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Kafka's "Prison Cell" (by Pietro Citati)

Extract from :

Pietro Citati


"(...) The Bachelor was the last incarnation of the Stranger: the last form assumed in Western culture by Raskolnikov; this man who lives in closets, experiences a tormented detachment from people, from his own life, from anything at all, who is unable to see the created shapes of the universe, does not participate in any of his own actions and if he does speak or act"seems to be repeating a lesson learnt by heart".

Also the Bachelor, like Kafka, had "been kicked out of the world." He was excluded. He had no center, protection, family, income, love : nothing on which to rely; and he lived only on himself, feeding on himself, sinking his teeth into himself, as though he knew no other flesh. He had no human contacts. He did not know how to live with his fellow man - because any man, even the dearest, loved and desired, was profoundly repugnant to him. If he was in a room, talking with friends, people who liked him, he was unable to open his mouth: the whole room made him shudder, and it seemed to him he was tied to the table. His gray-azure gaze descended upon the others, cold, icy, alien, as if it descended from another planet or rose from the tenebrous cellars of existence.

For some, solitude can be a pleasure, an ease or a respite, or a moment of quiet; but the Bachelor's and Kafka's solitude was the kind without gesture and speech of the condemned animal, which withdraws into its burrow and does not ever want to leave it again; the solitude of an object that lies in the attic of a house, and which no one will ever go upstairs to retrieve. What ravings in solitude, what hermetic and monkish dreams - the great cloistered monastery with no one living there, no one visiting, no one bringing him food, no one ringing the bell - filled the Bachelor's mind.

If by chance or mistake he entered inhabited earth, he immediately turned back and withdrew into the borderland between solitude and community, the desert and Canaan, the snow-covered countryside and the Castle, where he had the impression of waiting for a message. He had no home, except for the gutters in the street. Or perhaps his true home was hotel rooms: the Stranger's residence, where the unknown objects do not offer us the affectionate complicity, the friendly familiarity of old sofas, desks crammed with papers in our rooms, wardrobes in which our clothes are gathered, armchairs which tenderly throw open their arms to us. The hotel room was closed in, restricted, limited : it was a jail; and it resembled a grave, his grave-what the Bachelor preferred over all else.

"In a hotel room I feel particularly at my ease.... I have to myself the space of a hotel room with four clearly visible walls, and being able to lock it, knowing that my possessions, consisting of specific objects, are stored in specific points in the closets, tables and clothes racks, always gives me at least a breath of a feeling of a new existence, not yet consumed, destined for something better, possibly extensible, which actually is perhaps only desperation driven beyond itself and which has truly found its proper place in this cold grave of a hotel room."

The Bachelor, the Stranger, who was in Kafka, was disgusted with life: indeed, everyday existence, the existence that seems most touching and defenseless, aroused in him the Gnostic's tremendous hatred. He could not live in disorder and chaos: he could not tolerate his family's summer residence, where medical cotton lay next to a dish full of food, where nightshirts, clothes and sweaters were piled up on unmade beds, where his brother-in-law tenderly called his wife "darling" and "my everything," where the child defe­cated on the floor, where his father sang, shouted and clapped his hands to amuse his grandchild.

"I'm bored with making conversation", Kafka said. "I'm bored with calling on people, the joys and sorrows of my relatives bore me to the depths of my soul. Conversation deprives everything that think of its importance, seriousness, truth."

But above all the Stranger hated loudness, uproar, the noise of life. He detested the slightest whisper, a cough, an infinitesimal susurration, the rustle that immediately vanishes in the air, the tenuous song of birds: because sound is the distinctive sign of life, that which differentiates it from silent death, and by means of sound someone had introduced sin into the terrestrial paradise. With lacerating hysterical tension, which almost seems on the point of breaking into madness, Kafka recorded all noises in his Diaries and letters, as though he were drawing up a musical score of the universe.

At home there was the chatter of his sister and cousin, the card games of his father and brother-in-law, laughter, howls, shouts, the canary's dreadful twitter, noises as though of tree trunks behind the wall; the mechanism of the elevator which thundered through the empty attics, the maids' slippers on the floor above, which tapped against his cranial vault, and in the apartment below the cries and scamperings of children and nurses. What good were the plugs of Ohropax wrapped in cotton wool ? They only muffled the noise.

But if he escaped from home to obtain silence, he again knew despair in the furnished room. The landlady volatilized until she became a shadow; the young man in the next room returned in the evening tired from work and immediately went to bed; he had stopped the pendulum of the clock in his room, but what did it matter ? There was the noise of the door, the landlady's whisperings with the other tenant, the sound of the clock next door, the sound of the bell, two, perhaps three bursts of coughing, a sudden crash in the kitchen, a loud conversation coming from the floor below, and up there, in the attic, the mysterious, incessant rolling of a ball, as in a game of bowls.

"I struggled a bit against the noise, then I threw myself onto the couch with almost lacerated nerves, after ten o'clock silence, but by now unable to work."

Kafka knew the Stranger he carried within himself very well: he knew that he wanted silence because he desired death. "The deeper one digs one's grave, the more silence one achieves." And yet he continued to search for pure, immaculate silence : the silence that men violate, offend and lacerate with their voices, because they refuse to accept death. "I'm again going with Ottla [his sister], we went to two stupendous places I discovered recently," he wrote to Felice after a walk on the outskirts of Prague.

"The first of these places is still covered with high grass, completely surrounded by low slopes, irregularly close and distant, and entirely exposed to a beatific sun. The other ... is a deep valley, narrow, very varied. The two places are as silent as the earthly paradise after the expulsion of men. To break the quiet I read Plato to Ottla and she teaches me how to sing."

Thus, little by little, the Bachelor built his own prison. He suffered from it. He felt he was entirely imprisoned within himself, heard the faraway voices of men, friends, beloved women - and he desperately reached out his arms for them to free him. Life seemed to him terribly monotonous: it resembled the tasks schoolchildren are given when, in order to do penance for a misdeed, they must write the same sentence ten, a hundred, a thousand times. He felt oppressed by die Enge, "the tightness": his self, his home, Prague, the office, literature (this barrier of limits), the entire universe hemmed him in on all sides to the point of stifling him; and he thought that even the eternity he carried in his heart hemmed him in, just like the small bathroom blackened by smoke and with cobwebs in its corners with which he identified Svidrigailov's eternity in Crime and Punishment.

He spoke openly about prison; as the years went by, the walls' barriers rose ever higher. Once, in writing to Milena, he recalled Casanova's prison in the Piombi: down in the cellar, in darkness, dampness, perched on a narrow board which almost touched the water, besieged by ferocious, amphibious rats which screeched and ripped and gnawed all night. Once he wrote :

"Everything is fantasy: family, oftice, friends, the street; all fantasy, more distant or closer, the woman; but the closest truth is simply the fact that you are pushing your head against the wall of a cell without windows and without doors."

He tried, attempted to escape from this prison; he fled into the open, uttered cries for help; perhaps literature was for him also a grand flight into the infinite, but did not his desire for marriage - Felice, Julie - represent in turn the desire for another, tighter incarceration ?

Thus, toward the end, he wrote: "My prison cell - my fortress." And in a stupendous aphorism he added that the prison in which he had lived had been a false prison. It was a cage; the bars were at a meter's distance from each other; through them entered the colors and sounds of the world, indifferent and imperious as though right at home; and, strictly speaking, he was free, he could participate in everything, nothing of what happened outside escaped him, he could even have left his cage.

His dizzying claustrophobia had no use for this condition midway between freedom and prison. He wanted to be totally enclosed, bolted in, cut off, abandoned by the world; he wanted very high and impenetrable walls, like those of Gregor Samsa's room or of the cellar where he dreamt he could write."

☆ ☆ ☆


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