Sunday, February 14, 2016

When Conspiracy Theory Is out to Get You

Your first introduction to the works of Franz Kafka was, unfortunately, not of your own doing, rather by readings about him and the inferences from teachers that he was a conspiracy theorist or, worse yet, probably paranoid.


With equal misfortune, you bought into those inferences and implications, using one particular of his works, The Trial, to reinforce the notion of the world as conspiracy as though it were your own. The teen years are like that; anything related to authority seems more than oppressive, and by that time, the teen who was you was beginning to tire of authority to the point of being rebellious.

Perhaps if you'd come to Kafka on your own, which you well might have, you'd have been less likely to lose time seeing him as a dark, brooding conspiracy theorist and more a satirist of considerable ability. How interesting to note the ways in which you saw so much in your teens and twenties as dark, lugubrious, conspiratorial, and thus supportive of your rebelliousness.  Now? Why of course, you see much as a nimble movement along the borders of satire.

At one point, you viewed Sinclair Lewis as dark and brooding. You asked Conrad, who worked as his secretary for a time, if he could see the humor and satire in Lewis.  Conrad did say Lewis was a dark, brooding man, much given to excesses of alcohol, which he hoped would give him relief, but instead seemed to hone his satiric instincts to the point where he actually resented rather than sympathized with his characters. Carol Milford may have been the exception; Lewis may have become so enraged at Gopher Prairie that he began, in his misanthropic way, to root for her.

You'd indeed come upon Lewis on your own, thus your readings of him remained intact though rereading of your favorites, Elmer Gantry, Babbit, Main Street, and Dodsworth. These rereadings led you to see the close relations between conspiracy theory and satire, between suspicion and the mischievous rebelliousness of the satirical desire to topple pompous authority.

Conspiracy theory, in your reading of it,says in effect, "They're out to get you." The they can be translated as any established authority or tradition, but it can also apply to despots, tyrants, and the self-absorbed. Satire, in your reading, says, "We're out to get you," which is to say the writer, who has an on-going relationship with opposition, has despaired of conventional dialogue with the satrap and despot as well as the intransigent authority, has decided to take down the opposition through ridicule.

To be effective, ridicule and exaggeration must be practiced until the hand that produces them does not tremble while executing them, rather it seems to do little more than swat away an occasional fly of annoyance. Of your favored satirists, Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Eudora Welty, Cynthia Ozick,Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, these last two seem more able to maintain control throughout. 

Waugh is in top form with The Loved One, but its technique shows, the schoolboy nodding in recognition of his being up on his lessons. On the other hand, Brideshead Revisited is so restrained that it is not recognized as the satire it is. Lewis, so well known for Babbit, is not thought to be a satirist with the splendid execution of Main Street, and your least favorite of the top-tier Lewis, Arrowsmith, bristles with the itch of ridicule.

Huxley cannot help himself, his wit is so extensive that he must stop on occasion to explain it to us. Somehow, he found restraint in Antic Hay and After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, which stand out from his other works not at all in substance but in the production of two works that are yet more insidious because they do not call so much attention to themselves as satire.

How much better it is to have read something, all the while thinking of it as a mystery or adventure or highly personal investigation of a time and place, only to return to it, enjoy it again, then discover, as you did discover with Kafka's Metamorphosis, that it is a thigh-slapping take down you'd mistaken for conspiracy theory, which in turn led you to reconsider The Trial.

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