“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Kafka knew that our internal life is always “frozen” to some degree, confined to structure and routine which allows us to live our lives in a structured and routine life. But he knew that at some time in our life this “frozen sea” needs to be broken up and that literature, i.e. “books”, are one means by which this is accomplished. But he also noted that the only books that could serve this purpose are those that, “wound or stab us” to “wake us up with a blow to the head.”
Routine and structure provide safety and no one can fault humankind for desiring safety. Otto Brown noted, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” but he also knew that this was a necessary “veil” which provides the safety necessary to go about day-to-day life and keep the wheels of our social organization spinning. But Kafka’s concern, and the concern of other writers and artists, is that the need for safety can become so great that life itself is stifled and instead of an interior “flow” in our heart we have only a “frozen sea.” W. H. Auden put it this way, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”
If the risk of life is not acknowledged…the fragility and vulnerability of being a mere “meat suit” in a relentlessly grinding cosmos will be avoided; but so will the experience of being alive. It is disconcerting for humankind to consider his vulnerability, to realize that he is this mere “sack of bones” on a speck of cosmic dust on a lonely planet. It is this finitude that he seeks to hide with this specious “safety” that Kafka suggested books could “crack.”
This is a personal issue for me, thus a recurrent theme in my daily life and in this blog. Literature has been the primary means whereby the “frozen sea” in my heart has been shattering for the past three decades since a good friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and introduced me to W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot. Good literature comes from the depths of the heart and speaks to the depths of the heart, described by the Psalmist as, “deep calls unto deep.”
Here is the Kafka quote in full:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it 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 the 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 inside us. That is my belief.