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The Unexpected Influence of the Tao in the Work of Kafka


Though it’s a little-known aspect of the work of the czech writer, oriental wisdom exerted a deep pull.

In thinking of Franz Kafka, perhaps very few of us will think simultaneously of the spiritual traditions of the East. First associations are doubtless of suffering and punishment, their relationship with Judaism, illness and, in short, a dark and regretful life and work, though one always lived with a notorious desire for freedom.

At some point in the life of Prague’s most famous writer, a keen interest awoke for those territories of thought, specifically for Taoism and the surviving teachings of Lao Tzu. Among other sources, this is known from Kafka’s talks with Gustav Janouch, then a 17-year-old boy and the son of a co-worker, and with whom the writer made a habit of walking during the last four years of his life. When he became an adult, Janouch transcribed the memories of those walks and published them under the title Conversations with Kafka.

During one of these encounters, Kafka shared with the young Gustav his taste for Taoism, in the wisdom of which, as perceived by the description of the writer’s reactions, he found an unexpected tranquility. Here is Kafka speaking with his interlocutor:

Wisdom is a matter of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself and penetrating our own becoming and our death.

The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.

The funny thing, however, is that after making such tremendous statements, Kafka “laughed like a happy summer excursionist,” according to Janouch.

On another walk, Kafka confided:

Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost. All it guarantees us is what is superficial, the facade. But one must break through this. Then everything becomes clear.

There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death… There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.

In both cases, Kafka’s words seem to have been made by a prophet, or one of those legendary saints who’s retired to the forest to worship God. When a lost traveler stumbles upon him randomly, or by some pre-destiny, he drinks from that wisdom.

By the time the saint’s presence is perceived everything is put into play; one who teaches with both fervor and enthusiasm can at the same time teach with nihilism. An incredulous man who was nevertheless the fiercest defender of his doctrine – can now only laugh at it. It is the sum of opposites, the dissolution of extremes, and laughter that liberates everything.

Is that not the Tao?

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