Kafka’s Commandment – Take 1


From 1917 until June 1919, Kafka stopped writing entries in his diaries and decided, instead, to write eight notebooks (or what Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend, called the “Blue Octavio Notebooks”).  In these notebooks, Kafka describes and performs his relationship to commandments and being commanded.   The question for Kafka concerns who is giving the commandment: me or the other?

The fourth of Kafka’s Eight Notebooks immediately begins with this pressing question:

By imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself.   The first worship of idols was certainly fear (angst) of the things of the world, but, connected with this, fear (angst) of the necessity of things.  So tremendous did the responsibility appear that people did not even dare to impose it upon one single extra entity, for even the mediation of one being would not have sufficiently lightened human responsibility, and that is why each thing was given responsibility for itself, more indeed, these things were given a degree of responsibility for man. 

Who is the “you” Kafka is speaking to?  Is it himself?  It is as if Kafka is talking to his soul, educating it.  He tells his soul of how the fear of things, terror of the world, leads to idol worship.  And Kafka acknowledges that in apposition to this is another kind of terror: the terror of responsibility!

As Kafka notes, it is “so tremendous” that they “did not even dare to impose it upon one single entity.”  But why?  Kafka tells us because “even the mediation of one being would not have sufficiently lightened human responsibility.”  In other words, the knowledge that nothing can take away this “tremendous” responsibility is equavalent to knowing that one cannot get rid of it.  Howeover, Kafka takes an interesting turn by noting that man is not alone in his responsibility.  In fact, everything “was given responsibility for itself.”

But, more than being alone, Kafka believes his soul should know that these things are not simply responsible for themselves: “they were given a degree of responsibility for man.”

Let’s recap the movement in this piece: first, he acknowledges the terror of responsibility; then he passes into realizing that everything is responsible; and then he comes to the realization that “these things were given responsibility for man.”  In other words, the final realization is that man is infinitely responsible and that all things “are responsible for man.”  Man may be terrified in his responsibility, but he is not alone – and he is respected.

This sounds like a terrifying and a beautiful lesson about responsibility.  But that’s not the end of it.  To be sure, in Kafka’s final movement of his first fragment of the Fourth Notebook, he names this “world” of responsibility naïve yet the “most complicated” of all worlds:

Man could not do enough for his own satisfaction in the creation of counterweights; the naïve world was the most complicated that ever existed; its naivite worked out, in life, exclusively in the brutal logical consequence.

To be sure, this complicated yet naïve world sounds like the world of the schlemiel. In I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” on in Shalom Aleichem’s Motl: The Cantors Son, for instance,  Gimpel and Motl are naïve and trustworthy.  Their responsibility to others is illustrated by how much they trust others and all things.   But it is complicated by the fact that they are being lied to or the fact that everyone suffers while they, caught up in goodness, can’t notice.  For the schlemiel, its all good; for us, we can see its not so easy.

Kafka hits on this theme. But what is most interesting is that, from his perspective, the schlemiel must also grappled with responsibility. To be sure, this is what he illustrates.  He grapples with the question of who gives him responsibility and, after this, he grapples with what he calls “commandments.”

Following the first entry, Kafka writes:

If all responsibility is imposed on you, then you may want to exploit the moment and want to be overwhelmed by responsibility; yet if you try, you will notice that nothing was imposed on you, but that you are yourself this responsibility.

This is a settling thought for Kafka.  It is heroic.  And, to be sure, he ends the entry with an image of a hero who runs “before a cart” because he is harkening after the responsibility that he is.

However, his heroism doesn’t last long.  A few entries after this first entry, Kafka, on February 7th, has a fight with himself (or rather a fight with his soul) over the “inner commandment”:

Why do you compare the inner commandment to a dream? Does it seem senseless as in a dream, incoherent, inevitable, making you happy or frightening you equally without cause, not wholly communicable, but demanding to be communicated?

What is most fascinating in this questioning is the fact that, through these questions, Kafka is describing the “inner commandment.”  The most important features being that it is “not wholly communicable, but demanding to be communicated.”

The “inner commandment” wants to become a tradition; and, as Walter Benjamin notes, tradition is all about “transmission.”  But, most importantly, the commandment is like a dream.  In making such a comparison, Kafka is making a schlemiel analogy.  If the commandment is like a dream, then the one who is commanded is a dreamer.

Therefore, the one who must communicate the “inner commandment” (which is not wholly communicable) is a schlemiel.  The one who lives in accordance with tradition is a dreamer.

Kafka, however, struggles with the obeisant schlemiel dreamer:

All that is senseless; for only if I do not obey it can I maintain myself here; incoherent, for I don’t know whose command it is and what he is aiming at; inevitable, for it finds me unprepared, descending upon me as surprisingly as dreams descend upon the sleeper, who, after all, since he lay down to sleep, must have been prepared for dream.

As you can see, Kafka contemplates not keeping the commandment but then realizes that its too late: it has surprised him and he has been overtaken by a dream.

I’ll end on this note.  But I will return to it in my next blog.  To be sure, Kafka’s struggle with the “inner commandment” is a kind of kvetch.  He must obey it, but he thinks its impossible to obey.  He does so anyway.

As a schlemiel, Kafka must struggle with his dream-slash-commandment.

To be continued….

Note: I decided to write on this topic today because it is Shavuot: the Jewish festival which commemorates God’s “giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.”   

And, as the Rabbis teach, the Torah, the teaching is the commandments.  It is on this day that the Talmud says that the Jews were given the responsibility of taking on the Torah and its commandments.  And what better time to discuss the Kafka’s notion of the schlemiel and his “inner (dream) commandment” than today.  The Jewish people, like Kafka, were surprised by the commandments.  The surprise goes hand in hand with the commandment…And for Kafka the commandment surprises him and overcomes him as a dream overcomes a sleeper…. 

One thought on “Kafka’s Commandment – Take 1

  1. This post fits nicely with your previous considerations of the schlemiel as not wholly in this world on May 23 The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading, and Distraction (Take 1) and April 18 (Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians). With the innocence of a child, the schlemiel acquires fear—first of objects/things, then, only later, of concepts and entities (like responsibility and the divine). Although we may expect children to suffer from fear the most (like spiders being in the dark), true fear is incubated by age and life experience. Fear of mortality, loss of autonomy, and even of the unknown/divine develops as one experience romantic love, parenthood, and the loss of health and loved ones.

    I wonder what Kafka would have to say about the distinction between fear and awe.

    Regarding your “footnote”… This post is certainly apropos the holiday of Shavout. Your analysis of the inner-commandment as dream or dream vision is reinforced by a Midrash that says the Jews actually prepared to receive the 10 commandments by going to sleep early the night before because they thought that the highest level of spiritual preparedness could only be achieved in sleep—when the soul is the preeminent empirical entity and the physical sensations and preoccupations of the body are nullified.

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