Among the letters my readers write me, there is a certain category which is continuously growing, and which I see as a symptom of the increasing intellectualization of the relationship between readers and literature. Letters of this type, coming mostly from young readers, show a passionate striving for meanings and explanations; they ask endless questions. They want to know why the author chooses this image, that vocabulary, what he "intended" and "meant" in his book, how he arrived at his choice of exactly this theme. They want to know which of my books I feel is the best, which is my favorite, which one expresses my viewpoints and opinions most clearly, why I expressed myself differently about certain problems and phenomena when I was thirty years old than when I was seventy, what kind of connection exists between Demian and Jungian or Freudian psychology, and so forth and so on. Many of these questions come from students in the higher grades and appear to be influenced by teachers, but the majority seem to stem from the person's own sincere need; all of them collectively show that change in the relationship between book and reader, a change which is also apparent in public criticism. What is encouraging here is the activation of the readers; they can no longer passively enjoy or simply consume a book or work of art. Instead they wish to conquer it and possess it by analyzing it.

But the other side of the coin is this: Puzzling and intellectualizing over art and literature has turned into a sport and an end in itself; the elementary capacity to immerse oneself in a work of art, to watch and to listen, has suffered from this desire to conquer the work through critical analysis. If one contents oneself with forcing from a poem or story its thoughts or tendencies, its educational or inspirational content, one will never be satisfied, and will miss out on the secret of art, that which is true and characteristic in it.

Recently a young man, a ..., ED. student, wrote me a letter requesting that I answer a series of questions about Franz Kafka. He wanted to know whether I considered Kafka's "The Castle," "The Trial" or "The Law" to be religious symbols -- whether I shared Buber's opinion about Kafka's relationship to his Judaism -- whether I believed in a parallel between Kafka and Paul Klee -- and a lot of other things. My answer was as follows:

Dear Mr. B: I am afraid I'll have to disappoint you completely. Your questions, and your attitude toward literature in general, don't come as a surprise to me, of course; you have thousands of colleagues who think the same way. But your questions, which are unanswerable without exception, all spring from the same erroneous thinking.

Kafka's stories are not treatises about religious, metaphysical or moral problems -- they are literary works. If a reader possesses the ability to really read a writer's works, namely without questions, without expecting intellectual or moral conclusions, and is simply ready to absorb what the author is presenting, those works will give the reader, in their own language, all the answers he is looking for. Kafka speaks to us neither as a theologian nor as a philosopher, but only as a writer. It is not Kafka's fault that his wonderful writings have lately turned into a fad, and are read by people who have neither the ability nor the desire to absorb literature.

I have been one of Kafka's readers since his earliest works, and none of your questions mean anything to me. Kafka answers none of them. He gives us the dreams and visions of his solitary, difficult life, analogies for his experiences, needs and gratifications, and these dreams and visions are all that we can take from him, not the "meanings" which these works can acquire through clever interpretation. This "interpreting" is a game of the intellect, often a very pleasant game, suitable for clever people without artistic sensibility, who can read and write books about African art and twelve-tone music, but never find their way into the core of a work of art, because they stand before the gate, trying the lock with a hundred keys, never noticing that the gate is, in fact, open.

So there you have my response to your questions. I felt that I owed you a reply, because you seemed to take the matter seriously.

-Hermann Hesse

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.