Kafka’s Axe

Dear Bella Levenshteyn,

Was reading Kafka’s letters earlier today.  The passage caught my eye: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Imagine, if Kafka were able to have absolute authority in a society like ours to proscribe the inessential books! The great Jewish moralistic totalitarian, forbidding those facile self-help books, predictable trash novels, lawn care manuals, celebrity memoirs, ephemeral best-sellers.

I am not a disciple of Kafka (yet). My reading is various, desultory, here and there, I am a pathological dilettante, thinking I can touch and taste a little of everything, though my sense of “everything” is still so infinitesimal. I try to get my satisfaction via smatterings.

How seriously to take Kafka? If I took him seriously, it would mean a steady diet of books like… Chomsky’s. Yes, Chomsky, with his urgent, stern admonition from Turning the Tide, which I read decades ago: “The real victims of ‘America’s agony’ are millions of suffering people throughout much of the Third World. Our highly refined ideological institutions protect us from seeing their plight and our role in maintaining it, except sporadically. If we had the honesty and the moral courage, we would not let a day pass without hearing the cries of the victims. We would turn on the radio in the morning and listen to the voices of the people who escaped the massacres in Quiche’ province and the Guazapa mountains, and the daily press would carry front-page pictures of children dying of malnutrition and disease in the countries where order reigns and crops and beef and exported to the American market, with an explanation of why this is so. We would listen to the extensive and detailed record of terror and torture in our dependencies compiled by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, Survival International, and other human rights organizations. But we successfully insulate ourselves from the grim reality. By so doing, we sink to a level of moral depravity that has few counterparts in the modern world….”

Not a day pass, Noam? Must we listen to the victims every single day of the year, no vacation break from misery, rape, mass murder, and the grinding gears of globalization making mincemeat out of the flesh of those poor farmers in India? (Geez, these Jews won’t let up [Jeremiah, Jesus, Spinoza, Marx, Levinas, Chomsky…])

Then I think about the Germans, circa 1937, and even 1943. What were they doing? What were they reading? Did they meditate on any images (were there any in the German press?) of what was happening to the untermenschen? I remember the former Catholic priest Philip Berrigan once sarcastically saying that the German Christians prided themselves during the Nazi years of having great liturgical reform. While the Holocaust was being envisioned and implemented, those Christians were having meaningful, vibrant religious services. German theologian and activist Dorothee Sölle has written: “In the end, all who did not put up resistance were implicated, entangled in the belief systems of ‘these’ Germans, lending them a hand and sharing in the profits. Among those who ‘went along,’ in the broadest sense of the words, were all who practiced the art of looking away, turning a deaf ear, and keeping silent. There has been much quarreling about collective guilt and responsibility, but my basic feeling is, rather, one of ineradicable shame – the shame of belonging to this people, speaking the language of the concentration camp guards, singing the songs that were also sung in the Hitler Youth and the Company of German Girls. That shame does not become superannuated; it must stay alive.”

It seems to me that Kafka’s normative sense of reading is similar to the Catholic liberation theologians’ insistence (shrill, urgent, unwilling to admit of excuse) that the life of the church has to be organized on responding to the death cries of the poor who are exploited by the world capitalist system (and all the variations of such exploitation that result in the dehumanization of women, non-whites, sexual minorities). Reading has to be in the service of this option, against death, on behalf of life. In liberation theology terms, Kafka’s maxim on reading could be seen this way, our reading should be a preferential option for those who are suffering oppression and should serve to kick us in the mud of reality, like a Zen Master does with his slacker, uncomprehending students. Wake up, already!

The First World retort to such summonses is often dismissal or derision: “There’s more to life than the poor. How can you reduce all of life to this one thing alone? What a kill-joy!” But perhaps such responses are attempts to get oneself off an ethical hook. Sölle did not want to get off the hook.

Of course, in the face of an on-going Holocaust, one should not be reading, should one? One should be spending one’s time and energy resisting and aiding the victims.

Doesn’t reading (of any texts) help us to “insulate ourselves from the grim reality” of the world?

Kafka would disagree, evidently. The truth is we are all sleep-walkers at one time or another in the course of our week. We are here, but not really, we are drifting off into the past or the future. And perhaps we read certain novels and poems, because they remind us of past loves that are no more or future affairs that we truly believe will make us happy. Buddhists emphasize staying in the present moment; America would be a gold mine for those teachers. We have made a national pastime out of distraction.

Yes, there are some texts, poems, plays, books that can wound, stab, and hammer our skulls (as another translation of the above quotation from Kafka’s letter reads). So, we read in Kafka’s sense to wake up to our stature as moral beings, to face the truth of our reality. And act accordingly.

Who do I know who lives, i.e., reads, in a serious way like Kafka? I think Petronio must, if only because he reads the international press and keeps abreast of all the horrors of torture and butchery and malfeasance in Iraq, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and the threat against Iran currently. Perhaps Petronio is a Kafkaesque figure, as I sometimes feel, like, please, can’t you relax a little?

Kafka is Petronio’s soul brother: They can’t relax (I have the same sense about Chomsky). Why can’t they relax, or seem not to? Because they are willing to look at the harsh truth of life and our American responsibility for it.

And maybe as you’ve been reading these words of mine, you’ve said aloud to yourself:  “Shimmel should have done something productive instead of wasting all his time writing to me.  He could have written 52 letters for Amnesty International!”

I know you are one of the 36. I won’t tell anyone.


–from work-in-progress, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris


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