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Gary Barwin | Issue 30
In this letter, I’m going to pretend you are Kafka. Nocturnal. Secretive. Intense. Pained yet quietly open to the joy in the world.
Excerpt from Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity
Letter to You As If You Were Kafka
I believe the hands of the clock are too close to midnight and anyway, this kind of post-ironic honesty is a response to how capitalism erodes our values and sense of self.
In this letter, I’m going to pretend you are Kafka. Nocturnal. Secretive. Intense.
Pained yet quietly open to the joy in the world.
And tonight, I saw—or didn’t see—something which reminded me of you. After midnight as I walked the dog I saw a figure on the path. The forest was blue bright because of the full moon; even the shadows were blue. The dog howled and began to run, but I called him back. I couldn’t tell if the figure was coming towards us or away. We kept walking and the figure appeared to stride off into the trees. Maybe it was a trick of the turning path, but when we rounded the bend, it was gone. The dog nosed disconsolately for a minute then gave up. It was unsettling, alone at night in the woods and this figure appearing seemingly out of nowhere. What was it?
As I’m writing this, I feel as if I’m missing out on the other writing I could be doing.
Remember that summer we watched the waves fall onto the shore, the tide coming in, the waves becoming closer and closer, so near to the sandcastles we’d made until you couldn’t stand it and so you ran up to them and smashed them all.
Kafka wrote a famous letter to his father, filled with bitterness and recrimination. He never sent it, but it’s become posthumously famous since Max Brod saved his friend’s writing from his wished-for-fire. But I like best Kafka’s letters to his partners, such as Milena. There’s often an intimate joy and the sense of loving attention, to the world and to Milena.
I’m living quite well here, the mortal body could hardly stand more care, the balcony outside my room is sunk into a garden, overgrown and covered with blooming bushes (the vegetation here is strange; in weather cold enough to make the puddles freeze in Prague, blossoms are slowly unfolding before my balcony), moreover this garden receives full sun (or full cloud, as it has for almost a week)—lizards and birds, unlikely couples, come visit me: I would very much like to share Meran with you, recently you wrote about not being able to breathe, that image and its meaning are very close to one another and here both would find a little relief.1
That’s how I would like this letter to feel. Dispensing with protective or habitual distance, if we could speak earnestly and straightforwardly, even if we don’t agree. If it could be based on listening, really seeing each other, and authentic connection. I think so much pain and confusion could be alleviated if we only had the feeling of being seen.
After returning from the walk, I lay down and dreamt that all of the ink from all the world’s writing was distilled into a vast tank, like liquid night. Then someone was dropped in and their body stained blue as they struggled to breathe. They pressed against the glass as if a desperate sea creature. Later, there was a war and the tank was tipped over and ink floods into the fields and streets. All those words—serifs, ascenders, bowls—released into the world.
Yesterday, Zoe Whittall posted on Twitter that a friend had reminded her “gay bars used to end the night with three slow songs so we'd go off into the night after swaying around holding each other and I think we should bring back that tradition.”
And I responded, ‘I think all gatherings, meetings, grocery shopping trips should end this way.”
I used to be invested in irony and was quite cynical, though I might have said something about engaging in the absurdity and contingency of everything. I’d shy away from direct expression (where is the complicating nuance?) and anything that could smack even slightly of sentimentality. But now I feel like saying “Fuck that shit.” My friend and collaborator Lillian Nećakov and I were discussing why we and many of our peers both are writing about death, and have an interest in “deeper thinking.” Is it the times or our age—sixty or more?
I believe the hands of the clock are too close to midnight and anyway, this kind of post-ironic honesty is a response to how capitalism erodes our values and sense of self. I’m trying to think without the carapace, to speak from the squishy, undeflecting, unguarded self, hoping that I’m able to withstand whatever the consequences are. I both feel that I’ve been around long enough to be strong enough for it and that I’ve learned from many brave souls, speaking from many places of alterity—queer, disabled, BIPOC—telling what is true for them.
A wolf in front of me. I wait. A forest grows. A wolf and me and the trees. I wait more. The wolf is bones. I will not be late to the chess game.
Do I believe that words are enough? Words spoken to you or words written, would they change things, be helpful? Change is more of a process, I believe. The formation of a new pattern. How many days does it take to form a habit. Answer (backed by science!): sixty-six days.2 (I’m beginning to feel like I’m channeling the second-personing of the letterwriting Rilke.)
Perhaps a thought finds in way into your thinking and, like a computer virus, begins to replicate, working in the background, making changes that may at first be invisible. The thin edge of a wedge doesn’t break the rock but after some time and some worming, more of the wedge wedges between the rockflesh and splits it (so it “bursts like a star,” to quote Rilke.) A single statement may have echoes. And perhaps the attention, the care, the seeing is the first thing that makes a difference, allows the exchange to take root. A letter is read, maybe only partially, then it is put down. But then picked up again, either literally, or in the mind.
In his “Archaic Torso of Orpheus,” Rilke exhorts, “You must change your life.” Err, ok. I’d never thought of that. I’ll change it, right away. Thanks, Rainer. Of course, we wonder “change how?” And rather than just following instructions, the phrase become more active because we consider what it means. If it even is—like I’m doing here—possible to be told to change, as if thinking something can make a more fundamental change possible. But at least for this letter, what comes before this iconic and often motivationally-memed line is important. Translations vary but the point is:
for there is no angle from which it cannot see you. You must change your life.
for here there is no placet hat does not see you.
You must change your life.3
The torso of Orpheus sees you wherever and however you are. Is it a shaming gaze that means you cannot continue to get away with your bullshit? I imagine a judgemental God with an eye like a cue ball, having no pupil, it looks (and judges) in every direction.
I think it means that “you are seen”—that your being and your experience are witnessed. I love that the torso of this famed Greek figure has no head and so it “sees” in every direction without eyes. It radiates corporeal human life, from one living thing to another. Never mind the cerebral cogitation of rationality, this “being seen” is elemental. It is from this place that the exhortation to “change your life,” comes. From a deep, indeed a fundamental, understanding, of the human condition (and this six-pack Greek demi-God is definitely conditioned!) I’d say from a place of love. An atheist Antinomian grace. You are always already everything.
It is from this place that I’d like to write this letter to you. The real you, not the Franz Kafka we both needed it to be addressed to. I wish it could beam out in every direction, not in words but with a sense that you are seen. You do not need to change your life, you just need to see it. To see below the white-capped water of its surface and know your innate value. To call yourself beloved, to feel yourself beloved on the earth.4
© 2023 by Gary Barwin. From Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity. Used with permission of Wolsak and Wynn.
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer and multidisciplinary artist and the author of twenty-six books including Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy, which won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award. His national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates won the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was long-listed for Canada Reads.
Barwin has been writer-in-residence at University of Toronto (Scarborough), Laurier, Western University, McMaster University and the Hamilton Public Library, Hillfield Strathallan College, Sheridan College and Young Voices E-Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities, to at-risk youth in Hamilton through the ArtForms program and currently mentors through the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive. His writing has been published in hundreds of magazines and journals internationally and his writing, music, media works and visuals have been presented and broadcast internationally. Though born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Ashenazi descent, Barwin lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and at garybarwin.com.
Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity by Gary Barwin Wolsak & Wynn, 2023
Award-winning author Gary Barwin has written poems, novels and books for children. He’s composed music, created multimedia art and performed around the world. Now he has turned his talented pen to essays. In Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity Barwin thinks deeply about big ideas: story and identity; art and death; how we communicate and why we dream. From his childhood home in Ireland to his long-time home in Hamilton, Barwin shares the thoughts that keep him up at night (literally) and the ideas that keep him creating. Filled with witty asides, wise stories and a generosity of spirit that is unmistakable, these are essays that readers will turn to again and again.
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Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena <https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/89235/letters-to-milena-by-franz-kafka/9780805212679/excerpt>
Rilke, ‘The Antique Torso of Orpheus,” <https://writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/syllabi/readings/Rilke-Archaic.html#:~:text=You%20must%20change%20your%20life.,-tr.&text=of%20his%20loins%2C%20glide%20to%20the%20centre%20of%20procreation.&text=it%20cannot%20see%20you.,have%20to%20change%20your%20life> a blend of translations by Stephen Mitchell and Sarah Stutt
Raymond Carver, “Late Fragment.” https://allpoetry.com/late-fragment