Robert Cohen

Refer Madness

Writing in an Age of Allusion

Discussed: The Room Between Other Rooms, The Remote Possibility of Finishing a Three-Decker Novel, Hulking Selectrics v. Cyclonic Leaf-Blowers, The Failure to Go on Buddhist Retreats, The View of Originality That Is So Unoriginal It Is Boring, To Be Always Elsewhere, The Call for New Clichés, The Library Bulging in Your Pants

Here, in its entirety, is a short story by Kafka, called “The Wish to Be a Red Indian”:

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.

This sentence, a plaintive and mysterious journey into white space, both expresses and embodies a yearning as physical as it is metaphysical, a yearning typical of its writer and indeed all writers: the wish to be a more natural, less self-conscious being. Or to put it another way, to not be a writer at all. Let’s face it, no one’s better at writing about not wanting to be a writer than someone who actually is a writer. And among writers, no one’s better than Kafka, for whom wanting and being are almost never in sync. “The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently,” he laments in one letter. “One might also add a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing.” But then he’s hardly alone in this. “Live all you can”—the Master himself says, or rather writes—“it’s a mistake not to.” Who wouldn’t trade in all that fretting irritability, all that envy and eye strain, for the life of an (OK, rather absurdly notional) “Indian,” someone wild and natural and sure, plunging headlong through space with such velocity and purpose that no spurs or reins are necessary? Though maybe headshort would be more accurate in this case, for the head in Kafka’s story, when it finally appears, is something of an afterthought; a head as attenuated from its body as a Giacometti, a head syntactically and existentially, almost Twilight Zone–ishly, “already gone.”

We find this same itch for unfettered animal movement—for existence reduced, or enhanced, to mere body-in-motion, shorn of mental entanglements and obligations, and “quivering with the fever of life”—everywhere in Kafka’s work, to say nothing of his life. Take this entry in The Blue Octavo Notebooks: “He leaves the house, he finds himself in the street, a horse is waiting, a servant is holding the stirrup, the ride takes him through an echoing wilderness.” Or the narrator of “The Departure,” who, having ordered his servant to fetch his horse from the stables, is stopped at the gate and asked where he’s going. “I don’t know,” he says. “Just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.” “So you know your goal?” the servant asks. “Yes,” he replies, “I’ve just told you. Out of here—that’s my goal.”

But of course one can’t get out of here in Kafka’s world. There may be horses, but they are never ours; there may be Indians, but they are never us; there may be gates that lend access to the Law, but for us they’re forever closed. For us there are always shackles, cages, constrictions. We are not pure beings, not whole selves; not animals, not gods. For all the purity of our aspirations, we live, as Kafka did, in the middle of things, in a room between other rooms, a self among other selves, in what literary types call a “liminal space.” Trapped between two realms, the earthly and the heavenly, we’re unable to fully inhabit, or escape, either one, but can only gesture longingly in both directions, flailing our useless limbs, like an upended beetle trying to get out of bed. “It’s the old joke,” Kafka writes. “We hold the world fast and complain that it is holding us.”

Which brings me to my subject: our ways of holding the world fast, even in fiction—especially in fiction—and how, the faster the great world spins, and the smaller, more involuted, more densely thronged with interconnections it feels, the tighter we clutch onto its fabric. And I mean this literally: with the fingers, the very digital instruments, of our hands.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Robert Cohen is the author of several novels, most recently Amateur Barbarians and Inspired Sleep, and a collection of stories, The Varieties of Romantic Experience. He teaches at Middlebury College.

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