Confused by Faction, a Bookworm becomes a Man!
The haphazard arrangement of books and international collection of characters at Kafka's Kafé on Miami's famed South Beach is in fact absurd if not Kafkaesque. For one thing, Timothy Leary would definitely love the decor. The visiting book browser or Internet surfer is greeted by a mural of a chocolate-colored butterfly-woman. A large caricature of Kafka painted on the ceiling looms above. Surreality is confirmed by an armless, surrealistically painted female mannequin, perchance dangled by the neck from the ceiling by misplaced machismo. The shelves are labeled, but more often than not the labels have little if any bearing on the books adjacent, and, even when properly shelved, each book is in constant danger of dislocation without notice to an unlikely shelf by shady-looking characters - it's the sunglasses - from every continent and island of the world.
Reticent intellectuals who find odd books of any note on the shelves but who do not want to purchase them, for a dollar (paperback) or three dollars (hardcover), tend to secrete them on the dusty tops of the bookcases, or else stuff them behind other books. Indeed, that is where I have found some of the better books, often mangy, dog-eared and brutally underlined. Before I learned all the ropes, I examined every shelf in the store, found a dozen books I liked and tucked them onto the end of a shelf by the crummy, Coke-stained, old divan upstairs. Alas, they soon disappeared; some were purchased, others were hidden away by others for future reference. Indeed, I learned my lesson: Put the best books on top of the shelves, and stuff a few behind the outdated law books for good measure.
A hard-working, Argentinean-American family man by the name of Oscar Deamici owns Kafka's, hence the place is often frequented by sundry familiars from Argentina. Internet access, computer sales and repairs is Mr. Deamici's main games. An Italian or two are sometimes around the place - many Argentineans are naturally frustrated Italians. Eccentrics drop by from time to time, including Julio, a twenty-something Mexican American, one of the great geniuses of the world. One of the few Wobblies still living drops by from time to time, not to mention myself among several others who are inconspicuous in bizarre settings. By the way, a pleasant little café with sidewalk seating occupies the back of the store by the usually clean restroom - only one free-riding bookworm has been banned from Kafka's of late, not for his execrations but for his misplaced excretions.
The used books are literally thrown in for sake of the Other Revenue account. The book end of the business, with its inventory supported by fleeing residents and departing tourists, is the butt of Miami-Dade jokes; yet Kafka's is the best place in town to grab a trashy novel on the cheap, and, if a bookworm burrows long enough, he too shall have his reward. Of course the current newspapers in several languages and the glossy fashion and porno magazines are much in demand. Beware: one porno enthusiast, a respectable looking, Caucasian businessman, gets on the Internet from time to time, where he intently watches a video of a naked 300-pound woman bouncing up and down on something.
Despite the disheveled shelves, Kafka's clerks are intelligent, gregarious, and usually attractive. Cecilia from Argentina is one of Kafka's several Latina beauties. She is well versed in academic subjects, and her understanding and command of English is outstanding in case your Spanish is patetico. She is superstitious, at least to the extent of believing in diabolical possession after viewing the Emily Rose movie - Emily purportedly sacrificed herself to prove the existence of God. Yet, on the other hand, Cecilia is an ardent intelectual izquierdista who enjoys Marx and Freud and is wont to deny the reality of every metaphysical notion including good and evil, notwithstanding her faith in the personifications of same - God and Satan – not to mention leftist ideology.
One evening while I was browsing books, Cecilia turned away from shelving books, and asked me, "What does nonfiction mean?"
"Why, uh, the label Nonfiction identifies all books that are not fiction," I begged the question.
She glanced confusedly at other labels on the shelves.
"Nonfiction is a general category," I continued. "Actually, the labels Biography, Science, Health, Sociology, History, Philosophy and so on belong to the category, Nonfiction. So the label, Nonfiction, if on the shelves, should be 'Other Nonfiction', meaning those books which are not fiction but are not otherwise classified. Sometimes we see the label, 'stories', which are connected narratives - they can be fiction or nonfiction. "
"Hmm. So philosophy is not fiction?" she quizzed.
"No, philosophy is not fiction. Philosophy evolved from poetry and attempts to rationalize the intuition of truth. The ancient poets didn't make truths, they intuited truths and sang them - they composed or fashioned the poems that expressed or revealed truths. For example, the reasonable priests of Apollo at Delphi listened to the irrational cries of the pythia and rationalized them into rather bad verse."
"So philosophy is true ?"
"Someone has said that philosophy is a lot of nonsense about common sense. Since common sense, when examined, can be absurd, philosophy rationalizes it. And philosophy is the search for wisdom, for understanding, getting to the bottom of what we know. Philosophers intend to express the truth, whatever that might be. Philosophy might express an ideal truth, and refer to ideas and ideals as reality. Therefore philosophy might not refer to tangible things and events, in the sense that they are capable of immediate sensory perception. But still we do not refer to philosophy as Fiction, because Fiction is our label for fictitious stories, novels, and.... Oh, you know what I mean."
"A novel is something new?" she asked, with eyes widening ever so innocently. She was pulling my leg and I fell over it. I continued with my abstruse pedantry since there seemed be an attentive ear for it.
"Cecilia, the adjective, 'novel', can mean something new or original, such as the news. When we use the word as a noun, 'novel' can indicate a novella, a short moral story, either true or false. But when speaking of books we generally use the word 'novel' to label long, imaginary stories about human beings, stories with plots. The stories in novels are fabrications or inventions of the mind. Of course novels might be filled with profound truths. Camus, a philosopher of The Absurd, said a good novelist must be a philosopher. So novels and other imaginary works are fiction, and the all rest is nonfiction. Don't you have that division in Argentina."
"Imaginary? Can't a novel be a true story about facts, a nonfiction story?"
"Yes, there's are historical novels, for instance this biographical novel, on the shelf here, about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy."
"That's why it should be under 'Nonfiction'?"
"No, it should be under Fiction. In most American university libraries, we would find it under American Literature."
"But part of it is nonfiction." She affirmed.
"Most of it. The author, Irving Stone, is a great researcher, so his historical novels are like nonfiction histories, with some fictitious dialogue and fairly accurate descriptions of settings and people added. Come to think of it, Cecilia, I once thought I had discovered a largely ignored historical personage, someone whom I could write a book about, sell the movie rights, maybe make plenty of money."
"Really?" Cecilia brightened up at the opportunity - despite her leftist leanings, she is bourgeois, and might take a shine to gold.
"Yes, I researched many histories, collected everything the historians said about my heroine. They had all copied one historian who was closest to the action, an American pioneer in popular history - it is amusing how a historian might get a Pulitzer Prize for what really amounts to plagiary, just putting a little spin on what others had written before him. Anyway, I was about ready to start writing the book, when it occurred to me that I should check the fiction catalogue for mention of her name: Rachel Jackson -Andrew Jackson's wife. Not only had Irving Stone written a book about her, President's Lady, but a movie had also been made of the book. As for the historical novel, it amounted to some dialogue added to the material I already had in hand. There was very little fiction to the novel - it's just that the author had made a story out of the material."
"Yeah, that's what I said."
"Are nonfiction histories really true stories?"
"Good question, but come on, Cecilia, you're playing with me. I think you know the answer to these questions. The next thing you'll be asking is: What is the Truth? Histories might not be true but historians generally intend them to be true . Of course activist historians, knowing that history is necessarily limited by the historian's personal perspective, and knowing that history can really never be sufficiently accounted for or explained, use history to propagate their ideological agendas."
Cecilia, turning back to her task, looked at the title of a book, got on the step ladder and proceeded to shelve it. I admired her endowments - very Italian, lots of pasta and sauce, I thought. And I would have given a penny or two for her thoughts, for she often seemed lost in them. I certainly would not blame her for shelving books at random, I mused, for just plugging up the holes wherever they appeared. No matter where she put a particular book, it would wind up somewhere else, anyway, most likely under the wrong label, so why bother with categories in the first place? Heck, when customers ask if a certain kind of book is on hand, the insider is tempted to laugh out loud.
Left to myself again, I picked up the current copy of the Miami Herald from the rack. By chance, Rene Rodriquez' article plugging the new film, Capote, directed by Bennet Miller, caught my eye. Truman Capote had written what Ms. Rodriquez called an "indelible book", In Cold Blood, about the 1959 murder of the Clutter family by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in Garden City, Kansas. I recalled that I had personally seen those killers in shackles, in the elevator at the courthouse in Topeka.
Capote, Ms. Rodriquez reported, is the first of two movies about the writing of In Cold Blood - another movie, Have You Heard? is scheduled for release in 2006. Truman Capote, she wrote, was 35 when he went out to Kansas to investigate the killings. Kansas! Oh, Gringo American that I am, how I miss Kansas and my old beer-drinking, pepper-eating Mexican friends.
"Six years later," she continues, "Capote instead wound up with a book that would invent a new publishing genre - the nonfiction novel - and would guarantee him his place in the canon of great American authors."
Nonfiction novel - a new publishing genre? Not true . The style is neither new nor novel. In Cold Blood is subtitled, A true account of a multiple murder and its consequences. That is what the work is: a true account, or, if you please, a true story, or a true mystery. It is not a novel. It is nonfiction - I looked it up the reference later and found it indexed in the Dewey Classification system as 364 - Criminology, and in the Library of Congress system as HV6533 - Criminology.
My considerations gave me cause to drift to the back of the store and pause at Kafka's little café, where I further considered the contemporary confusion of fiction with nonfiction. Now I have nothing against fiction on the whole: I prefer nonfiction; as for fiction, I want it steeped in truth. Reality has become so boring for some people that they must be constantly entertained; such is the enormity of the quantitative demand for instantly gratifying, superficial entertainment, only a supply of trash can meet it half way.
A recent example of the distaste for reality and a puerile affection for the shallow fancies of easily read trashy novellas came to mind over my café con leche at Kafka's. A certain critic who haunts the Web, Mister Netwit is his handle, was bored with one of my interview with a Cuban-American cubosurrealistic artist. The artist and I discussed our differing perspectives on Fidel Castro and the United States. During the interview, published almost verbatim, I advocated the free speech program I call 'Habla Libremente por Cuba', and argued that Mr. Castro's repression of dissent was foolish and contrary to the interests of the Cuban Revolution.
My free speech did not please Mister Netwit, and he felt free to say so. He said he had been to Cuba and was sick and tired of hearing the same old subjects aired. Of course mainstream media frequently airs those old subjects in South Florida because an intensely interested audience for them exists. But Mister Netwit was thoroughly bored. Nonetheless, he stooped to teach me how to write up an interview:
Turn it into a "story", a composition not altogether fictitious nor factual, but factious -an adjectival derivation from the nominal category he calls 'Faction.' Not a bad idea for someone who wants to entertain his audience with a novella; however, my intention was not to write a novella, but to transcribe a conversation for those who might or might not be interested in its content. Mister Netwit, however, believes that everything he reads should be, in the best of all possible worlds, 'Faction.'
At first glance I thought Mr. Netwit's 'Faction' was 'fiction' misspelled, for 'faction' refers to an abnormally contentious or self-seeking group within a larger group - a 'factious' party would be a contentious party. Perchance Mister Netwit and his ilk, to suit the confusion of reality with fantasy, unwittingly have a double-meaning in mind. "Use the fact to create fiction... faction," advised Mister Netwit.
After all, asked Mister Netwit, is not that why writers write? Do we not live to write Faction? That is, to tell fictitious stories, forgetting the other purposes of composition teachers tried to drum into our dense heads in high school.
Of course our teachers have been faulted for emphasizing exposition, which requires a great deal of hard thinking, over narration, description and persuasion. And now it appears that a certain faction of writers and teachers alike are wreaking vengeance on the honest person's penchant for nonfiction, abusing its facts by twisting them into a pack of lies, at worst, and half-truths, at best. The test of success: whether or not the resulting 'Faction' is an "easy read": Who wants to think hard nowadays, when we have a few experts and super-computers to do the grunt-work?
No doubt philosophers might say that Mister Netwit's faction corresponds with the fact that reality as we conceive it is an illusion. The truth is never wholly known, and what we know of it cannot be perfectly expressed no matter how concisely put in particular or general terms. Human expression is necessarily metaphorical and metaphysical; sentimental metaphor excites us more than arid metaphysics. Yet metaphysics, devoid of dirty details, is far more sublime. Certain Arab philosophers climbed their logical ladders to Supreme Being itself, and claimed from the summit that their transcendental mode was the higher way. Of course one might compose vulgar little stories to describe such being to those who are ignorant of it, and hence by indirection persuade them of the existence of ultimate reality.
Nevertheless, whether our subjects of interest are along the dirt road or at the end of the highway, honest writers will often draw a line, imaginary though it might be, between fiction and nonfiction, or rather between lies and truths, for truth is sometimes called fiction to protect the guilty. The faction that hews to faction has a right to their faction, and their intentional confusion of fiction with nonfiction might amuse us when we are out of sorts and do not want to know the difference between the two, but, in the final analysis or dissolution, the truth shall always preside over our cultivated domain. When the faction-writers know exactly what nonfiction is, we might turn to them for further advice.
I bade Cecelia adios and raced home high on caffeine, where I could not sleep nor focus on television's crime laboratories, not even the meat-puzzle of dismembered body parts. Staring at nothing as I lay on Sara's borrowed air mattress, I mulled over my obsession with truth, whatever that might be, with wanting to know it and be it. My desire to tell only the truth and to be true to my self, whatever that is, came to me one cold day in Washington, shortly after I left the Nixon White House and stood in the center of the Library of Congress, imagining that I was absorbing all the knowledge therein. I was moved to examine my passport, and other identity documents in my wallet:
"That is not me!" I exclaimed, and threw the passport and wallet in the Potomac. "From here on out," I resolved, "I will be true to myself and speak only the truth." I'm afraid I have wavered since then, or rather careened off course! And here I am, on my back on an air mattress in South Beach, wondering why I am still so concerned with the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
What's the difference? The mind is plastic and is divided against itself in such a way that it can be self-employed to get us where we want to go. We aren't there now, so imagining that we are there as if we were there, as if our ideals are realized, is a fictional process and is writing fiction, is it not? I asked myself. And this kind of fiction can work, so it is useful fiction. So there is nothing wrong with the employment of useful fictions that help us realize the ambitions of our moral-social heritage. That does not mean we are liars.
Eureka! It came to me. The simplicity of it proved my gross ignorance all along, and caused me to remember how I was once angered by what a a Polish sociologist, jurist and political scientist by the name of Ludwig Gumplowicz said: By the time we find out what is really going on, it is too late to do anything about it.
Beneficial fictions appertain to the future, whereas lies appertain to the past and its culmination, the here and now. High hopes might be disappointed: live and learn, but keep Hope locked in Pandora's treasure casket for future motivation.
As everyone knows, lying can be harmful indeed. When we come to believe that fictions are true , it is then that our lies may cause us to unwittingly run amok and wreak havoc, as if we were paranoid little Hitlers with grandiose delusions. Take for instance the man who reads a book about the virtues of having a positive mental attitude and imagining and constantly affirming that he is God's gift to the world as if that were true in the here and now. What if he takes the suggestion to heart, and comes to believe that this fiction is actually true , and thinks that his mistakes, errors, faults, or sins are goods instead of evils?
I had almost drifted off to sleep when I heard a voice say something Ouspensky said long ago, that the change within will proceed when a man realizes that he does not have certain powers he ascribes to himself. Therefore, first of all, a man must not lie. He must know that he does not have something in order to make a genuine effort to get it. And he might have to pay dearly for what he thinks he already has.
Note: Kafka's on South Beach changed hands in January 2007 and is under new management.