Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kafka & Fighting Transience

Above: Franz Kafka
Below: Ramses II

Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

- Ozymandias (Shelley)

"If I wish to fight against this world, I must fight against its decisively characteristic element, that is, against its transience."

This statement, from Kafka's "Blue Octavo Notebooks" - jumped out at me. I see so many different meanings of it, and would like to know what he actually intended. But I can't, so I'll take my liberties and hope that he would not disapprove.

"This world" - This had to mean to him the whole of human existence. The entire existential dilemma, fears, joys and pains of life. The way things are, and that could not be otherwise.

The world (one's experience of reality) has a decisive characteristic - which he says is transience. Impermanence. The empty nature of all things.

Why do I say all forms are transient and ultimately empty? It would seem this concept may be even easier to grasp today than in the past. Consider only one example - technology. In the (relative) blink of an eye, rotary phones have become wireless blue tooth devices. Wireless devices will very soon be looked upon like the telegraph when device-free communication is achieved with the help of bio-organic implant technology.

Perhaps a more concrete and less sci-fi style example. Not very long ago, an impressive structure stood to serve the people of a large community. A smaller version of the Roman Coliseum. For many decades, it hosted various entertainment events, but most notably was the home field of "America's Team" - the Dallas Cowboys. As a youth, I thrilled along with the crowds to many a sporting event in this structure. In Texas, where high school football is its own religion, many young men were privileged to play in this stadium during the high school play off season. This was a space and a structure, in and around which, many people's lives unfolded. Who can say how many carried this structure as a familiar internal mental representation? A landmark in time and space, as well as the in the limitless space of the human mind.

But, as Kafka notes, transience is the decisive characteristic - All structures are unstable. Witness a focal point of a large community disappear into the void:

Soon, there will be no trace left that it ever existed.

Fight against the world's transience? One cannot fight with emptiness. One can only collapse into it.

So, Kafka may be saying: You can make a choice about how you would like to deal with the world. Fight or not. Accept or not. Go with the current, or try swimming against it. What he leaves out, conspicuously, but is nevertheless implied: You will eventually be swept away by the current, and finally into the limitless void of non-being.

We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,

He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess

What powerful but unrecorded race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

- Ozymandias (Horace Smith)