The importance of foolish acts, a Kafkian explanation

On Tranquility I often indulge in the luxury of early morning reading and scribbling over coffee and the quiet sound of wavelets lapping over the sides, with Beta running and jumping around for his morning workout and Kate beside me laying still in her slumber.This morning it was windier than usual and I was reading The Castle by Franz Kafka with the soundtrack of the rig whistling.

There are books that I constantly re-read because they are like labyrinths, offering every time a fresh point of view and a chance for meditative inquiry. The Castle, an incomplete novel published postumous by Kafka’s friend Alex Brod, is one of those.

The twisted snow-covered roads of this imaginary place and the grotesque behavior of the community that inhabits it make this book a literary puzzle, that sits in my memory as a real place that I like to go back to and visit, and the trip is never the same.

The following passage of the book, never really struck me as particularly poignant before, but this morning, during the umpteenth visit to the castle, I could not help but transcribe it in my notepad, amazed by what I found in it for the first time:

“And they indeed were walking on, but K. didn’t know where they were going he could make out nothing, and did not even know whether they had passed the church yet. The difficulty he had in simply walking meant that he could not command his thoughts. Instead of remaining fixed on his goal, they became confused. Images of his home kept coming back to him, and memory of it filled his mind.There was a church in the main square there too, partly surrounded by an old graveyard, which in turn was surrounded by a high wall. Only a few boys had ever climbed that wall, and K. had so far failed to do so. It was no curiosity that made them want to climb it, the graveyard had no secrets for them, and they had often gone into it through the little wrought-iron gates it was just that they wanted to conquer that smooth, high wall. Then one morning -the quiet, empty square was flooded with light when had K. ever seen it like that before or since?- he succeeded surprisingly easily. He climbed the wall at the first attempt, at a place where he had often failed to get any further before, with a small flag clenched between his teeth. Little stones crumbled and rolled away below him as he reached the top. He rammed the flag into the wall, it flapped in the wind, he looked down and all around him, glancing back over his shoulder at the crosses sunk in the ground. Here and now he was greater than anyone. Then, by chance, the schoolteacher came by and, with an angry look, made K. get down from the wall. As he jumped he hurt his knee, and it was only with some difficulty that he got home, but still he had been on top of the wall, and the sense of victory seemed to him, at the time, something to cling to all his life. It had not been entirely a foolish idea, for now, on this snowy night many years later, it came to his aid as he walked on, holding Barnabas arm.”

The foolish goal that K. achieved it was not only a mere itch that needed a scratch, but a pillar of his life, something he finds himself going back to in a moment of difficulty, following his confused thoughts during the hard walk in the snow. It was a small insignificant victory, but it was important to him, and the teacher’s blame and the hurtful consequence of K.’s act did not cancel the emotion of feeling greater than anyone in the present moment, the sense of victory over an ordinary desire,  that proves to be useful many years later.

This passage reminded me of the importance of such foolish events in life, and that what we consider lacking good sense or judgement, may be exactly what we need. Similarly, I often ask myself about the sense of what I am doing afloat on the ocean in this small boat, if what I am doing is anything but a foolish act.

I try to rationalize and find excuses, motivations, sometimes to answer other people’s curiosity, sometimes for my own dead reckoning. The easiest, maybe the only true answer is that this is what I want to do, and I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do it. Why not?

Keeping up on an unscripted path is a difficult thing, as goals and specific objectives may fade into the background and the everyday happenings are hard to put in perspective. I look around me to find  outside affirmations that I am on the right path, to shake off doubts and fears.

Don’t we all struggle, one way or the other, to find a way in life? How can we understand if our inner voice is telling us the truth? How do we learn to trust ourselves when it’s so reassuring to listen and follow other people’s opinion?

Maybe foolish, sometimes unimportant acts can be what we truly need to walk on.

An example of this intrinsically human condition came from a tall, white-bearded guy that we once met over soft drinks in front of a gas station.

Kris Larsen struck me as an absolutely eccentric and resourceful voyager, and only after he was long gone, sailing his way back to Australia, I found out that he was not just an old sailor with rather interesting stories, but also a terrific writer, fine artist and craftsman.

Serendipity introduced me to Kris for the second time during a recent vietnamese dinner with sailing voyager, author and friend James Baldwin. He  had also met him long ago in Madagascar during one of his circumnavigations, and shared more interesting stories about this unique human being.

Later, reading  James’ article, I  found this beautiful passage of his book Bicycle Dreaming, a tale of his trip across the Australian outback on Kracken, a recumbent bike he assembled out of scrap parts:

This whole ride from Darwin had no meaning for anyone besides myself. I achieved nothing worthy, yet it filled me with pride. It’s a shame that these days you can’t just put on your shoes and go on an expedition any more. It has to have a socially relevant goal, it has to be in support of some charity, dedicated to some noble cause, well connected, word has to spread out, blog, website and school curriculum informed regularly by satellite phone, sponsors roped in. Why can’t you just stand up and say: ‘I am going because I feel like it. Because I’ve been dreaming of it for years?

I smile when I read this passage, as I also am trying to do my thing, run my own race, and even if sometimes it does not make any sense, I am confident that maybe one day, some of its foolish episodes, its unique lessons will come to aid in the moment of need or give unexpected inspiration. Or not.

In any case, I am pretty sure I will remember it as a sweet ride.