Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Letters


It’s easy to think of Franz Kafka as a celibate, even asexual, writer. There is the notable lack of eroticism of any recognizable sort in so much of his work. There is the prominent biographical detail—integral to so many interpretations—of his outsized fear of his father, which serves to infantilize him in a way. There is the image, writes Spiked, of “a lonely seer too saintly for this rank, sunken world.” All of this, James Hawes writes in his Excavating Kafka, “is pure spin.” Against such idolatry, both literary and quasi-religious, Hawes describes “the real Kafka,” including the fact that he was “far from an infrequent visitor to Prague’s brothels.” Though “tortured”—as his friend, biographer, and executor Max Brod put it—by guilt over his sexuality, Kafka nonetheless did not deny himself the frequent company of prostitutes and a collection of outré pornography.

But a part of the myth, Kafka’s extreme diffidence in romantic relationships with two women in his life—onetime fiancé Felice Bauer and Czech journalist Milena Jesenská—is not far off the mark. These relationships were indeed “tortured,” with Kafka “demanding commitment while doing his best to evade it.” His courtship with Felice was conducted almost entirely through letters, and his personal correspondence to both women, published in separate volumes by Schocken Books, “has all the earmarks of his fiction: the same nervous attention to minute particulars; the same paranoid awareness of shifting balances of power; the same atmosphere of emotional suffocation—combined, surprisingly enough, with moments of boyish ardor and delight.” So writes the New York TimesMichiko Kakutani in her review of Letters to Felice in 1988.

A March 25, 1914 letter to Felice exemplifies these qualities, including Kafka’s tendency to “berate” his fiancé and to “backpedal” from the serious possibility of marriage. In answer to her seemingly unasked question of whether Bauer might find in him “the vital support you undoubtedly need,” Kafka writes,” there is nothing straightforward I can say to that”:

The exact information you want about me, dearest F., I cannot give you ; I can give it you, if at all, only when running along behind you in the Tiergarten, you always on the point of vanishing altogether, and I on the point of prostrating myself; only when thus humiliated, more deeply than any dog, am I able to do it. When you post that question now I can only say: I love you, F., to the limits of my strength, in this respect you can trust me entirely. But for the rest, F., I do not know myself completely. Surprises and disappointments about myself follow each other in endless succession.

The frustrated mystery, self-abasement, vague and fearful hints, and reference to dogs are all elements of the so oft-invoked Kafkaesque, though the frank proclamation of love is not. Not long after his 1917 diagnosis of tuberculosis, Kafka would break off the engagement. In 1920, he began his—also heavily scripted—affair with Jesenská, his side of which appears in the collected Letters to Milena. In these missives, the same set of personal and literary impulses alternate: tender expressions of devotion give way to dark and cryptic statements like “written kisses… are drunk on the way by the ghosts” and “I have spent all my life resisting the desire to end it.” One letter seems to have nothing at all to do with Milena and everything to do with Kafka’s project as a writer:

I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralyzing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing for something greater than all that is fearful.

Passages like these warrant the reduplication in Kakutani’s review title: “Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Letters.” It is almost as if he used these letters as a testing ground for the tangled internal conflicts, doubts, and obsessions that would make their way into his fiction. Or that, in them, we see these Kafkaesque motifs distilled. It is during his engagement to Felice Bauer that Kafka produced “his most significant work, including The Metamorphoses,” and during his relationship with Milena Jesenská that my personal favorite, The Castle, took shape.

Although it has long been fashionable to resist the “biographical fallacy,” reading an author’s life into his or her work, the existence of hundreds of Kafka’s letters in publication makes this separation difficult. Elias Canetti described Kafka’s letters as a dialogue he was “conducting with himself,” one which “provide[s] an index of the emotional events that would inspire ‘The Trial’” and other works. Kafka’s unexpected bouts of romantic passion notwithstanding, these letters add a great deal of support to that critical assessment.

via Michiko Kakutani/New York Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Joni Mitchell Talks About Life as a Reluctant Star in a New Animated Interview

Yesterday, Blank on Blank dropped its latest animated video — this one featuring Joni Mitchell in conversation with record executive Joe Smith. In the interview originally recorded in 1986, Mitchell declares herself a reluctant star — someone who loved making music, but never wanted fame, and all the lost privacy and normalcy that comes along with it. Smith talked with Joni and countless other musicians while researching and writing his book Off the Record. You can still stream many of those interviews (for free) on iTunes and the Library of Congress website. We have more on that here.

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Hear Sun Ra’s 1971 UC Berkeley Lecture “The Power of Words”

Reading David Byrne’s How Music Works the other day, I came across a passage where the Talking Heads frontman recalls his formative early exposure to the distinctive compositions and persona (not that you can really separate the two) of Sun Ra. “When I first moved to New York, I caught Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the 5 Spot, a jazz venue that used to be at St. Mark’s Place and Bowery,” Byrne writes. “He moved from instrument to instrument. At one point there was a bizarre solo on a Moog synthesizer, an instrument not often associated with jazz. Here was electronic noise suddenly reimagined as entertainment!”

Some might have written off Sun Ra and his Arkestra as indulging in formless artistic flailing, but in these shows, “as if to prove to skeptics that he and the band really could play, that they really had chops no matter how far out they sometimes got, they would occasionally do a traditional big band tune. Then it would be back to outer space.” As in Sun Ra’s music, so in Sun Ra’s words: as the jazz composer born Herman Poole Blount got increasingly experimental in his composition, the details of his “cosmic philosophy” underlying it, a kind of science-fiction-inflected Afro-mysticism, multiplied.

While many of Sun Ra’s pronouncements struck (and still strike) listeners as a bit odd, he could nevertheless ground them in a variety of intellectual contexts as a serious thinker. We offered evidence of this last year when we posted the full lecture and reading list from the course he taught at UC Berkeley in 1971, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” Now you can hear it straight from the man himself in the playlist at the top of the post, which contains his lecture “The Power of Words,” also delivered at Berkeley in 1971, as part of the school’s Pan-African Studies curriculum.

But do heed the warning included with the videos: “Remember, Sun Ra was a ‘UNIVERSAL BEING’ not of this dimension or of a race category. With all his informative authority, in some cases during these lectures, the content will be shocking to hear.” Shocked or not, you may well come away from the experience convinced that not only did Sun Ra the musician understand the power of music, executed creatively, to take us to new aesthetic realms, he also understood the power of words to take us to new intellectual ones. But you’ve got to be willing to take the ride into outer space with him.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Parvati Saves the World: Watch a Remix of Bollywood Films That Combats Rape in India

Sexual violence in India has been in the spotlight ever since a 23-year-old medical student was gang raped and murdered on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. The crime was so flagrant and so brutal that the country recoiled in shock. Students and activists descended into the streets of Delhi to protest.

Filmmaker Ram Devineni realized just how entrenched the problem is in Indian culture when he spoke with a cop during one of those protests. As he told the BBC,”I was talking to a police officer when he said something that I found very surprising. He said ‘no good girl walks alone at night.’

The Indian government rushed legislation that would increase the prison term for rape along with criminalizing other crimes against women like stalking. Yet, a string of other high-profile rapes, including a few against foreign tourists, show that this is a continuing problem, one that wasn’t going to be solved with a few laws.

“I realized that rape and sexual violence in India was a cultural issue,” said Devineni. “And that it was backed by patriarchy, misogyny and people’s perceptions.”

So Devineni decided to try and change India’s culture with one of the most powerful weapons out there: art.

Inspired by Hindu mythology, Devineni and a couple collaborators created a graphic novel about Priya, a rape survivor who appeals for help to Parvati, the Goddess of power and beauty. By the end of the comic, Priya confronts her attackers while riding a tiger.

As a continuation of the project, Devineni created Parvati Saves the World, a similar story pieced together from some amazingly kitschy Bollywood epics from the 1970s. He described the project as being “like DJ Spooky’s remix of Birth of a Nation but this focuses on sexual violence.”

In the film, Priya once again appeals to Parvati after getting attacked, this time by the friend of a prideful king. When Parvati confronts the king, he tries to assault her. This is a bad move. Her husband is the God Shiva, AKA “the Destroyer,” AKA someone you really don’t want to tick off. As punishment, he brings fire and death on heaven and earth. Realizing that violence isn’t the answer, Parvati goes to Earth to become “a beacon of hope for oppressed women everywhere.”

You can watch Parvati Saves the World in three parts above. You can learn more about Devineni’s mission at The Creator’s Project.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Flannery O’Connor to Grace New U.S. Postage Stamp

flannery stamp

Since 1979, the US Postal Service has made a practice of issuing postage stamps honoring “skillful wordsmiths” who have “spun our favorite tales — and American history along with them.” Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Wright, Julia De Burgos, Mark Twain, O. Henry, and Ralph Ellison have all been fêted since 2009. And soon we can add the Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor to the list. Her stamp will make its debut on June 5th. Until then, we’d encourage you to stream rare recordings of O’Connor reading her famous story, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’, and her witty essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” These are the only known recordings of O’Connor reading her work, and they provide a wonderful introduction to O’Connor’s literary talents.

via LA Times

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Rare Video: Georges Bataille Talks About Literature & Evil in His Only TV Interview (1958)

“Where other transgressive figures of the past have mostly been tamed,” wrote Josh Jones in a post here last year, “[Georges] Bataille, I submit, is still quite dangerous.” You can get a sense of that in the documentary featured there, À perte de vue, which introduces the transgressive French intellectual’s life and thought, which from the 1920s to the 1960s produced books like The Solar AnusThe Hatred of Poetry, and The Tears of Eros, all part of a body of work that captivated the likes of Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

At the top of this post, you can enjoy another, straighter shot of Bataille through his 1958 appearance opposite interviewer Pierre Dumayet — the only television interview he ever did. The occasion: the publication of his book Literature and Evil, a title that, Bataille says, refers to “two opposite kinds of evil: the first one is related to the necessity of human activity going well and having the desired results, and the other consists of deliberately violating some fundamental taboos — like, for example, the taboo against murder, or against some sexual possibilities.”

Bataille’s fans expect from him a certain amount of taboo violation, though executed in a specific literary form — not just prose, but the distinctive sort of prose, whether spoken or written, brought to perfection by midcentury French intellectuals. In this ten-minute clip, Bataille elaborates on his conviction that we can’t separate literature from evil: if the former stays away from the latter, “it rapidly becomes boring.” He also gets into a discussion of Baudelaire, Kafka (“both of them knew they were on the side of evil”), Shakespeare, the importance of eroticism and childishness in literature, and the inherently anti-work nature of writing. However relevant you find Bataille’s ideas today, you have to give the man this: he never gets boring.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Magical Animated Music Video for the Japanese Pop Song, “On Your Mark”

On this site, we’ve featured music videos by such acclaimed filmmakers as David Lynch, David Fincher, Jim Jarmusch and even Andy Warhol. Now add to this list the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Back in 1994, Miyazaki was stuck on the script for his next feature Princess Mononoke. So he decided to do a video for the song “On Your Mark” by Japanese pop duo Chage & Aska. The resulting piece is a gorgeous, dense, enigmatic work that not only recalls Miyazaki’s earliest works like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, but also the edgier visions of the future seen in films like Akira or Ghost in the Shell. In fact, the short is such a magical, memorable piece of filmmaking that it overwhelms the song.

The video unfolds in a non-linear fashion, jumping forward and back, forking into multiple versions of the same scene. Miyazaki isn’t concerned about you not getting the story. As he said in a 1995 interview, you can “interpret [the film] anyway you want.”

The piece opens with a giant structure that looms over an otherwise beautiful, bucolic landscape. Miyazaki, who is never especially forthcoming when talking about his work, describes the world of “On Your Mark” like this: “There is so much radiation on the Earth’s surface, humans can no longer live there. But, there is flora, just like there is one around Chernobyl. It became a sanctuary for nature, with the humans living in the underground city.”

The video then shifts abruptly to a scene straight out of Akira. Down in that underground city, the police attack the highrise headquarters of a spooky religious cult and rescue a young girl with broad, feathered wings. An angel? Who knows. A lot of viewers have noted the cult echoes that of Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that released Sarin gas into the subways of Tokyo in March 1995. Of course, the video was made before the attack. Mamoru Oshii’s 1993 animated feature Patlabor 2 also had eerie similarities to Aum, so much so that it was featured in the 1995 Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. Both filmmakers, it seems, tapped into that ugly undercurrent in the zeitgeist of Japanese culture at that time.

As Miyazaki’s short progresses, it shows two cops who decide to do the right thing and break the girl out of the laboratory where she is being held. The first time they try, the cops (and presumably the angel) plunge to their deaths. The second time they try – and it’s not really clear how they get this do-over – they manage to escape. The cops drive to the irradiated surface of the earth and watch in awe as the angel flies way.

In Miyazaki’s mind, the winged girl represents hope:

If you don’t completely give up on the situation and you keep your hope, not letting anyone touch it, and then you have to let it go, you let it go where no one can touch it. It’s just that. Maybe there was a bit of exchange in the moment of letting her
go. That’s fine, that’s enough. …Probably they’ll go back to being the policemen. I don’t know if they could go back, though. [laughs]

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Albert Einstein Tells His Son The Key to Learning & Happiness is Losing Yourself in Creativity (or “Finding Flow”)

einstein creativity

As one particularly astute observer of human emotions might put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that we can’t all be Albert Einstein. In fact, none of us can. That unique experience was denied even Einstein’s son Hans Albert, though he did go on to his own distinguished career as an engineer and professor of hydraulics. Einstein father and son had a strained relationship, yet the great physicist had a hand in his son’s success, inspiring him to pursue his scientific passion. But Einstein’s paternal encouragement extended further, beyond scientific pursuits and to a general theory of learning and enjoyment that suggests we can be happiest and most productive when being most ourselves.

While living in Berlin in 1915, Einstein wrote a poignant letter to his son, just two days after finishing his theory of general relativity. His tone swings from buoyant to pained—lamenting his family’s “awkward” separation and proposing to spend more time with Albert, as he calls him. His son can “learn many good and beautiful things from me,” writes Einstein, “These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life.”

Einstein also writes, “I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits.” An amateur musician himself, Einstein understood the value of developing an informal avocation. “Mainly play the things on the piano which please you,” he tells his son, “even if the teacher does not assign those.” Doing what you love, the way you like to do it, he goes on, “is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”

This great theme of total immersion in a creative endeavor surfaced several decades later in another scientist’s work, that of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, described by Martin Seligman—former President of the American Psychological Association—as “the world’s leading researcher” in the field of positive psychology. Presented in his popular TED talk above, and at more length in his books on the subject, Csikszentmihalyi’s insights into human flourishing mirror Einstein’s: he calls such creative immersion “flow,” or the state of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Contrary to our usual conceptions of using one’s “skills to the utmost,” Csikszentmihalyi tells us that the reward for entering such a state is not the material benefits it generates, but the positive emotions. These, as Einstein theorized, not only motivate us to become better, but they also provide a source of meaning no amount of financial gain above a minimum level can offer. “The lack of basic material resources contributes to unhappiness,” Csikszentmihalyi’s data demonstrates, “but the increase in material resources does not increase happiness.” While none of us can be Einstein, Csikszentmihalyi tells us we can all benefit from Einstein’s advice, by doing whatever we do to the best of our abilities and without any motive other than sheer pleasure.

via Farnam Street/Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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