My first exposure to Kafka was like anyone else’s, a reading of “Metamorphosis” in high school. When you’re that young, it’s truly impossible to get a full grasp of the meaning of most stories - lacking the life experience, it can be hard to relate with something someone much older and more experienced has written. Of course, it’s main themes of alienation and loneliness can probably be pretty familiar for most teens; there’s still something more to the prose, however. A teenager has a couple of years of loneliness - an adult can have decades of loneliness, and that kind of dark decay of the soul is much more profound than you can truly appreciate when young. Of course, a teenager always thinks he alone can understand such a vast sorrow, but that’s not so.
To brush up on this understanding, and to see why a good friend of mine hated the Prague writer so much, I had purchased a copy of one of his collections of short stories and was determined to read it. This was back when I lived in Denver, with that constant level of fear and alienation I was feeling from my own culture building up inside of me.
It wasn’t so much that I was in truth alienated, but maybe it was that I was at a point of life that if I wasn’t alienated, then there must have been something mediocre about me, and hence the fear. What greater and worst thing is there in life than to be mediocre? And when you look at all the greats of history, most have accomplished so much by the age that I was, in my mid-twenties, and there I was with a mediocre desk job, a mediocre salary, mediocre stories, a mediocre life. And there I was reading the Collected Works while sitting alone on my toilet, while my cat Augustus Caesar meowed outside, clawing underneath the door, trying to save me from the depths of whatever renal attack he imagined the great porcelain toilet monster was letting me have. What else could all that noise be? he must have been wondering with great fear. If the God dies, then where will the mana come from?
the high castle of Prague
Last Sunday, I went to the Kafka Museum, here in Prague. At the time of reading the greater hull of Kafka’s works while sitting on my toilet back in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, I had no design to ever live in Prague. I didn’t even want to visit the city, as it was already overused and outdone by hipsters throughout the town - “I’ve been to Prague, it’s so out there, on the border of civilization, and amazing and artistic.” Right, not really - I’ve been to the places on the "border of civilization", and in those regards, Prague is quaint. You can quote me on that when talking to hometown hipsters.
The Kafka Museum is in a building where in all likelihood Franz Kafka never set a foot. The Mala Strana of his time was dilapidated and run down, smelling of fish and sewage and overrun by gypsies and fortune tellers. That’s not to say that scene was beneath Kafka, as he lived over in the Jewish ghetto or roundabout for most of his life, just swap the fish for some freshly butchered dead kosher products and it was roughly pretty similar dirt stained walls and caking of grime leftover from the greater days of the since fallen Holy Roman Empire. It was at that time, one of the principal cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though most of the newer construction, factories and development were taking place outside of the center.
As this was before the advent of the airplane, tourism was slight, nothing like in today’s record numbers of Russians fleeing Vlad the Great’s ever tightening grip for a last and possible final breath of fresh freedom. Indeed, Prague was having its own problems back then, with the German, Czech and Jewish populations all about equal and all three equally discontent with each other. The Germans and Czechs were seeking out their own national identities - the Germans already as the elite of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of those who built up the city, and the Czechs seeking out the strength of their own identity - the first period in history where Czech was even spoken openly on the streets of Prague. The third ethnic group at large in Prague were the Jews, most of whom spoke German, and whose identity would often waver in-between the other two groups. That was the Prague that Kafka was born into, completely different from the Czech utopia now, where you’re more likely to here a hodge-podge of Slavic languages and English than anything German.
David Cerny's moving pissing sculpture's in the museum courtyard
The entry of the museum is just off of Charles’ Bridge, in a small square hidden from the main tourist walks by a gate. In the small square is a symbol exhibition of modern Czech art, a fountain by the much acclaimed Czech artist, David Cerny. It’s called "The Piss" and is composed of two male statues with rotating pelvises and dipping peters, pissing into a pool made in the shape of the country. You can write a message and send it in, and the male pair will piss out the message, like children writing their names in the snow.
The museum tickets (200 crowns, or about 10 USD) are bought in the gift shop, which is the door to the left of the statues, while the museum itself is on the right. You enter in, the large angry lady - there is no museum in the Czech Republic complete without a large angry lady - sends you upstairs. The first floor of the museum if full of the finer details of Kafka’s life - basically edited prints from wikipedia displayed in a slightly more visually appealing manner. By the end of this reading tour - of course, what can you expect from a museum about an author - you’re pretty tired and ready for a beer. But then there’s a staircase down and alas, another floor!
the castle Kafka was not from
The stairs are appealing though, boosting you with some additional strength, and besides, there's no other way to exit. A dark, red light is cast outward from underneath each step, making it seem like your descending into the fires of Kafka’s self-prescribed madness. Down at the bottom, there’s an angled mirror, with a quote in German from Kafka, probably something like “There is nothing besides a spiritual world; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call Evil is only the necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.” Then you turn and you’re in a hall of file cabinets, never ending file cabinets, as the hall turns and turns and seems endless, symbolizing the bureaucratic hell that haunted Kafka, and influenced his writings towards misanthropy and loneliness. There is nothing that shoves your face into the compost heap of human existence quite like being a single cog - no, a bolt - in a giant organization, nothing that shows you how meaningless you are, when your own existence can be forgotten and subsumed by your lesser qualified coworkers. “You are not of the castle, you are not of the village. You are nothing.”
Prague Castle above the bridge
Then, a video display about the Castle, weird cardboard cutout scenes from Prague, quotes to belittle your existence and lots of smoke and mirrors. Then next room a dark fortress or prison, past the windows another video showing a man’s back being opened with a scalpel, peeling away the skin in various directions.
And then, like a Czech movie, you're standing outside, everything’s over but nothing has ended, and you scratch your head and try to figure out the meaning of what you just went through. But now you’re back standing in front of the pissing men, and all the meaninglessness is just about too much to handle.
Thanks God you're in Prague and there’s a lot of fantastic beer.