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Letters to Milena

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Dear Reader,

          I hope you are having a great spring! 

Today, let’s talk about letters of love. 

In literature’s multifaceted existence across time and space, in worlds real and imaginary, none shines brighter than its epistolary countenance. The act of writing a letter to someone you care about is much more intimate than creating a world of your own and much less bloodier than a poet’s pen. 

Writing a letter feels the same as having a conversation with the recipient. It certainly is a one-sided conversation. But would readers and writers have it any other way? In Kafka’s Letters to Milena we get to see his beautiful inner world where words spill onto pages from his mind like rain from clouds to the sea. It is as if the pages were part of his mind. Kafka, quite renown for his craft, has never allowed the reader to see him. It is one of the key qualities of a great writer to suppress the urge to enter into the world he has created. To shout out loud “ welcome to my world, dear readers, I hope you appreciate it as much as I do!” Since Letters to Milena is not a creation of Kafka, we get to see the author’s true aura.  

What begins as a business correspondence quickly turns more intimate, ultimately to the point of suffocation. One who reads the letters can’t help but feel what Kafka must have felt when he wrote to Milena, 

“I miss you deeply, unfathomably, senselessly, terribly.” 

This one line alone is enough to understand the ocean that engulfed Kafka. The ocean that refuses to be quiet even when the wind above it gets frozen. The ocean we all know and call with a name inadequate to fully express itself- love. As familiar it is, love is a process as complex as life itself. For it is a choice and not just a feeling. In fact it is a strange mix of feelings bundled together: joy and sorrow, pride and envy, timidity and confidence, fear and courage, all dissolved in the ocean of love. The one who dares to take a dive, if they return, returns as a different person, akin to a war. 

All who have loved must have experienced the shrinking of their world into the two of them. The people, things, and even life outside of them feel irrelevant. Their mind’s lens captures the most beautiful portraits of the two of them. They seek to retreat from the chores of everyday existence to their own private fantasy world in a grand act of escapade. Kafka expresses this feeling beautifully when he wrote,

“Dear Milena,

I wish the world were ending tomorrow. Then I could take the next train, arrive at your doorstep in Vienna, and say: “Come with me, Milena. We are going to love each other without scruples or fear or restraint. Because the world is ending tomorrow.” Perhaps we don’t love unreasonably because we think we have time, or have to reckon with time. But what if we don't have time? Or what if time, as we know it, is irrelevant? Ah, if only the world were ending tomorrow. We could help each other very much.”

Kafka is the greatest author to write on bureaucracy. The human condition defined by the strangling fetters of law and order; the smallness of a human life in the gargantuan schemes of bureaucracy where power and responsibility seems to float from one node to the other in a never-ending puzzle. Fear and insecurity are the predominant feelings of the characters who are entrapped in this, well, kafkaesque world. From his other works such as The Metamorphosis, and The Trial, we see the shattering of dreams of his protagonists, lost in the labyrinthine world of papers; servants of the system who grab their share of power by the simple act of refusing and delegating the same to another servant like spiders playing hockey with a hapless prey in their web. 

Kafka’s personal life, much like his stories and novels, is haunted by the powerlessness he feels before his oppressive father and the soulless system he represents. In his Letters to Milena, the readers are marveled by Kafka’s flagrant expression of his fears and insecurity. The tenderness of his letters can move hearts of steel. Consider this line from one of Kafka’s letters:

“I’m tired, can’t think of anything and want only to lay my face in your lap, feel your hand on my head and remain like that through all eternity.”

Kafka is courageous enough to reveal his vulnerable self before Milena. He often sent multiple letters in a single day to her. It must have been therapeutic for him. Nevertheless, Kafka felt that whatever he feels must be incommunicable to others. He attributes this sense of alienation to the fear that he feels at his helplessness in the well-lubricated machinery of bureaucratic our civilization. Furthermore, Kafka’s longing for Milena took a huge toll on his mental health that each second without Milena’s presence took years of winter for him to pass. Inspiringly enough, he was hopeful that all his fears would fade one day. He writes to Milena,

“I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralyzing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing for something greater than all that is fearful.”   

Kafka’s plight is universal and one can only wonder how less has changed since his time. In the late capitalistic world we live in, corporate dominance of politics, environmental destruction, inequality, intolerance, oppression, and violence have skyrocketed. Wars no longer bother anyone, unless they are involved in it. Kafka’s stories are becoming more and more real. His prophetic novels are becoming more livable than the earth we inhabit. 

There is no time better than now to rediscover Kafka and his ideals of courage, honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability to reclaim a sleepy world that have been led astray from its roots. Reading Kafka is an act of resistance. It is a wakeup call for those who have been taken pills of ‘neutrality’ in a deeply unequal world.

Let’s enjoy this spring to our fullest. For unforeseeable summer lies ahead of us!   


Akhil Thekkepat


Columnist: Akhil Thekkepat


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