Monday, July 5, 2010


Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, which happens to be also the city where Rilke was born (in 1875). Thus, one the greatest prose writers and one of the greatest poets of the modern era shared a common mother city. Kafka happens to be one of my favorite masters -- I especially love "The Metamorphosis" and "The Hunger Artist." But I also admire "The Penal Colony." I was introduced to it in an unforgettable way.


                        in honor of Andrzej Paszkiewicz, a great teacher

On the last class day of my last year of high school, our literature and philosophy teacher pulled out a worn paperback from the abyss of his cracked, ancient leather briefcase, and read aloud to us “The Penal Colony.”  Kafka’s books were forbidden at the time. For some years after the war they could be bought in bookstores, and then suddenly disappeared. The government realized that Kafka was not a friend of the regime . . .  

And our marvelous teacher read to us, unruly smart-ass teens, Warsaw’s “hereditary intelligencja” – because he realized that unless we knew some Kafka, our education in literature was going to be a travesty. Kafka was not only one of the greatest modern masters; he was also the most prophetic writer of the 20th century. Here was a story about a place amazingly like a concentration camp, an orderly place like Auschwitz, where sadistic brutality masquerades as supreme justice, as Law and Order, even Hygiene. We listened without stirring. No passing notes, or suppressed giggles. The silence was startling.

I remember how solemn (but without any theatricality) the reading was. He made no comment afterwards, just slowly put the book back into his worn briefcase. We sat in stunned silence until the bell rang. Our last literature class.

Our teacher could have chosen a different story, but he chose "The Penal Colony," maybe to show us that a writer could indeed be a prophet and a deep psychologist who showed us that the seeds of the horror that our parents survived (mine nearly didn’t) lay in the psyche. That this wasn’t anything specifically Nazi. 

Later I encountered Nietzsche’s phrase, “the Hangman’s metaphysics,” implying that a hangman feels compelled to give lectures on morality. And I remembered my teacher's courage in reading to us Kafka's visionary example of this. 

         ~ Oriana

Kafka has also been something of a muse for me, like Penelope. The motto over his desk was Warten -- wait.  Writing takes tremendous patience. 

Here are some less-known quotations from Kafka:

The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired. Only after death, only in solitude, does a man’s true nature emerge. In death, as on the chimney sweep’s Saturday night, the soot gets washed from his body.

I have powerfully assumed the negativity of my times.

We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood.  When you stand in front of me an look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours?  And if I were to cast myself down before you and tell you, what more would you know about me that you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful?  For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.

Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment: in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.
In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.

Questions that don’t answer themselves at the very moment of their asking are never answered.

Writing is a deeper sleep than death…. Just as one wouldn’t pull a corpse from its grave, I can’t be dragged from my desk at night. ( letter to Felice Bauer, June 26, 1913)

So if you find nothing in the corridors open the doors, if you find nothing behind these doors there are more floors, and if you find nothing up there, don’t worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don’t stop climbing, the stairs won’t end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards. (“The Advocates”)

“It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.” (The Trial)

Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. (The Trial)
When it became clear in my being that writing was the most productive direction for me to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed toward the joys of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection and above all music.
–January 3, 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.
–February 25, 1912

What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.
–January 8, 1914

What an effort to keep alive! Erecting a monument does not require the expenditure of so much strength.
–March 9, 1914

The life of society moves in a circle. Only those burdened with a common affliction understand each other.
–June 12, 1914

Through a heaven of vice a hell of virtue is reached. 
–January 9, 1920.

My life is a hesitation before birth.
–January 24, 1922

We were expelled from Paradise, but Paradise was not destroyed. In a sense our expulsion from Paradise was a stroke of luck, for had we not been expelled, Paradise would have had to be destroyed.

Some deny the existence of misery by pointing to the sun; he denies the existence of the sun by pointing to misery.

Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.
You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point must be reached.

Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible element in oneself and not striving towards it.

I am particularly struck by Questions that don’t answer themselves at the very moment of their asking are never answered.  One could argue to the contrary: the answer might come out of the blue twenty years later. Nevertheless, my recent experience confirms that the right question can be answered in an instant, and that instant can change your life. 

Soon after Deborah Digges' suicide, I was stunned by those lines in one of her poems (probably "The Broom") -- I quote from memory:

When was the last time I was happy?
When did the light hold me and I didn't struggle?


-- but "happy" was too extreme a word, too remote -- I couldn't connect with it. One of the characteristics of my chronic depression was inability to remember any happy moments, much less a whole extended period of being happy. It was only when I asked, "When was the last time I wasn't depressed?" that the answer came instantly. Thus, asking the right question changed my life. (I need to add that at long last I was motivated not to be depressed. I always knew how to pull myself out of depression, but had no motivation to make the slightest effort toward healing. I had to see that I was getting older, and life was passing me by while I stewed in bitterness, like Dante's "the sullen" who chant their repetitious hymn while sunk in mud.)

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