Sunday, February 9, 2014

On the Burrow

It was a descent into what the Museum calls "the Burrow"—an image famous in the Kafka stories, of course, especially the one by that very name.  The congested dark, the maze-like confusion and comfort, the peace and fascination with the elaborate burrow which stands for your consciousness, your mind, your work—all of those things and none of them.  How you love and hate that hermetically sealed privacy of soul, how you want and don't want company there.  It's an image from Kafka's "The Burrow" I bought into at once, but this stairway, lit in a heat-lamp red, goes down into a dreadful depth, and those who designed the museum have stripped all elements of refuge and retreat from this cellar lined with file cabinets, drawers opened now and then to reveal letters, manuscript pages, glassed-in first editions of the books.  You wander in it like in a glossy, smothering maze, its harsh surfaces making you forget those simultaneous moments of contentment, of self-containment, like when the narrator of "The Burrow" talks about the peace and silence of the place:

But the most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness. Of course, that is deceptive. At any moment it may be shattered and then all will be over. For the time being, however, the silence is still with me. For hours I can stroll through my passages  and hear nothing except the rustling of some little creature, which I immediately  reduce to silence between my jaws, or the pattering of soil, which draws my attention  to the need for repair; otherwise all is still. The fragrance of the woods floats in; the place feels both warm and cool. Sometimes I lie down and roll about in the passage with pure joy. When autumn sets in, to possess a burrow like mine, and a roof over your head, is great good fortune for anyone getting on in years. Every hundred yards I have widened the passages into little round cells; there I can curl myself up in comfort and lie warm. There I sleep the sweet sleep of tranquility, of satisfied desire, of achieved ambition; for I possess a house. I do not know whether it is a habit that still persists from former days, or whether the perils even of this house of mine are great enough to awaken me; but invariably every now and then I start up out of profound sleep and listen, listen into the stillness which reigns here unchanged day and night, smile contentedly, and then sink with loosened limbs into still profounder sleep. (Complete Stories, tr. Willa & Edwin Muir, Schocken, 1972, p.327).

That was the Burrow I knew and loved—the comfort of the mind and of the work.  And of course, Kafka is having fun at its expense: not that of the mind or the work, but of the comfort.  Of course the stillness of the Burrow is about to be shot to hell in the narrator's anxieties, his fear of encroachment, but it's there as well in the story.  The Kafka Museum, however, has made the Burrow into a Bureau, a bleak landscape of drawers and paperwork that taps into one of the things we call Kafkaesque—the nightmarish modern landscape of duplicate copies, signings and cosigning, initialing and dating each page.  It's only part of the Burrow, but the part we recognize at once. 

And the part that inhabits dozens of my nightmares. No wonder it unsettles me, this museum cellar, striking fear into the only person I know who messed up three attempts at applying for a library card (Name? Address? Phone #?) because of my phobia of filling out forms.  It is a gauntlet of cabinets: I test one, then another, but the only drawers that open are the ones they have opened already.  Of course I want to look at the first editions, want the sights I expected from a still and safe museum, but the landscape is smothering me, the passage is too tight.  

Probably every good museum gives each visitor, at its best, a sense of "what it was like being there"—an atmosphere, an insight, a tone of setting and design.  I had glimpsed the Kafkaesque bureaucratic mazes in the fiction, inhaled their unhealthy disquiet like secondary smoke.  But it was here, on the killing floor of the Burrow, that I felt it all most viscerally, knew why I had been scared to descend those steps, and that my apprehension was right and modern and profound.  And personal.  I looked for the exit.  I wanted this to be over.  ©2014 Michael Williams

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