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Posts from February, 2008

Dog Day Dreaming

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

It’s weird. I woke up about twelve o’clock, the brightness of the curtains woke me, I squinted against the filtered sunlight, trying to hold back the sleep and linger in my dream. It was a good one, and Technicolor, so I didn’t want to leave.

I’d been walking my dog, not while I was asleep, no, in my dream. He’s an old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, twelve years old in fact. He’s got a grey beard now, and he hasn’t jumped for years, his eyebrows and paws are flecked with grey, and his hearing isn’t what it was. He hobbles occasionally, and struggles on the stairs sometimes, especially in the winter, because of a football. I remember the day he caught it, arthritis that is. He’d been chasing a ball and in my naivety I kicked it towards a wall, we’d been out for the day, to the seaside town of South Shields, and were near the beach. The sand made the height of the sea wall seem a lot less than it was, he jumped for it and fell about five feet landing on his left shoulder and sprawling in the sand. He limped for a couple of days after that so we took him to the vet; when we were there, it was his first visit, he stood hunched over, his tail curled round tightly to cover his balls. They are telepathic I’m sure, dogs not vets, every time we take him back there I can sense him thinking that today is the day he gets his package lopped off. I just don’t think it should be allowed. It’s as bad as slavery really; dog and cat ownership that is. The things some of those old slave owners used to do to those people on the plantations, and their children, it’s beyond comprehension, imagine it, to have someone control your every movement, to be able to sell your children, sell you, rape you or castrate you, at a whim; or your children. Because they own you; but that’s besides the point, back to dreamland.

In this dream Edgar and I had been walking for miles and miles, across hills and through valleys, I distinctly remember the colours being primary. Mainly green with patches of reds and yellows that comprised the colours of the large petals of flowers that sprung from the perfectly manicured grass at random points along our path. Breaking the horizon was a permanent line of fir trees, and the sun was not so bright I could not look directly at it. There seemed to be a fog hovering above us, as if we were on a massive set in a movie studio. Old Edgar, that’s what we’d called him, in honour of Poe, had dropped his chin but managed, in the way of dogs, to look up at me with doe like eyes that seemed filled with tears. I stopped walking, sensing his stare, and turned, looking down at him. I remembered him as a bouncing pup clumsy and cute; then as an aggressive adolescent, forever chasing dogs three times his size, for miles and miles, ignoring all of my frantic efforts to get him to return to the leash.

I think it’s one of the best parts of a dream, the thing that makes the story so real: the dream memories. As well as that of course the way in which, in a dream, I have no aches or pains, no worries, nor forms to fill in – urgently (on pain of government penalties too petty and expensive to dwell on). So, I remember past dreams in my dreams, which are based on times from my real time life outside my present dream. I do however prefer to dream without my knowing I’m in a dream, as sometimes is the case these days.

Edgar’s favourite mischief in his thirties (doggy years that is) was chasing horses. I didn’t encourage it of course, but distinctly remember, with some amusement, a time Edgar had been off the lead, scuttled under a gate, and gotten into a field with six or seven horses in it. He’d been trying to do this for weeks, but I’d always put him back on the lead before we got that far on our walk. The next thing I saw was Edgar chasing the horses round and round that field until he simply flopped to the ground exhausted, luckily he came to me as soon as I’d managed to whistle loud enough to attract his attention, and we swiftly departed; avoiding the Gloucester’s farm for a good few months after that.

Back in the dream, I looked down at Edgar’s greying face. His tongue was lolling out of his mouth and now he knew he had my attention he’d that half smile look on his face, the look of a weary granddad: he’d be only too willing to go down the slide again with the grandkids, if only he could catch his breath. I remembered from my dream memory how Edgar had followed me for mile after mile in the previous twelve years, through rain and hail, snow and frost, across grass and tarmac, concrete and sand. Without question or complaint, unconditionally loyal, like a second skin stuck tighter than a guardian angel, always hovering about ten or fifteen feet in front. Every now and then stopping, quickly peering over his shoulder, and then trotting off again guarding against any potential ambush by other dog’s humans.

In the way of dreams, films, and books the scene in this dream was changing, a transition, blurring like ink in water, and fading into nothing. Then reappearing – the bright grass of the plastic parkland becoming a busy freeway in Florida; there were palm trees growing down the middle of the street, then shops and lights appeared, cars, trucks, cabs, bikers and women. I remember the women, all young and beautiful, tanned skin as smooth as wet velvet, and smiles as shiny as the sun. Music and laughing was everywhere; it floated like a cloud of shimmering vapour around us. Edgar had decided to lie down by then, head cocked to one side, listening carefully and waiting on his master’s voice. At that moment I felt a tap on my arm.

“Excuse me”, said a man’s voice in a Texan drawl, “can you tell me how to get to Nevada sir?”

I turned around and there stood a cowboy wearing a hat that was multicoloured and shimmered, he had long legs clothed in two tone ska trousers, sharp creased, blue and red, like a melons smile when it’s sliced in the sun, at a music festival – bright but sharp.

Then I realised his face was Clifford’s, I hadn’t seen him for sixty two years, the last time I had been waving to him from the back seat of my step-dad’s old Ford Cortina as we began our journey up North to live in Glasgow. It was a Ford Cortina estate, navy blue, sixteen-hundred cubic centimetres of engine, it hit eighty miles an hour once, on the A5, while we were on a day trip to Brighton, I remember the crazed hammering my step-dad did on the dashboard, as he hunched over the steering wheel looking like a manic hunchback, foot jammed to the floor on the accelerator; he’d been convinced the speedometer was stuck and kept shouting as he battered the dashboard, “it’s eighty really! Its eighty really!” The whole car shook, and the roar of the wind drowned out even the screams of the over revved engine, mother and my two younger siblings.

Even though Clifford was now at least sixty-seven he looked no older than six, and he seemed to have shrunk, and his Stay-press trousers had turned into shorts. It was then I realised I was only six as well. I touched my head and felt an abundance of hair. I turned round and Edgar had gone, the noises, the girls, the tarmac and the car roar had been replaced by the bird song and leaf rustle of the woods, just outside of Carnforth, Lancashire, on the southernmost border of the Lake District, home of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Beatrix Potter. To be precise the Hyning Scout Woods, lair of old men killers and poachers, and the future planned burial site of my future last dog. I grabbed Clifford by the shoulders and asked him to dream me back to Florida.

“It was Orlando, I think,” I said.

Only inches from him, I’d tilted my head and was looking up into his face, the cowboy hat had blown off and become lodged in a dead tree, the wind blew Clifford’s blond hair about, it was shoulder length and curly, and his face was reddened, as if he’d been running and running for miles and miles.

“This way,” he said, “follow me.”

He turned abruptly and ran away from me through the woods; he was barefoot and wore the shorts he’d had on in Florida but no t-shirt. His blonde hair flowed back towards me as he ran. The forest floor was littered with leaves and pine needles, twigs, branches and rocks, and logs left by the tree-fellers. But I didn’t feel any of it, I ran after him faster than I’ve run for years, it seemed as if I were just above the ground, and the breeze caressed my face like a mother soothes her baby; the trees flashed past us in a blur of green and ochre shades. We dodged between them and jumped over fallen branches, which lay strewn across the earth like sculptures, carefully placed in a Roman church courtyard, of marbled green granite. Suddenly we swung into the branches, soaring up into the leaf canopy. Leaving the forest floor we chased the grey squirrels and startled sleeping owls. It seemed only natural that we‘d bump into Lorraine and Jane, from Green Lane School. Giggling hysterically and holding hands we’d flown together again; we reminisced and shared recollections of our dream memories: a gang of four innocents flying in a communal dream through trees and memories of pure sentimentality. I felt happier than I‘d felt for years, young, healthy and flying again, like I used to in my old dreams, with my old friends.

But then we neared the edge of the forest and the sun creased the trees, driving a spike of dazzling white light down through the branches to the leafy earth. And there he was: Edgar. He was lying on his side. I saw him from the top of the tree we’d been playing in, he looked like he was sleeping in a spotlight’s circle, but of sunlight. He looked warm and relaxed; but he wasn’t breathing. I wanted to keep flying, to laugh and play with my friends. At that moment I hated Edgar for spoiling my dream, for making me know it was a dream, and blurring the colours to shades of grey and white, for making my friends disappear, for melting the trees and earth away. I tried to fly but the earth dragged me down, and in slow motion I fell.

I awoke with a jolt and opened my eyes a slit, the brightness of the curtains almost blinding me. The aches and pains in my hands and hip hadn’t surfaced yet, but they would, as sure as polystyrene floats, the pain would gouge through my synapses and skewer my brain. I saw the brightness of the room, I heard Edgar snoring and felt guilty, but then rolled over and shut my eyes, day dreaming about being a kid again.

Short Stories, Franz Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, and ‘The Giant Mole’

Friday, February 15th, 2008

In the Penal Settlement is the first in the series of stories in this collection that considers more than one character in any depth. The explorer, the officer, the soldier and the condemned all undergo a transformation as the story unfolds; told in third person, limited to the explorer, the story evolves as the penal settlement is about to abandon use of “a remarkable piece of apparatus.” (p.169). The apparatus is used to kill the condemned: those who have been sentenced to death arbitrarily, without recourse to due process. The punishment of death suffered by those guilty of even the most minor of infractions.

The condemned and the officer swap places, bizarrely the officer dies on the apparatus, we are shown the grave of the old commandant, and witness the explorer fleeing the island in fear of his life, after having watched the officer kill himself on the apparatus. The explorer does however succeed in his mission of helping to repeal the death penalty. The parallels in this story with themes explored in The Burrow could be said to be the idea of confinement, living in the burrow in fear, and both the burrower and the condemned coping with death as an everyday occurrence.

In juxtaposition to the morose and lurid tone of In the Penal Settlement, The Giant Mole is a humorous tale concerning the alleged sighting of a giant mole, said to be three feet in length. A paper is written about the sighting by an old teacher. One of this teacher’s pupils, and the narrator of the story, produces a pamphlet concerning the same giant mole; this causes tension between the teacher and former pupil. In this story Kafka considers the binaries of the serious and the absurd, age against youth, and city against country in order to highlight the contrast between recorded history and parochial anecdotes.

The link between The Giant Mole and The Burrow is obvious, in that the unknown predator, like a giant mole, lives underground. However, the voice of The Giant Mole is both witty and, at times, sarcastic. The narrator’s observations and cool analysis of the elderly, as he sees them, is particularly cutting:

“Most old people have something deceitful, something perfidious, in their dealing with people younger than themselves; you live at peace with them, imagine you are on the best of terms with them, know their ruling prejudices receive continual assurances of amity, take the whole thing for granted; and when something decisive happens and those peaceful relations, so long nourished, should come into effective operation, suddenly these old people rise before you like strangers, show that they have deeper and stronger convictions, and now for the first time literally unfurl their banner, and with terror you read upon it the new decree. The reason for this terror lies chiefly in the fact that what the old say now is really far more just and sensible than what they said before; it is as if even the self-evident had degrees of validity, and their words now were more self-evident than ever. But the final deceit that lies in their words is this, that at bottom they have always said what they are saying now.” (p. 212)

This acidic observation, made from the perspective of the dismissive younger man, consists of just two sentences. This sentence length and the almost wordy descriptive detail is typical of the style of prose in this collection of stories. The ideas explored in The Giant Mole, concerning the reliability of memory and the recording of events, have a postmodern feel to them. The “unpardonable confusion of identity” (p. 210) is a precursor to the simulacrum considered in postmodern works by Auster, Swift, Morrison et al. There is a consideration of the reliability of written records and the way in which they can be manipulated by the withdrawal of competing ideas. The narrator, in his pamphlet,

“had expressly declared that the teacher must stand for all time as the discoverer of the mole – and he was not even that – and that only my sympathy with his unfortunate fate had spurred me on to write.” (p. 207 ).

Here we see ideas concerning the reliability and accuracy of history; postmodern ideas concerning the reliability of the grand narratives of history, like those considered many year later by Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse 5, for example, in the context of the fire-bombing of Dresden.

The style of Paul Auster in voice and narrative is reminiscent of Kafka. The absurdity of The Giant Mole is a device used by Auster in texts such as The Music of Chance (building a wall) and Mr. Vertigo (in which a boy can fly). The ideas explored by Heidegger, who likened human existence to “being found”, are also considered by Kafka, most obviously in Metamorphosis and Investigations of a Dog. Likewise Paul Auster in Tales from The Scriptorium uses the device of a man finding himself in an environment of which he has no immediate memory.

The common thread is that the reasons for the characters finding themselves in their current surroundings are unclear. Thereafter the affect that his has on the subjects is studied in minute detail. Both Kafka and Auster describe their characters’ motivations and observations in such fine detail as to cause the reader to empathise with how those characters must feel. Using this evocative technique Kafka is able to garner sympathy from the reader for a giant insect in Metamorphosis. Both styles involve a carefully crafted use of language; the sentences are long, involute but not tautologous. There is occasional reference back to what has been said; themes are revisited. Of course Auster is most concerned with the loss of identity suffered by the simulacrum that people his novels; Kafka is not concerned with identity in this collection so much as environment, isolation, and, to a lesser extent, the effect of cities and crowds on individuality. Of course Auster echoes these themes in works such as Moon Palace, in which the main character ends up sleeping rough in Central Park and losing his identity as well as his grasp of reality; similarly in City of Glass, in which the detective, Daniel Quinn (who may be the hero of Tales from the Scriptorium), ends up sleeping in an alley for months keeping watch on an empty apartment. During his self-imposed exile he is transformed completely, loses his home, his money, and his identity; eventually Quinn disappears into the city, merging with it.

In this collection Franz Kafka is exploring the binaries of mind and body and the relationships between the two. He also considers the nature of language in the labyrinth of The Burrow. He considers human relationships, and in particular isolation, rejection and loneliness. He also examines our attitudes towards suffering, illness, old age and death. The prose is precise yet verbose, finely chiselled each word is as if carved with precision and care. As if written from the viewpoint of a survivor who has been rescued; years later to tell his tale, embellished with minute detail and careful characterisation. Of all the stories, for me at least, The Giant Mole is the funniest; Investigations of a Dog the most challenging; Metamorphosis the most emotive.

Kafka, F (1961) Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics: London

I think I’m thinking. Therefore, I think I’m here.

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

This idea finds its origin in the writing of Descartes. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly conducting Reason and reaching the Truth in the Sciences is a Philosophical work that contains, in part four, his most famous statement, “I think therefore I am.”


Descartes is considered to be one of the main architects of the modern age.  He is remembered most for a comprehensive physico-mathematical reductionism: everything could be described by reference to size, shape and motion. Secondly for the idea that the mind lay outside the purview of physics and can only be understood from within, through introspective self-conscious reflection.

The Burrow and Investigations of a Dog, Short Stories by Franz Kafka

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Kafka continues the anthropomorphic metaphor to consider the life of a solitary mammalian predator; a predator that is large enough to consider a rat easy pray. The character begins to describe, from the first person point of view, his life. He paints a finely detailed picture of underground dwelling, the voice of the narrator is content and self congratulatory as we are given a guided tour of his fine burrow. He has so much food he needs to make additional room for it all.

Once the construction work is complete the burrower leaves the burrow. When preparing to return he considers the danger attendant upon entering his burrow alone. Eventually, after keeping the burrow under surveillance, and digging another entrance, he returns to the burrow. He seems contented.

The solitary nature of his existence may or may not be natural for the species under consideration, we are not told; neither are we told why, if it is not natural, he would choose isolation. Certainly there is no contact with any other members of his species in the text. The story is partly a detailed study of the affect isolation has upon the psyche of the first person narrator. As he becomes aware of “small fry” burrowing and making a noise near the “Castle Keep” he begins to exhibit signs of paranoia. His burrow becomes increasingly untidy as he digs experimental trenches as a means of finding the noisome intruders. This noise could, of course, be imagined by the narrator. The narrator himself concedes that the noise could be emanating from a water pipe. Later on he believes the noise has grown louder, he comes to believe that the creature or creatures making the noise must be powerful, and eventually thinks he may die fighting to protect his burrow. He even stops eating for a time.

In both this story and Investigations of a Dog Kafka ends the piece with a contemplative solitary animal considering their environment.

Dog says, in Investigations of a Dog, that he “…prize[s] freedom higher than anything else.” (Kafka, 1961, p. 126). In The Burrow what initially is shown to be a place of peace and sanctuary becomes a place of fear. A place that is watched and listened to by unknown intruders. In this place the main character becomes obsessed with noises that had not registered previously. In the same way that the dog is distorted physically by his desire to fast so too is the burrower. However it is his mind that is affected. We are not told the reason for the self imposed underground exile – and it it reasonable to believe that the main character can live outside at times because he does so on occasions in the text – but its consequence is to make him belive that he is being pursued by “a beast”. He continues to dig his trenches quietly, does not leave the burrow and listens for the beast. As the main character says in the last line of the text, “But all remains unchanged.” (Kafka, 1961, p. 166).

Both stories could be seen as studies of the extremes of individuality and the psychological and physiological consequences of isolation from the crowd. Both characters seek freedom. The dog seeks knowledge and understanding empirically, and consequently is continually disappointed; the burrower seeks perfect isolation, only to find a form of imprisonment and surveillance by an unknown beast.

Kafka, F (1961) Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics: London

Franz Kafka Metamorphosis, Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep, Toni Morrison et al.

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Song of Solomon, and Paradise are the books I have been reading since my last post. I have enthusiastically taken on board Ray Bradbury’s advice that one must read to write. I love to read so much that the writing is constantly being postponed. I now hope to resume writing. This coincides with some LAMP development I ‘m involved in. It’s always the same.

I also read Sol Stein’s Solutions for Novelists and the excellent How to Write A Damn Good Novel II by Jame N. Frey. These two books are both beautifully written, inspiring, and motivational. James N. Frey’s text is especially lucid, for me in any event, he gets straight to the point and offers useful practical advice for the blocked (loafing?) writer.

Kafka is an interesting chap, born in Prague he wrote in German and we read the translations. The stories are good in the volume I have been reading. Metamorphosis is a story I had heard of but never previously read. I must say thet the characterisation that Kafka manages is amazing and the gentle rise in tension and unexpected ending made for a challenging read. On first impression it struck me as a study in difference, but then I extended this idea to reluctant or forced individualitiness, which in turn reminded me of the idea of “being found”, as an analogy for existence,  considered by Heidegger. In this story the family, for whom Gregor had cared selflessly, gradually turn on him after his transformation. The individual is the transformed Gregor, also favoured by Jean Paul Satre over the “herd”, is shown to be weak in the face of the established order of the family; “the chief”, Gregor’s unforgiving boss, is a metaphor for authority that intrudes suspiciously while remaining essentially unknown. The idea of an unknown and vague organisation whose authority is recognized by the populace without question is further considered in The Great Wall of China. This story follows on from Metamorphosis and is in turn followed by Investigations of a Dog. For me Investigations of a Dog is the strongest story in the collection; the idea of starvation in the face of a nameless crowd is echoed in Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

The ideas considered by Kafka in this collection, influenced as they are by Existentialism, are further developed in the ideas of Post Modernism. Science, especially in Investigations of Dog, and it’s Philosophical parent Empiricism, is sceptically analysed from the point of view of the dog when he hilariously considers the origins of food.