Tales from Outer Suburbia

My daughter and I worked our way through Tales from Outer Suburbia thanks to a recommendation from Kristen.  I’m very sad to have to take all of these stories back to the library!

 At first, we didn’t get “The Water Buffalo” at all.  We read it several times and then one, night, I had a dream and woke up realizing that the water buffalo is the wilderness that still exists in suburbia.

The water buffalo lives in the vacant lot at the end of a suburban street – the lot with all of the grass growing on it.  If a kid would ask the water buffalo for advice, the buffalo would answer, but only by pointing in a particular direction.  He offered no particulars.  The older the suburban kids became, the more they wanted the particulars, and so they quit visiting the buffalo.  The water buffalo eventually left.  Which was ashame, really, because every time the kids did follow the buffalo’s advice, they were surprised and delighted with what they found.

Here you are in suburbia, where everything is always explained in detail.  No mystery is left unsolved.  And if you do happen upon a mystery, there are plenty of anti-anxiety meds available to help you steer clear from the anxiety of the unknown.  The water buffalo, for me, represents the wilderness of subconscious knowing.  It’s that part of us that can be trusted, but that we tend to disregard because it doesn’t provide the security modern life demands.

Or imagine the government has asked you to keep a missile in your back yard and tells you to be alert, but not alarmed.  These rockets take up huge amounts of your back yard. Is it any wonder that kids turn them into play houses, birds into bird houses and that adults decorate them?  Of course, these alterations to the rockets may render them useless.  But how useful are they in the first place?

Or what if you took the idea of the standard holiday where people are given the gifts they want and turned it into a holiday, a nameless one, where people sacrifice the things they love?

Amazon says this book is for preschool and elementary school aged children.  While young children might enjoy these stories, I have a difficult time thinking they would understand them. The Tales from Outer Suburbia are clearly for teens and adults who at least have some literary and political savvy.

Shaun Tan grew up in Perth, Australia.  He claims Ray Bradbury was his favorite author in his pre-teen years.  That was true for me, too.  I was constantly getting caught reading Bradbury stories under my desk.  My mother caught me with I Sing the Body Electric under my covers, and thought it was a dirty book.  I got in tons of trouble for reading Bradbury!

These sorts of tales (fantasy) are among my all-time favorite. Now 9th graders are forced to read Bradbury so sneaking him under you desk is no longer as necessary. I wonder how many kids read Tan on the sly?

Kafka Short Stories

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died at the age of 40 (1924) by starvation (he had tuberculosis which made it painful to eat). He came from a middle class Jewish family in Prague.

According to Joachim Neugroschel, in the nineteenth century, traditional absolutes were being replaced with scientific and technological absolutes. With this shift, the concept of “nature” and “natural” shifted.

Neugroschel writes, “For Christianity and European civilization, “nature” has always been something to overcome, conquered, tamed, domesticated – subdued and subjugated for human use. The West draws an artificial line between “nature” and “human” or “man-made” – as if a beaver’s “natural dam” and an engineer’s technological dam were not subject to the same physical laws, the same “natural” laws.” But “natural” was also used to uphold the ethical. Some forms of behavior were attacked for being natural while others are upheld, like men’s dominion over women, Europe’s domination over the rest of the world, the nuclear family, family values, etc. To make things more confusing, “unnatural” is considered to be a put down. Fascism saw itself as lending mother nature a helping hand by killing anyone that the fascist state declared unnatural.

Kafka uses “nature” in an almost sort of divine sense. His protaganists very often have to pay a terrible price when they go against “nature” (like Gregor Samsa turning into a bug). The punishment is as severe as the punishment meted out by a vengeful deity in a Greek tragedy.

So the question becomes, how natural are these systems that have been deemed natural? Kafka wants to expose the destructive basis of systems but at the same time wants to restore things back to their “natural” order in some way.

My favorite stories in The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) are: “The Judgment”, “The Metamorphosis”, “In the Penal Colony”, and “A Report for an Academy”.

Kafka wrote “The Judgment” when he was 29. I think the story has to do with the changing times. The father held the punitive patriarchal role of the family, but the mother has died which has subdued him somewhat and the son has stepped in and assumed increasing responsibility of the family business. It seems to him the natural progression. But as the son has become more powerful, the father has become less powerful and sees this as a threat. The father is hugely judgmental, critical, says his mother’s death was harder on him than on the son and ultimately condemns his son to death. The minute the father starts lashing out at his son in this way, the son immediately cowers and reverts back to the original father-son relationship with father as all-powerful and son at his mercy. The son obeys his father and throws himself over a bridge.

Psychologically speaking (which would only be a very shallow interpretation) it is extremely difficult in households with controlling, judgmental parents for children to establish their own power and control. The individual is subjected to the judgment of the parent which declares the individual non-existent until he judges him as existent. Even as an adult, it is very difficult to establish a sense of self-mastery when the value of individual existence is left up to an authority figure.

In “The Metamorphosis”, the father has lost a lot of money which has depleted his strength and so the son has stepped in to become the sole income earner of the family and does a good job. This increases the power of the son and decreases the power of the father. When the son becomes a bug, the father’s power slowly increases and rapidly increases when he lodges the apple in Gregor’s back that leads to Gregor’s death.

“In the Penal Colony” has a slightly different theme, but I think it’s in the same ballpark. An officer has been maintaining an inhumane, elaborate execution system that his previous Commander built. People are judged as guilty without being able to defend themselves and without even being told that they have been judged. The apparatus works by writing the nature of the crime into the skin of the judged over and over again. By the 6th hour the judge finally realizes that he has been judged (enlightenment comes) and likewise recognizes the judgment. The officer explains the observance of the judge at this point as an almost spiritual experience. But a new commander is now in place and he is not in favor of this execution system. So the officer is trying to talk the traveler into telling the Commander that it is a beautiful system. The traveler says he can’t do this so the officer tells the condemned man to get off of the apparatus and places himself there instead. The apparatus malfunctions and stabs the officer through the forehead. There is no spiritual experience that takes place – no look of enlightenment. The expression the officer had before he was on the apparatus is the same as in death.

I think this story could be understood on many different levels. But what I keep seeing in Kafka’s stories is this idea of judgment. In a patriarchal system, the father who is head of the household and a Commander of a penal colony hold similar positions. They both function very much like the traditional abstract punitive God. In all of these stories, there is the sense that a new understanding is taking hold but this new understanding cannot be understood by those who still exist within the patriarchal system. (Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” can’t make himself understood, Georg in “The Judgment” realizes his father is senile and so cannot understand Georg.)

In “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis”, a shift is taking place that is disallowed by the power structure currently in place. In both stories, the father figure is waning (God is dying), but in a last burst of energy, manages to denounce the son and the son accepts this denouncement and dies. The old system remains in place, however tentatively. But clearly, this system is nihilistic rather than life giving.

“In the Penal Colony”, a new system is likewise taking the place of the old. A more humane view is replacing the previous, inhumane view.

God, in a patriarchal system, represented a deity who could give or take on whim. Disobedience was punished and very often, the punished didn’t know what it was he was being punished for. The same is true in the family structure. A child is affected for life by the punitive judgments of the father in a patriarchal household. It’s as though this judgment is being written over and over again into the child so that it is always with the child through adulthood and until death. The child must walk a slippery slope into adulthood because what he perceives to be the natural progression is perceived by the father as disobedience. This is true of patriarchal societies as well.

But in “In the Penal Colony”, the commander is dead. (God is dead) and has been replaced. There is a young officer fanatically trying to uphold the system that his Commander put in place, but he knows the system is no longer powerful. His apparatus is in disrepair and he suspects that it is scheduled to be destroyed altogether. But he is still a part of the system and cannot go on without it. As though the Commander (a potential father figure to the young officer) is judging him from his death bed, the officer intends to place himself on the apparatus and his judgment is simply “Be Just”. But rather than have this written on his body and having enlightenment come to him at the 6th hour, the apparatus malfunctions and he is killed immediately.

What does it mean to “be just”? Especially if God (the patriarchal system) has died or is dying and the system that had been based on this God is now malfunctioning?

In “A Report to an Academy”, and ape has become human and is making a report to a scientific academy. He was caged and pinned down and realized there was no way out. His only choice was to be stuck in a zoo or to become human. He decided it would be better to become human so he learned to imitate humans (which he found to be quite easy) and became so successful at it that he was able to perform on the Vaudeville stage. His only freedom existed in becoming something he wasn’t. The ape says, “I repeat: there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason.” At night he comes home to a half-trained female ape. But during the day, he doesn’t want to see her because her gaze has the madness of a bewildered trained animal that only he can see. He can’t stand to look at that gaze because it pains him too much.

This is another story that can be understood on many levels. But I think it still has to do with the idea of judgment. In a patriarchal society, it isn’t enough that we exist, we have to justify our existence in some way. And if we can’t justify it, then we die, either figuratively or physically. At the end of the story, the ape says, “In any case, I don’t want any man’s judgment. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Academy, I have only made a report.”

So another question: Does modern man truly live? Or does he simply report? Is he just more data to add to the formula Dostoevsky talks about in Notes from Underground? We’ve gotten rid of the punitive God, but are we now caged by our reason?

The Blind Men and the Elephant

My favorite version of the Blind men and the Elephant parable is Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young – it’s one of our all-time favorite kids books around here. Here’s a summary:

One day seven blind mice were surprised to find a strange Something by their pond. “What is it?” they cried, and they all ran home. Red mouse thinks it’s a pillar. Green mouse thinks it’s a snake. Yellow mouse thinks it’s a spear. Purple mouse thinks it’s a great cliff. Orange mouse thinks it’s a fan. Blue mouse thinks it’s a rope. And they all began to argue. But white mouse went to the pond and ran up one side and down the other and from end to end and realizes the something is as sturdy as a pillar, supple as a snake, wide as a cliff, sharp as a spear, breezy as a fan, stringy as a rope – but altogether, the Something is… an elephant! And when the others ran up one side and down the other and across the Something from end to end, they agreed. Now they saw, too. The Mouse Moral: Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.

It’s interesting to see the other versions of this tale..

From the Jain perspective:

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features.”

“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

From the Buddhist perspective:

The raja asks each man what an elephant is like. The blind men assert the elephant is like a pot (head), winnowing basket (ear), ploughshare (tusk), plough (trunk), grainery (body), pillar (foot), mortar (back), pestle (tail), or brush (tip of the tail). The men come to blows, which delights the raja. The raja says:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim

For preacher and monk the honored name!

For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.

Such folk see only one side of a thing.

And from the 19th Century American poet, John Godfrey Saxe:

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

I see, quoth he, the Elephant

Is very like a snake!

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee.

What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain, quoth he;

‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: Even the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!?

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

I see, quoth he, the Elephant

Is very like a rope!

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!