Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Chinese Puzzle

Franz Kafka

Once there was a Chinese puzzle, a cheap simple toy, not much bigger than a pocket watch and without any sort of surprising contrivances. Cut into the flat wood, which was painted reddish-brown, there were some blue labyrinthine paths, which all led into a little hole. The ball, which was also blue, had to be got into one of the paths by means of tilting and shaking the box, and then into the hole. Once the ball was in the hole, the game was over, and if one wanted to start all over again, one had first to shake the ball out of the hole. The whole thing was covered over with a strong, convex glass; one could put the puzzle in one’s pocket and carry it about with one, and wherever one was, one could take it out and play with it.

If the ball was unemployed, it spent most of the time strolling to and fro, its hands clasped behind its back, on the plateau, avoiding the paths. It held the view that it was quite enough bothered with the paths during the game and that it had every right to recuperate on the open plain when no game was going on. Sometimes it would look up at the vaulted glass, but merely out of habit and quite without any intention of trying to make anything out up there. It had a rather straddling gait and maintained that it was not made for these narrow paths. This was partly true, for indeed the paths could hardly contain it, but it was also untrue, for the fact was that it was very carefully made to fit the width of the paths exactly, but the paths were certainly not meant to be comfortable for it, or else it would not have been a puzzle at all.

To pronounce the word "Kafka" is to invoke a complicated mental labyrinth, made up of dark and secret cul-de-sacs, each one guarded by a dragon in a white raincoat and a Humphrey Bogart hat, something akin to Orson Welles in "The Third Man", only much more so; something prophetic of totalitarianism in its bureaucratic phase, something indicative of paranoia in its introspective phase. There is no worse fate, especially for a writer, than to set out as a noun and to arrive transformed into an adjective. Especially if the adjective is not even one that you might ever have intended. But so it is with Kafka.

I have, over many years, sought ways to achieve the rehabilitation of Franz Kafka, his redemption from the catacombs of the human psyche, but I appear still to be alone in this endeavour. To me, the most obvious characteristic of his work is levity, not gravity; is light, not darkness; is puzzlement, not a desire to puzzle; is a sense of the magical and the mysterious, not the anguished and the dismal.

Most readers come to Kafka through his allegories – "The Trial" and "The Castle" especially – but, unaware that they are allegories, mistake them for novellas, works of fiction. More fruitful to read his letters and his diaries, where everything is parable: foreshortened allegories, the metaphors unextended. I imagine Kafka as a lay rabbi at a children's synagogue, using Rabbi Nachman’s prayer-book, handing out boiled sweets while delivering a playful sermon on the dragon Nechushtan and the endless labyrinthine desert journey of the Children of God – the laughter he evokes serious to the point of being thoroughly portentous.

In my blog-page about Pessoa ("Disquietudes"), I suggested that some books are not meant for continuous, systematic reading, start to finish, but for dipping in and out of, for short bursts of occasional, random, unfinished reading, on a train say, or while waiting to collect the kids from school, or in the bath. In this way do I return to Brecht's poetry, to Borges' essays, to Durrell's lyrical descriptions of an imaginary town that happens to be named Alexandria, and to Franz Kafka's Diaries, where I always seem to find something to which I did not pay proper attention the time before; and more significantly, something that would likely go unnoticed in consecutive reading. There is, for example, in the Octavio Notebook B, a superb metaphor for the act of poetry which seems to prefigure Pessoa's view of life lived better when it is lived in the imagination: 

“I have – who else can speak so freely of his abilities? – the wrist of a lucky, untiring, old angler. For instance, I sit at home before I go out fishing, and, watching closely, turn my right hand first this way and then that. This is enough to reveal to me, by the look and the feeling of it, the result of the fishing expedition on which I am about to set out, and often down to the very detail. I see the water of the place where I shall fish, and the particular current at the particular hour; a cross-section of the river appears to me; distant in number and in species, at up to ten, twenty or even a hundred different places, fish thrust towards the edge of this cross-section; now I know how to cast the line; some thrust their heads through the edge without coming to harm, then I let the hook dangle before them, and at once they are hanging on it; the brevity of this moment of destiny delights me even at the table at home; other fish thrust forward up to the belly, now it is high time, some still I manage to overtake, others again slip through the dangerous edge right up to their tails and for the time being are lost to me; only for this time though; from a real angler no fish escapes.”

Not too much ever got past Franz's meticulous pen, despite his modesty! This piece would also make a fascinating exemplar for a teaching exercise on the use of punctuation: almost Beckettian here, with commas for Pause and semi-colons for Silence: the creation of a continuous event within a single instant of imagining, and time factored out in punctuation marks (though I think there should be a semi-colon, not a comma, after "coming to harm").

One question, since I am working from an English translation and do not have the German original: is "high time" a curious piece of English mis-phrasing, or a proof-reading error for "high tide"?

Kafka's diaries exploit other metaphors of the act of writing, some more effectively than others. On November 15th 1911, for example, he wrote:

“It is certain that everything I have conceived in advance, even when I was in a good mood, whether word for word or just casually, but in specific words, appears dry, wrong, inflexible, embarrassing to everyone around me, timid, but above all incomplete when I try to write it down at my desk, although I have forgotten nothing of the original conception. This is naturally related in large part to the fact that I conceive something good away from the page only in a time of exaltation, a time more feared than longed for, much as I do long for it; but then the fullness is so great that I have to give up. Blindly and arbitrarily I snatch handfuls out of the stream so that when I write the fullness in which it lived is incapable of restoring this fullness, and thus is bad and disturbing because it tempts to no purpose.”

Spontaneity versus the constructed work of Art – the age-old debate. Creative writing schools can only conceive of the latter; writers of genius tend to the former, but disingenuously, because they fail to comment on how much time they spend after the moment of inspiration, touching up, correcting, putting flesh upon the skeleton; and even more significantly, how much time they spend before the moment of inspiration, living deeply and intensely enough to engender experience that can be transmuted into Art, reflecting on that experience, creating, reflecting upon the successes and failures of the creation, improving, living more and still more deeply, reflecting more and still more deeply, so that what appears to be a moment of inspiration is really the logical and inevitable outcome of a profoundly concentrated process of construction.

One other question about Kafka, that highly-trained lawyer and senior insurance administrator, regarded by his professional colleagues as a man of considerable competence in a rigorously demanding daily world: how far is the timid little soul of his books and diaries, overly self-conscious almost to the point of paranoia, dominated by his father to a point of collaboration in his own victimhood, how far is it merely a literary invention, like Woody Allen's klutz or Charlie Chaplin's tramp or Beckett's Malone and Molloy who owe so much to Kafka? I have an image of a laughing Kafka, rocking in his chair as he re-reads his carefully constructed prose, wondering if the world will ever see through him, will ever get the joke. Max Brod always insisted that Kafka regarded himself as a comic writer (Max Brod also said, in his biography of Kafka: "One has to write as if one was writing into a tunnel without knowing how the figures will develop." Did Kafka teach him that, or did he know it for himself?).

The last sentence in that diary entry is the one that most interests me, for this is Kafka's real syndrome. Syntactically it is complex, but I think my translation works better than others I have read, as much as anything for dispensing with the excessive punctuation. What disturbs me is not what disturbs Kafka. For him it is – metaphorically – that disappointment-of-the-orgasm which so dismayed the Metaphysical Poets; in his case poetic rather than sexual. What disturbs me is that a man, any man and not just Donne or Kafka, should even want the perfect orgasm to be sufficient. Perfection and ephemerality cannot lodge together, and life is compounded of infinitudes of ephemeralities, including the rare transitory moments of seeming perfection. But a wave at its height is a wave about to crash, and the "still point of the turning world" is atrophy. The excitement of endless future possibility surely lies in being reconciled with disappointment as a fact of life, and going on to the next disappointment with unwavering eagerness. 

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