December 23, 2003

1. Unconscious Communication (P-mail)

I recently asked my wife about a relative of hers, a relative whom we discuss only once or twice a year. Within 24 hours, that relative telephoned my wife, something she does only once or twice a year. When I asked my wife, “why did she call?” my wife said, “no reason, just to chat.” Was it just a coincidence that the phone call followed hard on the heels of the conversation? Surely it was more than a coincidence, surely some sort of unconscious communication, extra-sensory communication, had taken place. My wife and I laughed over the incident, having noticed such psychic phenomena on other occasions.

We recently celebrated a holiday, Thanksgiving, and several relatives stayed with us. Before the holiday, I had a hunch, a premonition, that there would be a quarrel, and I even saw dimly who would be involved in the quarrel. Sure enough, there was a quarrel. (Is it only my family that sometimes punctuates holidays with quarrels?)

A couple nights ago, when I started to make a fire, I asked myself whether I should open the damper (also called the “flue”). I decided no, I’ll wait until all the sticks and newspaper is in place, then open the damper. As soon as I made that decision, I had a premonition that I would forget to open the damper — I would light the fire, and smoke would come billowing into the living-room. I dismissed the premonition, stuck with my decision, became distracted by one thing or another — and three minutes later, smoke was billowing into the living-room.

About two weeks ago, my father went to the doctor; the doctor was evaluating a cancerous growth. Both my parents were confident that earlier treatments had eliminated the growth, and all was well. While they were at the doctor, however, a cloud passed over my mind, a premonition that something was amiss with my father. Within 30 minutes, the phone rang, and my mother told me, tearfully, that the cancerous growth was back.

“The hints we have,” said Emerson, “the dreams, the coincidences, do make each man stare once or twice in a lifetime.”1 Surely there are few people who have never noticed these mysterious coincidences and premonitions. Communication by extra-sensory means, by the power of the psyche, might be referred to as p-mail. Since p-mail is fast and free, who needs e-mail?

Psychic phenomena play an important role in literature, psychology, and other branches of the humanities. Therefore, it makes sense to become familiar with psychic phenomena, even if one doesn’t find them interesting, and even if one doesn’t believe in the reality of psychic phenomena. One of the many famous writers who had a deep interest in psychic phenomena was Balzac. I recently did an Internet search for “Balzac AND ‘psychic phenomena’”. I found a list of books that deal with psychic phenomena — the best such list I’ve seen. The list included one book by Balzac: Seraphita.

The list was Web-published by a Russian named Andrei, who tells me that “there’s a huge interest in paranormal matters in Russia and a lot of investigators.” Andrei is a disciple of Allan Kardec, who has disciples in many countries. I first heard about Kardec when a Brazilian Kardec society published a profile of me in their newsletter. Allan Kardec was a 19th-century thinker who was interested in parapsychology and religion; Kardec wrote a book called Christian Spiritism. A Phlit subscriber in Brazil, Paulo Cesar Fernandes, wrote the article on me, which appeared in May, 2001.

2. Emerson

Our book group is now reading Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson; it was recommended to me by Jim Fedor, a Phlit subscriber in Utah. Richardson’s biography is the product of exhaustive research, and it has won many prizes and critical laurels; it has a reputation as perhaps the best biography of Emerson. I’m somewhat disappointed, however, that it doesn’t bring us into Emerson’s daily life; while popular biographies are weighed down by a surfeit of anecdotes, this biography suffers from a paucity of anecdotes. If Emerson visits the White Mountains, for example, Richardson says “Emerson spent three days in the White Mountains,” rather than giving us anecdotes that would make the trip come alive, and make us feel what it was like to hike in the White Mountains in the 1820s. One might describe it as an intellectual biography, rather than a daily-life biography.

As a work of intellectual history, I don’t consider Richardson’s biography to be especially profound; it covers the subject adequately, not brilliantly. It doesn’t connect Emerson backward to the Hermetic Tradition, and it doesn’t connect him forward to modern psychology, and show the similarities between Emerson’s “Oversoul” and Jung’s collective unconscious.

But despite these reservations, I would still recommend the book to anyone interested in Emerson, and I think it probably is the best biography of Emerson. I enjoy reading it, and I learn from it. Feedback from the book group has been positive so far, and I’m grateful to Jim Fedor for recommending it. Perhaps there will never be a perfect biography of Emerson — one that covers his daily life and his intellectual life equally well.

Richardson tells us that Emerson was generally cool toward the subject of psychic phenomena. In a lecture on demonology, Emerson was “most concerned to warn against the invisible world.” Emerson said that “‘this obscure class of facts has great interest for some minds. They run eagerly into the twilight and cry “there’s more than is dreamed of in your philosophy.” All nature is rich,’ he concludes, but demon lore is ‘her least valuable and productive part.’”2 Emerson calls demonology “‘the shadow of theology’ ...he defends the subject, to a point, on the same grounds Goethe used to defend astrology, that it is an uninformed premonition of a greater order in nature than is now apparent.”3

I might note in passing that Emerson uses the term “shadow” just as Jung later used it; one can imagine Jung calling demonology “the shadow of theology.” It’s also noteworthy that Goethe defended astrology. Goethe’s Faust is concerned with alchemy; like Jung, Goethe seems to have been interested in all sorts of paranormal phenomena.

In earlier issues of Phlit, we’ve often discussed the shadow, the dark side of human nature. As I read Emerson: The Mind on Fire, I was struck by the chapter on Jones Very, which reminded me of Jung’s theory of the shadow. Jones Very was one of the many talented and eccentric people who presented themselves at Emerson’s door. While still young, Emerson had a wide reputation, and people tried to interest him in their causes, or their literary works. Jones Very was a star student at Harvard, and Emerson admired both his essays and his poems. Very “had read Emerson’s Nature, taking it as a literal testament.... Very learned to look for the God within.”4

Emerson had said that the poet and the prophet tap into the latent powers of the mind — what we would call the unconscious. According to Emerson, Jesus was a prophet because he trusted his own nature, he listened to the inner voice, he found God within. Moved by these ideas, Jones Very began to regard his own inner voice as divine; “he considered himself to be literally a vehicle for the Holy Ghost, to be the only such vehicle, and at the same time to be — personally — the second coming, the Messiah.... He felt it an honor to wash his face, being as it was the temple of the Spirit.”5 Like most people who think that they’re God, Very became insane, or partly insane. He managed to avoid total insanity, however, and when his rapture subsided, he lived out the remainder of his life quietly. The case of Jones Very shows where Emersonian ideas can lead, and where one can end up when one rejects traditional religion.6

Very once visited Emerson, and stayed for five days. He felt that Emerson needed to be enlightened, that Emerson “was prepared but not yet quite arrived at the Father’s mansion.”7 “On the fifth day of his stay with the Emersons this unusual guest declared it a ‘day of hate,’ a day when ‘he discerns the bad element in every person he meets.’” Perhaps Jung would say that we should recognize our own shadow, not just the shadow of every person we meet.

3. Etc.

A. Reading² When you read a quotation, you learn about the author and the quoter. Reading quotations is reading squared.

Wilde said that criticism (commentary on someone else’s writings) is the highest form of autobiography.

B. Zen says, “be aware of the present moment.” If I lose track of the date, and the day of the week, I know that I’m stressed, that my mind is over-full.

Zen advises us to do one thing at a time. Some people nowadays go in for “multi-tasking” — that is, doing more than one thing at a time. For example, they wash dishes while talking on the phone. Why? In order to save time, so they’ll have more time for watching TV, reading newspapers, etc.

Zen advises us to spend part of the day doing nothing, thinking nothing — just being. But people like to stay busy, perhaps because stimulation provides a rush of adrenalin, a kind of high.

C. Thoreau on Private Property One day, when Thoreau was walking with Emerson, they came to a fence. “I must not get over the fence?” asked Thoreau. “But to the building of that fence, I was no party. Suppose some great proprietor, before I was born, had bought up the whole globe. So had I been hustled out of nature.”8 This anecdote shows Thoreau’s rebellious, independent spirit, which often amused Emerson.

D. “Hiring Smiling Faces” reads a sign at McDonald’s, and doubtless many companies follow the same policy. What chance does a poor philosopher, who rarely smiles, have of landing a job?

4. The Art of Writing

I recently applied for a job as a writing teacher at Harvard. All Harvard freshmen are required to take a class called “Expos” (Expository Writing). I applied to be an Expos teacher; if I get the job, my title would be “preceptor.” It’s a non-tenured position; in fact, one might say that it’s the opposite of a tenured position, insofar as one is forced out after a maximum of five years. The Expos department looks for people with college-level teaching experience, which I don’t have, so it’s unlikely that I’ll get the job. Applicants are asked to write a letter describing how they would teach writing. I wrote as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I think the most important skill for an Expos student to learn is how to write a sentence. Paragraphs and essays can be constructed later; the first task is to construct a sentence. An Expos student should be taught to aim at simplicity and clarity. This is the best approach for a young writer, and it’s also a good “rule of thumb” for any writer of prose. An Expos student should be told, “if ten people read your work, all ten of them should be able to grasp your meaning, with as little effort as possible. Don’t leave anyone out! Don’t lose a single reader!”

One way to achieve simplicity and clarity is not to convey too much information in one sentence. Pretend you’re feeding a baby: you shouldn’t put too much food into one bite, but you also shouldn’t put too little food into one bite. Each sentence should be a medium-sized bite of information. A long, indigestible sentence should be divided into two sentences. On the other hand, a short sentence that doesn’t tell the reader much should be strengthened by adding a comma-and-clause, or a semi-colon-and-clause.

Give the Expos student ten bits of information, and ask him to build a paragraph from that information. Teach him to write clear, medium-sized sentences. Teach him to separate clauses with commas; the proper use of commas is perhaps the most important element in good prose. Then teach him the proper use of semi-colons: “if your idea is somewhat obscure, you should clarify it by re-stating it in different words. A semi-colon can be used to separate a thought from a re-statement of the same thought.”

Perhaps the best way to learn to write good prose is to read good prose. Show the Expos student examples of good prose, and let him analyze its merits, and perhaps imitate it in his own writing. Of course, you can also show the student examples of bad prose. Bad prose is often the result of vanity; the writer tries to impress the reader with his extensive vocabulary, with his mastery of technical jargon, etc. When a writer gets fancy, and tries to impress the reader, the result is bad prose; as mentioned above, the Expos student should be taught to aim at simplicity and clarity. Teach him that simplicity is not only a goal for freshmen, it’s also the goal of the best writers, the leading authorities on style. Anatole France, for example, said “[Maupassant] possesses the three great qualities of the French writer, first, clearness, then again, clearness, and lastly, clearness.” And Orwell said, “good prose is like a windowpane.”

5. Kafka

Kafka’s works certainly rank among the classics of modern fiction, yet one can’t call them “classics” without qualification. Most of Kafka’s novels are unfinished, perhaps because Kafka could find no way out of a hopeless dead-end, perhaps because Kafka thought they were unworthy of being finished. “My scribbling,” Kafka told an acquaintance, “[is] only my personal specter of horror... It is without meaning.”9 In his will, Kafka left instructions that most of his works be destroyed.

Kafka was born into Prague’s Jewish community. Prague was then inhabited by Czechs, Germans, and Jews. In his famous Letter to His Father, Kafka said, “You were capable... of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews... and finally nobody was left except yourself.” Kafka could sense that there was intense hostility toward the Jewish community: “[Men] will try to grind the synagogue to dust by destroying the Jews themselves.... Anti-semitism will also seize hold of the masses.” Kafka died before Hitler came to power, but his prophecies came true; his three sisters died in the Holocaust.

While Kafka’s historical circumstances influenced his work, his temperament probably influenced his work more. Kafka was afraid of life, and had a deep sense of guilt. Kafka’s father was a big, boisterous businessman who didn’t appreciate the delicate, conscientious intellectual who was his son. Kafka could never please his father, or be like his father, and he became filled with guilt: “From the many occasions on which I had, according to your clearly expressed opinion, deserved a whipping but was let off at the last moment by your grace, [I] accumulated a huge sense of guilt. On every side I was to blame, I was in your debt.”

Kafka had several affairs with women, and was even engaged to be married, but his diffidence, and his dedication to literature, prevented him from “taking the plunge.” He had trouble making a decision, and if he finally made one, he soon had doubts and second thoughts. “When it comes to indecision,” Kafka wrote, “now there is something I know all about; in fact, I know nothing else.”10 Kafka’s fear of life, his inability to let himself go, made it difficult for him to sleep, and he suffered from severe insomnia. He died of tuberculosis at age 41.

There are two worlds: the literary world, and the world that’s known as “the real world.” For Kafka, as for other writers, the literary world was more real than the “real world,” and he never felt at home in the “real world.” “Solely as a result of my literary bent,” Kafka wrote, “I am without interest in anything else, and heartless....11 My whole being is directed toward literature; I have followed this direction unswervingly until my thirtieth year, and the moment I abandon it I cease to live.”12 He told his fiancée, Felice, “you were unable to appreciate the immense power my work has over me.”13

Kafka’s passion for literature drew all his energy and talent away from the “real world”, and enabled him to create works that combine wild fantasy with vivid realism, works that have a beautiful simplicity of style, and an unsurpassed sense of humor. Kafka didn’t try to create memorable characters, or set forth philosophical arguments; he isn’t part of the classical tradition of Balzac and Tolstoy. He’s part of the anti-hero tradition, the tradition of humor and the surreal, the tradition of Gogol’s “Overcoat” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crocodile”.

Kafka loathed the decadent and the nihilistic; “Dada is — a crime... The spine of the soul has been broken. Faith has collapsed.”14 He liked literature that was positive and affirming. Among Kafka’s favorite writers were Strindberg and Chekhov; “Chekhov I love very much,” he once wrote, “sometimes quite madly.”15 Kafka’s favorite books were biographies and autobiographies.16

Kafka earned a law degree, and found a job in a government insurance company, part of the huge Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. Once a year, he wrote a long report for his boss. He treated this report as a literary work, and gave copies of it to his friends. Once, when his boss was addressing Kafka and a colleague, Kafka suddenly saw the literary potential of this scene, and started laughing.

Kafka had several friends in the Prague literary world, and he was able to publish some early stories. The first story that he was really proud of was “The Judgment”, which he wrote in one night, one sleepless night. Kafka wasn’t a craftsman who planned his writing in advance, and polished it afterwards; he wrote in moments of inspiration, he wrote automatically. He spoke of, “the time of inspiration, which I dread rather than long for.”17 On January 20, 1915, Kafka made the following entry in his diary: “The end of writing. When will it take me up again?”18

After completing “The Judgment,” Kafka attempted to write a novel. “Kafka is in ecstasy,” reported his friend Max Brod, “writes whole nights through. A novel set in America.”19 Of Kafka’s three novels, Amerika is the most realistic, the most like other novels, the least “Kafka-esque.” Kafka’s second novel, The Trial, is the most finished, and the most popular, of his novels. It was written when Kafka was struggling to marry, and leave his parents’ house — a struggle he ultimately lost. Who can forget the famous Cathedral scene?

What stillness there was now in the Cathedral! Yet K. had to violate it, for he was not minded to stay; if it were this priest’s duty to preach a sermon at a certain hour regardless of circumstances, let him do it, he could manage it without K.’s support, just as K.’s presence would certainly not contribute to its effectiveness. So he began slowly to move off, feeling his way along the pew on tiptoe until he was in the broad center aisle, where he advanced undisturbed except for the ringing noise that his lightest footstep made on the stone flags and the echoes that sounded from the vaulted roof faintly but continuously, in manifold and regular progression. K. felt a little forlorn as he advanced, a solitary figure between the rows of empty seats, perhaps with the priest’s eyes following him; and the size of the Cathedral struck him as bordering on the limit of what human beings could bear.... He had almost passed the last of the pews and was emerging into the open space between himself and the doorway when he heard the priest lifting up his voice. A resonant, well-trained voice. How it rolled through the expectant Cathedral! But it was no congregation the priest was addressing, the words were unambiguous and inescapable, he was calling out: “Joseph K.!”

Kafka’s last and longest novel, The Castle, was written in the shadow of death, and its snow-covered landscape contains no hint of green. Kafka didn’t finish this novel, and he didn’t want it to be published. Why did he write it? One suspects that he wrote it out of sheer love of literature, and out of a need to release what was on his mind. Although The Castle isn’t a cheerful work, the reader will enjoy Kafka’s prose, and he’ll be amused by Kafka’s wild fantasies.

Kafka’s best short stories are as good as his novels, but his short stories aren’t consistently high in quality, and therefore should be read selectively. I recommend “The Metamorphosis,” “Josephine the Singer,” “The Hunger Artist,” “A Report To An Academy,” and “The Burrow.” Like his stories, Kafka’s Eight Octavo Notebooks need to be edited; if edited, these notebooks could be an excellent book. Some of Kafka’s letters are also interesting; I recommend his letters to Felice and also a collection of his personal writings called “I Am A Memory Come Alive.” Those who want to read a psychological study of Kafka’s writings have numerous works to choose from.20 I recommend Brod’s biography of Kafka, and Janouch’s Conversations With Kafka.

6. Kafka and Zen

There’s a strong Zen flavor in some of Kafka’s aphorisms and reflections, and it’s expressed with Kafka’s usual eloquence and power. “You do not need to leave your room,” Kafka writes, “be quite still... the world will freely offer itself... it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”21 Zen recommends meditation, which is non-striving, non-thinking, non-action, negative action. Kafka says, “What is laid upon us is to accomplish the negative; the positive is already given.”22 You already have the positive; as Jesus would say, the kingdom of God is within you, or as Jung would say, the treasures of the unconscious are within you.

7. Iraq

The effects of the Iraq war are beginning to be felt in neighboring countries. Libya has decided to abandon its effort to acquire WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), and Iran is more forthcoming about allowing inspection of its nuclear program. American resolve in Iraq is having a positive effect not only in Iraq, but in the whole region. One effect of the Iraq war that’s difficult to measure is its effect on the American character; surely it’s good for the moral fiber of Americans to assume responsibility, to face danger, and to fight for a good cause.

But even if we ignore all these positive effects (the effect on Iraq, the effect on the region, and the effect on American character), the war in Iraq is still a noble attempt: we attempted to oust one of the worst tyrants in modern times, a man who emulated Stalin and studied his methods, a man who had trained his sons in sadistic practices, and prepared his sons to keep his torture chambers operating for decades to come, a man who had repeatedly started wars by invading neighboring countries, a man who didn’t rule a small nation, but rather a large and populous nation, a man who ran Iraq like a criminal enterprise, and robbed the National Bank before he fled Baghdad, a man who had a long-standing desire to acquire WMD, and who had vast wealth with which to fund his weapons programs, a man who had ties to international terrorists, including those who struck America on 9/11/01, a man who had violated numerous U.N. resolutions, a man who was an affront to the international community, to civilized humanity. Even if our attempt to oust such a ruler had been unsuccessful, even if our attempt to put together a better government in Iraq is unsuccessful, is it not a noble attempt, an attempt worth making? The fact that we acted in the face of international opposition makes it all the more praiseworthy. Likewise, the fact that we acted in the absence of a direct and immediate threat to our security makes it all the more praiseworthy. Future historians may point to the Iraq war and say, “this was their finest hour.”

© L. James Hammond 2003
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson, ch. 44, p. 268 back
2. ibid, ch. 52, p. 310 back
3. ibid back
4. ibid, ch. 50, p. 302 back
5. ibid, p. 303 back
6. “Listening to the inner voice” is an important concept in Quaker religion, and Emerson had a keen interest in the Quakers. I suspect that “listening to the inner voice” is closely related to what Jung would call “listening to the unconscious.” According to Jung, we receive advice from the unconscious in dreams. The founder of the Quaker religion, George Fox, said “there were speakings of God to man in dreams.”(Fox, Journal) Fox did not believe, however, that all dreams were “speakings of God.” back
7. ibid, p. 302 back
8. Emerson: The Mind on Fire, ch. 51, p. 309 back
9. Conversations With Kafka, by Gustav Janouch, p. 150 back
10. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, by Ernst Pawel, ch. 12 back
11. Franz Kafka, by Max Brod, ch. 3 back
12. I Am A Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings of Franz Kafka, “1913” (Schocken Books, New York, 1974) back
13. ibid, “1914” back
14. Conversations With Kafka, p. 165 back
15. Letters to Milena back
16. Franz Kafka, by Max Brod, ch. 4 back
17. Franz Kafka, by Max Brod, ch. 3 back
18. ibid, perhaps ch. 8, perhaps an appendix back
19. I quote from memory, being unable to find the source of this quotation. back
20. Kafka’s Prayer, by Paul Goodman, is a comprehensive study of the man and the work; Kafka’s Prayer is penetrating but obscure. Among the shorter works on the subject are Lesser’s “The Source of Guilt and the Sense of Guilt — Kafka’s The Trial” (an essay in Ruitenbeek’s Psychoanalysis and Literature), Sebald’s “The Undiscover’d Country: The Death Motif in Kafka’s Castle” (Journal of European Studies, 1972, 2), Globus and Pillard’s “Tausk’s Influencing Machine and Kafka’s In the Penal Colony” (American Imago, fall, 1966), and Webster’s “Critical Examination of Franz Kafka’s The Castle” (American Imago, March, 1951). back
21. Kafka’s Prayer, by Paul Goodman, Ch. I, 3 back
22. ibid back