Spittoons of light


Abracadabra, well that’s a word to conjure with! Words are all like that, magical and like charms, conjuring visions and images and sometimes like talisman, fending off demons. Another way of putting this is to say that words are concrete objects, that they have a taste, a texture, a shape that fills the mouth, distorting the tongue and pursing the lips, abrading the glottis or palate. And, that their physicality can strike terror to the heart, stabbing and drawing blood. As Franz Kafka said

[Words] leave fingermarks behind on the brain, which in the twinkling of an eye become the footprints of history. One ought to watch one’s very word.

Earlier Kafka had advised Gustav Janouch

Swearing destroys man’s greatest invention – language. It is an insult to the soul and a murderous offence against grace. But so is any use of words without proper consideration. For to speak implies to consider and define. Words involve a decision between life and death.

This is not merely an appeal to parsimony or concision. It is also deep veneration for words, taking words seriously, to the extent that the use of words, utterances become “spittoons of light”. Kafka used this description for the crooked alleyways and narrow funnel-shaped interior courtyards in Old Prague. But, they serve just as well for words, formed of spittle and breath, spat out to give a little light, a flickering evanescent flame in the darkness of eternity.



Imagine the words candelabra or chandelier and spontaneously and without effort images arrive of the particular candelabra or chandelier. Then think of “STOP” and the exercise in instantaneous cessation of activity is unpremeditated and swift. And, the all-powerful rejection of proffered love or the “YES, YES” of consummation and elegiac orgasm (orgasms are always mournful and tragic for being so brief). What wonderful transformations of emotion and affect. What wondrous rush of life and warmth to fill the void and opacity of living for the briefest of moments.


But, the injunction to take language seriously, to recognize the exacting force of words, to reduce “the noise”, to use another Kafka term because it mars the expression can come to mean that words are meted out in a miserly manner. Or, silence can reign when words might hold the key to something gentle and graceful coming to fruition between two people.



In Chekhov’s “About Love”, Alyokhin falls in love with a married woman, Anna Alexeyevna but does not tell her. Both of them are aware of their love

We would talk for a long time, and be silent for a long time, but we never confessed our love to each other, always hiding it shyly and jealously. We were frightened of everything that might betray our secret to each other. My love was tender and deep, but I tried to be rational, and wondered what might happen to our love if we didn’t have the strength to contain it; it seemed impossible that my quiet, sad love could suddenly crudely destroy my happy flow of life…

Particular words in this story are invested with considerable power, as if the mere utterance, mere declaration of love would gather the stray winds into a storm, a wild uncontrollable tempest and destroy everything; damnation and ruination! In the end, when Anna Alexeyevna and her husband are about leave for the Crimea, Alyokhin helped to move the family’s luggage into the train carriage

I ran into her carriage to put up on the rack a basket she had almost left behind and then we had to say goodbye. As soon as our eyes met while we were standing there in the compartment, our emotional strength left us and I embraced her; she pressed her face to my chest, and tears ran down her face; as I kissed her face, her shoulders, and her hands, which were wet with tears…I confessed my love for her…

Silence too is language, it has a lexicon all its own. It can hide as well as reveal. Whether with a sigh, a shrug, a laconic louche, whether with averted eye, or just an intake of breath, silence can be as expressive as words. But ultimately words are necessary.


But, what of expressive gestures? Gustav Janouch describes Kafka’s gestures

Whenever he can substitute for words a movement of his facial muscles, he does so. A smile, contraction of his eyebrows, wrinkling of the narrow forehead, protrusion or pursing of the lips – such movements are a substitute for spoken sentences. Franz Kafka loves gestures, and is therefore economical of them. A gesture of his is not an accompaniment of speech, duplicating the words, but as it were a word from an independent language of movement, a means of communication, thus in no way an involuntary reflex, but a deliberate expression of intention. Folding of the hands, laying of outstretched palms on the surface of his desk, leaning his body back comfortably and yet tensely in his chair, bending his head forward in conjunction with a shrug of the shoulders, pressing his hand to his heart, these are a few of the sparingly used means of expression which he always accompanies with an apologetic smile…

It is not for nothing that it is thought that gestural language probably preceded verbal language, maybe already accompanied by grunts and jerks!


As for poetry, the art form of words, it is the urgent search for a firefly in utter darkness, no in broad uninterrupted daylight. Only to preserve what is beyond grasp, what is elusive and changes shape. A solitary improbable task.


Kafka’s spittoon of light, ah!


Photos by Jan Oyebode

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