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.”

The Zürau Aphorisms

These 109 scraps of fragmented thoughts from his months in Zürau are labeled aphorisms despite not following the classic form of an aphorism. The collection starts out strong but I found it lacking overall when compared to similar collections of wise, short, pithy sayings. Robert Calasso also includes the final chapter of his book, K., to help flesh out the volume.

My favorite was Number 5:

“From a certain point on, there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”

Other good ones:

  • 42: “To let one’s hate-and disgust-filled head slump onto one’s chest.”
  • 76: “The feeling: ‘I’m not dropping anchor here,’ and straightaway the feeling of the sustaining sea-swell around one.”
  • 11/12: “The variety of views that one may have, say, of an apple: the view of the small boy who has to crane his neck for a glimpse of the apple on the table, and the view of the master of the house who picks up the apple and hands it to a guest.”
  • 20: “Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.”
  • 109: “It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

Franz Kafka: The Tremendous World Inside My Head

Louis Begley’s biographical essay about Kafka is a great place to start unraveling the twisty turns of this Prague genius’s forty year life. You’re left with the confirmed opinion that K was a giant weirdo, beset by crippling fear and antipathy towards his father/parents, torturing his fiancee Felice with up and down/back and forth/push-pull of wanting to marry and not marry (his letter to Milena “Yes, torture is extremely important to me—my sole occupation is torturing and being tortured”). He was fiercely protective of his work, only allowing a handful of things to be published in his lifetime and instructing Max Brod to burn everything else on his death (command ignored, for better or worse, giving us The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, Letter to His Father, and all his diaries and letters). Of those published while he was alive I’ve only read The Metamorphosis (decades ago). Otherwise, his sanctioned works are In the Penal Colony, and short stories: The Judgement, A Country Doctor, A Report to the Academy, A Hunger Artist, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

Here’s a sobering tidbit—all three of Kafka’s sisters were murdered by Germans in concentration camps. Kafka himself bowed out of the world stage at age 40 in 1924, from tuberculosis. He preferred his youngest sister, Ottla, but otherwise despised his family, with whom he lived. “It is not because they are relatives that I cannot bear to be in the same room with them, but merely because they are people… I cannot live with people; I absolutely hate all my relatives, not because they are wicked, not because I don’t think well of them… but simply because they are people with whom I live in close proximity.” Further in this letter to his fiance, he tells her that he’d be incomparably happier living in a desert, in a forest, on an island, rather than with his family. “Beware of thinking of life as commonplace… Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time—I doubt that I am a human being.”

He took work as a clerk in an insurance office but always knew that his purpose in life was to write. “The tremendous world I have inside my head, but how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.” As such, he yearned for complete solitude in his life, saying, “this is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

The fantastic quote about literature comes from a letter to Oskar Pollak from 1904:

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… We need books to 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.”

Begley credits K’s 1912 story, The Judgement for revealing one of Kafka’s greatest inventions: the “nonchalant treatment of events in his fiction that every reader knows are implausible.”

Lots of book suggestions from this: Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann, Ferdydurke by Gombrowicz, Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Elizabeth Boa’s Kafka: Gender, Class and Race, and K by Roberto Calasso. (Note: I did a cursory flip through Boa’s book on Kafka and gender and it looks solid but I’m all Kafka’d out at the moment. Benjamin’s Illuminations also very good.)

Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923

Here we see Kafka battling his interior demons, his exterior sicknesses, and his obsession with finding a wife to settle down with into normalcy. Meanwhile, he lives at home with his sisters and parents, stewing when he is interrupted while writing, his fraught relationship with father. He pals around with his literary/artistic crew, goes to the theater, lectures. It’s interesting to see how he uses the diary to flush out plots, warming up for a story he’ll write elsewhere. He muses about Edison’s feelings about Bohemia – that Czechs returning from America bring ambition back and are creating more development in the land. He faithfully records his dreams, his despondency, snippets of plays, sketch drawings. He is always observing, writing. I’d like to spend a few weeks being similarly free and undisciplined in my own journal, to feel empowered to experiment with ideas and move beyond the dreary encapsulation of my daily thoughts and actions (but really, my journal exists as my memory, since mine own is riddled with holes like swiss cheese). At the end, the editor included his travel diaries with their rich descriptions of Switzerland, Italy, Paris, and various country excursions in Germany: Kafka machine-guns us with details, leaves me swooning (minus the descriptions of visiting brothels).

In December 1910, he writes: “11:30PM That I, so long as I am not freed of my office, am simply lost, that is clearer to me than anything else, it is just a matter, as long as it is possible, of holding my head so high that I do not drown.”

November 1911:

Honesty of evil thoughts. Yesterday evening I felt especially miserable. My stomach was upset again. I had written with difficulty. I had listened with effort to Lowy’s reading in the coffeehouse (which at first was quiet so that we had to restrain ourselves, but which then became full of bustle and gave us no peace), the dismal future immediately before me seemed not worth entering, abandoned, I walked through Ferdinandstrasse… The Talmud too says: A man without a woman is no person.

December 1911:

Despite the fact that for a considerable time I have been standing deep in literature and it has often broken over me, it is certain that for the past three days, aside from a general desire to be happy, I have felt no genuine desire for literature. In the same way I considered Lowy my indispensable friend last week, and now I have easily dispensed with him for three days.
When I begin to write after a rather long interval, I draw the words as if out of the empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone and all the toil must begin anew.
One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised and admitted by you, but which you’ll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.

February 1912:

Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment. I spent this evening at the family table in complete indifference, my right hand on the arm of the chair in which my sister sat playing cards, my left hand weak in my lap. From time to time I tried to realize my unhappiness, I barely succeeded.

March 1922:

The work draws to an end in the way an unhealed wound might draw together.
Would you call it a conversation if the other person is silent, and, to keep up the appearance of a conversation, you try to substitute for him, and so imitate him, and so parody him, and so parody yourself.

Travel diaries, 1911:

You recognize strangers by the fact that they no longer know their way the moment they reach the top step of the subway stairs; unlike the Parisians, they don’t pass from the subway without transition into the bustle of the street. In addition, it takes a long time, after coming up, for reality and the map to correspond; we should never have been able, on foot or by carriage, to have reached the spot we stood on without the help of a map.

The Castle

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I broke my rule of not reading posthumously published books with Kafka’s The Castle (translated by Willa and Edwin Muir). First published in 1926 (English translation in 1930), it was heavily edited by pal Max Brod, and the edition I read included fragments and passages deleted by Kafka in the appendix. The first German edition ends in the middle of the 18th chapter, with Frieda closing the bedroom door behind her and Jeremiah, leaving K. alone in the passage of the inn. The edition I read continued on for a few more chapters, which includes a fantastic depiction of K. exhaustedly searching for Erlanger’s room and mistakenly entering a secretary’s room, one who might be able to help him but K. falls asleep after downing a decanter of rum. Bürgel, the secretary, begs K. to remain to keep him company while they wait for the five o’clock hour when everyone awakes. Bürgel drones on about how the most unexpected night visitors might be the best way to move cases forward, but K. is too sleepy, can’t appreciate his luck. Later, Erlanger bangs on the wall and demands to see K., only to tell him that Freida must return to the taproom to serve Klamm. K. sleepily takes this command and watches Erlanger depart, then witnesses the frenzy of file deliveries at five in the morning to the other Castle gentlemen at the inn.
A dreamy, mystical so-called companion piece to The Trial, this book recounts the tale of a “land surveyor” summoned by the Castle, but who never makes it to the Castle, it being off limits, red-tape bureaucracy protecting it from the village below where K. finds refuge. Was K. even a land surveyor? He arrives and mentions having assistants who will come the next day, and then the assistants are sent by the Castle as spies. The whole village is on tenterhooks about his situation- what to do with him, where to house him. He obtains a post as the school janitor and decamps there with his soon-to-be wife Freida and two assistants. The wood shed is locked, they smash it to get wood for the fire, oversleep in the warm room and awaken to find kids staring at them. Freida is his key to happiness, or is it Barnabas the messenger?
Made me think of Mann’s Magic Mountain, which I’m now pining to read again. Mann wrote an Homage to Kafka in the edition of The Castle that I read… makes me realize the connections and influences writers have/had on each other.

The Trial

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In the wake of revelations of the compilation by the government of a permanent database about people’s activities from disparate online sources, two books have been bandied about as necessary reads: 1984 and The Trial. I re-read 1984 a few years ago, but had never dipped into The Trial. Swinging by my local library to pick up a copy, I noticed that all computer screens were on the same site. It’s official, the homeless have found refuge in FB.

Josef K is accosted/arrested at home one morning by two men who will not reveal what the charge is. They claim to be too low level to have any knowledge of the matter, but that the higher levels never make any mistake. Forced to remain in his room, he is then summoned to join the inspector in another boarder’s room (Fraulein Burstner) where he is told that he is arrested, with no specific charge, and is to go about his business as usual. K is a high level officer at the bank, so heads out to work intending to laugh off the whole experience. As the months go by, he begins to unravel, becoming fixated on his trial, hiring a lawyer who claims to be greasing the wheels behind the scenes but that the time isn’t right for a petition. Ultimately, two men come for him and kill him, looking into his eyes to see how he takes the verdict.

There couldn’t be much doubt about what they would do. Signs of it could already be seen in the fact that the first petition had still not been submitted, although the trial had already lasted for months, and that according to the lawyer everything was still in the beginning stages, which was of course admirably suited to lull the defendant to sleep and keep him in a state of helplessness, so that they could assault him suddenly with the verdict, or at least announce that the inquiry had concluded unfavorably for him and was being passed on to higher administrative authorities.

For once the court was going to run into a defendant who knew how to stand up for his rights.

The petition had to be written. If he couldn’t find time at the office, which was quite likely, he would have to do it nights at home. And if the nights weren’t sufficient, he would have to take a leave of absence. Anything but stop halfway, that was the most senseless course of all, not only in business, but anywhere, at any time. Admittedly, the petition meant an almost endless task. One needn’t be particularly faint of heart to be easily persuaded of the impossibility of ever finishing the petition. Not because of laziness or deceit, the only things that kept the lawyer from finishing, but because without knowing the nature of the charge and all its possible ramifications, his entire life would have to be called to mind, described, and examined from all sides.