The Longest Night

I was going to write a post on the night of the Winter Solstice with this title, but that night I was still grading papers, and I did not have the – focus, I think. I’m still not sure I have it now.

What I want to write about is two thoughts I’ve had lately, one about darkness, one about writing.

Here is the first thought.

I think that when the caterpillar is spinning its cocoon, it thinks it’s dying. It’s going into the darkness, into a claustrophobic darkness in which it will transform, but how do we know that it, the caterpillar itself, knows that? I think it doesn’t, that it goes into the darkness not knowing. And it’s scared. Because it’s always scary to go into the darkness, particularly the way the caterpillar goes into it: alone.

So it thinks, I’m dying. This is what dying feels like. Nevertheless, it spins its cocoon because every cell of that caterpillar is programmed to spin that cocoon, and it knows in the depths of its being, in whatever constitutes the depths of being for a caterpillar, that to spin that cocoon is its destiny, and it can’t be avoided. So it spins.

Yes, this is a metaphor. Of course it’s a metaphor. Aren’t caterpillars and butterflies always metaphors, except when we pick the caterpillar off our roses or try to attract the butterfly with bottles of nectar? Which, if you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. We want the butterfly without the caterpillar.

But the caterpillar is the longest life stage for most butterflies. They spend most of their lives as caterpillars. (If you want butterflies, you have to accept caterpillars on the roses. That’s a fairly simple metaphor.) The caterpillar lives an ordinary life, the life most of us live most of the time. It eats, it grows, sometimes it becomes food for birds. (If you don’t think we’re all going to become food for birds, you’re kidding yourself. That’s another metaphor, still fairly simple.) The butterfly lives an extraordinary life. It flies, sometimes for thousands of miles, it reproduces. That really is the purpose of a butterfly: it is the reproductive form of the caterpillar.

This is another metaphor, the third and last, and I think the most complicated. There’s a reason the butterfly has often been used as a symbol for the soul. It is that in us which reproduces, but I don’t mean physically. I mean mentally, spiritually. The butterfly is a metaphor for that in us which produces art. It is the artist. (I know, you could see that one coming.) I identify production with reproduction because what the artist produces is always drawn out of the self. It is an image of the self that is nevertheless different from the self, as the egg is different from the butterfly.

So the caterpillar going into the darkness, drawing filaments out of itself, wrapping them around itself, does not know what it’s doing. It does what its instincts tell it to do. And when it goes into the darkness, it thinks, this is what dying feels like. And it does die, because transformation is a kind of death. The caterpillar that was is no longer going to exist. What comes out is the butterfly, which we think is so beautiful, which we watch through our binoculars as it flies thousands of miles to Mexico or Brazil, telling each other how lovely, look at them!

And we do not think about the darkness that butterfly came out of. How it, on its journey, thinks: I died. I am born again. And with the sun on its wings, it almost, but not quite, forgets the pain and terror of death.

Here is the second thought.

There are two types of writers. (This statement is as simplistic as any statement that attempts to systematize the world. Bear with me.)

The first type, I will call the School of Eliot. These are writers who write about what happens in the world, about the human beings in it, what they do, how they think. Middlemarch is the epitomic (yes, I made up that word) School of Eliot novel. I walked though a bookstore today, and most of the books I saw were of that school. They were about human beings living their lives, loving, failing to love, becoming sick or well. Struggling to understand parents or children. Traveling to India for enlightenment. That sort of thing.

The second type, I will call the School of Kafka. These are writers who write about something different, not what happens in the world but that world itself as it is constituted, its structure. Not about a human being attempting to become a better mother, daughter, proprietor of a cupcake shop. About what it means to be a human being in the first place, how we define the human, how we define being. It’s as though, rather than writing about the physical world, they are writing metaphysics.

I think you can see this distinction even in genre fiction. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs belongs to the School of Eliot. He is concerned entirely with the physical world. Tertius Lydgate struggling to establish a medical practice that allows him to do research, John Carter struggling to defeat the Tharks so he can rescue Dejah Thoris. It’s all about how to live in the world as it is, as a given. On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft belongs to the School of Kafka. Gregor Samsa lives in a Lovecraftian universe that operates by rules he does not understand. The novel asks us to consider, what are the rules of the world anyway?

As I said, this is of course an oversimplification, but it is what I was thinking today, walking through the bookstore. And I was thinking that there were many more writers of the School of Eliot than of the School of Kafka. One would think the School of Eliot would be more comforting. After all, it tells us that the world we live in is real, a given, something that should not be questioned. We don’t need to worry about turning into an insect or being destroyed by an Elder God. (Unless, that is, the novel explicitly tells us those things are possible, but then there are usually ways to avoid or counteract such fates.)

But when I’ve done into the darkness, and I’ve thought, maybe this is what death feels like, I’ve always chosen the School of Kafka to comfort me. Today I came home with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Difficult Loves, and Mr. Palomar. That is not a metaphor, and therefore I have no idea what it means.

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11 Responses to The Longest Night

  1. John Stevens says:

    I think that your distinction makes a lot of sense, and is precisely why I am suspicious of the School of Eliot, even though I enjoy some of its works. A lot of it seems, and I don’t mean this in a crude way, like masturbation, like self-gratification through a basic form of stimulation. It can be enjoyable, but often fleeting. Sometimes it is an urge that you feel the need to fulfill. But it tries to reflect life, which I think loses some of the power of literature. The School of Kafka is conscious of the mirror that literature is, and does not strive for a realism that wishes to erase either the artifice or the challenge of it.

    Sure, this is simplistic, but it seems like a great starting point for a conversation and reflection on literature.

  2. rushmc says:

    >>And I was thinking that there were many more writers of the School of Eliot than of the School of Kafka.

    Yes, but also many more Kafkas writing today than ever before in history. Which is, I think, a good thing. (On the other hand, many more Eliots than ever before, too. But I’ll bet the percentage has shifted significantly, especially over the past 25 years.)

  3. I wonder if there really are more Kafkas now than before? Who would you put into that category? Because when I walk through the bookstore, the vast majority of books are Eliots, books that are perfectly comfortable with the reality we live in. I mean, all of chicklit is Eliotish. Most epic fantasy is too.

  4. rushmc says:

    Well, part of it is that there were very FEW Kafkas writing in the past (though there were always some, I think: see Shakespeare and Cervantes), with much commercial success, anyway. So even a relatively small percentage today would be a comparatively large number.

    But I think it goes well beyond this and that there is actually a large-ish subset of writers in the Kafka group as you define it. (There are so many writers working today that perhaps ALL subsets are “large-ish.” I know I frequently feel overwhelmed, whereas in my teens I felt pretty on top of most science fiction and fantasy.) You can go back and look at Flatland and the utopia novels of the early 20th century, which left an imprint of a certain kind of thought-experiment which still runs through (some) modern literature. It became significant in science fiction, perhaps, with the new wave writers in the 60s (the Ellisons, Ballards, Dicks, et al). Then there were the magical realists (Borges, Garcia-Marquez, Calvino, and all those who followed), who I would suggest continued a tradition long established in certain ancient strands of fantasy concerned with the structure of the world (perhaps not always exclusively, but blended with concerns about human behavior and reinforcing the social structure).

    Fantasy, by its very nature, tends to be a somewhat reactionary and backward-looking genre (though there are writers who will cleverly play with these mythic tropes), but I think some sf writers are tremendously concerned with defining what it is to be human, both in our world and in a future (possibly post-Singularity?) world where all the rules have changed.

    And the Hesses and Nabokovs and Kunderas have influenced a lot of current writers within the so-called mainstream (as have the Vonneguts, Hellers, and Houellebecqs). One of the biggest things I’ve seen in the past couple of decades is a merging between “li-fi” and “sci-fi” attitudes and approaches, in the genre-straddling work of such writers as Lethem, Richard Powers, Chabon, Shteyngart, etc. And there are the meta-narratives of the postmodernists (influenced by the Pynchons, Delillos, and DFWs). I also think many have been influenced by recent discoveries in cognitive science, for example, which question many old assumptions about ourselves, and by the general social and political chaos of early-21st century life.

    Any specific example can probably be quibbled with, but there are scores more, many of them lesser-known, and the trend has seemed pretty clear to me for some time. Certainly, this sort of work will always be outnumbered by simple, narrative, mimetic stories that work within the established and traditional parameters of fiction (ranging from commercial hackwork to works by Nobel laureates and Hugo winners), but I think the readership has grown substantially for the more challenging and thoughtful Kafka-type examination of what we are, and I think many writers have responded to that demand.

  5. John Stevens says:

    I think that there may be more visible Kafkas, but I’m not sure their numbers have increased substantially. Most large bookstores are indeed bastions of Eliot, because most readers, honestly, are also comfortable (if imperfectly) with the reality we have, and are less interested in the challenges that Kafkas may represent. I work for a used bookstore in a college town, so I find that we sell a lot more Kafka and strive to stock such work to appeal to a very particular patron base. But while I think the college experience exposes more people to Kafkas, I am not sure that this has led to much more popularity for them, just a little more visibility.

  6. John Stevens says:

    I think fantasy looks in all directions, actually, although often using the past (often heavily imagined) as a starting point. My sense of it is that many Kafkas dip into the fantastic at some point, whether to mess with perspective or to create an altered vibrancy in their narrative. Breaking out the realist mode is itself a sort of fantastical action that removes our perspective from a comfortable, normative frame. I think that there are pockets of increased readership (like the one that I dwell in, which is part of the reason I live where I do), but I find those to be enclaves rather than some across-the-board shift in literary tastes.

  7. rushmc says:

    Well, perhaps it’s a question of different experience, but that doesn’t mesh with mine at all. There are always going to be people who refuse to venture out of their comfort zones (whether that happens to be chick lit or Updike & Roth or Clancy & Grisham or Patterson & Dan Brown or military sf), but it seems to me that that kind of monovision is no longer as representative of the average reader as it once was. I think even the Harry Potter/vampire/steampunk fads wouldn’t have ever been possible in the past (certainly not to the same degree). Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it definitely seems to me that the mundane mind has been cracked open and is willing to accept a lot more than it would before, and again, I attribute that largely to the “living in the future” nature of our lives today. I think to some degree, all (relevant) fiction is increasingly becoming “speculative fiction.”

    Of course, it is important to keep things in perspective and remember that only a tiny minority of people read any fiction at all.

  8. “Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it definitely seems to me that the mundane mind has been cracked open and is willing to accept a lot more than it would before, and again, I attribute that largely to the ‘living in the future’ nature of our lives today. I think to some degree, all (relevant) fiction is increasingly becoming ‘speculative fiction.'”

    I do find this to be true of my students, but then they tend to be self-selected, since I teach fantasy literature. I think this would be a fascinating discussion for a Readercon panel. (Hey, Readercon folks, are you listening?)

  9. John Stevens says:

    I agree that there is less “monovision,” that there is a lot more proliferation of tastes in literature specifically and media in general, but I’m still not sold on a large qualitative shift. This also comes from my selling experience, where some of the people seeking out Kafkas are doing it for school assignments or based on recommendations, and the next time they come in they avoid those works or, worse, occasionally return the book. As you noted, the reader base in America is not that large, and the vast bulk of it is still given over to reading at the Eliot end of the spectrum. I think that there has been some loosening, some relaxation in literature that nudges tastes and writing a little closer to the Kafka end, but I do not see that having a profound effect on the larger readership.

    As Theodora pointed out, and as I saw when I taught at university, students do self-select in these matters. And when they have to engage this literature due to requirements, they only grudgingly pick up Kafkas and rarely seem enlightened in any sense by them. That said, I think that the trend you speak of, where literature seems increasingly more “speculative,” is out there, but often gets sanitized and counter-subverted as influence in many works (and this is a BIG generalization that is more of a hypothesis than conclusion). I think it might have some positive, potentially mind-cracking effects, but also gets used for escapism.

    It’s a fascinating question, and I agree with Theodora that this would be a grand idea for a Readercon panel or some other sort of discussion. Coincidentally, some of the issues around this question came up on Jeff VanderMeer’s Facebook wall this morning, and there’s been a good (if of course brief) conversation about issues of realism, escapism, and “pop-cultural laziness” and just what the state of speculative literature is as this literary seepage expands, particularly in short fiction.

  10. rushmc says:

    >>students do self-select in these matters.

    As do all readers!

    Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I do think the trend is real and observable. And not just in reading habits, but in other types of media (movies, tv, gaming). And I think each feeds into the other. Some of the things that are successful today would have been met with bafflement by almost everyone 30-40 years ago.

  11. “Some of the things that are successful today would have been met with bafflement by almost everyone 30-40 years ago.”

    I do think you’re right about this. It’s as though we’ve all become more self-aware, somehow. Or at least more aware of how, and the extent to which, our world and our identities are constructed.

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