“When he’s always asking me” the a detached from the sentence flew away like a ball in the field. is the best I can do to translate the second sentence of Kafka’s diaries. I have no clue whether that comes close to the original: “Wenn er mich immer frägt” das ä losgelöst vom Satz flog dahin wie ein Ball auf der Wiese. Does it matter? What is it to be close? Why am I pretending to be anywhere near the same ball park as Kafka?
Such constant questioning leads to a detachment in which a thought separates itself from its context creating a new trajectory most probably just to fall flat on its face somewhere out in left field where it perishes unattended. The urge to write is however stronger than the frustration with not being read, so here goes: a musing on why peer review processes do not always eliminate the bad and, more importantly, not always discover the good.
Let me start by not straying from Kafka too much. He says: Bei dem plötzlichen Reden flog mir etwas Speichel als schlechtes Vorzeichen aus dem Mund. yielding in my translation: In suddenly speaking some spit flew as a bad omen out the mouth. As I always prefer to take my Kafka literally I imagine a point in time where he felt the urge to contribute. The urge had built up for a while. Franz knew that there were a lot of parameters that his uttering needed to meet. It should not be too loud. It should incorporate the terminology en vogue at the time and preferably refer to fashionable writers. Above all, it should feel as if it did not come from a passionate urge. Kafka knew he should know his place even if he didn’t know it. He calculated all that whilst the urge built and built. A sense of premonition was also growing in him: his uttering was going to be met uncharitably and this stress built a further dam against his urge. It had to grow stronger and stronger in order to overcome – to overflow – these various expectations and most importantly the expectation of uttering things comme il faut. But as it grew stronger it washed more premonitory material to the dam because, indeed, the higher the urge the more likely he would be seen to utter what he wanted to utter out of tune with the requirements of over-all coolness (a coolness that is as timeless as its criteria are utterly time-bound). Then he spoke. Some spit flew out of his mouth. Totally uncool. Franz knew whatever he said would take second stage to how he said it. The bad omen was the conversion of his premonition into the reaction of those who now could laugh away whatever he said because of the way he said it.
So why say it at all?
The answer is that writing or talking is very much like eating or drinking. It can be done alone but it is not the same as doing it in company. You have to eat your bread, but if you don’t have a Brod to eat it with then it goes dry to the point of you losing your taste for it. It is a disordered way of being for a writer (or talker) which is not dissimilar to having an eating disorder. Or so I think. And what’s a Brod? What did Max do that was so crucial in our being able to take Kafka literally or figuratively or whatever the taste of the day may be? The usual answer would probably be that he just happened to be there as a historical contingency that was otherwise unimportant. His merit merely was to see the good so he could pass it on. A neutral bystander helping to bring the genius to light. For every genius there is a process of discovery if she just believes in it hard enough.
And that is bollocks!
It is because Brod was company to Kafka’s eating. He asked and thereby gave taste to the talking and writing. There was no spit in speaking to Max because Franz knew what he’d say was going to be met charitably, friendly. So ideas could detach themselves. Weird and strange ideas which would normally fall flat on their face would be picked up from i.s.o. being left out on left field. There was little premonition of speaking out of place so there was room for going with the urge. So Brod was a precondition of the Kafka we know. The good is discovered not by a critical review but by the sympathetic compagnon de route. I believe it does not matter whether Brod is deemed a failure and Kafka now deemed to be a success. The point is not that Brod is the lens through which we have to see Kafka. It is – and the names used in this sentence or the names that matter in this – that Franz can’t be taught without Max. Genius is not something you possess – but something that is brought out.
People nowadays believe that genius and success are brought out by constant challenges and competition and the urge to be the best. They are deeply mistaken. Just read what is being published professionally. See how much utter dryness, mediocrity and sheer falsity survives this process in wave upon wave of specialist spit. But more importantly: realize how absolutely essential it is for anybody creating something absolutely novel to be able to count on others who trust them, spit or no spit. No genius is not something you possess – but something that is brought out. It is something that is brought out by trust between a person and another person who go on first name basis. One can only not that that is the furthest possible distance away from ‘anonymous reviewers’ just bringing out ‘the merit’ of what was said.
So, yes, I’m looking for my Brod. And I’m trying to be somebody else’s Max.