On Kafka

Source: The New York Review of Books www.nybooks.com /

Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson.
The following was delivered at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on April 26, when President Havel was awarded an honorary degree.

This is far from the first honorary doctorate I have received, but I accept it with the same sensation I always do: deep shame. Because of my rather sporadic education, I suffer from feelings of unworthiness, and so I accept this degree as a strange gift, a continuing source of bewilderment. I can easily imagine a familiar-looking gentleman appearing at any moment, snatching the diploma from my hands, taking me by the scruff of my neck and throwing me out of the hall, because it’s all been just a mistake compounded by my own audacity.

I’m sure you can see where this odd expression of my gratitude is leading: I want to take this opportunity to confess my long and intimate affinity with one of the great sons of the Jewish people, the Prague writer Franz Kafka. I’m not an expert on Kafka, and I’m not eager to read the secondary literature on him. I can’t even say that I’ve read everything Kafka has written. I do, however, have a rather special reason for my indifference to Kafka studies: I sometimes feel that I’m the only one who really understands Kafka, and that no one else has any business trying to make his work more accessible to me. And my somewhat desultory attitude to studying his works comes from my vague feeling that I don’t need to read and reread everything Kafka has written because I already know what’s there. I’m even secretly persuaded that if Kafka did not exist, and if I were a better writer than I am, I could have written his works myself.

What I’ve just said may sound odd, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. All I’m really saying is that in Kafka I have found a portion of my own experience of the world, of myself, and of my way of being in the world. I will try, briefly and in broad terms, to name some of the more easily defined forms of this experience.

One of them is a profound, banal, and therefore utterly vague sensation of culpability, as though my very existence were a kind of sin. Then there is a powerful feeling of general alienation, both my own and relating to everything around me, that helps to create such feelings; an experience of unbearable oppressiveness, a need constantly to explain myself to someone, to defend myself, a longing for an unattainable order of things, a longing that increases as the terrain I walk through becomes more muddled and confusing. I sometimes feel the need to confirm my identity by sounding off at others and demanding my rights. Such outbursts, of course, are quite unnecessary, and the response invariably fails to reach the right ears, and vanishes forever into the black hole that surrounds me. Everything I encounter displays to me its absurd aspect first. I feel as though I am constantly lagging behind powerful, self-confident men whom I can never overtake, let alone emulate. I find myself essentially hateful, deserving only mockery.

I can already hear your objections—that I style myself in these Kafkaesque outlines only because in reality I’m entirely different: someone who quietly and persistently fights for something, someone whose idealism has carried him to the head of his nation.

Yes, I admit that superficially I may appear to be the precise opposite of all those K.’s—Josef K., the surveyor K., and Franz K.—although I stand behind everything I’ve said about myself. I would only add that, in my opinion, the hidden motor driving all my dogged efforts is precisely this innermost feeling of mine of being excluded, of belonging nowhere, a state of disinheritance, as it were, of fundamental non-belonging. Moreover, I would say that it’s precisely my desperate longing for order that keeps plunging me into the most improbable adventures. I would even say that everything worthwhile I’ve ever accomplished I have done to conceal my almost metaphysical feeling of guilt. The real reason I am always creating something, organizing something, it would seem, is to vindicate my permanently questionable right to exist.

You may well ask how someone who thinks of himself this way can be the president of a country. It’s a paradox, but I must admit that if I am a better president than many others would be in my place, then it is precisely because somewhere in the deepest substratum of my work lies this constant doubt about myself and my right to hold office. I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of being president, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to the quarries to break rocks. Nor would I be any more surprised if I were suddenly to hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months.

The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am, the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake. And every step of the way, I feel what a great advantage it is for me as president to know that I can at any moment, and justifiably, be removed from the position.

This is not intended to be a lecture or an essay, merely a brief comment on the subject of Franz Kafka and my presidency. I think it is appropriate that these things be expressed here in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University, and by a Czech. Perhaps I have put more of my cards on the table than I wanted to, and perhaps my advisers will reprimand me for it. But I won’t mind, because I expect it and deserve it. My readiness for the anticipated reprimand is just another example of what an advantage it is for my illusion when I am prepared at all times for the worst.

Once more, I thank you for the honor, and after what I’ve said here, I’m ashamed to repeat that I accept it with a sense of shame.

—translated by Paul Wilson