Heaven and earth

Kafka and Strong and why history is hard

Heaven and earth

An historian friend of mine sent me two bold notes today:

  • In all his letters to friends and family between 1914 and 1924, Franz Kafka (sophisticated writer, ingrained in society) made only one mention of the Great War.
  • George Templeton Strong, one of the great 19th-century chroniclers of American life, covered innumerable elements of New York City life in his 2,200-page journal, yet forgot to include almost anything about himself.

I’m not sure which of these facts is more remarkable.

It reminds me of On Kawara. A Japanese artist, perhaps most famous for his day paintings, though he also tracked the time he got up each day, mapped his walks for years, compiled lists of everyone he ever met or saw… Several years ago, I wrote this about him:

Until the last few years, there is probably no human in history whose life has been so meticulously recorded. Which is amazing, but after two hours absorbing thousands of details about On Kawara’s life [at a Guggenheim retrospective], I still had no idea who he was… There’s nothing there except the vast scope of his efforts. In these pages and postcards, we see the structure of his life, but it’s strangely vacant. We can piece together the movement, but can’t see the thing that moves.

Isn’t it incredible that we can have thousands of words from writers like Kafka and Strong and see only slivers of their lives. Not quite Schrödinger, but nearly so: we can have so much in front of us and still not see everything.

My friend Eric sees everything. Understands everything. His brain, forged in the physics lab, finds cause and effect at every turn: his is a life of velocity and impact and inertia. In other words, he sees the springs and gears and levers that make everything happen, whether we’re talking combustion engines or the Civil War.

What is important here is not that he cares about these details, but that he remembers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve studied Reconstruction or read Tolstoy or learned why sunlight and fire are the same thing, yet I can’t now tell you anything about any of these. What I remember is the broad truth of a thing, the feeling of it, the trend line. My brain, for better or ill, is more Rothko than Rembrandt.

Which makes my arguments with Eric both enjoyable and frustrating. He seeks beauty on the ground while I search for it in the heavens. We often talk past one another. Yet as a 40-year-old bond trader, he could still teach an advanced course on photosynthesis; all I can do is take photos of the forest.

Thinking of this, the easy lesson is one that might be taught to any beginning history student: to gather knowledge, we need multiple sources, since the world is too vast for any one perspective to see it all.

But there is a warmer lesson here, a richer one, I think: More eyes doesn’t mean more perspectives on a singular world; more eyes means more worlds.

We shouldn’t cull the letters of Kafka and Strong in order to cobble together a grand theory of What Life Was Like Then — unification isn’t the point. There is no singular Truth; there are billions of Truths. Billions of worlds, each wholly realized to (and in) ourselves, visible to others only in the briefest of slivers.

And isn’t that more beautiful? Who wants a fixed and knowable world anyway?