Losing Time and One’s Way… but Finding Laughter: On Kafka’s “Give it Up!”

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At the outset of his book Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer cites a Kafka manuscript piece which Max Brod, in 1936, published under the title “Give it Up!”  Politzer points out that Kafka didn’t give it this title; Brod did.  In fact, Kafka called it “A Commentary.”    Politzer uses this parable as the best illustration of his claims that Kafka’s parables are paradoxical.   Politzer’s reading is very insightful.  It brings up aspects of the parable that touch on the ridiculous and simple character of the “I “(who he calls a “wanderer”).  This character, to be sure, approximates the schlemiel.

Although Politzer notes the “wanderer’s” ridiculous character, he moves on to entertain other possibilities.  I would like to suggest that instead of ranking this as one amongst many possibilities, it be marked as one of the most important: since the ridiculous nature of this character accentuates the central role of the foolish simpleton in Kafka’s work.   And this is something that has oftentimes been overlooked whether in the name of Maurice Blanchot’s reading of Kafka or Politzer’s (which focus on much more “serious” topics such as “paradox,” “the incessant,” and the “works demand”).  They would regard such elements as, to use Poltizer’s term, “juvenile.”   Seeking deeper meaning or a meaning that stresses ambiguity as such, they leave aside the simple, comic elements that inform many of Kafka’s parables.  But, at the very least, Politzer’s notes them.

Here’s the Kafka parable that Politzer addresses:

It was very early in the morning, the streets were clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station.  As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later that I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town as yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way.  He smiled and said: ‘From me you want to learn the way? ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Immediately after translating the parable from the German, Politzer notes several multivalent aspects.  First, he points out that this parable is a narrative and it states a “negative truth”: “It’s a narrative and a statement of truth, although a negative one.”  In addition, it provides “lyrical impressions” and “dramatic dialogue” which, in the end, are resolved by a “silent gesture” in the end.

Politzer, at this point, withholds the “negative truth” and, as for the gesture, what does it mean that Kafka, on the contrary, doesn’t associate it with silence so much as “someone who wants to be alone with his laughter?”

We’ll turn back to the “negative truth” in a moment; but before we do, I’d like to figure out why or how Kafka can conclude his parable with this gesture of turning away and laughter.  Strangely enough, although it is not his intention, Politzer’s description of the “wanderer” gives some clues.

Politzer notes that the character is “shy” and that his words are “monosyllabic.”  They are closer to English than they are to German.  In other words, Kafka is appealing to the talk of someone who is a country bumpkin of sorts, a simpleton.

Politzer points out that wanderer is ridiculed by the Shutzman (the policeman).  His role, according to Politzer, is to be two-faced and scandalous.  His role is to “protect the man from whom he seems to be waiting.”  And his smile takes on an “ominous” meaning “by the words which the policeman adds to it”; the smile is “false or ambiguous”(5).  If this is the case, then the information he gives him (even the command) is clearly deceptive.   Writing about the reader’s response, Politzer notes that

The discomfort that the change intends to convey arises in the reader only gradually.  Some time is needed to realize the strangeness of this information giver who answers a question with a counter-question: ‘From me you want to learn the way?’ (5)

Moreover, Politzer tells us that we can’t miss the “undertone of arrogance and indignation in the worlds of the policeman who puts himself first in his question.”

Politzer cites the German that is used to address the wanderer as proof that the policeman is scoffing at the wanderer.  He talks to him like a child: “He talks to him as one talks to an infant”(7).   In other words, he regards the wanderer as a man-child (a schlemiel).

And the basis of this, Politzer hints, is a negative attitude toward religion.  Noting the condescension of the policeman, Politzer translates the “it” of the words “Give it up!” in terms of the main characters “wanderings,” and his “haste.”  However, the policeman doesn’t speak from the position of patience since, Politzer tells us, he doesn’t invite the wanderer to take his time and “linger” in the city.

Politzer argues that “Give it up!” can be translated as a commandment for the wanderer to give up on the journey towards God:  “The policeman seems to be saying, ‘let all hope go, abandon the way and the desire to find it, give up your quest and your yearning, your very existence – yourself!’” (7).

Although the reader will catch on to this arrogant command which “infantilizes” the wanderer’s religious quest, Politzer argues that the reader will most likely take the side of the policeman: “The wanderer appears ludicrous to the reader, the official petty, pompous, and awe inspiring”(8).   However, Kafka doesn’t take sides.  He “doesn’t decide for any one of the conflicting points of view.  Instead he forces the reader to change continuously from one to another”(8).

Instead of hearing “Give it up!” as a command, Politzer suggests that we also hear it as a question.  He calls this ambiguity Kafka’s “evasiveness.”   Unfortunately, Politzer doesn’t look into the meaning of wandering between the two positions which would essentially mean moving between the schlemiel, who has lost his sense of time and endlessly wanders in search of the truth, as opposed to the policeman who sees such a search, with all of its religious overtones as “infantile” in a negative way.

Kafka is interested in both.  Is Kafka the wanderer, then?  Politzer argues that we may be “tempted” to say that he is; however, “the man in our story may be an image rather than a more or less true likeness of the author”(17).  He may only be a “code cipher” conveying “indecipherable messages.”

Regardless of such an esoteric reading, which eschews the biographical reading, both are possible.  In fact, Politzer argues that there is even more possible “background” to this story and even suggests that we take Eric Auerbach’s claim, in his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Liteature, seriously; namely, that there are two “styles” of writing: one Greek (founded in Homer) and the other the Jewish (Elohist of the Bible).  The latter makes all clear while the latter states details but leaves countless gaps or lacunae.  Kafka, he argues, is certainly influenced by the Elohist as his parables are “fraught with background” and lacunae.

However, the Jewish influence is not the only one; in fact, says, Polizer, it is in a tension with the view that finds no certainty in faith.  To be sure, Abraham was faithful but “Kafka’s man,” on the other hand,” consists of a darkness symbolizing the complete absence of such certainty”(19).

Given all of these paradoxes, Politzer notes that Kafka won’t say he rejects faith or affirms the opposite.  And that’s the point for Politzer.  The crux of the matter is that Kafka states problems.  And unlike the Biblical model, Politzer claims that Kafka gives “so many interpretations” that they “defy any and all.”  In other words, Kafka’s parables present and then efface the possible meaning of a paradox.  Its as if Politzer says that Kafka over-interpreted so as to destroy the meaning of interpretation.

I think that Politzer is on to something here that echoes what deconstruction would say twenty years after he wrote his book on Kafka.  But the problem with all this is that Politzer’s reading is too generalized.

In the process of making this claim, we miss the central problem which, in this parable, is not effaced by too many possible meanings. Rather, I’d suggest that the position of the ridiculed simpleton who is looking for truth is something very close to Kafka.  Politzer is correct in saying that we move back and forth between the positions but Kafka did this because he saw something deeply important about the schlemiel and his relationship with this character.

The interesting thing is that, as in much schlemiel literature, Kafka’s piece points out the bifurcation between the fool from the country who trusts everyone (even the police) and those who lie or scoff at him (like the policeman).  His laugh, at the end of the story, is a negative one.  Note that he laughs alone.  And to do this, he turns away.  He, so to speak, preaches a conversion (a turn) of sorts away from hope and wandering.  What we are left with is the option provided by modern society which comes across as ridicule.   In a negative sense, don’t be a schlemiel.  On other hand, Kafka is advising us that the schlemiel is not in the wrong.  When the schlemiel loses his sense of time and fears he may miss his encounter (perhaps with God or truth), these fears disclose something Kafka though of with regard to Abraham.

As with all of Kafka’s Abrahams, there is always something missing which keeps them from being, so to speak, “on time.”  Yet, at the same time, Kafka wonders: why would anyone want to be on time for a command that may, in fact, be misapprehended.  Why would anyone want to wander around for that?  Yet, and this is the point, people still do.

And this brings us back to Walter Benjamin’s insight that only a fool can help; however, his help may not do humanity any good.  Both thoughts illustrate how a reader may identify with the foolish wanderer, but, in the end, may think of him to be wasting his time.   Benjamin, like Kafka, simply pondered the point.  And he took on both positions.  He also had a hard time deciding. But he didn’t have too many interpretations.  Benjamin, before he died, understood that, in the midst of crisis, there were only two possibilities before him.

He wasn’t ready to play the role of Kafka’s policeman.  Not yet. Walter Benjamin couldn’t completely ridicule the fool.  And that is telling….

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