Walser and Kafka’s Literary Dogs

Kafka with a Dog

Writing of Kafka’s short stories and parables (which include all kinds of animals from mice and apes to dogs and moles), Walter Benjamin takes note of the reader’s experience as an angle for understanding them: “the reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time — as a mouse or a mole — you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings.”(497-8) As in many of his essays, Benjamin is fascinated with the moment of shock in which human perception is jarred and something comes in through the cracks of consciousness.

In the past, I have looked into the relation of Joyce’s schlemiel character, Bloom, to cats and dogs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I have also looked into the relationship of the Schlemiel to the Werewolf in the Baal Shem Tov’s stories, Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct, and Meir Abehsera’s Possible Man. Here I’d like to take a look at some more “literary dogs” and their effect on narrators and readers.

I’d like to start with a brief look at Robert Walser, who, arguably, can be seen in some way as a major influence on Kafka’s writing. His encounters with dogs are interesting. As Benjamin has suggested with his reading of Kafka, it is advisable to read Walser’s encounter with dogs as creating a kind of otherness in the narrator.

In this short story, “The Walk,” Walser encounters a dog:

“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”

The dog, unlike himself, doesn’t have a work ethic or a world. The dog is a mirror of sorts or a wish the narrator has. The dog takes him away from himself. Just like children do in many of Walser’s first person narrations of a child’s world.

In A Schoolboy’s Diary, there is a piece called “Two Little Things” in which the narrator loses his sense of himself when he thinks about a dog. He looses his sense of time:

“I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for a rather long time. What a fool I am, an I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have a sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, “How hot is it today! and indeed it was really very warm.” (66).

This is, as the title of the piece suggests, a “little thing.” But with Walser, we know to read for irony. This little thing is really quite big. He doesn’t have an understanding of what happened to him and when he starts moving again all he can notice is the temperature. This is a moment of ecstasis. As Harold Bloom notes in his book on Wallace Stevens, climate is an awareness of the space around us that is beyond us. When he loses a sense of time, through the dog, he enters into a relationship with space.

Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” is a piece that resonates with these two passages. It is about a dog who is very much like the narrator of these two pieces, a cultured dog with a human mind. But what makes this dog – just like the mice in “Josephine the Mouse Singer”or the bug in “The Metamorphosis” – lose his sense of self is a sense of a strange kind of music coming from an encounter he has with other dogs who are like himself yet different:

“They appeared from somewhere, I inwardly greeted them as dogs, and although I was profoundly confused by the sounds that accompanied them, yet they were dogs nevertheless, dogs like you and me; I regarded them by force of habit simply as dogs I had happened to meet on any road, and felt a wish to approach them and exchange greetings; they were quite near too, dogs much older than me, certainly, and not of my wooly, long-haired kind, but yet not so alien in size and shape, indeed quite familiar to me, for I had already seen many such similar dogs; but while I was involved in these reflections the music gradually got the upper hand, literally knocked the breath out of me and wept me far away from these actual dogs, and against my will, while I howled as if some pain were being inflicted upon me, my mind could only attend to nothing but this blast of music which seemed to come from all sides, from the deeps, from everywhere, surrounded the listener, overwhelming him, crushing him, and over his swooning body still blowing fanfares so near that they seemed far away and almost inaudible.” (281, Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, ed Nahum Glazer.)

The song that he hears, as can be seen, takes him outside of himself and exposes him to the space around him. He loses a sense of time and is exposed to space. When the dog-narrator comes to, he feels like a new being, a different being. He regains his sense of sight:

“And then a respite came, for one who was already too exhausted, too annulled, too feeble to listen any longer; a respite came and I beheld again the seven little dogs carrying out their evolutions, making their leaps; I longed to shout to them in spite of their aloofness, to get them to enlighten me, to ask them what they were doing – I was a child and believed I could ask anybody about anything – bur hardly had I begun, hardly did I feel on good an familiar doggish terms with the seven, when the music started again and robbed me of my wits, whirled me a round in its circles as if I myself were one of the musicians instead of being only their victim, cast me tither and hither, no matter how much I begged for mercy, and rescued me finally from its own violence…gave me a little time to get my breath back.” (282)

Kafka takes Walser to the next level by becoming the dog and having the cultured narrator “investigate” the dogs ways which, like music, take this rational dog outside himself. In the midst of his investigations, he comes to some realizations about the dogs:

“Perhaps there were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other….Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too….Because of all the music I had not noticed it before, but they had flung away all shame, the wretched creatures were doing the very thing which is both most ridiculous and indecent in our eyes; they were walking on their hind legs. Fie on them. They were uncovering their nakedness, blatantly making a show of their nakedness” (284-285)

These investigations go on and on and the dog-detective, so to speak, goes back to being more like a Walser character regaining and then losing his composure. Its a back and forth movement – much like the Tzimtzum I wrote on recently on Walser – that both Kafka and Walser share. The movement that goes back and forth between being big and becoming small, between being human and becoming animal. The “investigations of the dog” are based on the question of what it means to be human. Both Walser and Kafka knew that the key is to be found in that movement between the human and animal and the shock that Walter Benjamin writes of is the shock of realizing that one is caught up in that movement. The literary dogs of Walser and Kafka lead us into a literary figuration and experience of that movement which, as Kafka, notes, is like a kind of music that takes one outside oneself, outside time, and into space.

Morning, Night…Smallness Again: Robert Walser’s Tzimtzum Reflection

In a vignette dated May 1920, Kafka’s favorite writer, Robert Walser reflects on smallness by way of moods, one in the morning, the other in the evening, that return to smallness. I would like to argue that it can be read as a fascinating reflection on what Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) calls Tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a narrative or metaphor about how G-d created the universe; namely, by contracting Himself and making room – an open space -for humankind to dwell and receive His goodness and have a relationship with Him (for better or for worse, to du, you).

If one were to imitate G-d (imitatio dei) as many Medieval Theologians suggest is the way one becomes godly, one can say that, in terms of the Tzimtzum, the imitation of G-d suggests a backwards movement in which infinite space is created through G-d’s becoming small. In both senses, godliness can be said to be found in the infintesimal, or in becoming small. One becomes G-d, so to speak, by becoming large and small, simultaneously.

God is to be found in the endless movement of becoming small.

For this and other reasons, Franz Kafka really enjoyed the writing of Robert Walser. In reflections like the one on May 1920 we can see why. Walser situates a mystical reflection on smallness in prose. In a fashion that is deeply other oriented (Levinasian or Buberian), he reflects on you and your mood and your presence. The you can be thought of as a reference to G-d peeking (as the Song of Songs suggest) into our world.

Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors.

He compares this to how “you” are at night:

How different, though, at night – then tiring thoughts come to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind the clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you were firm and strong.

While you, during the day, are like a child and wild, at night one contracts.

In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Mourning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.

The day drives “you” ought into immensity – in lines of flight – the night “pulled you back into modest smallness again.” This is the double movement of tzimtzum, but what is amazing about this reflection is that Walser personalizes it. The last line suggest it is a process of expanding outward and returning to smallness as one is pulled back into modest smallness “again.”

I would argue that what Walser is capturing is the idea that the movement to “modest smallness,” again, is the movement of becoming godly which is given a figure that is deeply embodied in a physical and environmental state of being. Its spirituality is coupled with the day and the night. It is not simply metaphor; it is a personalization and materialization of smallness. However, in his reflection, this movement of smallness is built into existence.

Happy Birthday to a Schlemiel Who Just Happens to Come from New York

Image by Drew Friedman

There are many different arguments about when the Schlemiel went mainstream in America. While Hannah Arendt sees that happening with Charlie Chaplin, Daniel Itzkovitz argues that it was the debut of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1978) and its winning of four Oscars that made it clear that the Schlemiel was no longer a Jewish icon; it was an American icon. Itzkovitz argues that, following this film, the schlemiel was Americanized. The New Schlemiel, argues Itzkovitz isn’t even Jewish and has lost its Jewish particularity, such as in shows like Seinfeld or Adam Sandler’s films. However, it can be argued that with Larry David and Seth Rogen that particularity has been retained. Either way, Woody Allen is a major part of that trajectory.

One of the things that sticks out with Woody Allen – something we see in a Woman Schlemiel Character that came before him named Fanny Brice – is the use of Yinglish. That use is often associated with New Yorkers who also happen to be schlemiels (think of schlemiel characters Larry David, Jason Alexander, or Adam Sandler). Woody Allen, to be sure, is a major popularizer of the idea that most schlemiels happen to come from New York and have a Yinglish accent.

This Woody Allen joke, which has all of these elements of a schlemiel…..that happens to be from New York:

While taking my noon walk today, I had more morbid thoughts. What is it about death that bothers me so much? Probably the hours. Melnick says the soul is immortal and lives on after the body drops away, but if my soul exists without my body I am convinced that all my clothes will be too loose fitting. Oh, well….

Oh well, Happy Birthday Woody!

“He adored New York City….”

Woody Allen’s Schlemiel character is of great interest to Schlemiel Theory. Take a look at these blog posts:

Cynicism and Hope: On Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

A Personal Note on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: From Riches to Rags

The Schlemiel-as-Criminal? On Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”

Blindness And Insight: From Paul and Augustine to Woody Allen’s “Anything Else” – Part I

Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting

A Note on the First Episode of Woody Allen’s “A Crisis in Six Scenes”

It’s a Family Affair: Caring Mothers, Radical Children, and…an Anxious Schlemiel Husband in Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes”

The WSJ Calls Donald Trump a “Woody Allen” (Schlemiel) “Without the Humor”

Photography, Violence, and Comedy: Reflections on Two Photos (of Goebbels and Woody Allen)