“I belong to you… But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”
a wise woman once said, echoing Rilke’s memorable proclamation that love is
“perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
When we fall in love, we are asked to rise to this task — a polarizing pull that stretches the psyche in opposite directions as we crave surrender and safety in equal measure.
The discomfort of this wildly disorienting bidirectional pull is what 29-year-old Franz Kafka articulated in a beautiful and heartbreaking letter to Felice Bauer, a marketing rep for a dictation machine company whom the young author had met at the home of his friend and future biographer Max Brod in August of 1912. Young Franz and Felice immediately began a correspondence of escalating intensity, with Kafka frequently exasperated — as was Vladimir Nabokov at the start of his lifelong romance with Véra — over his beloved’s infrequent and insufficiently romantic response. Over the five-year course of their turbulent, mostly epistolary relationship, they were engaged twice, even though they met in person only a few times. During that period, Kafka produced his most significant work, including
. Five hundred of his letters survive and were posthumously published in the intensely rewarding and revelatory
In November of 1912, three months after he met Felice, Kafka writes:
I am now going to ask you a favor which sounds quite crazy, and which I should regard as such, were I the one to receive the letter. It is also the very greatest test that even the kindest person could be put to. Well, this is it:
Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday — for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. For instance, I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you. I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough. But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life; and that’s why I don’t want to know that you are fond of me. If I did, how could I, fool that I am, go on sitting in my office, or here at home, instead of leaping onto a train with my eyes shut and opening them only when I am with you?
Whether out of self-protective rationalization or mere pragmatism — the onset of tuberculosis was, after all, what ended the relationship five years later — he plaintively points to a physiological reason, almost as an excuse for the psychological:
Oh, there is a sad, sad reason for not doing so. To make it short: My health is only just good enough for myself alone, not good enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood. Yet when I read your letter, I feel I could overlook even what cannot possibly be overlooked.
He resumes his plea, which seems directed more at himself than at her:
If only I had mailed Saturday’s letter, in which I implored you never to write to me again, and in which I gave a similar promise. Oh God, what prevented me from sending that letter? All would be well. But is a peaceful solution possible now? Would it help if we wrote to each other only once a week? No, if my suffering could be cured by such means it would not be serious. And already I foresee that I shan’t be able to endure even the Sunday letters. And so, to compensate for Saturday’s lost opportunity, I ask you with what energy remains to me at the end of this letter…
If we value our lives, let us abandon it all… I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.
It makes sense, of course, for a man who associated pleasure with pain — nowhere more vividly than in his famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” — to experience love as at once elating and anguishing. But the paradox of love is perhaps the same as that of art, which Jeanette Winterson so elegantly termed “the paradox of active surrender” — in order for either to transform us, we must let it turn us over and inside-out. That is what Rilke called love’s great exacting claim, and in that claim lies its ultimate reward.
Illustration from \'My First Kafka\' by Matthue Roth, a children\'s-book adaptation of Kafka for kids. Click image for more.
with the breathtaking love letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.
tags: books culture Franz Kafka letters love letters psychology
has a free weekly interestingness digest. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week\'s best articles. Here\'s an example. Like? Sign up.
remains free (and ad-free) and takes me hundreds of hours a month to research and write, and thousands of dollars to sustain. If you find any joy and value in what I do, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living
An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence
Why Time Slows Down When We’re Afraid, Speeds Up as We Age, and Gets Warped While on Vacation
How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time
20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Superb Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life
Fail Safe: Debbie Millman on Courage and the Creative Life
Great Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary
What Is Love? Notable Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History
John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter
The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long
participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support
by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.