Franz Kafka

"In Spite of Everything Writing Does One Good"

by Bob Blaisdell

It's impossible to write exactly what we mean, and it's impossible to avoid revealing ourselves in what we write. Are either of these observations true? Does the truth of one exclude the truth of the other? If we cannot manage one-to-one correspondence between what we mean to write and what we do write, does this mean that we have failed as artists? Or is what we really and truly mean something different from what we would like to say, and that it is through the arts that we see, after all, what we feel and think?

In his journals and letters, Franz Kafka kept finding himself dealing with those questions, which he answered differently at different times. These thoughts were not as simple as moods (pessimistic versus optimistic); they were revelations dawning on him in the midst of hard yet unsatisfactory work; it was fruitless to try to escape from himself (I am contained in the art) and senseless to make it a goal to reveal himself (it happens no matter what, so I might as well get on with the story). However consciously crafted Kafka's stories and novels are, his journals and letters are not only more revealing but more sympathetic in their revelations (perhaps this is just to say that Kafka is more interesting than his abstracted personas). He is funny, modest, authoritative, sad, and always brilliant in the diaries and letters, and what he has to teach us about writing is not how to do it; it is perhaps to remind us why we do it. The writing life has never been better analyzed than by Kafka, who documented his literary strivings and frustrations with super-clarity and fatalistic humor.

As he told Felice, one of his fiancees (he would remain a bachelor): "My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one's timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say." This last sentence is part of Kafka's thinking about the unavoidable self-revelation of writing. How often we read work whose loudest message is "I wish I were doing anything but writing." Kafka had poor health; he needed to conserve all his energy and attention for writing. Writing did not give him vitality; it certainly did not give him money or fame in his lifetime. It was a compulsion, a habit, a refuge. It made life possible and purposeful; it sometimes, not always, gave him peace of mind. Sometimes it brought him to despair over its difficulty, or it exposed his weaknesses to the light, but he also noticed how sometimes, in the midst of that despair, writing gave him distance from (and thus rescued him from) that despair:

I have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness, in all likelihood with my head still smarting from unhappiness, sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with as many flourishes as I have the talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal, or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain; it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength.

Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and would die in 1924 of tuberculosis. His sisters would die in Nazi concentration camps. He and his sisters shared a kind but ineffectual mother and an overbearing father: Hermann Kafka seems to have been everything Franz was not: confident, vigorous, manly, impatient with moral and intellectual questions. The Kafka family was Jewish, but Franz pursued a secular life and worked as a lawyer for an insurance company, most of the time while living with his parents and sisters in various apartments. Meanwhile he was a conscientious worker and a good friend; these are details that might surprise us if we associate the anxiety of his protagonists with the author's--which we should (just think of, among other stories, "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis"). His protagonists' anxieties were Kafka's. The characters, however, were locked in the boxes of his creations, while the real Kafka, who had been a fine student and yet always doubted his academic abilities, dutifully went to work and associated with literary friends without revealing his literary aspirations (one of his best friends, and posthumously his biographer, Max Brod, had no idea for several years that Kafka even wrote). Kafka's aspirations were personal rather than public, but he seems to have been proud of the few publications he had. That is, he was proud of the fact that there was this book of stories with his name on it, but he was ashamed at the same time that the stories revealed his personal and artistic limitations. The book was a mirror that preserved his image. He saw the faults and despaired; the faults were not erasable--not because the book was published, but because its faults were his faults, built into the stories.

If any great writer ever heaped despair over the possibility of writing, it was Kafka. He despaired not only over the end product but over its ghastly beginnings. If art is a live thing, how do you go on when it is so incomplete and unformed a live thing? "The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first," Kafka wrote in his diary. "There seems no hope that this newborn thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive in the completed organization of the world, which, like every completed organization, strives to close itself off." And yet Kafka kept writing. How did he do it? When we get discouraged by the difficult and unhopeful beginnings of our writings, we are responding to something that Kafka recognized and tried to counteract:

However, one should not forget that the story, if it has any justification to exist, bears its complete organization within itself even before it has been fully formed; for this reason despair over the beginning of a story is unwarranted; in a like case parents should have to despair of their suckling infant, for they had no intention of bringing this pathetic and ridiculous being into the world. Of course, one never knows whether the despair one feels is warranted or unwarranted. But reflecting on it can give one a certain support; in the past I have suffered from the lack of this knowledge.

That is, Kafka would start writing a story and then use his despair over its development as an excuse to call it quits. No doubt there are many times it would be sensible for any artist to give up on a "pathetic and ridiculous" work, but Kafka here is trying to teach himself not to do so--to have faith that this particular piece just might grow up into something good. He is using his experience of despair to go on in spite of despair; he wants to give himself "a certain support" for overcoming despair again. He is trying to correct his error. The despair may come for good reason or not; more important than the despair, however, is to keep going. This was a lesson he tried to teach himself not only about his writing but about his life: "After all, everything is bearable, and if the pain remains, the days do change, the expression of the pain changes, one's powers of resistance change, and then one is carried along more or less alive on the waves of change." If, however, we don't keep a daily account of our lives, Kafka suggests that we cannot understand or appreciate our earlier endurance:

One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised and admitted by you, but which you'll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.

Kafka believed his diary kept him honest; he could not pretend that now was worse than then or that he was as he remembered and not as his diary revealed him to be.

To return now to those difficult questions of our not being able to write what we mean and at the same time revealing ourselves in spite of ourselves, which are not unrelated to despairing over our work. That is, "How is it possible to write at all if one has so much to say and knows that the pen can only trace an uncertain and random trail through the mass of what has to be said?" In this explanation to his fiancee Felice, Kafka gives us the image of communication being a trail through a mass--and yet the mass is what we mean to communicate. We are picking our way through. The mass cannot be communicated, apparently; we must choose, albeit in "uncertain and random" fashion, how to represent the vast material in our heart and mind. So "how is it possible"? Kafka has given in to despair on this one. It's impossible to write! It can't be done.

Six weeks later, Kafka, restless about this conclusion, tries again, and finds a different truth: "... I am driven by this feeling of anxiety in the midst of my lethargy, and I write, or fear I may at any moment write, irresponsible things. The wrong sentences lie in wait about my pen, twine themselves around its point, and are dragged along into the letters." There is a new trouble, a new despairing thought. It is not that he cannot write for despair of choosing the right details, but that he is not in control of what he writes. Other things than what he means to say pop up. Kafka is not working out a theory here, but thinking, and his thoughts on writing are alive, quick, and he is excited and so are we to follow this new, or seemingly new, trail:

I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious.

That is, such observations as his previous ones are "quite fallacious"! Yes, they seem so to him now. That his opinion is at the moment contrary to his previous opinions is not a limitation of his thinking but an example of thinking. He is also pushing despair off to the side of the road. He is making a discovery that, if true, can rid him forever of despair over his writing. The words on the page are the words inside us. He continues his thought:

The infinite feeling continues to be as infinite in words as it was in the heart. What is clear within is bound to become so in words as well. This is why one need never worry about language, but at sight of words may often worry about oneself. After all, who knows within himself how things really are with him? This tempestuous or floundering or morass-like inner self is what we really are, but by the secret process by which words are forced out of us, our self-knowledge is brought to light, and though it may still be veiled, yet it is there before us, wonderful or terrible to behold.

He can accept the discovery of what is inside him--whatever that may be (Kafka naturally suspects it's monstrous). Finding the words, then, is not the problem. Discovering in the words our true selves may be unpleasant (maybe not), but there is no use despairing over finding the right words. The words correspond all too well to what is inside. So he can write! There is no need to despair.

Kafka continued to live and think, and a month later he had serious doubts about his great discovery: "I once wrote to you that no true feeling need search for corresponding words, but is confronted or even impelled by them. Perhaps this is not quite true, after all." He preferred to hope, of course, but the practical difficulties kept grinding away at those hopeful insights. Six months later, he despairingly told his diary, "All things resist being written down."

That we don't share Kafka's despair is partly because we didn't go through all the agony that produced these thoughts and reflections. It is also because there is a gleam, a vivacity in these insights he has. He has communicated himself to us! He keeps proving, through our reading of his words, that the resistance he faces with his own writing does not resist us in reading him. He understood this too, and tells us about it in relation to his reading:

Only later are we surprised that these experiences of another person's life, in spite of their vividness, are faithfully described in the book--our own experience inclines us to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience (sorrow over the death of a friend, for instance) than its description.

So books can give us the impression that a feeling or situation has been described to a T. Our responses to art continually tell us this: this room existed, that man had a miserable fight with this woman, that tree on that pond stands vivid in our mind; someone from another time and place has, seemingly, communicated all that was possible to communicate:

But what is right for us is not right for the other person. If our letters cannot match our own feelings--naturally, there are varying degrees of this, passing imperceptibly into one another in both directions--if even at our best, expressions like "indescribable," "inexpressible," or "so sad," or "so beautiful," followed by a rapidly collapsing "that"-clause, must perpetually come to our assistance, then as if in compensation we have been given the ability to comprehend what another person has written with at least the same degree of calm exactitude which we lack when we confront our own letter-writing.

So what is good enough from the other side, from reading, tells us that our writing may be good or exact enough a representation of our feelings for anyone else--or even for ourselves! When we return to our work after some time, we can experience the feeling that, on second thought, we expressed ourselves plenty well, in details that seem to recreate the exact feeling we once had. Kafka writes: "I didn't consider the description of R. good, but nevertheless it must have been better than I thought, or my impression of R. the day before yesterday must have been so incomplete that the description was adequate to it or even surpassed it." So there is no need to despair about writing's limitations as it all too easily overpowers our memory's abilities to recreate the feelings we once had.

Even so, fatalistic Kafka would soon conjure up his plight with comical metaphors, writing to Felice:

Poor, poor dearest, may you never feel compelled to read this miserable novel I keep writing away at so dismally. It is terrible how it can change its appearance; once the load (the ardor I write with! How the inkspots fly!) is on the car, I am all right; I delight in cracking the whip and am a man of importance; but once it falls off the cart (which cannot be foreseen, prevented, or concealed), as it did yesterday and today, then it feels excessively heavy for my pitiful shoulders; all I want to do then is abandon everything and dig my grave on the spot. After all, there can be no more beautiful spot to die in, no spot more worthy of total despair, than one's own novel.

Kafka had to enjoy writing this, using his energy and wit to paint a picture that revenged himself on a bad day's work. So he dealt with despair, which he described in a way that must have amused him when he reread it, and I'll bet that this image even replaced his memory of whatever scenes he had been despairing over. Good writing can overwhelm bad writing. Doing a good job of describing a failed writing can replace, in memory and feeling, that failed writing. Kafka sometimes overcame despair by writing about despair.

"Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld," he wrote Felice, "mine is by writing. That's why the only way I can keep going, if at all, is by writing, not through rest and sleep. I am far more likely to achieve peace of mind through writing than the capacity to write through peace."

Writing did not bring him peace, because it did not obliterate life. It was not a philosophy by which he could evade consciousness. It made him super-conscious, and better aware of the dragons lurking within and without. "Writing does make things clearer," he explained to Felice, "yet at the same time worse." She misunderstood the fine turn and distinction he made here, and so he had to explain it again, with the distinction highlighted: "... I did not say that writing ought to make everything clearer, but instead makes everything worse; what I said was that writing makes everything clearer and worse." This would seem to be Kafka's final statement on the problem of artistic insight and revelation. (I routinely remind myself and my students that the revelations we achieve as a result of brave soul-searching can devastate us; our bravery in looking for the truth about ourselves is a good and moral quality, but look where it landed Oedipus!) Kafka never stopped reviewing his actions; he came close to catching his own tail.

But he later went beyond his grim assessment that writing "makes everything clearer and worse." I would like to leave this as his most useful and finest lesson, even if it was not in fact his final thought. At his height of generosity, he doesn't seem to see the need to take back what he grants; his distinctions about writing make everything clearer and better; he makes the ultimate distinction, between life and oblivion. In a letter to his translator and sometime-girlfriend Milena Jesenska, he observes:

In spite of everything writing does one good, I'm calmer than I was two hours ago with your letter outside on the deck-chair. While I lay there, a yard in front of me a beetle fell on its back and was desperate, couldn't get up again. I would have liked to have helped it, it would have been so easy, one step and one little push would have done it, but I forgot it over your letter, nor could I get up. Only a lizard made me conscious once more of life around me, its path led over the beetle which was already quite still, thus--I told myself--it hadn't been an accident but a death-struggle, the rare spectacle of natural animal-death; but on slithering over it the lizard had turned it right side up and, though it continued to lie dead-still for a while, it then suddenly ran up the wall of the house as though nothing had happened. Somehow this probably restored to me also a little of my courage, I got up, drank some milk and wrote to you.

2006 by Bob Blaisdell. All rights reserved.
Bob Blaisdell teaches and writes in New York City.