At the Circus with Franz Kafka and Augustine – Part I

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The circus – whether it is ancient, medieval, or modern – is a riotous place. And the question of how to describe and place the circus in Western theology, philosophy, literature, and art is, despite what many would think, an important question.   It was of interest to such great theologians as Augustine and Petrach and writers and thinkers like Rebelais, Franz Kafka, and Ernst Bloch.

Of the above-mentioned writers and theologians, Augustine and Kafka have the most fascinating differences. Yet, at the same time, what brings them together most – namely their common understanding that the circus must be figured by theology and literature – is more fascinating. Figuring the circus has implications for life, the imagination, and religion.

In Kafka’s short story “Up in the Gallery,” the narrator, who seems to be speaking from “up in the gallery,” makes a thought experiment regarding a “frail, consumptive equestrienne in the circus.” If she were to be

urged around and around on an undulating horse for months on end without respite by a ruthless, whip-flourishing ringmaster, before an insatiable public…then perhaps, a young visitor to the gallery might race down the long stairs through all the circles, rush into the ring and yell, Stop! against all the fanfares of the orchestra still playing the appropriate music.  

This “perhaps” suggests that the opposite may also happen: the “young visitor” may just let this go on in front of himself and the crowd. He will, in short, let the circus happen. And this is almost like what Kafka tells us actually takes place. The circus goes on, but with a difference. The ringmaster brings in a messianic kind of figure, a “lovely lady, pink and white” who replaces the “frail, consumptive equestrienne”:

But since this is not so; a lovely lady, pink and white, floats between the curtains, which proud lackeys open before her; the ringmaster, deferentially catching her eye, comes toward her breathing animal devotion; tenderly lifts her up on the dapple gray, as if she were his own most precious granddaughter about to start on a dangerous journey.

The ringmaster “masters himself” enough to “crack the whip” and prepare the “lovely lady, pink and white” and “the audience” for the ultimate performance.   But something goes wrong and the audience doesn’t respond in the way one would expect them to do at such a spectacle:

Before the great somersault (the ringmaster) lifts up his arms and implores the orchestra to be silent; finally lifts the little one down from her trembling horse, kissed her on both cheeks, and finds that all the ovation she gets from the audience is barely sufficient.

Meanwhile, she, “right on the tips of her toes, in a cloud of dust, with outstretched arms and small head thrown back, invites the whole crowd to triumph.” But they don’t. There is, it seems, an abyss between the circus performer and the circus. And at this, the “visitor to gallery lays his face on the rail before him and, sinking into the closing march as into a heavy dream, weeps without knowing it.”

In other words, the visitor, who is a surrogate for the narrator, who is “up in the gallery,” is a witness to the demise of the circus and “weeps without knowing it.” He has a secret, unconscious sadness about its demise. His witness is also unconscious.

In Kafka’s story there are only two possibilities for the “young visitor.” He can either say “Stop!” to the original circus spectacle which pushes the “frail, consumptive equestrienne” to her utter limits: “urging” her to go in crazy circles. Or he can let the circus happen and ultimately…fail. We see the latter option unfold and we hear the description of the traumatic rupture as unconscious. Only we, as readers, we “in the gallery,” see it.

But what does Kafka look to engage in this short story/parable? It seems that, for Kafka, both options are still possible. And that the end of the circus is not something to take lightly. The question is not that the circus will end so much as how it will end. However, in order to understand this question, one must grasp the meaning of Kafka’s description of the two kinds of circus events.

The first description seems to describe a situation where “the young visitor” must face a circus that has gone out of control, at the urging of the ringmaster, and spun into wild circles. But he must face it and the audience and say “Stop!” By doing this he can, consciously, suspend the madness. This poses an interesting challenge to a kind of Nietzschean or Bataillean “yes saying.”  (And it is important to note that Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, associated the original, historical “no” of morality in the Western tradition with the Jews.)  The second description, in contrast, describes the circus in a state in which the audience is separated (alienated) from the thrall of the performance. And the visitor’s cry at this failure of the circus is unconscious.

Which ending is better? What ending should we choose? Or is it too late for the circus?

(In the next blog entry we will discuss Augustine’s reading of the circus. And in the third entry to this series we will discuss the two of them, together.)

 

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