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Old 03-25-2012, 02:50 PM   #1
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Kafka on Writing That Wounds Us

"I think we should read only those books that wound and stab us. If the book we read doesn’t wake us up with a punch to the head, why are we reading it? In order to make us happy, as you said? We would be happy even if we had no books at all, and as for books that might make us happy, we could, if necessary, write them ourselves. We need books that affect us like a misfortune, books that make us deeply mourn, as with the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, or like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. So I believe."

—Franz Kafka, "Letter to Oskar Pollak," January 27, 1904
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Old 03-25-2012, 02:52 PM   #2
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I don't know that Kafka's quote pertains to all literature and all reading. It might have been true for him on that afternoon, or of his project overall, or expressed the emotional charge which for him threaded necessary words both read and written. That charge might have felt like an antidote for the stately enervated language he felt surrounded him.

Perhaps the goal was to be fully alive, to shatter that "frozen sea."

I myself have never been able to justify my compulsion to read books that raked and shredded me, though to do so always seemed a responsibility, especially in terms of channeling someone else's pain. Films, paintings, plays -- the compulsion is the same. If I'm so close to the subject that I have to suppress the reflex to vomit, then I can maintain the illusion I'm honoring the person who suffered. It doesn't follow that such art is always good or the ritual logical. And yet I've found myself doing it all my life.

To read agonizing books can seem completely unconstructive. You're helping no one, and yet you feel you're inside someone else, bearing witness. Perhaps it has something to do with the dead for me -- the stupid desire to clasp the hands of the hunted and murdered women whose bodies fill the earth. To believe that, if I truly felt what it was like to be them for one lasting moment, I could pull them out of the ground intact, and their skeletons would change into living beings again, and their lives might be better this time, if only I understood them and stepped back and didn't interfere.
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Old 03-25-2012, 03:03 PM   #3
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I don't know that Kafka's quote pertains to all literature and all reading. It might have been true for him on that afternoon, or of his project overall, or expressed the emotional charge which for him threaded necessary words both read and written. That charge might have felt like an antidote for the stately enervated language he felt surrounded him.

Perhaps the goal was to be fully alive, to shatter that "frozen sea."

I myself have never been able to justify my compulsion to read books that raked and shredded me, though to do so always seemed a responsibility, especially in terms of channeling someone else's pain. Films, paintings, plays -- the compulsion is the same. If I'm so close to the subject that I have to suppress the reflex to vomit, then I can maintain the illusion I'm honoring the person who suffered. It doesn't follow that such art is always good or the ritual logical. And yet I've found myself doing it all my life.

To read agonizing books can seem completely unconstructive. You're helping no one, and yet you feel you're inside someone else, bearing witness. Perhaps it has something to do with the dead for me -- the stupid desire to clasp the hands of the hunted and murdered women whose bodies fill the earth. To believe that, if I truly felt what it was like to be them for one lasting moment, I could pull them out of the ground intact, and their skeletons would change into living beings again, and their lives might be better this time, if only I understood them and stepped back and didn't interfere.
There must be another story in your mind waiting to be written, pretty catchy opening for one anyway.

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Old 03-25-2012, 03:09 PM   #4
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Thanks so much for the compliment, Helen.

What do you think about Kafka's sense of the necessity of writing that wounds?

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Old 03-25-2012, 05:30 PM   #5
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Thanks so much for the compliment, Helen.

What do you think about Kafka's sense of the necessity of writing that wounds?
Afraid you are asking the wrong person on that one. I have a hard time getting through even introspective literature. Seriously wounding affects me and stays with me more than the more entertaining stuff I prefer but... I must put it aside and come back to it. And then there is minimalism. Totally the way to go but so hard to put into practice for me

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Old 03-25-2012, 07:08 PM   #6
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And the interesting thing is that I myself tend to be a maximalist, having grown up reading Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Lovell Beddoes. (And those are only the Ts.) My favorite living stylist -- until he died -- was one John Hawkes.

And yet I can see the virtues of adopting a minimalist style. Even in my case, the adjectives in my writing have grown less Latinate over the past few years.

In fact, we can grow too distracted by style, which is rhythm; by the groove, as the musician in me grew up calling it. We can be seduced into writing ourselves down the steps into basements that were supposed to be vestibules leading to doorways. We can find ourselves lost among curlicue locking pins and arabesque'd cupboards and trunks that close with the halves of silver fleur de lis.
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Old 03-25-2012, 07:39 PM   #7
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I can't remember ever reading such a book, nor do I think I'd want to. If I'm in the mood for such catharsis, a particular movie (e.g. Grave of the Fireflies) or song (e.g. Gloomy Sunday, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, or Untitled #1 by Sigur Ros) will do the job much more effectively and quickly. A book, however, will typically take me a few days to get through and I neither want nor need such pain to last.
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Old 03-25-2012, 08:53 PM   #8
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Whereas I think Kafka does want the pain to last because he associates it with emotional awareness.

And for me, it isn't so much a question of catharsis as it is of understanding someone else's suffering. A book has the space in which to submerge the reader in someone else's world -- even more, it seems to me, than a film or song.

If you don't want to recreate (in yourself) the feeling of being someone who's imprisoned or tortured, I can understand that. It can seem pointlessly unpleasant. But as a person with relatives who died in German camps and Lithuanian ghettos, I feel I have a responsibility: to mourn them and honor their loss, of course, but also, in empathizing with how they felt, to touch their shoulders. I can see you, I tell them. I can see you and your life still matters.

Your reference to "Gloomy Sunday" is apt, especially if Holiday's singing it in that haunted shell of a voice she was left with at the end, that voice like a crumpled note found next to a body. But in terms of classical music, I don't think "Moonlight Sonata" expresses Kafka's pitch of pain. Mahler's Ninth Symphony or "Das Lied von der Erde" would be a little closer. I tend to think more of Berg's "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," though, which are closer still. But I hesitate to recommend them, since people are often rooted in tonality and find dissonance merely unpleasant, as you've said you do the suffering in sorrowful novels.
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