The easy possibility of writing letters–from a purely theoretical point of view–must have brought ruination to the souls of the world. Writing letters is actually communication with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the recipient, but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters where one letter corroborates another and can cite it is a witness. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power. But writing letters means barring oneself to the ghosts, who are greedily awaiting that. Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. This ample nourishment enables them to multiply so enormously. Mankind senses this and struggles against it; in order to attain a natural communication and a tranquility of soul, and to switch off the ghostly dimension as far as possible, man invented trains, cars, airplanes, but nothing helps anymore. These are evidently inventions devised at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The ghosts will not starve, but we will parish.
The opposing side. The phrase reveals that his mythopoeic imagination had reached the next level. Although the recipient of this letter could not know it, Kafka had just written a novel about this opposing side. But in The Castle, the fiends (who work mainly at night) are no longer a chaotic mob but emissaries of a ststem, officials who are not free and are themselves subjugated to an unfathomable will. Somewhere inside the castle a highest authority lives; it is the castle of Count Westwest, without whose tacit approval not a creature can stir. This creature with the unearthly name is mentioned on page 20, only to disappear behind a smoke screen of endless chatter. And no one penetrates these walls by waiting patiently for them to become porous–as in Kafka’s “Before The Law” legend–or by the land surveyor’s challenge to a “fight.” The highest authority exists, but it remains unrelentingly remote, and thus the crucial question of whether it is hostile or even evil remains a matter of conjecture. Kafka himself was not clear on this. A few months before beginning the novel, he wrote:
The systematic destruction of myself over the years is astonishing, it was like a slowly widening breach in a dam, a purposeful action. The spirit that brought it about must now be celebrating triumphs; why doesn’t it let me take part in them? But perhaps it hasn’t yet completed its work and can therefore think of nothing else.
(trans. Shelley Frisch).
“However,” the Officer said, interrupting himself, “I’m chattering, and his apparatus stands here in front of us. As you see, it consists of three parts. With the passage of time certain popular names have been developed for each of these parts. The one underneath is called the Bed, the upper one is called the Inscriber, and here in the middle, this moving part is called the Harrow.” “The Harrow?” the Traveller asked. He had not been listening with full attention.
Kafka himself is known to have distrusted all utopianism. Not long before his death he said that he had been exiled from Canaan for forty years, and even the community which he sometimes longed for was basically suspect to him; he wanted only to dissolve away by himself, as the water runs into the sea. Few people ever seem to have been as much alone as Kafka appears in the last pictures of him, to which we may add one extrapolated from them, so to speak, and painted by Jan Peter Tripp. It shows Kafka as he might have looked had he lived eleven or twelve years longer. That would have been in 1935. The Reich party rally would have been held, just as Riefenstahl’s film shows it. The race laws would have come into force, and Kafka, if he had had his photograph taken again, would have looked at us as he does from Tripp’s ghostly picture—from beyond the grave.
From W.G. Sebald’s essay “Kafka Goes to the Movies,” collected in Campo Santo.
Picked up books last week, not needing them, but hey.
A digest of Kafka’s diaries; good stuff, great random reading.
This is a great little anecdote:
Austerlitz is of course the name of a W.G. Sebald novel. From that novel:
I also picked up the sixth issue of Swords of Cerebus by Dave Sim. It’s a second printing and in terrible shape and I already have the issues in other forms (reprint and graphic novel) but it’s still a pretty rare find. And I am a nerd.
The book also includes a short little excellent wordless comic, “A Night on the Town,” where Cerebus parties with a corpse. I have the reprint somewhere else, but still:
by Franz Kafka
(Trans. by W. & E. Muir)
To LIFT YOURSELF out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy. I force myself out of my chair, stride around the table, exercise
my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles around them. Defy my own feelings, welcome A. enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me, amiably tolerate B. in my room, swallow all that is said at C.’s, whatever pain and trouble it may cost me, in long draughts.
Yet even if I manage that, one single slip, and a slip cannot be avoided, will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.
So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.
A characteristic movement in such a condition is to run your little finger along your eyebrows.
“Full” by Robert Walser
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
So many times, as I rode through the streets and hubbub of Berlin in the quaint, lumbering, and yet buoyantly plodding horse-drawn omnibus, which never failed to invigorate and charm me anew, I would hear the aging, good-natured conductor humbly and humorously uttering a single insignificant and yet also at that moment quite significant word, which in addition, by the way, was written for the sake of correctness and order upon a panel that could be either concealed or displayed. When the inscription
was hanging tidily and properly in its place, people knew that for the time being no one else would be allowed to climb and clamber aboard because the gondola or pleasure palace rolling along on its wheels was already packed suffocatingly full, a regrettable circumstance that was announced in no uncertain terms by the warning placard: “Stop! Whosoever they may be, this line they shall not cross!: At times, however, despite the rejecting, dismissive plaque, there would be a crowd pressing forward, expressing the impetuous desire to climb up and be carried off. And then someone, such as the chamberlain on duty, would say in a courteous voice,”Folks, we’re full up,” or he would say,”No shoving, please. It won’t do any good,” or perhaps it would occur to him to say, “With the greatest pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, would I invite you to climb aboard and take your seats, but it is my harsh duty to draw your attention to the fact that the car is already stuffed to the cracks with passengers. I do beg your pardon for having to deny you access and entry.” Sallies and attacks on one side, rebuffs and refusals on the other, the vessel continues to sail calmly and gaily through all the metropolitan traffic, which almost resembles an ocean.
Once again some hasty hothead is about to leap aboard, and once again an imperturbable”Full!” resounds in the daredevil’s ears, whereupon he is obliged to circumspectly remove his foot from the footboard once more. Once when the omnibus was cruising full steam ahead, everything proceeding smoothly and properly, and with no one even remotely plotting an ambush or violent coup, someone slipped aboard; a person who apparently had been accustomed from an early age to go through thick and thin and strike down anyone and anything that got in his way.
“Full up, sir,” the official remarked.
“Stupid, ridiculous nonsense,” replied Monsieur Dreadnought. He was without a doubt the sort of person who thought it advisable to engage in the most ruthless power politics. “I beg your pardon, did you not hear what I said?” the good carman inquired. But now a veritable downpour of invectives was unleashed upon his unfortunate head. This powerful flood of unforeseen unpleasantnesses was so overwhelming that the good man was forced to give in. All the same he complained, saying: “It’s just not right, not right at all, and it’s a good thing not all people are like this gentleman who’s cursing me even though all I did was tell him we were full. It was my duty to tell him so, but certain people insist on trampling and flattening everything once they’ve made up their minds to do something. I don’t go around saying ‘full’ for my own amusement, or because I want to antagonize people, or out of Schadenfreude. Every person has his tasks to perform and his duties to fulfill, and it just happens to be my duty to tell people ‘full’ when the car is full up. It isn’t fair for a person to take offense like that. It’s downright preposterous how quick some people are to fly into a rage. Well then! I’ll stick with the ones who have some sense; thanks and praises be to God, there are still some of them left.”
This is what the conductor said as the omnibus unhurriedly trundled on its way.
I am looking, as I write of Kafka, at the photograph taken of him at the age of forty (my age)—it is 1924, as sweet and hopeful a year as he may ever have known as a man, and the year of his death.His face is sharp and skeletal, a burrower’s face:pronounced cheekbones made even more conspicuous by the absence of sideburns; the ears shaped and angled on his head like angel wings; an intense, creaturely gaze of startled composure—enormous fears, enormous control; a black towel of Levantine hair pulled close around the skull the only sensuous feature; there is a familiar Jewish flare in the bridge of the nose, the nose itself is long and weighted slightly at the tip—the nose of half the Jewish boys who were my friends in high school.Skulls chiseled like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens; had he lived, his would have been among them, along with the skulls of his three younger sisters.
Of course, it is no more horrifying to think of Franz Kafka in Auschwitz than to think of anyone in Auschwitz—it is just horrifying in its own way.But he died too soon for the holocaust.Had he lived, perhaps he would have escaped with his good friend Max Brod, who found refuge in Palestine, a citizen of Israel until his death there in 1968.But Kafka escaping?It seems unlikely for one so fascinated by entrapment and careers that culminate in anguished death.Still, there is Karl Rossmann, his American greenhorn.Having imagined Karl’s escape to America and his mixed luck here, could not Kafka have found a way to execute an escape for himself?The New School for Social Research in New York becoming his Great Nature Theatre of Oklahoma?Or perhaps, through the influence of Thomas Mann, a position in the German department at Princeton … But then, had Kafka lived, it is not at all certain that the books of his which Mann celebrated from his refuge in New Jersey would ever have been published; eventually Kafka might either have destroyed those manuscripts that he had once bid Max Brod to dispose of at his death or, at the least, continued to keep them his secret.The Jewish refugee arriving in America in 1938 would not then have been Mann’s “religious humorist” but a frail and bookish fifty-five-year-old bachelor, formerly a lawyer for a government insurance firm in Prague, retired on a pension in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power—an author, yes, but of a few eccentric stories, mostly about animals, stories no one in America had ever heard of and only a handful in Europe had read; a homeless K., but without K.’s willfulness and purpose, a homeless Karl, but without Karl’s youthful spirit and resilience; just a Jew lucky enough to have escaped with his life, in his possession a suitcase containing some clothes, some family photos, some Prague mementos, and the manuscripts, still unpublished and in pieces, of Amerika, The Trial, The Castle, and (stranger things happen) three more fragmented novels, no less remarkable than the bizarre masterworks that he keeps to himself out of oedipal timidity, perfectionist madness, and insatiable longings for solitude and spiritual purity.
–From Philip Roth’s essay “ ‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka.” Read the entire essay.