Revelations Upon Learning Kafka’s Niece Knows My Name
Gennady Aygi's Meditations on a Master
Last summer my sister went to Prague. I asked her to visit the old cemetery of the city and to lay a “Moscow” stone on Kafka’s grave for me. (I knew this was what Jews used to do when visiting graves that were dear to them.)
The day after my sister carried out my request, a Prague lady expressed a desire to meet her. The word “shock” is one I have never used in relation to myself. But this was exactly what I felt when I found out who this woman was.
“The daughter of… Ottla?” [Kafka’s sister.] I kept repeating, “The daughter… of Ottla? Is it possible?”
Kafka, his sisters, Auschwitz, his sisters’ husbands, ash, almost all of his family, a photograph of Kafka before my eyes with his beloved sister, ash and the smoke of Auschwitz, and suddenly, in the light of a Moscow day, this simple “the daughter of Ottla?”—and my sister’s words: “She knows your name and she sends you her regards.”
Once I had recovered, I said, “I feel as if I had touched the sleeve of a saint.”
In my desk drawer, there is a chestnut leaf from his grave and a white stone—from the same place…—it is only very rarely that I allow myself to touch them.
And now I am venturing to touch the name of Kafka, which is sacred to me (I can find no other way of saying it). I want to say something about him simply because I can hear these words of his niece: “I know all the articles that have been published about my uncle in your country, but I don’t know how ordinary readers feel about him.”
I know people whose faces shine with a certain expression, a certain wordless purity—and I know how that expression is fully tried and tested—in the world of Kafka’s visions.
Such people recognize one another by this strange “Kafka-like” luminosity of the face, just as one believer recognizes, senses another believer.
I am not claiming to be one of these people—not to that degree. I simply want to say that there are such readers of Kafka in Russia.
But one must also mention another type of reader. “How terrible!” is a quite understandable reaction. But “How gloomy!”—how often I have also heard that reaction to Kafka’s work (and in all our literary criticism I know only one article that does not degrade his character or seek out “failings” in his work).
There is another common approach to Kafka that could be called the search for “truth in a can.”
A goner in a prison camp picks up an empty can on the perimeter and scrapes around in it for the tiniest scrap of something to eat—thus the expression I have just used (it was given me by a now deceased Russian priest).
There are readers who seem almost to take pleasure in searching in Kafka for crumbs of “truth” in the form of “hints”; whereas in Kafka there is the beginning of an almost trans-existential “space.” Is there not beyond his “existential” torment the gleam of something whole—not fragmented simply so that “people can understand it”—and does not this unfragmented whole confront us invisibly, concentrating all our attention, our secret being, in an extreme tension, a responsible wholeness, as if we were looking into something into which, as we well know, one cannot look?
Kafka is beyond Allegory, beyond Symbol—these gates of the universal human Temple have already closed behind him. He is “somewhere,” in an invisible Concentration that is unconcealed yet inaccessible—but even so we seem-to-see-and-hear Him.
We say “the Apophatic”—from the impossibility of speaking—but does it consist simply of darkness? And we seem to hear something like an inexpressibly-painful human refrain (about “those who sing in the heavens”): light, how then did you come to be—displaced?…—how did you—in your oneness—become hidden from souls (of light-and-of-darkness)—together with the darkness?
Once I was very surprised by Akhmatova (who is usually so clear-sighted)—by a line of hers spoken on the radio (with the “Voice” of somewhere): “Such a thing Kafka might have invented.”
But Kafka invented nothing. He saw.
And what people see is not darkness; with inner human light they see another Inner Light.
Even Auschwitz doesn’t consist only of darkness (even such a thing we cannot imagine otherwise): there is a cry of light (invisible, “unheard-of”—yes, we ask: was the Apophatic not split open—in some “mystical time”—in some kind of “repetition”?—we do not know these “times,” we know our own time, when Some-Thing-like-that has indeed been split open). Were there ever such scorched faces? Is radiation (God forgive me) not a pitiful caricature (something second-hand, third-hand) of the splitting open in time of the Times?
But it is extremely difficult for us to “determine” (and if we “guess at” something, it is impossible to speak it) What or Who is concerned with this light…—undoubtedly the light of the Terrible, only not in “our sense,” but the Terrible-in-Itself, as in the torments of the Unrevealed-at-a-time-of-Necessary-Revelation. But who, however “knowledgeable” they may be, can affirm that Creation is already complete?—are we not situated within some tragic stage of its continuation?
A baby is pure (there are depths beyond the reach of “classic Freudianism” or any of its variants), its purity perceives a great deal that is inaccessible to us; and does not this innocent wisdom, this holy wisdom perceive the inner light of the world in a way that cannot be communicated to us in our common language, whereas it is possible to talk with us in such a way that within this conversation, inseparable from it, is the terrifying shining of the inexpressible, and we can at least feel that?
The incredible purity of Kafka is such that one can say to people (and there are such people around me): “Don’t touch Jewish blood, maybe that’s enough” (I must stress that I am thinking simply of blood-as-liquid).
What a strange common characteristic of the Trio—Kafka, Jacob, Celan: to slide along the razor’s edge of the name of Unnamed, provoking fear that at any minute a blasphemous word will be spoken, but no—the blade simply becomes brighter; where is the blood?…—here is blood-as-silence, and the cry is light, which is greater than hope and despair, and that light is the presence… of what?—of the most Real…—as if this were the splitting of the self-radiation of what is more serious than the “dialectical” nucleus made of the unity of “the-terrible-and-the-not-terrible,”—oh, this again—and with inconceivable Closure!—and does not something of this radiation reach us (for something responds in us—is it not so?—to this “something” that reaches us… What more can we say?).
We forget, then remember (and this is the “succession of times,” so we live-and-abide); we do not want to remind ourselves that there is something more serious than the terrible. Such, for example, is the light from the depths, hidden, elusive, and persistent, not only in Kafka’s Castle, not only in his “Mole,” but even in his “Eleven Sons.”
In his unparalleled book Conversations with Kafka (perhaps the agonizing purity of Kafka is expressed even more intensely in the record of his words preserved in this book than in his own diaries), Gustav Janouch tells how when the word “God” was spoken, Kafka remained silent, “as if he had gone away somewhere.” But in speaking of Kafka, we cannot avoid using this word. “God” or “He” is more serious than this word without inverted commas.
I can say that before this palely and darkly shining face—the image of Kafka—I know that I would always use this word—because of my powerlessness to express what exists but is resistant to any form of “explanation.” Once, having written down the letters of this previously taboo word-concept, I said of it that “He” was more powerful than good (and that is the point: that it is wasn’t more powerful than “good and evil.” “More powerful than good”—that is where it lies, the terrible—so it is better just to say of it: “more powerful than good”).
I am deliberately not saying anything here about Kafka’s “labyrinths of the Absurd”—enough has already been written about this, and in any case there is something more than the “Absurd” in Kafka.
And that is what has happened: here, in these pages, I am a prisoner of tautologies, which all express the same radiance—a strange radiance?—yes, like everything in Kafka; oh this face—I knew that it would inevitably draw me into the whirlpool of a kind of probing operating-theater whiteness.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once remarked that “literature is not the barking of dogs in a village.” Yes indeed—and it is also not marketplace shouting or lawcourt wrangling. It is when, without any narration or description (“nothing concrete”), we are struck by the light of the Essential…—how does that happen? “But he writes all that with the language of an ABC,” an acquaintance of mine (a remarkable musician) once said about Kafka. Yes, that is true…—but if, by way of this ABC language, something fantastically unified and ominous reaches us, this means that there is some sort of “intermediate language” radiating a light of such “poverty,” as if we were in the presence of a terrible simplicity—of some kind of miracle, of the miracle itself!…—and again I want to say that this undefined language is the unrepeatable light of Kafka.
When one hears the words “work of art,” one should immediately ask what it means in this particular case: a discovery, or a composition? The former is expressed in an undemonstrable but present light of revelation—the uncovering of the essence of the tragic. Composition circles around feebly putting together ponderous descriptions, reflections, contrived “fantasmogorias” (and how, from their inability to look straight into the light of Day of our times, into the vividly multi-inclusive terrible things in the light of this Day, our contemporary littérateurs have rushed into innumerable interpretations of the myths “of all times and all peoples”). Oh how all this is accumulated and compiled in the hope that something will shine forth out of this great heap—thanks to the multitude of “demonstrations” and “illustrations.” But the light of discovery is absent; there is an endless shuffling of contrived situations, the work puffs up with excess of composition—how “significant” they are, these currently rather numerous “Invitations to a Beheading” and their variants (“they try to frighten me, but I am not afraid”)—how “rich” these books are compared to the “poor” novels of Kafka.
The language of the tragic changes; one cannot speak of new horrors in the old language. The “abnormal” Russian language in Platonov’s Foundation Pit (what displacements of words—how can a “literate Russian writer” construct a sentence like that?), his truly strange, in some ways otherworldly—alogical, syntax creates first and foremost a new atmosphere of the tragic (whose language had already changed “in the heavens” sooner than among us). The writer does not describe “as it is” the unfolding of its consequences. Moreover, even within “what is” there have been displacements—Platonov’s language, the shudder caused by the shudder of his inner being, closely follows these secret displacements.
“Truth in art is incandescence”—this sentence from an old unfinished poem keeps ringing in my head. And I want to say it again here, without any further explanation.
And this K. is moving among us (he is not only the hero of two novels—this branding-letter could replace the characters’ names in a whole series of Kafka stories), he is wandering, K…—a strange figure no doubt, but in what way?
He would be less than the “living,” if we were keeping awake in the name of the familiar slogan: “one has to live”(but why this “has to”?), if we were such “full-blooded people,” it would be better to keep away from us.
He is also less than the “full-blooded” figures from the novels of the 19th century (or rather of previous centuries), but we are not genuinely awake; we cannot wake into Vigilance-Life, and he wanders among us, this K., who is bigger—and more real—than we are.
And he moves on—in that illumination whose name is the Vigilance of the tormented perspicacity of Kafka; isn’t the word “life” sometimes the tautological equivalent of the idea of a herd mentality?—and Kafka’s “parables” are like an indirect light at a distance from this amorphous fog; but if we achieve wakefulness in blazingly-pitiless Concentration of Day, then any of Kafka’s “parables” can occupy the central point of this Concentration; and what is more, we do not dwell so dimly in a drowsy absence of spiritual attention—even that very absence is now like the sky-glow of an all-human alarm (“not-ness” is a particular light) and in it, not as a shadow, but as a distant, irrevocable deep sky-glow, sliding and flickering, wanders K.
“Such solitude is still not enough—one must be even more alone,” said Max Jacob. Such solitude has not been given to me.
Years passed by, and my despair turned inside out, showing its lining—the “affirmation of life”—is that not the way it was?—yes, and it is not for nothing that I sometimes feel ashamed when confronted by the name of Kafka.
I have lost the purity of solitude and the chastity of being unknown (even so, I knew something of this chastity). I wanted to be “necessary,” but what quiet happiness and honesty there is in being unnecessary! These are the “lessons of Kafka” (I remember, I still remember only very little), that is the only reason for my saying “I” here—at one time this “I” was tested, penetrated by the light of Kafka. Yes, he was so dear to me, for many years, in my poems, I wrote about him not with any “literary intention”—I talked with him in the purity of Solitude, his Solitude, in which I sometimes found room for my own beggarly-contracted, poor-and-silent condition, knowing how turbid it seemed before the light of Kafka.
I could say to my holy Brother (how could he mean less to me than some of my beloved “canonized” saints?), I could say to him one thing only: “I was trying to say something, without a listener… It went on like that for a long time… I never knew who I was talking to, it was happiness ‘in the Word’… Without You, I should never have retained my faith and patience in the name of the Word… I proved unworthy of the breath of that ‘subtle cold,’ and even so, before your Pure Name, I can say—I knew it.”
I fall silent—again there is before me the sleeve (seeming white as snow) of the Saint—I am afraid to touch it.
September 27 to November 7, 1985
From Time of Gratitude, by Gennady Aygi, courtesy New Directions.