Letters: Milena on Kafka

15 March 2018

I could spend days and nights answering your letter. You ask me why Franz is afraid of love. But I think it’s something different. He sees life very differently from other people. To him, for instance, money, the stock market, exchange bureaus, a typewriter are absolutely mystical things (as indeed they are, though not to our kind of people); to him they are the weirdest puzzle, and he doesn’t see them as we do. Take his work at the insurance company; does he regard it as just a job? To him any job – even his own – is as mysterious, as marvelous, as a locomotive is to a small child. The simplest things in the world are beyond him. Have you ever been in a post office with him? Have you seen him composing a telegram, then shaking his head, looking for the window that strikes his fancy, running from window to window without the faintest idea why, until he finds the right one. Then he pays, counts his change, finds he’s been given a crown too much, and gives it back to the girl at the window. He walks slowly away, counting his change again. On the bottom step it comes to him that the crown he has given back is really his. I’m standing there beside him and I don’t know what to say. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, wondering what to do. It would be hard to go back, because by that time there’s a long line at the window. ‘Why not let it go?’ I suggest. He gives me a horrified look. ‘How can I let it go?’ He goes on and on, he’s terribly annoyed with me. The same thing happens in every store, every restaurant, with every beggar woman, in every conceivable variation. Once he gave a beggar woman two crowns and asked her to give him back a crown. She said she didn’t have a crown. We stood there for two minutes, wondering what to do. Finally it occurred to him that he could let her keep the two crowns. But we’d only gone a few steps when I saw that he wasn’t at all pleased. The same man would be only too glad to give me twenty thousand crowns. But if I asked him for twenty thousand crowns and we had to go somewhere to change money and we didn’t know where, he would ponder seriously what to do about a single crown that I didn’t really have coming to me. He has almost the same anxiety about women as about money. And the same with his job. Once I wired, phoned, and wrote, imploring him in God’s name to come and spend a day with me. I needed him badly just then. I begged him on bended knee. He lay awake whole nights, tormenting himself. He wrote me letters full of self-recrimination, but he didn’t come. Why not? Because he couldn’t ask for leave. He couldn’t ask his department head, the one he wholeheartedly admires (in all seriousness) because he can type so fast. He simply couldn’t tell him he was coming to see me. Why not tell him something else? Another horrified letter. What? Lie? Tell the department head a lie? Impossible. If you ask him why he loved his first fiancée, he says, ‘She was so efficient.’ And he beams with admiration.

Yes, this whole world is and remains a puzzle to him. A mystery. Something utterly beyond him, but which with his touchingly pure naïveté he admires for its efficiency. When I told him about my husband, who’s unfaithful to me a hundred times a year, but has a kind of fascination for me and a lot of other women, his face lit up with the same admiration as when he told me about his department head who was a fine man because he typed so fast or as when he spoke of his fiancée, who was so ‘efficient.’ Such things are strange to him. A man who types fast and a man with four mistresses baffle him as much as a crown at the post office or the crown he gave the beggar woman, they baffle him because they’re a part of my life. Because Franz can’t live. He’s incapable of living. Franz will never get well. Franz will die soon.

The fact is that we all seem capable of living, because at some time or other we have taken refuge in a lie, in blindness, in enthusiasm, in optimism, in some conviction, in pessimism or something of the sort. He has never taken refuge in anything. He is absolutely incapable of lying, just as he is incapable of getting drunk. He has nothing to take refuge in, no shelter. It’s as if he were naked and everyone else had clothes on. And what he says, what he is and experiences, is not even the truth. His being is resolutely self-contained and self-sufficient, devoid of all artifice that might enable him to misrepresent life, either its beauty or its misery. There is nothing heroic about his asceticism –and that makes it all the greater and nobler. All heroism is falsehood and cowardice. This is not a man for whom asceticism is a means to an end; it is a man whose fearful clear-sightedness, purity, and inability to compromise compel him to be ascetic. There are other highly intelligent people who are unwilling to compromise. But as they wear magic spectacles which distort their vision, they have no need of compromise. They can type fast and have lots of women. He stands beside them and marvels at them; he marvels at everyhing, including typewriters and women. He will never understand. His books are amazing. He himself is infinitely more amazing.
Milena Jesenská to Max Brod (on Franz Kafka) cited in Margarete Buber-Neumann, 
Milena: The Tragic Story of Kafka's Great Love
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