“The Trial” is a Franz Kafka picture of hell; i.e. a totalitarian nightmare, ruled by bureaucracy and controlled through human despair. “The Trial” is a book to listen to because it mesmerizes when narrated by an artist but numbs when read by an undisciplined mind.
Imagine arbitrary arrests, undefined accusations, and undisclosed trials; i.e. trials operating in obscurity that secretly sentence the accused to mental purgatory or death; add shadows of human beings, dark rooms of judgment, stifling closeness, and oppressive anxiety. This is Kafka’s world in “The Trial”.
There is no lightness in Kafka’s tale; no human redemption. The main character, Ka (in this version of the book), is the only person that seems to seek self-understanding.
All other characters are “other directed”, trying to be what someone else expects them to be by playing whatever role they need to play to survive.
Kafka imagines a country of directionless people, subsumed in a bureaucracy that feeds on itself.
This is a country of directionless people, subsumed in a bureaucracy that feeds on itself. Citizens of this country are either a part of the bureaucracy or they are controlled by its administration.
Control is exercised by creating fear and anxiety. This characterization reminds one of Donald Trump and his current attempt to overthrow over 200 years of American government history.
Trump’s tacit support by the Republican party is a crime against democracy. Patriotic Republicans are diminished by Trump’s abhorrent behavior.
Should Trump be impeached a second time? It’s complicated. On the one hand, incitement by Trump on January 6th is obvious to most Democrats. On the other, Republicans now represent 70,000,000 Americans who think Trump is good for America.
There is no societal objective; there is only bureaucracy’s perpetuation. Lawyers, bankers, judges, business moguls, landlords, artists, servers and assistants of this society, though rarely singled out for terror or torture, are consumed with anxiety from an ever-present threat of arrest. The working public enriches itself by taking bribes to subvert bureaucratic action. The working public’s subversion is not destruction of the bureaucracy but a tacit acceptance of its hegemony.
Ka attempts to break the cycle of bureaucracy’s self-perpetuation. His attempt fails.
The redeeming quality of Kafka’s story is the human desire for freedom that is not extinguished even in the darkest times of a country’s repression. Against all obstacles, Ka insists on freedom. In Ka’s case freedom means death just as it did for many who died in Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka.
Kafka’s hell exists in today’s world just as it did when it was published in 1925.
What value does a 14th century book have for a 21st century person?
“The Canterbury Tales” is a rhyming entertainment (except for Christian preaching at the tales end) that recalls romantic heartaches, heartbreaks, and belief in divine justice that is as present today as yesterday. The unchanging nature of men’s lust for women and women’s superiority is comically and tragically told and repeated in Chaucer’s travelers’ tales. Though women play a primary focus in “The Canterbury Tales”, belief in Christianity and its power to heal and destroy is a paramount subject.
In the Knight’s tale, two brothers lust for the same woman. They plan to fight each other to the death but are interrupted by the King. The woman wishes to retain her maidenhood and appeals to her deity to insure continued chastity. The two brothers and the woman have different agendas with each agenda appealed to a different god. The tale progresses with the three appellant deities determining the brothers and woman’s fates. It is an ironic pagan tale of Chaucer’s disbelief in many gods rather than the One.
In Chaucer’s tales, men are shown to be the weaker and dumber sex. Old rich men marry young beautiful women and become cuckolds. Powerful and rich young men choose poor and beautiful women to be their wives and treat them horribly to test their love and loyalty. Male insecurity and desire drive men to make foolish decisions about whom they should marry and how they might measure their worth through earth-bound pleasure. Men foolishly seek revenge at any cost while women seek justice through diplomacy and prudence.
The incredible power of religion in Chaucer’s time is illustrated in the Nun’s tale of a chaste bride that convinces her betrothed to forgo conjugal relations for the sake of eternal life in heaven.
The husband asks for proof of an angel that visits his wife and, if he can see the angel, he agrees to forever forego sex with her. She refers her husband to the Pope.
The Pope convinces the husband to become a Christian; he returns home and sees the angel and agrees to his wife’s demand. The husband then convinces his brother to meet with the Pope and the brother also becomes a Christian. Her husband and his brother are executed because they refuse to obey their Overlord when he insists that they sacrifice to pagan idols.
After the brothers’ execution, the Overload summons the wife. The chaste wife is sentenced to be burned in her house because she also refuses to sacrifice to her Overlord’s deities. The fire fails to kill the wife so the ruler has an executioner sent to cut-off her head. The executioner strikes her neck with an ax three times but is unable to remove her head; a fourth strike is not allowed and she continues to preach her beliefs.
Neither mammon nor the Pope seem the equal of this wife.
Prejudice comes through Chaucer’s strong Christian beliefs; i.e. “The Canterbury Tales” endorses Christianity as the salvation of mankind with vilification of Jews which is presumably justified by Christian’ belief in Jewish betrayal of Christ.
It is perplexing to think that much of what Chaucer says about Christian believers remains true today but Chaucer’s understanding of women’s superiority to men in the 14th century seems quite enlightened in the 21st.
Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte Narrated by Lucy Scott
“Jane Eyre” replays the tautology of “life is not fair; i.e., it just is”.
Charlotte Bronte’s story comes alive with the voice of Lucy Scott. Lucy Scott becomes Jane Eyre in this audio book presentation.
The author, Charlotte Bronte, captures life’s joy and hardship. The story emphasizes the importance of having an inner moral compass to guide one to choose between right and wrong. By making right choices, fulfillment comes from working through good and bad things in life.
Jane is an orphaned girl raised by an uncaring Aunt that feels burdened by her filial obligation. The orphaned girl directly confronts her Aunt’s resentment. To escape further confrontation and embarrassment, the Aunt boards Jane Eyre in an indigent’s school.
Jane Eyre is formally educated. She becomes a teacher at the school. Later, she is hired by a wealthy landowner to tutor a young girl that is alleged to be the landowner’s illegitimate daughter. The wealthy landowner is revealed as a man with too many secrets. Jane Eyre, driven by her inner compass, flees to endure new hardship and temptation.
At the end, Jane Eyre returns to marry the wealthy landowner. She finds him blind, chastened, and older, but still in love with the Jane Eyre he had hired as his daughter’s tutor.
One might surmise a future hardship that remains to be revealed; i.e. when Eyre’s husband is ravaged by the inevitable infirmities of old age, Jane will be in the bloom and health of life. Considering the tenor of the story, Jane will deal with her husband’s infirmities and grow into her new role as caregiver with the strength of her convictions.
An ever-present refrain in “Jane Eyre” is that all life decisions and actions have consequences. The many themes that run through Charlotte Bronte’s book are what make it a classic. Every listener will identify with some part of Charlotte Bronte’s story.
Audiobook’s version of “Jane Eyre” is a tribute to Charlotte Bronte’s story telling skill.
The review of these books is combined because they are disturbing classics about the nature of man and society. They are alike in regard to their genius but their stories are difficult to write in one review; let alone two.
“Native Son” was published in the 1940s and “Lolita” in the 1950s but either could have been written earlier or later because their stories are not of the past but of today and tomorrow.
RICHARD WRIGHT (AMERICAN/FRENCH WRITER,1908-1960 WROTE-NATIVE SON)
By Vladimir Nabokov
Story lines have many origins but Wright and Nabokov have tapped into some of the darkest parts of human nature with themes of mayhem, murder, misogyny, and misanthropy. They created characters that reflect human nature; inherent in mankind and affected (or infected) by society.
The main character in Native Son is Bigger Thomas, an impoverished, unemployed, African-American, 20-year-old living in a 1930’s Chicago ghetto. He lives with his mother, sister, and brother in a rat infested one room tenement, owned by a wealthy family that is about to offer him a job.
Bigger Thomas considers himself rich if he has 50 cents in his pocket. However, he does not want to work for a living because he sees it as a dead-end street, controlled by rich white people who will never let him follow any road beyond a limit set by white America. Bigger Thomas’s understanding is shaped by 20 years of living in substandard housing, ghettoized isolation from white society, and an education that did not go beyond the 8th Grade.
Thomas is given an opportunity to work for the owner of the tenement in which he lives. The offer is $35 per week ($10 more than average) to be a chauffeur for the family. Bigger takes the job but on the same night of the day he is hired, he murders his new employer’s daughter. It shocks the listener because the listener’s anticipation is that Bigger Thomas is on his way to breaking the cycle of poverty and becoming a part of the American Dream. But no, he chooses to kill his employer’s daughter.
The shock of the murder is so overwhelming that there is an inclination to stop listening. The shock becomes a Richter scale earthquake when Bigger rapes, bludgeons, and throws his black girl friend down an elevator shaft (while still alive) because she can finger him for the crime. Bigger Thomas is a rapist and a double murderer. What redemption can there be? What is Wright’s point?
WATTS RIOTS 8.11 TO 8.16 IN 1965. MARQUETTE FRYE, AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN MOTORIST ON PAROLE FOR ROBBERY IS PULLED OVER FOR RECKLESS DRIVING. THE RIOTS RESULT IN 34 DEATHS AND 40 MILLION DOLLARS IN ESTIMATED DAMAGES.) The credibility of Wright’s observation is visited in America’s future (25 years later) by the Watts’ riots of 1965, and the 2020 George Floyd Murder by Derek Chauvin.
The answer is difficult and not entirely comprehensible to a privileged majority. But Wright’s story explains that a person who lives a minorities’ life creates an environment that breeds anger, frustration, and violent action; i.e. violent action that can be directed at an ignorant majority, or anyone who threatens one’s inner-directed life.
Bigger Thomas is convicted and sentenced to death. Thomas is defended by a technically persuasive lawyer but prosecuted by a rebel rousing, emotionally righteous, prosecuting attorney who inflames public fear and anger. The prosecutor ignites public condemnation, and effectively dictates a judge’s decision.
Native Son is mostly written and spoken in one and two-syllable words (the only exception is Bigger Thomas’ intellectualized legal defense). Thomas’s defender pricks a listener’s conscious. One begins to feel some sympathy for this terrible criminal.
Peter Francis James’ bass voice brings Richard Wright’s characters to life, but this is not a story to listen to for pleasure. It is a story that improves understanding of discrimination, isolation, and poverty (social ills still evident in the world) and their unintended consequences.
VLADMIR NABOKOV (RUSSIAN AUTHOR, 1899-1977, WROTE LOLITA)
An equally reprehensible story is told in Nabokov’s book, Lolita. Lolita burns in your mind like Native Son, with a kindred repulsiveness. Lolita sears your conscience because it speaks like an apology for pedophilia.
Jeremy Irons’ spoken interpretation of Lolita is breath-taking. His voice captures the licentious nature of the main character, Humbert Humbert. He reads Nabokov’s lines with a beautiful alliteration that reveals the poetry in Nabokov’s prose.
The subject is inherently repulsive. The rationalizations of a confessed pedophile who admits his guilt, is difficult, if not impossible, to understand. As with Bigger Thomas’ murder of two women, Humbert Humbert’s seduction of a 12-year-old girl makes the listener want to quit listening. Iron’s skillful narration seductively draws the listener into an intimate appreciation of Nabokov’s prose. But, it’s a life of a truly despicable and tragic human being.
There is no justification for pedophilia though Humbert Humbert makes his plea. Humbert’s observation that pedophilia has been present since time began is not a plausible justification for its continuation. The argument that some psychological trauma in one’s youth takes control of one’s libido is “psycho-babble”. The argument that some 12 year olds are what Humbert Humbert classifies as “nymphet’s” is in the mind of a sick person.
Humbert’s unbalanced mind projects an ignorance of the difference between a child and an adult. The argument that Humbert Humbert truly loved Lolita, even after she is 31 years old, and married to a person of her own age, is preposterous. Based on the character’s own explanation of his child fixation, Humbert’s characterization of love is despicable.
So, what is the point of the book? The best face is that Nabokov reveals the depth of a pedophile’s sickness, some of its causes and consequences, and the utter futility of psychological examination; the worst face is that Nabokov justifies pedophilia based on human nature. For my own conscience, and for respect to a literary genius, I pick the first rather than the second reason for Nabokov’s decision to write this book.
The story is enlightening as well as repulsive. It tells the story of the length that a pedophile will go to satisfy an abhorrent sexual desire. It suggests that a psychiatric examination of an intelligent psychopath is a waste of time. It gives a face to pedophilia and evidence of how it permeates human culture, from advertising, to magazines, to movies. And, it shows, with a character like “Q” (a movie producer), how salacious and jaded a human being can become.
Both of these books are brilliantly written. Native Son is a masterpiece of simple and direct prose that is a literary lesson for aspiring writers. Richard Wright is an efficient user of words to tell a story with brutal clarity.
Both are horrific stories of human nature. Listening to them is enlightening but only our future will demonstrate whether enlightenment leads to improvement in human nature or a repeat of the bestiality we have shown so many times during, before and after the 20th century.
Go Tell It on the Mountain because God is not there. Go Tell It on the Mountain because no one listens. Go Tell It on the Mountain because no one cares. James Baldwin rages against culture that makes one, what one is not. Baldwin wins fame from a book that defines the chains of discrimination. He explains why and how culture is a curse. Baldwin tells a story that explains why being different denies equal opportunity.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is partly auto biographical. It tells of the author’s remembrance of his childhood and formative years. In broad perspective, Go Tell It on the Mountain shows how Americans are born as equals but deprived of potential by culture. Though published in 1953, the truth of Baldwin’s observations about culture is institutionalized in America.
Baldwin writes a story about three economic opportunities for early 20th century black Americans. They are announced by Baldwin as robber, pimp, or preacher. Today, some believe blacks are still not suited for more.
Baldwin’s story is about two fathers of the same boy. One is the natural father; the other is a stepfather. The birth father is characterized as naturally smart. He moves from the rural south to the urban north with a woman he does not marry. The father is arrested for being at a store when two black men rob it. Because the father is in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is sent to jail for trial. The father is accused but not convicted. He is so shaken by the experience; he slits his wrists and dies. What would this father have become if he had not been arrested and jailed? The innate skill of a human being may be a combination of genetics and environment but if one’s color says you can only be a robber, a pimp, a preacher, a sports star, or an entertainer; being smart is not enough. Only when human beings are treated as equal will stereotypes disappear.
The second father of the same boy, a stepfather, also gravitates from the rural south to the north but he is older and knows success as a preacher. He is not characterized as particularly smart but he believes in God and talks the talk of a good man who will rescue an unwed mother and her child from a life of despair. However, the stepfather is a martinet. He severely punishes his wife and children for what he considers sin or disrespect. The irony of the preacher’s abuse is that he is biblically as sinful as most human beings. (In retrospect, knowing that Baldwin is gay, one surmises how abusive a religious stepfather might be.)
What makes Baldwin’s book important is its reflection on a part of American culture that denies equal opportunity for all. A smart man kills himself because he is black and has experienced the hate and inequality of discrimination. A preacher beats his wife and sons because he believes he has a right, given by God, to assay sin and punish those who violate his limited understanding.
Being smart or being religious is not enough; particularly if you are a minority or a woman because cultures stultify individuality and restrict opportunity. Individuality and opportunity are hindered by poor education and biases that are eternally engendered (institutionalized) by discrimination. Blacks have shown they are more than criminals, preachers, sports stars, and entertainers. And women have shown they are more than child bearers and housewives but America continues to struggle with equal opportunity for all. Baldwin exemplifies America’s struggle in Go Tell It on the Mountain.
W. E. B. DU BOIS (1868-1963, AUTHOR, SOCIOLOGIST, HISTORIAN, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST, CO-FOUNDER OF NAACP)
Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism.
Editorial comment in the NYT Sunday edition 5/21/2020 by Roxane Gay.
“The Souls of Black Folk” describes a veil of discrimination that covers the face of white America. Published in 1903, it reflects on the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, America’s reconstruction failures after the civil war, and a veil that fell like an iron curtain between black and white America. It is a veil that distorts the truth of human equality.
W. E. B. Du Bois is a great American who finally abandoned his country late in life because he could no longer tolerate the capitalist consequence of social, political, and economic discrimination. He describes discrimination in “The Souls of Black Folk” as a veil, a fine gauzy material that hides the details of black Americans who have the same potential as white overlords. The details are political, social, and economic discrimination imposed by a majority on a minority. Du Bois identifies that minority as people of color; i.e. specifically black Americans.
THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SLAVERY (Slave owner that believed blacks are inherently less equal than whites.)
Du Bois is the first black American to receive a PhD from Harvard University. First he received a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, a storied black college; went to Harvard to receive a second bachelor’s degree, and on to a PhD. Du Bois studied black history and wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” to explain what it is like to be black in America. He began with the end of the civil war and carries it through 1903 when the book is published.
Du Bois studied black history and wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” to explain what it is like to be black in America.
Du Bois explains how black Americans are treated, how they feel about it, and how they react to it. In the clarity of his writing, Du Bois presumes readers will understand humans, of any color, are the same. Du Bois notes that black Americans are offered freedom without a way of making a living, without education, without any respect by fellow Americans. Though they were no longer slaves by law they remain slaves to potential employers who see them as less equal, and less capable. Du Bois notes blacks are denied the tools of education, opportunity for work at a living wage, and the right to participate in the politics of leadership.
Without money, power, or prestige blacks are left with deception as their only defense against oppression. “Shucking and jiving” became a pejorative description of black behavior without white’s understanding its necessity.
Without money, power, or prestige blacks are left with deception as their only defense against oppression.
Du Bois misunderstood the difference between Russian and Chinese revolutions and American capitalism. The future proved promises of communism were false. This does not change the truth of Du Bois’s realization that a white majority denies minorities with false promises of capitalist equality of opportunity.
It is little wonder that Du Bois wandered to the idealism of communism with its false promise of equality for all. White America gave Negroes little alternative. However, Du Bois misreads history. The revolution of 1917 may have started with a minority of people called Bolsheviks but they were a part of a white majority. They promised a future of plenty to an uneducated population who were members of a majority.
Du Bois clearly shows how black American education, employment, and political participation are subverted at every turn in American history. Du Bois chastises Booker T. Washington for being an apologist for white suppression. Du Bois sees that, though education is improving for black Americans, they are still denied equal opportunity for employment, and are failing to capitalize on the potential of political power. Nearing 90 years of age, Du Bois gives up on America. Ironically, this is in the 1960’s when the Black Panther’s movement is forming.
The inherent nature of man “to be greedy” makes fools of us all.
Du Bois is a great American because he understood how American capitalism undermines core political beliefs like equality of opportunity and the equality of all human beings. Du Bois understood the importance of education, equal economic opportunity, and political power.
Du Bois misunderstood that the drive for money, power, and prestige distorts pursuit of the “good” in all forms of government. Communism, socialism, and capitalism require a Hobson’s choice; i.e. “a choice of taking what is available or nothing at all”. Even for minorities, it seems capitalism offers the best hope because it attempts to regulate the worst parts of human nature.
“The Decameron” is a series of stories about the western world’s comic/tragic society. Compiled or written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, it recalls 100 stories told by seven women and three men over a period of ten days. “The Decameron” pictures humanity as directed by luck, avarice, and lust. Each story implies human relationship is determined by circumstance, and informed by nature. The circumstance is societal position. Nature is the exigency of the emotive moment.
Written during or after the spread of the Black Death (1346-53), “The Decameron” skewers belief that God determines one’s fate. The stories range from raucous to sedate, and sinful to salacious. Each story implies humans are like wood chips on an ocean. Humans float into and away from society’s harbor; toward and away from each other, driven by happenstance and nature. Men are often depicted as lustful beasts; women as lustful manipulators of chance and circumstance. Corruption of morals is as evident in the priesthood as in the lay public. In Boccaccio’s world, God may have created the universe but everything after the seventh day is driven by chance and nature.
All stories are of tradesmen, merchants, upper class men and women who have the luxury of exercising desires in life beyond the necessity of food to eat and shelter to protect. Women are generally shown to be weaker than men but clever and clandestine operatives. Women and men living above the level of abject poverty seem equally consumed by interest in love and lust. Considering the history of human misogyny, love and lust may have been women’s principle source of security. For men, love is riven with lust. Love, most often, seems a fleeting distraction to men.
Neither the church or the lay public are shown to be morally superior. The priesthood and upper-class laymen use the tools of wealth, power, and prestige to seduce women. In contrast women use guile and sexual favor to clandestinely acquire wealth, power, and prestige. The exception is the wealthy widow that has some control over the unforeseen consequence of chance.
The comic/tragic events of the stories offer a view of what it is like to live during the dark ages. Power, not surprisingly, lies in the hands of men but the fairer sex is shown capable of co-opting power with charm and cunning. Revenge seems equally distributed between the sexes but consequentially more severe for women than men.
There are some insights to history and society offered by “The Decameron”. A clever decision by a military strategist is to refashion bows and arrows with smaller slits than common. The result is that bow carriers on one side of a battle are unable to use arrows invented with smaller slit arrows. But, wide slit arrows could still be used by soldiers with small slit bows. This small bow and arrow innovation gave one side of the battle twice the ammunition of the opposition.
More interesting insights are the rise of a middle class in the dark ages, and the early recognition of organized religion’s corruption. God is still considered as all-powerful but organized religion is rife with the same sins of all human beings. Women may have been treated as second class citizens but they still found ways to compete in the drive for money, power, and prestige. Then and now, cuckolds and adulteresses share equal billing for shame and condemnation. However, the double standard for men that wander and women that survive, adultery is shown as appalling unequal then as it is now. Men are forgiven while women are brutalized (sometimes murdered) and left to deal with the consequences of childbirth and poverty.
Finally, there is the underlying theme of nature and happenstance that determine the course of life. There is belief in God but only as Creator. Humankind is on its own in stories of “The Decameron”. Buffering by nature pushes and pulls humankind with chance circumstances of the day. One household is decimated by the plague while next door neighbors are untouched. God seems to have washed His hands of what happens on earth. Plans of man are perceived as changed by nature’s unpredictability; not by God.
Though some may be entertained by this presentation of “The Decameron”, it is not to this critic’s taste. It is too long. It is delivered monotonously. It elicits little laughter. It ponderously consumes thirty hours of a listener’s time. However, as noted above, it offers a remarkable picture of life in an era of western world’ upheaval (the current of the black plague) and change (from God’s plan to the unpredictability of nature).