My Thesis, Entry Two: On writing well…one critic’s view

by cheri block

I’ve been reading a number of essays on Kafka  and today, I came across a provocative paragraph written by David Constantine, a German language and literature professor who retired from Oxford in 2000. He writes about Kafka’s harsh and at times debilitating  self-loathing of his own writing.

Typically–because much of what can be said about Kafka’s writing is existential rather than literary, that is it concerns a disposition and achievement of the personality, it concerns how a person is–typically, his rare exultation, his feeling of success, belongs to the manner of writing as much as or even more than to the produced text. And “manner” is quite the wrong word, quite inadequate. I really mean the whole bodily and psychic state of the man in the act of writing. The achievement of that state, in which, out of which, successful writing will be more likely to come, is itself cause for exultation or, since he rarely achieves it, for continual fretting after it and self-recrimination that he fails to allow or induce it.

This paragraph seems to be saying that successful writing will be more likely if we write from our deepest satisfied and unsatisfied self, from our sublime and/or bitter essence, from our human joys, but more often, from our restless angst.

Do you agree with my initial interpretation? I look forward to your reactions, if any.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to My Thesis, Entry Two: On writing well…one critic’s view

  1. Cyberquill says:

    The paragraph seems to be saying that Kafka believed successful writing came out of a certain state. It doesn’t seem to be taking a position on the validity of his sentiment nor on its general applicability in the sense that entering such a state might improve our writing; like pointing out that so-and-so insisted he wrote better while stoned without assessing the legitimacy of the claim.

    Kafka’s letter to his father you posted on top, on the other hand, does seem to be saying that any piece of our personal correspondence might end up on public display some day.

    • Cheri says:

      I’m not sure Kafka was capable of separating himself from his art. Do you believe that Dr. Constantine suggests that writing coming from the self–often drilling down into the most basic existential choices we as humans have–has a better chance of being successful, that is, achieving its goal?

      • Cyberquill says:

        Well, Dr Constantine says “the whole bodily and psychic state of the man in the act of writing.” Presumably, “the man” is Kafka.

        Then he continues, “that state, in which, out of which, successful writing will be more likely to come,” possibly referring to writing in general and for everybody. But the “that” in “that state” still refers back to Kafka’s bodily and psychic state when he (Kafka) was writing successfully, without defining the precise nature of that state, nor saying whether other writers should strive to attain a state identical or akin to the one Kafka strove to attain, or whether they should find their own.

        • Cheri says:

          I agree with your interpretation, CQ. My question extends the discussion to the writer in general. Do you agree?

          • Cyberquill says:

            I don’t know. Successful writing—i.e., writing that I like—probably comes from all sorts of places of varying depths. It’s like the two feuding approaches to acting: to work from the inside out (access and use one’s own emotions rooted in past experiences as the primary source for one’s performance), or from the outside in (focus on how the character dresses, walks, etc.). Spellbinding performances can result from either approach depending on the actor’s personality. Some must “feel it,” while others are simply excellent observers who don’t “feel” anything except the childlike playfulness that comes with pretending to be someone else.

  2. “Le style, c’est l’homme!” wrote a great French essayist, Fénelon, long ago. Your quotation seems to go the same way.

  3. Christopher says:

    We can find the answer to the question you posed, merely by looking into our own experience when reading anything. I mean, don’t we all prefer reading something written from the heart (felt life), than reading something written purely from the mind (dry intellect)?

    In the matter of good writing, it has been said by many that academics write badly. No better can one see this than in the paragraph from the professor you quoted. So badly was it written that you (as did I) had difficulty understanding it (“……this paragraph seems to be saying…….”).

    Your elegant interpretation of this paragraph, in one tenth of its words, conveyed perfectly what seems its essence.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you, Christopher. My big fear in writing a long 125 page paper that HAS to be a research paper is that it will be boring, made so by the nature of the assignment.

  4. Richard says:

    You suppose, Cheri, that the passage refers to the source of an act of creative writing. Constantine speaks, rather, of the state of mind or body which conduces that act. Such state is brought about by conscious act of will or receptiveness and, he asserts, Kafka is deeply frustrated that he rarely achieves it.

    You have not asked for comments as to the validity of Constantine’s remarks.

  5. wkkortas says:

    I think there is something to the notion. I suspect the very act of writing, itself so inordinately difficult, is hard to do without it being both joyful and a mechanism for tapping into the things in life that bring you joy–and I think anyone who cares about writing and writes worth a damn is striving to reach some Platonic standard of writing (be that in an individual piece of work or as a larger overall goal) that they know full well is unreachable, a realization that can be frustrating to the point of madness.

  6. dafna says:

    is there such a thing as a “happy existentialist”? 🙂

    i imagine that kafka was in a constant state of discomfort similar to the discomfort of the main characters in “metamorphosis” and “the trial”. that the product and/or the process of his own writings was a source of discomfort seems unsurprising.

    i love kafka because he captures a type of universal “unnui” to which one can relate. those who can not relate to the feelings his writings evoke likely find his work nonsensical.

    cheri, your two questions are too big! can any artist be separated from their art? can one successfully write about what one has never fully experienced?

    • Cheri says:

      Hi dafna…I am out the door but will be back to attend to this big comment. 🙂

      • Cheri says:

        Well, shame on me for asking such big questions, but dafna, I’ve been doing so since I was five years old and annoying/confounding/confusing most of the people in my life.

        Can a writer be separated from his art? I’m not sure. In Kafka’s case–no, he cannot. He IS his art. That’s what makes his writing so compelling. We’ve all experienced the uncanny, anxiety, hopelessness so he writing should be accessible to all. Why isn’t it?

        I do believe that one can write successfully about that which they have not experienced.

        It’s good to see your face on the blog and read your lively words.

  7. Ronald Sabraw says:

    I agree. Great writing comes from restless angst.

  8. “… successful writing will be more likely if we write from our deepest satisfied and unsatisfied self, from our sublime and/or bitter essence, from our human joys, but more often, from our restless angst….”

    I happen to have quite a bit of unsatisfied self, bitter essence and restless angst. This should make me a sublime writer. Right?

    This is a dangerous sentiment for writers. Yes, one must tap into those depths to find inspiration at all. But write from those depths, wallow in them, and you get the sort of writing that, well, you see all over the internet. Unreadable, off putting, self-indulgent, … bad. Being bitter and having angst per se don’t make a good writer.

    What does? First, finding inspiration in the angst, and then, second, disciplining yourself so that the writing itself is a calm expression of angst, an orderly journey through disorder. It’s almost a form of schizophrenia that is required. Go to the edge of insanity, then write about it as sanity personified.

  9. Cheri says:

    Having spent a career reading mostly bad writing and trying to help my young writers improve their mishmash, I agree with your last paragraph. Your words “orderly journey through disorder” characterize not only the act of putting thoughts to paper, but also the steps of a high school student (and worse, a junior high school student).

    I’ve been reading Kafka’s diaries, many entries of which indicate just how much Kafka pushed himself (often most of the night, even when he had a day job) to write more than well. He literally burned much of his own writing in a self-critical frenzy of dissatisfaction and rage, a whirling Dervish of doubt.

  10. As I may have mentioned, I too once had a Kafka “phase”. But that was about two decades ago. You’re motivating me to aspire to re-read him.

    Re-reading the works that matter is a better use of time than reading new works that don’t matter. But these days, one has so much to read. Still, I think Kafka will come out of the shelf around Christmas.

    I can’t even remember whether I read him in English or German.

    Every been in Prague? Gotta go (when there are few tourists there) to get the “feel”, get in the right mood.

    • Cheri says:

      Harold Bloom (whose opinions I respect) says that Kafka, like Dante and Shakespeare, is the most representative novelist of his time–the 20th century. Having widely read 20th-century Western literature, I agree with him. Only Hemingway and Faulkner as Americans and Joyce and Proust as Europeans, come close. Bloom does not include poetry in this particular discussion.

      And yes, I traveled to Prague several years ago to take a class on Kafka. In fact, it was in that class that I began to think about his stories in a different way than I did in my twenties, maybe because now I can relate to many of the ironic and paradoxical predicaments he created. I was blown away and highly frustrated (this combination is always good for my literary angst… 🙂 ) In May of 2011, Prague was alive with wonderful colorful people and great beer. We absorbed their energy and many folks–from the hotel staff off duty–to strangers sitting next to us at outdoor tables–shared their enthusiasm about life without the Russians.

      I felt Kafka in Praha and would like to go back again.

      And all of that happy feeling evaporated on the other side of the Charles Bridge.

  11. Richard says:

    Great art seeks to transcend the self and attain universal or cosmic proportions. Whether that can be achieved is a separate question, as is whether an examination of the self can do the same.

    Anything else is self-indulgence, morbid introspection and self-abuse or, in the extreme, self-annihilation. Whatever it amounts to, it is a denial of humanity and its determination to defeat the odds.

  12. Cheri says:

    For some, there is no hope. That too, is humanity, don’t you think? And in my view, sometimes from all of those words you use in the second paragraph, great art is the result.

    • Richard says:

      It is far easier to wallow in despair than to hope. Great art transforms human despair to hope. So few have that gift, sometimes in circumstances that give less reason to hope than the rest of us have. From what you say, Kafka had the gift – if only to draw attention to our privileged condition. If that it so, we owe it to him to concentrate on his work and not his methods and struggles.

    • Richard says:

      Does the great artist wish us to share his sufferings? Does he overcome them for that purpose? Does he work only for therapy?

      Those who wish to write are well advised to focus on his work instead. The great artist is, of course, his work, but he has a vision beyond himself which he seems able to communicate.

      It is this vision he wishes us to share. The rest is incidental.

      • Cheri says:

        Well put. True!

        But what was Kafka’s vision?

        Kafka’s enigmatic vision plays havoc with the reader who may see himself in the second time he reads the story.

        How about the parable of the Gatekeeper and the Law, which you can find in The Trial?

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