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by Sean Singer
The Workman's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia
Franz Kafka spent part of his day at work making drawings of severed, mangled, and truncated fingers, which documented: industrial conditions, defective apparatus, and malfunctioning machines. The Kingdom of Bohemia is filled with forests and his work focused primarily on the lumber industry. His job provided security, but he could only tolerate it through "interior emigration," a trance-like state which permitted him to leave his writing desk. Kafka's room was the "noise headquarters" of the apartment and when his father Hermann entered the room, the bottom of Hermann's terrycloth bathrobe would rub against the floor. Kafka was restless, suffered from insomnia, and woke up as though he had been "folded in a nut."
Mountains of Crockery
Kafka's most famous achievement in his lifetime was not writing Das Schloss or Ein Prozess . It was receiving the gold medal of the American Safety Society in 1910, 1911, or 1912. Kafka won the medal because of his outstanding contributions to workplace safety, and in particular the invention of the modern safety helmet, commonly called a hard hat. Because of his innovation, fewer than 25 people per 1,000 steel workers had been killed in industrial accidents, which was unprecedented.
About his work and recognition, Kafka said: "You have no idea how busy I am....In my four districts--quite apart from my other work--people tumble off scaffolds and into machines as if they all were drunk, all planks tip over, all embankments collapse, all ladders slip, whatever gets put up comes down, whatever gets put down trips somebody up. And all those young girls in china factories who constantly hurl themselves down whole flights of stairs with mountains of crockery give me a headache."
Today, the vast majority of workplace safety mishaps are due to a combination of unsafe physical conditions and unsafe acts. Most accidents, however, arise from human error. Statistics show that for every four accidents caused by human error or hazardous conditions, only one is caused by mechanical defects.
Neither human error nor mechanical defects can be held responsible in Robert Frost's "Out, Out--," a description of the importance of workplace safety. In the poem, a boy in Vermont using a circular saw cuts his hand off and his heart stops from the shock and blood loss. The trauma of losing his hand caused his death, but Frost also places responsibility for the accident on the saw's hunger for human tissue. Kafka, by contrast, was not personally preoccupied with serious injury. He was constantly worried about hypochondriac illness and endured insomnia, shortness of breath, rheumatism, skin and hair problems, eyesight problems, a slightly deformed toe, an acute sensitivity to noise, and nearly constant exhaustion. His body would itch all over.
Kafka's illness was like a psychological ulcer. His paranoia was a pipeline between his gullet and the outside air, and he was subject to a terrific alienation. In 1911 he wrote: "In the afternoon my face was so hot and blotched that I was afraid the assistant giving me a haircut, who could see me and my reflected image at the time, would recognize that I had a serious disease. Also the connection between stomach and mouth is partly disturbed, a lid the size of a gulden moves up or down, or stays below from where it exerts an expanding effect of light pressure that spreads upward over my chest."
Kafka believed that to heal himself he had to chew each bite of food more than ten times. His mealtimes were longer than most, and he read at the table. In a 1913 diary entry Kafka wrote: "I put my left hand inside my trousers while I was reading and felt the lukewarm upper part of my thigh."
The Dark Kammerfrauenzimmer
Kafka's relationships with women undermined his ability to think, but at the same time, they provided an endless source of angst which stirred him to compare people. He saw two categories of people: one category of people understood only details; another category of people understood nothing, but had an inner relationship to Kafka himself, thereby reducing his distractedness and stupidity.
For example, Milena Jesenska, who was born in 1896 when Kafka was 13, made rejection seem like cleansing or purification. She called him "Frank." Few or no scraps of sawdust on a factory floor mean fewer slips and falls, and fewer truncated fingers.
Franz (a.k.a. "Frank"): "I'm dirty. I always think about being clean."
Milena: "I don't think you're dirty, but if you are, I'm sure it comes from your life-producing energy."
Frank: "I think the reason I don't want to have sex is because I'm afraid of being unclean! So many squishy noises and juices."
Milena: "I think you might hate women. We should spend more time in the flesh...maybe in Vienna."
Frank did not show up in Vienna. Later--
Milena: "Are you Jewish?"
Frank: "We will never live together in the same apartment, not even in the same town."
Milena: "That half-hour in bed was to you...a disease of the instincts. You must be an insect."
Milena, to herself: I can still see his suntanned neck. We had been walking all day and he seemed healthy to me. He never even coughed once. I suppose his illness was only a cold.
Exploding in Rage Against Every Kind of Human Relationship
It turns out that Kafka's hypochondria was real. He began coughing up blood in August 1917. He died in 1924 of a tubercular infection of the larynx in a nursing home at Kierling, near Vienna. When the cop in Give It Up! was like someone who wanted to be left alone with his laughter, all the bits of Kafka's imagination-- the cockchafer larvae , the tavern in the forest , and God's masterpieces farting at one another in the bath --were distilled in the dark winter's light. A picture of his existence appeared to him apropos of this: a useless stake covered with snow and frost, fixed slantwise in the ground. The cop, like the external world--at the top of his esophagus--intensified his hypochondria, but simultaneously and likewise intensified his understandable pride about workplace safety. Kafka made excellent contributions to safety because he was an excellent hypochondriac.
The continuum of his genius does not solely manifest itself in his literature, but in various protective masks, helmets, and the stupid activities people do that require head plastic. The Japanese Aluminum Face-Slimming mask apparently works in 15 minutes and its foil keeps the face warm. The paintball faceplate has thick pads which minimize bruises from 300-km-per-hour paintballs; the goggles in the eye-area withstand blasts from 20 meters. Baseball catchers' masks incorporate the trusty power of steel wire coated with rubber. Fencing helmets of dense mesh, like a knight's mail, are almost bulletproof. Even in Lesotho, a conical shaped hat made from straw or leaves offers the sanctity and fashionable advantage of making its wearer feel safe.
The Five Guiding Principles On the Road to Hell
1. "The worst lies outside the window." Everything, from chestnut trees to lint, made Kafka think angels should be ignored.
2. "You must possess every girl." If Kafka saw two women, one with short black hair and one blonde with indefinite features and an indefinite smile, he would imagine rats tearing at him.
3. "This girl you are not permitted to possess." Mrs. Klug, age 26, filled the parlor window with her unbuttoned coat, and Kafka wanted her to twist a knife into his heart. When he saw a woman dressed in white in the Kinsky Palace courtyard, he also saw a shadow under the arch of her chest in spite of the distance. Kafka craned his neck and loathed himself.
4. "All comes back to mere needs." Kafka wanted nuts and vegetables, not meat. Meat, he said, made him feel like an alien. He also wanted a fawn-colored velvet jacket and to rest his head on Milena's half-naked breasts.
5. "Needs are all." He could not have all his needs, so he decided not to have any.
It was easy for Kafka to get grenadine and seltzer in his nose when he laughed.
The main thing Kafka gained from Plato was "the large part the naked body plays in the total impression an individual gives." Imagine his visible ribcage, the black curly hairs on his sternum like wires, his pointy elbow bones, and a tuft of hair in the small of his back.
The Man Who Disappeared
Kafka's Amerika as in Ralph Waldo Emerson, a place of self-sufficiency and robust individualism, but it also contained Aesop's myth and fate. Kafka never went to New York, but he imagined the Statue of Liberty holding a sword. He never went to New York because he never got a servant girl pregnant. He never met hustlers, grifters, or impresarios. He never met his Uncle Jakob, who was never a Senator. He never learned ju-jitsu. He was never bilked out of a salami. He never saw "The Theatre of Oklahoma." Kafka never felt the cold breath of the mountain streams chilling his face.
Regarding the Effect of Such Writing as Jellylike
Between April 1995 and March 2003 eight different types of safety helmets were recalled in Oklahoma because they failed impact testing, including a central impact test, an off-center impact test, a penetration test, an impact test of a safety helmet with minor damage, an impact test of a weather-aged safety helmet, a pulse delay test, and a neck injury test. People wear safety helmets to protect their heads from getting cracked. The prophecy in Kafka's work is that the victim cooperates in his own destruction.
"Letter writing is an intercourse with ghosts..."
A folded nut: Breasts: Helmets: An insect's segments. Safety has a roundness and its roundness emerges between the lines which never reach their destination. Only the safety of the nut, the breasts, the helmet, or the segments keeps the reader in a position to give a cup to the ghosts, from which they drink.
Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible element in oneself and not striving towards it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
A person seldom falls sick but the bystanders are animated with a faint hope that he will die.
Our insignificance is often the cause of our safety.
Full article available in Salmagundi No. 150-151.
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