An Essay on Kafka for Berfrois

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Today, an essay I wrote on Kafka was published by Berfrois (an outstanding and popular online zine based in London, England).

Here’s a snippet:

Franz Kafka loved to stay on the move. He traveled and kept a travel diary. From his travel diaries, we also learn that Kafka went to spas; he liked to exercise and move his body. Like many European Jews in his generation, he wanted to be healthy and happy. But when it came to his life, his faith, and his future, Kafka didn’t feel like he was making any progress.

Kafka felt he was failing to move in the right direction. Sometimes he felt he wasn’t moving at all. In order to understand whether or how he could move, Kafka turned the question of movement into parable. By way of his fiction, he encountered the possibilities of movement. Kafka wondered whether fiction would enable him to move or if it suspended movement? Was Kafka, as he says in one journal entry, “stuck to this spot,” or could fiction, as we see in a few of his parables and fictions, help him to transcend his location and go… elsewhere?

These parable-based meditations on movement brought Kafka face to face with failure and the possibility of madness. They prompted him to reflect and decide on whether or not to make a “bargain,” as he says, with madness. This bargain necessarily affected his movement and prompted Kafka to, as he says in his journals, “cultivate” failure.

And here’s the link: 


Menachem Feuer

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Jews, 1931: Wittgenstein’s Marginalia on Jews, Jewishness, and “Reproductive” Jewish Thought


Some of the most interesting things that come out of our lives can be found in the margins. Freud – like a good detective – took marginalia seriously. An occasional or out-of-the-ordinary slip can disclose a lot more than a narrative. In fact, the hidden secret of a narrative can be found by way of focusing in on these small things in the margins.  Writing, like a microscope, can reveal these small things; reading can amplify them.   You and I can get a whiff of what Wittgenstein* thought about what it means to be a Jewish thinker.

Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s marginalia from 1914 to 1950 – collected under the title Culture and Value – I was surprised to find a series of telling ontological reflections about Jews, Jewishness, and Jewish thought. Wittgenstein had a Jewish parent, and, as David Stern notes in his essay “Was Wittgenstein a Jew?” Wittgenstein wrote a lot about Jewishness in the 1930s.   Stern argues that Wittgenstein’s “notion of being a Jew, of Jewishness, is ambiguous and problematic”(238).   Stern points out how Brian McGuinness, in his biography of Wittgenstein, argued that Wittgenstein “did not think of himself as Jewish and neither should we.”

Wittgenstein, as both Stern and McGuiness note, was influenced by the “self-hating” Jew, Otto Weinninger who conceived of Jews as abnormal: Jews, in his negative view, were not nor could not be autonomous since heteronomy is built into Jewishness; Jewish males, for this reason, are more effeminate. Weinnenger wondered if this “Jewish character” could be changed if it was biological.   He associated Jews with “reproduction” as opposed to non-Jewish “originality.” For McGuinness, Wittgenstein was influenced deeply by these ideas and thought of himself as only being “reproductive.”

Reading over Stern’s essay, I noticed there are more secondary sources than primary. With this in mind, I took a look through Wittgenstein’s marginalia in order to, on the one hand, subject his reflection to a, so to speak, Weinnenger test; on the other hand, I wanted to look into how, in the margins, Wittgenstein is disclosing struggles that he kept off the page.

Before Wittgenstein discusses Jewishness in a series of notes, he writes: “A confession has to be a part of your new life.” One wonders: what confession is he about to make?  And how is this confession related to his “new life?”

Following this, Wittgenstein becomes incredibly self-conscious about worries about properly articulating this confession:

I never more than half succeed in expressing what I want to express. Actually not as much as that, but by no more than a tenth. This is still worth something. Often my writing is nothing but “stuttering.” (18e)

The next notes speaks directly about Jews and Jewishness. And, most importantly, it evinces an urgent reflection that Wittgenstein has of himself:

Amongst Jews “genius” is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself for instance.)

I think there is some truth in my idea that I really only think reproductively. I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking. I have always taken one over from someone else. I have simply straightaway seized on it with enthusiasm form y work of clarification. That is how Bolzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weinninger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me. Can one take the case of Breuer and Freud as an example of Jewish reproducitiveness? – What I even are new similies. (19e)

As this passage makes clear, he passes the Weinninger test. But he is not ashamed of this (contrary to Weinninger, who was ashamed of Jewish thinking and committed suicide over it). He sees “clarification” as the task of the Jewish thinker:

What I do think essential is carrying out the work of clarification with COURAGE: otherwise it becomes just a clever game.

Sounding a lot like Paul Celan in his celebrated “Conversation in the Mountains” piece, Wittgenstein sees the Jew as having “nothing that is peculiarly his.”

It is much harder to accept poverty willingly when you have to be poor than when you might also be rich.

The fact that Wittgenstein underlines the word “have” suggests that he saw his Jewishness in terms of a necessary impoverishment. But his “courage,” which he capitalizes (“COURAGE”), is to accept this.  By doing this he can take on his cultural and philosophical task of clarification.  It is ethical.

Wittgenstein doesn’t mind that Jews aren’t “original.” He sees the Jewish task of clarification as necessary for the world.  The Jews can let everyone know that “everything is all right.” This, for Wittgenstiein, is the essential Jewish task.

Its way (the Jewish way) is rather to make a drawing of the flower or blade of grass that has grown in the soil of another’s mind and to put it into a comprehensive picture. We aren’t pointing to a fault when we say this and everything is all right as long as what is being done is quite clear. It is only when the nature of Jewish work is confused with that of a non-Jewish work that there is danger, especially when the author of the Jewish work falls into the confusion himself, as he so easily may. (19e)

In other words, Jews shouldn’t try to be “original.”  Wittgenstein is fine with this arrangement. He doesn’t want to “confuse” cultural roles. The Jews task is to disclose meanings that may have been hidden from the “non-Jewish” author:

It is typical for a Jewish mind to understand someone else’s work better than he understands it himself.

When Wittgenstein notes how, in the years 1913-14, he had some “thoughts of his own,” he reflects and wonders if that was actually possible:

I mean I have the impression that at that time I brought into life new movements of thinking (but perhaps I am mistaken).   Whereas now I seem just to apply old ones. (20e)

These words, coming from one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, who actually did introduce a “new movement of thinking,” should make one pause. He was not immune to racial thinking and even thought of himself and his own work in terms of it. Because of this influence, he doubted the fact that he could be or even was original.

Since he knows his task as a Jewish thinker is to clarify with “COURAGE,” one would think that the act of clarification gives him the most pleasure. But in his last marginal note of 1931, Wittgenstein tells us that he derives pleasure elsewhere.

The delight I take in my thoughts is delight in my own strange life. Is this joy of living? (22c)

His “strange life” is the source of his thoughts. Is that life the life of an Austrian Jew in 1931?   And why would this reflection bring joy? The oddity of this reflection is that while Weininger didn’t take any joy in his strangeness, Wittgenstein does.   Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Wittgenstein enjoys the possibility that he – a “Jewish” thinker whose task is to “clarify” – may have had an original thought!   Clarifying this possibility is a means of tapping into the strange life of a 42 year old Jew named Ludwig Wittgenstein.  He lived in 1931, which was one year before Hitler took power.

The terrible historical irony is that Hitler had no need for Jewish “clarification.”  His “original” thought took aim at the “fact” that Jews had nothing to offer Europe: since Jews can only “reproduce” European originality, they don’t have a culture of their own; and, for this reason, Hitler – like many an anti-Semite – thought Jews, Jewish artists, and Jewish thinkers are parasites.  In retrospect we know, quite clearly in fact, that this racist and anti-Semitic thought about originality had devastating consequences. Even though Wittgenstein tried to turn Jewish thought toward its noble and ethical task (“clarification”), nothing, it seems, could have redeemed (or as Nietzsche might say, “transvaluated”) the distinction between “originality” and “reproduction”  from its racist and anti-Semitic roots.



*Wittgenstein was born in 1889 and died in 1951.


Leo Shestov on Heinrich Heine’s Self-Mockery and Cynical Laughter


Heinrich Heine was a daring poet. Friedrich Nietzsche adored his boldness.   But by virtue of the positions he took in his poetry, Heine, as a modern Jew, was internally divided. His humor, found in many of his poems, is cynical and biting. Not only does it take a shot at the German public (“the philistines”) it also shoots back at the speaker.

Leo Shestov takes note of Heine’s split identity and acerbic humor in an essay on German and Russian writers and thinkers entitled “Penultimate Words.”   What makes Shestov’s criticism of Heine so compelling is the fact that he looks at Heine’s poems in terms of their philosophical and personal implications.   Shestov looks into what Heine’s self-mocking humor makes possible or…impossible.

When, in one of Heine’s poems, he passionately asserts that “I seek the body, the body, the young and tender body – I myself have soul enough,” Shestov comments that one can detect (“hear”) a “sharp and nervous laugh”(123, Chekhov and Other Essays). The irony is that Heine does and doesn’t seek the body over the soul. He is divided. The poem is an “expression of the divided soul, as a mockery of himself.”

Shestov describes this laughter as “misplaced,” “indecent,” and “uselessly disconcerting.” And, as I note elsewhere, Shestov puts Heine’s “sincerity” in scare quotes.   Doing so, Shestov alerts us that Heine’s poetry trashes the possibility of sincerity and puts into question the power of affirmation.

To understand the root of this self-mockery and self-division, Shestov points out how Heine was surprised by something that ran through his soul and “split asunder the unity of his former emotions.”    In an interesting move, Shestov explains the implications of this sudden shift and the resulting self-mockery and self-division by way of King David’s Psalms.

Shestov argues that although David’s “soul was…divided,” he was “able to preserve a sequence. When he wept, he could not and did not want to rejoice; when he repented, he was far from sin; when he prayed, he did not scoff; when he believed, he did not doubt”(124). However, “the Germans” (by which he means the German Romantic writers and thinkers) in contrast to the Hebrews, “thought these things were impossible and ought never to be possible. They submitted the succession of different, and even more contradictory spiritual conditions.”   In other words, the Germans, in his view, swayed Heine (despite the fact that he challenged them) with their belief that what David went through – vis-à-vis- his sticking to sequence despite division – was impossible.

It seemed to them that everything which formerly existed as separate, had become confused, that the place of stringent harmony had been usurped by absurdity and chaos. (124)

Heine was affected by this idea; however, he turned to a cynical kind of humor to cope with it.   As Heine lay on his death bed, Shestov tells us that “his sarcasms every day became more ruthless, more poisonous, more refined”(125). Seeing this, muses Shestov, one might think that all that was left to Heine was to “acknowledge his defeat and commit himself utterly to the magnanimity of the victor”(125). But who is the victor? Death or God?

Shestov tells us that “in the weak flesh a strong spirit lived. All his thoughts were turned toward God, the power of whose right hand, like every dying man, he could not but feel upon him.”   In the past, notes Shestov, Heine “has neither prayer nor praise. His poems are permeated with a charming and gracious cynicism, peculiar and proper to himself alone.”

The question: will Heine, on his deathbed, turn into David?

According to Shestov, Heine

knew as well as any one that according to the doctrine of philosophy, ethics, and religion, repentance and humility are the condition of the soul’s salvation, the readiness even with the last breath of life to renounce sinful desires. Nevertheless, with his last breath he does not want to own the power over himself of the age-old authorities of the world. (126)

Instead of “repentance and humility,” “Heine laughs at mortality, at philosophy, at existing religions”(126). Nonetheless, there is contradiction: Heine acknowledges that “his painful and terrible illness was the direct effect of his manner of life”(127).   Heine is, to his last days, divided in his laughter. Although his crushed spirit doesn’t matter to an indifferent God, Shestov suggests – in the most optimistic sense –it should matter to us.   But, if, Shestov comically muses, there really is another world which caters to those who cynically mock all claims to truth (a kind of Neietzschean heaven): “there the stubborn and the inflexible are valued above all the others, and that the secret is hidden from the mortals lest the weak and compliant should take it into their heads to pretend to be stubborn.”

But this heaven obviously doesn’t exist.   The cynic has nothing to hope for and must, as Shestov suggests, be sarcastic and bitter to the very end. However, his laugh – just like his soul – is divided…to the very end not because he is above it all, but because the cynical Heine knows (as Shestov suggests, indirectly) that it is possible that he is wrong and David is right.

The stubbornness of cynical laughter may taunt the metaphysicians, the philosophers, and the Rabbis but – for Shestov – it finds its limit at death.   In the face of death possibility – not certainty or cynical laughter – is the master.


Chained To This Spot: On Kafka’s Hesitation, Unhappiness, and the Possibility of Writing


In Kafka’s diaries and in stories such as “The Metamorphosis,” there is a struggle to move from the spot one is located in. Kafka wonders if he can move, if he wants to move, and whether he would be happy if he did. Meanwhile, he – like Gregor Samsa stuck in his room –  doesn’t go anywhere.

On January 24, 1922, Kafka, drawing on a Kabbalistic notion of the transmigration of souls (and reincarnation) imagines his “hesitation before birth.”   “If there is a transmigration of souls then I am not yet on the bottom rung.   My life is a hesitation before birth.” Kafka is not excited about being born into a new body; he would rather hesitate than be reborn. And, given the notion of movement and cycling, this suggests that he doesn’t want to move and start again.   He doesn’t want to develop; however, he tells himself that he wants to change his place. The punch line is that he wants to be on another planet:

I don’t want to pursue any particular course of development, I want to change my place in the world entirely, which actually means I want to go to another planet; it would be enough if I could exist alongside myself, it would be enough if I could consider the spot on which I stand as some other spot.

Kafka wonders if simply “considering” his “spot” to be a spot on another planet would be sufficient. This suggests that Kafka wants to imagine movement.   He is “steadfast” in not moving but this inertia creates desire.

But Kafka, it seems, wants to be discontented. He wants to be unhappy about the fact that he is not going anywhere:

While I was still contented, I wanted to be discontented, and with all the means that my time and tradition gave me, plunged into discontent – and then wanted do turn back again.

Kafka admits that this is a “childish game” and is astonished at how “make believe, in engaged in systematically enough, can change into reality.” But this reality, created my his make-believe games, is unhappy. He has, as I mentioned in elsewhere, cultivated failure.

And these childish games, claims Kafka, “marked the beginning of my intellectual decline.” Kafka posits two possibilities regarding his unhappiness, inability to move, and his misfortune. Either he forced misfortune upon himself by playing “childish games” that get him nowhere, or it was forced on him:

If it is possible so as to force misfortune upon myself, it is possible to force anything upon oneself….I cannot grant that the first beginnings of my unhappiness were inwardly necessitated; they (the beginnings of his unhappiness) may have indeed been a necessity, but not an inward one – they swarmed on me like flies and could have been easily driven off.

But now they cannot and he hesitates. But he is actually happy that he hasn’t moved anywhere: “My unhappiness on the other shore would have been as great, greater probably (thanks to my weakness).” In other words, no matter where he moves, he will still be unhappy because the “first beginnings of his unhappiness” are a part of his being.   He sees himself as “put here as a child” and is “chained to the spot.” This knowledge, that is too late, informs his sadness. He can’t move.

Sad, and with reason. My sadness depends on this reason. How easy it was the first time, how difficult now! How helplessly the tyrant looks at me: “Is that where you are taking me!…When other people approached this boundary – event to have approached it is pitiful enough – they turned back; I cannot.   It seems to me as if I had not come by myself but had been pushed here as a child and then chained to this spot; the consciousness of my misfortune only gradually dawned on me, my misfortune was already complete; it needed not a prophetic but a merely penetrating eye to see it.

Kafka is stuck on the threshold (the boundary). And consciousness keeps him there. And he tells us, at the end of his passage that he has a “right” to despair over his situation of being abandoned at the boundary and unable to move from the spot.

However, the next day, he dreams of rising above this situation which is the situation of a schlemiel:

I must be above such mixtures of bad luck and clumsiness on my own part as the mistake with the sled, the broken trunk, the rickety table, the poor light, the impossibility of having quite….Such superiority cannot be got by not caring, for one cannot remain indifferent to such things; it can only be got by summoning strength.

Kafka’s hope, his strength, is that “surprises” can still happen – “this the most despairing person will allow; experience proves that something can come out of nothing, the coachman can crawl out of the tumble-down pigpen.”

But one cannot “make a life for oneself” out of chance or, as Kafka says, “as a tumbler makes a headstand.” Rather, the “strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving comfort that there is in writing: it is a leap out of a leap out of murderer’s row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place.”

And that seeing – which his writing – may be of his childish games and the fact that he can’t move. Writing about failure may be his leap of faith, but then again he may still go nowhere and be “chained to this spot.” Kafka – out of desperation – is willing to take this risk.  If this is a leap, then it could outwits his  wager with madness – which, as a “cultivating of failure,” keeps him from moving.  Then again, he may not have the strength to leap out of his chains.  Perhaps he will remain “chained to this spot” which is….in front of the page.   But, still, as Kafka notes, surprises happen and every unhappy person must accept that possibility.



On Failure and Happiness: Kafka, 1921


We have all experienced some degree of failure in our lives. But most of us would rather not reflect on it as it will most likely cause depression and self-loathing. On the other hand, when writers reflect on failure they can, somehow, find a way to make the reflection meaningful.

In a well known letter to Gershom Scholem and in his essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin argues that the “beauty” of Kafka’s fiction is the “beauty of failure.” This expression doesn’t make sense. Failure is ugly, not beautiful. It’s painful. How could it, like beauty, make one happy?

Kafka’s diary entries show us something that his novels and short stories sometimes disclose; namely, his struggles with failure and his desire for happiness.   In an entry on “crows,” which I addressed recently, Kafka points out how he sees himself as a bird who can sometimes float to the heights and “waver” over the abyss of eternity.   In that entry, Kafka points out that although he has no “help” in the heights, his friends offer him help in the lower realms (when he falls from the heights). Kafka says the same thing in his short story “The Investigations of a Dog.” Both the bird (of the entry) and the dog (of that story) are alone and feel alienated and unhappy. That is the price of being spiritual; however, both the bird and the dog admit that friends “help” one to feel happy.

As in these stories, Kafka often associates the literary experience (and dreaming) with unhappiness and failure while he associates happiness with friendship.   In his February 2nd diary entry, Kafka notes the “happiness of being with people.” The next day, Kafka tells us that it is “impossible to sleep; plagued by dreams, as if they were being scratched on me, on a stubborn material.”

Immediately following this, Kafka reflects on the meaning of failure and tries to pinpoint failure as the source of his affliction (in dreams and reality).   Like his dog character, he “investigates.” He uses a language to describe failure that is oddly Cartesian. He literally tries to perceive failing as such:

There is a certain failing, a lack in me, that is clear and distinct enough but difficult to describe: it is a compound of timidity, reserve, talkativeness, and halfheartedness; by this I intend to characterize something specific, a group of failings that under a certain aspect constitute one clearly defined failing…This failing keeps me from going mad, but also from making any headway.

Kafka’s description of failure, like Benjamin’s, is ironic. Failure keeps him sane. It protects him from madness! But, on the other hand, it also keeps him (like Gregor Samsa in his room) from “making any headway.” Nonetheless, Kafka feels that he must “cultivate” failure because if he doesn’t he will lose his mind. The word cultivation suggests that failure – for Kafka – is an artform.

Kafka must write late at night to keep from going mad. In this “bargain,” he “shall certainly be a loser.”   But, at the very least, his failure will be beautiful. The problem is that he will not, as I noted above, move anywhere. Kafka is stuck and he is not happy.

When Kafka, on March 5th, is confined to this bed for three days because of an “attack,” his friends come to his bedside. He feels a “sudden reversal. Flight. Complete surrender. These world shaking events going on within four walls.” On March 6, Kafka tells us that everything has changed: he experiences a “new seriousness and weariness.”

Kafka now wonders if he will die, if he would “choke to death” on himself? He fears that the “pressure of introspection” will diminish and that he will no longer be able to reflect on his failure (or anything for that matter). He will, as he said before, succumb to madness. He can no longer wage the battle against it….by “cultivating” failure.

Kafka, apparently for the first time in his life, wants to take a different approach to madness and death. He wants to move ahead instead of going nowhere and dying:

Mount your attacker’s horse and ride it yourself. The only possibility.   But what strength and skill that requires! And how late it is already!

Kafka now wants to be happy. And while he thought, before this, that cultivating failure was the “only possibility,” he seems to have changed his mind.  Now he reflects on nature and feels “jealous” of its happiness. Kafka rethinks the meaning of happiness and realizes how desperately he needs help.

In the past, when I had a pain and it passed away, I was happy; now I am merely relieved, while there is this bitter feeling in me…Somewhere help is waiting and the beaters are driving me there.

Eight days later Kafka seems to have found help. He tells us that he has a “pure feeling” and a “certainty of what has caused it.” Kafka saw “children.”

One girl especially (erect carriage, short black hair), and another (blonde; indefinite features, indefinite smile); the rousing music, the marching feet.

He then identifies himself as a “one in distress who sees help coming but does not rejoice in his rescue.” Nonetheless, he is happy because of the “arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up the fight; ignorant, indeed, of what awaits them but an ignorance that inspires not hopelessness but admiration and joy to the onlooker and brings tears to his eyes.”

In other words, Kafka’s help is found in seeing children who are simple and innocent. They are “ignorant.” But he doesn’t say this as a self-congratulatory intellectual who looks down on the ignorant so much as someone who realizes that simplicity of life is redemptive. The fact that he allows himself to be affected by the children helps him to survive.   In his vision, failure is not cultivated.

Nonetheless, Kafka notes how, three days later, “the attacks, my fear, rats that tear at me and whom my eyes multiply” still afflict him. And now madness seems to set in as well as a kind of happiness. His fear of death – apparently – allows madness to break in:

March 19. Hysteria making me surprisingly and unaccountably happy.

Kafka doesn’t give up; but he realizes that even if he “moves, “ he will still have to return to his death room:

April 4. How long the road is from my inner anguish to a scene like that in the yard (of children playing) – and how short the road back. And since one has now reached one’s home, there is no leaving it again.

Kafka wants to leave and move but he realizes that he has to go back “home” and die alone. His failure seems to keep him from moving, again. The cowardly option – it seems – is to fight, alone, against madness through pondering and cultivating failure. It is the short road and it leads to unhappiness (or slight glimpses of the “beauty of failure”). But the long road leads him back to humanity.

Kafka is caught up in this dialectical movement (to and fro) in his stories and in his diaries.

For Kafka, it seems, literature is the space of failure (not just life); while life itself – like the ignorant children he sees in the yard -is about happiness and movement (outward). But as an intellectual and a reflective man, he must address his private failures. He may take the long road to see his friends and be inspired by children to plow forward, ignorant of what is to come; but he can also take the short road and cultivate failure so that he can deal with the anguish that eats him up inside. Either way, Kafka was always looking for what helps. The question for Kafka and perhaps ourselves is….what help is the most important and why? If it is “cultivated,” failure may be beautiful; but, without friends to help or to read to, failure may only lead to deep humiliation and pain not relief.

Perhaps, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (who Kafka read) might say, the Clever Man needs the Simpleton (the schlemiel) who – like the children Kafka admired – has no idea of what is to come but goes toward it with happiness.  Perhaps Kafka, a Clever Man, needs the schlemiel most when, in the face of death, the cultivation of failure is no longer the “only possibility.” That seems to be Kafka’s realization in 1921.

I Am (Not) Different From the Rest of My Species: On Kafka’s Almost-Melancholic- Dog


While the distinction between man and animal has, for millennia, been a concern for both monotheism and philosophy, the blurring of that distinction has been of interest to mythology and folklore. And as anyone who has read Franz Kafka knows, the distinction between man and animal is the subject of many of his stories.   As I pointed out in my last blog with reference to the “wavering” crow and the crow who tries to challenge the “sky,” Kafka used the image of animals in his diary entries as a way of understanding himself and his differences with other human beings (“crows”).   What is most compelling about these entries and these stories is the fact that, as a reader, Kafka (and we ourselves) can either experience a kind of comical reflection or (as Blanchot suggests with the crows) a melancholic reflection on what it means to be a unique human being in relation to oneself, others, existence, and eternity.

Writing on Kafka’s animal parables, Walter Benjamin argues that K., in The Trial, has gestures that are necessarily absent-minded:

Without being fully conscious of it, “slowly…with his eyes not looking down but cautiously raised upwards he took one of the papers from the desk, put it on the palm of his hand and gradually raised it up to the gentleman while getting up himself. He had nothing definite in mind, but acted only with the feeling that this what he would have to do once he had completed the big petition which was to exonerate him completely.” (121, Illuminations)

Benjamin describes this as an “animal gesture” which “combines the utmost mysteriousness with the utmost simplicity”(122). This combination suggests not just an animal gesture but a mystical gesture that one might find in a Hasidic tale.

Building on this Benjamin argues that the reader may be so won over by this “mysteriousness” and “simplicity” of this gesture that one may “forget” that “they are not human beings at all.”   But when they do realize, they withdraw in terror:

When one encounters the name of the creature – monkey, dog, mole – one looks up in fight and realizes that one is already far away from the continent of man. (122)

Kafka “divests the human gesture” of its traditional support so that it can become an “animal gesture” that communicates “mysteriousness” and “simplicity.” These gestures are comical, not terrifying.   It is only when one realizes that they are enjoying something that is inhuman that the reader – according to Benjamin – is ashamed or frightened.

Turning to Kafka’s story “Investigations of a Dog,” we see a comical play on this fear by way of a melancholic dog narrator. The interplay of comedy and melancholy happens between the reader and the narrator.

How much my life has changed, and how unchanged it has remained at bottom! When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate. (178)

What, wonders the reader, have you become? Are you, a dog, now human? How are you no longer a dog? What was the “discrepancy,” the “maladjustment” which kept you from being a dog?

Whatever it is, the dog-narrator doesn’t tell us. He simply tells us what triggers his sense of otherness from other dogs:

Sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had caught it for the first time, would fill me with embarrassment and fear, even with despair. (178)

The look of the other dog, it seems, reminds him that his “maladjustment” is shameful to look at. He tries to “keep” his despair at being found out “quiet.”   In other words, he wants to hide his sense of awkwardness around other dogs. However, he does tell his friends and they “help” him: “Friends, to whom I divulged them, helped me”(278).

But he does note that he found a way to have “peaceful times.” He did this by “accepting” his maladjustment and discrepancy by way of “more philosophy, fitted into my life with more philosophy.” What makes the philosophy meaningful is not that it makes him happy; rather, it “induces” a “certain melancholy and lethargy” and this allows him to “carry on as a somewhat cold, reserved, shy, and calculating” dog.   The narrator considers this kind of melancholy to be the basis for his becoming a “normal enough dog.”

The dog notes that melancholy helps him to live better although in truth that life is one of unhappiness.

Solitary and withdrawn, with nothing to occupy me save my hopeless but, as far as I am concerned, indispensable little investigations, that is how I live. (278)

What makes this comical is the fact that his “hopeless…indispensible little investigations” help him to live.   But he is not a tragic, solitary character. He claims he is no longer a dog – by virtue of his investigations – but he still cares about dogs.

Yet in my distant isolation I have not lost sight of my people, news often penetrates to me, and now and then I even let news of myself reach them. The others treat me with respect but do not understand my ways of life; they bear me no grudge…For it must not be assumed that, for all my peculiarities…I am so very different from the rest of my species. (278)

Moreover, he is proud of dogs and distinguishes them from other animals. He “confuses them” and tries to “ignore” them. He notices that other dogs “stick together” while these “other animals” do not. As the reader will note, the narrator’s love and admiration of other dogs shows us that his investigations are not only melancholic.   It is only when he is reminded of his “maladjustment” that he feels a “slight discomfort” which must be compensated for by way of melancholic reflections on hopelessness. Even so, he also has friends who “help” him. His anxiety is not, as Blanchot has argued, unbearable.

Rather, his gestures are closer to what Benjamin called the “mysterious” and “simple” nature of the “animal gesture” which is, ultimately, a human gesture stripped of…its humanity.   Even the fact that he reflects in a melancholic manner is comedic because instead of locking him into a state of inertia, melancholia keeps him alive.  And it mitigates his shame at being “maladjusted.”   To be sure, melancholic thought (which he calls “philosophy”) makes him happy.

His melancholic kind of maladjusted individuality (cultivated by his investigations) co-exists with his admiration of other dogs and their tendency to community.   But there seems to be more at stake in this dialectical tension between the individual and the community.     The comical element is to be found in the precarious balance that is maintained between melancholy, friendship, fear of others (outside of his circle of friends), and admiration of others (also outside that circle).   He oscillates between complexity (melancholy) and simplicity (acceptance).   However, he does this in a blind way, without thinking. Because if he did and was overtaken by his “slight discomfort,” he wouldn’t be able to co-exist….or survive as a dog amongst dogs.

I’ll end with a few possibilities: Perhaps Kafka is suggesting that if one insists that he or she is different from the rest of the species, one is making a death wish and is subscribing to a life that is utterly bitter (think, on this note, of Michel Houellebecq’s novels which often include the most bitter narrators and characters).   Perhaps, the blind and mysterious gesture of forgetting while remembering this difference is a (comical) saving grace.   Perhaps hose who engage in cynicism – which is, traditionally, portrayed as “dog-like” – may not return to the world since the investigations of truly cynical dog and the ensuing melancholy do not bring peace so much as…more discomfort.   This is an intellectual path that is dire contrast to the “animal gesture” of simplicity. It’s mystery, so to speak, is comical while, for cynicism, there is no mystery.   The cynic is a lost dog while Kafka’s dog is perhaps too busy “investigating” to know….whether he is lost or not.

On Kafka’s Crows and The Kafka-Bird That Wavers Over the “Eternal Torments of Dying”


The presence of eternity is terrifying. The idea that something is there and won’t go away may inspire many a mystic but it may also evoke horror. This is especially the case if that presence turns away from humankind and promises no kind of salvation.   Many of us have no interest in facing this presence since it may strip us of all faith and hope. However, some modern thinkers and writers have wondered whether or how thoughts or writing itself stand up to the test and how these thoughts or jottings relate to “me.” When I write, does my writing turn against me? Or does it aid me and offer me some kind of shelter against the horror of eternity?

Taking his lead from Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, Maurice Blanchot in an essay entitled “The Limit Experience,” contemplates the possibility that speech, instead of guarding us against the “abject” is “something very abject and very deceptive, which is to say, once again, the desolation of hell.” This speech, says Blanchot, is “strange speech.” It doesn’t assert any mastery over the world and, because it rejects man, is located at the “limit” of humanity.

Blanchot uses Franz Kafka’s aphorism on crows to articulate what is at stake:

Crows claim that a single crow could destroy the sky. This is no doubt so, but it proves nothing about the sky for the sky signifies precisely: the impossibility of crows.

According to Blanchot’s reading:

Crows, here, are men and their idle and pretentious thoughts; the pretentious “logical” and “humanist” thought that asserts that a single thought can destroy the absurd. This is no doubt so, but it does not affect the sky of the absurd for the absurd signifies the impossibility of (logical) thought. (182, The Infinite Conversation)

And here, in this “region of experience,” where Kafka reached (and where Blanchot reaches) by way of writing, it is “possible” that the “essence of man is the impossible.”   Blanchot is fascinated with the possibility of this region. He is attracted to it and is willing to risk his humanity to experience his nullity. He wants to experience power of powerlessness.   But why would anyone want to do that? Wouldn’t that be nihilistic? And wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of writing? Isn’t this desire for the possibility of experiencing the sky (eternity) privileging silence over speech and writing?   Isn’t this experience terrifying and depressing?

Kafka, reflecting on what it means to write, tells us that he “wavers” in this region and this, in many ways, ruins his life. It seems to expose him to a life descending and growing weaker by the moment:

What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying the dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me. But the strength I can muster for that portrayal is not to be counted upon: perhaps it has already vanished forever, perhaps it will come back to me again, although the circumstances of my life don’t favor its return. Thus I waver, continually – fly to the summit of the mountain, but then fall back in a moment. Others waver too, but in the lower regions, with greater strength; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught up by the kinsman who walks beside them for that very person. But I waver on the heights; it is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying.

Kafka, it seems, doesn’t have a “kinsman who walks beside him” and can save him from falling. The Kafka-Bird is alone.   He wavers above the eternal presence of the abyss.   The irony is that he can fall down lower and live a normal life. He can turn to his best friend Max Brod or to his fiancé. He has possibilities for a full life with friends, children, and new possibilities. But Kafka seems to have chosen the path of literature and the inhuman. He seems to have chosen to waver over the abyss of eternity and the experience of powerlessness. However, if one reads him closely, we can see that he has not resolved to do this and that he entertains the possibility of a different, more human life. Unlike Blanchot, however, Kafka doesn’t abandon humanity by calling all of humanity crows. For if he did, it seems that he would be abandoning all hope. Language may fail, but is there still hope for humanity?

Where he wavers, the only hope he has is that he will have the “strength” to “portray the dreamlike inner life,” but, as we can see, there seems to be no hope of this strength returning.   It’s too late. Reading all this, one must ask about hope.   Walter Benjamin concluded, after reading Kafka for years, that Kafka’s “only certainty” was not that he would waver powerless above the “eternal torments of dying” but that only a “fool can help.”

Perhaps Blanchot omitted another possibility: the possibility of comedy and hope. To only believe in language as “strange speech,” devoid of all power or comedy, is to put a limit on humanity.   Rather, I would argue that it is from the limit of humanity and at the heights of failure and despair that Kafka – like Benjamin – sought for help.  This other possibility – the possibility of comedy and hope – emerges within the possible experience of nullity before the sky of eternity.  The sky says no to the crow’s “word,” but the fool says yes.   However, this yes is not meant to challenge the sky; it is meant to help the bird that falls from it.

Unsatisfied With “Myself” & the Conclusion: Kafka on Weariness, Faith, and Eternity


While many of us see weariness in terms of being overworked, surviving in a failing economy, or being over-stimulated by the ever-changing world, Franz Kafka saw weariness in terms of faith and his battle to understand himself in terms of “eternity.”

Weariness does not necessarily signify weakness of faith – or does it? In any case, weariness signifies insufficiency. I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. (44, Octavio Notebooks)

Eternity makes him, contrary to what some mystics might say, uncomfortable. His attempt to “glimpse” at this eternity through literature, his own writing, reflections, or logic frustrates him immensely:

If I read a good book, say an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me. Proofs that previously I did not include this book in my eternity, or had not pushed on far enough ahead to have an intuitive glimpse of eternity that necessarily includes this book as well –

What does Kafka mean when he tells us that he didn’t “include…this book” in “my eternity”? Is one’s eternity something that one constructs or imagines? Wouldn’t that be contradictory? Kafka is full aware of this but it seems as if he is testing what he experiences – in this or that book or experience – against what is eternal.   I wound aver that he is playing the one against the other so as to experience the deficiency of his knowledge and the weariness of his endeavor. Like Hegel, he plays with the possibility of making that with is “other” the “same,” attaining knowledge, knowing oneself, and becoming happy:

From a certain stage of knowledge (Erkenntnis) on, weariness, insufficiency, construction, self-contempt, must all vanish: at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature something that was previously alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.

But Kafka can’t accept this assimilation of otherness. He doesn’t seem to have the strength; he is, for some reason, weary. He plays around with the alienation effect, so to speak; and he ponders the possibility of loss against the possibility of wholeness. What is lost and what is gained?

But what if it has this effect only so long as it is supposedly something alien from yourself and with your new knowledge you not only gain something in this respect but lose something as well?

Kafka continues his interior monologue by answering this question as would a person who had a revelation of his true identity:

True, it had that effect only in that it was something alien, but it did not only have that effect: its influence extended further, raising me then to this higher level.

But the catch is that it “did not cease to be alien, but merely began also to be Myself.” This “also” – and its “effect” – is odd. How could something other be…Myself? Kafka wants to retain this contradiction. But then he forces himself to recognize this and to take on the other possible conclusion:

But the alien world that you are is no longer alien to you. With this you deny the Creation of the World and refute yourself.

These words of self-refutation are not words of joy. They are weary. But why? I think that with the words regarding “Creation,” Kafka is addressing his Jewishness. As a Jew, Kafka wonders if he can deny the Creation of the World and refute himself. Nonetheless, he asserts the logic (suggesting that he can). But, in the next line, which begins a new entry, Kafka makes the weakness of his asserted conclusion explicit:

I should welcome eternity, and when I do find it I am sad. I should feel myself perfect by virtue of eternity – and feel myself depressed?

The “should” expresses what Kafka calls “the commandment.” It is alien to him. But he doesn’t say why. He merely describes it. The commandment he hears, which is that he embrace eternity and “Myself,” ironically challenges his Jewish faith. (I say ironic because Judaism is informed by commandments.) And this is what makes him weary. Kafka feels he must address this commandment and imagine the possibility of becoming one with an Eternity that is alien to him. And this doesn’t make him happy because he can’t fully accept the possibility; he can only entertain it. He suggests that he doesn’t have the “strength” to do so, but where would that strength come from?

To accept the conclusion, for him, is not the source of happiness. Self-knowledge, in other words, is insufficient for a creature who, for some reason, can’t deny the Creation or “refute himself.”  Perhaps that creature is too weak to do so because he is Jewish. This is the question that Kaka kept secret. We can read it between the lines.  The strength to refute Creation and oneself are Greek and it invests faith in Reason and the belief that self-knowledge is not only possible but necessary. Kafka, on the contrary, lives with possibilities, not necessities. And this is what Leo Shestov sees as the special quality – and perhaps the weakness – of Jewishness. But rather than being depressed, Shestov would suggest laughter as the best conclusion.

“A Cup of Coffee Destroys Your Sadness” – On Delmore Schwartz’s Cynical American Comedian


We love the cynical comedy of comedians like Louis CK. He scratches and sometimes plunges into the depths of despair in his comedy routines. And from time to time his pieces have philosophical resonance. He appropriates what I would call a “phenomenology of aging.”  Although his work may resonate with the phenomenology of aging we find in Jean Amery, he doesn’t bring in the discourse of philosophy into his cynical routines.

When the two come together – as they do in Michel Houllebecq’s fiction – the reader can grasp what is philosophically at stake in cynical comedy.   He is a European writer. And like Charles Baudelaire, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, and many (modernist) others, Houellebecq brings philosophy and cynicism (with teaspoons of comedy) into a nexus of intensity.  But what would, for me, be a greater find is an American writer or comedian who can bring to bear the interplay of comedy, philosophy, and cynicism.   My wish was recently granted when I came across a piece of short fiction by Delmore Schwartz entitled “Pleasure.”

Much like many fictional pieces in Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, the narrator in this piece – who is a comedian of sorts – makes use of cynicism to prompt the reader to ask questions about ideas he or she may take for granted.  The narrator starts his routine as would a cynical stand up comedian but he slips into the kinds of words we might hear from an existential philosopher :

I come, I said, to be useful and to entertain. What else can one do? Between the acts something must be done to occupy our minds or we become to aware of our emptiness. It is true, we might converse with one another. But then we would learn again how little all of us have to say to each other. Love is not American. Neither is conversation, but that is exactly what I mean. (92, Selected Poems, Summer Knowledge)

The reader of this story, most likely an American (to whom Schwartz addressed all of his pieces), would be surprised to find that he accuses Americans of being incapable of love or conversation. It creates what Baudelaire would call spleen. And that is what a good stand up comedian can do. And this can either turn the audience against you or, if done carefully, win their attention.

Rejoining this, the narrator becomes self-deprecating. And this serves as a means of gaining sympathy back from the American reader:

One aught to be amusing, but unfortunately I know very few witty sayings, entertaining stories. I find that my idea of the comical is not, as they say, objective. (92)

His “idea” of comedy, nonetheless, is appealing to the reader. The narrator gives some examples of one-liners he has “invented” for “this occasion”: “ABC says to DEF: ‘Who was that lady I saw you with last night? DEF, offended by the lightness with which his passion is regarded, replies: “That was no lady, that was your wife!” But then he realizes that this joke makes him look too unserious. For this reason, he evokes Fichte – the German philosopher. But he tells a joke about his philosophy that hits at a subject he wants to mock, the “I” and the claim that “individuality is an abstraction” (made by Trotsky):

I recall the fact that Fichte drank champagne for the first time when his infant boy said “I” for the first time. (92)

Following this, he mocks the young Engels, as an upper-middle class “friend of the audience” who notes how cynicism is a disease produced by class conflict: The “most appalling evil produced class conflict was its corruption and degradation of the ruling class – barbarism, inexorable cynicism, contempt for all values on the part of those who enjoy the greatest benefits of society. (92)

He goes on to cynically contrast Engels’ contempt for the cynical byproduct of class conflict with Sophocles who says that “man is the most admirable of beings.” And he appends a cynical joke to this (which also mocks philosophical dialectics):

It is true.   The most disgusting also, one ought to add. It is dialectical. The possibility of one means the possibility of the other. (92)

The possibility of man’s goodness and degradation by the class system lead him to turn his sights on the deeds of history in which man is trampled underfoot.   His figuration takes on a question: “Hence, more and more facts are dragged on the stage, as this moving individual passes before the floodlights. Who knows, indeed, will there be sufficient room?”(92).

In other words, in our world of endless facts and information, humanity doesn’t have a chance. Man, the individual, seems to be pushed off stage.   But he doesn’t seem to like Trotsky’s conclusion that man, as individual, is a meaningless abstraction perpetuated by the working class:

He is right and yet you know and so do I as we sit here in this theater….we both know that we cannot regard the warm identity beneath our faces as being no more than an abstraction.   Man is always in the world, yes! Inconceivable apart from being surrounded by a greater whole than himself. (93)

But, he cynically thinks, man can detach himself from the world. That is man’s greatness. He need not remain in the world. But that may also be a curse since he many not be able to leave as he will die in the world he tries to escape from. That aside, the comedian narrator – faced with death and cynicism – calls out to pleasure. But he does so by way of a appealing to a kind of advertisement for pleasure:

Food, for example, improves the spirit, coffee consoles the soul. Most men, to quote again, live lives of quiet desperation, the victims, all of them, of innumerable intentions. Hence the enormous spiritual and emotional quality of food and drink. There is also tobacco and alcohol, although wine too is not American….A cup of coffee destroys your sadness. (93)

From praising coffee, he turns, poetically, to pleasure itself. His writing gives one the sense that he has left cynicism far behind for something that he can believe in:

To each age and each stage a special quality of satisfaction, enough for everyone, and enough for all time, no need to compete.   States of being suffice. Let the handsome be familiar with the looking-glass…Let the unwarranted sadness come to an end, sound and fury signify a multiple enjoyments….Pleasure believes in friends, pleasure creates communities, pleasure crumbles faces into smiles, pleasure links hand to hand. (95)

But he ends on a cynical note:

And, yet, I know, all this is nothing, nothing consoles me, and our problem and pain are still before us. Let us continue to gaze upon it….Let us require of ourselves the strength and power to view ourselves and the heart of man with disgust. (95)

The “power to view ourselves and the heart of man with disgust” is something we see advocated by Michel Houellebecq and Charles Baudelaire. But what makes it different is that this cynical prayer comes from an American not a European.   And it goes against the American grain because it is not satisfied with a cup of coffee or the “looking glass” of pleasure.   In a society surfeited by images and Starbucks, one wonders how Schwartz’s narrator – and Schwartz himself – would fare.   Schwartz’s cynicism seems to have driven him from the world.   Ultimately, he lacked the “power” to give a sustained look at “the heart of man with disgust.”  Neither coffee nor alcohol “destroyed his sadness.”

The Rise and Fall of American Dreams: On John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run”


Americans are familiar with the trials and tribulations of success and failure.   We see failure and success all around us. But when we see the rise and fall of American dreams, we often don’t think about ourselves. It’s taken as commonplace that at a certain point in life people either give up on their dreams, move on to new ones…or to none at all.   The link between one possibility or another is to be found in the figure of movement.  Americans like to move and know that traveling to another place may provide solace in the face of the void that opens up when one’s dreams dissolve into thin air. But that’s the point. Movement can help us to forget the loss and to somehow outrun it.   The blind hope is that if one moves fast enough, one can escape the realization that he or she has failed and that life has passed one by.

But fiction allows us to pay closer attention to this process and allows the us to ask ourselves whether we are also caught up in flights. Fiction gives us time to think about our movements and our need to escape.   What makes the loss most intriguing for readers is when the person who experiences such loss is not fully aware of it or…the implications.   Blindness is painful for the reader and the subject’s blindness informs many narratives (whether in fiction or religion) throughout history.  The experience of an American losing his dream, grappling with present circumstances, and slowly realizing his loss informs the central arc of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

The book starts off with the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s flight to a basketball court and a group of children.   He is the odd one out. Rabbit is much older than them, but he tries, by way of his movements, to come closer the children. The main point is that this is the world that gave him his childhood dreams. It’s a world where movements in space can make one forget about the world:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Leg’s, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.   Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, coming up the alley in his business suit, stops and watches, thought he’s twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems the unlikely rabbit…He stands up thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding up on you. His standing there makes the real boys feel strange. (3)

The words “real boys” disclose the narrator’s intent which is to show that Rabbit acts “as if” he is boy in front of them. He acts “as if” he is one of them.   But they want none of it:

They’re doing this for themselves, not as a show for some adult walking around in a double-breasted cocoa suit. It seems funny to them, an adult walking up the alley. Where’s his car? (3)

When Rabbit gets the ball after it “leaps over the kids heads”(due to a shot that hits the rim), the narrator gives a detailed description of Rabbit’s movements:

The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It’s not aimed there. It drops the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. “Hey!” he shouts in pride. (4)

The ball is aimed toward the sky and he makes the shot. Although the boys are hesitant and say its “luck,” he says it is “skill.” And he goes on to play and shoot more. He notices a boy amongst them who is a great player and the narrator takes note. But he also takes note of how the kid, like Rabbit, will become a star but then lose his luster and become anonymous:

He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb your way through the little grades and then get to the top and everyone cheers…and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town….They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. (5)

What Updike manages to do in this passage is to show the contradictions at the heart of the American dream.   It may lift you up but at a certain point you may have to realize that you’re just one-in-a-million. But, to be sure, the struggle between being someone and being no-one is at the core of modernist art, literature, and philosophy. The question we have, as readers, is how Rabbit deals with his sinking into insignificance. Will he give up, will he try to be someone, or will he just…run away? Will he hurt people along the way?