Literature: Franz Kafka II: Dialogue, Humanism, God

I’m still trying to sort out Franz Kafka. He was the topic of this semester’s independent literature study–my second-to-last in the on-going project with the enigmatic German Professor, which began three semesters ago with Thomas Mann and Robert Musil. It’s the best thing I’ve done as a student here, this intensely personal investigation of tortuous novels that has expanded to include music, philosophy, aesthetics, and myth.

Franz Kafka is such a different figure than Mann or Musil. His obsessions are different, as are his questions and his solutions. His world is entirely opposed to Thomas Mann’s, all secular humanism and sparkling irony and the brilliant residue of 3,000 years of art–opposed, too, to Musil’s intensely private universe, where the glance shared between two people occupies a dozen pages of metaphor-laden prose. If Mann addresses the relationship between man and his intellectual heritage, and Musil the relationship between man and himself, then Kafka addresses the relationship between man and God. His spirituality is real and aching and, and Camus writes, the questions he poses are those of a soul in quest of its grace. What do we do when we are confronted with the Other-worldly? Is God cruel and absurd, or full of goodness? Can human wisdom and strength win a way to the Divine? Certainly, one can read Kafka as a critique of modern bureaucracy, the industrialization of mankind, etc. etc.–but to me it is the religious nature of his works that transcends.

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Leaving philosophy aside, what about the writing itself? To me, perhaps the most pressingly disturbing aspect of Kafka’s prose was its lack of a Bezugsrahmen–a frame of reference or allusion, an overt dialogue between the author and the art and thought of the past three millennia. Kafka’s world exists apparently in a vacuum, in a universe of isolation that is as cultural and intellectual as it is personal. His characters don’t hang pictures from Dürer or Caspar David Friedrich on their walls; they don’t read books by Schopenhauer or Plato. There are no direct references in the novels (Schloss, Prozess) to Shakespeare or to Nietzsche or Antiquity–as readers, we are hardly aware that such things exist. If there is a dialogue between Kafka’s figures and their intellectual forebears, it is hidden.

This utter lack of reference to a greater intellectual tradition is especially unsettling to me, because I revel in The Dialogue, locate great spiritual and intellectual meaning in my ability to connect to three thousand years of thought. To have these connections ripped out from under my feet is intensely disorienting. How different, again, from Thomas Mann! His books are dialogues in essence–long, heady, sometimes tortuous conversations between the ideas and worldviews and artworks of human civilization. And as a result, none of his figures are ever truly isolated. Certainly, they are sometimes despairing, desperate, lonely. In spite of it all, though, they always partake of and above all believe in an intellectual and artistic tradition that is greater than any individual–a tradition that offers, I think, a sort of transcendence, a consolation.

In Kafka there is no such consolation. There is none of Coriolanus’ there is a world elsewhere, no sense that Kafka’s figures can find redemption by situating their own struggles within a philosophical or aesthetic framework that has existed for millennia and will carry on after they are gone. Joseph stands before the court in The Trial and never thinks, “Ah, so it was with Socrates in Athens. I understand now; this is what I am to do.” K. fights unceasingly to gain entrance in the castle, but he does so without the great dictum of Goethe’s Faust: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen. Whoever strives with all his might–that man can we redeem. He remains isolated, intellectually as well as physically.

But in the end, isn’t this lack of a Bezugsrahmen infinitely fitting to Kafka’s universe? The lack of a Dialogue, the emptiness, the intellectual silence all serve to emphasize aloneness of the characters. Their hermetic solitude is perhaps the tragedy of the novels.

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Kafka’s world is also disturbingly free of humanism. Humanism tells us that men and women can move forward on their own strength, can become wiser and better and more farsighted in ways that accomplish things, in ways that lead to creation or beauty or salvation. Kafka takes these ideas and turns them upside down.

He does this above all in Before the Law, the page-long parable at the end of The Trial. In the story, a nameless man seeks in vain to gain access to the Law (grace, God, heaven?). There are a series of gates in his way, and a door-warden who rebuffs all of his attempts to enter even the first. The man sometimes sees a gleam of light through the passageway beyond the door, but dies at the end of the story without ever having set foot inside.

The story, I believe, is fundamentally a-humanistic. The seeker doesn’t become stronger through all his questioning, striving, learning, believing–but rather the opposite.

Kafka becomes anti-Goethe. Whoever strives with all his might–that man dies of exhaustion.

In this light, perhaps the most tragic sentence in the novels is the door-warden’s final statement to the man, in his last moments of life: “Der Eingang war nur für dich bestimmt. Ich gehe jetzt und schließe ihn.” The entrance was only meant for you. I am going now and closing it. That is our torture, our tragedy–that we are wise enough to know such an entrance exists, and wise enough to seek it with all our strength–but too limited, physically and spiritually, to ever gain entrance on our own strength. Humanity finds itself in an impossible position.

In this way, I think, Kafka’s is a world that the ancient Greeks would have recognized–where human beings are fundamentally weak, where their limitations are at the forefront of human existence. The divine realm exists, sends messengers, is tangible and present–but is ultimately careless and inscrutable.

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There is one more thing about Kafka’s characters, however, at the end of it all: wherever they are, in whatever circumstances, despite all confusion and weakness–they are always going to a window and opening it, and looking out. I like to imagine that this throwing-open of windows, repeated again and again throughout the novels, is itself a sort of human victory. It doesn’t matter that the world beyond the windows is often dark and snow-filled. It’s the action that counts.

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If I had finished this post five days ago, I would have ended it there. Kafka’s books are superb because they are so unbearably, unflinchingly bleak. Reading him is fascinating and compelling and cathartic in the same way reading Greek tragedy is, because we are presented with a world in which there is no out. A few open windows, a gleam of light through a impenetrable gate–what’s that, really? The works end with human limitation writ large.

Now, however, I’m entrenched in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and it’s throwing all of Kafka into a very new light.

Per Kierkegaard, Kafka is drawing our attention not to human weakness, but to mankind’s incredible, defiant potential for perseverance, for real and tangible hope. His characters are the greatest of heroes because they are heroes of faith. They have looked into the absurd and comprehended the paradox and have chosen to believe.

But that’s all still half-formed, still confused in my own mind. There will be more to come later. In the end, Kafka is the sort of author who shifts over time–and that, I think, is why we read him.

Robert Musil: The Failure of Words

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Robert Musil is taking over the world. Or the semester, anyway. There is such a peculiar thrill in the first engagement with a great artist, the headiness of a burgeoning love-affair with a thinker you know will follow you for the rest of your life. I will be studying Musil until school lets out, reading almost all of the shorter prose and hopefully a good chunk of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). It is the perfect follow-up to Thomas Mann last semester.

Who is Musil? Another one of those towering creators of Mann’s generation, exhaustive and exhausting, fighting for a heroism of weakness and making art in a country on the edge of decay. He spent his life in Austria and Germany and died in Switzerland in 1942, ever eluded by the fame and security that Mann won so easily. He was Mann’s opposite in more than just physical circumstances–his is a world of the subjective and impressionistic, blurred outlines and shifting boundaries to Mann’s lazer-sharp precision. Though no traditionalism, Musil’s religiosity is real and aching, to Mann’s ironically God-less, classical universe. There is a fragility about Musil that is lacking in Mann, an ambiguity that makes him peculiarly unsuited for normal literary criticism. And extraordinarily, mind-blowingly difficult to read.

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We began with Törless (English: The Confusions of Young Törless), Musil’s first work and the only one he was ever really well-known for during his life. What was it about? There are a hundred themes I could write on—sadomasochism and Eastern religion, Bildung and the duality of the soul. Those are all on the surface, there for the taking.

What, then? For me, the most pressing question Törless raised was something less direct, inherent in the very structure and method of Musil’s writing–what can language do, and what happens when it fails? Törless was, in a sense, a book about the process of writing itself, about the power or powerlessness of the author, about the attempt to bring anything to words. What sort of an ability did language have, in the end? Are words in essence strong or weak? How much of human experience can they really contain?

And again, most hauntingly, what when words simply fail? When that which the artist seeks to portray is unreachable with language? When the part of human life he wants to get at lies completely beyond the realm of words?

All of those questions were there already behind the motto that opened Törless, a quote from Maeterlinck—when we speak something out, we devalue it curiously. Something vital is lost in the process of verbal transmission. When we dive into the depths (of the sea, the self), the drops of water we bring to the surface on our fingertips are pale and lacking. Later, Törless himself expressed the problem most clearly, and made the connection to language:

He remembered that he had once stood with his father before some landscape or other, and suddenly cried, oh it is beautiful–and was embarrassed, when that pleased his father. Because he could have just as easily have said, it is horribly sad. It was a failure of words that tortured him, a half-conscious knowledge that the words were only chance elusions of that which was felt.

Aside: the sometimes-inseparability of beauty and horrible sadness–don’t we all know this? The first and penultimate time I heard Wagner’s Parsifal I was depressed for days. Continue:

And now he had the desire to search unrestingly for a bridge, a correlation, a simile and a compromise—between himself and that which stood wordless before his soul.

It seems to me that Musil’s work is the perpetual search to span that gap, to find the bridge. To plunge into the depths (of the sea, the self), and make words express what lies there. Musil’s medium is that of language, but his subject matter something else entirely–that which is felt and not reasoned, psychological, intimated, having to do with a thousand unspoken nuances of soul and mind. His artistic territory is that of the wordless.

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If Törless sets up the problem, the question of wording the wordless, then the two short stories of Vereinigungen (Unions) are Musil’s attempt to find a solution. There the tension, here a potential resolution–just what would a bridge between language and the unspeakable look like, at the practical level of literary creation? How to work around, even transcend, this failure of words in the composition of an actual text?  How to make the wordless into prose? What details of style and syntax to draw on?

Because it was even more clear that the realm of Vereinigungen lay outside of language. The physical happenings of each story could be recounted in a sentence–the actual plot took place within the soul itself, in some half-conscious realm of memory and association that the characters themselves were barely aware of. Feelings happened, not events.  The subtlest of psychological shifts was epoch-making–and out of all this the narrator crafted the language and syntax to tell a story. How did he do it?

First there were the similes. Both stories were saturated with them, these comparisons of a few words or several sentences introduced by like or as when, sometimes a dozen or more to a page.  Often they were beautiful, sometimes funny, nearly always puzzling.

In all that happened, she had a feeling like a guest who enters a strange house only once and gives himself over, thoughtlessly and a little bored, to everything that confronted him there.

The crowd shoved her slowly here and there like a great, heavy swell of dishwater.

And she began to long for the abused and exploited lives of strange men, as after the pale, weak vigil during a sickness when the sounds wander from one room to the next and listen nowhere and, freed from the soul’s own weight, somewhere carry on a hovering life.

Her thoughts wandered slowly in the snow outside, without looking back, ever farther and farther, as when someone is too tired to turn around and walks and walks.

It is out of this dense net of images that Musil builds his text. His characters and narrator are unable say how it all is in and of itself, because the it lies outside of language–so they must say it is like something else, something we can read off a page. We can relate to Musil’s similes–they give us something to go on, something we can internalize, verbalize, discuss. A bridge over the wordless.

And then the sentence structure, Musil’s choice of vocabulary–the prose style is dominated by subjunctive case verbs, by the word maybe (vielleicht) and the word feeling (Gefühl). What she says was only maybe so, or not, because it had to do with feeling. He could perhaps see the world that way. The words are themselves pointedly ambiguous, Musil’s imprecision allowing language to come closer to containing what was behind it.

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But how much of Törless’ failure of words does Musil overcome, in the end? In the second story, the struggle to bring to words is even more pressing. The conversations between Veronika and Johannes are more full of silence than of language. When Veronika does speak, her words are again pale, misunderstood, poor representations of the area of the self she seeks to bring to the surface and express.

Veronika gasped after words….and silence arose again.

“I’m going out now, indeed, and perhaps I will die.” But he knew there too, that wasn’t what he meant.

And Johannes didn’t know how to say it–there were too many possibilities in his head.

They hardly spoke to another any more.

Wordless, unspeakable, inexpressible, hesitating, silence–this is Musil’s vocabulary. In the end, one has the feeling that the words he gives his characters are still only poor stand-ins for what is really behind them, masks in front of the true face of being. In German the expression “to put into words” translates to “in Worte kleiden”—to clothe in words. As if words are only something put on, some outer garment that is not and cannot be a true part of the body and soul.

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What is the effect of all this? This wording of the wordless, this headstrong determination clothe with language things usually left outside of it? Where does it leave the reader? who can, after all, only read words?

Es ist komisch….komisch, Emily, oder? says the enigmatic German Professor. He thinks Musil is too intimate, too close for comfort. The books are somehow deeply unnerving, Musil’s constant trying to make language fit disturbing, almost irritating. But shouldn’t great art be irritating sometimes? Yes, of course it should.

And then I say, going rather far out on a limb–is Robert Musil fundamentally unsuited to the literary medium? Is his project out of place in a language-based form of expression? His artistic territory—feeling, intimation, soul—is usually left unspoken—or left to music. Would he not have made a better composer? Listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, or the fourth movement of his 5th. There, perfectly, effortlessly, is everything Musil wanted to get at, with those silences in Vereinigungen, with the interchangeable beauty and sadness in Törless. The most intimate of psychological states made vivid,  without the restriction of words or language–wasn’t that the realm of music, not literature?

It’s a funny and disturbing thought, that a great author is unsuited to his artform. But so it goes. There are no conclusions–this is only the very beginning of the dialogue. Give me a decade to think about it. What is the power of words? In the end, I’m not sure that even Musil had an answer.


As an aside, I am fascinated by the similarities between Musil and Mahler. They were both Austrian, in Vienna at almost the same time. They both were intimately familiar with the drive towards the immense, the desire to encompass everything in a work of art. Mahler said, “The symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything within it.” Whence this desire for the exhaustive, the all-encompassing? What was it about the Austrian fin de siècle artistic consciousness?

Translations are my own, from the beautiful Rowolt 1968 edition in the first picture above (only $6! and shipping from America!).

Listen to Mahler.

That is all.

Being: Spring Semester

snowstorm3It is the coldest of Februarys, all frozen mud and raw mid-western sleet. Der Wind, der Wind, das himmlische Kind–no matter which way you walk, it blows in your face.

This semester is full of Robert Musil, and you love him. You try to talk in German about the part of human existence that lies outside of words. You fail.

Latin. You start admiring secondary literature for the first time in your life, thanks to the young Classics professor who gives you as much literary theory and crazy feminist interpretations of Ovid as you could wish for. She is new to the department, and the adulation of the female Latin and Greek students is only slightly veiled. An article by Foucault on the death of the author derails the seminar and her office hours for half a week.

 
What if the author didn’t matter? You are still debating this point days later, with the vanload of bright-eyed 19-year-old Classicists on the way to teach Latin to third graders.

And Eros, from Plato’s Symposium, in Greek, with Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig added in for good measure. Everything is thrown open. There is more here than you ever thought. Eros as possession and procreation. Eros as philosophy and the philosopher together. Eros as the mediator transcendent, halfway between foolishness and wisdom, poverty and wealth, appearance and reality. Eros as a way of being–give and take, presence and absence, the tension and release at the root of all scholarship and of all being-in-love-with. It is the idea of the semester.

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Elsewhere. Being a good Nietzschean and nagged by the fear that you just might turn into Hesse’s Steppenwolf, you resolve to learn to dance. You find out that you are more horrible at it than you thought. This is a great disappointment not only to yourself, but also to whatever poor sap ends up partnering with you in Social Dance 101.

Young Goethe from last semester has grown out his sideburns and entirely ruined his looks.  You decide that he amply compensated, though, by simultaneously darning his own jacket and reciting Auden last Friday.

The other weekly readers of poetry and singers of songs have fixated on medieval chant. Crucem Sanctam Subiit–there are a dozen verses, and everyone must learn them all so you can sing them thirty-five voices strong, pounding on the floor, the faces of the young men transfigured in some sort of spiritual ecstasy. They all want to be monks someday.

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Photograph from my sister, ever-talented.