Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kafka, 畢惠, and the Ghosts

畢惠 and Franz Kafka: Will these two get along?

Though I’m not at all sure she will take to such literature, I’m delighted to have convinced my young student to begin reading Kafka. She will soon begin study in one of Taiwan’s German departments. She sends me the following photo with the words: “I bought these at the book store today. There are so many books by Kafka there! Do you know his 變形記? I decided to go to Eslite book store and read 變形記 there, so I can save money. :) I will find 哲學的慰藉 tomorrow.”

Just yesterday I was rereading Harold Bloom on Kafka (in The Western Canon), who writes of the “sweetness” of Kafka’s mockery:

Everything that seems transcendent in Kafka is truly a mockery, but uncannily so; it is a mockery that emanates from a great sweetness of spirit. Although he worshiped Flaubert, Kafka possessed a much gentler sensibility than that of the creator of Emma Bovary. And yet his narratives, short and long, are almost invariably harsh in their events, tonalities, and predicaments. The dreadful is going to happen. The essence of Kafka can be conveyed in many passages, and one of them is his famous letter to the extraordinary Milena. Agonizing as Kafka’s letters frequently are, they are among the most eloquent of our century.

The passage:

It’s a long time since I wrote to you, Frau Milena, and even today I’m writing only as the result of an incident. Actually, I don’t have to apologize for my not writing, you know after all how I hate letters. All the misfortune of my life . . . derives, one could say, from letters or from the possibility of writing letters. People have hardly ever deceived me, but letters always--and as a matter of fact not only those of other people, but my own. In my case this is a special misfortune of which I won’t say more, but at the same time also a general one. The easy possibility of letter writing must--seen merely theoretically--have brought into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. It is, in fact, an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient but also with one’s own ghost, which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing and even more so in a series of letters where one letter corroborates the other and can refer to it as a witness. How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold--all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create a natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.

Bloom comments:

It is difficult to conceive of sentences more eloquent than “Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts” or “The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.”

The keen awareness that in writing a letter one not only evokes a spectral other who is not the intended recipient, but rather a “ghost”, and the more writerly awareness that in penning words on paper the writer himself also inevitably becomes a disembodied voice (or voices), even when supposedly writing in his own name--these two kinds of awareness Kafka possessed to a uniquely high degree. Which is doubtless what let his writing speak; what, in many supreme examples, let the ghost voices speak their truth. Given Kafka’s more gnostic or Kabbalistic sensibility, such “inspiration” was always seen as more uncanny or demonic than in any sense holy. Thus the sharp critique of communication technologies as a tool of the “ghosts”, beginning with writing and ghoulishly progressing onto electronic forms. Probably Kafka would see in our own era of text messages and tweets and “likes” a world where the ghosts had entirely taken over, and one where their annihilating banality had finally revealed itself. (As Faust, who at the end of his joyride of unparalleled discovery and experience had finally to face the cold reality of damnation that Mephistopheles brought. But this switch of register to the Faustian or Christian is perhaps out of line, for Kafka was very Jewish, in a heretical gnostic register all his own.)

I also encouraged 畢惠 to buy some more general reading to give her a rough idea of the range of Western philosophical traditions: Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (Chinese title: 哲學的慰藉). Yes, I’m a bit worried she’ll like de Botton’s book more than Kafka; or, even worse, that after two years of German study she'll switch to advertising or accounting. In any case, whenever I have a student who goes into language or literary study, I always keep my fingers crossed.


Eric Mader

(NOTE to whom it may concern: I disagree somewhat with Bloom’s reading of Kafka. It is of course brilliant on my levels, but as sometimes is the case, I find the critic insists too dogmatically (and polemically) on the monism of Jewish culture, so as to oppose it to the dualism of Christian or Cartesian culture. Bloom quotes one of the most suggestive of the aphorisms in Blue Octavo Notebooks:

If what is supposed to have been destroyed in Paradise was destructible, then it was not decisive; but if it was indestructible, then we are living in a fake belief.

Here Kafka finds, I believe, the Christian truth as given in Luke 17:20-1:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Which teaching the Gospel of Thomas (saying 113) renders as follows:

His disciples said to him: “On what day will the kingdom come?” [Jesus said:] “It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.”

Kafka’s “fake belief” is a recognition of the same truth we find in Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom is in our midst but we “do not see it”. The first phrase of Kafka’s aphorism could be rewritten as: “If our being in Paradise [i.e. our eternal nature] was something that could be destroyed, then it was not eternal to begin with, and so there is no Paradise.” The second phrase would then be: “If, on the other hand, our eternal being was indestructible, then we still have it, and so our belief that we are not in Paradise is false.”

Of course Jesus’ teaching insists on the eternal reality of Paradise as well as on our access to it. In fact, as Luke 17 would suggest, we are already possessed of it, if only we weren’t blinded (Kafka’s “false belief”).

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