As I’ve been wading, over the past few days, through non-reader-populated trains and work scenarios that would have made stellar sitcom episodes, I’ve also managed to finish a collection of Kafka’s epistles to one of his mostly-virtual sweethearts, Letters to Milena.
The woman in question was his Czech translator, living in not-so-far-away Vienna while young(-ish) Franz holed up in Prague, doing such a great job on his stories (and maybe for other more predictable reasons, such as appearance and whatnot) that he was soon surrounding and sucking her in with the sorts of amazing, heart-on-their-sleeve letters most girls dream of receiving from poets and writers.
This outpouring followed on the heels of his lengthy and disastrous engagements (two of them!) to Felice Bauer, which had also been carried out mostly via the mail, and in the midst of another engagement to Julie Wohryzková, which was broken off while this particular correspondence was going on. Much like the exchanges I’ve read between Franz and Felice, the letters we have in this volume (only Kafka’s, none of Milena’s) provide a nice example of someone desperate for human connection and understanding, but simultaneously undercutting the possibility of achieving that goal, holding his recipient at bay from his safe haven in another city, while knowing someone else is at least carrying his thoughts and fears and emotional burdens along with him. It’s unclear from this collection how much of a barrier the married Milena was placing in the path of the two of them being in the same physical space, but it’s also evident that her distant paramour frequently resisted making that scenario possible, even while professing his devotion to her. On his end, it seems to be the same old thing with Felice all over again, carrying out a disembodied, intense, time-consuming intimacy only to have it fall flat and strange once the correspondents come face to face.
It was a beautifully frustrating collection to read, made all the more maddening by the author’s ever-more-frequent bursts of pessimism and self-insult. But here’s the maybe-positive outcome for this reader: having craved, and never found, such correspondence for most of my life, exposure to all this fraught scribbling confirmed my waning enthusiasm for such affairs that began with reading, and reading about, Kafka’s correspondence with Felice– and finally doing away completely, I think, with the last bit of regret or futile yearning for such interaction in my own life.
Pained as I am by the present’s immersion in virtual reality and relationships, Kafka’s letters, and the way he would use them, have brought to light the fact that The Virtual has been around much longer than I’d thought, and in previously unexpected fashions. Contrivances designed to bring people closer– media as simple as a written letter or as dependent on sophisticated engineering as an electronic spluttering of data– so often provide an illusion of intimacy that, in its deception, may even act as a barrier to real, full, embodied relationships (romantic or non-) ever becoming a reality. I’ve heard that dating sites give users the advice to meet as soon as possible, and not carry on a lengthy e-correspondence, so as not to build up a false image of the person sitting behind a faraway screen. In reading these letters, I’ll allege that even evidence from a pre-cyber-bound world stands in support of that suggestion.
Kafka did have relationships with women in his actual vicinity; he even lived with the last in his line of ladies, Dora Diamant. In the end, then, he proved himself capable of at least crossing a big, scary line into reality. Maybe it took those hundreds of letters, and hours spent writing them, to get there– but I still wonder what would have happened, how his life, his writing, his fears, might have been different, if he’d taken that step sooner.