Since no one comes to Queens, where I live, I often end up taking the subway into Manhattan and Brooklyn to see friends, a trip that takes from 20 to 40 minutes. I recently started using this time to at least dip into some of the many books on my shelves that I’ve never read, in particular literature and poetry (a recent interest).
A couple of days ago, on a trip to Brooklyn, I started reading a collection of love letters from Bismarck to his beloved wife, Johanna. The very first letter, not to Johanna, but her father, revealed a whole, vanished world. In it, Bismarck asks the father for the hand of his daughter. In rich, complicated sentences (it’s hard to imagine any politician, indeed almost anybody, nowadays formulating such complex thoughts, or writing such a long letter, not to mention asking a potential father-in-law for permission to marry) the future German unifier reveals a deeply personal side of his past. He describes the spiritual emptiness that engulfed him as he lost faith in God – and then the rebirth he experienced, not least thanks to Johanna, as he rediscovered that belief. It’s a remarkable confession – in its revelation of weakness and despair by a strong man, in its self-reflection, in what it shows about the role of Christianity and faith and about the social relations governing courtship in earlier times. To compare all this to the world of internet dating today! It’s almost as if we’re dealing with two different kinds of humans, two different worlds.
Then yesterday I began Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, which I finished today (short enough that it took just four rides). Remarkable how Kafka uses language so sparingly to create an entire atmosphere of alienation, dread, mutual incomprehension (the characters among themselves, us and the characters). At the same time, the story seemed more obviously political – there are clearer “sides,” more easily recognized good and deranged parties – than in the other works of Kafka’s I’m familiar with.