I was contemplating the difficulties of communication and the attendant frustrations of the media and methods through which we seek to express. Or, to put it simply, I was annoyed at goddamn words, the slippery little devils that won’t say what I want them to say. And so I was reminded of Franz Kafka.
Instead of offering an analysis and personal reflection (which would be boring), I’ll just let Kafka speak in his many voices.
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Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
Parables and paradoxes by Franz Kafka, tr. by Clement Greenberg and als., Schocken Books, 1961, p. 11. Available online.
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How many words there are in the book! They are meant to be reminders! As though words could ever be reminders!
For words are poor mountaineers and miners. They collect treasures neither from the mountain heights nor from the mountain depths.
But there is a living remembrance that gently brushed across everything memorable as if with a coaxing hand. And when the blaze arises from these ashes, glowing and hot, massive and strong, and you stare into it as though under a magic spell, then–
But into this chaste remembrance, one cannot inscribe oneself with a clumsy hand and blunt implement; one can do it only in these white, unassuming pages.
Kafka, Franz (2013-09-11). Abandoned Fragments: Unedited Works 1897-1917 (Kindle Locations 36-41). . Kindle Edition.
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Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing . Writing’s lack of independence of the world, its dependence on the maid who tends the fire, on the cat warming itself by the stove; it is even dependent on the poor old human being warming himself by the stove. All these are independent activities ruled by their own laws; only writing is helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and a despair.
Kafka, Franz (2009-01-16). Diaries, 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics Series) (Kindle Locations 6607-6610). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, December 6, 1921
Have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes , I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal, or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength. But then what kind of surplus is it?
Kafka, Franz (2009-01-16). Diaries, 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics Series) (p. 384). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, September 19, 1920(?)
I don’t even have the desire to keep a diary, perhaps because there is already too much lacking in it, perhaps because I should perpetually have to describe incomplete— by all appearances necessarily incomplete— actions, perhaps because writing itself adds to my sadness.
I would gladly write fairy tales (why do I hate the word so?) that could please W. and that she might sometimes keep under the table at meals, read between courses and blush fearfully when she noticed that the sanatorium doctor has been standing behind her for a little while now and watching her. Her excitement sometimes— or really all of the time— when she hears stories.
I notice that I am afraid of the almost physical strain of the effort to remember, afraid of the pain beneath which the floor of the thoughtless vacuum of the mind slowly opens up, or even merely heaves up a little in preparation. All things resist being written down.
Brod, Max (2013-04-16). The Diaries Of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (Kindle Locations 3829-3836). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, October 20, 1913(?)
If one patiently submits to a book of letters or memoirs, no matter by whom, in this case it is Karl Stauffer-Bern, one doesn’t make him one’s own by main strength, for to do this one has to employ art, and art is its own reward; but rather one suffers oneself to be drawn away— this is easily done, if one doesn’t resist— by the concentrated otherness of the person writing and lets oneself be made into his counterpart. Thus it is no longer remarkable, when one is brought back to one’s self by the closing of the book, that one feels the better for this excursion and this recreation, and, with a clearer head, remains behind in one’s own being, which has been newly discovered, newly shaken up and seen for a moment from the distance. Only later are we surprised that these experiences of another person’s life, in spite of their vividness, are faithfully described in the book—our own experience inclines us to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience (sorrow over the death of a friend, for instance) than its description. But what is right for us is not right for the other person. If our letters cannot match our own feelings— naturally, there are varying degrees of this, passing imperceptibly into one another in both directions—if even at our best, expressions like “indescribable,”“inexpressible,” or “so sad,” or “so beautiful,” followed by a rapidly collapsing “that”-clause, must perpetually come to our assistance , then as if in compensation we have been given the ability to comprehend what another person has written with at least the same degree of calm exactitude which we lack when we confront our own letter-writing. Our ignorance of those feelings which alternately make us crumple up and pull open again the letter in front of us, this very ignorance becomes knowledge the moment we are compelled to limit ourselves to this letter, to believe only what it says, and thus to find it perfectly expressed and perfect in expression, as is only right, if we are to see a clear road into what is most human. So Karl Stauffer’s letters contain only an account of the short life of an artist——
Brod, Max (2013-04-16). The Diaries Of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (Kindle Locations 2171-2186). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Diary entry, December 9, (?)
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But it’s good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge. I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for ? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (Kindle Locations 380-385). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904
Despite all this, writing really is a good thing; I am now calmer than I was 2 hours ago outside on the balcony with your letter. While I was lying there a beetle had fallen on its back one step away and was desperately trying to right itself; I would have gladly helped —it was so easy, so obvious, all that was required was a step and a small shove— but I forgot about it because of your letter; I was just as incapable of getting up. Only a lizard again made me aware of the life around me, its path led over the beetle, which was already so completely still that I said to myself, this was not an accident but death throes, the rarely witnessed drama of an animal’s natural death; but when the lizard slid off the beetle, the beetle was righted although it did lie there a little longer as if dead, but then ran up the wall of the house as if nothing had happened. Somehow this probably gave me, too, a little courage; I got up, drank some milk and wrote to you.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Milena (Works) (Kindle Locations 333-340). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Leter to Milena, Meran, 1920
Now I have expanded my life to accommodate my thoughts about you, and there is hardly a quarter of an hour of my waking time when I haven’t thought about you, and many quarter-hours when I do nothing else . But even this is related to my writing, my life is determined by nothing but the ups and downs of writing, and certainly during a barren period I should never have had the courage to turn to you. This is just as true as it is true that since that evening I have felt as though I had an opening in my chest through which there was an unrestrained drawing-in and drawing-out until one evening in bed, when, by calling to mind a story from the Bible, the necessity of this sensation, as well as the truth of the Bible story, were simultaneously confirmed.
Lately I have found to my amazement how intimately you have now become associated with my writing, although until recently I believed that the only time I did not think about you at all was while I was writing. In one short paragraph I had written, there were, among others, the following references to you and your letters : Someone was given a bar of chocolate. There was talk of small diversions someone had during working hours. Then there was a telephone call. And finally somebody urged someone to go to bed, and threatened to take him straight to his room if he did not obey, which was certainly prompted by the recollection of your mother’s annoyance when you stayed so late at the office. 26 —Such passages are especially dear to me; in them I take hold of you , without your feeling it, and therefore without your having to resist. And even if you were to read some of my writings, these little details would surely escape you. But believe me, probably nowhere in the world could you let yourself be caught with greater unconcern than here.
My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror , the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 800-817). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Fraulein Felice, November 1, 1912
Poor, poor dearest, may you never feel compelled to read this miserable novel I keep writing away at so dismally. It is terrible how it can change its appearance; once the load (the ardor I write with! How the inkspots fly!) is on the cart, I am all right; I delight in cracking the whip and am a man of importance; but once it falls off the cart (which cannot be foreseen, prevented, or concealed), as it did yesterday and today, then it feels excessively heavy for my pitiful shoulders; all I want to do then is abandon everything and dig my grave on the spot. After all, there can be no more beautiful spot to die in , no spot more worthy of total despair, than one’s own novel.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 3346-3351). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, January 5 to 6, 1913
How is it possible to write at all if one has so much to say and knows that the pen can only trace an uncertain and random trail through the mass of what has to be said?
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 3398-3399). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, January 6 to 7, 1913
Help me, dearest, I beg you, to put right the damage I have done in the last few days. Perhaps in fact nothing whatever has happened, and you wouldn’t have noticed anything if I hadn’t shouted about it, but I am driven by this feeling of anxiety in the midst of my lethargy, and I write, or fear I may at any moment write, irresponsible things. The wrong sentences lie in wait about my pen, twine themselves around its point, and are dragged along into the letters. I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious. The infinite feeling continues to be as infinite in words as it was in the heart. What is clear within is bound to become so in words as well. This is why one need never worry about language, but at sight of words may often worry about oneself. 57 After all, who knows within himself how things really are with him? This tempestuous or floundering or morasslike inner self is what we really are, but by the secret process by which words are forced out of us, our self-knowledge is brought to light, and though it may still be veiled, yet it is there before us, wonderful or terrible to behold.
So protect me, dearest, from these horrible words of which I have recently been delivering myself. Tell me that you understand it all, and yet go on loving me. The other day I wrote some offensive things about Lasker -Schüler and Schnitzler. How very right I was! And yet they both soar like angels over the abyss in which I lie prostrate. And Max’s praise! He doesn’t actually praise my book; after all, the book exists, and his judgment could be examined, should anyone feel so inclined; but it is me he praises, and this is the most ridiculous of all. For where am I? Who can examine me? I wish I had a strong hand for the sole purpose of thrusting it into this incoherent construction that I am. And yet what I am saying here is not even precisely my opinion , not even precisely my opinion at this moment. When I look into myself I see so much that is obscure and still in flux that I cannot even properly explain or fully accept the dislike I feel for myself.
Dearest, what do you say when you come face to face with such chaos? Is it not sadder and more repellent for the observer than for him who experiences it? Certainly, incomparably sadder and more repellent. I can imagine the strength it must take not to run away from it. While I, as I freely admit, write it all down quite calmly.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 4524-4542). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Leter to Felice, February 18 to 19, 1913
You are right, Felice; recently I have sometimes had to force myself to write to you ; but writing to you and living have drawn very near to each other, and I also have to force myself to live. Shouldn’t I?
Moreover, hardly a word comes to me from the fundamental source, but is seized upon fortuitously and with great difficulty somewhere along the way. When I was in the swing of writing and living, I once wrote to you that no true feeling need search for corresponding words, but is confronted or even impelled by them. Perhaps this is not quite true, after all. 68
But how could my writing to you, however firm my hand, achieve everything I want to achieve: To convince you that my two requests are equally serious: “Go on loving me” and “Hate me!”
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 5080-5086). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, March 17 to 18, 1913
Writing does make things clearer, yet at the same time worse.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Location 6214). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Leter to Felice, June 27, 1913
I did not say that writing ought to make everything clearer, but instead makes everything worse; what I said was that writing makes everything clearer and worse.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 6458-6459). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Felice, July [presumably August] 1, 1913
Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld, mine is by writing. That’s why the only way I can keep going, if at all , is by writing, not through rest and sleep. I am far more likely to achieve peace of mind through writing than the capacity to write through peace.
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Felice (Kindle Locations 9113-9115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Letter to Grete Bloch, June 6, 1914
Last night as I lay sleepless and let everything continually veer back and forth between my aching temples, what I had almost forgotten during the last relatively quiet time became clear to me: namely, on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges when it wills and, heedless of my stammering, destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? By this I don’t mean, of course, that my life is better when I don’t write. Rather it is much worse then and wholly unbearable and has to end in madness. But that, granted, only follows from the postulate that I am a writer, which is actually true even when I am not writing, and a nonwriting writer is a monster inviting madness. But what about being a writer itself? Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers , this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me. It is vanity and sensuality which continually buzz about one’s own or even another’s form— and feast on him. The movement multiplies itself— it is a regular solar system of vanity. Sometimes a naïve person will wish, “I would like to be dead and see how everyone mourns me.” Such a writer is continually staging such a scene: He dies (or rather he does not live ) and continually mourns himself. From this springs a terrible fear of death, which need not reveal itself as fear of death but may also appear as fear of change, as fear of Georgental. The reasons for this fear of death may be divided into two main categories. First he has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived . By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. What is essential to life is only to forgo complacency, to move into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. In reply to this, one might say that this is a matter of fate and is not given into anyone’s hand. But then why this sense of repining, this repining that never ceases? To make oneself finer and more savory? That is a part of it. But why do such nights leave one always with the refrain: I could live and I do not live . The second reason— perhaps it is all really one, the two do not want to stay apart for me now— is the belief: “What I have playacted is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other peoples’ and my death will be more terrible by the same degree. Of course the writer in me will die right away, since such a figure has no base, no substance, is less than dust. He is only barely possible in the broil of earthly life, is only a construct of sensuality. That is your writer for you. But I myself cannot go on living because I have not lived , I have remained clay, I have not blown the spark into fire, but only used it to light up my corpse .” It will be a strange burial: the writer, insubstantial as he is, consigning the old corpse, the longtime corpse, to the grave. I am enough of a writer to appreciate the scene with all my senses, or— and it is the same thing— to want to describe it with total self-forgetfulness— not alertness, but self-forgetfulness is the writer’s first prerequisite. But there will be no more of such describing. But why am I talking of actual dying? It is just the same in life. I sit here in the comfortable posture of the writer, ready for all sorts of fine things, and must idly look on—for what can I do but write?— as my true ego, this wretched, defenseless ego, is nipped by the devil’s pincers, cudgeled, and almost ground to pieces on a random pretext—a little trip to Georgental. […] The existence of a writer is an argument against the existence of the soul, for the soul has obviously taken flight from the real ego, but not improved itself, only become a writer .
Kafka, Franz (2013-06-26). Letters to Friends, Family and Editors . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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Franz Kafka on Writing – Whistling Shade
By Bob Blaisdell