Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On the Kafka Museum: A Prologue

 One example of Prague's translucency (and, for me, at first an uncomfortable one, by no means as charming as the circuitry and misdirection around the big squares like Old Town and Wenceslas) is the route to the Kafka museum, over on the west side of the river in Malastranska, just north of the Charles Bridge,
                The whole experience of the place—and, most importantly, of getting to the place—spanned several hours of a Friday, and felt like something from the stories of the Master himself, that shadowy presence you can see everywhere in the city if you just attend to shadows.  Setting off on the underground, our chief goal was my personal pilgrimage, because those who know me know that, perhaps next to Yeats, Franz Kafka is my patron saint.  Perhaps even more than Yeats these days, because though Yeats continued to blossom as an artist into his 70s (a last act that looks increasingly attractive to me these days, when physical weariness alone can weigh down the course of a book's coming into being), he remains a young man's poet, filled with gauzy idealism and enormous ambitions.  Kafka, on the other hand, didn't live to 45.  He has other lessons for me—lessons, oddly, for my late middle age, ones I haven't faced until recently and, once discovered, pretty hard to learn.
                Humility is difficult for all of us.  It contains the dangerous trap of priding yourself on your humility.  I have had little danger of falling into that trap, because I've managed to avoid humility at its deepest level, always thinking that the "big break" was right over the horizon, just ahead of my own idealism and aspiration.  Of late, though, some things have changed: I approach the increasing awareness that at my age I am unlikely to see my "name made", that I'm not that special, not really.  It's time to set down the nagging hunger for celebrity that I inherited and am shaking off of me late, to own up that the most important remaining task is the one I have always professed without really, deep down, believing with the faith I should believe it: that you must find peace in the process of the work, find the joy there and perhaps its larger good.  To be more than constant with that, to grow up and own up, to see the process as the best one can do, without the glamour and lure of fame or understanding (the readers who "get" you), or even of earned respect.  Because you can earn respect and not get it, and what matters when that happens is not the fata morgana of acclaim, nor even your self-respect, but a deep and abiding passion for the undertaking, for the process of moving from one point to the next in a love of doing your best at what you do.
              It is Kafka, more than any other artist,  who reminds me of this truth.  His relentless devotion to his art is paired with a temperament so free of vanity that he could set aside not only all amenities, but all of what we would call necessities—a personal life, health, even, ultimately, a sense of identity, to lose himself in his art.  “All I am is literature," he said, "and I am not able or willing to be anything else.”  He is not the only artist who asked that his unfinished work be burned after his death; he is, however, the only one who I believe meant it.  His devotion to his art was so intent that he was willing to sacrifice its immortality or its endurance, like a saint who gives up eternal life out of love for God. In short, the price was nothing short of everything, and a cost too steep for ordinary mortals to pay.  He sets a bar so high that we can't see it, much less clear it, weighed down by our own egos, our blinding self-images as we congratulate ourselves for "being authors." 
                That's why the notorious statue outside the Kafka Museum struck me as especially appropriate and funny. Two men streaming water into the pool, facing one another.  You must leave behind the "pissing contest"—a good old American phrase for useless competition—in order to enter the sanctuary.  But passing by the statue is symbolic.  You can do it in front of the museum, for here it is a ritual gesture, far safer than Kafka's wild and holy abandonment.
                But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I was talking about the path to this point, to the little arch through which you walk, past the statue and to the museum.  I have to tell you how we got there, and what we would find.  And why Kafka would have enjoyed the story of our journey. 
                That will be the next entry in this tale of pilgrimage.  ©2014 Michael Williams

No comments:

Post a Comment