a profound wakefulness

Kafka: The Decisive Years“Kafka missed nothing, forgot nothing. There is little evidence of the absentmindedness and boredom he always complained about; on the contrary, his incessant presence of mind is almost painful to witness, because it renders him unapproachable. Someone must stay awake, but this wakefulness deprived him of a sense of home and alienated him from the world and from people, in a mundane and sometimes comical sense. Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which highlights the impossibility of writing an adequate biography, expresses the suffering associated with profound wakefulness from the point of view of someone experiencing it:

[…] in my case all the shutters and lids and doors of the mind would be open at once at all times of the day. Most brains have their Sundays, mine was even refused a half-holiday. That state of constant wakefulness was extremely painful not only in itself, but in its direct results. Every ordinary act which, as a matter of course, I had to perform, took on such a complicated appearance, provoked such a multitude of associative ideas in my mind, and these associations were so tricky and obscure, so utterly useless for practical application, that I would either shirk the business at hand or else make a mess of it out of sheer nervousness.

This statement applies to Kafka word for word. It is astonishing how little he ‘made a mess of’ in spite of everything: wherever his life took him, he stood the test, as a pupil, student, and official. But nothing came easily to him; every decision, even the most trivial, had to be wrenched from that stream of associations. He once wrote, ‘Everything sets me thinking’. Everything set him writing. But first he had to translate life.”

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years

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4 Comments

  1. As exhausting as it was, though, I don’t think Kafka would ever want to be any other way. He would not even have a drink or take an aspirin. He endured his wakefulness like it was a penance. He died without ever knowing what his writing would do in the world. He was a literary martyr.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment. Given the evidence of relentless internal strife that permeates his diaries, it’s hard to say if he preferred his constant state of wakefulness, though it’s likely that without it he would have been a lesser writer, or not a writer at all.

      Reply
  2. Hello, I’ve just come across your blog via comment on Molly Laich. Recently I’ve been listening to Kafka books from audible, and by some coincidence, I mention him in the post I wrote this morning. So, I’ve added your blog to my roll. I need all the friends I can get. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Nice to meet you, Jesse. I look forward to reading your blog. And for what it’s worth, Kafka had very few friends. I take some comfort in knowing that, at least.

      Reply

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