03 July 2013

"Fragments"

a doodle by Franz Kafka
Today is Franz Kafka's 130th birthday, as Google has reminded us, and it reminded me that one of the first and most obscure stories I published was largely about, or at least inspired by, Kafka. I'd been reading the diaries and the letters to Felice Bauer.  I'd dipped into the diaries before, reading around in random order, but had never read them very comprehensively, which is a considerably different experience. While the diaries were fascinating, if sometimes tedious, I loathed the Kafka that came through via the letters to Felice. How she put up with him is beyond me. (The relationship would become clearer when I read Reiner Stach's excellent Kafka: The Decisive Years, which has now been completed in English with the translation of Kafka: The Years of Insight, a book I've just recently begun reading.)

All this reading got me thinking about narcissistic heterosexuality, fragmentary identities, and, somehow or other, the relationship of patriarchy to imperialism. Also, Kafka's great story "A Report for an Academy".

And so I wrote a thing called "Fragments" (truly one of my most creative titles!) and it was published in 2005 in Rabid Transit: Menagerie edited by Christopher Barzak, Alan DeNiro, and Kristin Livdahl. At the risk of utterly defiling this auspicious day, here it is:



FRAGMENTS
by Matthew Cheney

A LETTER:

but when I say "love", I don't mean lust — it's not coming from plain, old, uncomplicated sexuality.  It's more tender than that.  Which is why it's confusing when it starts to be sexual. You attract me on many levels, and the sexual level is the least powerful.  And I think if you really stop and consider, it's probably the same for you with me.  You're in love with the idea of me, but you're not in love with the actuality, the real physical eating-drinking-pissing-shitting-fucking woman that I am.  I'm not what you really, truly want.
            I feel so cruel writing what I have, but I would feel more cruel if I let you continue trying to woo feelings from me that I simply cannot give.  I would give you my life, Pete, but I can't give you all of my heart.
            I hope that you won't give up on our friendship.  I hope that you won't decide it's all or nothing with me, because I care about you as much as I have ever cared about anyone.  I meant it when I said I have worked hard never to lie to you, and I don't think I have ever lied to you, but I don't want you to think all this doesn't hurt me, too. 
Ten years from now I hope we'll look back and laugh at all this silliness.
            Send me another story, would you?  I miss reading your stories.  I miss being your muse.
I miss you.

Love,
Felicia


A DIARY:

11 February.   
When I sit across from you like this, when I listen to you talk, I forget, always, that you are who you are, and only slowly, when I have pulled myself out of my own thoughts and back to reality, do I see who it is in front of me.

#

24 February. 
How many steps are there up to my room?  It is better that I don't know, because if I did, then I would be afraid of running out of air before I reached the last step.

Still I cannot get the words right.  The river has become a puddle in which all thoughts of the future sink into the mud.

I must continue work on the story and not think about things I cannot change.  It is better to live in dreams than to live

#

 

3 March. 
I told her that when the war ended I would take a leave of absence and we would have an apartment together, but that was a lie, because no war has ever been known to end.

#

9 March.
Blind, worm-like beasts crawl across a mossy landscape and dive into the soil. 

I dream of confinement, of a tiny cell similar to my own room, a place of sharp shadows and dank air, where I lie in chains, writhing, starving, chewing on my fingers and the flesh of my arms.

Her eyes, white and blank.

#

11 March.
A: May I ask you some questions?
B: Of course.
A: Have you always been truthful?
B: With no-one else have I worked so hard to suppress deliberate lies.
A: With no-one else?
B: There have been subterfuges, but hardly any lies.
A: Assuming it's possible for you to tell hardly any lies.
B: I want to deceive, but without deception.

#

31 March.  I should like to write a comedy, because I am too old now to play the part of the pretentious suffering artist.  That role is for adolescents, because they do it best.  I want to amuse someone, to be amusing.  And yet here I am, court jester long after court jesters have gone extinct.  The castle is a tourist attraction, the king a footnote on the tour.
            I met her when I could not write, and she brought me words.  Horrible words forged in fire, words that seared me.
            I should be more ashamed of it all, but the only shame I have is from the night I huddled on the floor, shuddering and moaning, and she held me, tried to coax me through it, helped me to bed and sat with me until I fell into the peace of sleep.  I never wanted her to take care of me.  I never wanted to be so weak.
            I merely wanted a muse.
            Now I wish I could write a story about nothing at all, a story that has no connection to the external world, a story completely held together by the inner force of its style.
            A muse within the words themselves.  That is the only way to freedom.

A STORY:

Editor's Note: Passages obscured by indecipherable handwriting and/or ink blots, as well as passages removed by order of the Office of the Minister of Culture &  Security, are indicated with bracketed asterisks [***].

THE FIRST MAN

            You, Honored Gentlemen, have kindly asked me to come here and deliver a report of my upbringing, my captivity, and my escape, as well as my adjustment to civilized life, now, eight years since I arrived at the docks of this city, sun-scarred and raving, little more than a husk of a human being, to be cared for by the many kindnesses of the citizens, to whom I owe my life and recovery.
            It is my pleasure to serve your request.
[***]
            The question I am asked most frequently, by news-writers and by students, is a simple and obvious one, one which has little to do with me: How is it that an island of women (that is, an island populated purely by female specimens of our species) survived for as long as it did — for, apparently, centuries?
            I do not have an answer that will please scientists, not being, myself, an omniscient observer on the island, and having been sequestered for the majority of my life there.  The women experienced pregnancy and birth in ways similar to those known here in this city, though the mechanics of it were different and, frankly, mysterious to me, for I was not privy to them, but the conclusion that satisfies me when I reflect on this question is a simple one: the women felt no need for men, and so therefore there was no need for men.  They succeeded at making their desire into a reality.  This, I believe, is singular and enviable.
            Where, then, did I come from?  Why, after what must have been centuries, did the women of the island finally produce a man?
            I could flatter myself by saying that they needed me, but my experience showed this to be untrue.  From my earliest days, I was shunned, I was shut away.  I grew up in a small cabin at the edge of the island, a room with few comforts, where I slept on a dirt floor and where the door was locked from the outside.  I was visited twice a day by old women who brought me bits of food and emptied my chamber pot while younger women stood guard at the door.
            Some people have asked me why I was not educated, or why I was not an object of study.  Why, for years, was I ignored?
            Of course, I cannot answer the question decisively, because the women seldom communicated with me in any way.  But I have my suspicions, which are that they were both frightened and ashamed by me, as well as repelled.  Yes, it might have been more rational for them to raise me well, to study my physiology and behaviors, because at the very least they must have wanted to know enough to prevent such a creature as I from ever occurring again.  [***] I have great respect for what the women of the island accomplished, and for the culture they created, but despite so much that was remarkable about them, the women were still human, still subject to human nature, and human nature is, I believe, fundamentally irrational. [***]
            I'm sorry.  You did not invite me here to philosophize.  You desire a factual account of my "adventures", as my experiences were described by one newspaper writer in what was, if I may be frank, a wholly embellished article.  I will now attempt to stick to the facts of my experience and leave the philosophizing to minds far more advanced than my own.
            [***]
            Daily life on the island, to the best of my knowledge, was repetitive and routine, with the women following assigned tasks, though these tasks changed by the season and by, it seemed, people's interests.  There was a tremendous sense of cooperation and a lack of conflict, though I knew none of the warmth and safety of cooperation because I had no-one with whom to cooperate.  I was an anomaly, with no possible way to be a part of the group as a whole.
            My own daily life also suffered a routine, but a far more monotonous routine than that of the women.  The majority of my life on the island was spent in that cabin, where my primary actions were to sleep, to eat, and to release my bowels.  Hence, as I suspect would be the case for any creature so confined, I relied not on external events for stimulus, but rather found solace, if that is the correct word, within my imagination.  It was an imagination in the truest sense, because every element of living needed to be imagined, by which I mean to say that I had few models from which to base my imaginings, and so my mind grew accustomed to flights of fancy that soared like an eagle who has flown so high as to be unable to see the Earth below him.
            I did not attach words to my imaginings, because my knowledge of language was rudimentary, my vocabulary hardly larger than that of an infant, robbed as I was of company and conversation from which to build a knowledge of words.  I imagined not things, but senses, sounds, ideas.  The work of my mind resembled the work of dreams, and like dreams, these daylight musings were ethereal and difficult to remember, even then.  I put no value on them, and yet there was a certain safety to be felt from them, and it is these waking dreams, these imagined senses, that I credit for having kept me from passing beyond the bounds of rational sanity.  A visitor skilled in the psychological arts would have, I am sure, classified me as insane had he the chance or ability to communicate with me, but though I resembled a madman, my later actions, and my current rebirth — I do not think the word is inappropriate — testify, I believe, to the fundamental grasp of reality within the core of my mind. 
[***]
I exited the cabin at the behest of the women who had come to deliver my meal and empty my chamber pot, and I stepped, filled with fright, out into the warm and blinding sun of the afternoon.  I had never been bathed in light before, and the experience was a paralyzing one.  I desperately desired to return to my cabin, but the women had closed the door, and I had no recourse but to lean against the wooden wall, sheltering my eyes with my arms, moaning and crying like a tortured animal.
            The sight of me so horrified the women outside that I was quickly shuttled back into the cabin, where I huddled on the floor, shuddering and moaning, until I fell into the peace of sleep.
            Each morning, though, the women would lead me from the cabin.  Day after day, my response was the same, but eventually my expectation of pain and fear declined, until the light no longer pierced me, but rather seemed pleasant, and the clean, humid air a nice change from the stultifying humours of the cabin.  The women relaxed around me, and I around them.  I became for them a kind of pet, and they taught me tricks: we played a game which I now understand to have been "hide and seek", though at the time the only way I had to think about it was as [***].  The women threw balls and I chased them or caught them, they taught me how to jump rope, and began to try to teach me some basic letters and numbers.  At certain moments, the group of us — for there was always a group, usually of three or four women plus myself — sat looking out at the sea, and these were the moments I cherished most, moments of silence and calm, the sea crashing quietly against the rocks below.
            I expect you are surprised to hear me speak of this, for earlier I said the women ignored me and refused either to study or educate me.  As you can see, I was not telling the full truth, but these moments of freedom lasted only for a few weeks, perhaps a month, and then the visits ceased, and so within the full scope of my life on the island, they were but a momentary reprieve, and I suffered tremendously in the time after the visits ceased.  For three days I went without being delivered food or having my chamber pot emptied, and where I was locked in the cabin, I had no recourse but to sit there, famished, breathing fetid air, wondering why I had been abandoned, what I had done to have the only pleasure I had ever known ripped from me.  My thought-dreams withered into sharp recriminations as I reviewed the history of my time with the women over and over again through my mind, trying to remember any sign of discontent or frustration in the women's faces.  As I thought about those faces — the only faces which had ever remained distinct in my memory, the faces of the only people I would confidently say I was, up till then, capable of recognizing upon their appearance — I experienced for the first time the heavy weight on the heart that is loneliness.
            Just as I was, I believe, beginning to become delusional from lack of food or drink, the door of my cabin opened and two old women entered with a large plate of vegetables, bread, and soup.  While I ate, they emptied my chamber pot and dusted around the cabin with a broom.  They took my plate when I had finished, and left me alone again, but I noticed a small, though important, change in the routine: after they closed the door to my cabin, they did not lock it.
            For a moment, I was paralyzed with shock, but then, recognizing the opportunity afforded me, I rushed to the door and opened it.
            Now I experienced the greatest freedom of my life so far: the freedom to come and go.  At first, because I was terrified the door had been left unlocked by mistake, I was afraid to go outside during the day, and when, that night, I finally did set my foot beyond the door, the rush of emotions overwhelmed me, and I quickly sought shelter within the familiar contours of my little cabin.
            The next day, too, the door was left unlocked.  And the next, and the next.  Clearly, this was not an accident.  [***]
            I began to spend more and more time outside the cabin.  I wandered to the shore, I lurked in the forest, I lay out on the grass in front of my cabin and basked in the sun.  I avoided the women for a while, sure that the sight of me would horrify them and cause them to punish me again, but after a few of the women stumbled upon me and offered no actual reaction at all, I decided to stop hiding myself from them, and I explored the entire island, wandering hither and yon, and even spent whole days among the women in the village.
            It was, though, as if I were invisible to them.
            I grew angry.  I wanted to be noticed, I wanted at least to have my existence acknowledged, but apparently this was impossible.  I was a phantom to them, nothing more than a movement of the air.
            At night, I was wracked by the most painful dreams.  I dreamed of blind, worm-like beasts that crawled across a mossy landscape and dived into the soil.  I dreamed of confinement, of a tiny cell similar to my own little cabin, a place of sharp shadows and dank air, where I lay in chains, writhing, starving, chewing on my fingers and the flesh of my arms.  I dreamed of women's eyes, white and blank, and of the ocean, its waves rolling backward away from the shore, and the shore itself oozing blood.
            It was at this time, I believe, that I conceived my plan.  I knew of the fishing boats the women had, and I watched through many days as the women paddled the boats out to sea, raised the sails, and cast their nets.  I did not know if I had the skill or strength to pilot such a boat, but as each day passed, my desire grew, until I could think of nothing but where one of those boats might carry me.
            I escaped at night.  There were no guards of the boats, no protection whatsoever from thieves, because the women had experienced only the most petty theft, and the idea that [***] to steal one of the fishing boats had, apparently, never entered their minds.
            I unfastened the boat from its moorings, and did my best to paddle toward the horizon, where a full moon sat low in the sky, so that it felt as if I were rowing toward that moon itself.
            Day rose and then night.  I had brought some water with me and a bit of food I had saved, but I had not planned for a long journey.  I had never been on the ocean before, and the rolling of the waves kept me from wanting to eat anything on the first day.  Later, though, I ate.  As my provisions dwindled, I tried to use the nets on the ship to catch fish, but I did not succeed.  Soon, I grew weak.  A storm nearly cast my little vessel into a thousand pieces — winds ripped through the sails like razor blades, the mast bent and splintered and then collapsed, and it was only by what I must define as the intercession of Providence that the storm stopped before I was plunged into the dark abyss of the sea.
            Providence was, indeed, with me, for just as my skin began to burn from the rays of the sun, just as my tongue was swelling with thirst, and just as my mind was ravaged with hallucinations, a naval ship, under the command of the most estimable and generous Admiral Joseph Krieg, discovered me and brought me safely to the shores of this great city, [***].
I arrived here half-starved, deprived of modern culture, a peaceful savage.  On my first journey down the streets, I peered fearfully through the curtains of the coach which carried me to Dr. Dommer's home, awed by the tall buildings, by the flurry of people, by the noise and stench of urban life.  What a distance I have travelled from that day!  Now, I, too, walk down [***]Street, wearing my frock coat and my tall hat, tapping the cobblestones with my walking stick, a man who, were a stranger to glance at him, would be perceived as just another dweller in the metropolis.  My accent is somewhat strange, I grant you, but countless admirers have told me that my command of your language — our language — is remarkable for someone who has known it for such a short time.  I can only credit hard work and insatiable desire for these accomplishments, as well as whatever natural gifts God has seen fit to bestow on me.  [***]
            I have often been asked about my adjustment to city life, and as I see my allotted time with you is quickly diminishing, I must be hasty in my portrait of my last few years, years in which I was given the most wonderful patronage, when I was brought to visit salons and courts of many types, when I was tutored by the most excellent tutors the world has known, and, with thanks to their fine work, I learned the proper language, I learned geography and history, science and mathematics.  I was a creature consumed with a hunger for knowledge about the new world I had entered, and just as I ate copious amounts of many types of food the moment it was offered to me after my rescue, I devoured all the information and experience I encountered, though I must say the gluttony of knowledge proved to be far easier on my digestion than was the gluttony of food.
            Can you imagine the wonder of learning about your world to someone who never dreamed — never could have dreamed — such a world existed?  The history of heroism, of wars and conquests, of scientific progress and the endless artistic quest for beauty.  The glories of currency and wealth, the power embodied in coins, which allow the possessor to be judged by nothing more than numbers, by prices and values.  I am still in awe of the King's castle, which I was once privileged to tour with the Prime Minister, a kind and intelligent man.  The castle is a remarkable edifice, a land of wonder and riches contained between walls of stone, and its effect was to make me worship our Sovereign even more than I had before, because anyone who inhabits such a building must have been touched by the hand of God himself.  [***]
            Some vociferous critics, all of them enemies of the government, and many of them enemies of the way of life we so value, have called on me to denounce the recent actions taken to secure our position relative to the island.  [***]  Let me close my remarks today by saying that I will not renounce the government's decisions regarding the place of my birth, and, moreover, that I fully support those actions, and encourage contact with the island, including military action.  Knowledge will not lead us astray.  To capture some of the women, to bring them back to our city and study how they have survived for so long, is a magnificent and humane goal, one that will do nothing but further our knowledge of the universe we inhabit.  [***]
            I stand as a model, gentlemen, of the civilizing power of our way of life, and I offer myself to you as a living, corporeal argument for spreading that way of life.  You need only compare the barbarity of my upbringing to the sophistication of my current existence to see that we have the full force of morality and history on our side.

            My apologies for drifting once again into polemic.  My time has come to an end, and I hope you will forgive me if I have not been able to satisfy your curiosity fully, or if my careless philosophizing caused you to lower your opinion of me.  I came here merely to report on my experiences of life so that those modest experiences might help spread human knowledge and compassion, and so it is as a humble reporter that I take my leave of you, gentlemen, and allow you to draw whatever conclusions you will.

No comments:

Post a Comment