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

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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.

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