Category Archives: Letters

Thou Sun Amongst Women: Kierkegaard’s Letters to Regine

Reading Kierkegaard’s letters, selections from his journals and a short biography of this Danish philosopher and author was a rabbit hole I tumbled down while making my way through Kafka and Stach’s biography of Kafka.  Kierkegaard comes up numerous times in Kafka’s life, but no so much for his philosophy as for the details about his personal life and his broken engagement.  A twenty-four-year old Kierkegaard meets the fifteen-year old Regine Olsen at a mutual friend’s house in 1837 and he is immediately smitten with her.  He wisely waits, however, until she is eighteen to begin writing her love letters and courting her.  I was surprised, delighted and, at times,  just slayed by the tender, caring, erudite and loving messages that Kierkegaard composes for her.  The intelligence combined with sincere, true expressions of love are what impressed me most about these letters.   He would oftentimes visit Regine more than once a day and hand deliver these letters (letter undated-translated by Henrik Rosenmeier):

Yesterday your brother scolded me for always speaking of my cobbler, my fruit dealer, my grocer, my coachman, etc., etc., etc.  By this means he seems to have accused me of a predominant use of the first-person possessive pronoun.  Only you know of your faithful friend that I am not extensively but intensively much more given to the use of the second-person possessive pronoun.  Indeed, how could he know that, how could any person at all—as I am only yours.

On another occasion, he remembers the details of a conversation on one of their daily visits and thoughtfully sends her a gift (letter undated, trans. Rosenmeier):

The other day when you came to see me you told me that when you were confirmed your father had presented you with a bottle of lily of the valley.  Perhaps you thought that I did not hear this, or perhaps you thought that it had slipped by my ear like so much else that finds no response within.  But not at all!  But as that flower conceals itself so prettily within its big leaf, so I first allowed the plan of sending you the enclosed to conceal itself in the half-transparent veil of oblivion so that, freed from every external consideration, even the most illusive, rejuvenated to a new life in comparison with which its first existence was but an earthly life, it might now exude that fragrance for which longing and memory (‘from the spring of my youth’) are rivals.  However, it was nearly impossible for me to obtain this essence in Copenhagen.  Yet in this respect there is also a providence, and the blind god of love always finds a way.  You happen to receive it at this very moment (just before you leave the house), because I know that you, too, know the infinity of the moment.  I only hope it will not be too late.  Hasten, my messenger, hasten my thought, and you, my Regine, pause for an instant, for only a moment stand still.

My impression of him before reading this letter was that of a taciturn, melancholy, selfish man but he was clearly capable of being thoughtful, tender and even happy.  It shows a lot about his character that he went to some trouble to get this scent for Regine!

And this gift was not a one-time occurrence.  He loved to send her all sorts of thoughtful gifts—paintings, a scarf, a handkerchief, and drawings he did himself.  He would also include in his letters translations of poems or poetry he composed himself based on famous verses.  For example, on Wednesday, the 28th of October, 1840 he writes to Regine and quotes Joachim von Eichendorff:  “In the stillness of midnight, for the day does begin at midnight, and at midnight I awoke and the hours grew long for me, for what is as swift as love?  Love is the swiftest of all, swifter than itself: Two musicians journeyed thither/From the woods so far away./One of them is deeply in love,/The other would like to be so.”

Much like Kafka, Kierkegaard struggles with making a full commitment to marriage and family life.  In the end he decides that he cannot go through with it, but Regine puts up a good fight.  There is a hint, I think, in some of the letters of Kierkegaard’s anguish between wanting to be alone and wanting to marry Regine.  This passage, from an undated letter, is one of my favorites (trans. Rosenmeier):

In truth, I come, I write, I think, I speak and falter and sigh, and my room resounds with my monologues, and in you alone, my sole confidante, dare I confide what it is that now boisterously wells up in me and then again is lost in silent reverie—in you alone dare I confide—what you have confided in me.  For know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love.  Know that every time you thus solemnly assure me that you always love me equally well, both when I am happy and when I am sad, most when I am sad—most when I am sad—because you know that sorrow is divine nostalgia and that everything good in man is sorrow’s child—know that then you are rescuing a soul from Purgatory.

He ends the letter with a tender postscript: “Whenever you catch a breath of that heliotrope at home, which is still fresh, please think of me, for truly my mind and my soul are turned towards this sun, and I have a deep longing for you, thou sun amongst women.”  Although he breaks off their engagement, he loves her and thinks of her for the rest of his short life. He never courts another woman and his diaries continue to mention her and so does his will.  In an entry of his journal in 1848, a full seven years after their broken engagement,  he writes, “The few scattered days I have been, humanely speaking, really happy, I always have longed indescribably for her, her whom I have loved so dearly and who also with her pleading moved me so deeply.”  When he dies he leaves all of his money and possessions to Regine:  “What I wish to express,” he writes, “is that for me the engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage.”

I am planning on reading Kierkegaard’s work Either/Or and his Works of Love.  Please leave me other Kierkegaard reading suggestions in the comments!

 

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The Bachelor of World Literature: Kafka-The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach

In a letter written while in his twenties, Rainer Maria Rilke describes his vision of what a good marriage ought to be (trans. John J.L. Mood):

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of is fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closet human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This is one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read of what a good, supportive and loving marriage could be. I keep thinking about Rilke’s thoughts as I make my way through the second volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka. Stach begins The Decisive Years in 1910 when a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka is still a bachelor, is still living at home with his parents and sisters, and is still trying to find enough solitude to write. Even though he is the only member of the family to have his own room, the constant noise in the apartment and the proximity of his family hinders his writing during daylight hours. Kafka’s closest friends—Max Brod, Oscar Baum and Felix Weltsch—as well as his sisters have gotten married or are making plans to get married. As Stach points out, Kafka is certainly neither innocent nor sexually neutral—he visits prostitutes to satisfy his physical needs. But the thread we see running throughout his diaries and letters is an intense, obsessive, and urgent desire to write; a wife, and family would certainly not give him the solitude he needs for his literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Bachelors, Young and Old” Stach writes (translated Shelley Frisch): “Franz Kafka is the bachelor of world literature. No one, not even the most open-minded reader, can imagine him at the side of a Frau Doktor Kafka, and the image of a white-haired family man surrounded by grandchildren at play is irreconcilable with the gaunt figure and self-conscious smile of the man we know as Kafka, who blossomed and wilted at an early age.”

Kafka has two “relationships” of sorts before he meets Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he will become engaged. Hedwig Weller is his first girlfriend in his early twenties and he exchanges letters with her between 1907 and 1909. She lives in Berlin and so most of their contact is only through letters. In 1912, Kafka and Max Brod take a trip to Weimar to meet with publishers and visit Goethe’s home which has been turned into a museum. The caretaker of Goethe’s estate has a teenage daughter with whom Kafka becomes obsessed. It is sweet and endearing how he eagerly awaits for her outside of local shops and taverns to catch fleeting glimpses of her. He even has Brod run interference with her father so he can have a stolen moment with her in the orchard on the Goethe property. (This moment is captured in a blurry photograph that Wagenbach includes in his biography of Kafka.) He is sad when he has to leave her, but it’s interesting to note that Kafka keeps choosing women that live quite a distance from him and with whom there is never a realistic chance of pursuing a serious courtship. As Stach is leading up to the chapters on Felice Bauer in this second volume, these earlier precedents will serve to shed more light on his later, failed engagements.

Marriage and the distinct possibility of not having a partner for the rest of his life also weighs heavily on Kafka. In November 1911, in a fragment of a story called “The Bachelor’s Unhappiness” he depicts a pathetic, lonely, joyless, unmarried, older man: “It seems so strange to remain a bachelor, to become an old man struggling hard to preserve his dignity while pleading for an invitation when he wants to spend an evening with people, being ill and spending weeks staring into an empty room from the corner of his bed, always saying good night at the gate, never running up the stairs beside his wife…” Kafka’s diaries entries just two years later in which he lists the pros and cons of marriage reiterate this fear of perpetual loneliness: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague presence of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone.” But sacrificing his solitude to write, even if it eases his loneliness, is not something is his willing to do. Not, at least, at this point in his life.

And so my mind returns to that lovely Rilke quote which, I think, is something that Kafka might have appreciated. If he could only find a wife that would have been that “guardian of his solitude,” It is tragic that this concept of marriage is something that would have been completely alien to him, especially given his social and religious upbringing. Even more than his relationships with Felice and Milena, I am eager to read Stach’s description of the last months of Kafka’s life when he doesn’t marry but does live with a woman named Dora Diamant, which is the closet he will ever get to a domestic life. Did she protect his solitude? Or did he finally decide that he didn’t want to die alone?

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Laying a Foundation: Kafka The Early Years by Reiner Stach

I have chosen to read Stach’s three volume biography in chronological order which is not the order in which they were published. The Early Years was the last volume in the series to be brought forth because, as translator Shelley Frisch points out in the preface, Stach was waiting to access materials from the Max Brod literary estate which, due to a legal battle in Israel over the rights to these materials, had not previously been seen by scholars. It is challenging to deal with the early years of anyone in a biography due to the lack of primary sources such as letters and diaries. What five-year-old is keeping a journal? But the scope of Stach’s biography is broad so that, in addition to the limited details about Kafka’s formative years, he includes a short history of the Hapsburg Empire, the bilingual city of Prague, Jewish migration from Eastern Europe, and the intellectual circles in Prague before World War I, etc. Sometimes it feels as if Kafka is only lingering in the background of this biography, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

An excellent example of Stach’s wide-ranging interests is his research and discussion of Kafka’s jobs in the insurance industry. It is well-documented and known from his letters and diaries that Kafka did not like his profession and oftentimes found it dreary and depressing. The only real goal he had as far as finding a profession was that his office job not encroach very much on his free time. In addition to providing the details of how Kafka came to work at two different insurance companies, Stach describes the fledging business of insurance and how the government begins to require reluctant business owners to buy something they think is needless. In addition, Stach makes keen observations about the insurance that had to be provided for the growing number of motorists; these new companies are overwhelmed by this new demand for insurance and how they go about dealing with car insurance is an amusing piece of Stach’s narrative. Even though he found it boring and dismal work, Kafka was quite good at his job and the skills he learned in law school which he used to write many a persuasive and thorough report impressed his supervisors.

And, of course, Stach begins to explore Kafka’s early literary interests; there are a few passages, for instance, concerning the development of Kafka’s earliest stories, “Descriptions of a Struggle” and “Wedding Preparations in the Country.” Stach also lingers on the point that Kafka was reticent to share any of his works in progress with his friends. Stach points out that Kafka began keeping a diary around 1909 and he uses this diary as a private place to practice his craft. Stach ends this volume with an analysis of this important primary source and piques our interest for a more in depth discussion of Kafka’s work in the next two volumes of the biography:

Kafka’s diary—he himself called it that—is a vestibule of literature, with its doors wide open toward the reality he experience, which is often authenticated with names and dates, and toward the artistically controlled fiction that evolves into works of literature. Kafka would spend innumerable hours of his life in this vestibule, as well as writing countless letters that also originated right there, in a zone in which the biographical element was transformed into literature, and neither psychology nor aesthetics enjoyed the sole right of access. It was not Kafka’s early literary works, but rather his diary entries of those years that attested for the first time to his exterritorial status and spirited him away, line by line and once and for all, from all “Prague Circles.” For the moment, though he kept that status to himself, in a secret writing school of an utterly different provenance with only a single pupil, whose progress was not verifiable. How would he have been able to explain to his friends what was going on in his notebooks?

Finally, my favorite pieces of Stach’s first volume—ones that will no doubt stay with me as I continue reading—are the endearing and personal details he includes about the young Kafka: he loved the cinema, one of his favorite pastimes was swimming, he had a droll sense of humor and he had body dysphoria which contributed to his shyness and, at times, anti-social behavior. Stach also describes how Kafka was initiated into the world of women, love and sex. In his early twenties he has a girlfriend named Hedwig to whom he writes some innocently, adorable letters. And like other young men of his time, Kafka was not above visiting prostitutes to satisfy his urges. The relationship which seems to have made the most lasting impression on young Kafka was with a woman he met while on vacation in the summer of 1905 at a sanatorium in Zuchmantel. But even Stach cannot track down or tease out the details of this affair—we will never know who this woman was and how she and Kafka become so close. I am actually glad that none of details of this relationship survive and that this part of his life remains private and is known only to Kafka and this mysterious woman.

I have been reading Kafka’s Letters to Friends and Family from the years 1905 to 1910 alongside Stach’s biography as they both cover the same time period. One of the most magnificent outcomes from reading even just the first volume of this biography is that Stach has given me a greater understanding, respect and admiration of the Kafka that one finds in his letters. As I read volume two, I will continue reading Kafka’s letters and also begin the diaries.

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The Worst Kind of Irreligion: George Eliot on the Reception of Daniel Deronda

I am reading George Eliot’s journals and letters alongside her novel Daniel Deronda.  In a letter dated the 29th of October, 1876, she describes to her friend Mrs. H.B. Stowe her surprise that Daniel Deronda has not met with more resistance because of its Jewish subject matter.  She describes the shameful racism and bigotry she witnesses among her own class:

As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with.  But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as to my nature and knowledge could attain to.  Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us.  There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.  But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.  Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting?  They hardly know that Christ was a Jew.  And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek.  To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion.  The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

The U.K., of course,  is not the only country in which racism, bigotry and xenophobia are a persistent, national problem .  Eliot’s words are just as relevant today, unfortunately, for the culture of racism that the current leadership in the U.S. has incited which is horrifying, shameful and disgusting to witness.  I am glad that Eliot does not mince words and calls it what it is—ignorance and stupidity.

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Breaking and Beginning Again and Again: Simone de Beauvoir on Giacometti

Tall Woman IV, 1960-61, Bronze; Monumental Head, 1960, Bronze; Walking Man I, 1960, Bronze.

Last month I visited the fantastic Giacometti exhibit currently on at the Guggenheim.  I was exhausted, in a good way, after spending hours viewing his sculptures, sketches and paintings. I was fondly reminded of the exhibit when, this weekend, I started reading a collection of letters written by Simone de Beauvoir to her lover Nelson Algren.  In a letter dated the 5th of November, 1947,  she describes Giacometti’s messy studio and slovenly personal habits as well as his rejection of money and fame in favor of artistic integrity.  I was so amused by her candid portrayal of his artistic process and his private life:

I don’t think I happened to speak about a very good friend of us who is a sculptor, though we see him often and he is maybe the only one we always see with pleasure.  I tried to describe him partly in Le sang des autres.  I admire him as an artist immensely.  First because he does the best modern sculpture I know; then because he works with so much purity and patience and strength.  He is called Giacometti, and will have a big exhibition of his works in New York next month.  Twenty years ago he was very successful and made much money with a kind of surrealistic sculpture.  Rich snobs payed expensive prices, as for a Picasso.  But then he felt he was going nowhere, and wasting something of himself, and he turned his back on snobs; he began to work all alone, nearly not selling anything but just what was wanted to live.  So he lives quite poorly; he is very dirty in his clothes.  I must say he seems to like dirt: to have a bath is a problem for him.

Head of a Woman, 1926, Painted Plaster.

Yesterday I saw his house and it is dreadful.  In a nice little forgotten garden, he has an atelier full of plaster where he works, and next door is a kind of hangar, big and cold, without furniture nor store, just walls and roof.  There are holes in the roof so the rain falls on the floor, and there are lots of pots and pans to receive it, but there are holes in them too!  He works 15 hours a day, chiefly at night, and when you see him he has always plaster on this clothes, his hands and his rich dirty hair; he works in cold with hands freezing, he does not care.  He lives with a very young girl whom I admire much for accepting his life; she works as a secretary the whole day, and coming back just finds this hopeless room.  She has no coat in winter and shoes with holes in them.  She left her family and everything to come to Paris and live with him; she is very nice.   He cares much for her but he is not of the sweet kind at all, and she has some hard moments to get through.  What I like in Giacometti chiefly is how he could one day break into pieces all that he had done during two years: he just broke it and his friends thought it dreadful.  He has his idea about sculpture, and for years he just tried and tried, like a maniac, not show anything, breaking and beginning again and again.  And he could easily have got money and praises and a good name.  He has very peculiar, interesting ideas about sculpture.  Well, I think that now he really achieved something; I was deeply moved by what I saw yesterday.

Hands Holding the Void, 1934, Bronze.

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