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The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

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9 days ago
Boulder, CO
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I Am Part of the Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep’s Death Cult


Nyarlathotep is now facing one of the greatest threats in Its presidency so far. I should know, I clock in to kneel at Its feet upon the Altar of Despair every day.

In the year-and-a-half since the Black Pharaoh replaced the Oval Office with a literal blood fountain throne, I’ve watched as the hits keep on coming. The executive cabinet is wracked with scandal, ordinary citizens who signed the cultist oath are making good on their grave pacts, and, of course, the entirety of the country’s water supply is now teeming with pulsating eggs from some kind of inter-dimensional parasite. It’s easy to look at these kinds of headlines, to read these sorts of leaked stories from the desiccated Capitol Hill, and see an unsustainable administration. Rumors of reversal incantations are beginning to make the rounds, and if our Commander-in-Chief is not careful, It could find Itself cast back among the stars beyond the universe. The past few weeks, in particular, have seen our President certainly live up to our campaign slogan “I See All, and It Shall Burn.”

But it’s important Americans know there are still some of us upholding the tenets envisioned by the original Necro-Party. We are part of a different kind of Resistance, one that still supports the foundations scrawled within the Tome of Infernal Torment, and not the whims of a Mad Anti-God who cares not for the literalist interpretations we hold so blasphemous. We believe the Tome is, was, and will forever be instrumental in wresting reason from the minds of the multitude. It may provide faint solace, but we felt we owe it to our fellow subjugates to let them know all is still very much for naught.

The root of this problem, we believe, is in Nyarlathotep’s very essence. It is a being incapable of viewing Its servants as anything other than playground toys or troublesome fleas. Many may argue that we should have known this to be the case for the Stalker Among the Stars. And that might well prove true, to a point. We summoned the God of a Thousand Forms assuming the weight of responsibility would rein It in slightly, remind It to adhere to the Necronomicon’s nightmare prophesies first and foremost. If it was foolish to assume the Outer God would care so little about this dimension that it wouldn’t even acknowledge the Tome’s existence, well, call us fools. We still believe utter ruin can be brought to the land through the proper rituals and unhallowed traditions, not by this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-tentacles kind of governing.

Don’t get me wrong. We still willingly choose to show up each and every day in order to carry out Nyarlathotep’s sins. Its Administration has produced things we are truly proud of — instituting monthly public desecrations, a complete reform of the tax system now requiring every other family’s firstborn — we still maintain this will eventually benefit Middle America — and increasing the defense budget. The entirety of our armed forces is now morphed into a singular, gargantuan oozing mass of shrieking teeth and eyes. Nyarlathotep campaigned on veterans’ reform, and by golly, we sure got it, if for a price some of us did not anticipate.

But we are not giving up so easily, readers. We do not renege on blood vows — we literally can’t, apparently, unless we want our innards sucked out by that inter-dimensional parasite. There are those of us still wandering the labyrinthine halls of the mutated Capitol Building, looking for ways to constructively appease Nyarlathotep, despite continual smear campaigns by the elitist, now underground press. For instance, we replaced the orphans It absorbs every “morning” with migrant laborers, and It didn’t seem to notice. When Its appetite turned to Idaho, one of us directed Its soulless gaze up towards the moon. No more moon, of course, but no one can say we ever turned our back on our core constituents.

Yes, there are those of us Mad Priests who take that title and run with it, but most of them have long since formed a pile of frothing bodies in front of that Altar of Despair. I felt it was my duty to let the remaining Americans know that a few of us choose to remain sobbing within the trembling corridors of the West Wing, but still dedicated to the cause of infinite nothing. In the end, I am still confident our ruin will be brought upon us the way we always intended — by our own hand and summoning of the proper Outer God. It is important that, despite our differences in beliefs and backgrounds, everyday subjugates remember that it is still within us to strip our remaining descriptors in favor of a single, unifying one: Blind Specks Floating in a Fetid Void.

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11 days ago
Boulder, CO
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Dread of Heinleinism

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Anent nothing: over on his other blog, noted SF critic James Nicoll asked, "I wonder if there's an essay on why discovering a writer of a certain age is setting out to write a Heinlein-style book fills me with dread."

What follows is my attempt at answering his question. If you're unfamiliar with (or uninterested in) the bizarre hold the literary legacy of Robert A. Heinlein holds on the imagination of more recent SF writers, you can safely skip this blog entry.

RAH was, for better or worse, one of the dominant figures of American SF between roughly 1945 and 1990 (he died in 1988 but the publishing pipeline drips very slowly). During his extended career (he first began publishing short fiction in the mid-1930s) he moved through a number of distinct phases. One that's particularly notable is the period from 1946 onwards when, with Scribners, he began publishing what today would be categorized as middle-grade SF novels (but were then more specifically boys adventure stories or childrens fiction): books such as Rocket Ship Galileo, Space Cadet, Red Planet, and Have Space Suit, Will Travel. There were in all roughly a dozen of these books published from 1947 to 1958, and as critic John Clute notes, they included some of the very best juvenile SF ever written (certainly at that point), and were free of many of the flaws that affected Heinlein's later works—they maintained a strong narrative drive, were relatively free from his tendency to lecture the reader (which could become overwhelming in his later adult novels), and were well-strutured as stories.

But most importantly, these were the go-to reading matter for the baby boom generation, kids born from 1945 onwards. It used to be said, somewhat snidely, that "the golden age of SF is 12"; if you were an American boy (or girl) born in 1945 you'd have turned 12 in 1957, just in time to read Time for the Stars or Citizen of the Galaxy. And you might well have begun publishing your own SF novels in the mid-1970s—if your name was Spider Robinson, or John Varley, or Gregory Benford, for example.

Then a disturbing pattern begins to show up.

The pattern: a white male author, born in the Boomer generation (1945-1964), with some or all of the P7 traits (Pale Patriarchal Protestant Plutocratic Penis-People of Power) returns to the reading of their childhood and decides that what the Youth of Today need is more of the same. Only Famous Dead Guy is Dead and no longer around to write more of the good stuff. Whereupon they endeavour to copy Famous Dead Guy's methods but pay rather less attention to Famous Dead Guy's twisty mind-set. The result (and the cause of James's sinking feeling) is frequently an unironic pastiche that propagandizes an inherently conservative perception of Heinlein's value-set.

Sometimes this is a side-effect of the process. Spider Robinson, for example (born 1948) wrote Variable Star (published 2006) on the basis of an 8-page outline found in Heinlein's papers. (The result is a dutifully executed late-1940s Heinlein juvenile, designed to captivate 1940s boy scouts, published just in time for the Nintendo generation.) Sometimes it's deliberate: Greg Benford's Jupiter Project or John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless are tales about teen-agers growing up in space colonies. And sometimes there's a sneaky dialog at work with Heinlein's own work—as many critics have noted (in particular Jo Walton) the state of contemporary SF exists in furious dialog with (and commentary upon) its own antecedents, and one prime example might be John Varley's Steel Beach (shortlisted for the Hugo, Locus, and Prometheus awards in 1993). (While the setting of Steel Beach is utterly non-Heinleinian, there's a very specifically Heinleinian sensibility to the meta-narrative, to the way the author's viewpoint illuminates the events of the story—and there's a specific hat-tip to Heinlein buried in the second half of the book that makes it explicit.) (Mind you, Steel Beach is anything but a Heinlein juvenile, as becomes clear from the very first line: "In five years, the penis will be obsolete," said the salesman.)

But here's the thing: as often as not, when you pick up a Heinlein tribute novel by a male boomer author, you're getting a classic example of the second artist effect.

Heinlein, when he wasn't cranking out 50K word short tie-in novels for the Boy Scouts of America, was actually trying to write about topics for which he (as a straight white male Californian who grew up from 1907-1930) had no developed vocabulary because such things simply weren't talked about in Polite Society. Unlike most of his peers, he at least tried to look outside the box he grew up in. (A naturist and member of the Free Love movement in the 1920s, he hung out with Thelemites back when they were beyond the pale, and was considered too politically subversive to be called up for active duty in the US Navy during WW2.) But when he tried to look too far outside his zone of enculturation, Heinlein often got things horribly wrong. Writing before second-wave feminism (never mind third- or fourth-), he ended up producing Podkayne of Mars. Trying to examine the systemic racism of mid-20th century US society without being plugged into the internal dialog of the civil rights movement resulted in the execrable Farnham's Freehold. But at least he was trying to engage, unlike many of his contemporaries (the cohort of authors fostered by John W. Campbell, SF editor extraordinaire and all-around horrible bigot). And sometimes he nailed his targets: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" as an attack on colonialism, for example (alas, it has mostly been claimed by the libertarian right), "Starship Troopers" with its slyly embedded messages that racial integration is the future and women are allowed to be starship captains (think how subversive this was in the mid-to-late 1950s when he was writing it).

In contrast, Heinlein's boomer fans rarely seemed to notice that Heinlein was all about the inadmissible thought experiment, so their homages frequently came out as flat whitebread 1950s adventure yarns with blunt edges and not even the remotest whiff of edgy introspection, of consideration of the possibility that in the future things might be different (even if Heinlein's version of diversity ultimately faltered and fell short).

There are exceptions. Post-boomer cultural appropriation of Heinleinian tropes sometimes results in different outcomes. 1969-vintage John Scalzi is still a straight white male American, but at least he grew up after Martin Luther King, after Stonewall, after Vietnam. His Heinlein tributes aren't challenging, but neither are they reactionary: rather, they're positioned as gateway drugs intended to make reading fun for teenagers. And you can see some of the barest hints of the Heinleinian SF story skeleton in the most unexpected places, once you look for it: Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, winner of the 2016 Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella, is structurally absolutely of a kind with Heinlein's 1950s juveniles and pushes many of the same buttons, even though the society depicted in it would have been beyond Heinlein's wildest imagining (being about as far from white Calfornian male reality as you can get while still writing in the same language).

As for me, I will plead guilty to having committed Heinlein tribute-ism ... but with malice aforethought. I'm of mid-1960s vintage, on the cusp of Generation X: while Heinlein's juveniles were on the library shelves while I was growing up, so were Dangerous Visions, and his scouts-in-space sensibility felt curiously stale and airless to me. Which is why I wrote Saturn's Children as a late period Heinlein tribute, a story in dialogue with Friday. I ended up making it made it all about a diseased society and an abuse victim, and not remotely school library safe. Because the only way to win some games is not to play.

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11 days ago
Boulder, CO
23 days ago
Washington, DC
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1 public comment
24 days ago
I feel like I should read more Stross now.
Louisville, KY
24 days ago
You should. Happy to recommend his novels. What sort of thing do you enjoy?
24 days ago
I also recommend Stross highly. His books are often quite fun, and his computing background shows up in interesting ways.
23 days ago
Stross always tries to do something different in each novel, which means you may find you like one book but hate the next. I'm a big fan of the Laundry series but I threw the first Merchant Princes book across the room; your mileage might be exactly the opposite.
23 days ago
@zwol The Merchant Princes series started out intentionally deceptive (for contract reasons; Stross wasn't contractually allowed to sell another sci-fi series to a different publisher at that time but wanted to diversify publishers), and also that it was written as bigger volumes that were chopped up into dumber smaller pieces by the publisher. The series gets so much better as its sci-fi elements show up, and the recently released omnibus editions at better at collecting the through arcs leading to the sci-fi. It's worth giving a second chance. I'm glad I did, as some of the later Merchant Princes books get really good.
23 days ago
Yep. Sometimes uneven, always thought provoking. But on balance, a brilliant author whose books I buy without question.

What Is a Garlic Germ, and Should You Remove It?

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Whether or not it’s really necessary to remove the germ from garlic is a proposition that can easily be tested. So we did. Read More
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11 days ago
Boulder, CO
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Who pays to educate developers?

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I’ve been thinking about developer education (and, specifically, education of professional developers who have been working for a few years already) for the last year or so. In my last post I talked about how to teach yourself hard things, which is how I’ve learned most things.

But! Even when you’re learning on your own, there are all kinds of resources you depend on! Some examples of places I’ve learned things are:

  • a few really great programming books
  • conference talks
  • hundreds of blog posts (I subscribe to dozens of programming blogs)
  • Twitter
  • meetups
  • Slack groups

All of these things (tweets, blog posts, conference talks, etc) take time to make, and a lot of it is given away for free. So who pays for all of this work? Here’s a rough taxonomy! If you have more to add to it (or examples of people you think are doing great education work that fits into these categories!), I’d love to hear them on twitter.

companies with a product to sell

One common way to get paid money to teach people about programming is to become a “developer advocate”. I think this is a pretty cool thing! Basically, a lot of companies have realized that a good way to sell tech products is to explain the tech concepts behind their products to people in a way that they can actually understand. A great example of this is Google Cloud and Kubernetes – a lot of Google developer advocates will write blog posts / give great talks explaining Kubernetes. And those talks are often really helpful whether or not you end up using Google products!

But what Google gets out of it is – if more people understand Kubernetes, then as a side effect they also understand Google’s Kubernetes-as-a-service platform, and they’re likely to be more excited about the advantages of using it.

Personally I think this is great – developer advocates are often great programmers and great teachers, they get paid to do something that they care about, and they get a lot of free and high-quality information into the world about various complicated tech things. Awesome!

There are some downsides though, for example Google Cloud developer advocates obviously will focus on subjects that are somehow related to Google Cloud :)

individual people who get paid in exposure

This is the category most personal blog posts / conference talks fall into. The economics of this are – you put together some great blog posts / talks, and maybe folks in your industry now recognize/respect you and are more likely to want to hire you!

My original motivation for starting this blog, 5 years ago, was I wanted to get a better job than the job I’d had before. I posted a lot of my articles to hacker news to try to get readers. And I think it helped! In any case I do have a way better job now :)

Obviously those aren’t still my motivations – probably the main reason I keep writing here is that I find it rewarding when people tell me that my blog posts helped them learned something. But that’s not the only reason! some side effects are:

  • It’s easier for me to get answers to questions I have about tech
  • I know it’ll be a little easier for me to get interviews for future jobs, which is reassuring
  • giving talks at conferences helped me build a network of folks I can ask questions / learn about the industry from

and all that is pretty useful to my career! For example, just last week someone who had read my blog emailed me out of the blue about a super interesting job and we had an awesome conversation and I learned something new about the kinds of jobs that exist in computer networking! That would definitely not have happened if I didn’t blog about what I was learning :)

So blogging / speaking in tech is a long-term investment in your future job opportunities and it can pay off!

companies who make money through recruiting

I talk about the Recurse Center all the time. They don’t produce educational materials directly, but they’re one of the most interesting places to level up as a developer that I know. It’s free to attend and they make money through recruiting. They’re how I got my current job, and the company that hired me paid them 25% of my first year’s salary. I didn’t pay them anything.

(as an aside, I recommend recruiting through RC if you want to hire people who are good at learning – you find out more at

companies who sell education to developers

The next bucket is companies who sell educational materials to developers directly.

various examples of this that I think are kind of interesting:

  • Linux Weekly News, which offers a $7/month subscription to get the latest articles. I really recommend subscribing. It’s great.
  • Launch School has a $200/month class with the aim of getting you a way better software job.
  • the School for Poetic Computation, which is a cool school in NYC in the intersection of art & tech. it costs $5000 or so for a 10-week class.
  •, a set of Javascript video tutorials, $40/month
  • O’Reilly’s books & videos (like safari).
  • Lynda, Udacity, Udemy, Coursera all have online courses
  • all the various coding bootcamps

individuals who sell education to developers

I’m breaking this out from “companies who sell education to developers” because it seems like these businesses are differently flavoured. O’Reilly/Lynda/Udacity/Udemy sell information about basically everything related to programming. Usually individual people have a much narrower focus, which is cool.

To me, self publishing definitely falls into this category! In 2018, it seems like a much more viable way to actually make money from teaching than traditional publishing.

programming books

I’m going to mostly not talk about programming books for traditional publishers because even though they’re really important, they seem to live in a complicated place between “writing for free for exposure” and “making money” that I don’t fully understand. For instance in the economics of writing a technical book the author says he made about $23/hour for 500 hours of work. I don’t know if that’s typical.

If people are actually making money at rates better than $20/hourish from publishing programming books with traditional publishers, I’d be curious to know about that! This is not something I know a lot about yet.

sell training to companies

Selling training to companies is a really logical pattern – an individual might not be willing to pay $2000 for a class, but a company might very well be willing to pay $2000/person for a 10-person in-person class!

here are some examples I know about in that area:

There are probably a TON more here that I don’t know about.

should I be paying for more learning materials?

So! Reflecting on this a bit, the categories we’ve seen are:

  1. devs who want to learn pay (to invest in their knowledge)
  2. devs who want to teach pay (to share knowledge / build their network / build a reputation for being an expert)
  3. companies pay (to educate their employees)
  4. companies selling a product pay (to educate their future customers)

Basically everything that’s free lives in either category #2 or #4, which is most of what I read. Is that really what I want to be doing, though? As much as I ADORE all the bloggers I read I feel like it’s kind of weird that I mostly learn from free sources, and the incentive structures there aren’t that well aligned with producing really excellent learning materials.

One of my favourite sources recently to learn from has been the book the linux programming interface, which is not free (it’s $70 or so). And it’s a MUCH more reliable and useful and efficient source than reading Stack Overflow answers about Linux. But not all books I’ve bought have been consistently an excellent use of time to read, so I find this a bit tricky.

on writing for free / writing for money

The other reason I’m thinking about this, obviously, is that I started selling some of my zines recently, and I’m trying to figure out if I want to change where exactly I fit into this whole ecosystem. I’m pretty comfortable with where I am right now (blogging is fun! I get to meet cool people! having writing on the internet that anyone can just read by clicking on a link is great!), so making changes to that is kind of interesting/scary. We’ll see what happens!

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11 days ago
This is a pretty good breakdown of a thing that turns out to have been a huge part of my livelihood for the last decade or better.
Boulder, CO
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Book Review | Kafka’s Last Trial by Ruby Namdar

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Kafka’s Last Trial
by Benjamin Balint
W. W. Norton & Company
2018, 288 pp, $26.95

“One summer morning in Jerusalem, Eva Hoffe, eighty-two, sat with her hands clasped on a polished curved wood bench in an alcove of the Israeli Supreme Court’s high-ceilinged lobby. To pass the time before her hearing, a friend who had come to lend support leafed through a copy of the daily newspaper Maariv. On the whole, Eva avoided the press; she resented the farrago of lies generated by journalists bent on portraying her as an eccentric cat-lady, an opportunist looking to make a fast buck on cultural treasures too important to remain in private hands.”

These dramatic lines open Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint’s account of one of the most fascinating debates over Jewish literature’s definition and boundaries: the 2016 legal battle over Franz Kafka’s literary legacy and the final resting place of his surviving papers. Few literary figures have stirred readers’ imaginations as much as Kafka, his tormented life and early death. Indeed, he is viewed as a mythical figure as much as a renowned author. But above all, the bizarre story of how Kafka’s work survived and entered the canon has become a staple of literary legend. Kafka’s Last Trial focuses on the lively debate over Kafka’s papers, while also shedding light on his intriguing personality—and his equally intriguing relationship with the author Max Brod, whose name is now irreversibly intertwined with Kafka’s legacy.

The story of Kafka’s life, death and literary resurrection is widely known, even among those who have never read a single line of his work. Born in 1883, Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Prague. After studying law, he began his working life at an insurance company, leaving him little time to write. The young Kafka found his new position oppressive, later writing that it robbed him of his soul. The conflict between his poetic core and the bureaucratic alienation of middle-class conventions is one of the main motifs in Kafka’s work, and often considered his signature theme.

Kafka’s personal life was equally tormented. Ill at ease with himself and his relationships, he was engaged to several women, but never married. His relationship with his father was perhaps his formative conflict, and the famous letters between the two betray Kafka’s overwhelming sense of self-doubt and self-loathing. Kafka’s writing career was also far from thriving. Although a few of his works were published during his lifetime in literary magazines, they received little to no public attention. Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to destroy the rest of his works after his death, including the unfinished manuscripts of Der Process (The Trial), Das Schloss (The Castle) and Der Verschollene (translated as both Amerika and The Man Who Disappeared). But when Kafka died from tuberculosis in 1924, at age 40, Brod ignored his friend’s request and published the manuscripts. Without Brod’s refusal to honor this final wish, and his tireless efforts to promote Kafka’s work in the years that followed, Kafka’s name would never have become one of the most important in the history of modern literature.

The relationship between Kafka and Brod—who was, at the time, a much more successful writer—and the strange circumstances that turned Brod into the guardian of Kafka’s legacy are at the heart of Kafka’s Last Trial. Balint, an American-born writer, translator and journalist living in Jerusalem, expertly traces a path from the early days of their friendship—their age of innocence, so to speak—to the contemporary battle over Kafka’s legacy.

The turn of events that led to this last trial is itself Kafkaesque. When the Nazis took over Prague in 1939, 15 years after Kafka’s death, Brod fled to Palestine with his wife, Elsa, and a suitcase full of Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts. He settled in Tel Aviv, where he continued to write and worked as a dramaturge for the Habimah theatre. During this time he did his best to promote his late friend’s writing and build the international reputation Kafka’s work enjoys today. After his wife’s death in 1942, Brod became very close to a couple named Otto and Esther Hoffe, employing Esther as a secretary for a number of years; many presume that this relationship was romantic as well as professional. Before his death in 1968, Brod passed the legal stewardship of the Kafka papers in his possession to Esther Hoffe, who left them in her will to her daughters Eva and Ruth. Ruth died in 2012, and Eva kept the archive in her small Tel Aviv apartment, never revealing its contents or condition, and viewed it as her most prized personal possession.

During the 2016 court case, which played out in the halls of the Israeli Supreme Court, three parties fought for ownership of the archive: Eva Hoffe, the National Library of Israel and the German Literature Archive in Marbach. In the first chapter of Kafka’s Last Trial, Balint presents the logic behind each party’s claim: Hoffe maintains that she received the papers lawfully as part of her inheritance and says she does not wish to part with them. The National Library of Israel tries to claim Kafka as a “Jewish author,” arguing that its shelves are the natural destination for Jewish culture’s literary treasures. At the same time, the German Literature Archive in Marbach sees Kafka as a German-language author, despite his Jewish roots, and argues that it can store and display the Kafka papers under superior conditions. The Germans also claim that the archives would be more accessible to Kafka scholars worldwide if they were housed in Germany, rather than in Israel—or in Eva Hoffe’s musty Tel Aviv apartment.

These claims lead to many more questions, which Balint artfully examines in Kafka’s Last Trial’s well-conceived and well-defined chapters, bearing alluring names such as “Flirting with the Promised Land” and “Last Son of the Diaspora: Kafka’s Jewish Afterlife.” Balint explores Kafka’s relationship with his Jewishness and the Jewish world’s attempt to co-opt Kafka as a “Jewish author,” as well as Israel’s ambivalence toward Kafka—and diaspora culture in general. Finally, he studies the complex and intriguing questions of “ownership” over ideas, words and stories. In the thought-provoking chapter appropriately titled “Kafka’s Creator,” Balint touches on some of the questions about Brod’s “disobedience” to Kafka’s last wish, and his posthumous “appropriation” of Kafka’s work. In this context, he quotes Cynthia Ozick’s claim that Brod “manipulated whatever came into his hands” and Czech-born author Milan Kundera’s insistence that Brod betrayed Kafka not only by propagating the myth of the suffering modern day saint, but also by indiscriminately publishing Kafka’s unfinished works and diaries, his undelivered letters to his father, and his love letters. Balint’s thoughts on these accusations are clear: “But had Brod obeyed the author’s last wish and consigned his manuscripts to the flames, most of Kafka’s writing would be lost. We—and Eva Hoffe—owe our Kafka to Brod’s disobedience.” This high level of discussion is typical of Kafka’s Last Trial, as is the tightness of its thematic structure. The many questions the book poses are all addressed in great detail and tied back to the dramatic trial, which would, it was hoped, put the issue of the Kafka archives to rest—though I’m not going to tell you what the court decided.

Although Kafka’s Last Trial is a work of nonfiction, it reads almost like a novel—a great compliment for such a serious and well-researched project. It tells a vital, gripping tale of a deep friendship between two seemingly incompatible young men—and how the early death of one prompts the other to become the guardian of his friend’s memory. It also tells, with compassion and sensitivity, the story of Eva Hoffe, a woman whose raison d’être became the preservation of Kafka’s legacy. Perhaps it is no accident that the two blurbs on the book’s back cover were not written by historians or biographers, but by two prominent Jewish novelists: Cynthia Ozick and Nicole Krauss, whose latest novel, Forest Dark, includes a fictional take on Kafka’s legacy—and mentions a suitcase full of perhaps-imagined papers taken (or stolen) from Eva Hoffe’s home in Tel Aviv. But despite the book’s compelling style and sweeping plot, Balint remains true to the limitations of a serious history. He closely follows the written evidence provided by the letters, memoirs and diaries of Brod, Kafka and others, as well as official sources such as court records and newspaper reports. Balint’s refusal to speculate about his protagonists’ hidden motivations is admirable given the novelistic instinct to explore the endless unspoken possibilities hiding below the story’s surface: Did Brod suffer a Salieri complex, living in the shadow of Kafka’s posthumous fame and glory? Did he harbor envy or animosity toward his late friend’s genius? These questions remain mostly untouched, leaving room for the reader’s imagination and creativity to fill in the gaps.

The Kafka mystique refuses to die. As I was putting the finishing touches on this review, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a sensational story reporting that Kafka had a son he never knew about, who died at the age of seven without ever meeting his father. The child’s mother, whose identity remained hidden behind the intriguing initials M.M., was an open-minded, independent woman who was not particularly interested in letting Kafka serve as her son’s father figure. She was murdered by the Nazis in Italy in 1945, when a German soldier beat her to death with a rifle butt. Although this story was mentioned in the English edition of Brod’s book Franz Kafka, it was not perceived by Haaretz as “old news,” a fact that speaks volumes to the vitality of the Kafka legend and its endless dramatic potential. Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial brilliantly captures this potential, providing lovers of Kafka—and lovers of literary history’s legends—with a wonderful opportunity to peer behind the screen of a dramatic life, death and literary resurrection.

Ruby Namdar is an Israeli author living in New York. His novel, The Ruined House, won the 2014 Sapir Prize.

The post Book Review | Kafka’s Last Trial by Ruby Namdar appeared first on Moment Magazine - The Next 5,000 Years of Conversation Begin Here.

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