Keep the Keyhole Clean: Kafka on Appearance vs. Reality and How the Media Commodify Truth
“Truth, which is one of the few really great and precious things in life, cannot be bought. Man receives it as a gift, like love or beauty.”
By Maria Popova
Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) spent twelve years working at an insurance company, where he remained well after The Metamorphosis was published. One spring morning in 1920, his colleague’s teenage son — a seventeen-year-old Czech boy named Gustav Janouch — turned up at the company office and struck an unlikely friendship with Kafka. For the remaining four years of the author’s life, the two got into the habit of taking long walks together, conversing about literature and life.
Long after Kafka’s death, Janouch assembled his notes and published his recollections of these movable interchanges in Conversations with Kafka (public library) — the same 1951 treasure that gave us the beloved author on love and the power of patience.
In one of their conversations, carried out in the twilight hours of a rainswept day, Kafka tells his young friend:
Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.
Another exchange with young Gustav calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s magnificent meditation on being vs. appearing as Kafka revisits the difficulty of keeping the keyhole clean:
The road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travelers. We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.
In another conversation, he considers how popular opinion and the press serve to further obscure reality behind appearances:
People talk loud and long, in order to say as little as possible. The really true and interesting things are the intrigues in the background, about which not a word is mentioned.
When Gustav observes that Kafka seems to view the press as far from a “servant of truth,” the author responds:
Truth, which is one of the few really great and precious things in life, cannot be bought. Man receives it as a gift, like love or beauty. But a newspaper is a commodity, which is bought and sold.
Everything, even lies, advances the truth. Shadows do not blot out the sun.
In another conversation, Kafka examines the role of myth and ritual in modern life — but, against the backdrop of his opinions on the role of the press in the construction and obfuscation of truth, one can’t help but consider Kafka’s words through the lens of the media’s function as a vehicle of constructing, disseminating, and ritualizing the idea-myths of our time:
A myth becomes true and effective by daily use, otherwise it only remains a bewildering play of fantasy. For that reason, every myth is bound up with the practical exercise of a rite.
Complement Conversations with Kafka with the celebrated author on what books do for the human spirit and his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.
Published November 12, 2015