From Kafka's Diary:
On the way home, I said to Max that on my deathbed, provided the suffering is not too great, I will be very content. I forgot to add, and later I omitted this on purpose, that the best of what I have written is based upon this capacity to die content. (December 1914)
What does this mean? Writing depends upon the exertion of a kind of mastery over your own death. No longer is it the limit of what you can or cannot possess – the extreme to which you cannot bring yourself into relation as a sovereign equal – and this is the point: such mastery is tempting because of the very extremity of death. The strength required to realise a book demands the author must summon every power, must become control itself, the literary toreador. Then it is against death that the author must test his will. But this is not right. Kafka is not Hemmingway or Leiris; writing is not a bullfight.
What, then, is the contentedness Kafka seeks? What would it mean for him to enjoy his death? One suspects a kind of ruse: Kafka, after all, dreams of leaving writing in order to emigrate to Palestine; he puts down his work to take up carpentry. Yet he fills his notebooks, page after page, not with sketches and plans of future stories like Henry James or Dostoevsky, but with tales which launch themselves with apology – which begin and then break off, never to be completed. There are pages of such fragments.
It may appear, from this fragment in his Diary, that Kafka is playing with death, that it is his toy. It is as though his alleged contentment in death recalls Hegelian wisdom: the conversion of negativity into positivity; the transformation of death into a condition of possibility of truth and the world. Death gives form to the formless and definition to the indefinite.
But Kafka is not concerned with truth or the world. Reading the pages of the Diary, it becomes clear that his insistent appeal for a content death is a mirror of his dissatisfaction with life; who has written more eloquently of the difficulty of their relations with the world? Such dissatisfaction does not afford him mastery over death, but it makes death into a refuge. A refuge from what? From the office, from the demands of his fiancée and his difficulties with his family. But also – surely- from writing, from the uncertainty of writing. From the man who created Gracchus, we understand what a contentedness in death would mean: a still pen. Kafka dies content when he joins his characters in death. He writes; he dies – but then, when the character is dead, he is given back to his dissatisfaction. And then? He begins writing again.
‘If I do not save myself in some work, I am lost. Do I know this distinctly enough? I do not hide from men because I want to live peacefully, but because I want to perish peacefully’. Poor Kafka begins anew. Why? Because contented death is his wage as an artist; it is the aim of his writing and its justification. Blanchot: ‘The capacity to die content" implies that relations with the normal world are now and henceforth severed. Kafka is in a sense already dead. This is given him, as exile was given him; and this gift is linked to that of writing’. One recalls the passages in his Diary on ‘the merciful surplus of strength’: the gift of writing gives him strength to as it were live on in this deathly condition; it is born from his suffering – this surprises him – and it outstrips it. Literature begins when Kafka begins to ring changes upon the suffering that has befallen him.
But what kind of literature does he realise? The passage from the Diary comes just after he read 'In the Penal Colony' to his friends. It is cruel tale; one might wonder whether Kafka plays with his characters as a cat does a mouse. And what of the characters from other tales? Do they not, in some way or another, inhabit death's space (I'll have to substantiate that another day)? Is it not the movement of dying which claims them as they seek vainly for the castle or the trial?
It is as though, like Kafka, they seek a way to come to death, to find contentedness. But what do they find? Death 'like a dog' in The Trial; the incompletion of The Castle (death without terminus). Either way, Kafka himself survives the death of the characters who die; as for those who do not, he breaks off the tale and begins another. Burn my books, he tells Brod, and he means: burn what cannot bring itself to the end. Burn what survives me in the stories I wrote to find my way to death. Burn everything in me that cannot die.
Elsewhere in the Diary Kafka writes: ‘Write to be able to die, die to be able to write’. Write to be able to die – write in order to discover the contentment of departing a miserable life, a kind of safe suicide. Die to be able to write – this is the other side. What does he mean? That Kafka is in lieu of what he seeks and of the power of seeking. The work fights back; Kafka becomes the work’s mouse; his cry is Josephine’s: pathetic and piping.