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kafka's letters to milena

Franz Kafka’s Love Letters to Milena

When I was in the Indian city of Bangalore, a literary enthusiast introduced me to a few letters from Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenska, a Czech writer who wrote between 1920 and 1923.

Writing letters to anyone in the age of the internet feels like an arduous endeavour. But sitting in a corner and thinking, feeling, and writing is a privilege. Perhaps in this context, Susan Lendroth writes: “To write is human, to receive a letter: Devine!”

However, my generation’s folks are a little too happy with an Insta ID of their crush. And for them, a reply to their DM from their crush is divine, perhaps!

Kafka’s letters to the 23-year-old Milena are some of the most intensely emotional and painful love letters one could read.

For the thirty-six-year-old Kafka, she was “a living fire, such as I have never seen”. They are both densely philosophical and filled with sorrows of having to live through the longing for love.

Kafka presents his bleakly hopeful existential opinion on letters: “Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letters one is writing.”

For Milena, Kafka presented the most intimate self. It was also for her he entrusted with the safekeeping of his diaries.

In one of the first of his letters, he writes: “It occurs to me that I really can’t remember your face in any precise detail. Only the way you walked away through the tables in the café, your figure, your dress, that I still see” (p. 4).

franz kafka and milena love story

In another of his letters, Kafka talks about the soothe writing itself gives him. He writes:

Despite all this, writing really is a good thing. I am now calmer than I was 2 hours ago outside on the balcony with your letter. While I was lying there a beetle had fallen on its back one step away and was desperately trying to right itself; I would have gladly helped—it was so easy, so obvious, all that was required was a step and a small shove—but I forgot about it because of your letter; I was just incapable of getting up. Only a lizard again made me aware of the life around me, its path led over the beetle, which was already so completely still that I said to myself, this was not an accident but death throes, the rarely witnessed drama of an animal’s natural death; but when the lizard slid off the beetle, the beetle was righted although it did lie there a little longer as if dead, but then ran up the wall of the house as if nothing had happened. Somehow this probably gave me, too, a little courage; I got up, drank some milk and wrote to you.

(pp. 12-13)

Elsewhere, in parenthesis, after “Dear Frau Milena”, Kafka writes: “Yes, this heading is becoming burdensome, although it is something to cling to in this uncertain world, like a crutch for sick people; it’s no sign of recovery when the crutches grow to be a burden”.

For the Kafkaesque world, these sentences present a disconcerting aspect of the human condition. The desire to be free from our clutches is a sort of escape from Rousseau’s dictum: “Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains”.

At the time of the exchanges between Milena and Kafka, Milena was married. In several of the letters, Kafka even persuades her to come to live with him, and likewise, Milena asks Kafka to visit Vienna.

Both of these do not happen.

He writes: “I don’t want (Milena, help me! Understand more than I am saying) I don’t want (this isn’t stuttering) to come to Vienna because I couldn’t stand the mental stress. I am spiritually ill, my lung disease is nothing but an overflowing of my spiritual disease.”

Writing about this elsewhere, Kafka writes: “I still can’t say whether I’m coming to Vienna, but I don’t think I am. If I had many reasons against it before, today I have just one, namely that it would tax my spiritual strength and—as a possible distant, second reason—because this is better for all of us. But I must add that it would be equally beyond my strength (if not more so) if you were to come to Prague under the circumstances you describe (“keeping a person waiting”)” (p. 42).

Another time, he adds: “But you shouldn’t write about my travelling to Vienna; I’m not going, but every time you mention it you hold a little fire up to my bare skin, which is already a small pyre, one which burns and burns but never burns down; in fact the flames are even growing. I’m sure you don’t want that” (p. 119).

tumblr ncm3kqE4mD1r9d02eo1 r1 1280
a glimpse of how Kafka handwrote from one of his diaries (now don’t try make sense of it, I haven’t succeeded either)!

In another such letter, Kafka writes:

I cannot determine whether you still want to see me after my letters of Wednesday and Thursday; I know my relationship to you (you belong to me, even if I should never see you again) […] these I know, insofar as they do not fall into the indistinct realm of fear, but I don’t know your relationship to me at all; this belongs entirely to fear. Nor do you know me—I repeat this, Milena. You see, as far as I’m concerned what’s happening is incredible—my world is collapsing, my world is rebuilding itself; wait and see how you (meaning me) survive it all. I’m not lamenting the falling apart, it was already in a state of collapse, what I’m lamenting is the rebuilding, I lament my waning strength, I lament being born, I lament the light of the sun.

(p. 43)
franz kafka's letter to milena
Kafka and Milena in a rare photo! Source: Twitter

Today, I did practically nothing except sit around and read a little here, a little there—but mostly I did nothing, or else listened to a very light pain working in the temples. All day long I was preoccupied with your letters: in agony, in love, in worry, and in an entirely indefinite fear of the indefinite, which is indefinite mainly because it is infinitely beyond my strength. At the same time I didn’t at all dare read the letter a second time and there is one half-page I didn’t dare read a first time. Why can’t one accept the fact that the right thing to do is live inside this very special tension which keeps suicide suspended? (I tried to laugh at you when you occasionally said something similar.) Why does one attempt instead to ease it, in petulance, and then burst out of it like an irrational animal (even loving this irrationality like an animal), thereby bodily absorbing all the disrupted, wild electricity, so that one is practically consumed?

(pp. 169-170)

Of all the letters he has written for Milena, one stands out for its exceptional ability to pull your emotions towards him. He writes,

The final excerpt is from Milana Jesenska, in her obituary for Franz Kafka, writes:

“Physically, however, Franz Kafka loaded his entire intellectual fear of life onto the shoulders of his disease. He was shy, anxious, meek, and kind, yet the books he wrote are gruesome and painful. He saw the world as full of invisible demons, tearing apart and destroying defenseless humans, He was too clairvoyant, too intelligent to be capable of living, and too weak to fight. He was weak the way noble, beautiful people are, people incapable of struggling against their fear of misunderstanding, malice, or intellectual deceit because they recognize their own helplessness in advance; their submission only shames the victor. He understood people as only someone of great and nervous sensitivity can, someone who is alone, someone who can recognize others in a flash, almost like a prophet” (p. 271).

While these are only a few quotes and lines from the enormous amount of letters (often even every day) sent during 1920, there is still a great deal of writing and letters for you to look at.

I have collated these letters from the book Franz Kafka’s Letter to Milena from Kafka Library.

Click here to download or read.

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