The Back Room

A black-and-white portrait photograph of the author Franz Kafka in suit jacket, shirt and tie leans against a window. Behind it is a blurry street view including a sidewalk, building, deciduous trees and, in the immediate foreground, a ridged metal roof.

Domain Name

Jason Morris
for Evan Kennedy

In the café this morning there’s a guy wearing a gray t-shirt with the word SAMSARA printed under a stylized cartoon owl. White guy, brown hair. Late twenties. Whenever I’m here it’s early, a weekday, I’m often hungover, always on my way to work. Picking up my iced coffee. Lately, people wearing these t-shirts, mainly young men, are suddenly everywhere in the neighborhood where I work. 

(“Lately,” I write, “people… are suddenly”: a passive voice, where the adverbs, ostensibly signaling shifts in time, instead remain stuck in what linguists would call an existential construction — ongoing, open-ended. And that “everywhere”: every where exactly?) 

It’s mysterious, why anyone would sport SAMSARA this way, like a sports team, a pop group, or a beer ad. Because of the word’s age, its weight, its glittering hardness. Despite my tacit understanding that it’s been lifted off its hinges and made to serve as the brand name for a tech company, the word’s mystery remains. I’m tempted to deepen it, so I ask the guy if he knows what it is. “Yeah,” he says, “I work there.” 

“No,” I say, “the… uh… idea.”

“Not really,” he says. “But they told us about it once in a meeting. I know it’s… ah, old. Not negative, really…” 

“Not positive either,” I respond. I smile, trying to show I know what the word means, but that I’m not trying to condescend on that score. But I am, of course. And I recognize it is ridiculous, asking this dude if he knows what his shirt means. And yet: asking strangers about their t-shirts would have seemed less strange only a decade ago, in this same city. My goal, if such a thing could ever be said to exist, would be for the guy to go back and look it up on Wikipedia when he gets back to his desk. Absurdity upon absurdity.

I don’t work in tech but I have an office job too, now, after two-plus decades of blue collar work. And though I pass by the SAMSARA building with my coffee, I remain intentionally ignorant as to what it offers, makes, sells, or is, if any but the last applies. If this tech company is capable of the profound hubris of ripping off an ancient term, pulling it out of the context of another culture’s religious traditions, I see no reason why I should take the time to learn about its grimy, invariably dull enterprise. I have my own money to make anyway. 

He isn’t the first guy I’ve asked — there have been a few others, similar enough that I worry I might inadvertently ask the same one twice. The mornings likewise are similar. A sip of iced coffee, a curiosity as to whether any of them know the meaning of SAMSARA apart from its meaning as the name of their tech company (none have). Nerves. The pride I sense they feel about where they work. My feeling of not wanting to cause offense, or to seem disingenuous. My actual disingenuity, my pride. “It’s a wicked life, but what the hell, everybody’s got to eat,” go the words to the tune I have in my head today, walking back to my office. “Only as I come into my room I feel a little meditative,” writes Kafka, “without having met anything on the stairs worth meditating about.”

That same morning (though of course it’s a different morning) I had brought with me a postcard of Franz Kafka (whose name now sounds like magical or nonsense syllables, three little arbitrary sounds that might be apotropaic, or might just as easily mean nothing at all). I leaned the postcard against the window, on the ledge by my desk. I brought it to work because I remembered seeing one Steve Orth had, framed, on his desk at SPD. Now that I work in an office, I see what Kafkaesque means in a whole new light. And so it was sort of to meditate on the sameness the days take on sometimes, like how in Kafka’s stories there’s an absurd repetition generally at work, a painful haze of self-sameness through which his characters wander. 

But to generalize about Kafka’s stories is, of course, to make a serious mistake. Because they often concern themselves with unmistakable particularities woven into a running whole of what might be called drudgery, or even evil, Kafka’s stories defy generalization. They are anecdotes about a world awful in its generality, but they are anecdotes, and so each stands emphatically distinct, even heroically so. They are often set in horribly familiar places where one returns to wander aimlessly, in which a strange singularity then occurs: you wake up an insect, say, or there is a singer among the mouse-folk whose song changes you, changes everything, utterly. An unaccountable event arises within the sad drifting already recognizable as the form of contemporary life, even in Kafka’s time. He was one of the first who saw it. 

When I google Kafka, I arrive at a domain in which the two names are reversed: A real estate company in Florida. The site is colorful, bright, full of descriptions of condominiums. Kafka dash Franz lists for sale properties in Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Star Island. The website calmly informs us that these are “valued and highly sought-after neighborhoods of Miami.” “If someone offers me a joke,” goes the song in my head, “I just say no thanks.”

Kafka’s postcard eyes gaze back at me from the window by my desk. Nice to have a window by one’s desk. To see what is outside. “How pathetically scanty my self-knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room,” writes Kafka. Construction continues outside. Same construction, different day. A building has been demolished to make way for a different building. More money to be poured into the ground, in the form of hours, pipes, wire, wood. But Kafka: is he who I think he is? How do the strange, singular characters in his stories (mouse-singer, trapeze artist, cloth merchant) carve their tiny, unforgettable marks on the surface of a life that seems otherwise so level in all its sameness, its sadness, its evil? What force exerts the miracle of that difference (even if only allegorical) within an ongoing, inescapable, detestable situation eternally identical with — itself? 

The song goes on in my head: “I’m just the same as anyone else, when it comes to scratching for my meat…” At the café, the SAMSARA guys come and go. After work I sometimes see them at the bar down the street. One afternoon, walking up to the counter with my empty glass, I pause near a guy sitting with his coworkers, all wearing SAMSARA shirts. When I ask what the word means, he responds, confidently, “It means reincarnation. Things get better and better. What’s that?” he asks, changing the subject by pointing at the black plastic bag I’m carrying.

“A black plastic bag,” I say, deadpan.

“What’s in it? Drugs?” 

“Stolen stuff,” I say, pushing the joke. (In the bag are a spatula, a tie-dyed apron, and a copy of Dr. Sax). We laugh. “So it’s a good thing?” I ask.

“Oh yeah. It’s a good thing.” I pick up my beer, we all drink. “Cheers,” I tell him, and look around at all of us. The SAMSARA workers slam their glasses onto the bar. “We work too hard not to have fun,” says the guy. 

But samsara isn’t a form of action — cyclic or otherwise. It doesn’t have to do with progress. It is the spatiotemporal site we (apparently seem to) inhabit, in this interim between birth and death. It is the here and now specific to our lostness, the locus of wandering from which nirvana offers release. Samsara is something like the experience the Hunter Gracchus describes, in Kafka’s parable of that name. It is not to be laughed at, as Gracchus tells the Burgomaster who comes to visit him on his funeral bier. (Although the admonition itself suggests amusement is a suitable, and perhaps totally great, response.) Gracchus is both dead and not dead. He floats restlessly in this shadowy no-place, returning to it again and again. Each time he thinks he has died, he gratefully relinquishes his bow and arrow and gets ready to rest, only to find himself again conscious, alive, returned once more to the daylit world. 

This is the gist of Kafka’s short story. Gracchus wanders, and suffers in, an atemporal no-place, an allegorical samsara, a forever turning wheel. But look closely at what first catches the narrator’s eye: two boys playing dice, the solidity of an oak door, a flock of doves. These things, the bright parts of the real (imagined) world, foreground the hunter’s experience of suffering; his restless, relentless alternation between birth and death. They frame his strange dis / appearance into this samsara world, and are also constitutive of it. They are colorful and real, these details, and serve as proof of damnation as much as salvation. Or of neither, since those terms do not apply. Proof, poof — gone again, only to return. 

Perhaps it makes sense, then, the little cartoon owl on the SAMSARA shirts. If samsara designates a (no) place / (no) time online, the owl on the t-shirts is an apt choice for totem animal. Some of the earliest drawn representations of owls were made thirty thousand years ago, in the French cave at Chauvet, where our ancient ancestors holed up to dream and to draw. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, the owl is the letter M. Eating raw owls’ eggs was once believed to sober up a drunk, and according to the Hortus Sanitatis, applying the ashes of a cremated owl to the eyelids of the mad is said to cure lunacy. The owl is the divine vehicle for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, but owls also epitomize foolishness and greed in Indian culture. In Greek mythology, owls are the familiars of goddess Athena, mentor of wandering Odysseus. Perhaps that is why they are still associated (in the west, at any rate) with wisdom and foresight, with vision. Their association with death, however, persists in Greek mythology as it has in many other cultures. Ovid tells how Ascalaphus was changed into an owl after spreading rumors about seeing Persephone eat pomegranates, thereby sealing her fate as Hades’ wife, and dooming her to spend half her life in the underworld. In Mayan culture, owls were thought to carry messages from Xibalbá, the place of the Death Gods; among the Apache and the Hopi, an owl’s call is a harbinger of death. Probably because they are nocturnal predators, owls have long been associated with ghosts, death, and dreaming, as well as with vision. They signify wisdom and idiocy; life within death, or death within life.

Googling “Kafka” again, I learn it is also a language computers use to speak with one another: Apache Kafka. Kafka is a fault-tolerant distributed streaming platform, used to build real-time data pipelines. And so, since American Indians hold such a weirdly forceful presence in Kafka’s writings, I picture Kafka on horseback, riding through the slot canyons and arroyos of the southwest, their towering brown and vermillion walls carved with ancient petroglyphs. “If only one were a Red Indian,” writes Kafka, in one of his notebooks, “always prepared, launched into the air on one's galloping horse.” Kafka is at war with the U.S. government and its armies, camped out under a blazing blue sky with a band of warriors near Cieneguilla, armed with Osage Orange bows, buzzard-feather arrows, and flintlock rifles. Kafka watches the sun set at Marble Canyon, perched high up in red rocks surrounded by juniper, sagebrush, and yarrow. Kafka tells his stories in Jicarilla under a vault of stars by firelight. He falls asleep dreaming of valley floors thundering with bison. 

Is KAFKA a form of artificial intelligence? Does SAMSARA create virtual realities? Are they words designating startups, or established (Proper / Other) nouns? Domains for our wandering. New office jobs. Excuses for talking to strangers. Life before the pandemic. I can’t answer, and only in part because I don’t fully understand the world into which these words (names) have been translated. Maybe I no longer remember. Or perhaps the answer belongs to a future, yet-to-be-articulated question.

The café is dim, the lights flicker. Everything is covered in dust. Gracchus is here, but shadowy, immaterial. I’m also spectral, floating somehow and wearing a filthy SAMSARA shirt, flecked with blood, brown with coffee stains, stiff with old sweat. All of the baristas are owls. Noiselessly they fly around the room, and when they land, their necks turn almost all the way around. A great gray owl, perched motionless on the point of sale touchscreen, shifts one huge talon, resettles it. Dead mice litter the floor. Bundles of cash are neatly stacked at the edge of the counter, out of circulation, forgotten in plain sight. Over the loudspeaker, Karen Dalton’s voice, singing “In a Station” — quietly, full of static and surface noise. Gracchus is telling me something, but I can’t make out his words. We were housemates, he says, in one of Kafka’s stories. And we didn’t sign up to play the Cowboys and Indians game, in our little shared apartment, with the five broken toy rifles. We didn’t read the manifestos somebody left (TLDR), and now they’re just little sheets of paper floating in a stream of dirty water. 

The Australian writer Gerald Murnane writes, “In all the world there has never been, there is not, and there will never be any such thing as time. There is only place. What people call time is only place after place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another.” There’s a flyer taped to the window: tomorrow is “Samsara Appreciation Day” at the café. I am thinking of owls and of Acapulco, of my friends in this city both dead and alive. Neti neti, Sanskrit for “neither / nor,” as one of them (a composer and poet) has tattooed on her shoulder. All of us doing the ordinary thing — writing poems, making music, dancing. Getting high, going to work, fucking, meditating, eating and drinking. Commuting, conversing, meandering. As the dull shadows of tech, of work generally, lengthen over the city. Domain names absorb our worlds and others. 

Of his mouse-hero, the singer Josephine, Kafka writes: “Here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing. To crack a nut is truly no feat; so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking. But if all the same one does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking.” It is the dreadfully mundane character of samsara that is also sublimely funny in Kafka. As he goes on to say about Josephine, “or it is a matter of nut-cracking, but it turns out that we have overlooked the art of cracking nuts because we were too skilled in it and that this newcomer to it first shows us its real nature, even finding it useful in making his effects to be rather less expert in nut-cracking than the rest of us.” 

Writing is a reflection of samsara that takes place, or form, within it — or on its surface, like ripples on water. All stories and parables are locked in the painful dream of existence even as they hold the promise of release from it. I can say in this writing — clumsily — that two mornings are one, when in fact they are different. I can turn into an owl and fly away. All of the workers can disappear from the café, giving them back the sanctity of their solitary, inner lives, getting them out of the grind. Writing about Philip Guston, Morton Feldman says, “‘Nothing’ is not a strange alternative in art.” Kafka is aware of, and interested in, these oppositional forces within a seemingly homogenous whole. Heterodoxies. He understands and is fascinated by, for example, the presence of good within evil. This recognition, which some might find heretical, allows him to bring samsara into being through writing, and then to envision its limits. To test or transgress them. To play at the edge of their annihilation. 

At the café, I ask a young woman in a SAMSARA t-shirt what it means. She is friendly, tells me she’s not sure what it means but that it has to do with rebirth. She looks it up on her phone, and reads, “It means world in Sanskrit. It says it is the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.” 

“You have won,” says one of Kafka’s characters. 

To which the other replies, “But unfortunately only in parable.” 

The first character then says, “No, in reality: in parable you have lost.” 

As I walk out the door with my iced coffee a skater almost crashes into me, but I see he’s on a real board, not one of those stupid fucking electric ones, and so I manifest a kind of immediate compassion, say, “I’m sorry.” I really am sorry. I’m a petty man, overly attached to the ghosted meanings of a world that is real, but maybe only to me. 

Out the window, just past the black and white photo of Kafka’s face, the construction looks illusory, provisional. An account of nothing which is nevertheless happening, albeit elsewhere. Scaffolding is removed, windows are installed, splintery beams hoisted, concrete poured, the whole thing eventually demolished again to make way for more money. The dream of progress is the dream of any delusion, any evil dream or hallucinated regime. I remember some days at work dimly, and today may be one of them. They seem to be folded inside a longer, ongoing parable. This could be a very partial account of that, a draft — full of scrambled and half-remembered names, proper and otherwise, drawing equally from dreams and things I really saw. There is a thin, far-off voice, maybe Josephine, the mouse singer, who holds a key to release from it. 

The Back Room