Category Archives: Kafka

Life and work

Part of the reason why Kafka struggled against the world of the senses – the world of family, sex, marriage and community – is that he saw writing as his supreme spiritual vocation, for which all else had to be sacrificed:

‘It is easy to recognize a concentration in me of all my forces on writing. When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joy of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection and above all music. I atrophied in all these directions.’

In a letter to Felice’s father explaining why he couldn’t marry her, he wrote:

‘My whole being is directed towards literature; I have followed this direction unswervingly until my thirtieth year, and the moment I abandon it I cease to live. Everything I am, and am not, is a result of this. I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health. Fundamentally I deplore none of this: it is the earthly reflection of a higher necessity … I live within my family, among the kindest, most affectionate people – and am more strange than a stranger … I lack all sense of family life.’

Like Kafka, Rilke often felt caught between writing and life, but moved more naturally towards unifying them. He saw his writing as springing from daily life, inseparable from it. In a letter, he wrote that:

‘Ultimately, each of us experiences only one conflict in life which constantly reappears under a different guise – mine is to reconcile life with work, in the purest sense; and where it is a question of the infinitely incommensurable work of the artist, the two directions stand opposed. Many people have helped themselves by taking life easily, by snatching what they needed from it apart from the conflict, or by turning life’s values into an intoxication whose wretched enthusiasms they hurriedly flung into art; others have no alternative but to withdraw from life – asceticism – and this way is of course much cleaner and truer than that rapacious cheating of life for the sake of art. But for me even asceticism cannot be considered. Since in the last analysis my productivity proceeds from the plainest adoration of life, from the daily, inexhaustible wonder of it (how could I have been productive otherwise?), I would see it as a lie to reject any one of the currents that flow towards me; in the end every such rejection must express itself in your art – however much art may gain potentially from it – as a certain hardness, and there take its revenge: for who can be open and affirmative on such sensitive ground if he has a mistrustful, restrictive and anxious attitude towards life!’

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The indestructible

End of the month. Jobs finished, invoices sent, dishes done and now a free, sunny afternoon stretches out before me. Bliss! I bring two translations of Kafka’s aphorisms and the laptop out to the garden, where I can barely get the wifi signal, and sit amid buzzing bees and floating hawthorn blossoms. After the workers’ lunch break the construction work on the old farm starts again. I go back in to find my earplugs, sit down, copy out and make notes on some of those glacial, enigmatic sayings that have been with me for so long, turning and returning in my head.

‘Grasp the good fortune that the ground on which you stand cannot be any larger than the two feet that cover it.’ An elementary lesson, perhaps, a starting point: learn to stand before you can walk, like a child.

‘The true way is along a rope that is not suspended high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.’ The way is very close to the ground, not high up. It’s not the ground, but neither is it unreachable, impossibly abstract. We may trip over it while we’re looking for it up high, stumble onto and off it. It can be an obstacle as well as a way.

‘You are the task. No student far and wide.’ You’re the problem to be solved, the experiment that must come into its own. No student in sight to work on you. No curriculum or method. If there’s a teacher or taskmaster he isn’t mentioned. You’re the task and the student, then. The material you’re given to work with is what’s closest to hand – so close it’s hard to see clearly, and impossible to see from a neutral vantage point.

‘There are only two things: the truth and the lie. The truth is indivisible, so cannot know itself. Anyone who seeks to know it must be a lie.’ You can’t know the truth because you’re in the way of it. Moreover: ‘Only evil has self-knowledge.’ You couldn’t know yourself even if you were in the truth. This would seem to make the task that you are impossible.

‘There is nothing but a spiritual world; what we call the sensory world is the evil in the spiritual, and what we call evil is only a requirement of a moment in our everlasting development.’ This is Kafka at his most Gnostic. The world and the body are transitory prisons which must be escaped if we’re to attain eternal life, but from which escape seems impossible since we’re enmeshed in them – in lies. Only through self-destruction can the lie of the world be escaped: ‘If, having gained knowledge, you want to attain eternal life – and you cannot do other than want to, for knowledge is this desire – then you must destroy yourself, the obstacle.’ Not unlike Beckett, this version of Kafka counsels absolute failure in the face of the world: ‘Fail to know yourself! Destroy yourself!’

‘In the struggle between you and the world, second the world.’ Sekundiere der Welt. One translator writes: ‘hold the world’s coat’. Assist the sensory world in its duel against you. Help it destroy you in order to spiritualize yourself.

‘How is it possible to rejoice in the world except by fleeing to it?’ You can’t rejoice in the world except by fleeing from your true responsibility, your spiritual fulfilment.

But as Ritchie Robertson suggests, ‘There is a counter-current in Kafka’s thought: the idea that possibly the world of the senses can after all be made acceptable.’ How? ‘Anyone who seeks to know the truth must be a lie.’ But is there a way to seek the truth and be in the world at once?

One of Kafka’s diary entries reads: ‘Contemplation and activity have their apparent truth; but only the activity radiated by contemplation, or rather, that which returns to it again, is truth.’ Thinking and being: looking on from the outside, acting in the world… Both have their place, their apparent truths, but only in their continual return to each other and their mutual illumination can truth itself happen, in an interweaving of the spiritual and the sensory. (And isn’t writing a space in which contemplation and activity can come together as an event or even weapon of truth?)

In a handful of aphorisms Kafka speaks of ‘the indestructible’. ‘Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible in oneself and not striving towards it.’ Not looking for it but trusting implicitly in your connection to it and going humbly about your life. (In a letter he rewrites this sentence, replacing ‘the indestructible’ with ‘the decisive divine’.) This Unzerstörbare is impersonal yet individual: ‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him, though both the faith and the indestructible thing may remain permanently concealed from him. One of the forms of this concealment is the belief in a personal god.’ The indestructible, and the possibility of free and true being, is in each person, concealed but as real as our bodies, a force both individualizing and uniting. It’s not unlike the Hindu idea of atman, the spark of the divine hidden in each person: ‘The indestructible is one: it is each individual human being and, at the same time, it is common to all, hence the incomparably indivisible union that exists between human beings.’

But what if for whatever reason this trust, this connection to the indestructible in oneself has been severed, as it had for Kafka? (‘The way to my neighbour is very long’, he writes elsewhere.) How to recover it? There’s no technique for attaining true being in Kafka’s idiosyncratic theology. Despite its affinity with Gnosticism, it’s not a hermetic teaching or a path for the elect. There are no secret Kabbalistic rites whereby the initiated can access the indestructible (he never defines the word). Nor can it be commanded by reason, though sometimes the ‘right word, the right name’ may summon it: ‘This is the essence of magic, which does not create but calls.’

Kafka links the indestructible with ‘life’s splendour’, with paradise: ‘If what is supposed to have been destroyed in paradise was destructible, then it was not decisive; but if it was indestructible, then we are living in a false belief.’ This false belief, in Roberto Calasso’s words, has to do with a basic misunderstanding about why we were expelled from paradise: ‘Humans are convinced that they were kicked out of that place for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But this is an illusion. That wasn’t their sin. Their sin lay in not yet having eaten from the Tree of Life.’ Our trial is continual. It’s the conflict between our limited, deceptive knowledge and the veiled essence of being within us. But if being is indestructible, says Kafka, then it’s possible that our expulsion stems from our own illusions and that in fact we’re still in paradise ‘whether we know it or not’. And that the way to return to where and who we are, to bridge contemplation and activity, to find the way back to our neighbour, goes through the ‘mad strength’ of faith, which he does define: ‘Faith means: freeing the indestructible in yourself or better: freeing yourself or better: being indestructible or better: being.’

Open ground

The gale blows me sideways along with the birds, branches and grasses. The sleet makes no distinctions either: it whips into us all. Odd decision to take a walk in this weather, yet I feel as much a part of the landscape as ever. No longer a thing among things, but placed under the same conditions as things, walking on the same open ground.

*

Kafka: A heavy downpour. Stand and face the rain, let its iron rays pierce you; drift with the water that wants to sweep you away but yet stand fast, and upright in this way abide the sudden and endless shining of the sun.

Daily bread

Looking back over the journal I barely recall the upbeat mood of some of the passages. But today the first scents of spring in the air brought a throb of liveliness. The spring work is starting and the trees are budding, even after all this!

*

Something takes hold, in spite of everything… In everything well-known something worthy of thought still lurks, said Heidegger. There are crocuses amid empty lager cans and crisp packets in the square beside the Coop, primroses in the under the bare fig tree in the cemetery.

*

A cold turn, the coldest this year, just as the leaves and flowers were coming out. The earth seems to shrink back from the cutting winds. There’s a shaft of ice under the drainpipe at one corner of the house. I hit it with a hammer while holding the pipe. Another one drops out; I keep hitting them until they’re gone.

In the still, snowy evening we walk to the pub for dinner. All sounds are muffled. In the British tradition the small roads haven’t been cleared and there are no cars so we walk where we want across the hard white sheet of compacted snow glinting under a full moon. After the meal I go outside to smoke. Under the pub lights the shadows of the snowflakes look like swarms of insects.

*

Blanketed earth. Lead sky. What lifts the heaviness? A beautiful line in a book, one of S.’s weird jokes, a flash of sunlight, Rookie waking up and bounding around the room for no reason…

Give us this day our daily bread, says the prayer, our mana from heaven – not just this day but every day, every moment!

*

There’s some truth to Pascal’s saying that all human miseries stem from the inability to sit alone in a room. ‘If man were happy’, he wrote, ‘the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints and God.’ Kafka said evil is what distracts, and fantasized about living in a cell buried deep in the earth in which he could do nothing but write (he’d be passed food through a slot). Monks of certain orders are said to have slept in their coffins.

Give me a break. If I don’t get a good long dose of sunshine soon I’ll start dribbling. I bring up a holiday to S. again. She’s working on ancient Anatolia and says she’d like to see Istanbul. I say I’d prefer somewhere with nature and we leave it there.

While we think about it and work, move about the house, do the laundry, eat, the sun comes out, the snow melts, the eaves drip and branches gleam, spring seems like it might really happen and a holiday seems less urgent.

*

Two days later another cold front hits us and the weather’s practically Siberian again. S. goes out to the garden with scissors, cuts the daffodils that froze as they started to blossom and puts them in a vase in the kitchen. By late afternoon they’ve thawed and come back to life in the slanting sunlight and I can smell their scent from the living room.

Illuminations

We cycle up the coast towards Holme, chain our bikes to a tree and walk on a sandy path through the woods. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings, the wood opens up, and suddenly we find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and sky a vast sheet of whites and blues, on the other scrapes and grassy dunes stretching inland.

*

No story, rather those moments when you’re stopped on your path and made to see where you are with new eyes – as when you work on a problem until it seems insoluble and the answer comes to you in a flash: it was obvious all along, why couldn’t I see it!

Or those passages in novels in which the story gathers itself into fleeting moments of clarity and illuminates itself. I daydream of a book containing only such passages – something like Stephen Hero’s book of epiphanies, or a collection of Woolf’s ‘little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’.

*

‘Wait, be quiet, still and solitary’, wrote Kafka. ‘The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’ Here I am, the world seems to say, if only you could see me.

Something takes hold

Today it seems almost impossible to write. The words are traitorous. They turn against me, make me cringe. They become the words of others, of strange judges. They use me even as I think I use them.

*

Kafka’s final diary entry: ‘More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits – this twist is their characteristic gesture – becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Most especially a remark like this. And so ad infinitum. The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: you too have weapons.’

What weapons did he mean?

*

In Beckett, too, words turn against the narrator:

‘How they must hate me! Ah a nice state they have me in – but still I’m not their creature (not quite, not yet). It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I’ll fix their gibberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case – not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit. My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with. Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself in the end.’

What was Beckett’s weapon against the traitorous menace of words, what was his defence against unfreedom? Fail better. Not in order to succeed but to make your failure absolute. Is this really what I want? Haven’t I tried? Where did it lead?

*

Blanchot, like the early Beckett, saw writing as a giving in to an obscure, incessant murmur outside meaning, there being no alternative. The writer for him was ‘always astray’, always in errancy: ‘The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no centre, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.’

*

The words pour through you whether you like it or not. A ceaseless stream. So try to find yourself in them, stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people all going different ways and saying different things. Let that be a start.

*

Small acts of kindness that make the day real. ‘I love you’, says S. seriously as she chops vegetables. For a second I’m not sure who she means.

Early morning after another bad night’s sleep. A grey screen of condensation on the window. A few drops separate themselves out and leave clear wet lines as they drop. Outside the fog from the sea moves in over the fields, folding over itself. I sip my tea, empty-headed, until the fog thins into a wispy mist and evaporates into the day. S. comes out from the bedroom, stretches, yawns, smiles and touches my arm.

*

The faith involved even in typing a sentence, this sentence. Something takes hold whether you like it or not. Something happens in spite of everything, something you’re responsible for, hold on to that. Though you may never arrive you’re approaching and some truth may be given to you in your approach. Perhaps that’s the ‘weapon’ that’s given to you in writing, the hidden strength you need.

In the turning and returning of words the moment calls me into service to name it. Joy.

 

All at once

We cycle up the coast towards Holme, chain our bikes to a tree and walk down a sandy path through a pine grove. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings and suddenly find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and sky a vast canvas of whites and blues, on the other the scrapes and grassy dunes stretching inland.

No story, rather those moments of generous undoing when you’re stopped on your well-worn path and forced to look around with new eyes. Perhaps the only true thoughts are ones you realize have been obvious all along, as when you work on a problem until it seems insoluble and the answer comes to you all at once.

Be still and the world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, wrote Kafka. Here I am, says the world, if you could only see me.