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Franz Kafka and James Baldwin: Blackstar 10/1/16

Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Czech writer in German language. Portrait.

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Franz Kafka and James Baldwin chance to meet on a stairwell after (separately) first hearing Blackstar before dashing away.

Franz Kafka: I have spent all my life resisting the desire to end it.

James Baldwin: I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

FK: You can choose to be free , but it’s the last decision you’ll ever make.

JB: Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be. For nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

FK: Everything is exaggeration, the only truth is longing. But even the truth of longing is not so much its own truth; it’s really an expression for everything else, which is a lie.

JB: Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

FK: The meaning of life is that it stops. All language is but a poor translation.

JB: There is a fearful splendor in absolute desolation.

FK: When you became involved with others you quite possibly stepped down a level or two, but If you become involved with me, you will be throwing yourself into the abyss.

JB: Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated – in the main, abominably – because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.

FK: 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.

JB: Sometimes you hear a person speak the truth and you know that they are speaking the truth. But you also know that they have not heard themselves, do not know what they have said: do not know that they have revealed much more than they have said. This may be why the truth remains, on the whole, so rare. The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters.

FK: Sometimes I have the feeling that we’re in one room with two opposite doors and each of us holds the handle of one door, one of us flicks an eyelash and the other is already behind his door, and now the first one has but to utter a word ad immediately the second one has closed his door behind him and can no longer be seen. He’s sure to open the door again for it’s a room which perhaps one cannot leave. If only the first one were not precisely like the second, if he were calm, if he would only pretend not to look at the other, if he slowly set the room in order as though it were a room like any other; but instead he does exactly the same as the other at his door, sometimes even both are behind the doors and the beautiful room is empty.

JB: Shit. The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.

FK: So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you.

JB: Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.

FK: Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.

JB: I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

FK: I’m doing badly, I’m doing well, whichever you prefer.

JB: In overlooking, denying, evading this complexity–which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves–we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation that is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over other claims.

FK: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

JB: Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.

FK: What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide.

JB: As long as we share our stories, as long as our stories reveal our strengths and vulnerabilities to each other, we reinvigorate our understanding and tolerance for the little quirks of personality that in other circumstances would drive us apart. When we live in a family, a community, a country where we know each other’s true stories, we remember our capacity to lean in and love each other into wholeness.

FK: But what if all the tranquility, all the comfort, all the contentment were now to come to a horrifying end?

JB: The question is banal but one of the real troubles with living is that living is so banal. Everyone, after all, goes the same dark road — and the road has a trick of being most dark, most treacherous, when it seems most bright — and it’s true that nobody stays in the garden of Eden…Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.

FK: How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense.

JB: I got to get outside.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 16th, 2016.