In the Letters to Milena the figure of the ghost assumes a position of importance in Kafka’s poetics. The ghost is positioned by Kafka as a literary figure standing in for the trope of absence. Kafka’s interest in, and belief in, the ‘ghosts of letter-writing’ reveals his intense awareness of the fact that letter-writing is always before an absent addressee and that this absence of the interpretive moment pragmatically informs the semantic quality of writing. That which Kafka is writing will come to have a meaning, but it does not yet mean anything. It will become, and so will he. Writing opens itself up to the future. Writing precipitates itself toward its future, that is, toward its meaning, that is, toward itself. (Here there are immense connections to Jacques Derrida.) It opens up the future out of itself. It inaugurates words, literatures, authors, beginnings.
Kafka writes to Milena Jesenska, near the end of their correspondence: “Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee (So Kafka assumes it that letter-writing is an intercourse with the ghost (das Gespent) of the addressee, he takes it as common knowledge, he does not remark on it as something interesting, but rather precedes it with this “just”, with this “zwar nicht nur”, in the German language.)
...but also with one’s own ghost, (What is really of importance, what he really wants to stress here, what does not follow a “zwar nicht nur”, is the fact that the author's residence is as epistolary as the addressee's. The author is a figure writing to themselves (not just the addressee who also exists in a purely letterary fashion), writing to their ghosts. The absence of sender and addressee is indicated indirectly by the presence of their ghosts, deferring the absence at least a step. It is not the ghosts that are present, but the author and recipient who are absent, and this is the significance of the presence of the ghosts. Their ghosts are present just to the degree that Kafka and Milena are absent.)
...which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters… (This was the first step in Kafka’s dance with the ghosts. The residence of the author within the letter, as a ghost, a ghost that (we will soon see) preys upon the writings of the author, the author that is only within the letter, the author whose address is within the letter itself, rather than stamped outside of it destining the letter away. And the author’s ghost is not only addressed in writing, but thereby evolves (and “secretly”).)
...Writing letters means exposing oneself to the ghosts, who are greedily waiting precisely for that. Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way… (And here is the second step, the one I consider most important, most crucial to Kafka’s recognition of the necessity of writing in opening himself out to the future. Kafka inscribes in his letter (and yet he can’t help but dot his) the absence not only of the sender and addressee, an absence here revealed by a presence, but also the absence of the letter itself, the words in the letter, the kisses one writes in the letter (and is a kiss not the most important thing one could write, include, in a letter?). The kiss, the entire letter, never arrives. And they are absent just to the extent they are present, which means they can never be present in any way, because of the ghosts who take them away, the ghosts that are present just to the extent that they are absent. Instead of written kisses arriving, “den Gespenstern auf dem Wege ausgetrunken” which means not only “the ghosts drink them up along the way”, but also connotes “the ghosts drink them out along the way”. The ghosts, waiting greedily for letters, drain them of their kisses, their words, their content.)
...In order to eliminate as much of the ghosts’ power as possible and to attain a natural intercourse, a tranquility of soul, people have invented trains, cars, airplanes—but nothing helps anymore… The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. (Another step in the dance, Kafka reveals this complex structure of presencing and absencing as a specifically technological structure. The presence-and-absence of authors, addressees, ghosts, words in letters is a techno-practical phenomenon and not a metaphysical one. The absence of the author, the absence of the text from itself, arises within the context of the postal system. But not just the postal system, also the wired space between author and reader, and the wireless space between, the printing press, the whole industrial technology set in motion when writing is mass-reproduced (even if this mass-reproduction is hypertextual, that is, digital), and the whole system of network technology set in motion when writing is reproduced only singularly (reproduced in a letter that is one time here, and later is presented over here, according to the address which is stamped on it). It is this technology, this reproduction of the self as an address, or a node along a network, a point of relay, a switch where texts may rest for awhile, that produces a certain inevitable absence of the self. It produces this absence by presencing the self elsewhere as another. The self-as-ghost, self-as-address, self-as-reader is privileged in the technology of writing. Writing and postal technologies privilege the future, specifically the moment of the letter’s arrival, its reading and its interpretation. The letter is given sense within the postal system, most of all, as having a meaning in the future, at the end of its life. If there were no arrival of the letter, the postal system, and the technology of letter-writing would not make any sense and would not occur. The entire technological apparatus hinges on the letter’s primarily being a futuristic object. What, finally, do these writing technologies result in except the slow escape of the author into their words, until finally every correspondence can issue not necessarily from a body as in the case of speech, but instead from a digital imprint?)
...They will not starve, but we will perish. (Our life and death, the final difference, is settled in opposition to the ghosts’ digestive systems. We perish as our ghosts (which are our future selves) feast, swallowing us within their rhetoric of consumption. The self-effacement of the author occurs in favor of the future moment, the moment where the text is present fully, in the ghosts’ belly, digested, understood, loved. The ghosts’ bodies are differed from our own, which have not only disappeared within a word, but have perished besides. Nonetheless, in a sense it is we who have lived and outlived, precisely insofar as the ghosts are ourselves, our forever deferred selves, arriving in the future, but always in the future, forever later, bound to a rhetoric of postponement, that is, to a rhetoric of absence.)”
(Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena page 223, bracketed comments by jderrida).