It never occurred to me to think of Kafka spatially or understand spatiality through Kafka, I never thought of him as a chronicler of space or the city. Yet the quite brilliant museum dedicated to him in Prague is entirely about space and Kafka’s relationship to his city, his ‘dear little mother with claws’, and I am fascinated now with thinking some of this through. It’s worth more than one blog post. I think here I shall just capture what I can of the exhibit, and then relate it to Kafka later — because when in Prague read Kafka and I am reading The Castle. Like all of Kafka’s work, I am finding it slow due to its harrowing nature and existential angst. So.
The experience of the museum itself aims at something like a replication of the feelings inspired by reading Kafka, tries to help you enter his world…it succeeds on some level of reaching some different world some how (though if it is K.’s or not that is impossible to say), leaving me fairly awed, and so I can hardly explain what it’s like to experience it. Darkness, unexplained noise, images shimmering like pools of water, photographs and collections of personal items and writings, short films, a surrounding of file cabinets and ancient phones. Not everything is translated into English or Czech — Kafka wrote in German after all. The different spaces are given context by beautifully written passages as provocations scattered throughout that demanded much more thinking.
I wanted to share these, in the shop, however, you can only buy the guide book that contains them in Italian and Spanish, so I shall be translating back from Spanish to English — who knows what language they were first written in. The initial ones, however, are on the website. On the existential space:
In this first stage of our immersion into the world of Kafka, we look at how the city affects the writer, how it shapes his life, the mark it leaves on him. Prague acts on Kafka with all of its metamorphosing power, confining him to an existential space which he can only enter by “fixing his gaze on the surface of things”, Prague forces Kafka into a spatial constriction, steadily dosing out its secrets. Prague contributes myth, obscure magic, and provides a magnificent backdrop, but it abhors clarity. And this is precisely what Kafka captures.
This is the city’s action upon the writer, the way it shapes and molds him, the way it confines him in dialectical relation to how he sees and writes it. All writers know that in writing you make things more real, but does Prague abhor clarity? How does a city choose one way or the other?
Our aim is to explore the city, seeing it from Kafka’s point of view. An exclusively biographical or merely chronological approach would not be enough; the challenge lies in condensing the principal conflicts in the life of Kafka in Prague, guided by the writer’s own views. This means joining Kafka on his descent into the depths of his city, adapting ourselves to his sensorial range and cognitive register, becoming involved in a gradual distortion of space-time – in short, agreeing to an experience where everything is allowed except indifference.
But this is no descent of the kind that would be demanded by noir, the first place my mind goes in imagining ‘the depths’ of a city. These are depths imagined differently, experienced differently. Rather than the danger or violence or poverty, there is instead a physic descent. The imagery of a cage, an interrogation that lasts, a prison as much within as without. Yet The first paragraphs of this floor are the ones I loved and remembered most, possibly for the use of the word entelechy, which frankly I struggled with to recall its meaning:
Franz Kafka is born in the interior of a myth named Prague. A city where three human groups act (Czechs, Germans and Jews), reunited through the centuries and, in spite of that, separated by cultural, racial and linguistic differences. The conflict leaves its imprint in the physiology of the city, converts neighbourhoods into airtight compartments, defines invisible frontiers, but it does not ultimately define the nature of the cage. It is also necessary to gain an intuition of it from the perspective of the bird.
Let us imagine an childhood where the I is an enigma and the community, an entelechy. A home besieged by dead brothers, distant sisters, cold governesses and a scathing cook. A world perceived from fear and guilt, in which the figure of the father spreads throughout leaving very little space for the life of a Son.
It begins with the Jewish ghetto, itself a place of confinement, a richness of culture, learning and occult knowledge. In 1895 the ghetto began a ten-year process to ‘clean up’ and reshape it through what many believe to be the ‘the most important urban alteration in the history of Prague’. The quotes given from Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janoush are marvelous, though who is to say that he said them exactly like this? (Especially translated from one language to Spanish and back to English again)
Inside of us still live the obscure corners the mysterious passages, the blinded windows, the dirty patios, the noisy taverns and inns with their locks. We walk down the wide streets of the new city, but our steps and looks are insecure. On the inside we continue to tremble just like the old alleyways of misery. Our hearts still have not understood the sanitising that has taken place. The old and unhealthy jewish city inside of us is much more real than the new hygienic city that surrounds us. Awake we walk traversing a dream: we are nothing more than the ghost of times past.
Instead the Jewish Quarter now is full of twisting, but grand sweeping roads, though Kafka is still remembered:
Such quotes led me to more reading of Janoush, some of which can be found here, and in which he writes this of Kafka’s knowledge of his city:
I OFTEN MARVELLED at Kafka’s wide knowledge of all the varied architectural features of the city. He was familiar not only with its palaces and churches but also with the most obscure alleys of the Old Town. He knew the medieval names of the houses even though their ancient signs no longer hung over their entrances but in the city museum in the Poric. Kafka read the city’s history out of the walls of its ancient houses. He conducted me by crooked alleyways into narrow, funnel-shaped interior courtyards in Old Prague, which he called “spittoons of light”; he walked with me, near the old Charles Bridge, through a baroque entrance hall, across a court no bigger than a handkerchief with round Renaissance arches and through a dark tubular tunnel, to a tiny inn enclosed in a small court which bore the name of The Stargazer (Czech: U hvezddru), because here Johannes Kepler had lived for many years, and here, in the year 1609, his famous book, which far outstripped all the scientific knowledge of his day, the Astronomia Nova was born.
Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born. He looked with joyful interest through the pages of all the books on the antiquities of Prague which I brought to him in his office. His eyes and hands literally caressed the pages of such publications, though he had read them all long before I placed them on his desk. His eyes shone with the look of a passionate collector. Yet he was the precise opposite of a collector. The past was for him not some historically dead collector’s piece, but a supple instrument of knowledge, a bridge to today. . . .
We traveled their path, so different today, yet once you leave Karlova Street with its hordes of tourists there is some of this magic:
There is a tiny museum now where Kepler lived.
The exhibit looks at this figure of Hermann Kafka, the father filling up the world. The Hilsner case, a jew accused of the ritual murder of a little girl. The obsession of Kafka with Ravachol the anarchist, named for him, tarred with his stigma by the servants. It looks at his intellectual and artistic circles, the figure of four (Kafka, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch and Oskar Baum), the larger circle who would meet up at the Cafe Arco and the salon held by Berta Fanta under the sign of the Unicorn Pharmacy. His contacts with Jewish theatre, undergoing a renaissance through Jicchak Löwy. His four fiancees. His death from TB. And I believe this is where the uncertain line between existential space and Imaginary Topography begins. Of course it is uncertain:
Imaginary topography – The way Kafka creates the layers of his city is one of the most enigmatic operations of modern literature. With only occasional exceptions, Kafka does not name the places he describes in his novels and short stories. The city steps back, is no longer recognizable by its buildings, bridges and monuments. And even if they are recognized by an inhabitant of Prague or by a student of Kafka, they have since become something else.
…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?
Into a passageway lined with filing cabinets and his drawings brought to life (Conversations with Kafka is full of them). I love this one, but who has not felt like this?
There is a wonderful short film of The Castle, almost entirely white, confusing, letters and figures melting into and out of sight, lonely figures never reaching where they are going. The last room is a harrowing one based on ‘In the Penal Colony’, a model of the torture, a film of skin being cut and scarred visible only through narrow windows.
I’d been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, but confess to a feeling of unsettledness, almost nausea by the time we descended the stairs, it affected me physically and that in a way is my greatest testimony. Kafka’s books affect me the same way, I cannot read them all at once, cannot read them before bed. They fill me with fear and angst and confusion and I admire them immensely. But now I am almost eager to search for the outlines of domestic space, of work space, of the city as described here in this post, The Castle is perhaps the easiest, and the one I am reading now. Climbing up to Prague’s own castle — less a castle than a complex of Baroque magnificence engulfing the old gothic buildings — it seems easy to me to see how this is at once a physical and an existential space, something rooted in both history and in the terrors of the mind. But more of that when I finish the book.