Franz Kafka, Robert Walser and the Meaning of Smallness


Dynastie, Eugene Ivanov, 2006

by Menachem Feuer

Everywhere I see lower doors: anyone like me can still pass through them, but – he has to stoop!

Oh when shall I return to my home, where I shall no longer have to stoop – shall no longer have to stoop before the small men!

—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Of the Virtue that Makes Small”

In the age of Twitter and Facebook, everyone and everything is bidding for our attention. While Andy Warhol told us that everyone wants to becomes a star, filmmakers like Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, and Seth Rogen show us that even the smallest people – what, in Yiddish, are called schlemiels – are really “larger than life.” But for many people it is counterintuitive to say that it is better to be smaller rather than larger than life. For them, it would be tantamount to saying that the drive for self-destruction or self-hatred is optimal. To be sure, the worry that one becomes anonymous in a mass society if one doesn’t become a famous writer, poet, etc. (fill in the blank) is not new. Modernist writers such Rainer Maria Rilke or Fyodor Dostoevsky or thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche were interested in preserving the individual in the face of modernity and mass urbanization. Nietzsche’s model of the Ubermensch (overman) is premised on tearing oneself from the herd (the masses) who take to “slave morality” as a way of life. Nietzsche, in direct contrast to them, ascribed to a radical kind of independence. It endowed one with a power that, since it rejected service and humility, no servant was capable of attaining.

In his Critique of Cynicism, Peter Sloterdijk has argued that Nietzsche believed that the best way to make sure one matters and resist the herd (whether it be on the streets or in academia, etc) is to be “cheeky.” Sloterdijk calls this behavior “kynical” (although it sounds like cynicism, it is actually a more original response to it since Sloterdijk conceives cynicism in terms of duplicity). By rudely saying things that go against the grain and by bypassing the rules of discourse, the Nietzschean kynical thinker stands out in the crowd as someone who, in cheeky defiance, becomes larger than life.  Nietzsche considered such a kynic (and himself) to be truly healthy. Even a contemporary literary critic like Harold Bloom – nearly a century later – considers the “strong” poet to be a cynical misreader. This suggests that the “weak” poet doesn’t know how to lie or undercut her predecessors. Whether we are talking about Bloom or Nietzsche, weakness is deemed to be equivalent to anonymity and a failure to be both cynical and kynical (as Sloterdijk argues via Nietzsche one should lead to another).

In striking contrast to the powerful iconoclastic modern writers and thinkers mentioned above, Robert Walser and Franz Kafka found something special in smallness, weakness, and comical absent mindedness.  In many of their short stories and novels, there are narrators and characters who either are small, aspire to smallness, or become small. To a modern reader, it doesn’t make any sense because, in embracing smallness, one would think that one is accepting defeat. But Kafka and Walser don’t think this way. For them, smallness matters.  By becoming small with the narrators and characters, the reader may be able to, as Gilles Deleuze says, find a “line of flight” to some elsewhere. But that’s not the right metaphor.

Kafka and Walser contemplate smallness in terms of both moving and not moving at all. But most importantly, they think about how smallness relates to what we do. And of all people, the smallest and the weakest – as Nietzsche well-knew – was the humble servant. While Nietzsche opted to leave him or her behind with the masses, Walser and Kafka found something worthy of saving because, unlike the Ubermensch, the humble servant is vulnerable and exposed. S/he is also not cynical and tends to be more naïve. By contrasting ourselves with them, the readers of Walser and Kafka invite us to rethink the meaning of smallness and of what use our cynicism is since it prompts us to reduce everything to power and greatness rather than smallness and vulnerability.

Michel Serres, in his book The Troubadour of Knowledge, writes breathtakingly about smallness and gives us a powerful lead as to how one can read Walser and Kafka. He suggests that in becoming small, one becomes big. To be small, is to be exposed and vulnerable:

Who am I? First this stable position that cannot be uprooted. Tree or vegetable, some kind of green. What am I next? I am no longer there, not me, I expose myself: I am that exposure. I am toward the other step, no longer in rootedness, gut at the extremities, made mobile by the wind, at the branchings, on the summit of the mountain, at the other end of the world from which I depart, in an animal movement, crawling, flight, running…(30)

As opposed to Nietzsche, Serres calls for the “humblest experience of joy” and argues that “humanity becomes human when it invents weakness – which is strongly positive”(120).  In contrast, “madness…always resembles, more or less, the conduct of someone who wants to become king and begins to identify himself with the sun”(120).  Unlike smallness which relates to contraction, “madness develops according to the same law of expansion as the one we wish for in the name of reason”(121). But if reason holds back and makes itself humble, it becomes, for Serres, true:

The beautiful contains the true, I mean that it holds back, limiting its expansion, closes up the trail when it passes…the true demands a limit and asks the same of beauty. (124)

What makes the true – in its limiting capacity – joyful is its capacity to renounce the “tragedy king” and his “solar madness” to control everything through reason or power. Serres associates this challenge, because it is contrary to reason and power, with comedy and the comedian (145).  While the solar king rises himself above all to be larger than life, the “comedian, normal, is a dime a dozen”(145). Serres, a highly respected scholar and professor, confesses, at the end of his book, that he is really a contradiction. He is like Harlequin and Harlequin’s coat (which covers his nakedness):

A mixture, a good – or bad-tempered melee, a temperament, to be precise. The word saying the thing itself, I am, by consequence, made of time, of the time derived from temperature or from temperance. Like time, the mixture is contradictory”(147).

Likening himself to a comical figure he tells us that he is “melancholically cheerful, enthusiastic and desperate”(147). These things, he thinks, expose his smallness and limit his tragic drive to be the king.  Humanity, in his view, is exposed, comic, weak, and small. All the things that Nietzsche despised and Kafka and Walser emulated. While Serres gives smallness theoretical flesh, Kafka and Walser give it a fictional form that draws us closer to the child, humility, and comedy and away from expansion, tragedy, and cynicism.

Smallness in Kafka

Near the end of Kafka’s “Before the Law,” we learn that “the man from the country” – who the Kafka scholar Avital Ronell calls a “country bumpkin”– becomes, with the passing of time between his arriving and waiting to get into “the law,” small and childlike. He is not only small; over time, he no longer looks at things as a whole; like a hyper-conscious writer, he becomes acutely aware of the details (“fleas”) and even solicits them for help:

He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him to change the doorkeeper’s mind. (Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories 4)

His obsession with and desire to know or rather experience the truth of the law (which he serves) leads him to become like a child. Unlike a cunning Odysseus, he doesn’t try to trick the doorkeeper. The man from the country respects him and waits – literally to his last day of life – for the doorkeeper to grant him entry.

To be sure, there is no lack of servants and messengers in Kafka’s work. Writing on them, Walter Benjamin points out how the “twilight in which they exist is reminiscent of the uncertain light in which the figures in the short prose pieces of Robert Walser appear (the author of Der Gehulfe, The Assistant a novel Kafka was very fond of)”(Illuminations, 116).  Benjamin calls these kinds of characters – which both Walser and Kafka share – a “tribe.” By saying that they exist in a “twilight,” Benjamin suggests that these characters exist between a world in which service and smallness matter and a modern world in which power, cunning, and cynicism reign.

Benjamin describes these figures which both Kafka and Walser share in detail:

In Indian mythology there are gandharvas, celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state. Kafka’s assistants are of that kind: neither members of, nor strangers to, any of the other groups of figures, but, rather, messengers from one to the other.  They have not yet been released from the womb of nature…It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the bunglers, that there is hope. (116)

But how could there be hope for the bunglers? Has this world been promised redemption?

Anticipating these questions, Benjamin tells us that while this may be the case in Greek myth, Kafka’s “ancestors in the ancient world, the Jews and the Chinese” don’t have a mythic root. Rather, they have broken away from myth. That is why Kafka (and I would add, Walser) is, according to Benjamin, interested in “fairy tales” which are “traditional stories about victory over these forces (of myth)”(117). Kafka put “little tricks” into the Greek myths and legends that he retold in his parables so as to break them from myth. However, that is not the hope he is talking about. Benjamin that the one “trick” that suggested hope in Kafka’s work was “music and singing”: “a token of hope that comes from the intermediate world – at once unfinished and commonplace, comforting and silly – in which the assistants are at home”(118).  Given the fact that one seldom finds any music in Kafka’s stories (save for “The Metamorphosis,” “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” and Amerika) this is pretty bleak. Benjamin cites an important line from “Josephine the Mouse Singer” as his proof of Kafkan hope which is invested in the small things (“small gaieties”). Josephine’s song harkens us back to “our poor, brief childhood”:

“Something of our poor, brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness which can never be found again, but something of the active present-day life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet real and unquenchable.”

While Benjamin is right to point out Kafka’s obsession with small things and how they challenge Greek mythology and power, he doesn’t properly take note of how Kafka’s comical take on the servant, Abraham, is also a sign of hope. Music is not the only “token” of hope. Comedy makes things small and serves, so to speak, as a token of hope. And while, with Abraham, it recasts the patriarch, comically, the “little trick” doesn’t totally trash his humility. His “spiritual poverty” not only helps him to concentrate more, it literally concentrates him (read, makes him small) as well. I’ll hold back on the punch line; it speaks for itself:

Abraham’s spiritual poverty and the inertia of this poverty are an asset, they make concentration easier for him, or, even more, they are concentration already – by this, however, he loses the advantage that lies in applying the powers of concentration. (41, Parables and Paradoxes)

Kafka has a few Abrahams, each are comically inflected.  But the one that is most cited and discussed is the Abraham as an “old clothes dealer – who was prepared to satisfy the demand of sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but was unable to bring it off because he could not get away, being indispensable; the household needed him, there was perpetually something or other to put in order, the house was never ready, without having something to fall back on”(41). Although his imagined Abraham doesn’t experience the “fear and loathing” that Kierkegaard relished, he does experience the smallness that comes with always helping the other out and not, comically, being able to get out of his own house. The irony is that this comical misreading is not contrary to the spirit of Hebrew Bible which has many domestic scenes. It isn’t cheeky in Nietzsche’s sense or fully revisionary in Bloom’s sense.

It’s “strength” is mitigated by the comical focus on service.

The last Abraham worthy of note, as regards smallness, is the one who Kafka tells us was so humble that he couldn’t believe that he was called on (44). Or is it the case that he is too absent minded to know whether or not he is called on? Kafka likens this Abraham to the worst student in a class who was afraid, if he really was called on, that he would look like Don Quixote if he did the deed: “It is as if, at the end of the year, when the best student was solemnly about to receive a prize, the worst student rose in the expectant stillness and came forward from his dirty desk in the last row because he made a mistake in the hearing, and whole class burst out laughing”(45).  Although Kafka’s comical version of the parable is, as Benjamin would say, “lifting its paw” against law (halacha) and tradition, it nonetheless turns us to the servant. Regardless of how comical he appears, he is still ready to obey. He remains in the twilight, so to speak, he is not destroyed by it. Just like the mice in “Josephine the Mouse Singer,” Kafka stays close to the “mice” and sings about their brief childhood. As in these parables, Kafka stays close to the servant. Although he throws in a few little “comical tricks,” he wants to remember them, not forget or efface them.

Smallness in Walser

Likewise, what we find in Walser, who Kafka may have taken as a precursor, is a tendency to smallness and service. His characters, like Kafka’s, are incomplete. Many of them are dreamers who would like to serve but can’t seem to do it fully. Nearly all of his characters – save many of his female characters who are often powerful – and many of his narrators are humble and see themselves as small.  Jacob von Gunten (the main character of the novel with the same name), for instance, tries to learn how to become a servant at the Benjamina Institute; but, as we read throughout the novel, he thinks too much and is too vulnerable to what others think to be a good servant (who doesn’t think of himself).

And in his short story, “Helbling’s Story,” the narrator and main character tell us that he sees himself as an ordinary person – as Serres would say “a dime a dozen” – “The striking thing about me is that I am a very ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange”(Selected Stories, 31). Hebling finds it “strange” because, unlike them, he can’t serve or work without feeling that something isn’t right.  He realizes that, after work, they are all “hurrying home, trying to overtake one another” and finds it odd. Why the rush?

Hebling realizes that he doesn’t have thick skin like the servant. Although he wants to, he just can’t do it. Walser inserts lots of “little tricks” into his narrative, to such an extent that it seems as if he’s writing a Charlie Chaplin script:

I am quick to find all sorts of faults in things which seem to be coming my way and which I have to take upon myself: I mean nothing is refined enough for me. I constantly feel that there is about me something delectable, sensitive, fragile, which must be spared, and I consider the others as not nearly so delectable and refined. How could this be so?…A task always frightens me, causes me to brush my desk lid over with the flat of my hand, until I notice that I am being scornfully observed, or twaddle at my cheeks, finger my throat, pass a hand over my eyes, rub my nose, etc. (32)

In The Tanners, Simon the main character wanders in and out of work and ends up, in the end of the novel, turning into a beggar. On the edge of the forest and near death, he is saved when he finds a restaurant and a woman who is willing to give him a free meal in exchange for him telling his story to her. After he finishes the story, she tells him to stop hurting himself and she offers herself to him as a servant. Walser ends the novel at this point and the reader wonders whether Simon will take up the challenge or remain a beggar. Will he remain small or will he become big? Walser doesn’t want to answer the question. He wants the reader to think about that twilight world between smallness and bigness.

Unfinished Creatures 

Both Walser and Kafka were interested in the meaning of smallness and both, as Michel Serres would say, “invented weakness.”  And while both of them toyed with the idea of leaving service and smallness behind for power, in the end both decided that it was better to be small. Unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, they couldn’t leave the small people behind (to paraphrase Nietzsche, they “stooped before the small men”).  They realized that the only way to retain humanity was stay, like the “man from the country,” before the law. This law is not a kind of dry legalism; it is the law of the other and it calls for the smallness that comes with desiring and serving her, in time, rather than trying to rise above her like the “strong poet” or the Ubermensch who serve no-one and no-thing. Existing as “unfinished creatures” in a world whose twilight has for Nietzsche, at least, passed, it is still possible to have hope. Because that twilight remains. And that hope is comedy. It has the potential of recalling our cynicism and reminding us of our smallness. It can recall us to our struggles with serving the other and with failure. Although people don’t read Kafka or Walser like they used to, comic novelists and performers can still articulate smallness without becoming, in a Nietzschean sense, “cheeky.”  Kafka and Walser can still teach us the lesson if and only if we understand how the tensions between smallness and bigness or between service and its abdication still exist or can exist and matter today.

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in PhilosophyComparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.