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Conversations with Kafka

Conversations with Kafka

Author: Gustav Janouch
Rating: 8/10
Last Read: August 2016

Quick Summary: 

Conversations with Kafka has been recommended to me numerous times.  The Kafka presented here is thoughtful, troubled, and philosophical.  The young narrator has many wide-ranging conversations with Kafka, covering topics such as religion, politics, communism, photography, and Chinese philosophy.  There are many beautiful phrases and chunks of wisdom to be found in this book.

As the forward says:

Rereading Janouch, I thought: If Kafka didn’t say all these things, he said some of them and should have said the rest.

Favorite Quotes:

Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.

One cannot break one’s chains when there are no chains to be seen. One’s imprisonment is therefore organized as a perfectly ordinary, not over-comfortable form of daily life. Everything looks as if it were made of solid, lasting stuff. But on the contrary it is a life in which one is falling towards an abyss. It isn’t visible. But if one closes one’s eyes, one can hear its rush and roar.’ 

Joy is food to the human soul. Without it, life is only a form of dying.

My Highlights

“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. Prayer means casting oneself into the miraculous rainbow that stretches between becoming and dying, to be utterly consumed in it, in order to bring its infinite radiance to bed in the frail little cradle of one’s own existence.” --loc 45

Rereading Janouch, I thought: If Kafka didn’t say all these things, he said some of them and should have said the rest. --loc 70

There is nothing more beautiful than some straightforward, concrete, generally useful trade. --loc 151

Apart from carpentry, I have also worked at farming and gardening. It was all much better and worth more than forced labour in the office. There one appears to be something superior, better; but it is only appearance. In reality one is only lonelier and therefore unhappier. That is all. Intellectual labour tears a man out of human society. A craft, on the other hand, leads him towards men. What a pity I can no longer work in the workshop or in the garden.’ --loc 152

‘You would leave everything here behind?’
‘Everything, if I could make a life that had meaning, stability, and beauty.'
--loc 157

His entire figure seemed to say, ‘I am, forgive me, quite unimportant. You do me a great pleasure, if you overlook me.’ --loc 186

He gave me the book and said: ‘Every man lives behind bars, which he carries within him. That is why people write so much about animals now. It’s an expression of longing for a free natural life. But for human beings the natural life is a human life. But men don’t always realize that. They refuse to realize it. Human existence is a burden to them, so they dispose of it in fantasies.’ --loc 273

It’s like the narrowly confined life of the office. There are no longer any marvels, only regulations, prescriptions, directives. Men are afraid of freedom and responsibility. So they prefer to hide behind the prison bars which they build around themselves. --loc 279

Fundamentally, it is only a special situation. Wealth implies dependence on things which one possesses and which have to be safeguarded from dwindling away by new possessions and a further dependence. It is merely materialized insecurity. --loc 295

Love often wears the face of violence. --loc 301

‘So you too are a lunatic about books, with a head that wags from too much reading?’
‘That’s right. I don’t think I could exist without books. To me, they’re the whole world.’
Kafka’s eyebrows narrowed. ‘That’s a mistake. A book cannot take the place of the world. --loc 308

That is impossible. In life, everything has its own meaning and its own purpose, for which there cannot be any permanent substitute. A man can’t, for instance, master his own experience through the medium of another personality. That is how the world is in relation to books. One tries to imprison life in a book, like a songbird in a cage, but It’s no good. On the contrary! Out of the abstractions one finds in books, one can only construct systems that are cages for oneself. Philosophers are only brightly clad Papagenos with their own different cages.’ --loc 311

‘Work is a release from the longings of our dreams, which often only blind us and flatter us to death.’ --loc 385

‘Youth is full of sunshine and love. Youth is happy, because it has the ability to see beauty. When this ability is lost, wretched old age begins, decay, unhappiness.’
‘So age excludes the possibility of happiness?’
‘No, happiness excludes age.’ Smiling, he bent his head forward, as if to hide it between his hunched shoulders. ‘Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ --loc 390

One reads in order to ask questions. --loc 414

‘From life one can extract comparatively so many books, but from books so little, so very little, life.’
‘So literature is a bad preservative?’
He laughed and nodded.
--loc 435

‘The false illusion of a freedom achieved by external means is an error, a confusion, a desert in which nothing flourishes except the two herbs of fear and despair. That is inevitable, because anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within. Man doesn’t grow from below upwards but from within outwards. That is the fundamental condition of all freedom in life. It is not an artificially constructed social environment but an attitude to oneself and to the world which it is a perpetual struggle to maintain. It’s the condition of man’s freedom.’ --loc 485

‘What is the matter? Your face is quite grey.’
‘That will soon be over,’ I managed to say, and tried to smile. ‘People think I’m something that I’m not.’
‘That’s not unusual,’ declared Kafka, with a slightly contemptuous curl of the lip. ‘It’s an old failing of human communication. The only thing that’s always new about it is the pain it causes.’ --loc 510

‘Don’t say that! You don’t realize how much strength there is in silence. Aggression is usually only a disguise which conceals one’s weakness from oneself and from the world. Genuine and lasting strength consists in bearing things. Only weaklings react quickly and brutally. And in doing so, they sacrifice their manhood.’ --loc 528

‘the road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travellers. We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.’ --loc 546

The majority of modern books are merely wavering reflections of the present. They disappear very quickly. You should read more old books. The classics. Goethe. What is old reveals its deepest value – lastingness. What is merely new is the most transitory of all things. It is beautiful today, and tomorrow merely ludicrous. That is the way of literature.’ --loc 564

‘To be disturbed by an unexpected visit is a weakness, an avoidance of the unexpected. One huddles into one’s so-called private life, because one lacks the strength to master the world. One flies from the miraculous into one’s own limited self. That is a withdrawal. Being is most of all a being-with-things, a dialogue. One mustn’t shrink from that. You can always call on me as and when you please.’ --loc 574

The suicide only kills himself out of impotence. Because he cannot do anything else. So he takes the last course left open to him. For this, he does not require any strength. All that’s required is despair, the abandonment of all hope. No risk is involved. To dare is to endure, to give oneself to life, to carry on as if untroubled from one day to another.’ --loc 637

But – these are only words. Art is always a matter of the entire personality. For that reason it is fundamentally tragic.’ --loc 651

‘It is literature,’ said Kafka smiling. ‘Flight from reality.’
‘So poetry is lies?’
‘No. Poetry is a condensate, an essence. Literature, on the other hand, is a relaxation, a means of pleasure which alleviates the unconscious life, a narcotic.’
‘And poetry?’
‘Poetry is exactly the opposite. Poetry is an awakening.’
‘So poetry tends towards religion.’
'I would not say that. But certainly to prayer.’ --loc 675

One cannot break one’s chains when there are no chains to be seen. One’s imprisonment is therefore organized as a perfectly ordinary, not over-comfortable form of daily life. Everything looks as if it were made of solid, lasting stuff. But on the contrary it is a life in which one is falling towards an abyss. It isn’t visible. But if one closes one’s eyes, one can hear its rush and roar.’ --loc 777

Literature strives to present things in pleasing, attractive light. But the poet is forced to elevate things into the realm of truth, clarity, and permanence. Literature aims at comfort. But the poet is a seeker after happiness, and that is everything rather than comfortable.’ --loc 794

‘It’s a betrayal,’ I burst out. ‘These people pretend to be something that they’re not.’
‘And so? What’s unusual in that?’ – His face had a fascinating look of pity, patience and forgiveness. – ‘How often is injustice committed in the name of justice? How often does damnation fly the flag of enlightenment? How often does a fall disguise itself as a rise? We can see it all now quite properly. The war didn’t only burn and tear the world, but also lit it up. We can see that it is a labyrinth built by men themselves, an icy machine world, whose comforts and apparent purposefulness increasingly emasculate and dishonour us. --loc 814

Yet this particularly is the most striking expression of the hunger for truth. Men only discover themselves in the dark mirror of tragedy. But by then It’s already over.’ --loc 834

‘How could that be? Dying is an exclusively human affair. For that reason, all men die. But the monkey continues to live on in the whole human race. The “I” is nothing else except a cage from the past, its bars entwined with perpetual dreams of the future.’ --loc 836

‘What impertinence!’ I said angrily.
‘He’s not impertinent,’ Kafka said gently, and looked at me with dark, sad eyes. ‘He’s only afraid. So he’s unjust. Fear for one’s daily bread destroys one’s character. That’s what life is like.’ --loc 883

‘Most men indeed don’t really live at all,’ said Kafka, in a strangely soft voice. ‘They cling to life like little polyps to a coral reef. But in doing so men are far worse off than those primitive organisms. For them, there’s no firm barrier reef to ward off the breakers. They haven’t even a shell of their own to live in. All they can do is to emit an acid stream of bile, which leaves them even weaker and more helpless, because it divides them from their fellows. But what can they do about it?’ --loc 886

‘By the rubbish of worn-out words and ideas. They’re stronger than thick armour plate. Men hide behind them from Time’s whirligigs. For that reason, words are evil’s strongest buttress. They are the most reliable preservatives of every passion and every stupidity.’ --loc 922

A young man who doesn’t believe in tomorrow morning is a traitor to himself. If one wishes to live, one must believe.’
‘In what?’
‘In the significant interrelation of all things and all moments, in the external existence of life as a single whole, in what is nearest and what is farthest.’
--loc 1001

‘For me you are a young man,’ said Franz Kafka. ‘You have future possibilities which others have already lost. People mean so much to you that you have to watch yourself very closely, in order not to lose yourself. Certainly I am more friendly to you than to Klaus. After all, I speak to my own past when I speak to you. One cannot help being friendly. And then; you are younger than Klaus, and so you need more understanding and love.’ --loc 1229

you know him well?’ ‘Well?’ said Kafka, and shrugged his shoulders in denial. ‘One never knows the living. The present is change and transformation. Albert Ehrenstein is one of today’s generation. He is a child lost and crying in the night.’ --loc 1255

‘On the contrary I’ Kafka gave a painful smile. ‘Nothing sticks so fast in the mind as a groundless sense of guilt, because – since it has no real foundation – one cannot eliminate it by any form of repentance or redemption. --loc 1359

‘So you are disappointed in Döblin?’
‘As a matter of fact, I am only disappointed in myself. I expected from him something different from what he perhaps wished to give. But the stubbornness of my expectation blinded me so that I skipped pages and sentences and finally the whole book.
--loc 1404

‘Most men are not wicked,’ said Franz Kafka, talking of Leonhard Frank’s book Man is Good. ‘Men become bad and guilty because they speak and act without foreseeing the results of their words and their deeds. They are sleepwalkers, not evildoers.’ --loc 1486

Kafka interrupted me. ‘The factories are merely organizations for increasing financial profit. In such a matter, we all have a merely subordinate function. Man is today only an old-fashioned instrument of economic growth, a hangover from history, whose economically inadequate skills will soon be displaced by frictionless thinking machines.’
I sighed disdainfully: ‘Oh yes, that’s a favourite Utopia of H. G. Wells.’
‘No,’ said Kafka in a hard voice, ‘that’s no Utopia, but only the future which already looms before us.’
--loc 1581

To impose an armistice on the enemy is the greatest victory one can achieve. But the final destruction of evil? One can’t expect that. That’s a lunatic dream by which evil is not weakened but – quite the contrary – is strengthened and its effect accelerated, because one overlooks its real nature and distorts reality into an illusion founded on one’s own misleading wishes.’ --loc 1623

he studied the picture of the seated Moses. ‘That is not a leader,’ he said. ‘He is a judge, a stern judge. In the end men can only lead by means of harsh, inexorable judgement.’ --loc 1674

‘You are undisciplined,’ he said reproachfully after we had exchanged greetings. ‘Your illness was a warning. You must take better care of yourself. Good health is not a personal possession, to do what one likes with. It is property on loan, a grace. Most people do not realize this. So they have no hygienic economy.’ --loc 1678

‘As a flood spreads wider and wider, the water becomes shallower and dirtier. The Revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.’ --loc 1847

Lying is an act and – like every other act – demands all a man’s skill. One must give up everything to it, one must first believe in the lie oneself, because only then can one convince other people. Lying demands the heat of passion. For that reason, it reveals more than it conceals. I am not capable of that. So for me there is only one hiding-place – the truth.’ --loc 1860

I no longer know how I stammered my way out of my shameful confusion, I only know that from then on I took greater care of what I was saying. Not only in conversation with Kafka, but in my contacts with everyone. That heightened my powers of perception. I learned to observe and to listen better. Thereby my life became deeper and more complicated but without becoming more cold and detached. On the contrary; the almost infinite complexity of things and people, which never failed to astonish me, made my existence richer and more meaningful. I was carried through time on a wave of feeling that was bliss. I was no longer a bureaucrat’s small, insignificant son, but one who struggled to take the measure of the world and of himself, a little champion of God and man. And all this I owed to Kafka. --loc 1866

‘Joy is food to the human soul. Without it, life is only a form of dying.’ --loc 1889

Happiness does not depend on possessions. Happiness is a matter of attitude. That is to say: a happy man does not see the dark side of reality. His sense of life suppresses the gnawing woodworm of the consciousness of death. One forgets that instead of walking, one is falling. It’s as if one were drugged. So It’s a direct offence to be asked after one’s health. It’s as if one apple asked another apple: “How are the worms which the insect bites gave you?” Or as if one blade of grass asked another: “How are you withering? How goes your esteemed decomposition?” What would you think of that?’ --loc 1919

Anyone who grasps life completely has no fear of dying. The fear of death is merely the result of an unfulfilled life. It is a symptom of betrayal. --loc 1975

‘Truth, which is one of the few really great and precious things in life, cannot be bought. Man receives it as a gift, like love or beauty. But a newspaper is a commodity, which is bought and sold.’ --loc 1981

‘In the end the problem is quite simple. The only really difficult and insoluble problems are those which we cannot formulate, because they have the difficulties of life itself as their content.’ --loc 2020

History is made out of the failures and heroism of each insignificant moment. If one throws a stone into a river, it produces a succession of ripples. But most men live without being conscious of a responsibility which extends beyond themselves. And that – I think – is at the root of our misery.’ --loc 2025

the luxury of the rich is paid for by the misery of the poor.’ --loc 2034

How can one find outside oneself something which ought to come from within?’ --loc 2143

Kafka said, ‘that is perfectly reasonable. Poets try to give men a different vision, in order to change reality. For that reason they are politically dangerous elements, because they want to make a change. For the state, and all its devoted servants, want only one thing, to persist.’ --loc 2181

Deceivers always try to solve difficult problems on the cheap. --loc 2201

Goethe’s view is the right one. One must, with quiet respect for the unknowable, accept the order of everything that is knowable. The smallest thing, like the greatest, must be close and precious to one.’ --loc 2203

‘All my friends have wonderful eyes,’ he said. ‘The light of their eyes is the only illumination of the dark dungeon in which I live. And even that is only artificial light.’ --loc 2220

‘Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death. Perhaps I am afraid that the soul – which in sleep leaves me – will never return. Perhaps insomnia is only an all too vivid sense of sin, which is afraid of the possibility of a sudden judgement. Perhaps insomnia is itself a sin. Perhaps it is a rejection of the natural.’ --loc 2224

‘Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling. Or do you think that one can successfully apprehend the profound depths of this ever-returning reality, before which, through all former ages, whole legions of poets, artists, scientists and other miracle workers have stood in trembling longing and hope, by pressing the knob of a cheap machine? – I doubt it. This automatic camera doesn’t multiply men’s eyes but only gives a fantastically simplified fly’s eye view.’ --loc 2237

For instance: Death is not brought to life by life; Life is not killed by dying. Life and death are conditioned; they are contained within a great coherence. This is, I think, the fundamental and central problem of all religions and of wisdom about life. It’s a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying. --loc 2398

There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.’ --loc 2436

Truth is what every man needs in order to live, but can obtain or purchase from no one. Each man must reproduce it for himself from within, otherwise he must perish. Life without truth is not possible. Truth is perhaps life itself.’ --loc 2608

Yet Walt Whitman’s significance lies elsewhere. He combined the contemplation of nature and of civilization, which are apparently entirely contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life, because he always had sight of the transitoriness of all phenomena. --loc 2617

‘A lie is often an expression of the fear that one may be crushed by the truth. It is a projection of one’s own littleness, of the sin of which one is afraid.’ --loc 2633

The masses hurry, run, march in thunder through our era. Where to? Where have they come from? No one knows. The more they march, the less they achieve their goal. They use their strength to no purpose. They think they are on the move. And thus, marking time, they fall into the void. That is all. Mankind has lost its home.’ --loc 2710

‘One cannot escape oneself. That is fate. The only possibility is to look on and forget that a game is being played with us.’ --loc 2738

But Kafka gives, really gives, in such a way that It’s a pleasure. For instance, a bunch of grapes which he has not eaten that morning. They are left-overs. You know what they usually look like – with most people. But Kafka never leaves them looking like a tasteless lump. He leaves the grapes or the fruit nicely arranged on the plate. --loc 2744

Wherever one goes, one only travels towards one’s own misunderstood nature. --loc 2763

‘That is precisely what is irritating and difficult. Life has so many possibilities, and each one only mirrors the inescapable impossibility of one’s own existence.’ His voice broke into a dry convulsive cough, which he quickly mastered. We smiled at each other. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘everything will soon be all right.’ ‘It is already all right,’ Franz Kafka said slowly. ‘I have said yes to everything. In that way suffering becomes an enchantment, and death – it is only an ingredient in the sweetness of life.’ --loc 2771

But so called reasonable people are usually those who have been disabled by life. And they are the dominant majority, and do not tolerate examples which reflect unfavourably on themselves.’ --loc 2866

Do not excite yourself. Be calm. Quietness is indeed a sign of strength. But quietness may also help one to achieve strength. That is the law of opposites. So be quiet. Calmness and quietness make one free – even on the scaffold.’ --loc 2869

‘Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s own personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.’ --loc 2985

since feeling is first

since feeling is first

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

The Rose That Grew From Concrete