Spinning Tops: Eric Santer’s Treatment of Play and Fantasy in Kafka and Walser


Does attention to detail make one a thinker?  Isn’t it the attention to the whole?  Robert Walser’s portrayal of the philosopher – in his prose piece “The Philosopher” – makes him into a person who is obsessed with small things.   He is, as Walser says, like a child who is “groping for small things.”  But does this groping make him more like the artist and less like the philosopher?  Is the devil in the details or in the vision of the whole? After all, Rene Descartes, in The Meditations on First Philosophy – didn’t get caught up in the details.  At the very outset, he said that he didn’t want to doubt the details. That would take him forever.  He wanted to start with the general categories that subsumed all of those details. To wit, Walser’s philosopher is not what one would typically associate with a thinker.   The figure of the thinker who is obsessed with smallness is a pathway to another way of thinking, a creative one that is touched by humility and careful intuition.  Kafka was deeply influenced by this literary kind of thinking as was Walter Benjamin.  On the other hand, they were also very interested in – although in conflict over – the meaning of work and family.

But not everyone reads Walser and Kafka’s obsession with smallness in the same way.  At the outset of the first chapter of On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life – a title which plays on Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life – Eric Santer takes up a reading of a Robert Walser short story, “End of the World,” and, comparing it to a Kafka story, “The Top,” makes his central proposition about how the “old thinking” (as Franz Rosenzweig would say) turns us away from “life.”  To be amidst life, one must leave the old thinking behind.   To this end, Santer chooses Walser’s short fiction piece as the thread to travel toward life.  It is, for Santer, a cautionary tale.

Santer notes that the child of Walser’s story is at the “limits of the human habitation we call the world”(11).  The child in Walser’s story is an orphan and without family:

A child who had neither father nor mother nor brother and sister, was a member of no family and utterly homeless, hit on the idea of running off, all the way to the end of the world. 

The wordless child runs and runs as she looks for “the end of the world” taking no notice as she runs along.  But as the child runs, Walser tells us that she imagines the end of the world in terms of several different figures: “first as  high wall, then as a deep abyss, then as a green meadow…then as nothing at all or as something child itself could not identify”(12)

The child, exhausted from running, collapses and when she wakes she finds a farm, asks if she can stay and work, and “be of service to the family.”  After this, the child never runs off again.

Building on this plot, Santer turns to Kafka’s tale,”The Top,” which “tells the story of a philosopher who sought after groups of children playing with a top, imagining that were he to seize the toy in the midst of its rotation he would discover universal truths”(12).  Santer likens the “spinning of the top” to an “interminable repetition compulsion.”   And the “project’s repeated failures generate a quasi-psychotic state in the philosopher.”  Kafka’s story lays out the scene:

The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.

From these two stories, Santer concludes that “the problem is that of inhabiting the midst, the middle of life”(13).  One character is in flight from it and becomes, as a result, “fundamentally fantasmatic”(13).   She sees the world as an object and, as a result, goes mad and collapses.  She imagines she can “occupy the place of an impossible gaze” while Kafka’s philosopher seeks to occupy a “position beyond life.”

What Santer overlooks – since he wants to argue that both the child in one story and the adult in the other are philosophers – is the question of smallness in Walser and Kafka’s work.  Building on Santer, I would like to suggest that one of the biggest conflicts for both Walser and Kafka, which stems from their love of language, is how an interest in smallness may take one away from a life of family and friends.   The question for them – building on Santer – is whether this obsession is a fantasy.  Is the life of the artist, obsessed with detail, the life of the daydreamer (as Freud would say)?  Or is it the life of an orphan (the life of otherness and worldlessness, minus fantasy)?

Does the obsession with small things, with art, keep one from growing up and, as the Walser story suggests, joining a family and working for its survival? Kafka worried about this as well – especially in the last years of his life.  But they weren’t asking this question from the position of the philosopher so much as the position of the writer.  At stake was a way of life; however, that way of life, the way of art, doesn’t live in the same world.  And they worried whether that life, since it was so alienated (albeit with moments of joy) was really “life.”

Over the question of whether they were in the midst of the world or in the midst of wordlessness, they were spinning tops.









2 thoughts on “Spinning Tops: Eric Santer’s Treatment of Play and Fantasy in Kafka and Walser

  1. That image of a spinning top—of centripetal forces, promoting upright motion—compelling stasis? Could it be that the philosopher’s intervention, bringing stasis to a halt, is unwittingly the point he does not grasp? And, of course, ever eludes us as agents of the same—in all our spinning?

    Your thoughts surely give pause . . . and so, always in lieu of answers, simply to say thanks.

    • How does the philosopher bring stasis to a halt? That is a paradoxical claim. Is Kafka – or Rosenzeig – suggesting that spinning is being in the “midst of life”? That’s what Santer seems to be suggesting.

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