hitching bath-chairs to boats

There is something fascinating to me about the way certain things stick in one’s memory where they are pulled up to the surface by strange unrelated things.

As a freshman at UW I took an honors comparative literature class that focused on Kafka, Beckett, and Borges. It was intense, strange, and wonderful. The class itself often felt a bit like a Kafka novel in that we were required to write responses each week and a final paper on one of the three authors, but what the professor expected these writings to contain was a mystery. I’m sure I would have found that less weird later in my academic career but at the time the intellectual freedom to do what I wanted with the ideas was a bit scary.

For the final paper I focused on Kafka, reading his letters and some of his stories that we did not read for class. Meanwhile my friend Chris wrote her paper on Beckett. In the course of doing extra reading for her paper she came upon the line “Doubt, Despair, and Scrounging, shall I hitch my bath-chair to the greatest of these?” She used this line in the subject line of an email she sent me (I don’t recall what the email was about but I’m willing to bet that it was related to our uncertainties about the academic work at hand, paired with our relative uncertainties about various romantic entanglements). This line has stuck with me, despite not actually knowing what a bath-chair is nor how this line fits in with the rest of the piece from which it comes (it’s in More Pricks than Kicks, which I seem to recall was even more confusing to me than even the rest of Beckett).

Years later I began listening to Sleater Kinney. I was a late-comer to much of the cool stuff on the Kill Rock Stars label, picking it up long after it was new and hot. I think it was 2004 or so when I began listening to Hot Rock, a good nine years after release of the album and seven years past my semester of immersion in Kafka and Beckett. Still every time I hear the song “The End of You” I find myself jolted into thinking about that snippet of Beckett when I hear the verse which includes the lines:

Tie me to the mast
of this ship and of this band.
Tie me to the greater things
the people that I love.

I seriously doubt this is actually a reference to Beckett. It’s more clearly (taken in the context of the rest of the song) an allusion to The Odyssey but still every time I hear it I think, even if only for a fraction of a moment, of that line and the way I was back then.

I miss the intensity of classes tackling things so unfamiliar they pulled me far out of my comfort zone and made me think things I swear it would never have occurred to me to think on my own. How do you capture that outside the university? Certainly reading widely is one way, but how do you recreate the intensity of classes? Perhaps the only answer is to build a time machine and go hang out with Gertrude Stein and Picasso in Paris.

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