Saturday, February 15, 2014

On the City, and Freedom, and Light

So there it was, and here I was.  Alone in the last room of the museum, in front of me a floating display of a city caught in mist and light.

It was supposedly Prague, of course: Prague filled with the light at the end of the Burrow you glimpse on occasion in some of Kafka's fiction—the Castle, perhaps, or the world born from Grete Samsa's music in the last section of "The Metamorphosis".  Kafka calls it "the unknown nourishment".  Gregor Samsa looks for it and fails to find it, as does the Hunger Artist:

"Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little…"because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was continuing to fast. ("The Hunger Artist", tr. Ian Johnston)

That search for the missing place, the forgotten place, or the place that may not exist (or if it does, is remote and bathed in impenetrable light) is a part of the desire and yearning of Kafka's work that drew me from the start—not only because it was so well rendered but also because I shared it, have always shared it.  And in a way, this trip—and for that matter, all my trips and journeys—are toward a place I imagine very much as the museum notes proposed it, rather vaguely and tentatively and perhaps even mundanely, as "free of evil".

"Free of evil," indeed.  If it can't be a place of good, an eternal place (because such places have always been impossible to imagine, at least for me), let it at least carry that much  freedom and release. 

As I had entered the museum, for the first time I had been asked by the clerk if I were eligible for the senior discount.  Of course it was insulting (I am still a few years away), and Rhonda kindly assured me it had to do with my hair, gray since 40.  But for some reason now, it made sense in the presence of that nebulous light, the buildings in the fog, a lone man walking.

We don't have long in any place, people.  Our stay here is a trip, a journey, a holiday. There's a good in that as well as a sadness.  No matter how often epiphany comes, no matter the moments of time outside time, the holidays of soul, we slip back into the mundane and forgetful, where nourishment fades and vanishes into imagined distances. And perhaps knowing that for what it is, settling into it and finding the good there, is one form of difficult nourishment.

I walked back into the city, lightstruck and cold on the west bank of the Vltava, and over the Charles Bridge, where dozens of statues played at immortality, their subjects and inspirations eternally free somewhere.  ©2014 Michael Williams

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

Monday, February 3, 2014

On the Ghosts of Kafka's Women

And now, in the shadow of a large room I remember as windowless (though I might be mistaken, because my attentions were focused on making sense of the displays around me), Rhonda and I split up briefly, she bound for an exhibit that sets forth Kafka's connections to the Jewish dramatic community in the city.  There was an odd cylindrical structure here, in which you could stand and be immersed in images of the Prague Yiddish theater of Kafka's time, the photos on a kind of wavering, plexi-glass tube that swirled around you—uncomfortably for me, because it was too much immersion, no place for distance or perspective or repose.  It was a question of temperament: I am forever a book guy, I believe, who dips in and out of the artist's world at the reader's discretion.  If a scene in a book becomes too immediate, too raw, I can close the covers and gather my breath, regroup before I read again.  Theatre, on the other hand, presumes: it is all around you, and it unnerves me.
             So as a respite, while Rhonda watches ghostly shapes dance around her, I move into the next alcove, devoted to the women in Kafka's life.
What makes us pick another person is usually unclear when we look back.  Many people don't know that I met Rhonda relatively late, that it may end up that I spent half of my life without knowing her. The time before her was roundabout and vague, not all of it ill spent, but much of it chasing after companions that were not the right ones, not really.  There was a marriage before I met her that was unhappy, that was too much immersion and no solitude—one that I was glad to leave by the time I left it.  I look back on it as though it was someone else's life, glimpsed through glass cases and without definite shape or emotional insides.  It happened—there are records that testify—but I no longer remember, no longer think of it, as my life with Rhonda is the only life there is, and the older memories—those before Rhonda, before the first marriage even—are more vivid to me, but like recollections of childhood, though they lasted into my twenties.  The loves of the past come as characters in varied textures of ghostliness, and only Rhonda is completely and utterly real.
Felice Bauer
Kafka was hardly austere when it came to romance, I was to find out.  A number of women figured in his life, and he managed to be engaged three times—twice to the same woman, the Felice Bauer to whom he dedicated that first great story "The Judgment". In her photos she looks heavy-featured, assuring, decent.  There had to be something in her character that drew him, then pushed him away, then drew him again after several intervening years.  Perhaps she stood for something reputable, something stable and upright that he courted and rejected and could not stop longing for in what should have been the midlife of his thirties.  This part felt intrusive, gossipy, but I kept at the speculation anyway: maybe Kafka thought, as some people think, preparing their way for marital disaster, that because the beloved seems to display certain qualities, admirable qualities, that he or she stands for those virtues or joys or comforts.  Like a character in a story or a play, the person you love can be both fleshly, intelligent creature and a gathering of words, ideas, images, all of which are in danger of being solely yours.  It's the old inside/outside song and dance, object and subject, Apollo and Dionysus, actor and role, and a cluster of all those tensions that go into your choosing whom you choose and why that person chooses you.
Julie Wohyrzek
And after his engagements to Felice, Kafka was engaged a third time, to a more simple, less educated Julie Wohyrzek, whose Zionist beliefs were objectionable to his domineering father.  It is tempting to see Wohyrzek's role as a kind of rescuer—from complexities and ambiguities and striving for paternal approval into the freedom of setting it all aside, the intensities of thinking and thinking too much.  During this period of his life, he supposedly had a brief affair with Grete Bloch, with whom he may or may not have fathered a son.  The last two loves of his life—the intense Milena Jisensk√°, Czech writer and activist, to whom the "Letter to Milena" was addressed, and Dora Diamant, who I understand sparked his interest in the Talmud, who survived him, and who (of all the women I have mentioned) alone survived the death camps.  In each case, the need of the soul emerged in human form, in female form, and at least in retrospect, these women, no doubt full and vibrant and beautiful in their own lives (because those things, too, drew the Master, they had to) survive in glass cases as the pictures I show you, as hieroglyphs that tell and conceal fragments of inner lives that brushed against his, like stories that mask human truths as they reveal.  They are characters in a play or book now: I read them obliquely and at my peril as I passed through them toward a stairwell leading down, toward a narrow corridor red-lit and unsettling. 
Milena  Jisensk√° 

I actually did not want to go there.  Physically, even viscerally.  It was like the stairwell to the cellar in the final chapters of my own Trajan's Arch, as though, in a kind of homage to Kafka, a doorway had opened between his work and my own--cramped and diminished and, from where I stood, intimidating. Something stopped me at the top of those stairs.  But you had to descend to see it all, so I took a deep, uncomfortable breath and moved down the stairs.  Text ©2014 Michael Williams