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Monday, 30 January 2017

Kafka's Prague


I decided to visit Prague this weekend—because it’s only four hours away from Berlin, where I’m living, and because it was Kafka’s home city. I didn’t plan anything, I just booked a room and prepared myself for a weekend of meandering. On the train ride there, it struck me: this spirit of decisiveness, which we know now and again and revel in, was described by Kafka himself in one my favorite of his short vignettes, “The Sudden Walk.” He writes:
When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when, besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets - then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.                                                                                              All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.
In the German there is a line which seems to bring together the meaning of the story: “wenn man durch diesen einen Entschluss alle Entschlussfähigkeit in sich gesammelt fühlt.” This is the line, “when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action,” but the marvel that is lost in English is the word “Entschlussfähigkeit” (which means not the decision but the power that makes the decision) and its juxtaposition with “Entschluss” (decision). In a word-for-word translation we get: “when you through this one decision all the power of decision gathered in you feel.”


Prague's official monument to Franz Kafka.
This is what I love about Kafka—he sees all the little ways in which our freedom is expressed, or trapped.

In Prague, the first thing I did was visit the Kafka museum (despite my resolution not to spend a dime, I couldn’t not go). I was impressed by the exhibition; it gave me a real sense for life in Prague at the time Kafka was writing. His books and letters and diary entries lined the walls, and after a while one began to feel that this peculiar man was nothing but words. He said it himself: “I do not have literary interests, I consist of literature, I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.”

Now, it was always this declaration that made me uneasy about Kafka. After all, isn’t literature supposed to be a way deeper into life? Isn’t it supposed to illuminate things, enhance experience, lift our eyes so that we see life-itselfand not some facsimile? Why does he construct this binary between the two? Surely that’s pathological. 

I left the museum, however, with quite a different sense.

It was the emerging that did it; I came out, and there was the familiar world. Don’t get me wrong; Prague is not familiar in the regular sense of the word. For starters, it’s a city with so many statues, many of them crouching or hunched, that you can’t walk around without feeling like you’re looking over the shoulder of some saddened Saint or other. But though Prague is exotic, it’s a city—and I’ve been to cities before. That’s what I mean. I was in another city, while in the Kafka museum there stood in large white letters on a black wall a fragment from Kafka’s notebook: “Some people came to me and asked me to build a city for them.”

Another monument to Kafka, with moving parts.  
And so I began to wander around Prague, looking at buildings and into shops. I saw St. Charles Bridge. I saw Prague Castle (you know they had the world's only indoor jousting inside?). I found the Café Louvre and had a coffee—another financial capitulation, forgive me, but it was the cafe in which Kafka’s literary circle met regularly. I had a very long and very normal conversation with another tourist who shared my table, the place being so crowded for the very reason I was there. I went out again, tracked down Kafka's old office. I had a sense that freedom lay elsewhere for the moment.

This is the best I can do to describe the feeling: it was the conviction that it’s in language that we are free or not free, that the state of a person will show up somehow in their words, and that language is the way we exercise our souls.

I don’t know whether Kafka felt this, or believed this, but I think he must have. He wrote, “I do not have literary interests, I consist of literature,” and though there may be a little despair, escapism, or discomfort with his body in the statement, there is in it also the very reason why writing was so urgent, so exciting, for him. At the office, Kafka served the bureaucratic state he wrote about in his nightmarish novels; at the writing desk, he did not need to serve anybody. He knew where he could exercise his soul, and it has me thinking—though maybe Kafka would cringe at being so crudely inserted into the political field—that there is at least one clear and easy way to be counter-cultural: read. Exercise yourself in an unusual direction. Imagine differently. Make a metaphor. Comprehend something.