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Kafka’s Body

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I have been in Venice this past weekend, at the Warwick Poetry in Medicine symposium. Even if you’ve been in Venice before, when the vaporetto comes from the Piazzale Roma onto the Grand Canal, in the bright morning sunlight, everything hangs like a Canaletto (1697-1768) canvas that is three dimensional, vast and alive. On either side palazzos, on the canal itself, life surging forward on gondolas, water taxis, small boats, etc. It is a vision that exceeds any expectation. A world that is imagination brought to life, a film set that is a living space. This idea is the basis of my blog: Kafka’s body. The distinction to be drawn between the world that one expects to see, the idealized image and the reality of the actually experienced world that is full of contradiction, illogicality, ugliness, suffering but that can on occasion rise to unimaginable if not unbelievable heights.

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It was 1972. But, I can’t remember whether it was at matriculation or convocation. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was speaking at Trenchard Hall, University of Ibadan. He had just been awarded an honorary DLitt. And he said of all the honorary graduands, he was the only one having to work for his award. Awolowo was my father’s hero, well he was the hero of every Yoruba man, my father’s generation.. He had formed the Action Group, fought for Nigerian Independence but soon after independence was arraigned for “treasonable felony” and convicted along with Anthony Enahoro and others. He was released from prison by Yakubu (Jack to his friends) Gowon in July 1966 and he served as Minister of Finance in Gowon’s government during the Nigerian Civil War. He resigned just before he spoke at Trenchard Hall. I cannot recall much of what he said except that he talked about Plato’s Republic, about Stuart Mill and Jeremy Betham, about federal systems of government, about confederacy and loose alliances. He was not a tall man but his intellectual stature made up for his average height. In this respect Awolowo lived up to my expectations.

1972 was a pivotal year for me. My father had died in 1971, the year that I completed secondary school. In 1972, I suppose you could say that I grew from boy to man. A number of my idols were smashed in my transformation from a thin, sickly schoolboy into a gangly undergraduate. Medicine, at least, dissecting was to further lay to rest any notion of the permanence of human life, or indeed of any sense of the sacred about the human body. Once you cut into a corpse, revealing sinews and bones, and you pulled at muscles in order to reveal gristle, prodded at eyeballs and vaginas, to find an empty, emptied house, something was lost forever and without your knowing it. Somehow, innocence had slipped out of reach. And the safety of assumed immortality and the false sense of the incorruptibility of our flesh were all lost to me forever.

That same year, 1972, three separate events at the King George V stadium in Lagos had unwittingly prepared me in readiness for what cadavers and later morbid anatomy would do to my innocence. The stadium was built in 1930. South of it was the Lagos Marina and beyond the quays and the open sea. To the north was the King George the Fifth swimming pool and then the museum and racecourse. In the same environ were the Governor General’s house, which later became the President’s residence and the Prime Minister’s residence. That was a different Lagos. Just outside the stadium walls were Flamboyant trees towering over the walls such that young boys and some men climbed the branches to watch the games, perched like gorillas in the crook of the branches.

The first occasion was when I went to see James Brown perform. It was a dismal affair. The sound was harsh and metallic. I had grown up listening to James Brown and dancing to his music. But here in Lagos, in the sultry Lagos evening, he seemed like a shrunken, withered old man with a head that was far too large for his body. His skin glistened with sweat under the spotlights. His head of hair, stretched with a hot comb seemed grotesque from afar. It was a fall from grace of an idol of my youth. The performance was conducted in a surreal atmosphere of shiny suits, outlandish colors, and lapels that were so wide that only buffoons play acting European manners wore these in Lagos.

My last ever visit to the stadium was to see Professor Peller, a magician, and said to be a member of the Magic Circle take on the last of our traditional magicians whose name now escapes me (itself a significant fact). Professor Peller was dressed in black tails, a top hat, a wand in one hand, black shoes and well-cut hair. He was a perfect picture of debonair gentleman and was assisted by an attractive young woman. He flicked his white handkerchief and a white dove flew out. He pulled at his cuff links and flowers bloomed under his command. He was confident, majestic. He was suave and graceful. He levitated his assistant. He cut her in two without drawing blood. He locked her in a cupboard, chained up several times over yet she disappeared! It was a masterly performance. The crowd clapped, hooped. We were seduced against our better judgment. We wished desperately that the traditional magician would enthrall and endear us to his magic, the mysteries of African magic. We were disappointed or shall I say that I was disappointed. When he came on stage dressed only in a loincloth of indeterminate color, you could hear the audience gasp aloud. Was this African magic? This crude, little thin man who seemed recently woken from the dead? He swallowed a stone and turned his backside to us, slipping his loincloth to one side and excreted the stone. Awfulness and shame. He submitted his abdomen to a sharp sword to be sliced open. But by now, the absence of razzmatazz and of finesse had turned us against him. The crowd poured through the gates. That was how disgusted we were. You can say that at George V stadium, in early adulthood I lost two of my childhood dreams.

My penultimate attendance at the stadium was to watch the Lagos academicals, the Lagos schoolboy football teams, play. We were packed like sardines at the stands. A famous Nigerian player walked past and every one greeted him as if he was their very own special friend. When you saw him on the pitch, on the TV, he was commanding, full of energy, penetrating the opposition’s half and threading balls past the defenders, slicing balls in past the goalkeepers. Here he was a regular guy, in workaday clothes. He seemed a completely different person. The presence and physicality when he played was absent and he seemed diminished somehow.

I left the match early that evening. The match was so packed with people that we leant on one another. Arms were shining with sweat in the Lagos evening. And as people leant on me I received the most electrifying shocks. This happened every few minutes. Nobody else seemed to be afflicted by this inconvenience. I left after a while because I could not stand the nuisance of these shocks. I have yet to have the experience explained to me. I continue to this day to experience electric shocks from touching car doors or sometimes on shaking someone’s hand. I take it to be something to do with static electricity. But why I seem to be alone in this affliction is a mystery.

The realization that the world is potentially liable to disappoint is like a tragic curse at the center of life. You could say that this realization is itself experienced in infancy during weaning. The infant comes to recognize that its needs will not all be met, will not always be met, and that mother is not perfect. Even though this is true, it is only in the transition from adolescence to adulthood that one consciously comes to fully comprehend this breach between the infinite and the finite. I suppose that is what the fall from grace is.

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Kafka, an author who was always attentive to this dilemma wrote in Letter to Father:

“I was skinny, weakly, slight; you were strong, tall, broad. Even in the changing room I felt pitiful, and what’s more, not only in your eyes, but in the eyes of the entire world, for you were for me the standard by which everything was measured. When we stepped out of the changing-room in front of everyone I holding your hand, a small skeleton, insecure, barefoot on the planks, afraid of the water incapable of copying your swimming strokes, which you, with good intentions but actually to my profound shame, kept on demonstrating to me then at such moments I was full of despair and all my bad experiences in all areas tallied marvelously…I was proud too of my father’s body”.

In my case, the loss of faith in idealized forms occurred in a stadium, an arena where the physical ideals of masculine beauty and dexterity are proclaimed. Kafka too is conscious of his physical fragility and this in comparison to the imagined athleticism of his father. But, this disparity between what is possible and what is actual, became embodied, in Kafka’s case. Not merely as metaphor but as reality. To that degree the sparseness of the writing is drawn on the model of his body. In a letter to Felice, he wrote:

“Just as I am thin, and I am the thinnest person I know…there is also nothing to me which, in relation to writing, one could say is superfluous, superfluous in the sense of overflowing. If there is a higher power that wishes to use me, or does use me, then I am at its mercy, if no more than as a well-prepared instrument. If not, I am nothing, and will suddenly be abandoned in a dreadful void”.

And, it isn’t just that the writing style and his physical form have a reciprocal and intersecting dimension to them. It is also that, in thinking about why he has not married, why he cannot marry, he alludes once again to his father’s girth:

“Marrying is barred to me because it is your very own territory. Sometimes I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it. And then it seems to me as though I could consider living only in those places that you either do not cover or that do not lie within your reach. And, in keeping with the conception that I have of your size, these are not many and not very comforting regions, and especially marriage is not among them”.

Where I have been writing about Venice, the Venice that glows in the sunlight, that surprises our imagination, that retains this wonderful and undeniable capacity to match its idealized form, at least from afar, I have also been talking about how the reality of the brutal and ugly world undermines trust in the infinite, the transcendental. But, Kafka, that incontrovertible master of the superbly created world that is both private and universal, in his display of the wound that this disparity cuts into the flesh, also shows us how of the wound itself can come something that transcends the agony of frustration. That is not to say that the wound is invited or wished for. But, that it can be creative, perhaps as an act of reparation.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

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