Review of Bob Dylan Concert 17 April 2015

Here’s what to expect — and what not to expect — in the early 2015 dates of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour.

Do expect a prompt beginning right around 8 PM when the lights go down, the audience reacts, the musicians take the stage, and the lights come up again dimly. Dylan doesn’t like the have his photograph taken — it’s forbidden — and the relatively darkened stage makes capturing a decent image virtually impossible. On the two occasions when the stage is well lit, if you attempt a surreptitious snap, beware of flashlight wielding ushers who will spot-light you in the act and bark at you like a hall monitor.

17 April 2015 photo by Ned Moore (who received a tongue-lashing for attempting to preserve history)

17 April 2015 photo by Ned Moore (who received a tongue-lashing for attempting to preserve history)

Don’t expect the audience to arrive on time, to be able to sit still and listen, or to remain silent during the performance. Throughout last night’s show at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, audience conversation constantly hummed beneath the music like static. Of course, you could blame Dylan for not keeping their attention, but I suspect these folk would behave the same way during the Sermon on the Mount, especially if they had been swilling down beer and overworking their kidneys.

Do expect a superb, tight band: guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Setxon, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Receli, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron playing mostly steel guitar but also banjo and fiddle. As my companion James T Crow aptly observed, these musicians performed more like an orchestra than a band, like an ensemble working together inventively and unselfishly for the sake of each individual song.

Expect Dylan to look cool in a white suit and hat, to strike poses, to shuffle in minimalistic dance moves, to play the harmonica, and to shuffle back and forth between a piano on the side of the stage to center stage where he sings behind a mike stand. Don’t expect much from either his harp-blowing or piano playing, but expect every time he hits a note on the harp for the audience to erupt in delight as if Sonnyboy (Rice Miller) Williamson had just risen from the dead.

Also, if you’re a true Dylan fan, expect to be pleasantly surprised by his voice, which sounded much healthier than when I last saw him in May of 2013, and seemed to improve as the night went on. If you’re not a true Dylan fan, expect to be disappointed by its gravelly timbre and lack of range. As another concert companion, Keith Sanders, puts it, “You can always tell when somebody doesn’t know much about Dylan because they start off talking about his voice.”

Don’t expect a jukebox full of greatest hits. And don’t expect the three “standards” he plays — “She Belongs to Me,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “Blowing in the Wind,” to sound like the records — in other words, expect non-standard standards. However, expect to be blown away by the reconfiguration of “Blowing in the Wind.”

Ultimately, be prepared to see a legend showcase gems from his recent work in a sort of smorgasbord of American musical styles: shuffles, mambos, boogies, country waltzes, torch songs, blues laments, ’50’s pop.

Expect the concert to end around ten, for Dylan not to introduce the band, or to even bow. I don’t know if you can expect what we heard last night — a rare audible “thank you” and “we’re gonna take a short break.”

I see I’m at the end of my typed page, so as Dylan put it at the end of his MusiCares speech: “I’m getting out of here. I’m gonna put an egg in my shoe and beat it.”

Britt McHenry, Mistake Maker

One of the first rules of common decency when complaining about some corporate misfeasance is to preface your complaint with the acknowledgement that your audience is not truly responsible for the policy that has angered you.  The voice on the line in Bangalore isn’t the one who decided that channeling callers through a Minoan labyrinth of recorded messages is an efficient way to solve customer problems; he wasn’t the one who decided to hire as few employees as possible to bolster the bottom line so that the CEO will receive a bonus that equals the entire yearly Gross National Product of Burundi. I suspect the person on the line is facing worse problems than your current inability to connect to the world-wide web.

Until yesterday I had never heard of Britt McHenry, the ESPN reporter whose churlish tirade against a parking lot attendant got her suspended for a week from her duties, which means someone else will have to probe the profound thoughts of linebackers, point guards, and goalies. Someone else will have to engage in pleasant banter with the anchors.

McHenry as issued an apology: “In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things.  As frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.”

Here’s a catalogue of some of the “regrettable things” she said to the attendant:

I have a degree and you don’t.”
“I wouldn’t work at a scumbag place like this.”
“Makes my skin crawl even being here.”
“That’s all you care about is just taking people’s money.”
“With no education, no skill set”
“Do you feel good about your job?”
“I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”
“I have a brain and you don’t.”
“Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me.”
“Oh yours? Cause they look so stunning.” (Criticizing the attendant’s teeth)
“I’m on television and you’re in a f**king trailer, honey.”
“Lose some weight, baby girl.”

Ms McHenry’s punishment is a week’s suspension from her job and the scorn being heaped on her by lesser people like me who are not on TV,  a blogger with not much of an audience.

If I were an ESPN exec, I might make her read Dickens Great Expectations or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or demand she spend her week off in Buffalo County, South Dakota, the most impoverished county in the USA.

Lessons to be learned (besides the fact that the employee at the towing yard  didn’t establish the parking statutes of the city): cameras, cameras, everywhere; also a megrims of humility is ultimately more attractive than the gorgeous smiles that orthodontics can create.  Believe it or not, some of us out here don’t hold ESPN reporters as paragons.

In fact, they, too, can offer some inviting targets for ridicule — even when they’re not bullying some poor woman doing her best to earn a living given the lot she’s inherited.

Just be thankful, Ms McHenry, that HL Mencken ain’t around to have a go at you.

Southern Gothic Memories, Canine Edition

I’m not aAgnolo-Bronzino--1503-1572-----Portrait-of-the-dwarf--Morgante%0D%0AItalia people person. For example, although I’m a teacher, I don’t especially like young people. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike children the way WC Fields disliked children; I wouldn’t conk one on the head for laughs — but I don’t like them any better than I like twenty-somethings, middle-aged people, seniors, etc. If anything, as demographics go, I like very old cognizant people the best, octogenarians and above, widows and widowers, withered folk who have seen it all, suffered irredeemable losses, but who have managed to maintain twinkles in their eyes.

(By the way, these withered creatures both disgust and terrify high school students. For example, Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath Tale,” which describes the wedding night of a young knight and a very aged crone, sends viewable shivers of disgust up sophomores’ spines. If you don’t want your teenager to smoke, don’t try to scare her with lung cancer — she can’t relate to a death that far in the future — instead show her a photograph of WH Auden or Keith Richards. Explain that cigarettes break down collagen and lead to wrinkles.)

I feel the same way about dogs as I feel about people. I don’t like a dog just because it’s a dog, just because it’s a member of the species Canis familiaris, but I have loved certain individual dogs, especially ones that ended up living with me, even troubled ones, like psychopathic Jack (d. c.1990) and PTSD Saisy (d. 2014).

Jack and Sally  1986

Jack and Sally 1986

However, by far the best dog we ever owned was Bessie, an AKC-certified Golden retriever who was beautiful, loving, highly intelligent, and gentle.

To obtain Bessie, however, we had to venture into Flannery O’Connor territory, or if you prefer, a David Lynch movie, but before I start the narrative, I’d like to set a couple of things straight.

First, I’ve had the following account certified by fellow witness Judy Birdsong as basically accurate. In cases where our memories differ, I have deferred to her.

Second, I need also to stress that I have always sympathized with people with physical abnormalities. My father’s favorite work of literature was Cyrano de Bergerac, I identified with the protagonist of The Boy with Green Hair when I was a kid, and I consider Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, as one of the most admirable human beings who ever lived.

So don’t judge me goddamnit!

* * *

Once upon a time, our older ten-year-old son Harrison had been asking for a dog, so Judy decided to surprise him and younger brother Ned, seven, with a golden retriever puppy for Christmas. We were living in post-Hugo Isle of Palms, SC, in a patched-up Cap Cod house with a large dog-friendly fenced back yard, and unlike our previous dogs, the aforementioned blood-thirsty Jack and his severely overbred pin-headed mate Sally, Bessie was destined to be a house dog.

The only problem was that Judy couldn’t find any golden retrievers for sale. We’re talking pre-Internet 1994 when you had to blacken your hands flipping through newsprint to find pets for sale. And like in an old movie, the days of the calendar were fluttering in the winds of time, being ripped off one by one as Christmas approached. Each morning, Judy scoured the want-ads, but still, no golden retriever pups for sale.

Then almost right before it would be too late to have the puppy appear on Christmas Day – eureka – a well-written ad purporting expertise appeared. The ad stressed that these pups had not been overbred, a problem endemic to such a popular breed, as the ad writer put it. Six were left — but going fast — reddish-hued golden retriever pups for sale for 150 bucks a pop. The only negative was that you had to drive to rural Berkeley County somewhere in the vicinity of Macedonia, South Carolina, to check them out, and so on a Saturday, we dumped the boys off somewhere and made the trek.

Judy had, of course, called the breeder, who impressed her with his phone presence, his well-articulated knowledge of all things golden retriever. He offered details on ancestry, points of origin. She liked the idea of the pups being bred in the country. She envisioned the puppies’ mother running Lassie-like through fields of alfalfa beyond wooden-fences, a white-washed clapboard farmhouse way back from the rarely traveled road, an aproned June Lockhart in the kitchen flipping flapjacks.

* * *

wilcox-county-ga-sibbie-road-abandoned-ford-mustang-chevrolet-chevy-chevelle-green-rusted-southern-gothic-americana-pictures-photo-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2010The actual domicile was a largish non-mobile mobile home on a half-acre lot. I guess its owners would call it a manufactured house, but it didn’t look like a house but like a boxy trailer. In the weedy yard, two fossilized automobiles, one with yellowed newspapers inside stacked almost to the ceiling, the other leaning to its starboard side because of flat tires.

Happily, for me, I hadn’t envisioned what the homestead of our future puppy might look like, so I didn’t suffer the cognitive dissonance Judy had to endure. No, this wasn’t the set of Lassie; it was more like some David Lynch movie set in the rural South. Or, to wax literary, the homestead of the Lucynell Craters of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” In other words, Judy’s would-be plantation had dysfunction written all over it.

After exchanging dubious glances, we clanged our way up the metal steps, and I knocked politely on the metal door, expecting a chorus of howling or barking or at least something.

Silence.

I knocked again, louder.

Not a peep.

I banged on the door, thinking of B drive-in movies featuring chainsaws.

And then I heard a sound a muffled voice, some clumping. Was someone coming or not? Finally the door opened.

Standing there to greet us, propped on one aluminum crutch, stood a one-legged midget* in a Billy Pilgrim tee-shirt and cut-off denim shorts. He hadn’t lost his leg, but something had gone awry in utero; it hadn’t fully formed. I remember another embryonic non-formation going on with one of his hands, but Judy nixes this memory. She assures me that his disabilities were limited to being a “little person” with half a leg.


*I realize that some consider “midget” a pejorative term, but to me it seems less patronizing than “little people.” Plus I’ve had it with the never ending process of euphemizing euphemisms. Trust me, one day “little people” will become pejorative and the politically correct term will be “differently scaled humans.”

When I think of midgets, I think of the wonderful Land of Oz and squeaky “we-are-the-lolly-pop-kids” voices; however, this cat possessed that deep regionless baritone I associate with commercial voiceovers. He sounded like a radio announcer, and the walls of the living area of his minimally furnished house were lined with banks of computers at a time when computers weren’t ubiquitous household possessions.

He was unusually articulate; no wonder Judy had been impressed. Plus, he possessed the self-confidence of Sean Connery playing James Bond. Why hide the phocomelic limb with long pants pinned over the appendage? Shame seemed alien to him. The only negative I’ll lay on him was that he a sort of know-it-all, the way certain mechanically gifted people can be know-it-alls.

Bessie the Pup

Bessie the Pup

With him were two boys in their early teens, hardy and hale. We followed dad and sons to another room where the puppies were skidding around in a waterless kiddy pool. I remember urine in the pool; Judy doesn’t. We both agree the puppies were adorable — maybe four were left — and we chose the cutest and made arrangements to return to pick her up.

Money exchanged hands, and we said our good-byes. I decided not to mention the oddness of the encounter to Judy. How small-minded it seemed to me to even mention the disability. So what if the fellow from whom we had purchased our puppy was short and malformed? So what if we had spent a half hour in Flannery O’Connor/David Lynchville?

We returned to the car, I started the ignition, and Judy said, “That guy seemed soooooo familiar. Where do we know him from?

My mind screamed “WTF? You gotta be kidding me!!! What in the hell are you talking about?” but I merely said, as calmly as I could, “I’m fairly certain that I’ve never laid eyes on him.”

“No, think,’ she said. “Didn’t we know him in Columbia? I know we know him.”

Now things were really getting surreal.

“I’m absolutely certain I don’t know him. I’m certain I would remember him. He is one of the most singular individuals I’ve ever laid eyes on. Indeed, he might be the only midget I’ve ever talked to. Plus, he had only one leg. Trust me. I’d remember that. He’s not a very forgettable fellow.”

Judy’s still not convinced. However, we did end up running into him again at an outdoor concert later that spring, and as it turned out, Bessie didn’t turn out to be exactly genetically sound herself. She was born without knee sockets and needed an operation, but you couldn’t have asked for a better dog.

And how remarkable that her breeder could be so confident, so self-possessed. In that regard he stands head and shoulders above me.

Bessie the Crone photograph by Jim Klein

Bessie the Crone photograph by Jim Klein

Dylan’s 2015 Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart Tour

Dylan-old-Blues-Eyes-AgainEvery time I go to see Bob Dylan, I figure it’s going to be my last, so when the concert’s over and the scarecrow graces us with a bow, I bid him a silent good-bye. I suspect I’ll do the same this Friday when Mighty Keith Sanders, Crafty Ned Moore, and I-and-I meet up at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center to witness the Master croak his way through a set list that is mostly melancholy. Dylan is obviously a restless man, a loner, no stranger to heartache yet wise enough to know it ain’t just about him.

Since I’ve argued HERE that Dylan deserves a Nobel prize in Literature, I thought I’d share my favorite lyrics from the tunes he’ll play Friday night, many of them works from recent albums.

“Things Have Changed”

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

“She Belongs to Me”

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees

“Beyond Here Lies Nothing”

Down every street there’s a window
And every window made of glass
We’ll keep on lovin’ pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

Workingman’s Blues #2

I’m tryin’ to feed my soul with thought
Gonna sleep off the rest of the day
Sometimes no one wants what we got
Sometimes you can’t give it away

“Duquesne Whistle”

The lights on my native land are glowing
I wonder if they’ll know me next time ’round
I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb

“Waiting for You”

Well, the king of them all
Is starting to fall.
I lost my gal at the boatman’s ball.
The night has a thousand hearts and eyes.
Hope may vanish, but it never dies.

“Pay in Blood”

Another politician pumping out the piss
Another angry beggar blowing you a kiss
You got the same eyes that your mother does
If only you could prove who your father was

“Tangled Up in Blue”

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal

“Love Sick”

I see, I see lovers in the meadow
I see, I see silhouettes in the window
I watch them ’til they’re gone and they leave me hanging on
To a shadow

“High Water” (For Charley Patton)

Well, the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies
I’m preachin’ the word of God, I’m puttin’ out your eyes
I asked Fat Nancy for somethin’ to eat, she said, “Take it off the shelf”
As great as you are man, you’ll never be greater than yourself

“A Simple Twist of Fate”

A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin’ by the arcade
As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up,
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate

“Early Roman Kings”

Ding dong daddy
You’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial
In a Sicilian court
I’ve had my fun
I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake em all down
Like the early roman kings

“Forgetful Heart”

Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

“Spirit on the Water”

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

“Scarlet Town”

If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
Its all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town.

“Soon After Midnight”

It’s now or never,
More than ever,
When I met you I didn’t think you’d do,
It’s soon after midnight,
And I don’t want nobody but you

“Long and Wasted Years”

It’s been a while,
since we walked down that long, long aisle
We cried on a cold and frosty morn,
We cried because our souls were torn
so much for tears
so much for these long and wasted years.

“Blowin’ in the Wind

Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?

He ends the with a Sam Smith/Mary Bilge cover of “Stay with Me” whose theme jives well with the above

Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand
But I still need love ’cause I’m just a man
These nights never seem to go to plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?

Backed by killer musicians, the poor ragged old minstrel continues to travel the road “like Big Joe Turner looking east and west from the dark room of his mind.”  Sure, the set is dark, but what do you expect from an aging master?

It’s not like Yeats’ “Circus Animal Desertion” is a toe tapper.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

A Brief Analysis of the Likability of 2016 Presidential Candidates

Wisconsin Budget & You

 

 

 

 

 

 

We US citizens prefer warm, at-ease, smiling, sparkly-eyed presidents to stiff, ill-at-ease socially awkward ones. Look at the slack the nation granted Reagan and Clinton, the former so hen-pecked that he allowed his wife to schedule his travel plans according to the prognostications of an astrologer, the later so randy that he conducted official business on the phone in the Oval Office while being fellated by a woman young enough to be his daughter.

No big deal, we the people, proclaimed.

debateWe dumped awkward mealy-mouthed, well-meaning Jimmy Carter and awkward preppy well-qualified GHW Bush after one term. Okay, I admit things weren’t going all that smoothly during their presidencies economically, but I bet neither would have ever been elected in the first place if they’d had an opponent in the general who possessed even a scintilla of personality, Carter facing stolid cabbage-faced Gerald Ford and Bush Michael Dukakis, who possessed all of the charisma of a sack of charcoal.

Although Obama can be charismatic in a speech, he’s not smooth in a sit-down interview, um-erring a bit too much and emanating a vibe of really not liking people all that much, which I can certainly understand but which isn’t going to endear him to most folk. Given how the economy has turned around during his administration and the disastrous performance of his predecessor, you wouldn’t think he’d be showing up near the top on any the-worst-president-in-history polls, but he is.

Of course, his being bi-racial doesn’t endear him to a large swath of people, especially where I live, in South Carolina, the home of Strom Thurmond, father of four – make that five – children and the creator of the Southern strategy that flipped the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican because whites down here have a historical enmity to blacks.

Strom Thurmond Monument, State House Ground

Strom Thurmond Monument, State House Grounds, Columbia, SC

At any rate, Obama’s term is three-quarters done, and the 2016 race is starting, so I thought I’d do an early, completely nonpartisan [cue ironic cough] survey of the likability/charisma indexes of the major candidates aspiring to become the most important powerful person on the third planet from the sun.

We’ll start with the thin (as in numbers) Democratic Field:

webb-2016

 

 Jim Webb

 

 

I like Jim Webb. He once had this exchange with President W Bush when Bush asked about Webb’s son, who was fighting in Iraq at the time.

Bush: How’s your boy?

Webb: I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.

Bush: That’s not what I asked you. How’s your boy?

Webb: That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President.

Webb later said that he got so angry that he wanted to “slug” Bush, which would have been so wonderful, but he didn’t, and I’m afraid this exchange doesn’t reflect all that well on Webb’s social intelligence. For example, he could have answered more deftly.

Bush: How’s your boy?

Webb: Having the time of his life risking it in a godforsaken hellhole, the worst foreign policy debacle in the history of the Republic. By the way, what club are your girls going to tonight?

Bush: Fuck you.

Webb [slugging him] asshole!

Clinton1web_2831249b

 

  Hillary Clinton

 

 

Let’s face it, Hillary’s not likable, the female equivalent of Al Gore.   She brays when she laughs, dresses in odd anatomy concealing eye-singing pants suits. She lacks the common touch. She’ll try to overcome these problems by reminding people she’s a grandmother. Good look with that.

Okay, now for the Republicans

 

ted-cruz-AP

 

 Ted Cruz

 

 

Ted Cruz looks way too much like Grandpa Munster ever to be elected President. I admit Lincoln wasn’t what you would call a pretty boy, but he had kind eyes. Cruz needs to hire some trainer/consultant to erase that self-satisfied contemptuous look off his mug. But then he’d still look like Grandfather Munster, only less of an ass-holey one.

granda and ted

 Rand Paul Attends South Carolina Republican Party Summer Barbecue

 

  Rand Paul 

 

I like Paul’s hair but he seems a bit too prickly, too thin-skinned, which most people find off-putting, but I can imagine having a beer with him and not wanting to take my own life during the encounter.

Rick_Santorum_Pic1

  Rick Santorum

 

 

Yawn. He’s ditching the sweater vests. I’d suggest he try on one of Hillary’s pantsuits, though by his reckoning, that might lead to bestiality.

jeb-bush

 

Jeb Bush

 

 

By my standards, he’s more likable than his brother, but by my standards, so is Justin Bieber. It’s good that he doesn’t affect that Texan drawl and that his family is multicultural and that he speaks Spanish, but he seems arrogant (like Obama) and has that simian Bushgene that screams oh-here-we-go-again stamped on his features.

Scott Walker

 Scott Walker 

 

 

Of course, I don’t like Scott Walker, but given he’s won three elections in four years, he must come off as an okay guy,  And I like that he’s a college dropout. Lots of people can relate to that. Then again, my having a beer with him personally seems about as much fun as having a beer lemonade with Mitt Romney

images

 

Mark Rubio 

 

 

I read that he’s charismatic, but I’m immune. He looks too cherubic, like a Hispanic cupid.

 Chris Christie Gives Speech On Financial Integrity And Accountability In DC

 

Chris Christie

 

 

What’s not to like? A self-promoting bully with the face of a hitman who makes Rabelais’s Gargantua look refined in comparison.
Lindsey Graham

 

Lindsay Graham 

 

 

Too soft-spoken, too captious.  Imagine him with Frank Underwood’s accent. He’d have a shot. Graham versus Hillary is my dream contest. Foreign policy mana y mano.

* * *

I’m probably leaving someone important out, but this exercise has depressed me, on this of all days, the day of Folly Beach’s Sea and Sand Festival, so I’m checking out with the observation that none of these candidates seem like a “people person.”

My friend Tom Horton, a lifelong Republican, told me when he briefly met Bill Clinton that he, Tom, felt as if he were the most important in the world.

Too bad Slick Willie can’t bottle that and offer Hillary a swig.

Indolence: An Apology to All the Seniors I’ve Taught

. . others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel 

A lovely word, with its three vowel-laden syllables, indolence: the Latin word for grieving – dolor – sandwiched between a negative prefix and a noun suffix.

It originally denoted a state of not grieving, of avoiding trouble, but lapsed in time to mean laziness, what Ozzie and Harriet would call not giving a “hoot,” what the Bellamy Brothers would call not giving a “rip,” what Johnny Depp would call not giving a “shit.”

In other words, high school seniors after spring break.

The path to graduation leads through fields of poppies past the prom into the prison block of final exams.

Meanwhile, they sit with their heads on their desks, their glazed eyes like marbles staring vacantly as a boring old baldheaded shuffling jackass reads out loud lines of poetry

That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

A Buddhistic Approach to Kafka’s Metamorphosis

K-buddah_jpgA professor friend of mine at the College of Charleston who teaches a freshman course entitled The Nature of Solitude: Sacred & Secular, Voluntary & Involuntary invited me to come and cover Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” so I thought I’d share with any instructors out there the approach I took. Since the course is philosophical, not literary, rather than discussing the structure or aesthetics of the work or taking a Freudian or Marxist approach to the narrative, I’ve opted to approach the work more practically.

I decided to begin the hour-and-fifteen minute class with a keynote presentation that highlights the remarkable unlikelihood that any of the students sitting in the class actually have come into being (see “Slide 4″ for further explanation) to underscore the horrible tragedy of the stunted life of the Metamorphosis’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa.  In addition, the presentation also suggests that mythology and its talented stepsister literature offer interesting ways to cop insight into, not only our lives, but science as well.  In fact, the presentation suggests that science itself is a myth, albeit a self-correcting one. Finally, I wanted to alert students to the human propensity of projecting our biology onto the cosmos as a way of explaining mysteries outside of ourselves. Of course, you can view the presentation all at once, but I have provided how I deal with each slide below the presentation.

Slide 1

As you can see, the first slide, the title slide, consists of two images, the first a sperm cell crashing into an ovum, the second, an artist’s rendering of a comet or meteor crashing into earth, which is science’s current best guess as to what engendered the chemical reactions that led to life.  I do the ol’ Socratic method, asking the students to identify what’s going on in each slide.

Slide 2

Slide 2 consists of Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,”  as in the work-a-day world overwhelms me with its mind-numbing responsibilities and anxieties, which, of course, relates to “The Metamorphosis.”  As you recall, Gregor who has awakened in the form of a gigantic beetle seems more worried about getting to work on time than he does about horrible fact that he has been transformed from a mammal to an insect who still possesses a human consciousness.

The poem offers a plethora of potential Socratic questions as you relate the sonnet to the novella.  I actually talk about the structure of the sonnet, its volta in line 9, but the main focus is what the speaker of Wordsworth’s sonnet and Gregor Samsa have in common and what the sonnet and Dylan’s lyrics have in common.

Slide 3

Slide 3 quotes a stanza from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,”  which offers a beautifully truncated catalogue of childhood.  Note the anxiety inherent in Dylan’s ditty. (By the way, you can read my argument why Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize in literature HERE).

Slide 4

The fourth slide is an excerpt from the movie Adaptation, which didn’t successfully make the trip from my hard drive to the Internet, but you can view it here: 

Obviously, ultimately, Nicolas Cage’s character’s question how did I get here has a very complicated answer.  For him to exist on this tiny planet swirling around a run-of-the-mill star much has had to happen, much of which from my perspective seems random, the first meteor which brings life, the second meteor that brings death to the dinosaurs and their displacement by mammals; then you have to factor in the long odds of that particular sperm hitting that particular egg through the long line of his ancestors culminating with his parent’s coupling on that particular day of his conception, a day when his mother didn’t have a headache, a coupling that led to one of 250,000 sperm cells in what I call the most important-race-of one’s-life reaching the finish line of one of mother’s 300 or so ova, a process that resulted in him, and by extension, you, C of C freshman, or you, blog reader.

Slides 5 & 6

These slides underscore the long odds of existence, emphasizing just what a shame it is for poor Gregor to live such a stunted life given the enormous odds of existence.  Here, I sneak in Buddhist doctrine, and talk about the Samsa family dynamic, the office manager, etc.

Slide 7

I talk about myth here, not as untruths, but in the Joseph Campbell mode as symbolic structures that embody profound truths.

Slide 8

This slide suggests that science is often wrong about details (not theories).  If I had written “quark” instead of “electron” in my 1970 chemistry test, I would have been correct but had my answer marked wrong.  By the way, I’ve photoshopped my 1970 self into this slide (the redheaded one leaning over the desk) to show the freshmen what I looked like 45 years ago and to horrify them with the realization that they too one day will look like me now [cue maniacal laughter]

Slide 9

The discoverer of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann named it after a word from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, suggesting that scientists like literature, that disciplines are all interrelated.

Slide 10

A reprise of Slide 8

Slide 11

In Slide 11, I ask if anyone recalls the Greek creation myth of Uranus and Gaia.  If no one does, I retell it, which is essentially, the sky Uranus had sex with the earth Gaia and life began, which, brings us back to the first slide.  The current scientific theory and the Greek myth are essentially the same.

For the rest of the period, I let the students talk about “The Metamorphosis” and give them wide range.  Of course, given the title of the course, Gregor Samsa’s involuntary solitude should be brought up.