Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part I


For Friedrich Nietzsche, the place to clear out one’s mind and find oneself or one’s calling (so to speak) is in the mountains.   In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the main figure, Zarathustra, goes into the mountains and has his epiphany.  In the mountains, Zarathustra takes on the serious task of becoming himself.  However, he also learns how to laugh.   And this laughter evinces a kind of superiority over all suffering.  As Nietzsche notes, “he who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

Franz Kafka and Paul Celan have written of monologues and conversations in the mountains which, in contrast to Nietzsche, do not evince any form of superior laughter.  On the contrary, what we find in Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” (which Paul Celan translated into Romanian after the Holocaust) and in Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains” (which echoes Kafka’s piece) is a comic experience that evokes a laughter that is by no means beyond “all tragedies, real or imaginary.”  To be sure, Kafka and Celan give us schlemiels in the mountains, not Nietzschean overmen.  And, unlike Nietzsche, they have a hard time being alone.  They call for or are with the other in ways that do not stand above suffering but in ways that share suffering and bear it, ever so slightly, by way of humor.

Franz Kafka’s short piece begins with the a self-deprecating voice screaming out for the other:

‘I DON’T KNOW,” I cried without being heard, “I don’t know.  If nobody comes, then nobody comes.  I’ve done nobody any harm, nobody’s done me any harm, but nobody will help me.”

After saying this, the voice utters something odd about a “pack of nobodies.”  He notes that he’d rather go on an “excursion in the mountains” with a bunch of “nobodies” (that is, a bunch of fools) than by himself (with Nobody):

A pack of nobodies. Yet that isn’t all true.  Only, that nobody helps me – a pack of nobodies would be rather fine, on the other hand, I’d love to go on an excursion – why not? – with a pack of nobodies.  Into the mountains, of course, where else? How these nobodies jostle each other, all these arms linked together, these numberless feet treading so close!

The voice wants to laugh with other nobodies.  His laughter is shared.  Kafka goes on to emphasize the comic nature of this endeavor by noting that “they are all in dress suits.”  In other words, the nobodies in the mountain are defying their context and they don’t care.  At this point, the voice of the piece decides that he is no longer separate from these nobodies.  He is one of them. He announces this by pronouncing the “we”:

We go so gaily, the wind blows through us and the gaps in our company. Our throats swell and are free in the mountains!  It’s a wonder that we don’t bust into song!

Reflecting on this, I can’t help but hear the desperation and suffering in this voice which imagines this shared excursion with fellow “nobodies.”  Nonetheless, just like any schlemiel, the voice is invisible or blind to itself.  It is the reader who can see this blind spot; nonetheless, the reader will also recognize that this absurd vision is fun.

Where it cracks the surface is with the last words; they indicate a distinction between speaking and singing.  The wind that “blows through us and the gaps in our company” is the wind of free conversation.  It’s not the tragic-comic kind of “idiot wind” that Bob Dylan makes reference to in the song of the same title.  Rather, it’s a wind that cannot elevate itself to song.

To be sure, this is an important element. Song would signify an elevation above suffering.  It would signify joy.  For the voice, it is “wonder we don’t burst into song!”  But, given the structure of the piece and given that the voice is that of a schlemiel, for the reader it should not be a wonder.

It isn’t a wonder because Kafka is sharing a joke with his readers in which the voice imagines he is together with a bunch of nobodies in the mountains who, after having free conversation blow (like wind) between them, will sing.  But we know better.

I would suggest that Kafka’s fools are Jewish fools.  And Jewish fools (more often than not) don’t sing; they talk.   The movement from conversation to song is barred from Jew insofar as that would suggest a movement beyond suffering, history, and uncertainty.

Contrary to this, Nietzsche has no problem moving from wind to song in the mountains.  In contrast to Kafka, the wind makes the song possible.  We see this at the culmination of his book, The Gay Science in a poem entitled “To the Mistral: A Dancing Song”

In Nietzsche’s poem, the poet embraces the “mistral wind”: “Mistral wind…how I love you when you roar! Were we two not generated/ in one womb, predestinated/ for one lot for evermore?”

At the end of the song, Nietzsche refers to himself and the wind as “free spirits” and exalts in their meeting: “Since I met you/ like a tempest roars my joy.”  And he wants to attest to this joy “forever.”

Kafka’s voice doesn’t do this.  Moreover, there isn’t any pathos in Kafka’s voice.  Its deflated by the solitude and his clearly framed imagining of himself and other nobodies.  Nietzsche, in contrast, can laugh but not at himself.  That would signify a kind of deplorable weakness.

To be sure, Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains” denotes how, in the mountains, the “winds blow” between them and the nobodies freely converse.  This is the limit or threshold that a schlemiel cannot cross.  It is a limit that Nietzsche could not understand since, as I mentioned above, Zarathustra thought that joy and laughter could lift themselves above any tragedy “real or imagined.”  The (sad) laughter of the schlemiel, however, challenges this by hitting the limit between speech and song.

In the next blog entry, I will address how this limit finds its way into Paul Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains.”

One thought on “Conversations in the Mountains between Franz Kafka and Paul Celan – Part I

  1. Thank you for the clarifying arguments and the really outstanding interpretation Menachem. You obviously know what you are talking about and this blog article helped me a lot to better understand Kafka’s “Excursion in the Mountains”. Also the references to Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” are very interesting (comparative) remarks.

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