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Monday, 4 April 2011

Walter Benjamin: Franz Kafka's Left Ear


Franz Kafka's childhood photograph (1888)

Franz Kafka as a young child: photographer unknown, n.d.

There is a childhood photograph of Kafka, a supremely touching portrayal of his “poor, brief childhood.” It was probably made in one of those nineteenth-century studios whose draperies and palm trees, tapestries and easels, placed them somewhere between a torture chamber and a throne room. At the age of about six the boy is presented in a sort of greenhouse setting, wearing a tight, heavily lace-trimmed, almost embarrassing child’s suit. Palm branches loom in the background. And as if to make these upholstered tropics still more sultry and sticky, the subject holds in his left hand an oversized, wide-brimmed hat of the type worn by Spaniards. Immensely sad eyes dominate the landscape arranged for them, and the auricle of a large ear seems to be listening for its sounds.

The ardent "wish to become a Red Indian" may have consumed this great sadness at some point... A great deal is contained in this wish.


Franz Kafka at the age of five, with his favourite horse: photographer unknown, c. 1888

Walter Benjamin: A Childhood Photograph (excerpt), from Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death, in Judaische Rundschau, December 1934, translated by Harry Zohn in Selected Writings: Volume Two, 1927-1934, 1999




"a large ear seems to be listening for its sounds". . . .


grey light in sky above still blackness
of ridge, silver of planet below branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

color of light, point which
itself is “pictorial”

verification of its surface,
placed, map of words

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon

Anonymous said...

It IS a really large ear. Considered as a writer's "tool", it reminds me of some physical characteristics of athletes, e.g., many top tennis players have beady, close-set eyes (which must be good for ball spotting and careful ball placement on tennis courts); ice hockey pros tend to have wide-set eyes set among "regular" features on large faces (again, the arrangement of the eyes must be good for puck spotting, following and placement). Top golfers tend have similar upper body/shoulder types. The list goes on and on, I'm certain.

TC said...

Indeed, Curtis, I think it can be said for sure that, in addition to a large and rather melancholy heart, Kafka had a very fine ear.

(One of those is routinely and gracefully demonstrated for us every day -- as just above -- by Steven, for example, bless his heart.)

Those were once upon a time considered invaluable to writers.

Now, maybe, not so much.

(Of course, the danger with a very large ear that picks up nearly everything, is that one might hear too much, including things others don't hear -- or don't want to hear. One imagines that could be somewhat isolating. Traces of that in Kafka as well, perhaps.)