Conversations with Kafka

Gustav Janouch’s beautiful and odd memoir of his walks around Prague with Kafka when he was a young boy and his father worked alongside Kafka at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institution. Janouch was a budding writer himself and took careful notes of their meetings which later resulted in this book. Naturally you can’t assume these aphorisms dropped perfectly formed from Kafka’s lips into this book, but his spirit infuses this naturally flawed account of their relationship. Translated by Goronwy Rees, it’s choc-a-bloc filled with pithy sayings and wisdom. Apologies in advance for cribbing so much to paste in here.

Speaking of the writer Paul Adler, Janouch asks Kafka what his profession is. “He has none. He has no profession, only a vocation. He travels with his wife and the children from one friend to another. A free man, and a  poet. In his presence I always have pangs of conscience, because I allow my life to be frittered away in an office.”

“It’s not Treml, but I, who am in the cage… not only in the office, but everywhere. I carry the bars within me all the time.”

“For human beings the natural life is a human life. But men don’t always realize that. They refuse to realize it. Human existence is a burden to them, so they dispose of it in fantasies.”

“The false illusion of a freedom achieved by external means is an error, a confusion, a desert in which nothing flourishes except the two herbs of fear and despair. That is inevitable, because anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within. Man doesn’t grow from below upwards but from within outwards..”

“You don’t realize how much strength there is in silence. Aggression is usually only a disguise which conceals one’s weakness from oneself and from the world. Genuine and lasting strength consists in bearing things.”

“Can one predict how one’s heart will beat tomorrow? No, it’s not possible. The pen is only a seismograph pencil for the heart. It will register earthquakes, but can’t predict them.”

Discussing poetry vs. literature, “Poetry is a condensate, an essence. Literature is a relaxation, a means of pleasure which alleviates the unconscious life, a narcotic… Poetry is exactly the opposite. Poetry is an awakening [that tends towards prayer].”

“We live in an evil time, that is clear from the fact that nothing is called by its right name any more… It’s as if ideas had lost their kernel and were simply manipulated like empty nutshells… We live in a morass of corroding lies and illusions, in which terrible and monstrous things happen, which journalists report with amused objectivity and thus—without anyone noticing—trample on the lives of millions of people as is they were worthless insects.”

“Most men indeed don’t really live at all. They cling to life like little polyps to a coral reef. But in doing so men are far worse off than those primitive organisms. For them, there’s no firm barrier reef to ward off the breakers. They haven’t even a shell of their own to live in. All they can do is to emit an acid stream of bile, which leaves them even weaker and more helpless, because it divides them from their fellows.”

I’m always interested in how authors/philosophers overlap, so I loved what Kafka said: “Schopenhauer is an artist in language. That is the source of his thinking. For the language alone, one must not fail to read him.”

On whether people matter as individuals: “The level of the masses depends on the consciousness of individuals.”

“We are going through a hopeless decline. One look out of the window will show the world to you. Where are the people going? What do they want? We no longer recognize the metaphysical order of things. In spite of all the noise, everyone is dumb and isolated within himself. The interrelation of objective and personal values doesn’t function any more. We live not in a ruined but a bewildered world. Everything creaks and rattles like the rigging of an unseaworthy sailing ship. The misery [that you see] is only the surface expression of a much deeper distress.”

On Taylorism, the measurement of time and division of labor as enslavement of mankind: “Such a violent outrage can only end in enslavement to evil. It is inevitable. Time, the noblest and most essential element in all creative work, is conscripted into the net of corrupt business interests. Thereby not only creative work, but man himself, is polluted and humiliated. A Taylorized life is a terrible curse which will give rise to hunger and misery instead of the intended wealth and profit… One can say nothing. One can only scream, stammer, choke. The conveyor belt of life carries one somewhere—but one doesn’t know where. One is a thing, an object, rather than a living organism.”

“As a flood spreads wider and wider, the water becomes shallower and dirtier. The Revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”

“Language clothes what is indestructible in us, a garment which survives us.”

“Lying demands the heat of passion. For that reason, it reveals more than it conceals. I am not capable of that. So for me there is only one hiding place—the truth.”

“Happiness does not depend on possessions. Happiness is a matter of attitude. That is to say: a happy man does not see the dark side of reality. His sense of life suppresses the gnawing woodworm of the consciousness of death. One forgets that instead of walking, one is falling. It’s as if one were drugged.”

“It’s a direct offense to be asked after one’s health. It’s as if one apple asked another apple: ‘How are the worms which the insect bites gave you?’ Or as if one blade of grass asked another: ‘How are you withering? How goes your esteemed decomposition?’… Inquiries about one’s health increase one’s consciousness of dying, to which as a sick man, I am particularly exposed.”

On his job at the Insurance Institution: “That is not an occupation, it is a form of decomposition. Every really active purposeful life, which completely fulfills a man, has the force and splendor of a flame. But what do I do? I sit in the office. It is a foul-smelling factory of pain, in which there is no sense of happiness.”

“The buttresses of human existence are collapsing…. Our consciousness is shrinking. Without noticing it, we are losing consciousness, without losing life… We all live as if each of us were a dictator. And thereby we sink into beggary.”

“My imagination is always breaking out of the four walls of my office. But that doesn’t make my horizon any wider. On the contrary, it contracts. And I with it. I’m just a bit of waste matter and not even that. I don’t fall under the wheels, but only into the cogs of the machine, a mere nothing in the glutinous bureaucracy of the Accident Insurance Institution.”

“The most valuable thing [about travel] is that one should be forced, even for a short time, to cast of the chains of one’s old habits—to present an inventory of the much depleted portfolio of one’s life. Wherever one goes, one only travels towards one’s own misunderstood nature.”

Dickens was one of Kafka’s favorite authors, “for a time the model for what I vainly aimed at.” What did he like about Dickens? “His mastery of the material world. His balance between the external and the internal. His masterly and yet completely unaffected representation of the interaction between the world and the I. The perfectly natural proportions of his work.”

“Flaubert’s diaries are very important and very interesting.”

“Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Don not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness. Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing.”