Jul. 3, 2009

At the Airport Baggage Claim

by Charles Darling

We contemplate a parade of skis,
boxes, bags, and attachés.
Some of them, unclaimed
the first time by, meander
all the way around and out,
dumb and colorful as cows.
A deaf woman watches
her husband talk in sign.
I cannot read his tongue
of wrist and fingertip
although there seems a sadness
and his hands fold finally
into themselves.
On his shoulders sits a little boy
whose hands, above the father's head,
are making up a second story—
something, I think, about a plane.

"At the Airport Baggage Claim" by Charles Darling, from The Saints of Diminshed Capacity. © Second Wind Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Franz Kafka, (books by this author) born in Prague (1883). At the time, Prague was part of the Hapsburg Empire of Bohemia. He grew up in a Jewish ghetto in Prague, speaking German, in a family that identified themselves as Czech. He lived almost his entire life with his parents, even after graduating from law school and holding a steady job at the government-run Workman's Accident Institute — a place where he oversaw the implementing of safety measures. His work helped prevent lumber workers from losing their limbs.

His family's apartment in the Jewish ghetto in Prague was tiny, noisy, and subject to the rule and whims of his tyrannical father. Kafka once noted, "I want to write and there's a constant trembling in my forehead. I'm sitting in my room which is the noise headquarters of the whole apartment, doors are slamming everywhere. … Father breaks down the door of my room and marches through with the bottom of his bathrobe dragging behind him. Valli shouts through the foyers as if across a Parisian street, asking if father's hat has been brushed. The front door makes a noise like a sore throat … Finally, father is gone, and all that remains is the more tender, hopeless peeping of the two canaries."*

In that noisy claustrophobic apartment with his parents and three sisters, Kafka would hypnotize himself to get in a frame of mind to write. He said, "Writing … is a deeper sleep than death … just as one wouldn't pull a corpse from its grave, I can't be dragged from my desk at night."

Kafka was terrified of his father, who convinced his son early on and again and again that he was a failure in life and would never amount to anything. Kafka stuttered around his father, but no one else.

Kafka spent his life steeped in self-loathing, and he had a number of psychosomatic illnesses. To cure his perceived illnesses, he tried all sorts of herbal and natural healing remedies. He went through a phase where he chewed each bite he put into his mouth a minimum of 10 chews. And he became vegetarian, eating mostly nuts and fruits, and followed a regimen of doing aerobics in front of an open window. He was actually a physically robust and healthy young man, but he was neurotic in a number of ways. He confessed that he had "a boundless sense of guilt," and one of his friends wrote that Kafka was "the servant of a God not believed in."

He was engaged to a woman in Berlin for five years, then broke it off with her. He wrote to her, "After all, you are a girl, and you want a man, not an earthworm." They were engaged a second time, and broke it off again. Their distant relationship was carried on almost entirely by writing letters. He once said: "Letter writing is an intercourse with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the receiver, but with one's own, which emerges between the lines of the letter being written. … Written kisses never reach their destination, but are drunk en route by these ghosts."

Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, a month shy of his 41st birthday. All of his sisters later died at concentration camps in the Holocaust. Not much of Kafka's work was published during his lifetime. Kafka had instructed his friend Max Brod to set his manuscripts on fire upon his death, but Brod refused, and instead edited and published Kafka's work.

Kafka's best-known work is The Metamorphosis, which begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning after disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous bug."

His book The Trial begins, "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning."

Kafka has been made into an adjective, "Kafkaesque," a literary allusion dropped into conversation from time to time by people who may or may not be familiar with his work, which is actually full of humor. "Kafkaesque" has come to be used to describe things of a gloomy, bizarre, eerie, nightmarish, or doomed nature, and is often applied to bureaucratic or institutional situations.

Kafka once wrote in a letter to a friend: "The books we need are of the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation — a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us."

* All quotes by Kafka are translations of Kafka's German into English by David Zane Mairowitz, except for the final quote ("The books we need …"), from a translation by Willa and Edwin Muir.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
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  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
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