On Failure and Happiness: Kafka, 1921


We have all experienced some degree of failure in our lives. But most of us would rather not reflect on it as it will most likely cause depression and self-loathing. On the other hand, when writers reflect on failure they can, somehow, find a way to make the reflection meaningful.

In a well known letter to Gershom Scholem and in his essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin argues that the “beauty” of Kafka’s fiction is the “beauty of failure.” This expression doesn’t make sense. Failure is ugly, not beautiful. It’s painful. How could it, like beauty, make one happy?

Kafka’s diary entries show us something that his novels and short stories sometimes disclose; namely, his struggles with failure and his desire for happiness.   In an entry on “crows,” which I addressed recently, Kafka points out how he sees himself as a bird who can sometimes float to the heights and “waver” over the abyss of eternity.   In that entry, Kafka points out that although he has no “help” in the heights, his friends offer him help in the lower realms (when he falls from the heights). Kafka says the same thing in his short story “The Investigations of a Dog.” Both the bird (of the entry) and the dog (of that story) are alone and feel alienated and unhappy. That is the price of being spiritual; however, both the bird and the dog admit that friends “help” one to feel happy.

As in these stories, Kafka often associates the literary experience (and dreaming) with unhappiness and failure while he associates happiness with friendship.   In his February 2nd diary entry, Kafka notes the “happiness of being with people.” The next day, Kafka tells us that it is “impossible to sleep; plagued by dreams, as if they were being scratched on me, on a stubborn material.”

Immediately following this, Kafka reflects on the meaning of failure and tries to pinpoint failure as the source of his affliction (in dreams and reality).   Like his dog character, he “investigates.” He uses a language to describe failure that is oddly Cartesian. He literally tries to perceive failing as such:

There is a certain failing, a lack in me, that is clear and distinct enough but difficult to describe: it is a compound of timidity, reserve, talkativeness, and halfheartedness; by this I intend to characterize something specific, a group of failings that under a certain aspect constitute one clearly defined failing…This failing keeps me from going mad, but also from making any headway.

Kafka’s description of failure, like Benjamin’s, is ironic. Failure keeps him sane. It protects him from madness! But, on the other hand, it also keeps him (like Gregor Samsa in his room) from “making any headway.” Nonetheless, Kafka feels that he must “cultivate” failure because if he doesn’t he will lose his mind. The word cultivation suggests that failure – for Kafka – is an artform.

Kafka must write late at night to keep from going mad. In this “bargain,” he “shall certainly be a loser.”   But, at the very least, his failure will be beautiful. The problem is that he will not, as I noted above, move anywhere. Kafka is stuck and he is not happy.

When Kafka, on March 5th, is confined to this bed for three days because of an “attack,” his friends come to his bedside. He feels a “sudden reversal. Flight. Complete surrender. These world shaking events going on within four walls.” On March 6, Kafka tells us that everything has changed: he experiences a “new seriousness and weariness.”

Kafka now wonders if he will die, if he would “choke to death” on himself? He fears that the “pressure of introspection” will diminish and that he will no longer be able to reflect on his failure (or anything for that matter). He will, as he said before, succumb to madness. He can no longer wage the battle against it….by “cultivating” failure.

Kafka, apparently for the first time in his life, wants to take a different approach to madness and death. He wants to move ahead instead of going nowhere and dying:

Mount your attacker’s horse and ride it yourself. The only possibility.   But what strength and skill that requires! And how late it is already!

Kafka now wants to be happy. And while he thought, before this, that cultivating failure was the “only possibility,” he seems to have changed his mind.  Now he reflects on nature and feels “jealous” of its happiness. Kafka rethinks the meaning of happiness and realizes how desperately he needs help.

In the past, when I had a pain and it passed away, I was happy; now I am merely relieved, while there is this bitter feeling in me…Somewhere help is waiting and the beaters are driving me there.

Eight days later Kafka seems to have found help. He tells us that he has a “pure feeling” and a “certainty of what has caused it.” Kafka saw “children.”

One girl especially (erect carriage, short black hair), and another (blonde; indefinite features, indefinite smile); the rousing music, the marching feet.

He then identifies himself as a “one in distress who sees help coming but does not rejoice in his rescue.” Nonetheless, he is happy because of the “arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up the fight; ignorant, indeed, of what awaits them but an ignorance that inspires not hopelessness but admiration and joy to the onlooker and brings tears to his eyes.”

In other words, Kafka’s help is found in seeing children who are simple and innocent. They are “ignorant.” But he doesn’t say this as a self-congratulatory intellectual who looks down on the ignorant so much as someone who realizes that simplicity of life is redemptive. The fact that he allows himself to be affected by the children helps him to survive.   In his vision, failure is not cultivated.

Nonetheless, Kafka notes how, three days later, “the attacks, my fear, rats that tear at me and whom my eyes multiply” still afflict him. And now madness seems to set in as well as a kind of happiness. His fear of death – apparently – allows madness to break in:

March 19. Hysteria making me surprisingly and unaccountably happy.

Kafka doesn’t give up; but he realizes that even if he “moves, “ he will still have to return to his death room:

April 4. How long the road is from my inner anguish to a scene like that in the yard (of children playing) – and how short the road back. And since one has now reached one’s home, there is no leaving it again.

Kafka wants to leave and move but he realizes that he has to go back “home” and die alone. His failure seems to keep him from moving, again. The cowardly option – it seems – is to fight, alone, against madness through pondering and cultivating failure. It is the short road and it leads to unhappiness (or slight glimpses of the “beauty of failure”). But the long road leads him back to humanity.

Kafka is caught up in this dialectical movement (to and fro) in his stories and in his diaries.

For Kafka, it seems, literature is the space of failure (not just life); while life itself – like the ignorant children he sees in the yard -is about happiness and movement (outward). But as an intellectual and a reflective man, he must address his private failures. He may take the long road to see his friends and be inspired by children to plow forward, ignorant of what is to come; but he can also take the short road and cultivate failure so that he can deal with the anguish that eats him up inside. Either way, Kafka was always looking for what helps. The question for Kafka and perhaps ourselves is….what help is the most important and why? If it is “cultivated,” failure may be beautiful; but, without friends to help or to read to, failure may only lead to deep humiliation and pain not relief.

Perhaps, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (who Kafka read) might say, the Clever Man needs the Simpleton (the schlemiel) who – like the children Kafka admired – has no idea of what is to come but goes toward it with happiness.  Perhaps Kafka, a Clever Man, needs the schlemiel most when, in the face of death, the cultivation of failure is no longer the “only possibility.” That seems to be Kafka’s realization in 1921.

2 thoughts on “On Failure and Happiness: Kafka, 1921

  1. Hi Menchem great writing .I could not escape but feeling like I am reading the literary manifestation of depression ,the kind that is turned to create great art . Did you read the book called :Burned Books ? I forgot the writer name a poet and a literature pro ,, an outer /inner journey book that compare Kafka and rabbi Nachman ,,, great book if you did not . I highly recommend it .

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