Kafka’s Commandment – Take 2


In the first blog I did on “Kafka’s Commandment,” I noted how Kafka believed he heard a commandment coming to him but was puzzled as to whether that commandment came from himself or outside of himself.  Kafka cannot rule out either possibility.  In the end of his entry, he points out that the commandment comes upon him “as in a dream.” And he cannot turn away from its request, which is to communicate it and transmit the commandment to others.  However, to his chagrin, it is “not intelligible.”  Hence, his difficult task is to make the unintelligible intelligible to others and this transmission, to be sure, is the nature of tradition.

In my blog on Walter Benjamin, education, and the schlemiel tradition, I pointed out that Walter Benjamin defined tradition in terms of transmission.   When reading Kafka, in particular, Benjamin took tradition seriously.  In an important letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin argued that Kafka’s tradition is a comic one.  Moreover, for Benjamin, it parallels the tradition that starts with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

But there is more to the story.  And Benjamin knew this.  Kafka’s tradition is not simply comic; it is religious.   To be sure, Kafka feels commanded to communicate.  And although he is not sure of the source of that commandment, the fact of the matter is that it singles him out.  And Kafka feels compelled to respond to this commandment.

Moreover, Kafka, in several entries in the Blue Octavio Notebooks, in his diaries, and in a few of his parables, shows an affinity not just with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but with Abraham.  Some of his most interesting aphorisms were on Abraham and deal, specifically, with the nature of the commandment.

To be sure, Kafka doesn’t think that the commandment happened once in history.  It was not something that occurred only in relation to Abraham or the Jewish people.  Kafka notes (like the Midrash and the Medieval Torah commentator, Rashi) that the commandment is “continual,” but, states Kafka, “I only hear it occasionally.”  And when it is heard or even when it isn’t, it presents a challenge to “the voice bidding me to do the other thing”:

From the fact that I hear it, as it were, even when I do not hear it, in such a way that, although it is not audible itself, it muffles or embitters the voice bidding me to do the other thing; that is to say, the voice that makes me ill at ease with eternity.

This interference is interesting because it shows us that Kafka’s struggle to translate and transmit the commandment was based, primarily, on first hearing it.  Kafka’s reflection on his own state and about what state to be in so as to better receive the commandment show us a person who has, in effect, become dumb.

These descriptions, made in the Third Octavio Notebook, are powerful.  They demonstrate a mystical-slash-prophetic vocation for the schlemiel.

The first of these entries appears in an entry dated December 2nd.   In this section, Kafka starts mid-sentence with a situation in which “they” are presented with a choice by God.  “They” have to choose between being “kings or kings messengers.”

They were given a choice of becoming kings or the king’s messengers.  As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers.  That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless.  They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath to loyalty (28).

Who are “they?”  I would suggest that they are schlemiels.  They act like “children” and, like schlemiels they deliver a message whose meaning they are blind to.  To be sure, one way of understanding what the schlemiel is (or rather, does) is by way of the Hebrew: Shelach (sent) m’ (from) el (God).

Parsing Kafka, we can say that the most interesting thing about them, these schlemiel messengers, is that they are bound by “an oath of loyalty” to tradition.  They must transmit it.  However, as simpletons who think like children, they keep to their word and obey the commandment that is embodied in the oath of the tradition-slash-transmission.  But they cannot be kings.  They are messengers.  In the Jewish tradition, the only king is the Messiah.  And many of the prophets did not simply exhort the Jews to return to God (teshuva in Hebrew).  As messengers, they communicated the coming of the Messiah to the people.

Immediately following Kakfa’s reflection on them, he speaks directly of the king-to-come: “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary…he will not come on the last day, but on the last day of all.”

This “message” or rather “transmission” that Kafka is relaying about the Messiah is the message of a schlemiel.  The message doesn’t make any sense, yet it, like the Jewish tradition, promises redemption.

Two days later, Kafka describes his method for apprehending such messages:

Three different things.  Looking at oneself as alien, forgetting the sight, remembering the gaze.

This description of the prophetic process amounts to seeing oneself as other, forgetting the content of this otherness, but keeping the gaze that initiated this process.  In other words, Kafka is ultimately interested in the gaze that makes things other but not in the content of that otherness.  The gaze of the schlemiel, so to speak, is glazed over.  It forgets its contents, but by way of gazing, by way of the gesture, it communicates the tradition which is, ultimately, a messianic transmission without any content.

The next day, Kafka describes what is at stake in these meditations.

Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden within him. One of the ways in which his hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god.

In other words, what keeps Kafka going on is a “faith in a personal god”; that is, a god that commands and communicates with man.  Following this, Kafka describes this “indestructible” element as dumb:

Heaven is dumb, echoing only to the dumb.

This implies that the personal God relates “only” to the schlemiel (the dumb).   And it is this simplicity and stupidity that Kafka sees as man’s goodness. He notes this in the last line of this entry:

The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man.

For Kafka, man may be “seduced” by evil, but is ultimately good.  He cannot become evil.  It is ontologically impossible for Kafka. This is precisely what we see portrayed by way of the schlemiel.  A schlemiel like Gimpel or Motl cannot become evil; in their stupidity and trust they are good.  And in their aloofness they act as if they were committed to an oath.  And “they” are the messengers.  They are not kings.  They are too humble and simple for that.

What I find astonishing about Kafka’s entries is the fact that Walter Benjamin had never read them. They were published after Benjamin’s death.  Nonetheless, Walter Benjamin’s reading of Kafka resonates with these ideas.  Unfortunately, Benjamin never fully articulated them.  And this is why his essay on Kafka was a work-in-progress that he carried with him to his grave.   He noted the tradition of the schlemiel indirectly.

In my work on the schlemiel in this blog and in my book (which delves deeper into these insights), I look to carry this tradition on.  To be sure, Kafka wrote these lines feeling as if he were about to die.  For him, the commandment and its transmission were of the utmost urgency.  But, like Benjamin, he had a hard time communicating it.  As a result, no one was able to hear it properly and pass it on.

I suggest we listen closely to the commandment (which speaks continually) and the tradition of the schlemiel.   This is a task which, like Kafka’s messengers, runs ahead of us.  Yet, if we listen hard it will, like Kafka’s commandment, overtake us like a dream and stupefy us.  This will disclose the “indestructible element” and, as Kafka suggests, it will remind those of us who believe in a personal god that “heaven is dumb, echoing only the dumb.”    For Kafka, it seems, only a schlemiel can obey and transmit “the commandment.”  After all, a schlemiel is shelach m’el (sent ‘from’ God – literally into exile and literally as a messenger).    But, lest we not forget, this commandment is not simply apprehended by an empty gaze.  It also communicates a message about the Messiah, a message which may not mean anything anymore but must be told.  And, for Kafka, this is not a simple message; it must be translated.  But, in the end, it is not tragic.  It is comic.  The message is not simply given to the people who transmit it to yet other people; it is extolled by a dumb messenger to a dumb heaven.

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