Kafka & the Axe

A friend shared this quote recently, and it made me think quite a lot.

“A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside of us.”
-Franz Kafka, novelist (1883–1924)

The Lecture Axe, art by Mel Chin. Used with permission.

So what is Kafka’s “frozen sea”?

It is our emotional self-identity, our human collection of preconceived notions, experiences and knowledge that we hold forth as our personal world view. Most of us are emotionally invested in our worldview — it’s what keeps us sane in a crazy and chaotic world. Kafka suggests that a remarkable book can challenge that view and force us to reexamine our prejudices and beliefs. As a result, a special book might fundamentally change us. (In my experience, those are the best kinds of books.)

Beside great books, what else can be an “axe for the frozen sea”? What other things can shake our emotional foundations? What experiences can we have that contain the power to change the way we think and feel?

The Arts? Music?

I certainly think so. Powerful plays and musicals — “Rent” comes to mind, (and somehow “La Bohème”) evoke tremendous emotional responses in audiences. Similarly, some films can be moving. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece “Notorious” staring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains is one fine example, as is some of Hitchcock’s other work.

Consider photographs — some iconic images captured on film have become part of our national identity.

Alfred Eisenstaedt gave us this image of the jubilation of a post war homecoming. This simple image influenced a generation, and became part of the national psyche.

The June 1985 cover of National Geographic. presented a more contemporary face of war. The portrait Afghan Girl is a portrait by journalist Steve McCurry.

The best photographs evoke the profound joy, triumph, tragedy or sadness tied to the moment. In these cases, they can also become part of us as well.

However moving these shared experiences in the arts may be, they cannot not engage us as some others can.


In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Well said, Sam. And faced with the unenviable task of commenting or expounding on such a pithy and elegant phrase, I’ll fall back on the crutch of personal experience. My passport contains a myriad of stamps in many languages. We’ve had the delightful privilege of travelling Europe, Central and South America, dozens of islands and a tiny corner of Asia. All this has led me to enthusiastically endorse Twain’s conclusion.

But you don’t need to travel far abroad to expand your mind. Cultural changes can be found across the US, and it’s illuminating to see and think about those as well. The one inescapable conclusion I’ve come to is that people are people wherever you go. There are wonderful folks in every corner of the planet, of many colors, creeds and religions. And there are a few rogues, scoundrels, lunatics and plain old jerks. You can’t escape the human condition, so embrace it.


Can our work transform us? Possibly — but only if you truly value and see it’s transformative capability.

While it’s unlikely that most 8 to 5 jobs will cause you to rethink your worldview, some may. More probable are those efforts in the service of others. The sort of work that really feels like it makes a difference to real people, things like building with Habitat for Humanity, coaching a kids soccer team, or volunteering at a Hospice are more likely to be transformative efforts.

Through Engagement, We Can Be Transformed

The things that have the most power to transform us are those we are actively engaged in. Like that good book Kafka mentions. When we participate in new experiences, we activate those parts of our brain that learn and process new information. It can be a wonderful and addictive experience.

Ultimately, there are so many things: our work, personal relationships, life events and life challenges all have the power to alter our nature.

How we respond to those experiences is important. In Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah the author Richard Bach wrote, “Responsible is Able to Respond, able to answer for the way we choose to live. There’s only one person we have to answer to, of course, and that is….ourselves.”

We can let our experiences teach us or we can let them hurt us. When Kafka’s metaphorical axe strikes our personal ‘frozen sea’, will we take this opportunity to embrace the changes? Or will we deny the impact, refuse the lessons of the experience and settle for less than what might have been?

The wonderful and terrible thing about life is that you get to choose.

(Read the story of the Lecture Axe here — it’s a remarkable story about the photo above.)

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