Art for the artist is only suffering, through which he releases himself for further suffering. (Kafka to Janouch)
That Kafka suffered is not in question; read the pages of the diaries. He suffers because he does not write, because he cannot find the time to write. How, then, to understand why writing too would entail suffering, why the release from suffering would imply suffering anew?
Kafka writes in his diaries:
I have never understood how it is possible for almost anyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of suffering them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness - my head, say, still on fire with unhappiness - sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with the various flourishes I might have talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain, it is simply a merciful surplus of strength at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength. But then what kind of strength is it?
I have commented on these lines before. Here, I want to note the 'merciful surplus' in question does not merely bracket Kafka’s suffering as if he had entered, with literature, into a space which had no relationship with his ‘empirical’ self. Suffering is transmuted – but what has it become? It is as though the ‘merciful strength’ has generated another self: the agent who rings changes on the suffering it reports; the self who is creative, articulate and generative. Who is this other self? It is not simply the negation of the first, suffering self who wrote of his suffering. It is still bound to it, but in the manner of a surplus. The 'poetic' self (I am borrowing Corngold's expression, and some of his argument) is a ‘surplus-self’ who is able to ring changes upon suffering.
Suffering becomes literature. Yet literature, too, is suffering. Kafka says to Janouch, ‘Art for the artist is only suffering, through which he releases himself for further suffering’. But why this new suffering? Is it because the changes one must ring upon suffering cannot be sustained from now until eternity - because, soon, the writer will fall from the surplus of strength and become once more incapable of writing, left in the same suffering with which he began? It is the gaps of non-writing within writing that are frightening. The second suffering, the suffering of art, arises from the sense that the literary work must be endless if it is to prevent the return of the suffering from which the writer began.
Write to escape suffering. Suffer because you can never write enough. This aporia, if it sums up the relationship between Kafka and writing, is dependent on the fact that neither the empirical self nor the surplus self is ever satisfied with what has been written. Writing itself does not aleviate suffering; this is clear enough from the pages of Kafka's diaries where one finds over and again remarks like ‘wrote nothing today’.
Contrast this with the 'surplus of strength' of which Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo to describe the state of mind he was in when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy? It becomes, this surplus, the strength to comprehend the affirmation of life. It is the 'ultimate, most joyous, wantonly extravagant Yes to life', the 'highest' and the 'deepest' insight.
But Kafka's fictions do not change his dissatisfaction. He once wrote to a correspondent that he was made of literature. And it is true, when borne on the draft of a merciful surplus of strength he writes, he can write - 'The Judgement', after all, was written in the course of a single night. But when he is not? When that strength fails him? Kafka suffers because he can never hold onto literature.
Still, thinking again of Nietzsche, this does not mean the relationship to literature must always be thought in terms of suffering. Might one think the writing practice of, say, Helene Cixous as testament to a writing of joy which begins in joy and then takes strength in joy?