Quote Digest, Vol. 1: Franz Kafka

Another new and fun series is starting on my blog: Welcome to Quote Digest.

The premise of this series is the fact that great books are usually well-written and well thought out, which makes them highly quotable. On some occasions, those quotes are just nicely formed sentences, but other times there are timeless and very important existential points to be made on the basis of these words and sentences.

Interestingly enough, a favourite quote doesn’t have to come from a favourite author, because as the Estonians say: Even a blind hen may find a grain. However, most of my favourites do provide me with a high dosage of quotage.

 

Quote Digest will digest one quote and analyze it from my perspective in a literary and in a philosophical context – starting today with a highly controversial but very interesting author: Franz Kafka. The quote is quite long, so there won’t be an elucidation of every single word. However, many points are to be made. This is one of my favourite quotes and can be used to summarize my opinion on literature that I consider to be useful and valuable for myself.

I am, of course, wording my subjective opinion so feel free to speak your mind down below.

I’m primarily using the original german quote for detailed elaboration, but including the translation as well. Both are taken from Goodreads (here), but I have read Kafka’s letters and am privy to the published version as well, courtesy of the University Library of Philipps-Universität Marburg.

Ich glaube, man sollte überhaupt nur solche Bücher lesen, die einen beißen und stechen. Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch? Damit es uns glücklich macht, wie Du schreibst? Mein Gott, glücklich wären wir eben auch, wenn wir keine Bücher hätten, und solche Bücher, die uns glücklich machen, könnten wir zur Not selber schreiben. Wir brauchen aber die Bücher, die auf uns wirken wie ein Unglück, das uns sehr schmerzt, wie der Tod eines, den wir lieber hatten als uns, wie wenn wir in Wälder vorstoßen würden, von allen Menschen weg, wie ein Selbstmord, ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. 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 suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

 

 So the main point Kafka makes here is the fact that we need books that induce feeling in us, and that the feeling should be intense, evoking a reaction in us. He goes even further by saying that the books we read should hurt us and make us mourn a deathlike situation. He also says one should only and always read these kinds of books.

So why is a book that hurts its reader like a punch in the head and makes one feel uncomfortable so valuable? Because only when having these feelings does one step ouf of one’s comfort zone and actually start thinking outwards of regular patterns. The motion of pain is an illusory one and emotions studies in literary science actually conclude that the realisation of fictionality in such cases leaves the reader with a sense of relief on the whole.

 

Regarding discomfort and pain, though, a book is supposed to invoke strong emotions. Cultivating empathy with a character and unexpectedly taking away that character or letting horrible things happen to it is a way of evoking emotions of frustration, hatred, anger and grief, which then induce an emotional crisis, but then again the reader is continuing the path of the book, so a conclusion is achieved in most cases. The story in itself is non-negotiable, the writer has finished it, so the grief and pain are not changeable – however, they are teachable and transparent in their structure, so the book actually provides a controlled environment to deal with extreme feelings and learn to handle them safely.

So, a book like “the ax” should move pieces inside the “frozen sea” us that are not moved daily, and bring us into new locations and situations that are unknown to us. Such experiences make our brain learn and cope with the new patterns. New muscles, new frozen pieces are moved and strengthened this way.

 

Furthermore, reading such painfully intense and discomforting books is the easiest and best way to step outside ones comfort zone and I wholeheartedly agree with Kafka’s points – book that make us happy are the definition of our comfort zone, and a human wanting to evolve must always aspire to leave that zone and keep keeping out.

A book we could write ourselves is a mere repetition of something that we already know, and of that which must be surpassed for another book, describing an unknown territory in order for us to develop our emotional intelligence, provide neuronal stimulation and  improve cognitive skills. It also stimulates the imagination, which in return provides even more complexity to our creative mind. All of these steps further our abilities to see more, think more and overcome more. Pain strenthens us, discomfort makes us think outside the box and complications make us step up to overcome obstacles.

 

If these modes of development are outside a persons capabilities, it is obviously not frowned upon if one decides to put down said book and choose a lighter, easier read. However, personally, I consider that to be a foolish and weak choice. For me, the only logical step is to go forward and not keep circling around oneself, not remaining captured and self-centered but to look beyond oneself.

 

Ideally, one should go on and evolve, taking risks to conquer new parts of one’s inside and one’s surroundings. Literature can help immensely and even be an essential guide on that path.

 

What do you think about Kafka’s thoughts? Do you agree? Let me know in the comment section.

 



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