In Search of the Axe for the Frozen Sea Within Us

Arthur Silber:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. — Franz Kafka, in a letter to a friend

I came across these remarks by Kafka several months ago; I don’t recall seeing them before. It is a memorable passage, striking in its expressiveness and emotional power. I doubt that Kafka intended his prescription for the kind of books he prefers to be an admonition that must be scrupulously followed across the board, with no exceptions whatsoever. Not all of existence, and not all of art, need be in the nature of a hair shirt. Surely there must be a place for fun and diversion…

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8 Responses to In Search of the Axe for the Frozen Sea Within Us

  1. davidly says:

    At any time — but especially as we encounter the pushback against “fake news” — this is essential reading, alone for Silber’s parsing of the amoral craftiness of the New York Times.

  2. Rob Payne says:

    I think Arthur Silber deserves much more coverage than he gets. Counterpunch considers itself to be radical but I’ve never seen them publish any of Arthur Silber’s posts. And some of their writers are anything but radical.

  3. Marina says:

    Charles Bukowski wrote “‘first of all read Céline. the greatest writer of 2,000 years”

    Céline, the voice of the poor, was also a physician who served in clinics for the poor…

    An excerpt from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Voyage au bout de la nuit” (Journey to the End of the Night):

    “How imperious the homicidal madness must have become if they’re willing to pardon—no, forget!—the theft of a can of meat!

    True, we have got into the habit of admiring colossal bandits, whose opulence is revered by the entire world, yet whose existence, once we stop to examine it, proves to be one long crime repeated ad infinitum, but those same bandits are heaped with glory, honors, and power, their crimes are hallowed by the law of the land, whereas, as far back in history as the eye can see—and history, as you know is my business—everything conspires to show that a venial theft, especially of inglorious foodstuffs, such as bread crusts, ham, or cheese, unfailingly subjects its perpetrator to irreparable opprobrium, the categoric condemnation of the community, major punishment, automatic dishonor, and inexpiable shame, and this for two reasons, first because the perpetrator of such an offense is usually poor, which in itself connotes basic unworthiness, and secondly because his act implies, as it were, a tacit reproach to the community.

    A poor man’s theft is seen as a malicious attempt at individual redress . . . Where would we be? Note accordingly that in all countries the penalties for petty theft are extrememly severe, not only as a means of defending society, but also as a stern admonition to the unfortunate to know their place, stick to their caste, and behave themselves, joyfully resigned to go on dying of hunger and misery down through the centuries forever and ever . . .”

  4. Hummus says:

    If it weren’t for challenging posts on veganism I wouldn’t have stuck around here.

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