A Kafka Doctor
The Laurenziberg, Prague
From London Review of Books:
I am guilty of an association of ideas; or rather: I am guilty – that’s a given, and in casting about for the source of my guilt I find I cannot prevent myself from linking one idea with another purely on the basis of their contiguity, in time, in place, in my own mind. It’s not only ideas I connect like this, I do it with images, sensory impressions and the most epiphenomenal of mental glitches. Hume writes in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that the imagination is best conceived of as a combinatorial faculty: there is nothing intrinsically imaginative about the idea of ‘gold’, nor the idea of ‘mountain’, but join them together and you have a fantastically gleaming ‘gold mountain‘. And might not that gold mountain be the Laurenziberg in Prague? After all, it looms over contemporary Prague – under its Czech language moniker, the Petřín – just as it loomed in the consciousness of Franz Kafka, whose earliest surviving narrative fragment, ‘Description of a Struggle’, is in part an account of a phantasmagorical ascent of its slopes: ‘But now the cool light which precedes the rising of the moon spread over the mountain and suddenly the moon itself appeared from beyond one of the restless bushes. I on the other hand had meanwhile been gazing in another direction, and when I now looked ahead of me and suddenly saw it glowing in its almost full roundness, I stood still with troubled eyes, for my precipitous road seemed to lead straight into this terrifying moon.’
Written during the winter of 1903-4, by a young man of 19, the story postdates by only a few years the intimations concerning his life ambitions that Kafka had had as a schoolboy – also on the slopes of the Laurenziberg – and which he set down in a 1920 letter to his Czech inamorata Milena Jesenská: ‘The most important or charming was the wish to achieve a view of life (and – this was necessarily bound up with it – to convince other people of it in writing), in which life maintained its natural heavy rise and fall, but at the same time would be recognised, no less clearly, as a void, a dream, a floating.’ The adult Kafka – the Kafka vermiculated by tubercular bacilli after having been played on for decades, as a demonic organist might press fleshy keys and pull bony stops, by his own relentless neurasthenia – reached a mystical appreciation of his youthful velleity, characterising it as a desire both to expertly hammer together a table and at the same time ‘do nothing’. The inanition would validate the craftsmanship involved, freeing it to become ‘even bolder, even more resolute, even more real and, if you like, even more insane’. I too have wished for this Dionysian timpani. I too have appreciated that nothing comes of nothing. While for the avuncular Kafka, patting the shoulder of his younger self, it was self-evident that ‘his wish was not a wish, it was only a defence, an embourgeoisement of nothing.’
After a night’s dreamless sleep in a conifer wood, the narrator of ‘Description of a Struggle’ encounters an obese and litter-borne Buddha-like figure whose ‘face bore the artless expression of a man who meditates and makes no effort to conceal it’ – an uncharacteristically taut one-liner for Kafka; he soon put paid to such callow excesses. The holy man inveighs against the Laurenziberg: ‘Mountain, I do not love you, for you remind me of the clouds, of the sunset, of the rising sky, and these are things that almost make me cry because one can never reach them while being carried on a small litter. But when showing me this, sly mountain, you block the distant view which gladdens me, for it reveals the attainable at a glance. That’s why I do not love you, mountain by the water – no, I do not love you.’ As if the mundane urban hillock were golden, it takes on these elemental characteristics: vaporous, gaseous, luminescent. But even as a dross of medieval masonry and Renaissance stucco – the Hunger Wall, the Strahov Monastery, the Hradčany Castle – it still represents a rigid piece of stage dressing, occluding what for Kafka, until the last few months of his active life, would always remain unattainable: the world beyond Prague.