The “Anxiety of Influence” or Giorgio Agamben’s Gloss on Benjamin’s Reading of Kafka’s Pre-Historic Characters


One of the euphemisms that the literary theorist Harold Bloom is famous for is the “anxiety of influence.”  For Bloom, this term describes the contentious relationship of the contemporary writer to his antecedents.   The anxiety deals with how one relates to these antecedents and the greatness of the modern writer is to “revise” the tradition and overcome past influences.  So, what might seem as a generous interpretation is, in fact, an act of overcoming.  It relates to a temporal issue or what Bloom, citing the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would be the triumph of the “I willed it” over the “it was.”   This Nietzschean gesture is based on the desire to be free from the influence of history and tradition.  In saying “I willed it,” the “strong artist” (Bloom’s term) has a kind of victory over time and history.  He is free, a “great” individual.

We see a kind of “anxiety of influence” between Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin with regards to Benjamin’s reading of Kafka and the pre-historic.  In my last two entries on Agamben, I have been making close readings of Agamben’s essay “Fable and History: Considerations of the Nativity Crib.”     In these readings, I have made brief mention of Walter Benjamin’s work but I have not considered the relationship of Giorgio Agamben to Walter Benjamin, that is, with reference to this essay in particular.  The key moment in this essay, to be sure, takes Benjamin’s reading of Kafka’s character’s up and, in effect, “completes” it as the New Testament completes the Old (yet another gesture of the “anxiety of influence”).

As I have been pointing out, for Agamben, the New Testament’s description of the nativity crib was taken up in representational form and these representations mark the “crib” as a “decisive…historical gesture.”  The nativity crib, for Agamben, secularizes the fable and, as I will show, opens us up to the messianic.  But, before he comes to the messianic, he must address his “anxiety of influence” with Walter Benjamin.

Agamben prefaces his reading of Benjamin by noting that in the “fairy tale” all is “ambiguous gesticulation of law and magic, condemning and absolving, prohibiting and permitting, spellbinding and spell breaking.”  For anyone who has read Benjamin’s reading on Kafka, these words will have resonance.  Agamben is, in effect, saying the the “prehistoric” world we find in Kafka is traversed by nomos (law) and magic: it is enchanted and pre-historical.  History is secular; fable is not.

Moreover, his reading of the crib is secular while Benjamin’s reading of Kafka is not.  And this is the point.  Agamben sets this reading up when he notes that, in contrast to the fable, “in the crib man is returned to the univocality and transperancy of his historical gesture”(142).

Following this, Agamben makes a long list of all the simple people who are in the “nativity crib” and to this list he appends a colon.  Following the colon is the meaning that parts with and revises Walter Benjamin.

Tailors and woodcutters, shepherds and peasants, greengrocers and butchers, hunters and innkeepers, roast chestnut and water vendors: this whole profane universe of the market and the street emerges into history in a gesture from the prehistoric depths of that world which Bachofen defined as ‘etheric’, and which had a short-lived revival in Kafka’s stories.  (142-43)

Although Benjamin does not appear in this reference, it is clearly an articulation of the “anxiety of influence.”  Benjamin, to be sure, is the only person to have written in this way about Kafka’s stories and, in fact, he also cites Bachofen.

But now Agamben is the master.  Like the New Testament, he “completes” Benjamin’s project when he reads the “fairy tale” as “the medium between the mysteries of the hierophants and the historical gesture of the crib.”   In effect, had Benjamin known about the “meaning” of the nativity crib, he would have written an entirely different essay on Kafka.  He would have realized that it was the secularizing gesture that Kafka had missed.

Now, to be sure, this rings very odd – especially if anyone is familiar with the metaphors and allegorical figures used by Augustine with regards to the “blindness” of the Jews.   Jill Robbins’ book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas does an exceptional job of showing how that metaphor played itself out in the history of the church and in literature.  The blindness of Benjamin, as Agamben suggests (by way of indirection) is that Benjamin (and Kafka) didn’t recognize the moment of secularization was, in fact, a Christian moment and a Christian gesture: it is the “decisive…historical gesture of the crib.”

After noting this, Agamben takes up the rethinking of the Messianic which is one of Walter Benjamin’s greatest legacies to us today:

For in the Messianic night, the creature’s gesture is loosed of any magical-juridicial-divinatory density, and becomes simply human and profane.

Here, the “naked life” of the creature, which is a major trope in Agamben’s work (a trope which he takes from Hannah Arendt),  is given yet another meaning.  Naked life now relates to the “nativity crib” and is “messianic.”  Secularization is equivalent to seeing man in the nativity crib, as a creature in its “everydayness.”  Kafka and Benjamin’s reading of Kafka are too caught up in fable and mysticism to be taken seriously.  The figures we find there are, for Agamben, too contaminated by myth, mysticism, magic, and law.  They are too pre-historical.

To add to this, there is someone in the crib who may in fact be a figure of the Jew: namely, the sleeper:

The sleeper who, strangely, never fails to appear near the manger can perhaps be seen as a figure from the world of fairy tale, unable to wake on redemption and destined to continue his crepuscular life among children.

Following this, Agamben actually cites the Book of James which does, in fact, align Jews with sleepers, but Agamben doesn’t mention this.

Instead, Agamben notes that the sleeper doesn’t sleep the sleep of the “incubatio, laden with divinatory presages, nor, like Sleeping Beauty, the timeless sleep of bewitchment, but the profane sleep of the living creature”(143).

Would this suggest that the one who awakes from sleep is the person who recognizes the “nativity crib” as a figure of secularization?   Is the sleeper a remnant of the pre-historic which, nonetheless, is disclosed by the “nativity crib” to just be a poor creature who doesn’t get the messianic?

What I’d like to suggest is that the “anxiety of influence” here is not simply between Agamben and Benjamin or Agamben and Kafka; it may also be between Christianity and Judaism.  The suggestion that Jews are pre-historic is not, to be sure, new.  Its been around for a long time and even Hannah Arendt suggests this in her own work on Jewishness.  The historical gesture, for her, however was political.  Jews didn’t know how to live in the political world and a part of Arendt’s project, which was very influenced by her work with Zionism, was to make sure Jews could be “normal.”  For her, Kafka just wanted to be normal; in fact, her reading of Kafka in the “Jew as Pariah” is based on this claim.

Perhaps Agamben would say that Kafka and Benjamin wanted to be secular but, unfortunately, they got caught up in the pre-historic and the magical.  Unlike them, however, he discovered the “nativity crib.”    They were like the sleeper in the nativity crib (or rather, on its margins).

He “woke” up.

(I put this waking in quotation marks for the sole reason that it is based on the “anxiety of influence.”  To be sure, the “gesture” of secularization and the departure from myth are found throughout the Torah and many scholars have pointed this out.  I would add that there are many historical gestures of secularization.  To limit it in this way, to a Christian moment, is odd.  My job is to simply “make it strange.”)

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