Kafka must end in the inexplicable…


Franz Kafka

From The Times Literary Supplement:

Stanley Corngold seems to have established himself as the doyen of American Kafkaists. Ruth V. Gross’s preface to Kafka for the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Corngold, sets the tone. The idea, she explains, was “to assemble a number of distinguished Kafka researchers from North America and Europe to examine together the ways in which this extraordinary writer, who so decisively shaped our conception of the twentieth century, might suggest fruitful strategies for coping with the twenty-first”. But who ever imagined that writers should give us “fruitful strategies for coping”? They have quite enough on their plates trying to say what they feel they have it in them to say. She goes on: “How do we compose a complete and coherent account of a personality with so many often contradictory aspects?”. Again, this sounds good, but what on earth would a “complete and coherent account” of anything be like? Should we even aim for that?

Two of the essays, on “Kafka and Israeli Literature” and “Kafka and Italy”, explore those writers from Italy and Israel whose work exhibits “familiar Kafkaesque themes, such as metamorphosis, existential absurdity, bureaucratic nightmares, marginality, power, and identity”. One had hoped Kafka studies had progressed beyond this level, but apparently not. Some, though, start off by opening up interesting areas of research, only to follow the Leavitt route of obsessiveness. Thus Roland Reuss asks us to go behind the printed texts to the manuscripts, where we will find that the editors, however sensitive, have all made decisions which cut out alternatives the manuscripts leave open. This dilemma is not, pace Reuss, unique to Kafka editors, but has been interestingly explored in recent decades by those working on the manuscripts of Proust and Joyce – it is of course particularly the case with works, such as the later volumes of À la Recherche and many of Kafka’s stories, where the work was not published in the author’s lifetime. The story Brod called “Prometheus” is found in Kafka’s Octavo Notebooks, entirely crossed out. The concluding paragraph reads in English: “Legend attempts to explain the inexplicable; because it arises from a ground of truth, it must end again in the inexplicable”. The editors of the Fischer edition (who, having claimed that they would not include anything that had been crossed out, clearly felt that crossing out an entire story did not count and silently included it) noticed an insertion sign in the manuscript at the start of the story, and so placed the sentence there – thus dealing a blow to Hans Blumenberg, who based his entire interpretation of the story, in his great Work on Myth, on its coming at the end. Reuss notes, however, and he gives us photographs of the MSS to prove his point, that there are not one but two insertion signs in the story, at different places – where should the sentence really go?

This is a fascinating reminder that what we are dealing with is something written, and often written in the heat of inspiration. It is less a “text” than a process. This is important, but Reuss does his cause no good when he goes on to examine another passage, this time from the MS of “The Hunter Gracchus”, which reads: “ich tot tot tot. Weiss nicht warum ich hier bin”. (I, dead dead dead. Know not why I am here.) The first five words, he points out (and again shows us the evidence) are on one line, the last five on another. This suggests, he says, that we must take “ich tot tot tot Weiss” as a unit, and read the last word as a noun, white, rather than a verb, to know – which gives us the Mallarméan line “I [the written word, black on the white page] dead dead dead white”. We are back in Leavitt territory.

John Zilcosky has a fascinating essay on Kafka and trains, alerting us to the fact that in the early twentieth century there was as much anxiety about what train travel might do to you as there is today about jet travel. Apart from “train-induced neuroses”, symptoms included failing vision and eye fatigue, caused by the unnatural speed of trains. Gregor Samsa, we learn early on in “The Metamorphosis”, is a commercial traveller. It could just be that what he feels he has become, an insect, whose vision is getting worse by the day, is the result of the unnatural life he has to lead. He himself wonders if what has happened to him is simply that he has contracted a “standing ailment of commercial travellers”. At the end of the story, Zilcosky suggests, we move from inhuman trains and what they can do to you to the much more “human” tram, which takes Samsa’s parents and sister out into the country, “ins Freie”. Though whether that ending is “positive”, as everyone in these books seems to think, or bleak in the extreme, as Maurice Blanchot (who is strangely absent from modern academic discourse on Kafka) suggests, persuasively in my opinion, is an open question.

“Why we don’t understand Kafka”, Gabriel Josipovici, The Times Literary Supplement