Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Kafka, Ice, and Sacred Cows

I just found this lurking in my Blogger drafts, it's been there a long time and references a blog that no longer exists, sadly:
I encountered a quotation from Franz Kafka.

"A book must be an ice-axe
to break the seas
frozen inside our soul."
- Franz Kafka

At first reading, with an aerial photograph of a ship in sea-ice, it seemed a fairly clever, and worthy quotation.
But I'm a contrary beast, and something about it niggled me.

After a moment or two, I decided that Kafka was talking nonsensense. Piffle. In a rather nonsensical way. Obviously, Kafka is a towering literary and philosophical genius, so I should desist from rocking the boat?

Let's just look more closely.
An ice-axe is in modern english parlance, a mountaineering tool. It is used for cutting footholds, as a walking aid, with its pick as a climbing tool, and as a fall arrest device on steep snow and ice slopes.
It's pretty useless for breaking up sea ice.

Ha! I'll be the only voice of dissent shall I?, the grit in the gears so to speak. "A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul." I wonder if Kafka meant this? or how else the translator might have rendered these words? Because an ice axe is not a tool for breaking sea ice, I've broken sea ice aplenty, and the ice axe is not the tool of choice. An ice-axe is a tool for cutting steps, arresting falls, anchoring oneself, a safety device, not a breaking out device. And seas frozen inside our soul? only the surface of the sea freezes, a relatively thin crust, thin crust, beneath which life teems, plankton, fish, whales. And the ice is constantly moving, opening, re-forming, ridging.. And a book, an ice axe? Yes, cut steps in the snow, ascend, halt your plummet into the crevasse... I can see it as you do, if I deliberately ignore my knowledge of frozen seas, and ice-axes, but... Sorry Mr Kafka, a clumsy metaphor, I realise English is not your own language, and I can't hold you responsible for the translation, but this this is clumsy. I tracked it down, to the original source. My german is poor.
Kafka wrote in a letter- "-If the book we are reading does not wake us, like a fist hammering on our skull, why do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? My God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us."
Hmm, Mr Kafka, can you explain to the class why, for what possible reason, one might want to take an axe to the frozen sea? Not your mythical interior one. Real sea, real axe. What reason to conjoin the two? Perhaps, class, that shall be your homework. And Mr Kafka? I realise that as a young man of twenty, you think you know everything, I wonder how you'll view those words when you are a bit older and wiser.
Right folks, axes out, I'll start running.
How dare he question Kafka?!!!!!

If you want to break sea ice, an icebreaker is quite handy.


  1. Water Baby says "kafka is too wierd"...
    Kafka says "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

    Need we say more?

  2. Heh. You remind me of my oldest son - picking things apart, demanding that every little detail be technically correct. But you're right and even aside from those details it's stupid anyway. What is wrong with a book that just makes you happy? Nothing!

  3. Did we eat a little too much fruit from the Picky tree, Mr Soub? Heh heh.

    Kafka was a bit of a twat sometimes.

  4. I suppose Mr. Kafka was pontificating a bit on the nature of books; delineating 'good' from 'bad.' Perhaps that is too simplified. I think he was speaking of time well spent reading a book that demands our very soul's contemplation versus time wasted reading a book that is .... fluffy?

    I, for one, think fluffy works - especially in times of high stress - or when one just needs an entertaining read. Not many of us spend our days and nights wrestling deep, philosophical struggles within our minds.

    However, I do believe you, Master Soubry, have strayed off mark in your argument regarding Kafka's metaphor of a book, ice-axe and the seas of the soul. I do acknowledge your apparent knowledge of frozen seas and the proper use of an ice-axe.

    But I cannot imagine needing an ice breaking ship to crack my soul's icy layer. As this layer tends to be much thinner in depth than an actual sea's, the ice-axe will do a fine job of piercing my inner icy crust. It is a 'finer' tool for a more delicate surface, yet has the 'power' to cut deep within me.

    I envision needing only one powerful blow of the ice-axe to break through ...

    Of course, Mr. Kafka could have, perhaps, utilized the image of an ice pick instead of the axe. But the idea that a pick conjures is one of: 'chipping and chipping away at ice !!??' Well, this metaphor is definitively NOT as strong an image as the one of an ice-axe.

    Kafka is not speaking of books that pick and pick and pick away at our souls: he wants A BOOK to BREAK swiftly the soul's delicate icy membrane and PIERCE us to our very core.

    your words ask: Hmm, Mr Kafka, can you explain to the class why, for what possible reason, one might want to take an axe to the frozen sea? Not your mythical interior one. Real sea, real axe.

    'Because Master Soubry, I chose to use metaphorical language to describe my philosophical thoughts on the purpose of books in our lives. We are not breaking through seas, are we Master Soubry?? No, I think not. We are breaking through frozen souls.

    Any additional questions from the class?'

  5. soubriquet said...

    Bulletholes, I'm with you and WaterBaby on this one. Kafka is indeed too weird.
    Lynn: Yes, you're right, detail, detail... If Kafka was known as a writer of pulp-fiction, he could get away with it, nobody really expects the writer to care too much. But Kafka is not famed for pulp, instead, he is hailed as a literary lion, a philosophising genius.
    Minsk: Picky tree? Too right! Kafka was, I think, a bit too... unpicky.
    I Blossom, welcome, new commenter, That's a goodly start, in fact, almost a dissertation.
    Good concept, yes, I read fluffy books too, I have read few books that I could say had the impact Kafka desires. I've read quite a few that might be described as classics, literary works that stand the test of time. Yes so few really struck me as life-changing.
    But more about this ice axe: an ice axe, I repeat, is pretty useless against frozen seas. And not really a very good tool to advocate for soul-surgery. When you mentioned "ice-pick", the image to mind is of Leon Trotsky. It failed to cure him, in fact it cracked open his soul rather terminally.
    I think you might re-read, 'K' talks not of ice as a membrane. a surface layer, nor even of souls, rather "of the frozen seas within us"
    My reply to Kafka's justification as reported by your good self is this: "Well, Franz, (if I may call you thus?", perhaps when you choose to use "metaphorical language" to describe your philosophical thoughts on the purpose of books in our lives, you might spend a few more moments finding a metaphor that makes sense. Stay off the absinthe, Franz, if you're NOT talking about ice axes and seas, then just don't".
    Well, must go get my soul out of the freezer, get it defrosted for tomorrow....................

  6. Indeed, Master Soubry:

    Franz made no reference per se to one's 'soul.' It is a construct of my own personal interpretation of the quote.

    I, for one, cannot fathom (npi) housing an entire frozen sea within me, as you are 'literally' implying in your argument against the axe. (please note that our man Franz did not elucidate for us the type of axe he intended for use.) Again, I must point you in the direction of metaphorical language - its creation lies within the hands/mind of the writer. Not the readers'.

    Frozen sea within us ... = ??? in your mind, Master Soubry?

    If not your soul, kind sir, then perhaps your skin serves as a wrapper around a solid block of ice. In that case, indeed, an ice-axe would be most unsuitable - all sorts of damage to your vital parts... I think, finally, you are on the right path: defrosting.

    Let us hope, for your sake, that morning does not arrive too swiftly - unless of course you are that mythical creature Frosty the Snowman in human drag ....

  7. p.s.

    Despite your entertaining and somewhat dogmatic reply, I refer you back to your original question directed to our man Franz:

    "...for what possible reason, one might want to take an axe to the frozen sea? Not your mythical interior one. Real sea, real axe."

    hmm... an interesting, if not subtle, diversion from the original debate ... and metaphor...

  8. i.blossom- thats the smartest stuff Iv'e heard in these parts for quite some time....where you been?

  9. Ah dear, you've found all the font sizes then. Young Mr Max sent me over (I confess, first thing this morning) because he is unavoidably detained. What can I say? I don't entirely agree with Kafka, but that doesn't mean I agree with you.

    Do you require some drive-by kisses then?

  10. Font-sizing is just another dreary task imposed upon me as a penance for my levity.

    As for drive-by kisses, I have a source of them, which fulfills my humble needs.

    I think I should suggest to her that she franchises the idea, and creates a global drive-by kiss culture. It puts a smile on my face whenever it happens.

  11. Oh.. yes, the font was because i'd saved bits of that post from different places, and couldn't be bothered to sort it all out... let's see....

  12. Master Soubry,

    NIC: As a general rule, I try to steer clear of illegitimate children who wield grinders.

    A blog post regarding poets and poetry? Ahhh .... tread carefully, Master Soubry. I understand you are still in recovery from your last Kafka beating.

    ps. I didn't want to mention this 'publicly'; however, Braccae tuae aperiuntur.

    No! - no thanks necessary! It was merely the polite thing to do. :)

  13. Vah! Denuone latine loquebar? Me ineptum. Interdum modo elabitur....

  14. I think I FINALLY tracked down the Latin thing -- it's from a song, right? I posted the words. Come and tell me if I am on the right track or if it is from something else. :)

  15. Well, i have an english paper due and i had no hesitance choosing this quote to analyze and expand on...until i read what?! =/

  16. Ha, Anonymous, go ahead, analyse and expand. We here are just doing the same thing, there's no right or wrong to the answer, only Kafka knew what he was really talking about. A great pity then that he seems unable to express himself clearly!

    I think you might grasp from this that I'm not a Kafka fan. I think he was elevated by literature teachers far beyond the level he deserves.

  17. well, in that i'll agree with you. and i'll never understand just who it is that decides what makes a piece of literature so "influential." I mean honestly, some of the things i see just make me say, "whaaaa?" And its recognized as a work of art. I looked into some of Kafka's writings in order to help me better understand this quote, but i honestly couldn't make it through one of them...go figure.

  18. Thank you, Marcelo.
    A most fitting comment for a christian missionary to post. Morons are, of course ranked slightly higher than idiots. And imbeciles. Which are you?

  19. I think he uses ice-axe for a particular reason. When we are reading a book, we are on a journey, and if we are sucked deep into the book, we can be in uncharted soul/subconscious territory. If the book is an ice-axe, it is our walking stick, our tool that can support us on our way, and keep us from peril.

    Ones soul can indeed become a frozen ocean, if you end up in dark enough personal place. And a great book will let us escape our ordinary world, into the world of fantasy and mythology. And there in that other world, of the imagination we can seek relief in "fluff" or throw ourselves into the depressive icey depths of a book like Bell Jar. It's up to us to decide.

    But, I think what Kafka might have been getting at, is that he felt like a writer had an obligation to support the reader during his subconscious journey. And that specifically he found the most valuable, the greatest writing, to be that which was life changing, that which changed the landscape of the individuals soul. Great art was to be freeing, supportive, and deliberate. Maybe he chose the ice-axe for the sea, as a deliberate commennt as someone posted above of how delicate the sea of the soul is, that it would take only an ice-axe? Maybe he chose ane ice-axe because great art is strong enough that while it looks just as innocent as a simple tool, and is accessible to any man...great art is powerful enough to do something magical to a persons soul....stronger than it appears, it can do far greater things than supposed.......maybe he imagined art was ice-axe strong enough to break a sea...

  20. Oh no. I was only reading this to trying to find the exact quote that I learned and wrote in my notebook many years ago. "Words are the tool used to break the icy sea within us." But that isn't grammatically correct in English, so who knows what it was in Czech.. I work in a library, you'd think I would stand up from my desk and go look? For the words...


Spam will be reported and swiftly deleted. I will put a curse upon you if you post spam links.