So it goes.”

Meanwhile among the living.


“A generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure”: Deleuze

Franz Kafka, “Poseidon”

Teachers As Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, Paulo Freire

Message to Grassroots, Malcolm X

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Recommended: The Brave and The Beautiful of Hera Lindsay Bird and Mary Ruefle

…the dream of all poetry, to cut a hole in time.

“I Remember, I Remember,” Mary Ruefle

In many ways as a writer, I am a coward.

And in all ways, I worship and am deeply jealous of rock stars, actors, and professional writers—for the freedoms they live as a consequence of their gifts turned into professions.

I am idealizing, of course, but that is how we dream, right?

And then one day not too long ago, I came across ‘s poetry. My first experience was Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind. I was immediately enamored and could only think “brave.”

I read it over and over and then began my usual online stalking, finding other poems and realizing she is on Twitter.

And so when I read poetry that triggers in me my Kafka rule* for literature, I am also gifted in my own writing—so from Bird’s bravery, I wrote chrysalis (i hold my words in awe), tiptoeing myself into the shallow waters of bravery.

But Bird has proven today to be the gift that keeps on giving—Tweeting out a poem by Mary Ruefle, Snow, which added to “bravery” what I also see in Bird, “beautiful”:

…I would like to be in the classroom — for I am
a teacher — and closing my book stand up, saying
“It is snowing and I must go have sex, good-bye,”
and walk out of the room….

For the umpteenth time a few nights ago, I was watching Notting Hill and crying on the couch alone because there are moments of poetry in that, I think.

All sorts of art, when brave and beautiful, help us appreciate this delicate thing called living, nurtured as it is by this impossible thing called loving.

So this is my way of paying it forward—from Bird and Ruefle to you, dear readers.

Please explore Bird and Ruefle:

The fearless poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird, Felicity Monk

Interview: Hera Lindsay Bird

Hera Lindsay Bird (website)

Hera Lindsay Bird online poetry

Mary Ruefle (website)

Mary Ruefle (poets.org)

Mary Ruefle (Poetry Foundation)

Mary Ruefle (Wave Books)

I Remember, I Remember, Mary Ruefle


* See here:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Maxine Greene and the “Frozen Sea Inside of Us”

The image of Franz Kafka that captures most clearly Kafkan for me is the one of Kafka himself coming to consciousness in the morning, numbed from the waist down after sitting in one spot writing all night. He, of course, was lost in his text in a way that is something like dreaming—a hybrid of consciousness and unconsciousness.

The text of Kafka that speaks most directly about Kafka for me is his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And although Kafka is writing here specifically about fiction, I think the core sentiment (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) is the perfect entry point into why Maxine Greene’s works remain more important than ever, her voice the axe against the frozen sea of relentless but misguided education reform.

Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a collection of essays, is one such book.

Releasing the Imagination: “Breaking with Old Quantitative Models”

Published in 1995, Releasing the Imagination speaks from the middle of the current 30-year cycle of accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing. But the volume also speaks to the resilient nature of the fundamental source for why education reform remains mired in the same failed policy paradigm that is repackaged over and over:

In many ways, school restructure does, indeed, mean breaking with old quantitative models; but countering this break is an anxiety that is driving people into what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty” (1929). Present-day economic uncertainty has much to do with this anxiety as does the current challenge to traditional authorities. In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. (p. 18)

Threads running though Greene’s work are powerfully weaved into this important recognition of the Siren’s song of “certainty” that appears to be captured in quantitative data (think test scores as evidence of student learning and teacher quality): Greene’s existential philosophical lens, her rich progressive commitment, and ability to frame education within larger societal and cultural realities.

Greene continues her examination of breakthroughs by referring to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Denise Leverton (again, the style that distinguishes Greene), which she incorporates seamlessly with the framing of Dewey and then Paulo Freire. By example and then explicitly, Greene is making a case for setting aside the veneer of certainty presented by measurement and numbers for the ambiguity and unexpected of art:

In contradicting the established, or the given, art reaches beyond what is established and leads those who are willing to risk transformations to the shaping of social vision.

Of course, this does not happen automatically or even naturally. Dewey, in Art as Experience, talks about how important it is for people to plunge into subject matter in order to steep themselves in it, and this is probably more true of works of art than other subject matters….In our engagements with historical texts, too, with mathematical problems, scientific inquiries, and (not incidentally) the political and social realities we have constructed along with those around us, it is never enough simply to label, categorize, or recognize certain phenomena or events. There has to be a live, aware, reflective transaction if what presents itself to consciousness is to be realized.

Dewey asked for an abandonment of “conformity to norms of conventional admiration” in approaching art; he asked that we try to avoid “confused, even if genuine emotional excitation” (1934, p. 54). The beholder, the percipient, the learner must approach from the vantage point of her or his lived situation, that is, in accord with a distinctive point of view and interest….Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, “Here we are.” (pp. 30-31)

From A Nation at Risk and then No Child Left Behind as that morphed into the Common Core movement, education reform has remained focused on the exact measurement (“label, categorize, or recognize”) Greene warns against while that reform has also concurrently erased the arts from the lives and education of children (more often than not, from the lives and education of the most marginalized children).

Along with the allure of quantifying as the pursuit of certainty, of control, bureaucracy is also exposed as a recurring flaw of education reform: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

The bureaucracy of education reform built on recycling the accountability paradigm also fails because we remain committed as well, not to community and democracy, but competition and market forces (charter schools and dismantling teachers unions and tenure, for examples). Education reform is, in fact, not reform at all; education reform insures that public institutions, such as schools, maintain the status quo of society. As a result, students are being indoctrinated, not educated—as Greene confronts about the trap teachers face:

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, may at best be preparing students to make choices between buying a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (which is no real choice at all), but education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, is not empowering students to choose not to own or drive a car at all, not empowering them to imagine another world, a better world.

Greene recognized that we are tragically paralyzed by the pursuit of certainty and the need to complete our tasks; as a result, we remain trapped like bugs in the amber of capitalism, never freeing ourselves to pursue democracy:

Dewey found that democracy is an ideal in the sense that it is always reaching toward some end that can finally never be achieved. Like community itself, it has to always be in the making. (p. 66)

And so we stand in 2014, in the wake of Greene’s death, and before us is the frozen sea of education reform. Greene’s Releasing the Imagination is one of the axes waiting for us to take it in hand, to break us free.

These essays now about two decades old serve as foundational explorations of all that is wrong with how we fail to re-imagine our schools in our commitments under the misnomer “reform.” In “Teaching for Openings” (Chapter Nine), Greene presents a tour de force for those of us who embrace the label “teacher,” and it is here that I argue for the enduring importance of finally listening to Greene:

Still, caught in the turmoils of interrogation, in what Buber called the pain, I am likely to feel the pull of my old search for certainty. I find myself now and then yearning after the laws and norms and formulations, even though I know how many of them were constructed in the interests of those in power [emphasis added]. Their appeal to me was not only due to the ways in which they provide barriers against relativism. It was also due to my marginality: I wanted so much to be accepted in the great world of wood-panelled libraries, authoritative intellectuals, sophisticated urban cafes….

That means that what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has called the elite culture must be transformed. This is the culture white male scholars tend to create, one that has “functioned in relation to women, the lower classes, and some white races analogously to the way in which imperialism functioned for colonized people. At worst, it denied the values of all others and imposed itself as an absolute standard….As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity. Attention has to be paid to those on the margins [emphasis added]…. (pp. 114, 120)

As I wrote to implore us all to beware the roadbuilders, as I drafted that piece while skimming through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to find the truth I felt compelled to offer, I stood on Greene’s shoulders, as I often do, trying in my very small way to pay attention to those on the margins because with the axe Greene provided me, I was able to begin breaking the frozen sea of my privilege.

In her death, then, we must return not only to Greene’s words, but to the alternative she points to with those words:

Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed. (p. 133)