Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”

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Gerhard Richter-48 Portraits-Franz Kafka 1972
The French writer Jean Levy, who wrote under his wife’s surname as Jean Ferry worked mainly as a screen-writer for various French directors, including Henri-George Clouzot, the French Hitchcock, and was a pre-eminent expert on the work of that notable Surrealist precursor Raymond Roussel. Ferry only  book of fiction, the short story collection The Conductor and Other Tales, was initially published in a limited edition of 100 copies in 1950, then again in 1953 with a very laudatory introduction by The Pope of Surrealism himself, Andre Breton.

The Conductor and Other Tales is an absolute gem of a volume. Every tiny story perfectly conveys Ferry’s unique style that is comprised of equal parts charm, weariness and a subtle terror. As Michael Richardson writes, Ferry never appeared to have convinced himself that the world actually exists.

Andre Breton called Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” a masterpiece. Ferry certainly manages to expand Kafka’s paranoia (an achievement in itself) to dizzying, vertiginous heights with it suggestion of wheels within wheels within wheels… … …

Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”

Joseph K—, around his twentieth year, learned of the existence of a secret, very secret society. Truth be told, it is unlike any association of its kind. some have a very hard time gaining admission. Many who wish ardently to do so will never succeed. Others, however, are members without even knowing it. One is, by the way, never entirely sure whether he is a member, many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although they have been initiated, they are even less a part of it than many men unaware of its existence. In fact, they were subjected to the trials of a fake initiation, meant to distract those unworthy of actually being initiated. But it is never revealed – not to the most genuine members, not even to those who have reached the highest ranks in this society’s hierarchy – whether their successive initiations are valid or not. It may even happen that a member who has attained, through a series of genuine initiations, an actual rank in the normal fashion, is then subjected without warning only to fake initiations. Whether it is better to be admitted to a low but authentic rank, or to hold an exalted but illusory position, is a subject of endless debate among members. At any rate, none can be sure of the stability of his rank.

In fact, the situation is even more complicated, for certain applicants are admitted to the highest ranks without undergoing any trials, and others without ever being so much as notified. Actually, it is not even necessary to apply: some have received very advanced initiations without even knowing the secret society exists.

The powers of its highest members is limitless; they carry within themselves a powerful emanation of the secret society. For instance, even should they not show themselves, their mere presence suffices to turn an innocent gathering like a concert or a birthday dinner into a meeting of the secret society. It is their duty to draw up secret reports on all the meetings they attend, reports pored over by other members of the same rank; thus there is a perpetual exchange of reports among members, which allows the secret society’s highest authorities to keep the situation well in hand.

However high or far an initiation goes, it never goes so far as to reveal the purpose of the secret society to the initiate. Still, there are always traitors, and for some time now it has been no mystery to anyone that this purpose is maintaining secrecy.

Jospeh K— was quite terrified to learn this secret society was so powerful, so many-limbed, that he might easily shake hands with its most powerful member without knowing it. But as bad luck would have it, he lost his first-class metro ticket one morning after a troubled night’s sleep. this misfortune was the first link in a chain of muddled, contradictory circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, in order to protect himself, he was forced to take the necessary steps towards being admitted to this formidable organisation. All this happened quite some time ago, and how far he has gotten in these attempts remains unknown.

Jean Ferry 1950

Translation Edward Gauvin

Tempting Fate: Part Nine

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Andre Masson-Card Trick 1923

Previous instalments can be found at Tempting Fate: Part OneTempting Fate: Part TwoTempting Fate: Part ThreeTempting Fate: Part FourTempting Fate: Part FiveTempting Fate: Part SixTempting Fate: Part Seven and Tempting Fate: Part Eight. thanks as always to drmegsorick.com for advice and support.

Max returned with the drinks and slid in beside Margot. ‘Cheers,’ he said, as they touched glasses and then promptly drained them. He was back at the bar within minutes, not even having time to finish smoking one cigarette. Boy, he was in the mood, now. The second dose was unfurling within his cells like a flower opening up to receive the first rays of the morning sun. This promised to be a hell of a night, indeed. Never before had he felt so clear-headed, so sharp and so aware. Preternaturally aware, in fact, of everything that was going to happen before it actually happened. He was a god surveying the world from the majestic heights of Mount Olympus.

After the fourth (or maybe fifth) drink, Margot decided that, even though still early —night had just fallen— it was time they made their way to Kubla Khan’s. Another drink at the bar would while away the time.

‘Great, I just need to head to the jacks before we go,’ Max said, standing.

‘Work away. I’ll meet you in the lobby.’

Everything in the toilet —the urinals, the cubicles, the porcelain sink— was a vivid, startling shade of ultramarine. Was it the lighting? Or maybe the drugs?

After pissing in the bright blue urinal and washing his hands at the equally dazzling sink, Max thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to splash a little water on his face and freshen up his appearance, though he already felt better than fine. As he reached for the paper towels to dry his face, he checked himself in the mirror. He studied his reflection in the mirror and found everything to be just right until, as he was about to walk away, he noticed a splash of red appear on the left hand side. ‘God, what was this now?’ Max thought. Hadn’t he learnt his lesson? You should never look in the mirror when you are completely fucking out of it.

The red splash on the facing cubicle door gradually coalesced into a blob which then separated into letters that read out ᗡAƎᗡ ᖷᖷO ЯƎTTƎᙠ TИUƆ What? Of course it was reversed in the mirror and after a moment’s thought Max realised it read CUNT BETTER OFF DEAD.

He spun on his heels to look at the defaced cubicle, but found it pristine and glowing banally blue. Yet, when he returned his gaze to the mirror, the obscene message was still there. It didn’t even make any sense. Was it in some way directed at him? Did someone feel that he would be better off dead? Or was it meant to be a vicious insult, an expression of violent, misogynistic rage aimed randomly or directed at women in general?

While Max pivoted back and forth to stare at the blank cubicle and the mirror with its message, someone emerged from the corner of the toilet. Where the fuck did this joker come from? Had he been there the whole time? Had he silently witnessed the strange behaviour which could only be construed as the actions of a madman? Time to get out of this cursed bathroom and get some clean, fresh air.
The man stood next to him, sighed and turned on the tap. He washed his hands and as he was drying them said, ‘Howrye? You seem slightly distracted my friend, however not to worry, it’s nothing a little bump wouldn’t sort out in a hurry. I trust you partake?’

Max gaped at him, perplexed. He seemed to be in his late forties or thereabouts. What was this? A mad, fucking, Irish queen?

‘?’ Max silently queried.

‘Ahhh, I think you have misconstrued me my friend. No, I mean a little something something, you know?’ he said, pulling out a small clear plastic bag containing a pure white powder. He then proceeded to carefully pour it out onto the space between the index finger and thumb of his clenched left fist. Holding it toward Max’s face, he went on, ‘Trust me. I mean you and your lovely lady friend —my, isn’t she just peachy creamy— no harm whatsoever. Go on, what currently offends your eyes will disappear without a trace after you have tried a taste.’

This was getting stranger by the second. He knew about Margot? How? He knew Max was seeing things? Was his state of mind that obvious? And why the hell did everyone Max met today want to give him drugs?

‘Thanks,’ Max said, bending down to inhale the substance. In for a penny, in for a pound after all.

‘My pleasure. See, isn’t that better?’

Max dusted his nose and hardly daring to look, glanced at the left-hand corner of the mirror. The red lettering was gone. Thank God.

‘It most certainly is. Thanks. Ummm, do I owe you anything for that?’ Max asked, starting to grin. He just couldn’t help himself.

‘Not at all. I was just helping someone who was obviously in need. What terrible reprobate and general scoundrel wouldn’t do the same? Ask anyone in Carlingford in the Wee County what kind of man is Matthew Flynn Flaherty O’Neill and they will say without exception that he is a good man, a kind man.’

‘I am sure they would. So how did you end up here?’ Max asked as he buried his face under the running tap.

‘Ahhh well, you know, it’s a beautiful corner of God’s earth, but with The Troubles and it being not only in Ireland but in Ra-Ra-Land, a poor soul like me just cannot enjoy himself. So I came over here and now I am the Night-Watchman. Such is life,’ he said and sighed.

‘Well, thanks again. I am in your debt.’

‘Not at all. In fact, please give this to your delightful lady friend with my compliments,’ he said and handed over another small bag full to the brim with white powder.

‘Really?’

‘I insist.’

‘Cheers, mate,’ Max said, quickly walking out of the bathroom before the Irishman sprung the catch on him and headed towards the hotel lobby.

Margot was sitting on one of the lobby’s angular leather sofas. When Max reached her, she said, ‘Christ, you certainly took your time. My God, you are positively glowing! What on earth were you doing in there?’

‘It’s a long story. However, somebody give me a gift for you,’ Max said and passed over the packet.

Margot looked down briefly before closing her palm.

‘Who gave you this?’ she asked.

‘Some crazy Irishman, said he was the Night-Watchman. I dunno. But it’s good, I can testify to that.’

‘Well, I suppose I better go to the powder room then,’ Margot said, rising. ‘By the way, I booked us a room for the night, just in case we miss the last train.’

Max tried to prevent his already wide grin from growing wider but his attempt was doomed to fail. ‘Really? Good idea, Batman.’

‘You needn’t be getting any ideas, Max. Now, wipe that stupid grin off your face and all. It’s merely a precaution.’

‘Right. Sound.’

‘I won’t be long. Sit tight.’

‘I’m going nowhere. Hurry up, though.’

‘Will do,’ she said, sauntering off across the lobby. Max followed the switch of her hips for as long as she was within sight.

Happy, happy fucking, happy days.

Margot was as good as her word and soon came out. As they left the hotel, Max couldn’t suppress the anticipation he felt inside that soon enough —this very night— they would be back.

There were several taxis waiting. They got in the one at the top of the queue. Their driver was a heavy looking fellow with a bull’s neck wearing a fluorescent-pink polo shirt.

‘Where to?’ he asked in a thick Birmingham accent.

‘To Kubla Khan’s please,’ Margot replied.

He shook his head vigorously. ’Sorry about this, but you two lovebirds can hop right out again and get into the next taxi in the line, because there is no way I am going anywhere near that place. It’s in a fucking shit-hole of a neighbourhood and what with the canals and flyovers it will ruin my vehicle. Go on then, run along.’

Max was stunned. How could he refuse to take them? And more importantly, what kind of place was Margot taking him to?

Margot, however, didn’t skip a beat. Smiling sweetly, Margot merely leaned over and whispered into the taxi driver’s ear. Max couldn’t overhear a single word, but whatever she said did the trick. Looking visibly paler beneath his sun-bed tan, the driver turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb.

Max marveled. What kind of power did Margot wield that she could, with a few words, coerce this taciturn bully of a man into taking them someplace he had moments earlier refused to go? His attitude had been so transformed that he even attempted to make conversation, albeit the usual taxi driver drivel about Birmingham having more canals than Venice and such-like. Did they know that? No, and neither did they care.

He was right about the location, as well. Beneath a gigantic flyover, they crossed a pot-holed bridge that was the only access to the disused warehouse that had been converted, complete with a fake pagoda facade, into Kubla Khan’s.

The driver stopped the taxi in front of the entrance to let them out, but drove off without asking for any money. Weird. Had he muttered something about some cunts being better off dead? Or was Max just being paranoid? Hearing things that were just an echo of his earlier hallucination? Whatever the case, Margot must have really done a number on the driver. He wanted to ask her what she had said to him, but in this instance maybe ignorance was bliss. Maybe. Probably. Almost definitely so.

Margot took his hand as they walked though the muddy wasteland, stepping over craters overflowing with rusty water and averting their eyes from the homeless people who huddled over garbage can fires and found shelter beneath the herculean legs of the flyover.

So finally, Max thought, we have reached our destination. Everybody who is anybody is in the place. Well, it seems as though the night is just starting but the games have already begun.

Dissolving

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Francesca Woodman

The sensation started in my thumbs. A weightlessness, an unbelievable lightness. I rolled over and shook my hands, thinking I’d just been sleeping too long in the same position. The sickening sensation only grew worse. I lay staring at the ceiling for a time, willing for it to stop. It spread from my thumbs to my wrists and back down into my other fingers.

I slipped quietly from bed so as not to disturb Henry. He was never pleasant when awoken in the middle of the night. In the bathroom, I elbowed the light on to protect my hands, hands that no longer felt like they belonged to me.

The flickering fluorescent light intensified the ghostly sensation. I heard the sound of metal against porcelain and realized that my wedding ring had dropped into the sink. What was happening? In my panic, I let out a scream that echoed throughout the house.

“For God’s sake, Molly, what’s with all the noise?” Henry shouted irritably from the bedroom.

For what seemed like an eternity, I was rendered speechless. How could I possibly articulate what was happening? “Henry, please come here!” I finally managed. “I’m dissolving!”

It was true, I was dissolving like sugar in a cup of tea. My fingers, wrists and forearms had disappeared. It was like I was being erased, I was being rubbed out. The phenomenon was dissolving every inch of flesh and bone as it progressed towards my shoulders.

With a sigh, Henry leaned against the door. “Really Molly? I think you’re being just a wee bit hysterical, don’t you?”

“Henry, look at me!” I cried.

“Seriously, Molly,” he said, frowning.

“Can’t you see? Henry, I’m disappearing, I am going to vanish!”

He sighed heavily and went over to the sink. “Please be more careful, you dropped your ring,” he said, holding out the ring.

“Henry, help me please, please, please help me,” I wailed in utter frustration.

He placed it on the bathroom vanity. “I don’t know what is going on with you Molly. Come back to bed when you have finished with your amateur dramatics.”

I sank to my knees sobbing. My shoulders had been rubbed out and now my breasts were being erased. Those breasts that Henry had so adored when we had first met. This self, myself, Molly Matthews, this unique identity was in process of complete disintegration. It was becoming difficult to breath; in desperation, I inhaled deeply as my body faded. Now I was just a head, an unconnected head floating in space. Henry always said that I lived too much in my head. Now all that was left of me was this head. For some reason this thought made me laugh hysterically. The light flickered before shorting, leaving me in the dark.

I sat bolt upright in bed. I was sweating heavily, but that was OK. It was only a dream, just a dream. I moved my fingers, they were there. I touched my arms, thighs, belly, breasts –all still there, Thank God, it was just a horrible dream. I was complete, I hadn’t vanished or been erased. I was whole.

My relief was so great that I couldn’t sleep. Unlike Henry, who didn’t stir, even though I tossed and turned. Towards four in the morning my limbs became leaden with the accumulation of toxins, but I welcomed this leadenness. If anything, I wanted it to increase so as to drive away the disturbing sensation of lightness that I had felt so vividly during my dream.

My sleeplessness meant that I didn’t get up with Henry like I usually did in the morning. I just lay there, staring at the ceiling. I could hear him getting ready for the day. The same routine, breakfast with two cups of strong coffee, a shower and shave. It was Wednesday, so Henry always went in a little later, but he still got up at exactly the same time. As I lay there, I thought about calling out to Henry to ask for a lift to my morning class as my car was in the garage, but I was seized with a curious inertia. I realized we hadn’t really spoken to each other for quite a while now, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember when or why. When had we stopped acknowledging one other? How had we let things come to this pass?

I was surprised to hear the doorbell ring. Who could that possibly be?

I heard Henry open the door.

“Oh hello Jane.”

“Hello, Henry. Is our Molly around?”

“No she isn’t. I don’t know where she has got to, to be honest. Maybe she went to her classes.”

There was a pause. I couldn’t shake this listlessness that had taken hold of me, because I knew that I should have announced myself and stopped whatever was going to happen from happening.

“Oh, that really is a shame, I was so looking forward to catching that new exhibition in town with her. I have so being looking forward to it. Really.”

“I’m sorry about that, Jane. Seems a pity that you will miss the exhibition.” Again, there was a pause, longer than before, but it didn’t matter, I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “You know, Jane, I’m at a bit of a loose end today. How would you like it if I took you to see the show?”

“Really, would you do that for me Henry? Are you sure you haven’t got something else you need to do?”

“Well, yes… but nothing that can’t be postponed. A little outing with you, Jane, would do me the world… yes indeed, a whole world.”

“I am flattered, Henry.” I could almost hear the smile in her voice. “Well… I would like that very much, indeed.”

“Great! Excellent! Come in then, Jane, while I get ready. It should only take me five.”

“Thanks.”

I heard her heels click on the marble floor in the hallway. I just lay there, unmoving, staring at the ceiling, while my husband and my best friend chatted and laughed away to themselves, like they were alone, like I wasn’t there, like I no longer existed, like I had never existed.

After the front door had closed and Henry’s car started up and they drove away, I still didn’t move, yet part of me disconnected… I was in the rear seat of the car watching the glances, the smiles playing upon their lips, the tension generated between them –tension that could only be resolved later. After the exhibition and the lunch, Henry had paid the hotel receptionist in cash and had received the key card –handed over with a knowing and complicit look– and my husband and best friend closed the featureless hotel door in some infinite corridor and Henry cupped her face, like he had done so many times to me, an aeon ago, an alternate dimension away, a universe apart… and kissed her parted lips. That disconnected part of me observed what followed without surprise or emotion, that part of me had known all along that it would eventually come to this. Even if they knew they were being observed it wouldn’t have stopped them, so intent upon each other were they. They knew I knew they knew…. And it didn’t matter.

And as I lay there in the deepening shadow, inert, listless, desperate, I willed myself to wake up, this time for real.

This is the cakeordeath treatment of Dr. Meg’s story Dissolved. She very kindly let me play around with her idea, and I added an extra layer of existential dread, a sprinkling of sexual paranoia and a dollop of ambiguity. You can find the original at https://drmegsorick.com/2016/08/18/dissolved/.