In Thrall

How can we get closer to the wounded belly of the world?

An off-center image of a beetle against a dual color background and a sphere on the top right corner.
Jo Whaley, Coleoptera. 2003, archival pigment photograph. 24 × 30”. 4 × 5 film negative date. Courtesy of the artist and Photo-eye Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Do you ever find yourself envious of the way entomologists look at insects? The way one of them might look at a horned dung beetle and ask: How are these needle-thin legs able to lift more than 1,141 times their own weight? Kafka wanted someone to look at him like thatwith wonder, with love. But the people he met merely wanted to know why: “Why are you spending the night burying all this dung?” Of course, love changes everything. Instead of stomping on the bug, instead of reaching for insecticide, you raise it to the light.

Recently, I’ve been looking back at the year I spent trying to begin a dissertation in a literature department in which all four of the professors taught Walter Benjamin. Now that I think of it, Benjamin was a more useful figure than Kafka in a graduate department in which most of us knew we would never become professors ourselves, as there would not be enough jobs for us by the time we finished our PhDs. Benjamin was the perfect saint for our chapel: a brilliant loner who spent almost a decade doing doctoral and postdoctoral research, never quite managing to secure a teaching position for himself, but whose obscure work is now liturgy for all the humanities. His is the kind of Pyrrhic victory we all fantasize about.

After trying to find a subject for my thesis for an entire year, I finally realized that I could not formulate a statement of the problem it was meant to solve. It’s as if I had heard the head of the department yell: “There’s a fugitive on the run,” and had started running without any facts at my disposal. At least now I have a sense of what the problem might be. We are the ones running away from our origins. We tell a story in which there would have been a first creation, a “savage” one, that took place in Africa, in which dark-skinned female humans, evolved from a subset of primates, pushed children out of the darkness of their vaginas after carrying them inside their bodies for nine months. This first creation has nothing to do with us. We come from a second creation, a philosophical one, in which the great white father gives birth to man first and to woman, that subaltern, second. The anthropologist Alan Dundes, borrowing from Carl Jung, points out that male myths of creation in which “the first people were made from excrement, potter’s earth and clay” are actually a return to an older primitive swamp, since they are really exploring “the creative power of the anus.” Choose your own birth adventure: either you come out of a dark vagina or an iridescent anus. Taking over for Spinoza, the receding figure who is always with us, Kafka laughs at the childishness of a second creation story. In his work, the animal speaks while the human is, ultimately, struck dumb by anal bureaucracies of his own making. Legal fictions estrange humans from each other and create, in the most sensitive souls, fissures that never heal.

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