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.

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

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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”

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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?