THE LONELY VOICE #16: Between the Public and the Sky (Part One of Five Stray Thoughts on Kafka)


Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then feels the need for some kind of contact…

In the late 1990s, I taught Anglo-American law at Charles University in Prague. The law faculty is a dusty, gloomy building that squats on the bank of the Vltava River. Everything about the place is huge, the height of the ceilings, the doors, especially the doors. I’ve never seen rooms with such heavy doors. You had to yank them open with two hands. Kafka got a law degree at the faculty in 1906. It wasn’t hard to imagine him swallowed up by that building, and I spent a lot of time that year thinking about him wandering those halls not built to human scale. I had a lot of time to think. My job wasn’t very taxing. Even showing up to teach seemed optional. Sometimes I had five students; other days it was just me and a guy named Jan. Jan had a cousin who lived in East Lansing.

A lot of people pass through Prague and dream up some dopey kinship with Kafka and I took the fact that not only was I irrelevant – a key thing – but was also doing time in the very same building as he once walked as a kind of license. I am as lost here on the face of the earth as he was. Maybe one of the reasons we always return to him is because nobody writes about loneliness like he does, and loneliness is something we desperately seek. I often look for it and can’t find it anywhere.

I once went to one of those naked spa-like retreats they have here in California. God only knows what the hell I was thinking. To get away from all that noisy flesh, I fled, proudly fully clothed, up to the top of a mountain and sat alone on a yoga mat in a strange little hippie hut. Then – I was joined by a very chatty guy wearing nothing but hiking boots and a thong. Hey man, what’s with all the layers? You want to discuss this?

But here’s the thing, as much as I wanted to bludgeon the guy to death with my yoga mat, I was grateful for him, too, because as much as I told myself I wanted it, needed it, being lonely is not only scary, it’s work. As long as he was there to loathe, I didn’t have to be completely with myself. Which is exhausting.

Kafka, I was talking about Franz Kafka. I guess what I’m getting at is that true loneliness is a rare and difficult thing and we want it, we don’t want it, we want it.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Here’s a totally unprovable theory I’ve been developing in my garage over the past couple of hours concerning Kafka. Franz wasn’t lonely at all. Take a look at his diaries. He makes my social life in 2012 look dismal.  The last time I went to a party was an Obama fundraiser in 2008. Kafka? We’re talking about a guy who was at the café all the time. He was a serial engager who never married. A man who constantly ran to people as well as away from them. My thought of the day (it is now late dusk, the kitchen has changed colors, and I haven’t turned on the light yet) is that Kafka wrote so much about loneliness because he so often dreamed of attaining it – not because he had it.

His work affirms the bizarre contradiction that as much as we talk about it we are actually very rarely by ourselves in this crowded universe.  This may have seemed wrong to Kafka given how much time, he knew too well, that all of us will be spending companionless, in a dark hole.

Of course our proximity to other human beings doesn’t mean we actually connect to them. But the gulf between us when we are in the same room is a different story altogether. If only Gregor was able to speak to his sister and thank her for everything that she was obliged to do for him…

I’m talking here about this more fundamental question: Alone, or with others in the first place?  The noise of ourselves versus the noise of our brethren.

He wrote some of the greatest brief stories ever written, stories that sometimes unfold in a single paragraph like a fist opening. Often they are about this weird and endless struggle between our desire for loneliness and our horror of it.

One tiny story is “The Streetwindow,” written not long after his graduation from law school. It’s about how all a lone person has to do is look out the window at a city street and he can’t help but be carried away by the messy parade of humanity.

And even if his state is such that he is not seeking anything at all and merely steps to the window-ledge as a weary man, letting his eyes wander up and down between the public and the sky, and he is reluctant to look and has his head titled back a little, yet for all that the horses down below will drag him into the train of their wagons and their tumult and so in the end towards the harmony of man.

At some point, much as we talk a big game about going it alone, we can’t help but be pulled to the window. Come on into my hut and talk things over with me, thong man.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →