Monthly Archives: April 2010

What idiotic complaints!

What idiotic complaints! And yet I know perfectly well that it has to pass and that I shan’t perish in the process. How does God put up with these complaints? Why doesn’t he strike me down? But in fact — and this again is the complainer talking — he does strike me down.

– Kafka, letter to Felice (tr. J. Stern and E. Duckworth)

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If only I could destroy the pages I have written

Tired, you are sure to be tired, my Felice, when you pick up this letter, and I must make an effort to write clearly to spare your sleepy eyes. Wouldn’t you rather leave the letter unread for the moment, lie back, and go on sleeping for a few more hours after this week of noise and rush? The letter won’t fly away, but will be quite happy to wait on your bedcover until you wake up.

I can’t tell you exactly what time it is while I am writing this letter, because my watch is on a chair not far away and I don’t dare get up and look; it must be nearly morning. But I didn’t get to my desk until after midnight. In the spring and summer – I don’t yet know from experience, for my nightly vigils are of recent date – one will not be able to stay awake undisturbed through three hours, for dawn will come on and drive one to bed, but now in these long, unchanging nights the world forgets about one, even if one doesn’t forget about it.

My work moreover has been so bad that I don’t deserve any sleep, and should be condemned to spend the rest of the night looking out of the window. Can you understand this, dearest: to write badly, yet feel compelled to write, or abandon oneself to total despair! To have to atone for the joys of good writing in this terrible way! In fact, not to be really unhappy, not to be pierced by a fresh stab of unhappiness, but to see the pages being covered endlessly with things one hates, that fill one with loathing, or at any rate with dull indifference, that nevertheless have to be written down in order that one shall live. Disgusting! If only I could destroy the pages I have written in the last four days, as though they had never been.

But what sort of good-morning is this? Is this the way to welcome one’s beloved on a beautiful Sunday morning? Well, one welcomes her the way one can, you wouldn’t want it otherwise. If sleep has not been completely driven out by my complaints and you can find some more, then I’m satisfied. And, as my farewell, I add that everything is definitely, quite definitely going to be better, and you need not worry. Surely I can’t be utterly thrown out of my writing after having thought more than once that I was sitting in its centre, settled in its comforting warmth.

– Kafka, letter to Felice (tr. J. Stern and E. Duckworth)

Here in my room

My one fear – surely nothing worse can either be said or listened to – is that I shall never be able to possess you. At best I would be confined, like an unthinkingly faithful dog, to kissing your casually proffered hand, which would not be a sign of love, but of the despair of the animal condemned to silence and eternal separation. I would sit beside you and, as has happened, feel the breath and life of your body at my side, yet in reality be further from you than now, here in my room. I would never be able to attract your attention, and it would be lost to me altogether when you look out of the window, or lay your head in your hands. You and I would ride past the entire world, hand in hand, seemingly united, and none of it would be true. In short, though you might lean towards me far enough for you to be in danger, I would be excluded from you for ever.

— Kafka, letter to Felice (tr. J. Stern and E. Duckworth)

With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects – not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.
We, only, can see death; the free animal
has its decline in back of it, forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.
Never, not for a single day, do we have
before us that pure space into which flowers
endlessly open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes
without desire and endlessly knows. A child
may wander there for hours, through the timeless
stillness, may get lost in it and be
shaken back. Or someone dies and is it.
For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares
beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast gaze.

— Rilke, Eighth Duino Elegy (tr. S. Mitchell)

Foreign to all light

I even wonder how the principal trait of our relationship with death could have escaped philosophers’ attention. It is not with the nothingness of death, of which we precisely know nothing, that the analysis must begin, but with the situation where something absolutely unknowable appears. Absolutely unknowable means foreign to all light, rendering every assumption of possibility impossible, but where we ourselves are seized.

— Levinas, ‘Time and the other’ (tr. R. Cohen)

‘And we watch it’

We walk barefoot along the pages of your book, Yukel, on rocks which overhang the sea. Your story is that of the waves, which break at our ankles and, sometimes, whip our faces. One and the same story, one and the same wave. Now full of strength, now so weak it seems wounded.

And we watch it, passively, because it asks nothing of us, but carries us beyond the shores, where the sun rises and sets, as if dark and light joined together for us.

— Jabés, The Book of Questions (tr. R. Waldrop)

A relatively trifling act of organisation

Perhaps I am equal to the relatively trifling act of organisation that is all that is needed to turn this dereliction, profoundly felt, into literature.

— Beckett (diary 1937), in Knowlson, Damned to Fame