Letters to Milena: The art of copycat

Good artists copy, good artists steal!

Pablo Picasso

We might argue, fight, and writhe and roll our eyes at copycats. Yet a certain gesamtkunstwerk to the well-copied allows it a fighting chance. A chance to be more than a slavish reproduction, a homage; an act of love even, to the original. I was reminded of this when I came across a copy of a book by a favourite writer, Letters to Milena by Franz Kafka. The original is a slim volume, barely more than a hundred pages. The copy I found was twice as thick, with gilt-edged pages of dazzling white paper. It looked like it had never been touched, let alone read.

The story goes that Kafka fell in love with Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist and translator, and wrote her over eighty letters between July 1919 and December 1920. The letters were published posthumously in 1952 and have been translated into more than thirty languages. They are some of the most beautiful love letters ever written. What struck me about the copy I found was not just its physical beauty but also the dedication that had gone into making it: each letter had been meticulously inked out, not one word or punctuation mark (as far as I could tell) was missing. It must have taken months to complete. And yet, despite (or maybe because of) the care that had gone into making it, the book felt empty – there was no soul to it. 

It made me think about how we often try to copy things without understanding what we are trying to capture. We see something beautiful, and we want to possess it; we want to make it our own. In doing so, we lose sight of what made it special in the first place – its essence, its soul. When we copy, we should always ask ourselves: What are we trying to capture? Is it the physical beauty of the object, or is it something more intangible, something that cannot be seen or held? If it is the latter, then we must be extra watchful. We need to make sure that we are not just copying the surface of things but also their essence. We need to make sure that we copy the fragments of life sequined into the margins.

Kafka’s letters are the record of a man unlike his art. Full of love, yearning, and emotion intensely uncharacteristic of the man. Before, I had heard that it was interesting to say that Kafka’s letters offer a window into his soul because the truth remains that the letters are indeed quite opaque, just like much he has written. They are a series of riddles or puzzles that the reader must decipher to understand what is going on. In this way, they are similar to Kafka’s novels, which often operate on multiple levels of thought and can be interpreted to fit each maze thrown at them. Yet it is striking how much he pours into these letters, knowing there is little chance that they will ever be reciprocated. This differentiates them from his novels–it is clearer in these more than it occurs in his writing that he knows his love will never meet him where he needs, and that there is almost no point to his writing them as this thing, as love letters to Milena.

And what are you going to do now? The fact that you’re being looked after is probably insignificant. Anyone who cares about you has to realize that you need a little looking after, nothing else ­really matters. So is there salvation here as well? I said already—­no, I’m not in the mood for making jokes, I am not being funny in the least and will not be funny again until you have written how you are planning a new and healthier way of life. After your last letter I’m not going to ask why you don’t leave Vienna for a while, now I understand, but after all there are beautiful places close to Vienna as well, which offer many different cures and possibilities of care. Today I’m not going to write about anything else, I don’t have anything more important to bring up. I’m saving everything else for tomorrow, including my thanks for the issue of Kmen which makes me moved and ashamed, happy and sad. No, there is one other thing: If you waste as much as one minute of your sleep on the translation, it will be as if you were cursing me. For if it ever comes to a trial there will be no further investigations; they will simply establish the fact: he robbed her of her sleep. With that I shall be condemned, and justly so. Thus I’m fighting for myself when I ask you to stop.

[Meran, April 1920], signed Franz

Kafka is, rather strangely, almost writing to himself. What a thing to say in a letter, of all things, that you have not understood the things you are responding to, that you do not seek for the things you say to be understood in turn either, and that you have more unimportant things to share that you will be saving for the sole purpose of having more unimportant things to share. Oh, Kafka. I could scream about his obsolence, yet I only frustrate you to suggest that the thing to be copied in the letters he writes is not the words but his choice to love because he wishes to, and only because. No penmanship could capture the folly of running against a wall repeatedly just to feel something. One could try, but that thing would not be found in pages and ink. Maybe in a heart battered by love, maybe. It might be that the pages I found had this, yet I could not see it. After a day, they felt much like the industrial print on a leaked supreme court opinion that sat next to them: both shocking in effort and empty in artfulness.

I have spent a time explaining what a good copycat is not. And I will now criminally announce that I have no clue what a good one is. That is a thing to be felt when you see one. If you came here hoping I would give you that, I apologize for stealing your time. That is my art. Write a letter, and maybe you will find something in it worth more than this. Write and write and write, then write some more. You might do more than this energetic soul did, in copying the words of a man who spoke precisely to be misunderstood. 

Copycat, copycat never catch a rat! Who wants to catch those anyway?

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