Last night I read The Country Doctor by Franz Kafka.
Reading a Kafka story is as if you are entering a strange circus tent, one where the bizarre seems perfectly normal. Instead of being horrified, you clap with approval and await the next act, one you are sure will have deep meaning in its weirdness. It’s an inversion where strange is normal and normal is strange.
This story does not disappoint.
When I turned the last page, and went downstairs to make a cup of coffee, the odd images and events of the doctor’s house call stayed with me like the memory of my first kiss—was it good or bad? Did it happen or not? As readers of this story, we are left with some troubling thoughts: the rape of Rose, the doctor’s servant and wiggly maggots in a small boy’s wound; but we also are tickled by funny ones: talking horses and the naked doctor himself, trying to get back home on his steeds, now in slow motion.
This story is vintage Kafka.
He is the master of surreal.
Surrealism was a movement begun in the last century born from another movement, Dadaism. Followers disillusioned with the status quo and all that led up to WWI and II –overly rational thought and the aristocracy– looked for other ways to express their reality. Creative and anti-establishment types, like Miro, Dali, Ernst, Breton, and Kafka, painted and wrote in attempts to show what a fusion of the conscious and the unconscious could communicate to a lost world of power mongers. They took much of their thought from Freud.
I see surreal as a dreamlike quality in which the rational is put out to pasture and the irrational comes into the kitchen to graze.
Alas, most of us know little about the scope of surrealism and its influence on most major writers in the last 75 years, but we are experts nevertheless.
Today, kids call their In N Out Burger surreal, their graphics on their iPhones surreal, and the moment of click when sending in their college applications, surreal.
Yeah. That was a surreal experience.
But was it? Not usually. Just another misused word.
Last weekend, my daughter Sara, her kids Noah and Nathan, and my husband Judge Blah and I did experience the surreal. The beauty of the moment was that we realized we were in an odd unrealistic scene in the middle of our reality.
On the Central Coast of California, where the ocean is usually unsettled, frigid, and irregular, where the sand is coarse, the air is swirling cold and the marine layer of fog is thick, where the typically viewed creatures are seagulls and lines of pelicans, and maybe a sea otter or two, a school of Pacific blue dolphins swam in to the shore so close we thought they might beach themselves.
Like rocking horses, they arched up—black fins cutting the surface of the water—and then they plunged down, and then up, and then down, surely a dolphin’s version of the waltz. This play, A Dolphin’s Tail, attracted a small audience of maybe 5 other people who had the good fortune to be in attendance for a show whose opening would precede its closing by only one hour. Only 9 people on a California beach…
Back and forth, only 20 feet from the shore, the dolphins paraded.
The pelicans became dolphin copycats and lines of the stately fisherbirds circled and dived. I half expected one of the dolphins to come out of the water with a baton and conduct the others in a watery symphony.
The air warmed, the fog drew back, the dolphins danced.
We were almost alone on the beach that day, save for a young couple, visiting from Europe.
She was topless.
Judge Blah said, This is surreal.
And then, as quietly as the show began, it all ended.
The fog lunged back in; the sweatshirts, the wind, the choppy seas returned. Loud families carrying blankets, beach chairs and cold chests full of Budweiser, stomped onto the beach. The waves turned dark grey and pounded the shore. The dolphins left the scene.
She put on her bathing suit top and they got up and left, speaking Dutch in soft tones.
Now, it was just another beautiful day on a rugged California beach.