“The Hobby” by Eric McCormack (Canada)

Eric McCormack’s “The Hobby” is a story about age and retrospection; it is also about artistic creation and, more broadly, about love. What does a person do when she/he looks back at the largest, most consuming, work of his/her life and knows it to be over? One response, of course, is to take up a hobby. Another is to withdraw; yet another, to deny one’s work is over: to “rage against the dying of the light”-to use Dylan Thomas’s phrase-or, as McCormack puts it, “[to defy] the darkness.”  The retired engineer in this short fiction can be said to adopt all three responses at once.

What is it to care about something as deeply as this man does? To wish it carefully and passionately into being? Surely there is some creative power in such a love, in such a hope. Is this not the hope that inspires legends of sub-creation from the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea to the story of The Velveteen Rabbit? But there is a flip side to this kind of creativity: if the world of one’s creation were to come to life (see Brian Moore’s The Great Victorian Collection) might it not draw people out of their own world-perhaps onlookers, perhaps the artist himself? And what would happen then?

In “The Hobby,”  this possibility is given a double spin, since the author as well as the old man and his hosts are sucked into the world of the old man’s creation. And it is a world not without its terrors, for though it is possible that the tunnel is just a tunnel, it seems more likely that it is a metaphor for the final darkness into which first the old man-but eventually his hosts and the author-must eventually travel.

Look for a definition of the word hobby, and then compare it with the following definitions:

In the 1400s the word hobby referred to a shaggy, medium-to small horse or pony. In the 1500s the similar word hobbin or dobbin was often used by workers as a name for a plough horse. By the 1700s it could also refer to a small wooden horse on which a child might ride. Children often spent many hours rocking on these horses.

By 1760 Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy used the word metaphorically to describe a person who had, in the perceiver’s eyes, an excessive interest in something. Certainly the concept of an all-consuming passion for some project is given memorable attention in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817).

By 1840, having a hobby was seen as a respectable and desirable way of passing one’s time. It was said of a certain nobleman of the period that “the library was one of his hobbies.”

“A Report for An Academy” by Franz Kafka (Czechoslovakia)

The protagonist in this story has no name-at least none that he consents to be known by-and he has no status, being caught between the world he has abandoned and the world in which he has “established” himself, but of which he is not truly a part. He speaks the language of his new world with precision-perhaps with too great a precision. He insists both on the completeness of education and on the deliberateness with which he undertook it. In his view, it is that deliberateness, that ability to use the active rather than the passive voice in describing his experience, that sets him apart from those of the same background who are merely “trained.” He represents all immigrants, converts, successful aspirants from an illiterate background to society’s haut monde, differing from them all only in one modest particular. He was born an ape.

In other words, Kafka’s former ape is not an ape, but rather any human being who, in order to absorb another culture, has estranged him/herself from his/her own. But such a reading narrows the story’s scope, for “Report” is full of asides, subordinate clauses, and other seemingly parenthetical observations that are related only remotely to the immigrant experience. And these passages are too numerous to ignore. Furthermore, to define “Report” as an allegory would be to put the reader in the shoes of a member of the academy-an auditor standing “well back from the barrier,” well back from the true voice of “the other” and it does not seem to be Kafka’s intention that this should be the reader’s experience. Kafka has mined “Report” with passages that concern all of us, passages dealing with freedom, the illusion of freedom, captivity, the awareness of captivity, and the possibility or impossibility of finding a way out. These are topics on which no prudent academy would be likely to solicit a report. But these are topics that concern the speaker and they are mirrored in the asides of his report, making it, therefore, much more than a simple report.

Kafka (himself, as a German Jew, doubly a minority in mainly Roman Catholic Czechoslovakia) invites us to discover that it is not only the majority who want to maintain the integrity of the barrier, but also the “other,” the one who teases with “frank” speech, emotive metaphors, and invitations to reflect on common experiences, but finally insists on difference with the asseveration, “all I have done is to report.”

Complete the following sentence and then follow it up with a one page report:

“I wish to thank the members of the academy (or council, or committee) for asking me to submit this report concerning my former existence as ____________.”

You should try to imagine that you were this thing/person that you have chosen and have only recently metamorphosed into your present state. You may wish to consider some of the following questions:

  • What is a report (as opposed to a story or journal entry)?
  • Who or what is “the academy?” How do you feel about appearing before it?
  • Did you prefer your former existence or do you prefer this one?
  • Why did you make the change? Were you forced to do so, or was the change voluntary?
  • Explain how the language you used in your former existence was slightly (very?) different from the one you use now.
  • Do you find it difficult to make this report? Explain why or why not.