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Young Kafka

Young Kafka on Memory and the Insufficiency of Words


At the age of 17, a young Franz Kafka learnt that words are insufficient to name reality.

Words are an odd invention. On the one hand they bring us closer to the world, but, on the other, they evince the gap that separates us from the world. On the one hand they allow us to grasp it and try to comprehend it, and, on the other, they make it obvious that we can only aspire to that: an impression, a trait, the unfinished stroke of an image that escapes us. The world and its representation. Reality and the image we make of it. The thing itself and the word that names it. “In the letters of ‘rose’ is the rose”, reads Borges’ poem, which paraphrases Shakespeare’s, where this skepticism echoes: How far does the power of words go? Could they be less than what we usually attribute to them?

One evening in 1900, a young man came upon this very suspicion. He was seventeen years old and spending the summer in Roztoky, a small city on the edges of eastern Vltava (the river which the Germans call the Moldau), north of Prague. He’d arrived there with his family; all were welcomed by the mail service’s local chief, a man whose last name was Khon. The young man found that Khon’s daughter was almost his own age, which was why —more or less inevitably— many of those days were spent walking together in the nearby forest.  During those walks she yearned for him to seduce her, and from one moment to the next dare to touch her; he, without doing the latter, did try the other, but in his own way: reading passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra out loud, and encouraging the young girl to study and write. Her name was Selma, and his Franz Kafka.

At the time, Kafka read plenty of Nietzsche and, also, began his tortuous itinerary through “the path of women” (Calasso), circumstances in which, after having bid Selma farewell to return to Prague with his family, he wrote the following lines in an album of hers.

To Selma Kohn

[Entry in an album]

How many words in this book.

They are meant for remembrance. As though words could carry memories.

For words are clumsy mountaineers and clumsy miners. Not for them to bring down treasures from the mountains’ peaks, or up from the mountains’ bowels.

But there is a living mindfulness that has passed gently, like a stroking hand, over everything memorable. And when the flame shoots up out of these ashes, hot and glowing, strong and mighty, and you stare into it as though spellbound by its magic, then–

But no one can write himself into this kind of pure mindfulness with unskillful hand and crude pen; one can write only in such white, undemanding pages as these. I did so on September 2, 1900

Franz Kafka

(Translated by Richard and Clara Winston.)

There is plenty of distance between this Kafka and the merciless Kafka of Zürau’s aphorisms; many years must pass before this young man becomes the tormented writer. And, all in all, the seed of distrust which characterizes part of his literature is there ––That of believing something but being suspicious of it too; graze the world’s mysticism but just to abjure from it and reject it. To trust words and use them to, in the end, denounce their insufficiency. Where are memories the most: in memories themselves or in the words we remember them by?

Perhaps the closest thing to this enigma’s answer is in the fragment of the poem: “In this Night, in this World”, by Alejandra Pizarnik:

do not make love
they make absence
if I say water, will I drink?
if I say bread, will I eat?

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