Kafka on Taoism, the Nature of Reality, and the Truth of Human Life
“Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.”
By Maria Popova
In his mid-twenties, after completing his education for a legal career, Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) took a job at an insurance company. He remained there for twelve years and was only able to write on nights and weekends, which is how he composed The Metamorphosis. In the last four years of his life, Kafka befriended a seventeen-year-old Czech boy named Gustav Janouch — the son of a colleague at the insurance company. The two would take long walks together, conversing about literature and life — walks to which Kafka brought the same sorrowful radiance that lends his prose its timeless enchantment.
Decades after Kafka’s death, Janouch published his recollections of these bipedal discourses as Conversations with Kafka (public library) — the source of the beloved author’s reflections on love and the power of patience and appearance versus reality.
In one of their encounters, Kafka shares with the boy his fascination with Taoism and Eastern philosophy, particularly the aphoristic writings of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu (who was also a major influence for Bruce Lee). “They are a sea in which one can easily drown,” he cautions his young friend, but this overwhelming quality is precisely what gives these ancient teachings their timeless wisdom. Kafka tells Janouch:
Wisdom [is] a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying.
The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.
Janouch recounts that after delivering this observation, Kafka “laughed like a happy summer excursionist” — the perfect poetic image to capture the writer’s singular entwining of the nihilistic and the ennobling. With an admiring eye to Taoism’s central philosophy, Kafka adds:
Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost. All it guarantees us is what is superficial, the facade. But one must break through this. Then everything becomes clear.
There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death… There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly electrifying Conversations with Kafka with a Zen master’s explanation of death and the life-force to a child and Dostoyevsky on how we come to know truth, then revisit Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.
Published April 18, 2016