On Kafka

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 …

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