Conor charging, July 2018, Lochsa Falls — Mike Beiser photo
A meme came scooting across my Facebook feed the other day, about a famous (and apparently true) story about Franz Kafka and his friendship with a young girl who had lost her doll. The meme was a little intellectually simplified (or depauperated) depending on your perspective. But I had to find out if it was actually true, so I rooted around using The Google and found this post by Paul Auster, from his book Brooklyn Follies. Auster’s a true heavy-hitter, and I’ve read several of his pieces in Granta. If Paul’s writing about it, I’m going to guess it’s actually true.
The short version is this: Kafka is dying of tuberculosis. He meets a young nine-year-old girl in a park he walks in daily with his lover, Dora Diamant, who has lost her doll. Kafka connects with the little girl, and though they hunt for the doll, they cannot find her. So Kafka asserts that the doll has just gone on a journey to the little girl. And then proceeds, over a number of days, to create a fictional travelogue of the doll to ease the pain of loss the little girl is feeling. The last letter he delivers, three weeks later, has Kafka marrying off the doll and having her start a new life in another part of the world. I highly recommend reading the story. I’m no Paul Auster!
What’s interesting about this is that Kafka is applying the techniques I talked about in the previous post on raising children, to this little girl who is a stranger to him. What he is doing could also be labeled gaslighting — one could argue that he’s creating a psychological distortion inside the little girl’s brain of the reality that her doll has been lost. By creating an alternate history, he is making a choice in her development. Spare her the trauma of loss, through an elaborate, thoughtful deception. But also prevent her growth of learning how to grieve for things one loves.
For me, I think this example shows that one cannot truly understand superficial/surface-level actions without interpreting the fundamental connection that exists between two people at the time of the action. You cannot completely get there without analyzing intent. Kafka was an interesting guy — but he was no psychopath. During the period of the letters, the evidence is pretty clear he was deeply connected to the young girl’s emotions, and was not manipulating her for his own egocentric benefit. I’ve written about this on this blog on-and-off, but the most important idea is the not-so-simple one about Mario Kart. With even the most simple of things, you can’t understand the game without understanding what’s under the game. Which often looks very different from what you’re seeing on the surface.
I’ve called psychopathy ‘collapsed ego-centricism’ in the past. All Authoritarian Red v-Meme and nothing else. I think that definition holds up. As parents, we are always in the business of creating alternate worlds for our children. Those worlds are necessarily not total and complete. And they may indeed be a distortion. But if we are connected with our kids, we can do our best to know when we can allow the fiction to roll, and when we have to tell our children that what they’re experiencing is a magic trick. Sort of.
I’m reminded of a famous Zen saying:
“If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”
The real answer, as we go forward as parents, is developing and acting on our own self-awareness. We must constantly look inward into our own hearts, while looking outward to the long-term benefit of the young people in our life. And since this often includes managing our own fears, it is easier said than done. But if there is a key, it is staying connected. Empathy is our one real hope.
PS: The Wikipedia entries for both Franz Kafka and Dora Diamant are well worth reading on their own. I linked to the picture search for Dora because I think it’s useful to project through these pictures to what their complex lives must have been like.