Letters to Kafka

When the step is too high, climb in a window

Dear Franz,

Last night (in my dream) I had to climb up through a window and I almost could not do it, even though it was not hard. For a change–and this is rather unusual–my work colleagues were there, LH and NF and DB. Perhaps this is because last evening in a bar with H and her parents, the word F—– was centre of our conversation, and this is the surname of one of my colleagues, NF. The window was not high, it was open, there was no one chasing–but I struggled to pull myself up and through. On the other side when finally through the descent was easy, long–five stories–but cushioned–literally, a mountain of cushions–like a lumpy fabric ski-slope all the way down (and with echoes of a dream 35 years before, in the back room of a shop, all cardboard boxes, when Abbott and Costello came in, and I left as a lobster…) At the bottom I’d realised I’d forgotten my shoes and left a manuscript at the top, on the window sill. I tried to call DB but my phone was good for nothing except playing some sort of geeky arcade game. Now inside, I was unsure what I was there for except to get a very old and long lost friend TB a 40th birthday present. (And indeed I think it is his birthday soon; and yesterday was my friend LD’s 40th).

It reminds me, Franz, of that moment in your Letter to My Father where you are trying to explain to him your “failure” in marriage, because of its overwhelming and overbearing significance to you:

It is as if one man had five low steps to walk up, and a second man had just one single step, but this single step was as tall as the five put together, and the first man cannot only cope with the initial five steps, but with hundreds, even thousands more, and his life will be great and strenuous; but there will be in it nothing comparable to the giant step of the second man, whose only step is beyond his strength, and he cannot climb up, nor, naturally, can he get round it and reach the step above.

Of course the man cannot complain nor swap his step. As in the door in ‘Before the Law’ this one step was made “only for you” and if there is no way to turn the single step into five, then the man (me, or you, for example) will never be able to conquer what faces him.

Steps KafkaAnd yet in my dream I did pull myself though the window, as hard as it was. Perhaps this was me pulling myself out of my disappointment yesterday: at 5pm yesterday I had a Plan A. I won’t bore you with the details, but because of the compromises of a relationship, Plan A did not happen, and the two hours difference between Plan A and getting Plan B into action meant that having a drink after a long day would compromise my sleep, which is average to poor at the moment, and which is getting me down (jumping from the window into all those cushions felt delicious, as if I could disappear into slumber.)

Perhaps I see good sleep as you did marriage: too significant but also too much, in terms of actions to take; as one daunting step rather than something I can break down into five similar and manageable ones.

You say yourself: “There were obstacles in the way but dealing with obstacles is life. The true obstacle was me: spiritually I’m not fit for marriage, the actual case is irrelevant.” And yet this comes after all the evidence you have presented about your father’s treatment of you, and your attempts to be independent! You blame your “fear, weakness and self-contempt” and yet the “hard road” of your life was the one your father drove you down.

As has mine, Franz. I know, I understand my own fears of marriage are obstructions built up out of disapproval, fear of abandonment. Perhaps I am just seeking from your letter excuses for myself as to my own hard road and how sometimes the step to take into companionship, love and long-term commitment seems too high. Am I simply not cut out for it? Were you? Sleep, perhaps, but also being with others, being disappointed by others, as I was last evening. Or perhaps, as you say, “Neither of the women disappointed me; I disappointed them.”

I wonder what you would make of the psychologist Adam Phillips’ observation that in life it is in fact the obstacles we keep putting in the way of ourselves that we desire, rather than the objects further along that we claim we want. Or “the obstacle is the way” as Marcus Aurelius might say, stoically (and via, more recently, Ryan Holliday). If that is the case–and you do say you were a “self-absorbed” man (“I always had such a deep concern for about the continued existence of my mind and spirit, that I was indifferent to everything else”)–and you say the obstacle was yourself (I am speaking to myself here, of course)–and accept that actually the “hard road” of your life had not led you to marriage… and so it was not a “failure” at all that you did not marry… That in fact, is summary: the obstacle, yourself, was the prize, because it was so hard won from your environment, and your father’s influence. Risking that–as you say it was, such a risk, a risk to your writing too–you could never do; you would not run that risk of marriage…

(An aside, Franz. We know from Gustav Janouch and his father that in fact you were not indifferent to everything else; in fact you were often humbly a servant of others, such as the workman who broke his leg and who your insurance company were not going to support, until you discreetly helped that workman’s lawyer rewrite his claim so that it was upheld, defeating, in fact, your own counsel to your employer, the insurer…)

But what of that step, Franz? If the one too-great step stops you from taking all the other steps in your life, then what they could lead to, in fact–a healthy, happy, strenuous and great life–will never be manifested.

Can we rethink that step? Turn it into five smaller ones, five storeys? Or indeed find a way around it, hard to do, yes, but possible; could we rather not clamber through the window and fall headlong, joyful, over the other side?

Yours, AM.

Image of steps (cc) Davide Del Monte

About Alex R Lockwood

I learn as much about the the art of living through literature (especially Kafka) as I do through other people. I read and write fiction and non-fiction, and research the cultural value of the creative writer; the ways that literature impacts our lives; the craft of writing, particularly what it means to be a non-anthropocentric (vegan) writer; the representation of animals; and the ethics of human-animal relations in literature, media and culture since 1945. This site is a platform for capturing the threads of different literary projects and, I hope, offers something to those thinking through the value of reading and writing in their lives.

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