Brain Pickings

Kafka’s Remarkable Letter to His Abusive and Narcissistic Father

By:

“It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”

Franz Kafka was one of history’s most prolific and expressive practitioners of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.” Among the hundreds of epistles he penned during his short life were his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters and his magnificent missive to a childhood friend about what books do for the human soul. Although he imbued most with an extraordinary depth of introspective insight and self-revelation, none surpass the 47-page letter he wrote to his father, Hermann, in November of 1919 — the closest thing to an autobiography Kafka ever produced. A translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins was posthumously published as Letter to His Father (public library) in 1966.

Prompted in large part by the dissolution of his engagement to Felice Bauer, in which Hermann’s active disapproval of the relationship was a toxic force and which resulted in the estrangement of father and son, 36-year-old Kafka set out to hold his father accountable for the emotional abuse, disorienting double standards, and constant disapprobation that branded his childhood — a measured yet fierce outburst of anguish and disappointment thirty years in the buildup.

His litany of indictments is doubly harrowing in light of what psychologists have found in the decades since — that our early limbic contact with our parents profoundly shapes our character, laying down the wiring for emotional habits and patterns of connecting that greatly influence what we bring to all subsequent relationships in life, either expanding or contracting our capacity for “positivity resonance” depending on how nurturing or toxic those formative relationships were. For those of us with similar experiences, be it inflicted by a patriarch or a matriarch, Kafka’s letter to his father is at once excruciating in its deep resonance and strangely comforting in its validation of shared reality.

Kafka writes:

Dearest Father,

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because, even in writing, this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.

The first page of Kafka's letter to his father.

Kafka paints the backdrop of his father’s emotional tyranny and lays out what he hopes the letter would accomplish for both of them:

To you the matter always seemed very simple, at least in so far as you talked about it in front of me, and indiscriminately in front of many other people. It looked to you more or less as follows: you have worked hard all your life, have sacrificed everything for your children, above all for me, consequently I have lived high and handsome, have been completely at liberty to learn whatever I wanted, and have had no cause for material worries, which means worries of any kind at all. You have not expected any gratitude for this, knowing what “children’s gratitude” is like, but have expected at least some sort of obligingness, some sign of sympathy. Instead I have always hidden from you, in my room, among my books, with crazy friends, or with extravagant ideas… If you sum up your judgment of me, the result you get is that, although you don’t charge me with anything downright improper or wicked (with the exception perhaps of my latest marriage plan), you do charge me with coldness, estrangement, and ingratitude. And, what is more, you charge me with it in such a way as to make it seem my fault, as though I might have been able, with something like a touch on the steering wheel, to make everything quite different, while you aren’t in the slightest to blame, unless it be for having been too good to me.

This, your usual way of representing it, I regard as accurate only in so far as I too believe you are entirely blameless in the matter of our estrangement. But I am equally entirely blameless. If I could get you to acknowledge this, then what would be possible is — not, I think, a new life, we are both much too old for that — but still, a kind of peace; no cessation, but still, a diminution of your unceasing reproaches.

But this is where the similarity ends. Kafka sees in his father everything he himself is not — a man of “health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, knowledge of human nature, a certain way of doing things on a grand scale, of course also with all the defects and weaknesses that go with these advantages and into which your temperament and sometimes your hot temper drive you.” The anguish resulting from this disparity of temperaments coupled with a disparity of power between parent and child is familiar to all who have lived through a similar childhood — the constantly enforced, with varying degrees of force, sense that the parent’s version of reality is always right simply by virtue of authority and the child’s always wrong by virtue of submission, and thus the child comes to internalize the chronic guilt of wrongness.

With such a child’s classic cycle of accusation and apologism in making sense of a parent’s hurtful behavior, Kafka considers his father’s shortcomings with equal parts pain and compassion:

We were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would stand to each other, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated. But perhaps something worse happened. And in saying this I would all the time beg of you not to forget that I never, and not even for a single moment, believe any guilt to be on your side. The effect you had on me was the effect you could not help having. But you should stop considering it some particular malice on my part that I succumbed to that effect.

I was a timid child. For all that, I am sure I was also obstinate, as children are. I am sure that Mother spoilt me too, but I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly word, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything that was wanted of me. Now you are, after all, at bottom a kindly and softhearted person (what follows will not be in contradiction to this, I am speaking only of the impression you made on the child), but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface. You can only treat a child in the way you yourself are constituted, with vigor, noise, and hot temper, and in this case this seemed to you, into the bargain, extremely suitable, because you wanted to bring me up to be a strong brave boy.

Kafka recounts one particularly traumatic incident when one night as a young boy, he kept crying for water — “not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself,” he explains with that learned reality-questioning apologism he carried into adulthood — until his father grew so angry that he yanked little Franz out of bed, carried him out onto the balcony, and left him there in nothing but his nightshirt, shutting the door. He writes:

I was quite obedient afterwards at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the [balcony], and that meant I was a mere nothing for him.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

In a poignant lament that calls to mind the contrasting childhood of Henri Matisse, who was bathed in parental support, Kafka bemoans his father’s attitude toward his academic and creative endeavors:

What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road. But I was not fit for that… At that time, and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement.

In reflecting on his father’s particularly oppressive “intellectual domination,” Kafka speaks to the particular burden of children whose parents have risen from poverty to success by their own efforts. (In factuality, Hermann grew up in a middle-class family but liked to mythologize the hardships of his youth after he became a successful businessman.) With piercing insight into the self-righteousness syndrome that befalls many such self-made people who come to believe their own myth of omnipotence, Kafka writes:

You had worked your way so far up by your own energies alone, and as a result you had unbounded confidence in your opinion. That was not yet so dazzling for me as a child as later for the boy growing up. From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. It did sometimes happen that you had no opinion whatsoever about a matter and as a result all opinions that were at all possible with respect to the matter were necessarily wrong, without exception. You were capable, for instance, of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews, and what is more, not only selectively but in every respect, and finally nobody was left except yourself. For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason.

Once again, Kafka returns to how his father’s warped and solipsistic view of reality made his own bleed with uncertainty and self-doubt:

All these thoughts, seemingly independent of you, were from the beginning burdened with your belittling judgments; it was almost impossible to endure this and still work out a thought with any measure of completeness and permanence.

One especially frequent form of belittlement was Hermann’s habit of dismissing anything that excited and inspired young Franz, invariably crushing the boy’s interest in pursuing anything — a particularly poisonous serpent to have in one’s nest of idea-incubation. He writes:

It was only necessary to be happy about something or other, to be filled with the thought of it, to come home and speak of it, and the answer was an ironical sigh, a shaking of the head, a tapping on the table with a finger… Of course, you couldn’t be expected to be enthusiastic about every childish triviality, when you were in a state of fret and worry. But that was not the point. Rather, by virtue of your antagonistic nature, you could not help but always and inevitably cause the child such disappointments; and further, this antagonism, accumulating material, was constantly intensified; eventually the pattern expressed itself even if, for once, you were of the same opinion as I; finally, these disappointments of the child were not the ordinary disappointments of life but, since they involved you, the all-important personage, they struck to the very core. Courage, resolution, confidence, delight in this and that, could not last when you were against it or even if your opposition was merely to be assumed; and it was to be assumed in almost everything I did.

Young Franz Kafka

Writing only five years after Freud introduced the concept of narcissism and half a century before Narcissistic Personality Disorder came to be classified in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Kafka offers a perfect and prescient diagnosis of his father:

What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power. I too, I am sure, often hurt you with what I said, but then I always knew, and it pained me, but I could not control myself, could not keep the words back, I was sorry even while I was saying them. But you struck out with your words without much ado, you weren’t sorry for anyone, either during or afterwards, one was utterly defenseless against you.

Anyone who has shared life with a narcissist recognizes, of course, the chronic dispensation of such double standards and its many manifestations across all areas where rules are applied. In describing how Hermann disciplined his children at the dinner table, Kafka illustrates this narcissistic tendency with the perfect allegorical anecdote:

The main thing was that the bread should be cut straight. But it didn’t matter that you did it with a knife dripping with gravy. Care had to be taken that no scraps fell on the floor. In the end it was under your chair that there were most scraps.

The most heartbreaking effect of these disorienting double standards is that the child grows utterly confused about right and wrong, for they seem to trade places constantly depending on who the doer is, and comes to internalize the notion that he or she is always at fault. Instead of holding up a mirror to validate the child’s experience of reality, such a parent instead traps the child in a fun-house maze of mirrors that never reflect an accurate or static image. Those who have lived through this know how easily it metastasizes into a deep-seated belief that one’s interpretation of reality, especially when reality is ambiguous or uncertain, is always the wrong one, the faulty one, the one fully invalidated by the mere existence of another’s interpretation.

As a consequence of this immersion in uncertainty and self-doubt, Kafka grew increasingly preoccupied with his body and health — a tangible aspect of reality:

Since there was nothing at all I was certain of, since I needed to be provided at every instant with a new confirmation of my existence, since nothing was in my very own, undoubted, sole possession, determined unequivocally only by me — in sober truth a disinherited son — naturally I became unsure even of the thing nearest to me, my own body.

This paved the way for “every sort of hypochondria” and developed a wide range of anxieties about “digestion, hair falling out, a spinal curvature, and so on,” which swelled into tormenting fixations until he finally succumbed to real illness — the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life.

Kafka captures this draining dance with disappointment and uncertainty in another heartbreaking exhortation:

Please, Father, understand me correctly: in themselves these would have been utterly insignificant details, they only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me. Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey. I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too, for how could I presume to defy you; or I could not obey because I did not, for instance, have your strength, your appetite, your skill, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; this was the greatest disgrace of all.

Illustration from 'My First Kafka' by Matthue Roth, a children's-book adaptation of Kafka for kids. Click image for more.

Kafka turns to how his father’s explosive temperament crushed the young man’s hope of being understood — which is what everybody needs — by annihilating the possibility of calm, civil conversation in the household:

[Your] frightful, hoarse undertone of anger and utter condemnation … only makes me tremble less today than in my childhood because the child’s exclusive sense of guilt has been partly replaced by insight into our helplessness, yours and mine.

The impossibility of getting on calmly together had one more result, actually a very natural one: I lost the capacity to talk. I dare say I would not have become a very eloquent person in any case, but I would, after all, have acquired the usual fluency of human language. But at a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat, “Not a word of contradiction!” and the raised hand that accompanied it have been with me ever since. What I got from you — and you are, whenever it is a matter of your own affairs, an excellent talker — was a hesitant, stammering mode of speech, and even that was still too much for you, and finally I kept silent, at first perhaps out of defiance, and then because I could neither think nor speak in your presence. And because you were the person who really brought me up, this has had its repercussions throughout my life.

[…]

Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and — oddly enough — self-pity.

This blend of abusive aplomb and martyrdom seems common in the narcissistic tyrant — familiar, at least, to those who have suffered one — but Kafka adds even more dimension by pointing out that his father’s most scarring abuse was inflicted less by direct blows than by toxic osmosis, that soul-squashing effect of being in the presence of an angry and spiritually draining despot:

I cannot recall your ever having abused me directly and in downright abusive terms. Nor was that necessary; you had so many other methods, and besides, in talk at home and particularly at business the words of abuse went flying around me in such swarms, as they were flung at other people’s heads, that as a little boy I was sometimes almost stunned and had no reason not to apply them to myself too, for the people you were abusing were certainly no worse than I was and you were certainly not more displeased with them than with me. And here again was your enigmatic innocence and inviolability; you cursed and swore without the slightest scruple; yet you condemned cursing and swearing in other people and would not have it.

His father’s continuous threats, Kafka argues, were in a way more painful than the actual harm they promised but rarely delivered. “One’s feelings became dulled by these continued threats,” he laments, but more than that, they conditioned the twisted sense that his father’s choice not to administer the promised punishment was some great act of generosity:

One had, so it seemed to the child, remained alive through your mercy and bore one’s life henceforth as an undeserved gift from you.

[…]

It is also true that you hardly ever really gave me a whipping. But the shouting, the way your face got red, the hasty undoing of the braces and laying them ready over the back of the chair, all that was almost worse for me. It is as if someone is going to be hanged. If he really is hanged, then he is dead and it is all over. But if he has to go through all the preliminaries to being hanged and he learns of his reprieve only when the noose is dangling before his face, he may suffer from it all his life. Besides, from the many occasions on which I had, according to your clearly expressed opinion, deserved a whipping but was let off at the last moment by your grace, I again accumulated only a huge sense of guilt. On every side I was to blame, I was in your debt.

Indeed, this touches on the most devastating and deadening effect of growing up in such an emotional environment — the way in which we come to mistake the crumbs of mercy for a feast of love. Kafka recounts those rare glimpses of basic parental care and affection, to which every abuser’s child learns to cling as the most precious affirmation of existence:

Fortunately, there were exceptions to all this, mostly when you suffered in silence, and affection and kindliness by their own strength overcame all obstacles, and moved me immediately. Rare as this was, it was wonderful. For instance, in earlier years, in hot summers, when you were tired after lunch, I saw you having a nap at the office, your elbow on the desk; or you joined us in the country, in the summer holidays, on Sundays, worn out from work; or the time Mother was gravely ill and you stood holding on to the bookcase, shaking with sobs; or when, during my last illness, you came tiptoeing to Ottla’s room to see me, stopping in the doorway, craning your neck to see me, and out of consideration only waved to me with your hand. At such times one would lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps again now, writing it down.

He then turns to another of the crushing complexities of such households — the role of the passive parent as the abuser’s accomplice and thus a perpetrator of parallel emotional betrayal by failing to validate the child’s confusion and to affirm the anguish inflicted by the abuser. Kafka writes:

It is true that Mother was illimitably good to me, but for me all that was in relation to you, that is to say, in no good relation. Mother unconsciously played the part of a beater during a hunt. Even if your method of upbringing might in some unlikely case have set me on my own feet by means of producing defiance, dislike, or even hate in me, Mother canceled that out again by kindness, by talking sensibly (in the maze and chaos of my childhood she was the very prototype of good sense and reasonableness), by pleading for me; and I was again driven back into your orbit, which I might perhaps otherwise have broken out of, to your advantage and to my own.

[…]

If I was to escape from you, I had to escape from the family as well, even from Mother. True, one could always get protection from her, but only in relation to you. She loved you too much and was too devoted and loyal to you to have been for long an independent spiritual force in the child’s struggle.

Long before psychologists demonstrated how our early attachment patterns wire the way we connect later in life, Kafka laments the detrimental effect of his father’s emotional abuse on his subsequent relationships:

Relations with people outside the family … suffered possibly still more under your influence. You are entirely mistaken if you believe I do everything for other people out of affection and loyalty, and for you and the family nothing, out of coldness and betrayal. I repeat for the tenth time: even in other circumstances I should probably have become a shy and nervous person, but it is a long dark road from there to where I have really come.

But for Kafka, the most disheartening manifestation of his father’s chronic disapproval was that directed at his writing:

[In my writing] I had, in fact, got some distance away from you by my own efforts, even if it was slightly reminiscent of the worm that, when a foot treads on its tail end, breaks loose with its front part and drags itself aside. To a certain extent I was in safety; there was a chance to breathe freely. The aversion you naturally and immediately took to my writing was, for once, welcome to me. My vanity, my ambition did suffer under your soon proverbial way of hailing the arrival of my books: “Put it on my bedside table!” (usually you were playing cards when a book came)… My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you, yet, although it was enforced by you, it did take its course in the direction determined by me.

He later adds:

In my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me. Nevertheless it is my duty or, rather, the essence of my life, to watch over them, to let no danger that I can avert, indeed no possibility of such a danger, approach them.

Early on, his father’s attitude toward his intellectual and creative interests planted the seed of Impostor Syndrome. Likening his young self to a bank clerk who has committed fraud yet continues working in constant terror of being found out, Kafka recounts one particularly tormenting fantasy he had in high school:

Often in my mind’s eye I saw the terrible assembly of the teachers … as they would meet, when I had passed the first class, and then in the second class, when I had passed that, and then in the third, and so on, meeting in order to examine this unique, outrageous case, to discover how I, the most incapable and, in any case, the most ignorant of all, had succeeded in creeping up so far as this class, which now, when everybody’s attention had at last been focused on me, would of course instantly spew me out, to the jubilation of all the righteous liberated from this nightmare. To live with such fantasies is not easy for a child.

But the most beautiful line in the entire letter is delivered almost as an aside, as Kafka contemplates the things his father has condemned as failures — including his broken engagement — and issues an elegant admonition against the perils of dogmatic perfectionism:

It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.

Kafka ends the letter with a lyrical and heartbreaking reflection on its ultimate purpose — to offer a little door for repairing the relationship despite their vast differences:

Things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder — a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail — in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.

Although the Kaiser/Wilkins vintage translation of the letter is enduringly excellent, only in this final paragraph do I find the more recent translation by Howard Colyer superior in elegance and enchantment:

In life things don’t fit together as neatly as do the proofs in my letter — life is more than a game of patience. But after allowing for this answer, which I can’t and don’t want to elaborate on now, I still believe my letter contains some truth, it takes us closer to the truth, and therefore it may allow us to live and die with a gentler and lighter spirit.

And yet for all the autobiographical tragedy captured in Kafka’s litany of abuses and disappointments, most tragic of all is the fate of the letter. According to Kafka’s friend and official biographer Max Brod, the anguished author didn’t mail the letter but gave it to his mother, Julie, to pass along to Hermann. But she never did — instead, she returned it to her son. After all, the most devastating pathology of such relationships is the child’s compulsive effort — be it by vain hope or by concrete action — to eradicate the abusive parent’s demons and make the paltry angels endure, only to be disappointed over and over again every time the demons re-rear their undying heads. Perhaps Julie sensed this and tried, in the best way she knew, to spare her son the ultimate disappointment of seeing this most grandiose of hopes familiarly vanquished.

Lighten the psychoemotional load of Letter to His Father — which is an overwhelming yet absolutely remarkable read in its totality — with Mark Twain on what his mother taught him about compassion and Rachel Carson on parenting and why it’s more important to feel than to know.

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Annie Dillard on How to Live with Mystery, the Two Ways of Looking, and the Secret of Seeing

By:

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

In her 1984 novel The Lover, Marguerite Duras wrote that “the art of seeing has to be learned.” It is a sentiment at once poetic and practical — cognitive science now knows that our brains invest a great deal of resources in learning to unsee and tune out irrelevant stimuli, which is why “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

Anything that can be learned can be taught, and there is hardly a greater teacher in the art of seeing than Annie Dillard — an astute and lyrical observer of the world, both inner and outer, and a supreme enchantress of aliveness. Her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) is one of those rare treasures best described as secular scripture, partway between Thoreau and Mary Oliver. In this gift of a book, Dillard explores seeing as an act of love (“The lover can see, and the knowledgeable,” she writes in one of her bestirring asides), but also as a monumental task for which we are chronically and profoundly underequipped (“My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head,” she observes with sweet resignation; “I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect.”).

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

Dillard writes:

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

[…]

I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and it keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about. The creeks … are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection.

Indeed, this uncertainty of vision is necessary if we are to befriend the mystery we call life — for the wider a view we take in observing that mystery, the more space for uncertainty there is. Dillard explores this with enormous wisdom and grace in another passage, using the word “we” with the perhaps intentional ambiguity of connoting both the universality of all human beings and the subset of humans who call ourselves writers. (For, lest we forget, “a writer is a professional observer.”) She reflects:

We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

'Beams of Light Through Glass' (1960) from Berenice Abbott's 'Documenting Science.' Click image for more.

The darkness, indeed, suits us — too much illumination can be paralyzing. (This happened quite literally when electric light was first introduced, but it is also part of our spiritual pathology as we spend much of our lives almost completely opaque to ourselves.) Citing one of Van Gogh’s stirring letters to his brother“Still,” he wrote, “a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Dillard reflects on the counterpoints that define our existence:

If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.

Dillard illustrates this in the most visceral of ways imaginable. Referencing a wonderful and wonderfully obscure 1960 book called Space and Light by a surgeon named Marius von Senden, she relays the numerous case studies of the first generation of patients on whom safe cataract surgeries were performed, and the extraordinary ways in which the restoration of vision — especially for those who had been unseeing since birth — fully disoriented people’s sense perceptions and ideas of space.

The Bowery in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

The notion of shadow and light was particularly incomprehensible, for shadow is evidence of depth and dimension — something the patients had never experienced and thus something that made no sense at all, that presented them with “the world unraveled from reason.” The newly sighted were suddenly so overwhelmed by the world of light, form, and space that many retreated into their old ways of navigation and sensemaking, choosing to keep their eyes shut and to orient themselves via their familiar senses.

This, of course, is a metaphor at once incredibly elegant and incredibly jarring for how we all react to overwhelming new knowledge — especially knowledge about ourselves and ourselves in relation to our formerly familiar surroundings, our suddenly confusing inner world in relation to the suddenly nonsensical outer. It produces, in the words of one doctor Dillard cites, “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” She writes:

The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair.

And yet there is a light — a gloriously breathtaking light — at the end of that tunnel of confusion, as much for the patients as for our spiritual blindnesses. Quoting another physician’s clinical case, Dillard captures this beautifully:

A twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!'”

Dillard returns to the elusive art of seeing in our everyday lives. In a sentiment that calls to mind what cognitive scientists now know about attention and Mary Oliver’s piercing assertion that “attention without feeling is only a report,” she considers the two ways of seeing:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.

[…]

If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present… Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones; I study the bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head. Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and, if I must, fall.

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

Manhattan in the 1930s. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for more.

Indeed, the “aesthetic consumerism” of which Susan Sontag accused photography easily befalls the mind’s eye as well, if we aren’t careful. But when we allow ourselves this letting go, when we let shadow and light permeate our willful blindness, the warmth of illumination washes over us and leaves us transformed. “Something broke and something opened,” Dillard writes of one such transcendent moment in which she let herself experience this second kind of seeing. And something must always break in order for something to open within us — especially when it comes to seeing our interior worlds in their full dimensionality. Dillard writes:

When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses. I am the man who watches the baseball game in silence in an empty stadium. I see the game purely; I’m abstracted and dazed. When it’s all over and the white-suited players lope off the green field to their shadowed dugouts, I leap to my feet; I cheer and cheer.

But I can’t go out and try to see this way. I’ll fail, I’ll go mad. All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.

What John Steinbeck advised his teenage son about the secret of falling in love Dillard parallels in her counsel on the secret of seeing:

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an infinitely enlightening read in its totality, itself belonging to this canon of “the literature of illumination.” Complement it with Dillard on the life of sensation versus the life of presence, her enduring advice on writing, and an illuminating conversation with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the everyday wonderland of life, then revisit astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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David the Dreamer: Extraordinary Philosophical 1922 Children’s Book Illustrated by Freud’s Cross-Dressing Niece Named Tom

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The kind of book that reads you as you read it.

“The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary before our nocturnal fancies became the subject of science — an inquiry catalyzed by the publication of Freud’s seminal 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams, which the legendary psychoanalyst considered in part his “own self-analysis” and in which he declared that “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

Two decades later, humorist, essayist, and children’s poet Ralph Bergengren wrote David the Dreamer: His Book of Dreams (public library). This most unusual 1922 book is doubly notable for the absolutely striking illustrations by Austrian artist and writer Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s eccentric niece Martha, who at the age of fifteen took on a male name and began wearing men’s clothes, and who went on to be a visionary and exceptionally talented artist of the German Art Nouveau movement before committing suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

Several years before Seidmann-Freud authored her own visionary “interactive” picture-book, she illustrated Bergengren’s whimsical tale of an androgynous-looking little boy’s dream about his dog’s third birthday party — a choice especially curious given her famous uncle’s classic treatise, which paved the way for the contemporary study of the psychology of dreams.

David knew he was dreaming because he had on the white suit, very much like the Clown’s in the Circus, that he often wore in dreams, and never anywhere else. Fido was also dressed in a white suit, with neat ruffles around his legs, and the neatest ruffle of all around his tail. Fido always spoke doggerel in dreams, and David was not at all surprised when he said, jumping up and down and wagging his ruffled tail,

“This is a great day for me.
This is my birthday, you see.
Last year I was two,
And this year I am three.
And so what say you
To a birthday partee?”

Playful and whimsical as the story may be, running through it are also darker undercurrents of subtle philosophical lamentation — perhaps something that drew Seidmann-Freud to the story. Take, for instance, this passage touching on the various dimensions of losing control in life:

There is something very disorienting about being out of sight of land in a small boat, especially when you find out, with a sinking heart, that you don’t know which way to row to get home again. It is like getting lost anywhere else, only much worse; for there isn’t any Policeman or Kind Lady to help you, and, although a lot of people you don’t know all looking at you at once is bad enough, nobody at all looking at you makes you feel even more serious. Very-Little-David felt serious indeed… He told himself sensibly that it would do no good to cry, but he did cry. So there you are.

David the Dreamer is, alas, deeply out of print — a fact at once sad and unsurprising, for it is the kind of book you simply don’t see today: fabric-bound and kissed by gold leaf, utterly experimental and rather dark in sensibility, the kind of unclassifiable children’s-book-for-grownups for which contemporary commercial publishers seem to neither allocate the proper budget nor muster the proper bravery.

Perhaps Bergengren intuited this. In the third chapter of the book, titled “How a Book Read David,” the little boy comes to pear tree under which he finds “two very fine pears and a book.” But it isn’t any ordinary book — it’s responsive and alive:

The odd thing about this book was that when David began reading the book, the book began reading David… The letters ran around, and changed places, and many of them jumped off the book out of sight… It was a queer book. And another odd thing about it was the way the leaves left as soon as you had read them. When you started to turn a leaf over, it just disappeared. But there were always plenty of new leaves, so that it was the kind of book that would easily last you to read as long as you lived.

A century later, this gem of a book is as alive as ever to the private reader, even if commercially dead. It would take a rare and courageous publisher to reinstate its cultural aliveness with a reprint — here’s to hoping there are other bastions of books out there besides “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” (I, for one, believe there are.)

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Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

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“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

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