Letter to My Father – Franz Kafka

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Dearest Father, Recently you asked me why I maintain that I’m afraid of you. And, as usual, I didn’t know how to answer, in part because of my fear of you; and in part because my fear rests on so many details that I couldn’t even have discussed half of it. And if now I attempt to give you an answer in writing it will still be far from complete: because I’m still hindered by my fear, and all that flows from it; and because there is far too much for my mind to remember and consider.

You shaped me as you had to shape me, and I gave way under the pressure; but you should stop thinking of this as something particularly evil on my part.

And your character ensured that you would treat your children with force, rage and noise; and furthermore, you believed these things would drag out from my character a powerful, courageous youth.

And for years I was tormented by the thought that this giant man, my father, could almost without reason come to me in the night, and lift me out of bed, and leave me on the balcony: he was my final court of appeal, and for him I was such a nothing.

This was only a slight beginning, but my overmastering sense of nothingness (which in another respect is indeed a noble and fruitful feeling) stems largely from your influence. I just needed a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little openness with regard to my own way, but instead you blocked this – with the good intention that I should head in a way that was altogether different. But it didn’t do any good.

At that time, for everything at that time, I needed to be given courage. For I was borne down just by your physique. I remember, for example, how we often undressed together in a changing room. I – meagre, weak, small. You – strong, great, broad. And already in the changing room I was miserable, though to be precise not just in front of you, but in front of the entire world: but for me you were the measure of all things. And then we stepped out of the cabin into the sight of all the people, I in your hand, a little skeleton, uncertain in bare feet on the planks, in fear of the water, and incapable of swimming like you; and though your intentions were good, you instilled in me a deep shame, because you showed me over and over how to swim, and still I couldn’t; and I was in despair, and all my bad experiences of everything were united marvellously in those moments. And it was a relief to me when you went outside first, and I could delay the shame of my appearance: until you eventually returned and drove me out. And I was grateful that you appeared not to notice my pain; and I was proud because of the body of my father. And there remains between us, even unto this day, this same difference.

And this all matches your lordly spirit. You rose so high in the world through your own strength, that you gained boundless faith in your own judgement.

That was not such a wonder for me as a child as it was when I was a young man. In your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was right, all other opinions were mad, extreme, freakish – not normal. So great was your self-trust that you could contradict yourself and still be right. And it could also happen that you had no opinion on a subject, in which case all possible opinions had to be worthless. And you could condemn the Czechs, and condemn the Germans, and condemn the Jews – all of them in each and every respect – until the only man left undamned was yourself. Just you alone remained. And you became for me that puzzle which belongs to all tyrants: the law lay in your person and not in your wisdom. Or, at least, that is how it all seemed to me.

All my thoughts endured your heavy pressure, particularly those which didn’t meet your agreement.

All my seemingly independent thoughts were from the start loaded with your disapproving judgement; until it was almost impossible to act upon any thought completely or continually. And I am not talking here about higher thoughts, but about every little undertaking of childhood.

The explanation has much more to do with your contrary nature which always forced you to fundamentally disappoint the child; and this contrariness was continually strengthened by more and more precedents until it even asserted itself by habit when we happened to agree on something; and the disappointment did not just touch trivial things but, as it concerned you, the all-important father, it reached down to my core. The courage, determination, confidence and joy for anything would bleed away in the face of your opposition; or when I assumed you would oppose me – and your opposition could almost always be assumed.
And I could never understand why you were insensitive to the sorrow and shame you inflicted on me with your words and judgements – it was as if you didn’t sense your own power. And I certainly made you ill with words; but I knew what I was doing, though it hurt me, but I couldn’t control myself, I couldn’t hold back my words – though I regretted them. But you landed blows with your words and you were clueless – you never pitied anybody, not then, not later – and people were defenceless before you.

saw that the world was divided into three parts: in the first lived the slave, me, under laws invented solely for my life but to which, without understanding why, I could never fully adjust; and in the second part lived you, infinitely far from me, busy ruling, giving commands and being angry when they weren’t followed; and in the third lived everybody else, happy and free from commands and obedience.

And it appeared to a child that life existed through your mercy, and continued as your unearned gift.

I lost the confidence to do anything. I was unsettled, doubtful. And the older I was, the more solid was the material with which you could demonstrate how worthless I was; and gradually, to a certain extent, you became right. But again, I must say that I’m not as I am just because of you; yet you increased what was there, and you increased it greatly; because against me you were very powerful, and you used all your power.

But it is true that you barely hit me. Yet the shouting, and your reddening face, and your braces being torn off, and the positioning of the chair back, were almost worse. They were like preparations for a hanging. But a hanged man is dead and all is finished. Yet if he has seen all the preparations, and the noose is before his face, and then he hears about his reprieve – he is left to lament his existence for the rest of his years. And I thought about this many times when in your opinion it was clear that I deserved a beating, but by your mercy I escaped – and I was burdened with guilt. On all sides before you I felt guilty.

So I became more than normally respectful towards your staff; I was more than modest; I was humble – even at the first greeting I would try to speak first and avoid a reply. But whatever I could do in my insignificance – even if I had licked the soles of their shoes – it could not compensate for what you, the master, did to them from above.

You accepted Valli, and were friendly, because she reminded you of mother, and in her there was not much of a Kafka. And perhaps you were content – you couldn’t find the raw material of a Kafka in her, and so not even you could demand it.

You didn’t have the feeling that there was something lost here that needed to be forcibly saved.

Maybe you never liked a woman to be too much of a Kafka. And you probably would have been even closer to her if the rest of us hadn’t been fighting.

Meanness especially I found revolting, and where possible I was worse.

And though I don’t fully understand this all too complicated case, I can see that here is a type of Löwy equipped with the best Kafkaesque weapons.

Between us there was no real fight; I was soon finished; what remained was escape, bitterness, sadness – my inner fight. But between the pair of you the fighting never stops – you are always strong, always fresh. A sight as desolate as it is magnificent.

Admittedly you are one of the main themes when we talk, you always have been, but truthfully we are not conspiring against you; rather we sit together and we discuss exhaustively with every effort, with jokes, and in earnest, with love, defiance, anger, aversion, resignation, guilt, and with all the strength of our heads and hearts, this dreadful trial in which we and you are entangled; and we discuss all the details, from all sides, and every cause from far and near of this trial, in which you claim always to be the judge, but in which you are most of the time (and here I leave the door open to the errors which naturally I can encounter) a weak and blind party – and so are we.

‘The dead may be blessed in the eyes of God, but she left me in it up to my neck.’

You are deluded if you believe that towards other people I am loving and loyal, and towards you and the family I’m cold and treacherous. For the tenth time I repeat: I probably still would have become a shy and fearful man; but the road to here was long and dark, and that is the road which led me to be what I am.

(Earlier I was comparatively indiscreet, with intention, now and later I need to be discreet about things; which is something I still find difficult to admit before you and before myself. I say this in case you believe that any lack of clarity is a sign of a lack of evidence; the contrary is true: there is evidence enough to make things unbearably stark. To find a balance is not easy.) But I must remind you, it was before you that I lost my self-respect, and gained a boundless sense of guilt.

(Recollecting this boundlessness I once wrote of someone, ‘He feared the shame that would outlive him.’) I couldn’t suddenly change when I was with other people; indeed with other people I felt even more guilty because of your attitude towards them – I felt implicated in this and I had to atone for your words. And you always spoke badly of people that I had dealings with – sometimes openly, sometimes secretly – and I had to atone for that as well. In business and in the family you tried to instil a mistrust of people in my mind (when I admired someone, you buried him with criticism). And you could do this without it weighing you down (you were strong enough for that) though your attitude might just have been a lordly affectation. But your mistrust was misplaced, with my childish eyes I couldn’t see what you saw: for everywhere there were extraordinary, unmatchable people – so instead I gained a mistrust of myself, and an abiding fear of everyone. So in this respect your influence on me was absolute. And you didn’t see that; possibly because you had not experienced my sort of dealings with people, and so you were doubtful and jealous (but do I deny that you loved me?) and you thought that I had found some sort of compensation elsewhere, for you couldn’t imagine that I lived in the outside world as I did in your presence. Yet as child I found some comfort in my mistrust of my judgement: I doubted my insight, I said to myself, ‘Like all children you exaggerate, you feel little things too much and believe they have great weight.’ But this comfort dwindled as I grew up and has almost vanished.

Indeed, your faith and life are mainly based on the belief that the opinions held by a certain Jewish class are absolutely true; and as these opinions are part of your nature, faith for you means believing in yourself.

And there was still enough Jewishness for you, but as a hand-me-down it didn’t serve the child – it all vanished as you tried to pass it on.

Your Jewish faith should not have provided a number of lessons for you to hand to your children; rather it should have given you an exemplary life; and if your faith had been stronger you would have been a compelling example; but that is obvious, and no reproach, just a defence against your reproaches. You have recently read Franklin’s Autobiography. And you remarked ironically, that I had given it to you because of the few words it contains about vegetarianism; but truly I gave you the book because of the way it describes the author’s relationship with his father, and with his own son, for whose sake the book was written. But I won’t go into the details here.

And I was worried about myself in all manner of ways. For example, I was worried about my health: I was worried about my hair falling out, my digestion, and my back – for it was stooped. And my worries turned to fear and it all ended in true sickness. But what was all that? Not actual bodily sickness. I was sick because I was a disinherited son, who needed constant reassurance about his own peculiar existence, who in the most profound sense never owned anything, and who was even insecure about the thing which was next to him: his own body.

There, where I lived, I was rejected, condemned, and beaten down; and I tried very hard to flee elsewhere, but that wasn’t work, that concerned something almost impossible, which with some small exceptions I didn’t have the strength to reach. This was my condition when I received the freedom to choose my career. Was I capable of actually using that freedom? Did I have the courage for a true career?

My self-regard depended on your opinion; seldom was it otherwise. An outward success could give me courage for a moment, but nothing more, and afterwards my dependency would be all the worse.

Thus I had no real choice of career: I knew that everything would still be irrelevant to me, I just had to find something which was compatible with my self-absorption, and also my vanity. Though due to a combination of pride and hope I did spend a fortnight on Chemistry, and half a year on German. But then I studied Law. Which meant that for the few months before the final university exam, my mind was fed with intellectual sawdust which had been chewed by a thousand mouths before; and my nerves suffered.

In reality this desire to be married was my greatest and most hopeful attempt to escape from you, and therefore my failure here was also the greatest.

A man doesn’t need to fly to the sun, he need only find a patch of clean earth, and crawl there, and let the sun shine on him.

For we had no luck, our needs are so different: things which fascinate me, don’t touch you, and vice versa; where you see innocence, I see guilt, and vice versa; what has no consequence for you, is another nail in my coffin.

Thus you appeared even purer, and far above these matters. It was unthinkable that you had given yourself your own advice before you married. I saw in you almost absolute purity; and you were willing to throw me into the dirt with a couple of words. And in the world there was just you and me – which I have often felt – and with you the purity ended, and with me the filth began. And it was incredible that you could have given me such advice: it could only be explained by my deep rooted guilt, and your deep rooted contempt. And this thought grabbed hold of my heart.

Now your words show that your contempt has grown, that I am stuck: I am not twenty years more experienced, just twenty years more wretched.

There are particular concerns, I have countless concerns, and I worry over them as I am melancholic and pedantic; but none of my concerns are fundamental, they are just worms feeding on the corpse of my engagement.

At times I imagine the map of the world laid out and you stretched across it. And all that is left for my life are the areas you don’t cover or can’t reach. And because I see you as a giant, my territory is miserable and small and doesn’t include marriage.

… marriage can no longer be uprooted, it is my conviction that to support and guide a family I would have to be like you. I would need to have the same qualities all combined, organically good and bad. You are strong and you mock others, you are healthy and gross, eloquent and aloof, self-confident and peevish, worldly wise and tyrannical, and insightful and disdainful of most people; and you also have other qualities without any disadvantages, for example, you are diligent, untiring, brave and you have great presence of mind.

But even after looking over all my reasons for being afraid you might still answer me: “You say that I make things simpler for myself by blaming everything on you, my son; but despite all your apparent efforts you don’t make things harder for yourself: actually you make them more rewarding. To start with, you want to shed all guilt and responsibility – so here we are the same. But I am open and frank, I tell you that it is your fault; but you are too clever and too subtle for that, you also say that I am innocent. But between the lines my guilt appears – between the arguments about character and nature and contrasts and helplessness, you make it clear that I attacked you and you only reacted in self-defence.

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