Letters to Kafka

Kafka’s freedom: understanding the gift

Kafka’s freedom: “Anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within”

Dear Franz,

Last night driving home from the city of S at the end of this first leg, part one, of the book tour, I felt something I had not for a long time — freedom. Was it, I wondered, finally Kafka’s freedom? This was not just the freedom of movement I have been talking or thinking about in relation to running as a form of activism, the bodily freedom that we have as privileged human beings, and which we deny to so many others, especially in our farming system. (Although no doubt thinking through these things is also reason for feeling the freedom.)

Kafka's freedomIt is a freedom, rather, from limiting thoughts. It felt as if I was more conscious of my thoughts being the limit of what I can do and achieve; and more, beyond. Perhaps it was all the radio music i listened to on the drive — if love is the number one theme of choice for pop songs, then freedom, I realised, is a close second.

But I think perhaps it was other things too. Most importantly, it was about the hard work I have committed to this book tour, and to the book, and perhaps most of all to the openness and honesty that I put into the book and shared with people. It is the honesty of one’s story, and that is liberating. As is the confidence that comes from handling all situations as they come. As you yourself say, Franz,

To be disturbed by an unexpected visit is a weakness, an avoidance of the unexpected. One huddles into one’s so-called private life, because one lacks the strength to master the world. One flies from the miraculous into one’s own limited self. That is a withdrawal. Being is most of all a being-with-things, a dialogue. One mustn’t shrink from that.

And this is how it felt at the end of this week of book readings, activism, marathon running, visits to friends for dinner — that I did not shrink from the world, but had the strength to engage. This is a small thing, perhaps, for some, but for those of us who are introvert, it is not always so simple. Nor is it simple for those of us who take on the world too much, that is, take on too much, as a desire or need to be doing things, for recognition, for approval. We shrink back after taking on too much. But once one gets the balance right — when one does those things one must do, and no more, as Ged, Ursula K Le Guin’s hero of the Earthsea novels says, then one has the capacity to do and be exactly as one needs to in life.

On freedom, too, Franz, you are wise. Earlier on in the same conversation with Gustav Janouch you say this:

The false illusion of a freedom achieved by external means is an error, a confusion, a desert in which nothing flourishes except the two herbs of fear and despair. That is inevitable, because anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within. Man [sic] doesn’t grow from below upwards but from within outwards. That is the fundamental condition of all freedom in life. It is not an artificially constructed social environment but an attitude to oneself and to the world which it is a perpetual struggle to maintain. It’s the condition of man’s freedom.

(“But that’s a paradox!” cries Janouch. “Yes, in fact it is,” you reply, and take a deep breath.)

The benefits gained through hard work, my friend K would say, are those made under the sign of Saturn, and we don’t lose these gains. Others may be “easy come, easy go” like winning money on the lottery, but this gain, this insight, and this ease, this feeling of freedom from limiting beliefs, has been hard won. (Although the effort itself: writing a book, having it published, going out on the road and standing in front of others, spreading the ideas of veganism, of animal advocacy, of bodily change… is anything but easy work, of course.)

Something else, I think, Franz. I believe this freedom is also something to do with an acceptance of being closer to death. When one realises what one truly wants in life, and that it must be worked for, then one also realises what life is truly worth, and so the converse of life, death, becomes clearer, too. What I mean is, I felt last night driving home that I had gained freedom through this hard work by being my authentic self, freeing myself from limiting beliefs that I always have to do more, be more, attract more, be approved of, and recognised.

Reading my own work, there is a section in the book where I talk of how much I needed the approval of others (still do?). And yet I have/am moving away from those limiting needs — perhaps limiting needs as well as beliefs — to live more of my own life, in freedom from this most binding of limits. As Stephen Cope says in his book, the false self binds us to who we are not. But last night, No. The part I read out last night was about being and bearing witness to suffering outside of myself. “Strength consists in bearing things,” you say. And later: “All is struggle, effort. Only those deserve love and life who have to conquer them each day.”

I have borne my limiting beliefs enough. Now it is time to bear other things. Witness to suffering. The efforts of writing. To bear the disapproval of others and to endure with strength.

And love? Ah. But that’s a different song!

Image: Unadulterated freedom (cc) Loaf

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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