Vanitas in Prague – and a Caveat

Shelfie with Kafka and Apple

While in Prague I’m constantly aware that this urban landscape is hostile to the aging body. The pavement is uneven, there are lots of steep steps, and the cobblestone streets give ample reason to fear falling down. When I’m here I also read the Guardian regularly, so when I came across a story a few weeks ago about an Indian woman in her 70s who gave birth to a baby, I was distressed to imagine how hard that experience must have been for an aging mother and ashamed that I complain about occasionally being forced to climb down stairs without a handrail.

Somewhat later, when Greg and I were in the Akademie Bookstore on Národní třída and I saw a book called Essentials of Biological Anthropology, I looked with real interest at the chapter called “Senescence, Ageing Populations and old Age.” This Charles University English-language publication was coincidentally a book I had browsed when it cost a hundred crowns, and because it was now marked down even further, I bought it. Later I found that, though it distinguished nicely between biological aging and reproductive aging, the book tended to focus on a litany of negative outcomes that accompany aging without giving any assurances that these do not affect all aging people. This chapter (and another related chapter called “Onthogenetic Development of the Man” (sic)) tended to portray getting older as a sort of debilitating medical condition, the way pregnancy once was described, and it didn’t really give much information about all the things aging people can do and accomplish (including, regardless of how you feel about her choice, getting pregnant and giving birth at the age of 73). But more about that later.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Akademie Bookstore, in the Galerie Hollar, we stopped to look at a sale and exhibit of Jiří Anderle prints from the 1970s and 1980s. Since the early 1990s we have been visiting Galerie Hollar to see excellent small exhibits of the work of top-notch Czech graphic artists — and here’s the serendipitous part: Anderle is an artist whose work could illustrate any discussion of old age and senescence. He frequently uses the vanitas format, though this form is more often associated with 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish painters.

Vanitas paintings are explicitly intended to remind us of our own mortality — life is very short, they point out insistently, and we will all die. Symbols found in vanitas paintings often include skulls, fruit, and flowers, and these also frequently appear in Anderle’s work. At Hollar there were perhaps two dozen prints of his drypoint drawings on offer, but I will describe three prints from 1983 which exemplify the artist’s work and deal with the grim but compelling subject of our mortality. The fact that this exhibit was staged on the occasion of Anderle’s 80th birthday adds resonance to this theme.

In Dejte si pozor na to co může přijít zitra (Pay attention to what can come tomorrow) an infant and two elders are depicted at the top of the picture, and at the bottom right we see the image of a young adult woman. Also depicted are a bare tree and some preposterous human forms, a couple of which sport legs where their arms should be and one which has a mouth at the top of his head. Then, in an image sequence common in Anderle’s work, there is a series of slightly overlapping heads in profile which range from young to old. There’s also a monstrous head with some human features but an animal’s jaw and a tongue like a sea snake. The young woman looks brave, but we wonder if she is really heeding the artist’s warning.

In Člověk je jako ovoce (A person is like fruit) a young woman looks boldly outward, and a man’s skull can be seen in profile. He is older than she is and his head is deteriorating or maybe decaying. In the foreground we see a bunch of grapes and a pomegranate, opened and with exposed seeds.

In Vanitas VIII we see more fruit and some flowers, both fresh and wilted. A young woman and man face each other and, again, their heads in profile range from young to successively older, coming closer and closer until their aged selves nearly touch.

Anderle uses the images common to the vanitas to make an obvious point, yet there is a fantastic imagination in his work that allows us to bypass some of the horror. In addition, Anderle reminds us of our progression toward aging and its attendant miseries and indignities with a certain amount of humor. He goes beyond the typical vanitas symbols of skulls and flowers to show us grotesque monsters that mock our fears. The monsters in “Pay attention” are not really human, which gives us a small sense of relief, but they remind us that we are always heading into the unknown.

Later I decided to see what I could find in Kafka that deals directly with aging and death. Of course in one sense everything in Kafka is focused on our headlong rush toward our demise, but a few short pieces fit together with my theme. First, there’s the tiny piece called “The Neighboring Village,” which is just one paragraph long. The narrator’s grandfather, we are told, said, “Life is astonishingly brief,” and went on to exclaim that he can’t understand how a young man can start off on a visit to a neighboring village without wondering if there will be enough time to get there in “the span of a normal happy life.” Also in this volume there are two other stories that deal explicitly with issues of mortality — “The Worries of a Head of Household” and “A Dream.”

At the beginning of “A Dream,” we are told that “Josef K. dreamed” and in his dream he went for a walk on a nice day. Almost immediately he “found himself in the cemetery.” Though this is very much the logic of dreams – that we find ourselves in unexpected places without having chosen to go there — when a dreamer finds himself among tombstones, he is often unsettled. But K., spotting a fresh grave, feels compelled to hurry toward it, and though it is sometimes obscured from view by twisting banners, and he can’t see who is holding them, “he had a sense of there being great jubilation.” Then, in a further example of dream logic, while he is looking elsewhere, K. realizes the grave he wants to reach is nearby, “practically underneath him.” He jumps to the grass, is forced to kneel in front of the grave by some additional dreamlike contortions of the physical world, and then he is trapped beside the grave when two men force a gravestone into place.

At this point a third man, the artist, appears. He is wearing a somewhat louche costume — trousers, a half-buttoned shirt, and a velvet cap — and he’s holding a pencil. He begins to write on the gravestone, and with what Kafka first calls “an ordinary pencil” and then “a perfectly ordinary pencil” he produces a gold inscription. “Each letter seemed pure and beautiful, deeply etched and in perfect gold.” And then, in spite of an inexplicable hindrance for the artist and some “intense opposition from within,” Josef K. ends up being gently moved into a “large hole with steep-sided walls” as the artist writes his epitaph “with immense flourishes.”

Because this is a story by Kafka, it would probably not be wise to hurry after a single meaning. Yes, this dream is filled with references to death and descriptions of graves and burial. It might be possible to see it as a premonition of early death — Kafka knew he suffered from tuberculosis. It might also be possible to see it as a story about the way artists try to create a monument to themselves that will live after them. Certainly the artist in this story is very skillful, able to produce beautiful gold etched letters with an ordinary pencil. And of course Kafka, whose alter ego Josef K. is being summarily buried and memorialized, is a writer, an artist whose work can be produced with an ordinary pencil. K. watches the artist, empathizes with his difficulties, and ends up wafting into his grave after he realizes “there was no longer time to beg him to change his mind.” This makes it sound as if the artist was not really human but a godlike figure who could determine when it was time for a man to lie in his grave.

This story set in a cemetery contains a surprising number of positive descriptions. When K. sees the fresh grave and the flags and banners, he has a sense that there is “great jubilation.” The forces that put him into the grave are gentle, he is “accepted by impenetrable depths,” and his epitaph is beautifully finished. “Ravished by the aspect, he awoke” concludes the dream, and ravished is a word that can mean to fill someone with intense delight. And of course a dream about death is not a death — it may be a reminder of mortality, a kind of written vanitas, or an exhortation not to struggle and feel so anxious about what is inevitable.

“The Worries of a Head of Household” is about a different sort of anxiety, a sense of unease that Sartre would attribute to our sense of discomfort with the in-itself, which is matter that is not imbued with life and consciousness. In this story Kafka presents us with the Odradek, which is surely a thing — it is a “tiny,” flat, star-shaped reel of thread with old, knotted or tattered pieces of thread protruding from it — yet with the aid of a little rod that emerges from its center it can stand upright. The Odradek seems to represent the senseless proliferation of matter that gives Roquentin his queasy feelings in Sartre’s Nausea, and though it might seem that this funny thing — with a name that doesn’t seem to have a meaning – was once created to serve a purpose and is now broken, the head of household says “the whole thing looks functionless, but after its fashion complete.”

The Odradek can move very fast and is very “maneuverable,” and even more remarkable than the fact that he moves from attic to stairs to corridors or from one building to the other on his own power (in the story the Odradek is referred to as a he) is the fact that he can speak. He can answer simple questions and he is sometimes heard to laugh, though “often he is silent for long periods, as silent as the wood he seems to be fashioned from.” The Ondradek has no aim or activity that is likely to wear him out, and therefore the head of household is uncertain that the Odradek will ever die. He finds it “painful” to think that this odd creature might outlive him.

But what meanings can the Odradek have for Kafka and for us? For one thing, the story takes a look at one way human beings feel about the in-itself — uneasy and a little resentful. Objects are not constantly striving and wearing themselves out over their aims and purposes, and so they often survive for many long years. But the Odradek might also refer to those parts of our bodies that will still be around long after we die, and he has more in common with a skull in an Anderle vanitas piece than with a human person.

After I finished with Kafka, I decided to add a caveat to the scientific point of view I found in Essentials of Biological Anthropology. Yes, life is astonishingly brief, all is vanity, and we know this with increasing clarity as we grow older. In addition, the 73-year-old woman’s newborn son is unlikely to have his mother around when he has children of his own, and many people would find her choice to become a mother at such an advanced age a questionable one (though she did so for complex reasons that involved her husband’s inheritance). But older people are still able to do remarkable things because life is not over until it’s over, and everyone deserves the chance to make the next serendipitous discovery.

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