This time on Kaput, the interior view: from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Peep Show to Kafka, what happens when we say what we’re thinking? Also, as the Silba Line goes off track, what kind of dating manual next time?
A long time ago, on a bright winter’s afternoon, a woman I know was walking with her boyfriend down a south London street. It was Saturday, and the twentysomething couple had no plans for their evening. Neither had spoken for several minutes when the boyfriend turned to his girlfriend and opened his mouth. He prepared to ask her something. She wondered what he would say.
Do you think we should have boiled or mashed potatoes for dinner?
The woman told me she knew then – that specific moment, she says – that the relationship would end; and soon. Just a few years out of college, new to London, with big life plans simmering in her brain – existence had to be more exciting than potatoes on a Saturday night, right?
The fear of saying the wrong thing is usually a dread of the extreme utterance, not a dull potato query. ‘We all have good thoughts and bad thoughts,’ says Larry David. ‘But nobody ever expresses the bad thoughts. We just think them and don’t say them. But the bad thoughts are funny.’ Which explains, in capsule, David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
|what could possibly go wrong?|
As the comedy of social awkwardness resumes on TV following a five year break, David describes the appeal of Curb for a comedian let off the leash. ‘I’m such a liar in my life – keeping things to myself, not really telling my true feelings – that I feel like I want to go completely the other way when I have the opportunity.’
People familiar with the real life Larry David report that the screen Larry and the actual Larry are not so distantly removed. You assume a dull potato query is less of an anxiety with David than it may be with others – after all, this is the man who spent a whole episode dry coughing, complaining that one of his wife’s pubic hairs was stuck in his throat.
|She must never know what a pathetic man I am.|
Peep Show is another TV comedy not afraid to share what it’s thinking. The character-based sitcom lasted nine series, across twelve years, with much of the screen time spent inside the heads of lead protagonists Mark and Jeremy – not only seeing the world from their skewed point of view, but with their interior thoughts relayed in voiceover. And the thoughts were seldom sightly.
|How do I feel? Empty? Check. Scared? Check. Lonely? Check. Just another ordinary day.|
Mostly the voiceover is a curse of contemporary TV. Consider Narcos, or Dexter, and their serial crimes against narrative, with episode after episode featuring extended, convoluted, otherwise nonsensical scenes dependent upon a bludgeoning explanatory voiceover. This is supposed to be a visual medium, where stories are told in pictures and dialogue.*
But Peep Show takes the laboured voiceover and makes it revealing and funny. At work, Mark coaches himself through the tedium of another pointless meeting. ‘I’ve got to look interested. Keep nodding. Nodding, and a bit of eyebrows.’
On a date, he can’t believe his luck. ‘Oh God, she is just so lovely and she doesn’t realise it. Probably no one’s ever told her. I should tell her… No, don’t tell her. If she realises, I’m finished.’
The comedy of Peep Show’s interior voice isn’t simply hearing Jeremy and Mark verbalise the scuzzy thoughts they could never say out loud, it’s also the lamp being shined inside that demented, tormented, squalid and fetid hovel we call our brain – their brain, my brain, even your brain sometimes. Frequently what lies beneath the public face is not simply the unsayable, but the unthinkable. There’s a war going on – in here, in there – as the errant id grapples with the killjoy superego. The conflict is roiling and fraught. But through it all, Jeremy and Mark keep a straight face, with no one the wiser: ‘I’m just a normal, functioning member of the human race, and there’s no way anyone can prove otherwise.’
|The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new|
The interior monologue has high art credentials. Versions of our inner recess are a staple of modernist writing. From Proust to Joyce, Beckett to Woolf, faithfully getting consciousness down on paper was a ground-breaking technical challenge, but also at times a comedy of mental befuddlement. The modernist interior – Ulysses, Murphy, Under the Volcano, Herzog – is a turbid mindscape of crisis, pathology, but also mid-level angst.
In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf presents readers with all of life from inside her head, while shopping for flowers for a dinner party.** In Knausgaard’s A Man in Love, fifty pages are expended getting the kids from nursery. A trip to the deli for fresh pasta can last more than ten thousand words.
The modernist canon is rampant with worried protagonists. Often they take the reader for a ride in their busy heads. Frequently the tour lasts the duration of a single day: one lively twenty-four-hour span, usually spent navigating the complex, deranged city; as the lead character goes over and over stuff in their heads, like comic victims trapped within their dense personal preoccupations and procrastinations.
In discussing the impact of photography and film upon human perception, Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye… Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride… Here the camera intervenes… The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.’
Benjamin asserts that as film and Freud combined, the previously hidden became available for scrutiny. So now we knew for sure that when a horse galloped, all four hooves left the earth at once – because the camera proves it. Or through dream analysis and guided therapeutic conversation, the secret urges in our heads could be isolated and identified, their meanings ready to be picked over.
Modernism’s emerging technologies and analytical tools drilled for meaning in the granular and microcosmic. Modernist literature loves detail. His whole life, Franz Kafka was compelled to sift through minutiae and miscellany – ragbags and small fry. What Kafka and fellow modernists discovered under the rock was often unexpected – not just trauma, or compulsion, but worry: worry and the inner comedy of me and you.
In Prague, at the turn of the twentieth century, we find young Franz Kafka as the walking worrying quintessence of modernism. Neck deep in dread and self loathing, this rare, brilliant man with a shrewd sense of the absurd finds the hours fly past with him lost (or locked) inside his own thoughts. ‘The outside world is too small,’ Kafka wrote on a postcard to a friend, ‘too clear-cut, too truthful, to contain everything that a person has room for inside.’
Disquiet pestered Kafka all his life, until his premature death at forty. At which point he wondered, why all the worry?
Culturally Kafka largely looms as a forbidding literary presence, the tragic author of gripped allegories of personal alienation, frustration and guilt. But Kafka might also be seen as a comic figure of fuss and bother. It all depends on the line of view, or how you weigh the scales. Let’s think of Kafka as the generic little guy at odds with life’s huge, uncompromising forces – the paternal, the bureaucratic, the cosmic.
We could also think of Kafka as the great foot-dragger: wants to be a solider, doesn’t go off to war; desires a wife, remains single; plans to emigrate to Palestine, writes hundreds of pages of study notes on Hebrew, doesn’t make it to Palestine; dreams of becoming a celebrated writer, but on his death bed insists on all his manuscripts being destroyed.
Or, we might wish to dwell on Kafka serially re-imagining himself as another creature – as some kind of small furry animal, possibly underground, furiously debating existence from all sides as analytically as any human.
|Kafka, period hat, big dog|
I often insist to a friend that her dog is perplexed at the recent arrival of two kittens into his domestic sphere of influence. I’m sure I can see the thought lines etched across the dog’s brow. She insists back that her dog isn’t thinking about the kittens. Not at all. Or anything else for that matter. Kafka viewed animals differently. ‘All knowledge,’ he wrote, ‘the totality of all questions and answers, is contained in the dog.’ The small furry animal functioned in Kafka’s writing as metaphor, contrast, or speculation, but also as simply linked in as part of a greater planetary struggle. That we’re all in this together, by ourselves.
Kafka was a quality, talented worrier. He was after all an insurance broker who wrote lectures on accident prevention – he may actually have been involved in developing the first hard hat for builders. But Kafka also fretted far beyond the workplace. On a trip to the countryside to get some proper writing done, Kafka is impressed at the ‘extraordinarily beautiful’ resort. By day two, however, he can’t think straight, kvetching about a local boy practising the French horn.
On another trip out of town, Kafka shares a hotel room with his best friend Max Brod. Kafka keeps Brod awake well past his bedtime dithering about whether to close the window or leave it open for the night. (Eventually they keep it open.)
Kafka worried his parents often stayed up too late playing cards. He found that his father ate loudly and disliked that his dad’s large body made Kafka feel small growing up. On another two-week break from his office job, to finally get started on a new novel, Kafka fritters away all his writing time composing a long letter to his father – which he never gave him – itemising a list of his grievances. On seeking a promotion at his firm, the ambitious Kafka, who was never once late for work, drafts a letter sixteen pages long arguing his case. He didn’t get the job.
Despite this tendency to fret and fixate – ‘I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself’ – Kafka was attractive, quite sporty, reasonably socially successful, and surprisingly carefree concerning global affairs. Certainly his letters and diaries suggest as much: ‘August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’
Kafka never married. He was engaged to a woman, but the engagement was called off. He got engaged a second time, to a second woman, but this romantic attachment would also be cancelled. Later, he was engaged a third time – only for this poor woman to also be jilted, or perhaps spared.
Towards the end of his life, Kafka decided to stop speaking. He started writing communications on notepaper: ‘Do you have a moment? Then please spray the peonies.’ Another note asks Dora Diamant, who loved and cared for him: ‘How many years will you be able to stand it? How long will I be able to stand your standing it?’
As time runs down, and Kafka becomes infirm with tuberculosis, the comedy of worry adjusts timbre and tone, to become a darker, larger humour, laced with tragic ironies. Kafka never much liked to eat and was quite thin. A doctor once advised that Kafka could only marry if he was prepared to eat more. (I’m not sure why the doctor linked the two events in this way.) In 1924, on the day before he dies, Kafka is chronically ill and by now physically unable to take in food, like it or not. The emaciated writer continues to work, sorting a last batch of corrections to a new short story, which just so happens to be titled The Hunger Artist.
You look at Kafka and think, why the long face always? But then, maybe the long face derived from a rational source. Being human once God is declared to be dead, does bring forth a lot responsibilities. It lands on us all. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as western humanity lost any solid faith in an all-powerful deity, or the congruent notion of our lives being predestined; as we came to recognise the anarchy of the universe, we also took on the role of being authors of our life script and often felt, understandably, weighed down by our new duties. Rational man was supposed to deploy reason to make sense of existence – to plot a plausible life course – but there were times that some of us thought about it too much and started to worry.
Often the bigger worries get broken down into subordinate chunks of minor stress. It’s all about not letting it get on top of you, while letting it get on top of you. Worrying if I packed my bag properly. Worrying that it took too long for me to pack my bag. Wondering if I remembered to put my phone in my bag while packing. Worrying because I didn’t check if the gas hob was turned off leaving for work today, being too busy brooding over my poorly-packed bag. And did I lock the balcony door? Better go back and check.
Worrying that I’m faffing too much and life’s leaving me behind. Worrying at the restaurant, as the waiter passes out menus, at being drawn into yet another tussle with decision making. Much of my adult life I’ve dreamed of someone opening a restaurant serving just the one dish. (To be changed daily.) Worrying that should anyone ever open my dream restaurant, that I won’t actually enjoy the no-choice experience.
|it’s a wonderful life|
Worry is a fretfulness in love with circularity. This dire habit of returning repeatedly to the same queries: how can I know for sure the processed meat in the sausages won’t kill me in the end, or that the chef didn’t spit in the sauce? Worry is a life long resistance to settling for an answer.
And naturally you worry it will never end. But of course worry must end. One day, worry too will face the final curtain. As the shovels come out, as we prepare to be one with the weeds, we see that all the worrying was pointless, the niggling persistence is revealed as nugatory effort, plus a comical waste of energy.
In Kafka’s short story ‘The Burrow’, a small furry animal is perturbed by a noise under the earth that up-ends any chance of finding calm after all that tunnelling. The twist in the ‘tale’ is that the sounds causing the animal grief are echoes of his own movement and breathing.
The wellspring of our unease and disquiet often lies within. If our internal critic makes a happy, perfect life in our warm burrow an unrealisable goal, then what hope of finding serenity out and about in the world at large?
As a youth, an attractive young woman in the botanical gardens of Prague caught Franz Kafka’s attention as she called out something to him. He smiled and waved to her, several times, then realised what she had said: ‘Jew.’
Literary critics looking for the origins of Kafka’s alienation have no doubt analysed in depth connections to the widespread anti-Semitism of his times. The fear of paternal rebuke, or a sexual performance anxiety, may also be considered as plausible ingredients contributing to his indigestible angst.
|end of the Silba Line|
The time with Kafka and the girl who shouted Jew, is an example of a malignant misunderstanding that could feed into a broader fear of revealing too much.
So what do we say? How to know when to share and when to hold back? And what is to be done with those moments of weakness, where the ill-natured thought spews forth, or the dull potato query plops from our lips? We can’t one hundred per cent protect ourselves from either version of social catastrophe. Each infraction can get you – extreme thoughts, dull thoughts. Better to be mute. Well, obviously not mute. But how do we find the words, the balance, the tone, the magic?
As you plough through romantic relationships in your life, as natural attrition causes the love wrecks on the highway to accumulate, you hope you may discover new ways of being, but also that you will learn from things done previously which turned bad.
The goal isn’t perfection necessarily, longevity would be good. Was it me, was it her, do we just keeping picking poorly? Is the right one never attracted to me, or in fact not attractive to me? Until we learn, get it straight, until then, is it almost guaranteed you’ll end up in bed with a ‘life partner’ not set to last? (Yes, the Silba Line recently crashed into the buffers and has been mutually discontinued.)***
Maybe there’s still a hope of meeting the ‘one’. With luck; but also if one keeps learning and improving. But if continuing to learn proves too much at this stage, then at least not get any worse: a holding position which may actually constitute development – if we’re being optimistic. In which case, give it another twenty years and I’ll make the perfect partner, available to anyone partial to a deaf, decrepit hulk of pharmaceutically-patched human jelly.
And that’s your best case scenario. A more likely outcome is you go on getting together with others, and you glean some more useful stuff – but still not quite enough, or quickly enough. That you may have to fumble through another failed involvement, possibly two more failed involvements, before you finally identify and iron out all your bad choices and annoying flaws. By this time, you might actually be dead.
We don’t have all the time in the world, as we continue to try and fail and fail again and fail better.**** Keeping this scarcity of years in mind, we need all the learning aids we can get.
I used to work with someone who reflexively reached for a pen and paper whenever a difficulty arose – to sketch out the problem for a better view. Perhaps our romantic conundrums would benefit from a plotted diagram, or some detailed modelling. Or what about a 3-D life map? Your biographical geography laid out in sculptured relief – visual hindsight, featuring me, my life, and all those who’ve played a role. Like one of those models in an architect’s office, or something you might see at Legoland.
In the final few weeks of his life, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks kept a journal. ‘Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude,’ he writes, ‘as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.’
What if you could cut out the waiting and achieve this godlike altitude now? To observe a lifetime’s topography replicated in miniature, the slopes and woods, the babbling brooks and dells. Something like the extended, bravura scene with the camera obscura in A Matter of Life and Death. The much loved Powell and Pressburger film is filled with a sense of theatre, art and artifice. The main story of David Niven as an RAF pilot who dies before his allotted time, features Roger Livesey as Niven’s lead advocate in the court of celestial justice. Livesey is a magus-like figure – also a writer and neurologist, just like Oliver Sacks – who uses a camera obscura to cast a wide angled view of village life from an eyrie at the top of his house, observing on a concave screen all that’s going on below.
This biographical overview of your life, an aerial crane shot of nodal points and salient events, could be rendered with a visually pleasing blend of popping 8mm Kodachrome and glorious Technicolor. There I am on the farm, aged four, play-wrestling with the Labrador dog in the cattle trough. Accidentally hitting my older brother over the head with a spade at five. Then we segue to Red Square in Moscow, during the communist years, running away from the camera in in a brown quilted anorak. Over to when I broke my leg, or the eight stitches in my back at seven. Farms are dangerous places. There I am, putting my hands though the backdoor glass window. Stealing from the sweetshop down the road. And over there in the playground, there’s that big fight I lost when I was twelve, or thirteen, that time in front of everyone, the last proper fight of my life. The shame. Playing in goal when we lost thirteen nil. First fag. First time properly drunk and sliding over. First sex. No, actually, not the first sex. There we are inter-railing across Europe aged nineteen with sunburn. The train’s crawling through a small town in north Italy. I look out the carriage window as we pass a level crossing. An old Fiat banger is at the front of the queue behind the crossing barrier. In the front seat two elderly nuns in wimples are eating bananas.
The three dimensional life map will require extensive editing. It can’t be as large as life itself, not the scale of a mile to the mile, as conceived by Lewis Carroll, or Borges. There’s only so much available space for particulars. But the nuns with the bananas must stay, they are comic and encapsulate everything I loved about the films of Luis Buñuel when I was nineteen. But also the life map loves trains.
There will be some readers for whom a three dimensional life map doesn’t appeal. For the cohort who prefer to model in words – I think this includes me – there is a textual alternative, a representation of our life in prose, words to draw upon and learn from – a detailed, copiously annotated manuscript, maybe even a few footnotes.
In the book of life, we find a clearer view of our story so far, the dreams, the loves, the bother. This will not be a short literary effort, but not too sprawling either. Let’s call it a compendious edition. A compendious work providing an illuminating overview of conflicts and themes that’s packed with insight. Through joining up the dots of our intimate stories, identifying the promising plotlines from the years gone past, but equally isolating the romantic dead ends, the book of life may lead us towards a better narrative understanding. It could be something to take along in our backpack next time we go dating. And perhaps will assist in moving our biography closer to a happy and satisfying ending.
|Yeezus, fuck was he thinkin’?|
And yet, what if all the critiquing is less a solution and more its own problem? Is all this modelling and annotating just further proof of too much thinking in Kafka’s burrow?
The counter argument, perhaps even the counter life, could be to simply let it all go, move with the current and improvise. The best jazz musicians, dancers, rappers, gamers, sports people, editors, painters, programmers – and all kinds of other activities – these stellar performers speak of doing some of their most spellbinding work when they let their unconscious, improvisational brain do the driving.
‘Research shows the brain shutting down your inhibitions during improv creative moments,’ write Malinda McPherson and Charles Limb. ‘It appears that to be really creative, you need to avoid critiquing and controlling your actions, and instead, let yourself go.’
In an interview with Brett Easton Ellis, Kanye West explains his theory of age and creativity – how the character of his output depends on the creative age he permits himself in the recording studio. So, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye was about age nine, or ten; whereas with Yeezus, ‘I was a two year old.’
Both LPs are remarkable works. But West is correct to identify the nine to ten year old as considered and structured, while the two year old is more of a spattering or an outburst.
The feeling of getting so focused on an activity that you lose your sense of time and place, of being in the zone as things start coming together, is described as a flow state. The production, the song, the performance, is still dependent on training and a mastery of technique. But in many cases your training has been so demanding that you’ve lost the love, it’s curbed your enthusiasm for what led to you taking up the activity in the first place. Now you must rediscover the taste. Place the user manual back on the shelf, or under your pillow; stop thinking, switch off the monitor.
When it feels like it’s time to go again with the dating, to haul oneself up off the floor – well, up off the sofa and away from the TV – to go meet in bars and order the second red wine on the menu, perhaps I’ll try doing it without the book of life. By now, after all this time, surely I too can improvise – if I let me.
(Okay, maybe I’ll take the book anyway. Something to read on the train home.)
|‘Please don’t pull me into you emotional fuck pie.’|
This piece draws liberally from Rivka Galchen on Kakfa, What Kind of Funny Is He? https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n23/rivka-galchen/what-kind-of-funny-is-he
* To continue the rave about voiceover abuse on TV. A lot of what happens in Narcos and Dexter is incoherent without an extensive voiceover to pull it together. The compound effect is dramatically deadly. Imagine Breaking Bad, or Better Call Saul, using voiceover narration, with the resulting loss of quality. Writers are better when they write scenes that visually stand on their own two feet.
** Virginia Woolf’s focus on the intimate sphere within a public space was a conscious transformative gesture, a flaneuse looking for a democratic opening, for female emancipation while out for a wander. ‘The public and the private worlds are inseparably connected,’ she wrote in Three Guineas, ‘the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.’
*** The end of the Silba Line, my first smokeless break-up. Heroin?
**** The inspirational mantra by Samuel Beckett – Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better – has become so renowned and widely distributed across the culture these days, that I recently saw it inscribed on the wall of an upscale central London gym. But the words of wisdom were now attributed to the tennis player Stan Warwinka. Poor Samuel Beckett. Poor culture.
Here for more Peep Show brain farts
|a relief map of the island of Sodor|