Kafka, Bernard Malamud, and the Paradox of Learning

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As a teacher, I experiment quite a lot with assignments, readings, exercises, what have you. One practice remains pretty standard, however. In literature classes, where I normally have a bit of a captive audience, I love to open with Bernard Malamud’s classic short story, “A Summer’s Reading.”

The story of the dullard, George Stoyanovich, and his possible redemption has long been a favorite of mine, and its beauty, power, and brevity, as well as its subject matter, make it an excellent place to begin a semester of reading.

A talented, yet aimless youth stumbles into a lie when he tells the neighborhood’s genial, fatherly drunk, Mr. Cattanzara, that he’s begun reading 100 books. Not only is Cattanzara, called “The Change Maker” because of his job in a subway station, impressed, he spreads the word, and soon the whole neighborhood finds a new and vigorous respect for George, who basks in the attention, while still avoiding the reading.

Eventually Cattanzara sees through the lie, and the story implies that it’s because he perhaps knows it too well. “Don’t do what I did, George,” the Change Maker finally begs him. Faced with his shame, George, at story’s end, runs to the library and pulls out 100 books to read.

Whether he’ll actually read them, we never know. But the story offers an inspiring vision of education as an almost spiritual act. It’s for this reason, I suspect, that students like it, but I have other reasons myself. In a college classroom, I’m both George and Mr. Cattanzara. A fretless youth, I bombed out of college my first try. Some long act of grace gave me a chance to redeem that time and I’m now a version of the Change Maker in my classes, trying to help students avoid doing “what I did.” Each time I teach this story, both versions of me exist together in the magical space that is the classroom. Somewhere in the gap between them is the “real” me.

Malamud’s story oozes with the sense that education is profound and meaningful.

So why do I follow it with Kafka’s bleak comedy “A Report for an Academy?”

This story, a monologue given by an ape named Red Peter to a group of academics, utterly denies the reader the profundity and meaning I find so dear in Malamud.

Peter, an ape captured in Africa and destined for a zoo life, finds himself jammed into a tiny cage on a ship, the bars digging into his back. His only yearning is to get out of this cage, though this is an achievement he refuses to call freedom. Peter simply wants to occupy a more comfortable cage. To this end, he begins imitating the rough men he encounters, hoping to please them, and ultimately learns to speak eloquently in the human language that confines him. A career in vaudeville offers Peter the “way out” he sought, and fame follows, leading to the occasion of his address to seemingly learned men. Yet Red Peter refuses to glorify his achievements with the term “freedom.” Learning to speak like the people who stole him away from his previous existence destroys any memory of that innocent time of actual freedom. It is his linguistic education itself that becomes his new, roomier prison.

Peter’s education, every bit as remarkable and inspiring as that of George Stoyanovich, is stained with a dull, existential knowledge of meaninglessness.

Why juxtapose these two stories? Why offer something pure and good to my students only to stain it at the beginning? It must be me, right? Do I simultaneously feel liberated by my educational accomplishments even as I feel confined by them? Of course I do, but I can’t help but wonder why.

Ecclesiastes wails that everything is meaningless and I believe this is true. Yet somehow in spite of this, life is still precious. Yes, Kafka convinces me that the education itself is inherently meaningless, and I even buy the notion that it is but another type of prison. But Malamud offers the possiblity to craft meaning out of this nothingness. And I think it has to do with something analogous, but not equal to, “purpose.” George reads the moment he no longer has to. Cattanzara covers for him and everyone believes his lie. Only then, when nothing tangible is at stake, does George grasp for learning.

Perhaps Red Peter is right, and freedom is a lie. If so, then what learning offers is something else; something deeper and unnameable.