Rasputin IV: Why is Rasputin Still Famous?


For most of his life, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was little more than a lowly, ill-mannered, poorly educated peasant from the Siberian village of Pokrovsho in the Tyunsky Uyezd of Tobolsk Governate (or for the rest of you the Yarkovsky District of Tyumen Oblast). The very idea that we would still be talking about whether Rasputin we should consider him famous, or infamous, whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, would’ve shocked the Russians, because it means we’re still talking about was a lowly peasant from their era. They probably assumed we’d be talking about one their leaders from the era, their military heroes, their artists, philosophers, or even their murderers, but this lowly peasant wasn’t any of those things. Yet, his story, his legacy, is still the subject of numerous modern movies, bios, news magazine pieces, web articles, and blogs over 100 years after some Russian nobleman, and the richest man in Russia, murdered Rasputin on Dec. 30, 1916. 

6) He Brought Down an Empire. A story about a relatively benign citizen bringing down an empire would be noteworthy regardless the circumstances. The idea that a lowly, ill-mannered, poorly educated peasant did it in early 1900’s Russia is one of the primary reasons we’re still fascinated with Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin.

For a variety of reasons, there will always be gaps between the classes. There are gaps in every country and every era, but the gaps we have now don’t even compare to the cultures and societies of the early 1900’s and before. Russia’s class structure was so entrenched, in the early 1900’s that if a Russian teacher were caught teaching her students that they could be anything they wanted to be, the parents of those students would’ve complained that the teacher was engaging in a very cruel joke. The idea that a commoner, much less a peasant might climb so far up the ladder to one-day advise the ruling family of the empire was likely so far-fetched that they probably never so much as considered it a possibility before. 

While many historians argue about the actual level of influence the peasant we now know as Rasputin exerted on the Romanovs, some of them argue that Rasputin’s murder precipitated the fall of the Romanov Empire. Whether it was a direct result of Rasputin’s influence, his murder, or some sort of tangential influence, I believe the correlation derived from what I now call The Rasputin Paradox.

The Rasputin Paradox occurs when a team uses a scapegoat to explain their relative lack of success. When the leaders of this enterprise found, or take over, an enterprise they believe they were the ones who can lead it to success. When they fail, they might not view the individual they deem responsible for that failure a scapegoat in the purest sense, of course. They do believe that when they remove that person, it will open their path to success. What often happens, shortly after they remove this person, is that they find themselves exposed to blame for anything that goes awry in the aftermath. The leaders might attempt to convince the team members, and themselves, that the scapegoat’s coattails can still be found in the accounting figures, but the team members eventually focus the blame on the remaining leaders.

In the relationship between the Romanovs, Rasputin, and the citizens of Russia, it’s vital to note that the Romanovs may not have ever considered Rasputin a scapegoat in the purest sense. They probably assumed they were doing just fine. The citizens didn’t, and they might have placed an inordinate amount of blame for the ineptitude of the empire on Rasputin. After his murder, however, their perception of glaring failure on the part of the Russian Empire focused squarely on the Romanovs, and it eventually led to their bloody overthrow in a February revolution that started less than two months after Rasputin’s murder.

5) He was a Piece of Junk who Influenced an Empire. Even by the hierarchical standards of early 1900’s Russia, in which they viewed peasants as below vermin, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a slob. He was an ill-mannered poorly educated drunk who stunk. We’ve all met men who have no regard for standards of politeness, but most of them find a way to conceal their ignorant, belligerent ways around women. They may not revere women the way most of us do, but they’re usually respectful in their company, especially if that woman exhibits impressive levels of refinement. No matter how one chooses to characterize refinement, chivalry, or manners, historians suggest Rasputin was likely the exact opposite. Russians reviled him as a sexual deviant. They suggest that he was a little more than a con man who used women to make political connections and gain influence.

When these women recommended Rasputin to the empire, they informed the court that he had the otherworldly powers necessary to help the Romanovs cure their son of hemophilia. When the Romanovs agreed to see him, his appearance before the court must have shocked them. Did they find some way to overlook his characteristics for the presumed benefit of their son, or did his appearance, and the rumors of his demeanor, lead them to presume he was a conduit to otherworldly powers? When the well-mannered, more attractive men, schooled in refined ways stood before the court, detailing the ways they could help Alexei Romanov, the Romanovs were likely more skeptical. What was Rasputin’s appeal? He had a history of “curing” people long before he stood before the Romanovs, and that word-of-mouth surely made it to Alexandra and Nicholas before the interview, but that likely didn’t prepare them for the appearance of this man. When he appeared before them, they likely fell prey to the very human belief that a person who eschews common pleasantries and niceties is more mysterious and more in tune with spiritual and less conventional means of healing. (Most historians suggest that Nicholas never fell under Rasputin’s spell, but Alexandra did.)  

Another element that aided Rasputin’s rise was that the Romanovs were desperate to end the suffering of their child’s pain, and they exhausted the conventional means of the more conventional men of medicine with far more education. Were they so desperate that they were willing to try anything, or were they more susceptible to what they considered the more spiritual means that Rasputin appeared to fulfill? Whatever the case was, Rasputin managed to use this speculation, based on his appearance, to gain more influence in the Russian Empire, and he used it to achieve a place in history for which Russian peasants didn’t even bother dreaming.

4) His Appearance. “Those eyes,” is the first and last thing we say when we see a photo of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Some have “nice eyes”, others have “striking eyes”, but there is something notable, striking, and unusual going on in Rasputin’s eyes. We don’t know exactly what we’re seeing when we look into those eyes, but we can’t look away. No matter how we look at those eyes, we cannot walk away without thinking that man had a powerful gaze.

We can feel the power of those eyes, just looking at them. A cheap, con man, hypnotist might pay good money to attain those eyes. We can only imagine how Russian citizens must have reacted under their spell, but the photos we now have of Rasputin are black and white. If those eyes were as coal black as they appear in black and white photos, we might almost feel soothed by the certain consistent definition they appear to have. The idea that they were blue, which some describe as an “intensely, cold blue”, as depicted in the colorized version below, must have proved so unsettling that a part of Rasputin’s purported charm and charisma probably came from reassuring those who saw “those eyes” that he meant them no harm.

We all act to enhance and counteract our physical characteristics, and Rasputin might have developed a soothing tone to counteract the imaginations of the spiritual and easily spooked villagers he knew. Coupled with the eyes, we have the long hair, the infamous beard, and overall unkempt appearance, and we assume we have an appearance trapped somewhere between our caricatures of Jesus of Nazareth and Satan. If the eyes were as hypnotic as some suggest, we can imagine that he would be the most memorable person those of the era ever met in any crowd or gathering. Couple his unsettling appearance, with his much talked and charm and charisma, and the rumored size of his member, and we have a figure who left such a profound mark on history that we’re still talking about him 100 years after his death.          

3) He Cured a Child of Hemophilia. As stated in the Rasputin II: A Miracle at Spala article, Rasputin never “cured” the tsar’s son Alexei. Alexei Romanov had hemophilia the day he was born, and he died with it. What is not in dispute is the fact that Rasputin temporarily ended the suffering Alexei experienced as a result of the temporary, painful symptoms of hemophilia. How Rasputin accomplished this is the subject of much speculation. (Some suggest Rasputin used horse-whispering techniques to soothe the boy, some say he understood the healing powers of magnetism, and others suggest he knew more about medicine than most of his peers, including the medical professionals of his day).

No matter what he did, the consensus at the time suggests he did soothe the boy into temporary health. Some historians suggest that Rasputin simply called for Alexei’s doctors to stop giving him aspirin, an agent of blood thinning, as we now know. Did Rasputin know more about aspirin than Alexei’s team of doctors, or did he happen upon someone who just happened to theorize that aspirin thins the blood, and Rasputin happened to witness the results that no other medical professional in his era knew?

As a lowly peasant, Rasputin also had less to lose than the medical professionals who were lining up to be a close advisor to the Romanovs. If he failed, he would go back to living the life he always knew, as a peasant. Did he step in and say something as simple as, “Why don’t we try something different?” That might seem so simple, but we can guess that the medical professionals didn’t want to make all of their other colleagues look bad, or they simply followed the “proper diagnosis” of hemophilia by giving Alexei aspirin. Our modern minds suggest this is less a compliment to Rasputin’s ability and/or know how and more a critique of the medical knowledge of the era. If this speculation is true, we might regard Rasputin as nothing more than a right-time, right place charlatan who took advantage of the lack of knowledge in his era to become a close advisor of the tsarina Alexandra Romanov. In light of this theory, we might even consider the “healing” of Alexei a footnote in history.

Historians debate what Rasputin actually did to cure Alexei, but what is not in debate is that everyone from Alexandra on down regarded what Rasputin did amazing, at the least, and miraculous at most. This poorly educated peasant essentially saved the empire by saving their heir to crown, and mother Russia was so grateful that they (Alexandra specifically) awarded him the role of close advisor.

He would use this seat to not only advise Alexandra on how to treat Alexei’s ailments, but some believe he fostered such a quality relationship with her that he began advising her on matters of state. Some believe she would then whisper such advice to Tsar Nicholas II. When the tsar then went to join his fellow countrymen in battle, the tsarina was left in charge, and some believe Rasputin’s influence grew in that capacity. 

Some, including the British Secret Intelligence Service, believed that Rasputin’s influence on Alexandra, and thus Nicholas, was so strong that it might precipitate Russia withdrawing forces in WWI. They believed that Rasputin, for all of his folklore, was actually something of a pacifist, and that he was advising the empire to withdraw its forces from World War I. This conspiracy theory suggests that Britain needed Germany concentrating at least some of their forces on Russia, until the United States would enter the war. This theory suggest that the British Secret Intelligence Service was so worried about Rasputin’s influence on the empire that they might have encouraged, devised, participated in, or financially funded the murder of Rasputin. The author of this theory, Joseph T. Fuhrman, further states that “Britain’s Military Intelligence, Section Six, (MI6), [recently] promised to publish its files on Rasputin’s murder, but it decided to delay it, we can assume, to avoid cooled relations between Moscow and London.”

2) His Murder. “They tried poisoning him, shooting him and drowning him,” my History teacher said, “but Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a man who would not die.” The various stories of the assaults on Rasputin suggest that a prostitute without a nose stabbed him, and that he survived, even though his blood loss was considerable, and his internal organs allegedly fell out.

Two years after the prostitute stabbed him, a team of nobles led by Felix Yusupov, the richest man in Russia, attempted to lace his tea and cakes with cyanide to assassinate him. When Rasputin showed no signs of succumbing to the cyanide, they upped the dose they put it in his wine. When that didn’t produce immediate results, they tried stabbing him, and then they tried shooting him. They shot at him five times, and three of those shots hit. He was not dead at this point, allegedly, so they tried clubbing him to death. Convinced that he was finally deceased, the team of assassins rolled him up in a carpet and threw him in the Malaya Nekva river. Some speculate that he was not dead when he hit the water, and that he drowned or died of hypothermia. My History teacher added to this myth stating that “The assassins secured Rasputin in this carpet with chains connected to concrete blocks that they hoped would bound him to the bottom of the river.” The History teacher added that when Russian officials were finally able to crack through the Malaya Nekva river to retrieve the body, they found the carpet, the cinder blocks, and the chains, but they found no body.

“Is he alive today?” one of my fellow students asked.   

“They never found a body,” our teacher answered.

Even if only one-tenth of this story is true, we thought, it’s quite a tale. Historians suggest that it might be quite a stretch to say one-tenth of that tale is true. They all agree that a prostitute with no nose stabbed him, but they suggest that it’s debatable that his interior organs fell out. They agree that a team of assassins gathered to poison, stab, and shoot him. They agree that the nobles shot at him, five times, and three hit. The historical accounts we’ve read suggest that the final shot, the one delivered execution style to the forehead, killed Rasputin. The autopsy report, these reports say, confirm that. The historians suggest that it’s plausible, due to the dose of cyanide and the locations of the bullets on Rasputin’s body, that any mere mortal could’ve survived in the short-term, but that Rasputin would’ve eventually succumbed to them. They suggest that when Rasputin didn’t die immediately, the team of assassins panicked. They may have assumed that Rasputin’s much-speculated supernatural powers kept him alive through all that. Historians speculate that much of what followed Rasputin’s demise, including the clubbing and chaining him to the bottom of the river was based on irrational fears that led the assassins to some literal measures of overkill.   

No matter the much-debated truth of the matter, the myth of the man who couldn’t be killed, and wouldn’t die, fascinates us so much that it comprises much of the reason we’re still reading and writing about him over 100 years after his murder.

The myth of the man who wouldn’t die also probably influenced the writers of Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. For many of us the details of how Rasputin lived pale in comparison to the manner in which he was killed. He was the original Man Who Wouldn’t Die. As discussed throughout this article and Rasputin III: The Murder of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, there is speculation, interpretation of eyewitness accounts, and myths surrounding Rasputin’s. There are some facts, such as those detailed in the autopsy report, and official reports, but are those facts? We might never know for sure, but the one thing we do know is most great story tellers don’t let facts get in the way of a great story.

1) The Myth. Some might say the man who wouldn’t die is the number one reason the fascination surrounding Rasputin might never die, but I believe it is a combination of all of the above. If, for example, Rasputin managed to leap through the strict class structure of his culture to the roles of advisor to the empire and Holy Fool, he saved the life of the tsar’s son, and he escaped death a couple of times, but he looked like Jimmy Carter, it might have affected his historical value. The fact that not only are the facts of Grigori Rasputin’s story a little spooky, but he looked creepy and spooky ups his historical value exponentially.  

The Russian Empire, at the time of Romanov rule, was so mired in secrecy that we will never know the truth of what happened during these years. The problem with a government that engages in secrecy is that folklore, myths and conspiracy theories fill the gaps. Yet, we do have to sympathize with the Romanovs for how damaging would it be for them to release information that when the Romanovs finally produced a male heir that he was constantly on the verge of death, until a “lower than vermin” peasant came along and “cured” him. It would do nothing but damage their cause to publicly admit, or historically record that crown, or the court, received advice from a peasant on state matters. When we gather all of the secondhand information together, and we couple it with the notion that some of the information we have about Rasputin, the Romanovs, and their relationships was likely spread by the regime that took over after the revolution to advance their own agenda further complicates any attempts at separating fact from fiction. Even if one tenth of these tales are true, they’re so wild and fascinating that we’ve been passing it down for over 100 years, and those who hear these stories will probably be passing them on for 100 more.  

Don’t Bend. Stay Strange


“Don’t bendStay strange.” –David Bowie

“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain artists as we grow up.” –Pablo Picasso.

“We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.” –Ken Robinson said to further the Picasso quote.

“Don’t bend. Stay Strange,” is such a simplistic and beautiful quote that if we heard it earlier in life, some of us might have stitched it out on oven mitts, T-shirts, and flags.

“What’s it mean though?” we young people would’ve asked Bowie if we had the chance.

David Bowie answered with an appearance on a 70’s show called The Midnight Special. It’s difficult to capture the effect this weird, strange, and just plain different appearance had on me all those decades ago. I was floored. I was flabbergasted. I craved the weird, strange and just plain different, even when I was young. Even before I knew the totality of what embracing the weird meant, I was attracted to it. Bowie’s appearance on this show absolutely rattled me. I thought it was shtick when he first walked out. I waited for David Bowie to engage in some kind of monkey dance, or some kind of Steve Martin-ish routine, and then he started singing. I realized that this commanding voice was not an affectation. This was a full-on embrace of the weird. It made me uncomfortable, but it also excited, confused, and transfixed me. I was so young, and so confused, that I considered his appearance unsettling, and I needed my mom to help me deal with it. “He’s just weird,” she said. She was trying to comfort me. Her message was he’s so weird that he’s probably being weird for the sake of being weird. I argued that I didn’t think so. “If that’s the case,” she said, “we probably don’t want to peel that onion.” She said we should dismiss him, without saying those words, and I did. I didn’t want my mom to consider me weird, and I didn’t want anyone else to think so either. Yet, I couldn’t look away. It was obvious by the man’s appearance, and the way he moved and sang that he embraced the weird. I never knew anyone who embraced being weird at that point. Weird was what we whispered when we saw it walking down the street, and we walked a lower case (‘b’) around it.

Those of us who were weird, strange, and just plain different in our youth, would’ve loved to embrace the weird, if for no other reason than to have some measure of resolve in our fight against the pressure we felt from our peers and our authority figures preaching that we be more like them. We weren’t confident enough to embrace the weird yet though. Most boys and girls, aged 7 to 18, aren’t. Athletes and cool kids rarely have to face such pressure, and screenwriters write screenplays that depict their weird characters overcoming adversaries with one quick, poignant line to sway their peers. We wish it were that easy. The screenwriters likely rewrote their true experiences to right their wrongs and make their weird characteristics more virtuous. For the rest of us, the pressure to conform to have others like us and accept us as good boys and girls was so intense that it broke us.

If Bowie dropped this quote on me, as a kid, it might have helped me through the swamp, but I don’t think Bowie would’ve dropped such a line on a kid. Rock stars are generally impetuous creatures, but I would hope that David Bowie wouldn’t be so reckless as to advise a child to embrace the weird. I think he reserved such notions for relatively stable, confident adults. If he followed that impulse, I think he knew it might cost that kid some happiness, for the world is so confusing to a kid that they need to embrace normalcy until their minds are strong enough to embrace the weird. I also think such a quote might mess with that young person’s artistic cocoon. I think Bowie knew, from firsthand experience, that the struggle to maintain the weird defines the artist in constructive, creative ways. To paraphrase the Picasso quote above, the problem isn’t how to become weird, strange, and just plain different. The problem is to maintain it as we work our way through the mire and maze of childhood.

Most of us from relatively stable homes were trained to avoid being weird by the old guard. They refuted our passion with words like, “I know you think you’re onto something, but that isn’t the way to be.” We didn’t see this as a good thing at the time, and we rebelled and all that, but we now see it differently. We see it differently, because when we were finally ready to let our freak flag fly, we did so with one foot firmly entrenched in the normal world. This perspective is particularly vital to writers, as it gives them an outside perspective from which to report on those who followed their passion throughout life and embrace the weird, strange, and just plain different.

***

Some scholars, like Sir Ken Robinson, want us to violate these theories by changing school curriculum to recognize the weird, strange, and just plain different. In his popular Ted Talk speech, he cites anecdotal evidence to suggest that we should change the curriculum to recognize the unique and special qualities of weird, strange, and just plain different students.

I know I stand to lose my membership in the halls of the mildly creative, weird people with this question, but shouldn’t they have to learn the rules first? Most writers were wildly imaginative kids, and when our kids flash their unique fantastical worldview before us, we remember how weird we used to be. We remember how imaginative and creative we used to be, and we remember those years fondly. Our kids reignite our internal, eternal flame. We remember how special it was to be imaginative without borders, but we also remember how unstable and confusing that time was. We were impulsively and instinctively imaginative without borders, and we smashed through whatever borders they put in our way, but most of the results of our beautiful and wonderful childish creativity was gobbedly gook.

We didn’t know what we were talking about because we were kids. We didn’t do anything worthwhile, even when we were wildly creative, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were kids. When we think of the rules, we often think of some humorless school master enforcing discipline at the end of a ruler, but we often forget how many little, seemingly inconsequential matters we learned along the way helped to form our thoughts and mature our minds. All of those little, relatively inconsequential matters made us who we are today.

There will be prodigies. There will always be prodigies, but for the rest of us, there is a special formula to achieving final form. This painfully methodical process involves rebelling against our individual establishment, succumbing to it, recognizing its inherent flaws, and returning to our rebellion with an informed mind. As I wrote in the Platypus People blog, “one of our first jobs as a future rebel is to learn the rules of order better than those who choose to follow them.” The idea that the manner in which school curriculum deprives, stilts and discourages creativity is a strong one, but do these scholars remember how confusing the adolescent years could be for the kids who weren’t prodigies? Lost in this discussion is our need to understand that which we now deem unreasonable, irrational, and in need of change. Why does this work, how does that work, and how and why should we change this and that? One typical response I heard often from a number of teachers was, “I welcome your complaints, but if you’re going to complain, you better have a solution.” How can we have a solution to the complaints we create, in artistic forms, if we don’t first understand the problem better than those who are just fine with it?

The perfect formula, as I see it, is for the creative artist, as Pablo Picasso said, is to remain weird after learning the curriculum and surviving the need to conform. When we learn how to read, write, and arithmetic, we use them to fertilize the science of creativity. If an artist can maintain their fantastical thoughts after learning, they might be able to employ the disciplines they learn to enhance their creative and innovative mind to artistic maturity.

We don’t know many specifics of Sir Ken’s dream school, but one of the fundamental elements he theoretically employs is the need to play. The creative mind, he says, needs time and space to play. Throw them a block and let them play with it, and we’ll see their ingenious minds at work. He dots his speech with humorous anecdotes that serve to further his thesis. We know that Wayne Gretzky spent much of his youth playing with a stick and a hockey puck in every way he could dream up, and we learn that other kids develop their own relatively ingenious little theories by playing. We cannot forget to let them play. It is a well-thought out, provocative theory, but it neglects to mention how important discipline is in this equation. The discipline necessary to figure out complicated mathematical equations and formulas might seem frivolous to a dance prodigy, for example, but Geometry works the mind in many ways it otherwise wouldn’t.

“Why do I have to learn this?” we all asked in Geometry class. “What are the chances that I’ll use this knowledge in life? If I grow up to be a vice-president of a bank, what are the chances that knowledge of the Alexandrian Greek mathematician Euclid’s theories will come into play?” One answer to the question arrives when we meet a fellow banker who knows nothing but banking. For whatever reason our fellow banker knew she wanted to be a bank vice-president at a very young age. Her focus was such that she had the tunnel vision necessary to succeed in the banking world, but everyone who knows her knows the minute she clocks out for the day, she’s lost. She might be successful by most measures, but she knows nothing about the world outside of banking, because she never needed any knowledge beyond that which exists in banking.  

“How can you report on the world, if you know nothing about it?” is a question I would ask the twelve-year-old prodigy who wrote a fantasy novel. The kid’s story fascinated me, because writing a 200 page novel is so foreign to my concept of what it means to be twelve-years-old. I was trying to make friends and be happy at twelve-years-old. I read the news article about this kid with great interest, and if I ever ran into him, I would encourage him to see his talent to its extent, and I would applaud him for what he did, but I would never read his novel. I don’t think a twelve-year-old’s vision of the world would do anything for me.

Sir Ken Robinson doesn’t say that he wants to do away with the curriculum directly, but in his idyllic world, we need to cater it to the talents of people like this twelve-year-old prodigy, the dance prodigies, and all the other as of yet unrecognized prodigies around the world.

We’ve all heard tales of these uniquely talented creative people and prodigies with tunnel vision. We marvel at their tales, but we’ve also heard tales of how former prodigies don’t know how to fit in the world properly. They’ve reached their goal by producing a relatively prodigious output, but they’re now unhappy. Something fundamental is missing in them that they’ll never square properly. Being on the proverbial stage is the only thing that gives them joy, and they understand this as little as we do. It might have something to do with being in the spotlight their whole lives, but it might go deeper than that. It might have something to do with the fact that their authority figures never allowed them to be normal, and they never had to learn the basic, core answers the rest of us learned by working through all of the pointless exercises that our core curriculum forced us to figure out. So, if I take a Geometry class, I’m going to be less confused about the world? No, but if you learn how to learn how to use your brain in a wide variety of ways, it might help us arrive at answers that help us cope with the otherwise random world a little better.

Robinson might be onto something when he suggests that if we feed into a prodigy’s creative instincts, we might have more of them, and they might be happier people as a result. His thesis suggests that most people are unhappy because they have untapped talent that we neglect to foster. Let them play, he says. Fine, I say, but why can’t we let me play at a dance school, in art class, or in a school band? Do we have to devote our entire curriculum to helping them recognize their talent? A strong, confident adult is so difficult to raise that as much as I would’ve loved devotion to recognizing my weird talent, I think I would’ve ended up so deficient in so many other areas. Devotion to recognizing my weird talents would’ve made me happier in the short term, as I think I was always heading down a certain road I didn’t recognize for some time, but I think I’d probably would’ve ended up more confused than I already am.

How many of us think that we could’ve been prodigies if someone came along, recognized our talents, and coached them up? How many of us think we wasted so much time in school learning things that didn’t matter? Robinson feeds into these fantasies with some anecdotal evidence that suggests if we would just encourage dance more, we might have more dance prodigies. He suggests that if we, as parents, learn how to feed our child’s talent, they might be happier. If the child’s interests are satisfied, they might be more satisfied. Possibly, but if we devote our entire curriculum to dance, creative writing, painting, or one of the other art forms, how many failed upstarts might we have? Students mature at different rates, and while developing schools devoted to encourage more creativity, it will likely result in unequal amounts of misery among those we thought were prodigies based on their wild imaginations, but were actually engaged in child-like gibberish.

Big Guys vs. Little Guys in the Creative Process


“So, tell me about your process,” might be the most ill-advised conversation starter for a fact-based, left-brain type to put to right-brain, artistic types. If the non-artist, with a tendency for left-brain thinking, unwittingly enters into such a conversation, they’ll know the mistake they’ve about halfway through the artist’s answer. The smart ones walk away. Would that be rude? Yes, but it might end the self-mutilation fantasies.

Failure is a fundamental part of the right-brain’s artistic and creative process, but it’s not a dead end sign. It’s an obstacle, a lane closure sign, or a road flare that’s been placed there by others as a result of their failure. Elite, professional athletes experience failure more often than they succeed, 90% of startup businesses fail in ten years, and financial risk takers fail more often than they succeed. One of the primary differences between failure in art, and these other areas, is that most people will never see the artists’ failures, and they won’t want to see them. Artistic failure often occurs on a flea-ridden couch inside a dilapidated trailer park, never to leave. The artistic process involves failed starts, bad ideas, and love, that no one, other than the other artist, can see, appreciate, or understand.

“How do I create a great works of art?” a left-brained, fact-oriented individual might ask. You create. Every artist is different of course, but in my experience, nothing beats experience. The true artist should spend significant time in the corner of their trailer park home creating.

Are right-brain, creative types creating great works of art? Yes we are, every single time we create. Our friends and family might try to convince us that the piece we’re currently working on is a pile of dung, but we won’t know that for some time, if ever. We suffer from delusional myopia. We might eventually be able to see that one piece is better than another one is, but that doesn’t decrease the love we have for the other pieces that no one will ever want to read. The trick to evolving from a writer to an artist involves knowing when to move on.   

Harsh critiques hurt. Every time a reader tells us the project we’ve spent months on (at the very least) is not what we thought it was, it damages our interior organs. We pour our heart and soul into these pieces, and most of them aren’t very good. The dividing line between writers and artists rises here. Writers who cannot handle harsh critiques should probably quit the current job they applied for, because it gave them more time to write, and choose a career. (A poor Quality Review report is much easier to fix than trying to fix the ones we love.) If, however, that stinging critique feeds the competitive juices to create more dung, better dung, and so much dung that they eventually have enough material to mix it with the other necessary ingredients required to make fertilizer, they might be able to one day create a flower.  

When a left-brain, non-artist asks an artist about their process, they only want to talk about the flowers. If they unwittingly pushes the conversation deeper, don’t feel sorry for them when they start screaming for someone to help them out of that deep, dark cavern lined with the artist’s failures. They asked the question.

“If we want to know the fundamental elements of a serial killer,” criminal psychologists suggest, “we study their initial crimes.” The same holds true for writers. If the conversation starter really wants to know the road map of the artistic path, they’ll let the artist talk about the initial, unpopular particulars of the process.   

In that deep dark cavern, we’ll find some pieces that might have some appeal, but we’ll find that the artist stubbornly sought some angle they considered original. The other angle involves a tired theme on historical figures that serves to further a reader’s adoration of the subject. When we decide to tackle an article on an historical figure, however, we search for a unique angle that we feel analyzes them in a manner few have before. Originality is almost impossible to achieve, but it should always be the goal. Even if we adore the figures, we prefer to analyze them in a critical manner. The theme of this critique is that if we criticize an accomplished individual, there is an inherent compliment in there that we considered them worthy of critique.

The difference between writers and artists is a subjective one, of course, and it is a complex argument, but it might be as simple writers report on Big Guys and artists find little guys doing little things more appealing. Most of the characters on this sight are so niche, that they have trouble finding a niche. When the brilliant Seinfeld hit the airwaves, numerous friends recommended the show to us. “You have got to watch this show. This show is so you that you might be ticked off that they stole your whole mindset.” When we finally broke down and watched the show, the effect was everything our friends thought it would be. We were almost depressed a couple of episodes in. The observations that Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and all of the other writers of Seinfeld made felt so familiar they almost felt familial. We enjoyed the material they displayed on Seinfeld and Curb your Enthusiasm so much that it almost felt like they beat us to the punch. They were funnier than we are, of course, but their acute focus on the minutiae of life depressed us, because we thought that if we learned how to channel that affliction properly that could be us up there.

Writers capture Big Subjects of national and worldwide interest, but the focus of this site is on the little things that a little guy did on his way to the apothecary. When we’re watching one of the Big Guys, on one of the Big Network shows, interview a Big Subject who fascinates the world, for example, we obsess over the “staged walk” the production staff put together before the interview started. In the course of the interview, the production crew will cue the shot of the subject at work. We have no problem with that, as it displays the subject doing what they do. Yet, every interview segment interrupts their broadcast again with a shot of the man or woman of interest exiting their office and walking down the sidewalk. Why do we have to see this subject of interest walk away from his office, down a sidewalk? Who was the first producer to introduce this shot? What value does it bring to the broadcast? We can’t get past these quirks, and they distract us so much that we miss much of what the subject says following the staged walk, and in most cases, we’re not that interested in what the celebrity/news figure’s script says anyway.

We’re obsessed with these otherwise irrelevant forms of manipulation. Does the production crew believe that these staged walks might develop some sort of familiarity with the subject? “There he is walking out of his office on an otherwise average day, just like I do, and look Donna, he walks just like I do when I don’t know anyone is watching.”   

The eye-catching pieces on something familiar generate clicks, but most of the subjects that intrigue us are difficult to headline. Of the few eye-catching subjects we’ve covered, we’ve often found a less than traditional angle. Our M.O. for doing this abides by the rationale that it’s almost impossible to write anything new, different, or original. “Everything that you want to say has already been said, and that’s been said before too.”  

We analyze the other side, the less popular side, of what drives our ‘so niche they can’t find a niche’ characters to be so different. We prefer a critical view that attempts to analyze a subject from a more objective (some might say cynical) angle that scrutinizes the subject in a more comprehensive manner.

This guy that we’re talking to in our employer’s cafeteria obviously knows how to present us with his most photogenic side, we think while he jibber jabbers, but what’s in the other side? Is there another side? Is there a side that might surprise him if we dig deep enough? When we present this other side, we want to avoid being critical for the sole purpose of being critical. We all have less attractive sides, and some of us accidentally slip into the notion that the only noteworthy angle to cover is the negative. Quality coverage of the negative can be so exciting and provocative. It also has the feel of being more artistic, poignant, and meaningful. Yet, being negative for the sake of being negative can feel as tedious as focusing too much on the positives. If we do it right, the positive and negative characteristics of their other side, the less than photogenic side, should leak out in the course of the narrative. The presentation should feel comprehensive and organic.   

The characters we write about aren’t weird for the sake of being weird either. They’re not in visible pain, and they’re not manic-depressive. They’re just a little off. If we were to calculate them by degrees, with 90 degrees being the perfect angle, they might fall between 80 and 85 degrees. They’ve spent their lives a couple of degrees away from being normal, and we can see it when they accidentally flash their less than photogenic side. We consider it our job to capture that side, be it positive or negative.

If we met them on the street, we might consider them the most normal joe we’ve ever met. They have normal haircuts, a wage that permits them to purchase the latest fashionable clothing, and their company’s dental plan allows them to appear upper middle class with 2.5 kids in a two-bathroom house. They don’t say the wrong things either, for they’ve watched as much TV as we have. They know the bullet points we’ve established for identifying abnormal people, in other words, and they know how to assimilate. Those of us in the middle of the pack seek the fringe. Those on the fringe seek the middle of the pack, so no one considers us on the fringe looking in on the normal world. We want in, and an overwhelming percentage of us are not comfortable with exposing the eccentricities that have kept us on the outside looking in.

To find the insecure and overcompensating weird, we need to talk to them. We need to find a way to spend long hours with them, usually in an office space, sitting next to them, talking about our wives, our lives, and our lawn. Affectations of weird don’t comfort them. It sets off their spidey senses. So, we have to be weird too, and we are weird. We all have eccentricities, and when we share our eccentricities, they feel more comfortable sharing theirs. We take an “I give you me, so you’ll give me you” approach to our discussion.   

They’re guarded. They don’t know we’re writers patching together a quilt, because we don’t know that yet. We’re just talking to them. They’ve been mocked before, however, and if we are are going to have an enriching conversation with them, we are going to have to help them over their hurdles and through the multi-tiered mazes they’ve created for rubber neckers wanting to witness their eccentricities for comedy. This isn’t a Herculean task, however, because they love to talk about themselves. Most of us do. Most of us enjoy it so much that those in our familiar nucleus are no longer interested in our story. They’ve heard our stories so many times that we fear we might not be as interesting as we are. When fate puts us next to a curious person who is so interested in what we have to say, it’s exciting. We find ourselves saying things we wouldn’t even say in the comfort of our bedroom. Our spouses might cringe when we say such things, but we’ve had these thoughts bottled up for so long, and we’ve never had a person this interested before, and we don’t want to disappoint them for that would be disappointing.

Our subject might not know it, but we are carving them up, removing the extraneous fat from their testimonial, deleting the painstaking details involved in proving a point, deleting their tired repetition, and even deleting them from their story. It surprises them when we do that, for as embarrassing and revealing as their details were, at least they were their details, and they didn’t expect to see themselves deleted. They thought it was all about them. The talker has no problem laughing at themselves, of course, but to see their moment of crisis turned into a danceable number is just beyond the pale.

The difficulty involved in selling such strange, unconnected, and relatively unimportant pieces to the masses arrives soon after completion. “What do we do with this?” we ask after we’ve completed the numerous edits necessary. There’s no unifying theme or connection between the pieces. “What do we do with this?” ends up personifying the beauty of each standalone piece and resulting in their ultimate and final condemnation.  

While we’re in the midst of writing one of these pieces, we feel this might be the reason we ended up on this planet. We feel complete in a way we never have before. We think we’ve finally realized our purpose in life, and the extent of our talent, and we live on that artistic high for days. The bizarre experiences we’ve had with the subjects covered in these pieces have been so unique, and in some cases so profound, that we couldn’t believe that no one covered the subject before. After people laugh at the observations, they say one of two things, “I never thought of that before,” and “I don’t find the subject near as interesting as you do.”

They also ask, “What are you going to do with this?” We know, even before they ask that, that there is no book-length dissertation available. These are short pieces. There’s not nearly enough information or material for a book, and there’s no unifying theme or connection between the pieces. This ultimate “What do I do with this?” realization that our purpose in life, our raison d’etre, is nothing more than a (“B”) word prove quite painful.

The realization that we can be a (“B”) word, a blogger, is quite thrilling at first, until it becomes a condemnation. Over the course of a decade, and over 1,000 blogs, we might figure out how to master the art form that used to be called an essay, that others call narrative non-fiction, and most now call the blog. (The reader should not assume that I consider myself a master of this domain when I use the word, but that I’ve figured out how to communicate my thoughts in this form properly.) Once we achieve some level of satisfaction with the form, however, some of us start to think bigger. We assemble a greatest hits package of our best, most read blogs and send them over to a publisher. “What do you want me to do with this?” will be the theme of the door slamming shut in our faces, and don’t bother trying to fit your foot in that door, for it’s reinforced by the “No one wants to read a book of blogs!” sentiment that arose after its limitations were exposed by the path to losing 85 pounds and the funny things my cat did on Tuesday blogs. I’ve read reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon critique other authors of some of my favorite books condemn them by saying, “This reads like a blog.” They write that in the most negative way possible, and it feels like a tiny nail being driven into my spine.

***

I don’t know if it’s obvious by now, but I love writing these relatively inconsequential and irrelevant articles, and the fact that anyone (including you) might read one word I write sends warm and fuzzy messages to a very specific part of my brain that can lead to what they call a smile.

As proof of my unrequited passion, I now have an archive of over 1,000 blogs (some published, most shifted to the draft designation). As you read, go ahead and assume that I have obsessed over just about every word you read. I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to figure out if ‘a’ or ‘the’ works best in a sentence, I’ve restructured some difficult passages numerous times, and I’ve completely overhauled most of the articles that I’ve published on this site. Some professional writers footnote an article with a note “Edited on [the date].” Are we supposed to do that? I wondered. If I were required to do that, just about every article on this site would have this notation.

Some writers believe we can over-edit an article. “Guilty!” I say with a raised hand. Some writers think that if we over-edit, we strip the spontaneous fun right out of an article. “Perhaps,” I say, “but I would rather strip the fun out of an article than have some fuzzy funny that the reader doesn’t understand because they’re not able to link the setup to the point, because they don’t know what is going on in my head.”  

I obsess over what I consider the fascinating and unique qualities of each piece. I love little more than tying such thoughts into a tight, cohesive, 1,500-2,000 word narrative, but most of these pieces are self-embodied dissertations. They’re blogs. So, enjoy them for what they are, as I apparently am not going to make one thin dime off them. Also, know, as you read this crass piece of self-promotion that I never wanted to write this. You forced it upon me with your stubborn refusal to read them. This post is on you!

Pretentious Absorbers


“You’re what’s called a pretentious absorber.” Stewart Griffin

“What’s that?” Brian the Dog

“You remember how Madonna lived in London for, like, a month and then started talking with a British accent? It’s that.” Stewart Griffin

Family Guy Transcript

“The easy life?” Betty Bettle asked her friends in college. “You think I led an easy life? My family farmed a small, family farm. If you knew anything about farming, you’d know what a stretch it is to call that the easy life.” It used to frustrate her so much when people said that, but it was probably her fault that they thought that. She probably told them too much about herself. She complained one time that her dad was an over-protective father who strongly encouraged his daughters to stay home most nights. She also made the mistake of confessing that her brother helped tend the farm, while she and her sister helped their mom in the home. She then compounded her mistakes by complaining about being cooped up in such a traditional home. “I never got to go out and experience the world,” she said to summarize her complaints. The idea that they didn’t see her life as such an awful experience didn’t shock her, but the idea that they would see it as “the easy life” was so ridiculous that it angered her.  

“I’m free,” she whispered with to someone she barely knew at a party. Betty loved these college parties. She met so many people from so many different backgrounds. She didn’t party the way most of her fellow freshman in college did. They unleashed. Betty partied, and she got wasted a couple times, but she didn’t enjoy it the way others did. She loved the experiences she had at the parties, though, and she loved it so much that she went to every college party she could find, but she dumped the beer out, filled it with water, and milked it for the rest of the night. The parties were so exciting, and she had so many different experiences at each one that she would find any excuse to attend as many of them as she could find.

If she didn’t drink at these parties, what was it she loved about them? Was it all about meeting new people, and all of the experiences she had? That was a huge part of it, but there was something else. She loved who she was at these parties, and she enjoyed the prospect of being something different, something more, and something vital. That’s what she meant by the “I’m free,” whisper. The college parties informed her of some of what she missed being cooped up at the Bettle farm all those years.  

When she tasted that freedom for the first time, Betty decided she didn’t just want a nibble. Her experiences in college were so exciting that she craved more. She wanted to meet more new people, have more experiences, and grow, but the problem she was she never have any money. Her family never had any money, and even if they had, there was too much work to do at the homestead to travel. She did find something of an end around to this when her new, college friends introduced her to their friends from other countries.

After a couple of interactions, Betty found herself more attracted to these people from other countries than she was the other new friends in college. She wanted to be there when they dropped tales about life in other countries. She wanted to learned how the other half lived, and she wanted to learn what the world outside the Bettle homestead had to offer.

When these new, foreign friends started accusing her of living the easy life, she was confused at first, and then she found herself becoming defensive. She argued that farm life is not easy, but she lost those arguments, and she lost them so often, with so many people, that she became convinced that they were right. No matter how many hardships the Bettles experienced on the farm, they paled compared to what these people had to go through in life. Over time, she found the best way to avoid being so defensive all the time was to go on offense. She found herself becoming so sympathetic to their plight that that sympathy progressed into empathy. She learned their plight so well that she soon joined her foreign friends in arguments they would have with any newcomers.

“You don’t understand how that offends my people.” She said when she returned home from college on a break. She said this to us, her long-time friends at home. We knew nothing about her foreign-born friends at college, but we could tell it was not the first time she said it. We assumed that she heard that line so often that it became a reflexive response to her. The offensive statement she was addressing had nothing to do with the Irish, the Germans, Americans, farmers, or the Bettles. The statement was referring to the country of her new foreign friends. Some of her audience leapt to the assumption that this Irish/German woman was falsely attempting to assume the characteristics of her new friends, but those of us who knew her well couldn’t believe this was the case. Some of them even assumed that Betty’s desire to be on offense yielded some level of pretentiousness on her part. We knew this was not the case with Betty either, at least not consciously.  

Betty had, by this point, assumed so many characteristics of her new foreign friends so thoroughly that it slipped her mind that she was born of Irish/German descent. After hearing so many of their tales, and learning so much about their culture and customs, she began adopting many of them as her own. She learned how to prepare their dishes, and she eventually learned how to speak their language on a less than fluent basis. She did everything she could to have them accept her as one of their own, and when they did, it literally went to her head.

“Excuse me, but aren’t you Irish/German?” one of her friends at home said, in the midst of one of her numerous ‘You don’t understand how that offends my people’ rants. It shocked her. She said yes of course, and she blushed a little, but it was obvious that the reason this moment shocked her so much was because no one ever called her out on it before. One might suggest that she was so loyal to her foreign-born friends that any offense made against them was an offense against her, but we could tell that her convictions went deeper than that.

At some point, Betty’s new understanding and revelations led her to believe that her parents lied to her. Either that, or she believed her small town parents just didn’t understand the complexities of human existence. When she learned “the truth”, she thought anyone who approached the issue from another perspective was either as passively uninformed as she used to be or willfully ignorant. To further their knowledge, she used a “must” or “should” pulpit to help them view matters from her new perspective as a foreign-born citizen.

Betty graduated college with a 4.0, and she immediately entered into a career that paid her some decent money. She saved every dollar she could to travel to experience the world in ways she never could as a kid. She hoped to use the college degree and the extensive travel to establish a status in life that might lead to a station. From this station, she developed an approach, based on a level of pretentiousness that she didn’t intend, whenever someone argued with her. “How do you think you know so much?” she said one day. “You haven’t traveled.” Her book smarts proved a little intimidating at first, and she sought to round up whatever street smarts she might lack due to her upbringing, by traveling.

As intelligent as Betty wasn’t a great debater, particularly on this topic. When someone scratched at the surface, just a little, Betty crumbled. Most of her conviction was tied up in the talking points her foreign friends, books, and TV provided her. She had no firsthand experience being a foreigner of course, so she could not answer follow up questions or challenges to her passion, and we walked away from her thinking she was someone who did what she was told.

Betty’s sympathy for citizens from other countries and cultures was genuine, but it was also conditional. The foreign-born citizens she met in college provided a model from which she would view all foreign-born citizens going forward. Betty met foreigners, who strayed from that model, later in life, and she developed excuses for why some in similar straits might succeed and others don’t. She preferred to focus on those who required sympathy, and she developed a certain criteria of musts for them. She also developed a list of shoulds that they should exhibit. She considered successful immigrants anecdotal evidence that wasn’t supported by the evidence.

Somewhere on the path to day the two of us met, Betty Bettle convinced herself that she was no longer of Irish and German descent. As odd as it sounds that someone could convince themselves they are another ethnicity, we should ask ourselves how we become so convinced of anything to the point that we develop convictions. How many of our convictions are based on personal experience? How many of us use literature or philosophical text as a conduit to conviction? By doing so, aren’t we, in essence, using another’s experiences to progress our thoughts from theory to fact? How many of us absorb so many of our parents’ ideas and platitudes that we accidentally become them, after our teenage rebellion subsides? Betty didn’t agree with her parents’ worldview, and she agreed with her foreign-born friends in college so much that she ended up adopting their culture and characteristics as her own. Cultural appropriation was not a widely recognized term back when Betty was in college. As a person who abides by the prevailing winds, we can only guess that Betty now has a tough time squaring her actions. She might suggest that she views her approach as complimentary, as she only seeks to understand other cultures better, and if she accidentally adopts some of their characteristics, it’s unintended. To which the cultural appropriation crowd might say, “That’s what everyone says.”

Betty didn’t intend to be a pretentious absorber. It just sort of happened. It was an accident. It was something that happened in that way we accidentally mimic and imitate our parents, our teachers, and anyone else we might admire. Betty never admired anyone to the point that she would mimic or imitate them, until she met those foreign-born students in college. She was so fascinated by their ways and customs that she hung out with them almost exclusively. She met their parents, and partied with their aunts and uncles, until she eventually found acceptance among them. She never felt so accepted by a group of people before. She never truly believed she could change her ethnic heritage. It just sort of happened.   

For reasons endemic to their character, and their upbringing, people like Betty Bettle choose to imitate and emulate sympathetic characters, and they do this so much, and so often, that they begin to absorb their traits and characteristics until they exhibit them. They are so consumed by them that they become consumed by them. The first raging question that runs through our mind when we see a pretentious absorber imitate and emulate the sympathetic is how does a relatively confident person wake up one day and believe they can become another person? The next question is why do they do it? Are they trying to achieve some level of superiority? If that’s the case, why would they imitate and emulate the people they regard as sympathetic characters? Are these sympathetic characters flawed, or in some ways relatively inferior? If they weren’t, why would Betty feel sorry for them? Most of us, by contrast, spend most of our lives trying to emulate and imitate the successful. Our desire to find some relative definition of success through money, love, or some other form of happiness drives us to find those who succeed at it and try to find some way to imitate what they do. It has given birth to numerous multi-million dollar industries on line, in seminars, and books. Do we do it to one day achieve some level of superiority? Perhaps, if others consider it superior to conquer our personal flaws better, quicker, or in some ingenious ways others haven’t considered before superior. Pretentious absorbers believe that by imitating and emulating other cultures, they derive virtue. If we ask how they can abandon their own customs, tradition, and culture, they might provide a number of the reasons we provided above, but those answers won’t be clear or direct. The gist of their answers won’t revolve around what it says about them that they do what they do but what it says about you that you don’t. They are pretentious absorbers.  

Ruminations on Kafka


Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.