Parables of Shame

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Franz Kafka was a poet of shame and guilt. So writes Saul Friedlander in his Franz Kafka: the poet of shame and guilt (2013, public library).

Friedlander reveals to me the Kafka of sexual fantasies, spurned homoerotic thoughts, disgust at his sexuality and animality. This Kafka does not interest me, although I am intrigued to learn that the Max Brod editions of his works and his diaries were lightly censored by Brod to remove some of these references.

Kafka’s wretchedness in life, and his fitful, frustrating search to pursue the immutable in writing were dangerous models for myself, especially in my twenties. I absorbed a parable from Kafka’s life that writing could not be reconciled with a life of contentment – that contentment was a sign of corruption that would take me adrift from the winds of my inner life, and that writing would demand the sacrifice and spurning of loving relationships, as Kafka himself spurned Felice Bauer. It is 20 years or more since I read much Kafka, and his torments can still be mesmerising.

So Friedlander quotes Kafka from his diary of August 6 1914, as the the great war swells in the world’s belly:

What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. Any talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, and will not cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me. But the strength I can muster for that portrayl is not to be counted upon…” (Friendlander, quoted p 130)

So begins the song of shame I know too well – I am not good enough, my inner life is not good enough, my inner life cannot survive contact with the human world, as if it were the reverse of the contact with the Angelic orders evoked in Rilke’s Duino elegies.

So Kafka goes on:

Thus I waver, continually fly to the summit of the mountain, but then fall back in a moment. Others waver too, but in lower regions, with greater strength; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught up by the kinsman who walks beside them for that very purpose. But I waver on the heights; it is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying.

I have told my own story through this image of the mountaineer who has scaled the mind’s mountains alone, without a kinsman, and beyond his strength. I have stood there in the snow drifts, beyond help, lost, disoriented, but needing to go on. Having committed to scale the heights, there is only the one path home: death on the mountain is home

But it is also an image and a torment that I must free myself from, and so, like Rilke’s Orpheus, find my way back to infinite praise. I have found in later life a form of writing that Kafka professed not to know. For him, his nights were spent writing through insomnia, shame and self-hatred, distanced from the world, maladapted to a world which prompted so much disgust and shame. Here he made his “descent to the dark powers” (Letter to Brod, July 1922). I believe I can leave the underworld, and celebrate the springs that come from my losses.

Still there are in Kafka these haunting parables of the doomed quests of life, which Friedlander glosses as the search for an unattainable goal, on which “the possibility of entering (or returning to) some land imagined as free and promised is blocked by insuperable obstacles.” And yet, despite the doom, we must go on. And this is the unmutable call to the writer to scale those heights and to test the world’s powers of destruction, and to trust that your words can withstand them. In an aphorism of 1917 he wrote

“Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden from him.”

So despite futility, despite inevitable failure and self-destruction, like Sebald’s silk-worms in The Rings of Saturn, Kafka makes images, stolen from the immutable fires, of artists, of life as artistry, and their undeniable affirmation, as Beckett, Kafka’s Irish heir, would later say: to keep going, going on; call that going, call that on. In “The Burrow,” the animal who makes this falsely secue, perfect fortress, which at any moment, it knows, may be shattered, says of its labours: “All this involves very laborious calculation, and the sheer pleasure of the mind in its own keenness is often the sole reason why one keeps it up.”

The most perfect parable of the shamed writer is “Before the Law.” There a man comes upon a powerful doorkeeper who stands at the gate of The Law. For years he seeks admission through the gate, but does not have the words, the nature or the questions to find his way past the obstinate and inscrutable gatekeeper through to the Law. Finally, in his late hours, in darkness, with not much longer to live, he gathers all his knowledge, all that he has learned from his many failures, and weakly puts one last question to the gatekeeper:

“Everyone strives to reach the Law”, says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?”

The gate keeper sees the man has reached his end. He has, at last, realised the question that in his shame and his pursuit of his goal prevented him from seeing before death. And then, triumphant the gatekeeper “roars in his ears:”

“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

From Franz Kafka The Collected Short stories of Franz Kafka (Penguin, 1988), p 4.

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