More Empathy and Child-Rearing, with Some Help from Franz Kafka


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.  

10 thoughts on “More Empathy and Child-Rearing, with Some Help from Franz Kafka

  1. It reminds me of the Piraha, as described by Daniel Everett.

    They apparently don’t think about things outside of their immediate experience or that of those they personally know. They aren’t prone to speculating and imagining, not even storytelling. For example, they have no concern or notion about an afterlife, not even overt anxiety about death. They seem to take life as it comes and let go what is no longer present, including rarely speaking of the dead.

    Yet they are fascinated by that which is at the edge of their experience, such as a boat disappearing around the bend of a river. But once something is gone, it’s just gone — irrelevant and uninteresting. I would assume that a Piraha would never make up a story to tell a child about her lost doll. Nor would a Piraha child expect a story or maybe even want one. It might disturb or irritate the Piraha child to be told such a fabrication. The Piraha seem to prefer the literal and tangible.


    1. Yep — a function of the low empathy (and consequent poor temporal and spatial development) of the Tribal/Magical v-Meme. A sensitive topic to talk about, though, as it can be used by Authoritarians and Legalists to deny fundamental empathetic potential to those at that stage of development.

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      1. That is an interesting way to think about it, in terms of temporal and spatial development. I’m reminded of two other things.

        There is Lynne Kelly’s work on pre-literate mnemonic systems. The Australian Aborigine are an ancient culture and yet their knowledge systems were amazingly complex, maybe quite different from the Piraha. Obviously, the Aboriginal songlines exemplify extreme levels of temporal and spatial development, although of a different variety than seen in Western societies. Other examples Kelly uses demonstrate that some tribes maintain memory of geography under water that was last dry land during the Ice Age.

        That leads me to thoughts about Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism. His theory was that the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations created the conditions where temporal and spatial development was internalized, in creating an interior consciousness of narratized space. This is seen in the developments of what some call the Axial Age, specifically individuality by way of the ego theory of mind.

        To invent and imagine a story about what isn’t present and what has not happened, that is an ability we take for granted. An Australian Aborigine still living in a traditional tribe with their impressive mental capacity wouldn’t likely respond to a child as did Kafka.

        It’s not merely having temporal and spatial development but exactly what kind. Even the Piraha would have extensive talent in visualizing and knowing the space-time reality of their ecological-and-cultural niche, such as being able to locate exactly where a particular plant is exactly when it fruits. It’s common for indigenous people to have a strong spatial sense of the world around them that is part of another experience of time, more cyclical and seasonal.

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      2. In order to understand the deeper complexity of the Australian aboriginal thought, you have to understand that there is nothing that prevents certain tribal societies from jumping up to Second Tier, reflective perspectives — and having that deeper understanding that comes from it. Some of the most evolved thinkers I’ve run into come from Magical backgrounds — I’m reminded of a Tibetan Lama I had a conversation with. That reflective perspective does not depend on marching linearly up the Spiral — but it has always (in my experience) involved a developed practice inside a given lower v-Meme community. Tibetan lamas have a rigorous meditation (I mode) and debate (We mode) tradition. They WILL lack development in the First Tier v-Meme strategies, though. But at some level, our scaffolding is always dependent on our educational structures and experiences.

        How exactly the aborigines stored temporal knowledge would be very interesting — highly evolved, meaning it was likely very good at linking events chronologically, but it would likely be lacking in the same sophistication as Western systems. That’s a function of the v-Meme scaffolding, or lack thereof. I don’t know if you’ve read my stuff on evolution vs. sophistication. But this principle would apply. The short version is complexity/interconnection/narrative coherence vs. sophistication/precision/complicatedness.

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      3. That makes sense to me, the non-linear nature of v-meme shifts and spiral development. I’ve long suspected that much complexity and diversity is involved in how development happens. We have a simplified understanding mostly because of our monocultural WEIRD biases.

        Maybe this would be applicable to the Australian Aborigines. I do recall Kelly making a key observation. They maintain mnemonic systems and develop their mnemonic skills through physical geography and rituals. But once attained, they can travel the songlines in their own minds. So, without any Bronze Age collapse or emergence of an Axial Age, they at least partly developed spatial and temporal internalization. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. The Aborigines did have a highly advanced civilization, prior to the decimation by Europeans. Besides the complex knowledge systems, they had developed large-scale agriculture and built large granaries.

        But those knowledge systems in particular were brilliant. Kelly discussed an Aboriginal elder being able to use a memorized song to find a precise location that hadn’t been visited in recent generations and, once there, he could describe all the kinds of rocks there that he had never before seen. The knowledge had been passed on so perfectly that, unlike the Piraha, it didn’t involve personal experience of oneself or of someone personally known. Aboriginal knowledge transcended the personal.

        By the way, the Aborigines were far from being the only example of this. Writing systems have eliminated mnemonics in most societies at this point, but they used to be widespread. Much evidence of them can be found in the anthropological and archaeological records. Kelly does focus on the Aborigines quite a bit, though, because that was her starting point. She goes into a fair amount of detail about how they use mnemonics, although I’m not quite sure how chronological they might be or else chronological in what way. Aboriginal mnemonics does to a certain extent allow specific info to be pulled out when needed, the specifics of this practice surely being hard to put into words as the knowledge is embedded in elaborate and interlinking songs, dances, rituals, etc.

        I don’t recall if I’ve read any of your posts on evolution vs. sophistication. I’ve read a fair amount from your blog, but I forget exactly what I read in the past. I follow so many blogs. So, how do you see evolution vs. sophistication applying to the issues under discussion here?


  2. Re: evolution vs. sophistication – I realized I hadn’t talked much about this on the blog, so I wrote this post:

    Re: development of mnemonics — totally makes sense from an evolved Tribal viewpoint. Can’t have successful alphabets, because you don’t have a centralized authority to decide on shared meaning of symbols. Might have some rudimentary rules, but more likely you’d have long-time gestures or sounds that were representative. So if you were stuck in the Tribal v-Meme, you’d follow the ‘sophistication’ (x) axis out in developing more complex verbal memory devices, with given rhythms and meters to hold increasing amounts of meaning. And they would still be strung together in a narrative structure, whether represented by dance, rituals, etc. You could still encode a lot of information — but of course, the fine detail would not be as robust over time (which matches the v-Meme as well) because it depends on oral tradition. Or something like oral/dance tradition.

    And of course, the aboriginal knowledge would transcend the personal. That’s the meaning of a tribe. The Piraha are likely more close to a Survival band, with much greater temporal impermanence than a real tribe. If they don’t even have 5 minute object permanence (an item going down the river vanishing from memory) that’s telling you something. It’s also telling you something about the prevalence of violence (likely a lot) and the need for those memories to get on with things and not get bogged down in losing a tribal member. PTSD would not be evolutionarily useful, so in that kind of pre-conscious state, they just don’t have it.


    1. I just read the post you linked. I remember it now, but the significance of it didn’t occur to me at the time. I had to read it more carefully to think about it. It makes more sense now. That is a helpful way of framing development. The development of mnemonics is fascinating. And indeed it was developed extensively in some societies. Kelly notes that many indigenous people had immense intellectual curiosity about the world around them, which involved naming and categorizing about everything in their environment even if it posed no benefit or threat to their existence.

      She makes the argument that knowledge was power and so, in societies where mnemonics became dominant, knowledge was highly prized not only in its practical use but also in its symbolic value as authority. Many seemingly egalitarian societies might have had less obvious hierarchies based on knowledge systems, rather than on outward wealth. This eventually led to more permanent forms of mnemonics. She suggests the earliest stone structures were mnemonic sites that replaced the vast systems such as songlines, maybe sometimes following societal disruption and dislocation. This does fit into the archaeological evidence that shows that humans built stone structures, including buildings before settling down in an agrarian lifestyle. Eventually, the mnemonic masters would have become a priestly class.

      I don’t know how much object permanence the Piraha have. All that Everett stated was that they had no interest, whether or not that indicates a lack of cognitive ability. They aren’t overly interested in learning new things, even when they demonstrate the capacity to do so. When the Piraha asked Everett to get them a dugout boat, he hired a craftsman to teach them how to build a dugout boat. They easily learned the skill, but the next time they needed a boat they asked Everett to get them one. He asked them why they didn’t build one and they explained that Piraha don’t built dugout boats. They also had a hard time learning a numerical system, which they lack (Daniel Everett’s son, Caleb Everett, wrote a book about numerical systems and linguistic relativism) — as they also lack linguistic recursion, which Noam Chomsky argued should be impossible.

      About violence, what may seem odd to some is how extremely nonviolent are the Piraha. They apparently live a stable lifestyle within a safe territory and they have remained the same since the first observations of them were written down centuries ago. They aren’t known for fighting with their neighbors and actually prohibit violence as a defining norm of being Piraha. In a rare example, when a Piraha boy killed a boy from another tribe, he was banished from the Piraha because that is not what Piraha do (in the same way that they don’t build dugout boats). They also don’t practice physical punishment or have any organized authority. Even violence toward themselves by way of suicide is unknown to them. Yet the nearby Yanomami are infamous for their violence, possibly explained by the Yanomami living in a historically violent border region of two countries.

      The Piraha are an interesting group. It is hard to know how representative they might be of similar tribes in the past. All that we know is that not too many tribes like theirs have survived into modernity.


      1. Re: the Piraha — so much is dependent on population density and contact incidence. Empathy (not surprisingingly) is related to, at some level, cultural exigency. There’s a whole ‘other post about that. You don’t really need empathetic development if you’re out in the middle of the prairie and never encounter any diversity. Though I do maintain that even though it may be rare, you can meet enlightened masters anywhere. It’s just that population size and density increase the odds.

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