Guest Post by Hillel Broder: Attend the Gesture, Await Nothing: “On Playful Non-Action in Benjamin’s Kafka Essay”


What is particularly playful about Kafka’s texts, Walter Benjamin notes in his foundational and lengthy textual memorial to Kafka (1934), is that they foreground the expressionist, dramatic, or gestural element that underlies human behavior and textual representation. What emerges, Benjamin and Kafka seem to suggest, is a playfulness that generates–and is in turn generated by–both a redemptive patience and attentiveness.

This gestural “law of the theater”, as Benjamin terms it, is tucked away in the central conceit of Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” in which an ape reports his transformation into an intelligent and articulate being: “I imitated people because I was looking for a way out, and for no other reason”. Acknowledging that humans might also be as imprisoned by their learned behavior, Benjamin then offers a brief gloss of the end sequence of Kafka’s book-length work, The Trial:

Before the end of his trial, K. seems to have an intimation of things. He

suddenly turns to the two gentlemen wearing top hats who have come for him and asks them: “ ‘What theater are you playing at?’ ‘Theater?’ asked one, the corners of his mouth twitching as he looked for advice to the other, who acted as if he were a mute struggling to overcome a stubborn disability.” The men do not answer the question, but there is much to indicate that it has hit home.

Indeed, Benjamin is rightly aware that Kafka acknowledged—through a subtle but brilliant literary feat—the theatricality of his own characters by allowing them, as it were,brief insight into their own artifice as fictive play-actors.

While disturbing, such self-illumination of character construction also allows for a certain release—or, even, redemption. While explicating the gesture in Kafka, Benjamin first traces repeated uselessness as experienced by characters in Kafka’s texts, and then relates such purposelessness to what he calls a Taoist usefulness that somehow transcends the binary of useful/useless, finally relating this to what Kafka was “after” in describing the desire to simultaneously “hammer a table together” and “do nothing” at all:

Perhaps these studies had amounted to nothing. But they are very close to that nothing which alone makes it possible for something to be useful–that is, to the Tao. This is what Kafka was after with his desire to “hammer a table together with painstaking craftsmanship and, at the same time, to do nothing–not in such a way that someone could say ‘Hammering is nothing to him,’ but ‘To him,hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing,’ which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like,
more insane.” (813)

While in the essay’s context Benjamin is, in fact, citing Franz Rozensweig on the Tao, Benjamin himself uses the general term “Tao”, which appears both in the title of Lao-Tzu’s foundational philosophical work and in the work’s first teaching:
“The tao that can be told / is not the eternal Tao. / The name that can be named / is not the eternal Name.” (Trans. Stephen Mitchell), as a gesture that is both full and empty, something and nothing. Those familiar with Taoist philosophy will note that he is actually unknowingly referencing the particular Taoist tenet “wu-wei”, generally translated as “action-non-action”—that is, an action that is active despite its in-action.

While a full treatment and exploration of this Taoist tenet, Kafka’s awareness and employment of Taoism, and its usefulness in exploring the modernist aesthetic of theatrical gestures replete in Kafka’s work is well beyond the scope of this post (it was the subject of my M.A thesis), I do think it important to note the playfulness that underlies such an insight in Kafka’s writings. Whether it is the “childish” relation to the law that Derrida highlights in his reading of Kafka’s great parable “Before the Law” or the childlike “stratagems” of wax and chains that Kafka’s Odysseus employs to mimic silencing an imagined siren scream that was, in Kafka’s reading of the myth, truly silent, dancing about the abyss of signification’s impenetrability was far more critical than striving to reach it. For Kafka, what was at stake was nothing less than a primary Fall—and exile from Paradise:

There are two main human sins from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence. It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise; it is because of indolence that they do not return. Yet perhaps there is only one major sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return. (87)

-Franz Kafka, Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way

Patience, as seen in the above aphorism excerpted from a series of re-readings of Genesis, is the realization of return: for, paradoxically, impatience to return is the very same affect that generates exile—it is the lack of presence—the absenting from presence—that is the very source of exile. Being present and being in-active—doing something while doing nothing at all—would be the very reversal of such a Fall.

Drawing attention to the gestural, to the surface of both text and character, to the simply expression, is both deeply disorienting, but such attentiveness generates a patience for what is, as opposed to what should, could, or might be. In Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, it is this very attentiveness that will be the slight shift from a pre-messianic to a messianic consciousness:

In Walter Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, the gesture is the “distortion”—it is the center of a parable that resists interpretation, but cultivates an attentiveness that is its very “purpose”. The prototype of such an aesthetic in Kafka’s fiction, according to Benjamin, is  Odradek, the distorted and forgotten wooden creature in his “Cares of the Family Man” that enacts the “form which things assume in oblivion”. Yet, awareness of such distortions, or as Benjamin sees in Kafka, “hunchbacks” is a child’s work. The child’s prayer, Benjamin suggests–

When I kneel upon my stool

And I want to pray,

A hunchbacked man is in the room

And he starts to say:

My dear child, I beg of you,

Pray for the little hunchback too

–demonstrates a child’s uncanny awareness: precisely at the moment that he engages in prayer, the child is surprised by another’s presence lurking in his own quarters: the little hunchback. Yet the hunchback entreats the child, at the moment of the child’s prayer, to “pray for the little hunchback too”—to consider the hunchback in his prayers as well.

Benjamin continues:

So ends the folksong. In his depths, Kafka touches ground which neither “mythical divination” nor “existential theology” supplied him with. It is the ground of folk tradition, German as well as Jewish. Even if Kafka did not pray— and this we do not know—he still possessed in the highest degree what Malebranche called “the natural prayer of the soul”: attentiveness. And in this attentiveness he included all creatures, as saints include them in their prayers.

Regardless of Kafka’s actual prayer practices, his inclusion of those distorted figures lost to oblivion in his writing, his preoccupation towards a total awareness of the “hunched backs” in his texts, be they actual figural distortions in his characters or literary lacunae in his texts—that is, the gestures that, are, also, what Benjamin terms opaque “cloudy spots”—is unmatched by ordinary men. This quality of attentiveness to the problematic loci that Kafka brings to his writing and reveals in his characters is akin to “the natural prayer of the soul”, which is, in profound simplicity, the contemplative exercise of noticing things in their entirety.

For Benjamin, only a child can be attentive in such a critical manner; for Kafka, reading for and writing as gesture can generate such attentiveness, from which, in turn, might emerge a certain critical patience that might, in turn, might allow for even more playfulness in reading:

There is no need to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you. (98)

Of course, knowingly or unknowingly, Kafka echoes the Tao Te Ching here:

Therefore the Master / acts without doing anything / and teaches without saying

anything. / Things arise and she lets them come; / things disappear and she lets

them go. / She has but doesn’t possess, / acts but doesn’t expect. / When her work is done, she forgets it. / That is why it lasts forever. (Trans. Stephen Mitchell, 2)

Hillel Broder is a Graduate Student in the English Program at the CUNY Graduate Center 

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