Friday, January 2, 2009

To The Mice Who Insist They Are Men and Women

Fig. 1. Rodney Graham - Allegory of Folly: Study for an Equestrian Monument in the Form of a Wind Vane, 2005

'One reason for my willingness to speak publicly on a subject for which I am sort of underqualified is that it affords me a chance to declaim a short story of Kafka's that I have given up teaching in literature classes and miss getting to read aloud. Its English title is "A Little Fable":

"Alas," said the mouse, "the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and at it up.

For me, a signal function in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny ... [and] to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication theorists sometimes call "exformation," which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It's not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as "a hatchet with which we chop at frozen seas inside us." Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great stories is often called "compression" - for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure's increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released.'

David Foster Wallace (from Laughing With Kafka, a speech)