Category Archives: Kafka

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.

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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.

I’m making a test

I’m making a test: on the balcony is a sparrow which expects me to throw some bread from the table on to the balcony, instead of which I drop the bread beside me on the floor in the middle of the floor. It stands outside and from there in the semi-darkness sees the food of its life, terribly tempting, it’s shaking itself, it’s more here than there, but here is the dark and beside the bread am I, the secret power. Nevertheless it hops over the threshold, a few more hops, but farther it doesn’t dare go and in sudden fright it flies away. But with what energy does this wretched bird abound, after a while it’s back again, inspects the situation, I scatter a little more to make it easier for it, and – if I hadn’t intentionally-unintentionally (this is how the secret powers work) chased it away with a sudden movement, it would have got the bread.

– Kafka, Letters to Milena (tr. T. and J. Stern)

Among the ruins

Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate – he has little success in this – but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different (and more) things than do the others; after all, dead as he is in his own lifetime, he is the real survivor. This assumes that he does not need both hands, or more hands than he has, in his struggle against despair.

– Kafka, Diaries