© Copyright 2015-2019, John Hessburg & The DICTION AERIE.™ All rights reserved.
Hey funseekers, need a hot tip for some sizzling (retro) summer reading? Here's a genuinely "wild 'n crazy guy," a writer who will daze 'n amaze you, if you can claw past page 10 of anything he wrote...
Literal Bohemian Franz Kafka (1883-1924) -- the pride and pity of Prague -- almost invented the genre of writer as tortured artiste, battling demons of delusion nearly all his days. And how many guys, looking back on this planet from the afterlife, can claim the Oxford English dictionary actually coined an adjective for “bleak dystopia” from their very surname?
Back in college I used to relish Kafka’s writing because (1) It terrified my midwestern German-Catholic parents; (2) Provided good grist for pickup lines at the campus coffee-shop; (3) And delved with dreadful depth into forbidden fruits of existentialism while never losing a heartbeat of fine art.
Then years after college I finally realized that Kafka’s true genius was so much more than that. Though he was doomed from the get-go, doomed by genes and inoperable daddy issues to crash and burn, Kafka was among the founding fathers of accessible existentialism. That pale gaunt wraith with the high cheek bones and the falcon’s glare believed with all his might that even in a dark and deranged world, where nobody seems to care, one can through sheer forces of will and choice create a fresh New World on the gray embers of the Old. Though he believed it, he never lived it, nor let much light shine in his work...
In one brain, one turbulent fevered brain, Kafka embodied a dynamic duo – for fun let’s call them Hans und Franz – heavy-lifting poster boys for disturbed creativity, joined at the hip. His Hans toyed with madness, milking it daily, even hourly, to extract brilliant energy and endless new ideas. Meanwhile his Franz persona bent madness into literary tools, such as manic focus and laserlike precision of details. Then he used those tools to release and refine some of the wildest writing of the early 20th Century.
Consider his absurdist novella “The Metamorphosis” and its most memorable character, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who suddenly awakens one morning to discover that – golly gee -- he’s morphed into a giant cockroach overnight. Fun and frolic ensue as Gregor tries to deal with friends and family. (Sorry, no spoilers here.) Kafka went on to write 3 novels, including the epics “The Trial” and “Amerika” plus more than 20 short stories or novellas.
Poor blighter, Kafka never had a medical chance to slip the surly bonds of his schizoid jailers. But here was his neatest trick… He was like Lewis and Clark together, two scruffy adventurers fused as one in a single fevered brain, maintaining the illusion of sanity to his topside neighbors, while spending most waking hours digging deep, exploring the margins of schizophrenic illusion and delusion. When he came up for air, few ever wrote more evocatively about the dark and the daylight, the labyrinth that is the human soul.
Psychologists say that little children in war zones, after they witness something vulgar or violent or vivid to the extreme, they never shake that memory, no matter how hard they try. It becomes forever etched into the synapses of their brain. So it must have been with little Franz. Something wicked and deep happened back in those formative years. I’ve always thought of Franz Kafka as some hapless clown prince who suffers the face-rouging indignity of stumbling across his royal parents copulating on the kitchen table, right at the instant they conceive their 2nd son, who soon grows up to usurp the prince and steal the crown. Only that second son was really him all along, the darker half of who Franz was from the very beginning.
There is literary power in bleakness, in dystopian shadows, but no readers can take a steady diet of that for long. Thus, Kafka is revered only by the quirky cognoscenti, and enjoys only a brief footnote in literary history – while such a thing as literature even lasts in this digital idiocracy our First World has transformed into – this huge ludicrous cockroach standing tall on its back legs, glued to a bathroom mirror, snorting and shivering, taking selfies every six seconds and Tweeting them to insect legions across the planet …
© Copyright 2015-2019, John Hessburg & The DICTION AERIE.™ All rights reserved.
I have a little story to share about the weird and wonderful Mr. Frank Zappa, that inimitable Mother of Invention and Iconoclasm, and the godfather of alt-indie jazz-pop fusion. Zappa, you will recall, released bizarre and ground-breaking albums such as Freak Out ('66), Lumpy Gravy ('67), Uncle Meat, Hot Rats ('69) and Burnt Weeny Sandwich ('70), among a myriad of others.
Back in Seattle in mid-June of '92, I had a dear friend in the hospital, bravely fighting prostate cancer, and his name was Howard Roberts. Had met Howard years earlier while writing a couple feature stories for Seattle publications. Howard was among the top jazz guitarists in the country, a revered genius for decades on the West Coast session scene -- who'd toured with the Stones, recorded with Elvis -- and he was a longtime friend of Mr. Zappa's.
That summer day, I'd helped wheel Howard out onto a patio outside the hospital, and he was hunched in his wheelchair, relishing the summer sunshine and chain-smoking (as usual) when his mobile phone rang... Remember the huge clunky pre-Seinfeld kind that looked like a military walkie-talkie?... Well Howard's caller was Frank Zappa, who said he'd phoned to cheer Howard up, and to share that he also was battling prostate cancer. I leaned over and whispered to Howard, "Want me to split, man?" And he just grinned, shook his head no and motioned for me to stay.
That old dinosaur phone had such a powerful inset speaker I could hear every word of the conversation; and it was epic. For half an hour Howard and Frank chattered on about gigs gone by, great old jams, and of course, those legendary SoCal after-parties that lingered on to the wee-est of wee hours. Inevitably, the two brilliant guitar players began talking about their shared illness and they wondered where it came from.
"I have some ideas," Frank said with a snickering sort of grunt, and Howard replied with his own half-laugh, "Yeah man!" Then Howard's voice got suddenly softer and he grabbed the phone tightly, leaning forward in his wheelchair. He was wearing dark aviator shades and the the afternoon breeze lifted his hair and his smoke together into wispy tangles. I could see his eyebrows wrinkle slightly behind the sunglasses.
"Hey Frank, if you had it to do over again, would you do anything differently?"
"I dunno, man," Frank Zappa said, "I dunno... well... maybe get more sleep." They both gave way to laughter, deep cathartic laughter and then Frank bade his buddy farewell. Howard clicked the big phone off and laid it in his lap. The air was getting chillier, the evening shadows longer and it was time... I wheeled Howard back up to his room.
My wonderful and gifted friend, Howard Mancel Roberts, died a couple weeks later at his home in a Seattle suburb; and Frank Zappa followed him into Axe Man Valhalla about 18 months later. Now, every time I'm burning the "midnight candle," churning away at the office until 3 am, or worse, those gravelly words of Frank Zappa filter back like some grinning ghost...
"Well...maybe get more sleep."
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