A few days ago, I had another birthday. It was a pretty good day, considering my domestic partner flew my sibling all the way across the country to visit me, but normally birthdays fucking suck. Not just mine–everyone’s. It’s just another year to reflect about how much you suck. So, in honor of my big two-seven, I present another installment of K IS FOR KAFKA:
S is for SELF-LOATHING
Several volumes could be devoted to the beauties and intricacies of man’s ability to hate himself—and several more could be devoted to Kafka’s, which was just about unparalleled. His self-doubt was, at times, so crippling that it manifested itself as a physical ailment. To wit, here is a light-hearted snippet from “Resolutions,” one of the short-short stories that make up Meditation, Kafka’s first collection of published work.:
- To lift yourself out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy. I force myself out of my chair, circle the table in long strides, exercise my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles around them. (Complete Stories 398)
Even those of us with the pithiest blessings of self-control have managed to avert public emotional disaster through some form of what Kafka’s doing here. We’ve all played nice at a party to appease a lover after a big fight–even though we would rather go home and stab out our own eyeballs with cutlery than hang out with our cold-hearted paramour’s PR friends and answer (or, godforbid, ask) What exactly is it that you do? for the fiftieth time. We’ve smiled, we’ve done our breathing exercises, we’ve meditated and gone to our little Happy Places and never strayed more than an arm’s length from the bar and the cookie table. And we’re so achingly convincing that after awhile we may even start to believe ourselves, and forget that we’ve been rejected, passed over, compromised, forgotten about, marginalized, beaten down, and reminded over and over again of how much we just could not hate ourselves as much as we deserve to. So, yes, we always run the risk of remembering that we were upset, of slipping up, careening back into our previous pissy mood—and as Kafka reminds us, “slips are inevitable,” aren’t they? So what to do? His morose recommendation:
- So the best recourse is to meet everything as calmly as possible, to make yourself an inert mass and, if you feel that you are carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction…with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that. A characteristic movement in such a condition is to run your little finger along your eyebrows. (Complete Stories 398)
WE ALL KNOW what it feels like to hate ourselves so much we can’t even move, but there has got to be something more. Kafka is telling us so here—he’s saying that however tough it is to be miserable, it’s worse to fight it, it’s worse yet to just sit around inert and trapped in yourself like The Metamporphosis’s Gregor Samsa was trapped in his armor-like vermin-shell, than to be brave enough to let yourself feel unhappiness if that’s what you need to feel. But few of us are brave enough (or, at the very least, that self-destructive/self-indulgent) to meet that kind of unhappiness straight-on, so we do the proper American thing and plunk ourselves into the non-threatening leather chair of the nearest shrink.
Kafka (oh, the lucky bastard) was a contemporary of Freud (not a friend, but they lived at the same time in relatively the same geographical region, and both worked in German), which means that Freudian psychoanalysis (and all the forms that followed it) was yet to be a widespread hobby. That doesn’t mean, however, that he didn’t go to therapy. In fact, in his twenties, for his multitudinous health, sleep and emotional ailments, he went to see a popular Prague theosophist named Dr. Steiner, who was the period equivalent of a new-age guru like Werner Erhard (but maybe not as expensive). In fact, it was Steiner’s rather unorthodox methodology (“Mrs. F: ‘I have a poor memory,’ Dr. St.: ‘Eat no eggs,’” recalled Kafka in a 1911 diary entry before his first visit) inspired Kafka’s passion for self-help trends like vegetarianism and nudism.
Therapy, of course, has its own set of perils. First of all, it’s expensive—and let’s face it, between four-dollar lattes and six-dollar beers, that gym membership you use twice a month but you’re too chicken to cancel, and your “stock option” package from that dot-com stint in 1999 making Enron look like Cypro, any “extra” cash you have lying around is probably designated for the impatient hands of Visa. Second of all, it usually results in the dispensation of drugs or, worse, edicts that we should actually change the way we live and think because the way we currently live and think is unhealthy or potentially damaging or obscured or unfailingly toxic. I mean, who can really change? Sometimes proper therapists or even new-agey Dr. Steiner types aren’t enough for today’s miserable masses—by which I mean that it’s 1975 (EST) and 1985 (Baghwan Shree Rajneesh) all over again and cults are big again these days. Several of my more affluent compatriots rave about the Werner Erhard empire’s successor to EST, the “Landmark Forum,” and while Dr. Steiner and Kafka’s other health fads hardly tried to brainwash him, it takes a particular kind of relentless individualism to resist the allure of unconditional inclusiveness. After all, when you’re paying someone good money—whether it be a good psychiatrist, Werner Erhard or Dr. Steiner—they’re more than happy to welcome you in. When it comes back down to it, though, as soon as the forty-seven minute therapy hour is over or the weekend brainwashing seminar—erm, I mean “retreat”—has come to its end, it’s back to lying on the couch and hoping the ceiling will open up and reveal to dull the pain before the 3:00AM episode of Law & Order. Sure, there are drugs, the actual opiate, but in addition to the trite killing-you-and-making-you-stupid cliché, a well-maintained cocaine or heroin habit can be even more expensive than therapy.
But will reading Kafka make things better? Will it make us like ourselves? Or will an in-depth review of The Trial send us off that balcony once and for all? Who knows? What’s certain is that it will definitely make us smarter and more aware, and what’s even more certain is that it will give us something to do.
We currently live amidst a rampant epidemic of Chronic Parents’ Basement Inhabitant Syndrome…and when our fathers aren’t berating us for being weaklings and then demanding to know why we’re afraid of them, our mothers are whining about how we’ll never get married. We hate our jobs (if we have them), we hate sex, we can’t keep a relationship going (this may be because we hate sex; then again, we may hate sex because we can’t keep a relationship going; then again, it may be this very paralyzing circle of reason that keeps us up at night and makes us grumpy at the jobs we hate and thereby un-promote-able, and thereby undesirable to potential mates). We’re sickly, we’re lonely, nobody understands us… we have ‘nothing to say to the world. Ever.’ (The Trial 276)
Like most self-loathing, Kafka’s was actually born out of his obsession with literature and high regard for his own work. He once wrote in his diary:
- The special nature of my inspiration…is such that I can do everything, and not only what is directed to a definite piece of work. When I arbitrarily write a single sentence, for instance, ‘He looked out of the window,’ it already has perfection. (Diaries 37)
GRANTED, Kafka was a youthful 27 at the time, so that may excuse his cockiness, his arrogance, his unabashed machismo and literary derring-do…but, then again, scarcely days later: “The young, clean, well-dressed youths near me on the promenade reminded me of my youth and therefore made an unappetizing impression on me.” Kafka’s modern allure lies, I think, not only with the sheer compelling readability of his prose, lasting impression of his characters, and unforgettable images, but also with his uncanny ability for simultaneous arrogance and self-loathing. He held himself—as a lawyer, a writer, an artist and a human—to the highest possible standard, because he probably sensed his own otherworldly intellect and felt like he deserved it. And yet, at the same time, he never felt like he lived up to his own expectations, and spent most of his time expressing profound insecurity and self-loathing in both word and deed.
Reading these passages evokes a bizarre duel of emotions—on the one hand, we can’t help but empathize completely, to understand both Kafka and ourselves with a new emotional and intellectual clarity. On the other, well, I suppose it can be kind of depressing. This begs the question: if we all need to read Kafka so badly, what will become of us if we read too much of him (provided that, in some sick so-called optimist’s universe, such a thing exists)? If we become, perhaps…say, obsessed?
The risk exists that if one becomes a Kafka fan, one may make the ludicrous decision that it is a terrific idea to learn German—to even, if one is particularly insane, attempt to catch the Teutonic Plague badly enough to read Kafka in the idiom he wrote in without the sometimes-distorting barrier of translation. What will ensue is a years-long struggle with adjective endings, mile-long words and several trips to a nation whose past boasts of the most destructive dictatorship in modern history. On the bright side, while in Europe, the aspiring Kafkaphile will probably also find it necessary to journey to Prague (still one of Europe’s most breathtaking cities, even if the fall of the Iron Curtain has made it home to the world’s only Rococo TGI Friday’s—see also, P is for Prague). And, if you love Kafka enough to go to Prague and follow his ghost around, it’s still relatively easy to traipse through the streets and find every place the author lived and worked—and, of course, to finish your journey at the New Jewish Cemetery where he lies buried next to his feared and loathed father (who outlived him by seven years—probably seven of Kafka’s most peaceful). If you are a particular glutton for punishment and happen to be in college while you become obsessed with Kafka, before you know it, you may find yourself squeezing out fifty excruciating pages in German as a senior thesis, which after four drafts will culminate in a piece of literary criticism any German middle-schooler would be proud of.
Sure, Kafka “obsession” is probably not the number-one sign of stellar mental health, and I admit that there are other authors who are also good to read, but I posit that it is still vitally important that we all become more acquainted with Kafka’s universe, even if the images we confront there make us feel a little bit spooky. In a letter to Oskar Pollack, Kafka once wrote that a book should make you feel like you’ve been whacked on the head, or that one of your family members has died, or that you’re hopelessly lost in the woods. “A book,” he wrote, “should be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
Kafka’s point here was that effective literature should produce an intensity that’s impossible to describe as anything other than pain, and that it is the surprise of that pain, upon reading something inevitable that releases it, that makes reading and writing worthwhile. This is especially wrenching, not least because reading something like the eerie (but inspiring) parable “The Next Village” makes you intrigued enough to read (or re-read) The Metamorphosis and The Trial and The Castle, and not just because Kafka’s off-the-cuff aphorisms destroy the pretensions humans are so intent on setting up to protect themselves from each other. Kafka’s little parables have an allure for all of those reasons, sure, but for the true (or future) fan they are even more—they say all of the things that we are simply too inarticulate to express, and, despite their seemingly morbid subject matter and style, they will actually bring about happiness.
And by “happiness,” I mean a compatriot in self-loathing, one so smart he makes you see the shape of words (“trial”) and objects (“burrow”) in a different way; one so interesting that it makes your head hurt just thinking about how one mind could think up the brutal intricacies of “In the Penal Colony” at the same time as the soothing, mythic intellectualism of Meditation, and so quick and succinct and evocative in saying every single thing you never even knew you thought.
Like having a shrink who actually fucking understands you and who charges a hell of a lot less than $150 an hour.