Symbolic Gestures

Kafka-as-pupil

Young Franz Kafka

Much has changed since my last post here, especially after the U.S. election last November. I’ve been tempted to comment on the many parallels between the daily news and the historical events I’ve been researching (among them terrorism in the early 1890s, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies of that day, the looming specter of doomsday devices, and even disputes over Venezuelan sovereignty).

At the same time, I’ve felt a greater urgency to complete the final chapters and not be overly distracted by all the hype and click-bait published in the media, both social and professional. On several occasions I’ve thought about Franz Kafka’s dispassionate and seemingly self-centered journal entry on the outbreak of World War I: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”

(Brief historical aside: Kafka’s spirit haunts me as I write this book, especially after I learned that Bertha von Suttner’s birthplace, the Kinsky Palace in Prague, was later converted into the grammar school that Kafka attended as a child. It now houses the Franz Kafka Bookshop. See http://www.prague.cz/kinsky-palace/ for more details.)

 

Prague_Palace_Kinsky_PC

The Kinsky Palace in Prague, birthplace of Bertha von Suttner and, later, the site of a grammar school attended by Franz Kafka

There’s a vast psychological distance between those two sentences in Kafka’s journal, and yet by now many of us are all too familiar with it, perhaps to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely powerless in the face of current events. What can one single person do in this place and time to create a better future for our world? For some, the answer is to take to the streets with banners and placards, to spend hours arguing with legislators on the telephone, to post and repost fact-based articles detailing the most demanding issues of the day. For others, the answer is to persist and persevere along our chosen paths. “Stay in your lane,” advised the poet and journalist Ted Genoways, urging fellow writers to do what they do best: write. The benefits may not be realized in the short-term, especially for those of us working on epic-length novels, but we maintain faith in the positive, long-term effects.

In the meantime, we should look to our health as individuals and prepare ourselves for what promises to be a long-term challenge. When has this not been the case? Losing sleep, courting depression, indulging addictions: none of these helps with solutions.

The trend toward aggressive militarism in the United States, for example, didn’t begin with the contested election of Donald Trump, nor did the nation’s long-running struggle with racism and xenophobia. When I began writing this book years ago, these ugly and immoral aspects of American life were already deeply ingrained in our culture. Just compare how a 19th-century female pacifist like Bertha von Suttner would have responded to the wildly popular movie “Wonder Woman” and so many viewers’ claims that here, at last, was a positive role model for young women. To use a modern catch-phrase, “I can’t even.”

Today is the International Day of Peace, one of many symbolic annual events such as Earth Day that neatly package a grand idea into twenty four hours of observation. Many (like me, I’ll admit) will post a banner or meme on their Facebook walls before returning relatively unaffected to our daily work. Some, like the real wonder woman, Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi, may continue to act on their beliefs in human goodness and progress, perhaps placing one brick atop another to construct a new and sturdy schoolhouse for young women in a war-ravaged nation. (More likely, Malala will be hunkered down in the library doing her homework after classes at Oxford University, continuing to improve herself even as she works to improve the world.)

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 5.02.37 PMSymbolic gestures such as International Peace Day remind us that the work of peace is varied and ongoing. Bertha von Suttner was a firm believer in the power of advertising and propaganda; in fact, these were among the primary goals of the many peace societies she helped to found throughout Europe. Together with other luminaries of the day, she helped craft a pin for society members to wear, something visible to promote the cause in public. “Peace is sought for by Justice,” the emblem read, reminding members of the ideology behind their movement. Today, we carry that idealism forward according to our individual gifts and talents. On days like International Peace Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what our efforts can achieve collectively.

So on this day, remind others that our labors for peace are ongoing and that we must continue to do what we can do. Read a newspaper to stay engaged. Volunteer to help a friend or neighbor in need. Share your hopes for a better world. Purchase a book to stay enlightened. And swim a few laps to stay healthy.

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