‘Clumsy Scribblings of Senseless Children’s Hands’: On Heidegger and Kafka’s Temples

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One of the most “Greek” moments of Martin Heidegger’s celebrated essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” can be found in his description of the “temple work.”  Heidegger depicts the temple as “giving things their look” and “men their outlook.”  The temple “lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself.”

The temple gathers everything together into itself and creates a “holy precinct”:

It is the temple work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. 

Besides being the ground for the “shape of destiny for human being,” Heidegger says that the temple is the condition for the possibility of a nation’s “return to itself” and the only basis for the “fulfillment of its vocation.”

The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people.  Only from and in this expanse does the nation first return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.

Through the temple, the earth becomes the earth, the sky the sky, the gods the gods, and, most importantly for Heidegger, a nation a nation.  Because it does all of this, the temple is the ultimate work of art.  It delineates, as Heidegger says, the holy from the unholy.

Kafka, in contrast to Heidegger, has a different story to tell about the temple.  In a parable entitled “The Building of the Temple,” Kafka depicts a temple whose holiness is tainted (or rather marked) by the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  Before we look into the meaning of this kind of marking, we need to make a close reading of how Kafka depicts the temple as such.

Kafka begins his parable by talking about the builder of the Temple – the artist – who he depicts as a kind of magician.  The world literally goes to him as if it were waiting all its life to be “put to work” in the name of holiness.

Everything came to his aid during the construction work.  Foreign workers brought the marble blocks, trimmed and fitted to one another.  The stones rose and placed themselves according to the gauging motions of his fingers.  No building ever came into being as easily as did this temple – or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should.

By saying that it came into being “the way a temple should,” Kafka’s narrator implies that temples should, in a Heideggarian sense, “come together” in the “temple work” and preserve the “truth.”  Heidegger would not disagree with this; although his description differs, he would agree with the spirit of Kafka’s initial description of the temple work.

Knowing full well that this description of the temple is too Greek and too Holy, Kafka ruins it by way of introducing “instruments…magnificent sharpness” and their “senseless scribblings.”

Except that, to wreak a spite or to desecrate or destroy it completely, instruments obviously of a magnificent sharpness had been used to scratch on every stone…for an eternity outlasting the temple, the clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands, or rather the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers.

Heidegger notes that sometimes the god’s leave the temple for historical reasons and what remains behind, quite simply, are ruins.  No holiness or unholiness remains.  But, for Kafka, what remains are the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands.”  The desecration of the temple by such scribblings remains.

But there are many questions that arise out of this parable which have yet to be answered.  Who used these instruments and why should their mark outlast the temple? Does this survival make the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands” more significant?

The fact of the matter is that, for Kafka, the only thing that remains of the temple are “childish” gestures – what he calls scribblings (which make us think of hands). And, as Walter Benjamin notes of Kafka, we should read his work by was of a close attention gesture.

Regarding gesture, we notice that in the first part of the parable the gesture of “his fingers” (their slight movement) is in harmony with the act of building the perfect temple.  These are gestures of a mature and responsible adult who is passionately committed to the holy.  One can imagine that such an artist would arduously be at work building Heidegger’s temple.

Thinking by way of gesture, Kafka understood that the greatest offense to the adult nature of the holy is the gesture of a child.  As he notes, the gesture of the child is “clumsy” and “senseless.”  To add to the contrast, Kafka notes that this gesture comes from their hands as opposed to “his” fingers.

The gesture of children’s clumsy hands finds an echo in Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism which I have written many blogs on.  As I noted in these entries, Benjamin saw the image of himself in Goethe’s house (and it wouldn’t be off to call it a temple) ruined by childish writing.  He didn’t write his name; someone else did.  He didn’t bring his ruin on; someone else did.  Nonethless, he is marked by this “childish scribbling.”

To be sure, it is a child’s scribblings which, for both Benjamin and Kafka, ruins holiness.  For Benjamin, his discovery of this scribbling is the discovery of himself as a schlemiel.  His destiny is bound to this childish kind of writing and he is well aware of the fact that it clashes with the holiness of Goethe’s temple.  Kafka is also aware that this writing marks the temple and ruins it; he is aware that he is the one who must relay this message to us. Even though he is not the one who perpetrated the writing, he reports on it.  It is, so to speak, his awareness of the schlemiel and his ways that he reports.   The schlemiel – regardless of his good intent – has a way of ruining perfection.  The schlemiel’s actions (gestures) are clumsy and senseless scribblings.  And, in many novels and in Hasidic stories, perfection is ruined in the name of something to come.  Ruining the temple, the Greek one, is not simply an act of rebellion or ridicule.  It is preparatory and it opens up the most foolish thing of all: hope.

Citing Kafka’s aphorism, Maurice Blanchot – in his essay “Kafka and Literature” – ends his essay with the claim that “art is like the temple of which the Aphorisms speaks.”  Blanchot explains the meaning of this claim by likening art to a place of where opposites dwell together:

Art is the place of anxiety and complacency, of dissatisfaction and security.  It has a name: self-destruction, infinite disintegration.  And another name: happiness, eternity.    

The problem with Blanchot’s reading of the parable is that, like Heinz Politzer, it leaves out the comic aspect of this parable and prefers, instead, a generalization about opposites dwelling in the same place.  He prefers the paradox as such.

Rather than simply see the paradox, which is of course relevant, I’d suggest we see the children’s senseless scribbling as something that both Benjamin and Kafka thought of as standing in the way between themselves and holiness.  They both desire the holy, but, unlike Heidegger, they both understand that no matter what they do they will always slip into the childish gestures of the schlemiel.  They see themselves by way of this predicament and know that it will be an endless embarrassment.  Yet, as I mentioned above, they saw such ruination as opening to something other, something to come.

Heidegger, on the other hand, seems to believe that perfect temples could still be made and that the destiny of nations could be predicated by such a free-standing structure.   For Kafka and Benjamin, one can’t think of the temple without thinking of the schlemiel and his childish, senseless scribbling.

The schlemiel’s writing is written on the temple wall.  Kafka could see it.  Too bad Martin Heidegger and Albert Speer couldn’t….

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