EAT FIRST, TALK LATER. KAFKA GETS A LESSON IN TABLE MANNERS.
As a child Franz Kafka was intimidated by his father, who was a big man. He hated getting undressed in front of him in the change room of the public bath:
I was bony, weak, and thin; you were strong, big, and square. Even inside the change room I thought of myself as a miserable creature, and not only before your eyes, but before the whole world, for you were the measure of all things to me. When we stepped outside and mingled with the crowd, I holding your hand, a little skeleton, insecure, barefoot on the deck, afraid of the water, I was seized with despair because I was unable to imitate your swim strokes, which you kept demonstrating to me with the best of intentions, but to my deepest embarrassment…
Your physical superiority was paralleled by your intellectual supremacy… You ruled the world from your armchair. Your opinion was correct. The opinion of others was crazy, exaggerated, meschugge, abnormal. Your confidence was so great that you did not even have to be consistent and still prevailed in your opinion... For example, you were able to abuse the Czechs, the Germans, the Jews, and not in selected cases but in every respect, and finally there was no one left standing except you. You became for me the enigma that characterizes all tyrants, whose right is based on their person rather than on reason…
As a child I was mainly in your company at dinnertime. Thus your education focused largely on correct table manners. Everything that was on my plate had to be eaten. No one was allowed to speak about the quality of the food. You yourself, however, often found the food inedible and called it “fodder”. “That animal”, the cook, had spoiled it. Because you usually had a healthy appetite and you liked to eat everything quickly, hot, and in large bites, I had to hurry up. Dark silence prevailed at the table, interrupted only by admonitions: “Eat first, talk later.” Or: “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” Or: “Look here, I’ve already finished my dinner.” Others were not allowed to chew on bones. You were allowed to do it. Others were not allowed to slurp. You were allowed to do it. The main thing was to cut the bread straight. That you cut it with a knife dripping with sauce was unimportant. Others had to watch out not to drop any crumbs on the floor. The largest amount of crumbs accumulated under your seat. During dinner, others had to concentrate exclusively on the food. You cleaned and cut your nails, sharpened pencils, reamed out your ears with a toothpick. Father, please understand, that these things are insignificant details in themselves. They were only depressing for me because you were such a hugely important person in my eyes and did not observe the commandments which you imposed on me…and I could not obey because I didn’t have your strength, or your appetite or your skill…That is how it appeared to me as a child – not in my thoughts, but in my feelings.
(Source: Letter to my Father, text on www.kafka.org; my translation)
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