Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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June 01, 2007
blink and you'll miss it

Below is a paragraph that I had not, until recently, read in over 20 years.

Back then, I decided that it was the most wonderful paragraph ever written.

Back then, it could be found in a volume called Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd, which had been published in the early 70's by Cornell Univ. and Norton.

I loaned the volume by mail to a friend, to show them indirectly how my brain worked and the world looked to me, and they lent it to someone else, and then it disappeared. Alas.

[Which is okay, I guess, because lending books is probably one of the most difficult to do but realest forms in this life of an act that's worth doing purely for its own sake, even if you get burned by doing it (which is almost always the case).

Maybe that's because book-borrowing and lending is really all about the transmission (or secret theft) of ideas, for which payment, reciprocation, acknowledgment or thanks is nice but kind of irrelevant. Otherwise, why would anyone blog, for free, to a universe of mainly unknown readers?

Besides, I've probably taken more than I've given. I would find it impossible to thank all the people that I've secretly stolen ideas or inspiration from over the years --
(of all the theoretically stealable things you could trick other people into giving you, ideas and inspiration are the only remotely interesting ones)
I say "impossible" because in most cases the influence went unrecognized --
(even by me: I usually did not realize what I was "stealing" until much later on; so "borrowing" might be more a accurate term, but I don't want to cut myself any unnecessary moral slack)
["Transmission," "theft," "borrowing" . . . I guess the word I'm tiresomely forgetting (or avoiding) here is "influence," with or without all its attendant associations, baggage or whatevs.]

until the person was long gone --

[In fact, the circumstances of the loss or disappearance usually generated the ideas.

I wonder if Proust felt the same way, when he wrote, in the last chapter of Remembrance of Things Past:

Ideas are substitutes for sorrows . . .

Substitutes only in the order of time, however, for it would seem that the first element is idea and that sorrow is only the mode in which certain ideas first enter us.

Kristeva has a whole little chapter about this passage, in her very cool Proust and the Sense of Time. Except she uses a different translation, to phrase Proust in a much more stabbing way:
Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs.
The original is:
Les idées sont des succédanés des chagrins.

That slays me.]

-- and in other cases because the person probably wouldn't even understand why the influence was so important to and valued by me, and what the hell I was talking about with my "thank you" --

kind of like how I don't understand what the hell I'm talking about with this digression.]

Then, a couple weeks ago, I stumbled onto a later incarnation of the same material, in the form of from The Man in the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd. It was published in 1987 by Northwestern U. Press, and translated and edited by the same guy, George Gibian.

Thumbnail biographies of Gibian are on this, this and this page. A piece by Gibian about the literary scene in the Khruschev-era Soviet Union can be found on this page. It is riveting.

It took me a little while, but I eventually found the paragraph that I thought was so wonderful, decades earlier. Was it still wonderful? I thought so. And I decided that it belonged on the internet, where maybe someone else can find it someday.

Here it is (with my added line breaks):

Once upon a time there was a blacksmith.

Once he was making a horseshoe, and he swung his hammer so hard that the hammer head few off the handle, flew out the window, killed four pigeons, hit a fire tower, flew off to the side, broke a window in the fire chief's house, flew over the table where the fire chief and his wife were sitting, broke the wall in the fire chief's house, and flew out onto the street.

There it knocked over a lamppost, knocked an ice-cream man off his feet, and hit Karl Ivanovich Shusterling on the head.

He had taken his hat off for a moment to cool off the back of his head.

After hitting the head of Karl Ivanovich Shusterling, the hammer head flew backward, again knocked the ice-cream man off his feet, knocked two fighting cats off the roof, knocked over a cow, killed four sparrows, again flew into the blacksmith shop, and flew back onto the handle which the smith was still holding in his right hand.

All this happened so quickly that the smith didn't notice anything and kept on making a horseshoe.

The above is by Daniil Kharms.

Gibian writes that it is from "A Children's Story," from Kharms' book Stories for Children.

Many more of Kharms' writings are here, here (sometimes) and here.

Warning: pedantry alert comes next. Feel free to skip the next six paragraphs.

Where can one begin to describe why Kharms' children's story paragraph is so cool? And where can one end? I will now painfully (for the reader) put the answer to the latter question to the test.

Maybe one reason it's so cool is Kharms' complete lack of any perceptible moralizing about the events he describes. The flat, factual tone seems to suspend all judgment as to whether the events are horrific, delightful, both or neither. He leaves it for us to decide or not. Kharms' presents us with no reassuring moral logic or explanation for who or what gets hurt or spared or why. I respected 20 years ago, and still do, the faith that the choice not to spell everything out presupposes in the reader's intelligence.

Then there are the hidden little absurdities built into the story that sneak right past you -- you catch yourself nodding in total agreement, right along with them -- until you go back and think about how impossible and crazy they are. How could the wall of the fire chief's house be so soft that the hammer head could crash right through it with no loss of momentum, yet Shusterling's head be so hard that the hammer ricochets off of it and reverses course? Are not walls, in any "normal" universe, usually harder than human heads? And if it is true, as we learn by the end of the story, that the entirety of the events transpired in less than the blink of an eye, how could the ice cream man have had time to rise to his feet and thus get knocked down twice? How could he move so fast? Does time move slower for ice cream men? But how can that be? Does not time, in any familiar universe, flow at the same rate everywhere, rather than at different speeds at the "same" time, as here? Kharms presents a realized, plausible-feeling world (plausible enough for us to nod while reading about it), but one in which, we're caught up short to notice, the certainties of time, space and causality that we've previously patted ourselves on the back for being know-it-alls about mean nothing.

Kharms is also brilliant in the way that he uses the narrative bookends of the start and finish typical of a children's story to bracket or suspend, in a sort of slapstick, black humor or at least non-conscience shocking space, what would otherwise probably be a pretty horrifying string of brutal and senseless events. How different the tone of Kharms' story would be, for example, if he began it with, "Once upon a time, there was a soldier of the tzar who fired a bullet into an unarmed crowd of old people, and the bullet travelled with so much velocity that . . . " or "Once upon a time, a drunken Cossack, while ransacking a shtetl, threw at the head of a baby an empty bottle of vodka, and he threw it with such fantastic force that . . . ." No, wouldn't work the same way.

But the coolest thing, I think, is the way that all these events indeed happen in less than the blink of an eye, so fast that the blacksmith who caused it all does not even perceive it. Kharms invites us to imagine that the blacksmith's story is merely one of many, and that there are weird, unbelieveable, delightful, horrific, or unlikely stories going on around us all the time, that most people don't notice or can't even know, but maybe can perceive if they learn how to be sensitive to them.

One of my other favorites by Kharms is a short one entitled "What They Sell in the Shops These Days," which is here. The piece is structured as a crescendo of absurdity/stupidity that ends with a blank, diversionary, innocuous remark delivered with an unbudgeable narrative poker face. I like the piece because (to me anyway) it suggests that, if Kharms indeed lived in a society where, every time you opened your eyes after blinking, another bunch of absurdities had transpired, that coin had its flip side: Maybe the same society every day expected or demanded you to hold your eyes open to look at absurdity, if not atrocity, "without batting an eyelash." The parallels are far from perfect, but it can be heartening to discover writing like that if you've ever been stuck in a "similar" system (e.g., school, or religious community, or social circle, or city, or workplace, or profession, or society, or family, etc.); in which you felt like you were all alone in perceiving the value set to be completely inverted, incomprehensible or senseless; where perhaps you felt that you had to hold your tongue until you could escape or formulate a plan to change things; and you wondered just how far you'd have to travel to locate another human who'd ever felt quite that way.]

Enough with the babbling. Have I not now demonstrated how a somewhat cool old paragraph can be transformed into the most boring thing in the world through pedantry and over-analysis? Possibly.

So, to conclude on a somewhat more fact-based note:

More stuff by Kharms and other like-minded, similarly situated writers can be found in OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, edited by Eugene Ostashevsky. None of the writings in OBERIU overlap or duplicate those found in Gibian's older book(s).

Ostashevky wrote a book of poems entitled Iterature, which is great.

He writes that one poem in the book "is about the death of Daniil Kharms of starvation in a prison asylum during the blockade of Leningrad." The poem is entitled "White Ewe." It includes these lines:

Death stands in the middle
With a bow and a fiddle

That it has no riddle
Is its riddle

As I said, Ostashevsky's poems are great. At the moment, I am most beguiled by what strikes me as a sort of "clumsiness on purpose" (in his rhymes, grammar, spelling, etc.), that he uses just sparingly enough, in otherwise masterfully controlled writing, to suggest that his command of the English language is in fact splendid and the awkwardness is a consciously used effect.

[update 6/28/07: Weeks later, I realize the forehead-slappingly, "duh!"-inducing comparison with an artist who does the same thing: Thelonious Monk.

An interesting discussion among jazzboes about Monk's "clumsy" playing style is here, at least in the beginning,

"his 'beauty dissonance', jagged harmonies, strangely addictive and quirky compositions"

"insertion of space in place of notes"

"compositions are virually impregnable cunningly knotted, already stripped to essentials, they are an obstacle course to test the imagnation"


. . . before the discussion kind of goes off the rails, as so many on-line discussions can.

But the considerations in the discussion of the nature and effects of artistic "clumsiness" are not out of place here.


The result is like conversing in English with someone who did not grow up speaking English as their primary language, but whose multilingual brain spontaneously and accidentally comes up with combinations of words, images, observations and ideas that are completely original, brilliant and, yes, inspiring.