On September 11, 1912, Franz Kafka recounted a dream in his diary:
At first I did not really know where I was, only when once I accidentally stood up did I see on my left and behind me on my right the distant, clearly outlined sea with many battleships lined up in rows and at anchor. On the right New York could be seen, we were in New York Harbour. The sky was grey, but of a constant brightness. I moved back and forth in my seat, freely exposed to the air on all sides, in order to be able to see everything. In the direction of New York my glance slanted downwards a little, in the direction of the sea it slanted upwards. I now noticed the water rise up near us in high waves on which was borne a great cosmopolitan traffic.
It’s hard not to suspect Kafka of a kind of prophecy. Disoriented, his perspective nonetheless scans panoramically, offering a view of the harbor and the city so familiar that Kafka could accurately dream it without ever having been there in person. Before him stands not only the rising tides of the East River, but also the familiar view of New York’s “great cosmopolitan traffic.” Today we recognize that traffic, though situated in the United States, as the world’s population — multicultural, transnational, divergently diasporic — embodying a grief that continues to be remembered as a September morning lit in “constant brightness.” How can we not read Kafka’s dream as anything but a portent of future loss? The desire to read prophecy in literature is as much a desire to give meaning to a senseless present as it is an exhortation to read more deeply and more searchingly into the past. Literature isn’t prophecy, but it presents us with one of the healthier consolation practices in an age too meager with solace and recompense.
The potential for literature as prophecy emerges quietly, and quite powerfully, in Jen Bervin’s 2004 artist’s book or, depending how you read it, book of poems, Nets, which makes a stunning argument for paying more attention to both literary history and the materiality of writing. Bervin took The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare and proceeded to erase the text, emboldening a few selected words in each sonnet. (The title itself is an excision of The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare.) What remains is the new poem standing over the bleached-out text of the original, the pale gray words of which haunt the pages like the very ghost of Shakespeare. Bervin presents us with the uncovered augury of Sonnet 64: beginning with the lines “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced / The rich proud cost of outworn buried age,” the poem is then erased and crystallized into a devastating shard:
I have seen
The quotation here does no justic...read more