“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.”
This quotation from Franz Kafka speaks to deeply to my heart and explains why I have such a passion for literature that “rattles my cage” like he did. Good writing does not merely amuse, confirm one’s premises, or serve as “comfort food.” Good writing comes from the depths of the heart and speaks only to those whose heart has similar depths, hearts which simmer with the breath of Spirit and have complete disinterest with those “smooth words” which the prophet Isaiah warned against.
A social media friend of mine this morning shared a quotation of Helene Cixous which addressed this dimension of good writing. I will share a few quotes from this excerpt and then provide a link to the rest of it:
The only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The book that hurts us (“we who are writing)” makes us tremble, redden, bleed.
Writing is the difficult, delicate, and dangerous means of succeeding in avowing the unavowable”
We go toward the most unknown and the best unknown, that is what we are looking for when we write. We go toward the best known unknown thing, when knowing and not knowing touch, where we hope we will know what is unknown. Where we hope we will not be afraid of understanding the incomprehensible, facing invisible, hearing the inaudible, thinking the unthinkable, which is of course thinking. Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort.
And I conclude with a relevant observation from W. H. Auden, who in this excerpt has the Christmas star speaking:
ll those who follow me are led
Onto that glassy mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.