The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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MARCH 2023 Issue

Franz Kafka: The Drawings

Andreas Kilcher, ed.
Franz Kafka: The Drawings
(Yale University Press, 2022)

While playing Dungeons & Dragons, either online or around the table with friends. While on hold yet again with Lowe’s customer service. While in another Zoom meeting and another goddamn Zoom meeting after that one. I’m always doodling so I now keep pencils, index cards, and, most importantly, erasers in every room of the house.

Even after all these years, and despite a long running meditation practice, I’ve yet to determine if my constant sketching is a mindless distraction or if that’s actually the most mindful part of my day. When doodling, I lose track of where mindfulness ends and mindlessness begins. Sometimes, I wonder if there’s any difference at all.

In Zen Meditation in Plain English, the Zen priest and psychoanalyst John Daishin Buksbazen draws a clear distinction in a way that eludes me: “To practice Zen means to realize one’s existence in the beauty and clarity of this present moment, rather than letting life unravel in useless daydreaming of past and future.” He would know better than me, of course, and if this means I’m doing it wrong by daydreaming… so be it.

To me, thinking and not-thinking are often the same thing, and that’s clearest when I have an eraser in hand. The recent landmark publication of Franz Kafka’s illustrations in The Drawings, edited by Andrea Kilcher, a professor of literature and cultural studies in Zurich, has led me to think more about the ways in which these two states of being—if they are different—benefit from each other.

The Drawings also sent me scurrying back to the political theorist Jane Bennett’s most recent book influx & efflux: writing up with Walt Whitman. That volume includes reproductions of her own color-pencil drawings and “was prompted by years of doodling—in meetings, in seminar rooms and lecture halls, on the phone, while trying to read.” In it, she “explores the experience of being continuously subject to influence and still managing to add something to the mix.” In doing so, Bennett has provided me with another way of thinking about Kafka’s own doodles.

Bennett’s title comes from “Song of Myself,” which I happen to regard as an urtext of this—alas currently failing—American experiment. Listen to the old in-out in-out of the ocean here:

You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,

I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,

I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,

We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,

Cushion me soft, rock me in a billowy drowse,

Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.

Sea of stretch’d ground-swells,

Seas breathing broad and convulsive breaths,

Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet always-ready graves,

Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,

I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phases

Partaker of influx and efflux I, extoller of hate and conciliation,

Extoller of amies and those that sleep in each others’ arms.

The sea gives shape to the shore, which then influences the motion of the sea in return. That much is obvious. By Bennett’s reading, the first-person “I” of Whitman’s poems is similarly “a porous and susceptible shape that rides and imbibes waves of influx-and-efflux but also contributes an ‘influence’ of its own.” That sounds to my ear at least a little bit like an ego that’s also in part ego-less.

In singing himself, according to Bennett, Walt Whitman formulates an I “who is both creative writer—locus of a distinctive poetic effort—and sensitive receptor.” He gives and takes and gives back again. Put another and smarter way: “‘Influx and efflux’ invokes that ubiquitous tendency for outsiders to come in, muddy the waters, and exit to partake in new (lively/deathly) waves of encounter.” Sometimes that outsider is us.

As I understand Bennett here, doodling while occupied elsewhere allows for a similar, oceanic opening and closing. Her influx & efflux includes a nice selection of her illustrations; the dizzying, organic shapes—penciled in with bright colors—seemingly respond to whatever it is she’s doing at the time of creation and, I would speculate, also influences what she contributes to each of those social situations. My not-very-good drawings do likewise.

I should note here that Bennett was my favorite undergraduate professor. I first read Anna Karenina and Thus Spoke Zarathustra with her; she made Hegel’s dialectic make sense and, it must be said, helped Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being maintain its mysterious charms. That she did so with such joy and laughter has inspired my own teaching in untold ways. I can still hear her Inspector Clouseau impression: “That’s not my dog.” Her greatest gift, however, has been my abiding obsession with and love for Kafka, who I first read with her.

In his thorough introduction, titled “The History and Trials of Kafka’s Drawings,” Kilcher details the—forgive me—Kafkaesque ordeal of tracking down and publishing these doodles. (That said, I prefer the alternative adjective “Kafkan” that Kundera used in The Art of the Novel to describe “a world that is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution they cannot escape and cannot understand.”) Until now, there were only forty or so of Kafka’s illustrations in the public eye, a few of which have appeared on book covers. Unfortunately, as Kilcher writes, “the bulk of Kafka’s drawings were located in a portion of his literary estate that was inaccessible for decades.” The present volume greatly expands upon a 2002 Dutch compilation and a 2007 edition published in English in Prague. Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, so only time will tell if The Drawings truly is “the last great unknown trove of Kafka’s works.”

For those who wish to go deep into the weeds about the estate of Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod, and the various owners of these drawings over the years, Kilcher has you covered. He has, in collaboration with artist and researcher Pavel Schmidt, organized their finding into “Single Pages and Smaller Folios” (ca. 1901–07); “The Sketchbook”; “Drawings in the Travel Diaries” (1911–12); “Drawings in the Letters” (1909–21); “Drawings in the Diaries and Notebooks” (1909–24); and “Manuscripts with Patterns and Ornaments” (1913–22), “that have their origins in the writing process.”

The sketchbook drawings begin when Kafka was eighteen or so and end around the time he accepted his job at an Italian insurance company in Prague. Almost all of these were drawn using graphite pencils, with only the occasional flourish of black ink. They’re figurative and swooping. One is a haunting self-portrait; another resembles a bent penis with four legs. There are buildings and people sitting in chairs. Some of the cherubic faces remind me of Daniel Johnston’s, and more recently Joe Jack Talcum’s magic marker pictures. The styles are all over the place, from detailed portraits to caricatures; realism brushes up against surrealism. Those of us who hoped to see a depiction of Odradek from the story “Cares of a Family Man” might come away disappointed, but there’s enough else here to dig in to.

The great joy of The Drawings derives from having it open side by side with Kafka’s Collected Stories and trying to find—or more likely invent—connections between these illustrations and their contemporary stories, or with The Trial (1925) or The Metamorphosis (1915) or his most seemingly autobiographical work, “Letter to the Father” (1919). It would be an exaggeration to suggest that The Drawings is vital to our understanding of Kafka, but it’s equally true that any attempt to understand Kafka is at best misguided. Better, I think, to revel in his influx and efflux or, per Kundera, his “seamless fusion of dream and reality.”

I catch myself returning most often to the drawings that look unplanned, the ones that kept Kafka’s hands busy while thinking about something else. They appear in the margins of letters and composition books, on yellowed post cards and graph paper. As Kundera writes, correctly, “Above all, Kafka represents an enormous aesthetic revolution. An artistic miracle.” The Drawings makes that even more apparent. Concluding yet inconclusive essays by the editor and the always excellent Judith Butler close out the volume with plenty more for me to think about—or to not think about—the next time I’m doodling.


Andrew Ervin

Andrew Ervin is the author of two works of fiction, Burning Down George Orwell's House and Extraordinary Renditions. His most recent books are Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World and Lost Tomb of the Bitchin' Chimera: A Dead Milkmen RPG Adventure.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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