Losing Time and One’s Way… but Finding Laughter: On Kafka’s “Give it Up!”


At the outset of his book Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Heinz Politzer cites a Kafka manuscript piece which Max Brod, in 1936, published under the title “Give it Up!”  Politzer points out that Kafka didn’t give it this title; Brod did.  In fact, Kafka called it “A Commentary.”    Politzer uses this parable as the best illustration of his claims that Kafka’s parables are paradoxical.   Politzer’s reading is very insightful.  It brings up aspects of the parable that touch on the ridiculous and simple character of the “I “(who he calls a “wanderer”).  This character, to be sure, approximates the schlemiel.

Although Politzer notes the “wanderer’s” ridiculous character, he moves on to entertain other possibilities.  I would like to suggest that instead of ranking this as one amongst many possibilities, it be marked as one of the most important: since the ridiculous nature of this character accentuates the central role of the foolish simpleton in Kafka’s work.   And this is something that has oftentimes been overlooked whether in the name of Maurice Blanchot’s reading of Kafka or Politzer’s (which focus on much more “serious” topics such as “paradox,” “the incessant,” and the “works demand”).  They would regard such elements as, to use Poltizer’s term, “juvenile.”   Seeking deeper meaning or a meaning that stresses ambiguity as such, they leave aside the simple, comic elements that inform many of Kafka’s parables.  But, at the very least, Politzer’s notes them.

Here’s the Kafka parable that Politzer addresses:

It was very early in the morning, the streets were clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station.  As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later that I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town as yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way.  He smiled and said: ‘From me you want to learn the way? ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Immediately after translating the parable from the German, Politzer notes several multivalent aspects.  First, he points out that this parable is a narrative and it states a “negative truth”: “It’s a narrative and a statement of truth, although a negative one.”  In addition, it provides “lyrical impressions” and “dramatic dialogue” which, in the end, are resolved by a “silent gesture” in the end.

Politzer, at this point, withholds the “negative truth” and, as for the gesture, what does it mean that Kafka, on the contrary, doesn’t associate it with silence so much as “someone who wants to be alone with his laughter?”

We’ll turn back to the “negative truth” in a moment; but before we do, I’d like to figure out why or how Kafka can conclude his parable with this gesture of turning away and laughter.  Strangely enough, although it is not his intention, Politzer’s description of the “wanderer” gives some clues.

Politzer notes that the character is “shy” and that his words are “monosyllabic.”  They are closer to English than they are to German.  In other words, Kafka is appealing to the talk of someone who is a country bumpkin of sorts, a simpleton.

Politzer points out that wanderer is ridiculed by the Shutzman (the policeman).  His role, according to Politzer, is to be two-faced and scandalous.  His role is to “protect the man from whom he seems to be waiting.”  And his smile takes on an “ominous” meaning “by the words which the policeman adds to it”; the smile is “false or ambiguous”(5).  If this is the case, then the information he gives him (even the command) is clearly deceptive.   Writing about the reader’s response, Politzer notes that

The discomfort that the change intends to convey arises in the reader only gradually.  Some time is needed to realize the strangeness of this information giver who answers a question with a counter-question: ‘From me you want to learn the way?’ (5)

Moreover, Politzer tells us that we can’t miss the “undertone of arrogance and indignation in the worlds of the policeman who puts himself first in his question.”

Politzer cites the German that is used to address the wanderer as proof that the policeman is scoffing at the wanderer.  He talks to him like a child: “He talks to him as one talks to an infant”(7).   In other words, he regards the wanderer as a man-child (a schlemiel).

And the basis of this, Politzer hints, is a negative attitude toward religion.  Noting the condescension of the policeman, Politzer translates the “it” of the words “Give it up!” in terms of the main characters “wanderings,” and his “haste.”  However, the policeman doesn’t speak from the position of patience since, Politzer tells us, he doesn’t invite the wanderer to take his time and “linger” in the city.

Politzer argues that “Give it up!” can be translated as a commandment for the wanderer to give up on the journey towards God:  “The policeman seems to be saying, ‘let all hope go, abandon the way and the desire to find it, give up your quest and your yearning, your very existence – yourself!’” (7).

Although the reader will catch on to this arrogant command which “infantilizes” the wanderer’s religious quest, Politzer argues that the reader will most likely take the side of the policeman: “The wanderer appears ludicrous to the reader, the official petty, pompous, and awe inspiring”(8).   However, Kafka doesn’t take sides.  He “doesn’t decide for any one of the conflicting points of view.  Instead he forces the reader to change continuously from one to another”(8).

Instead of hearing “Give it up!” as a command, Politzer suggests that we also hear it as a question.  He calls this ambiguity Kafka’s “evasiveness.”   Unfortunately, Politzer doesn’t look into the meaning of wandering between the two positions which would essentially mean moving between the schlemiel, who has lost his sense of time and endlessly wanders in search of the truth, as opposed to the policeman who sees such a search, with all of its religious overtones as “infantile” in a negative way.

Kafka is interested in both.  Is Kafka the wanderer, then?  Politzer argues that we may be “tempted” to say that he is; however, “the man in our story may be an image rather than a more or less true likeness of the author”(17).  He may only be a “code cipher” conveying “indecipherable messages.”

Regardless of such an esoteric reading, which eschews the biographical reading, both are possible.  In fact, Politzer argues that there is even more possible “background” to this story and even suggests that we take Eric Auerbach’s claim, in his book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Liteature, seriously; namely, that there are two “styles” of writing: one Greek (founded in Homer) and the other the Jewish (Elohist of the Bible).  The latter makes all clear while the latter states details but leaves countless gaps or lacunae.  Kafka, he argues, is certainly influenced by the Elohist as his parables are “fraught with background” and lacunae.

However, the Jewish influence is not the only one; in fact, says, Polizer, it is in a tension with the view that finds no certainty in faith.  To be sure, Abraham was faithful but “Kafka’s man,” on the other hand,” consists of a darkness symbolizing the complete absence of such certainty”(19).

Given all of these paradoxes, Politzer notes that Kafka won’t say he rejects faith or affirms the opposite.  And that’s the point for Politzer.  The crux of the matter is that Kafka states problems.  And unlike the Biblical model, Politzer claims that Kafka gives “so many interpretations” that they “defy any and all.”  In other words, Kafka’s parables present and then efface the possible meaning of a paradox.  Its as if Politzer says that Kafka over-interpreted so as to destroy the meaning of interpretation.

I think that Politzer is on to something here that echoes what deconstruction would say twenty years after he wrote his book on Kafka.  But the problem with all this is that Politzer’s reading is too generalized.

In the process of making this claim, we miss the central problem which, in this parable, is not effaced by too many possible meanings. Rather, I’d suggest that the position of the ridiculed simpleton who is looking for truth is something very close to Kafka.  Politzer is correct in saying that we move back and forth between the positions but Kafka did this because he saw something deeply important about the schlemiel and his relationship with this character.

The interesting thing is that, as in much schlemiel literature, Kafka’s piece points out the bifurcation between the fool from the country who trusts everyone (even the police) and those who lie or scoff at him (like the policeman).  His laugh, at the end of the story, is a negative one.  Note that he laughs alone.  And to do this, he turns away.  He, so to speak, preaches a conversion (a turn) of sorts away from hope and wandering.  What we are left with is the option provided by modern society which comes across as ridicule.   In a negative sense, don’t be a schlemiel.  On other hand, Kafka is advising us that the schlemiel is not in the wrong.  When the schlemiel loses his sense of time and fears he may miss his encounter (perhaps with God or truth), these fears disclose something Kafka though of with regard to Abraham.

As with all of Kafka’s Abrahams, there is always something missing which keeps them from being, so to speak, “on time.”  Yet, at the same time, Kafka wonders: why would anyone want to be on time for a command that may, in fact, be misapprehended.  Why would anyone want to wander around for that?  Yet, and this is the point, people still do.

And this brings us back to Walter Benjamin’s insight that only a fool can help; however, his help may not do humanity any good.  Both thoughts illustrate how a reader may identify with the foolish wanderer, but, in the end, may think of him to be wasting his time.   Benjamin, like Kafka, simply pondered the point.  And he took on both positions.  He also had a hard time deciding. But he didn’t have too many interpretations.  Benjamin, before he died, understood that, in the midst of crisis, there were only two possibilities before him.

He wasn’t ready to play the role of Kafka’s policeman.  Not yet. Walter Benjamin couldn’t completely ridicule the fool.  And that is telling….

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 2)


In the end of The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” Kierkegaard argues that the “ironist is always on the watch” for contradictions and verbal malapropisms.  This vigilance is radical.  For Kierkegaard, the true principled ironist will laugh at everyone, equally.  S/he will even laugh at those who die for an opinion.  No stone will go unturned by the ironist.  The point Kierkegaard wants to make is that dying for a claim or idea (in the name of “freedom,” “justice,” etc) is ridiculous because it will always be ironic:

To the extent the gentleman may be right in asserting that he has that opinion with all his vital force he persuades himself he has, he may do everything for it in the quality of a talebearer, he may risk his life for it, in very troubled times he may carry the thing so far as to lose his life for this opinion…and yet there may be living contemporaneously with him an ironist who, even in the hour when the unfortunate gentleman is executed, cannot resist laughing, because he knows by the circumstantial evidence he has gathered that the man had never been clear about the thing himself. (257)

The ironist, so to speak, laughs at the beheading; it is ironic.  But the ironist Kierkegaard is talking about, the vigilant ironist, is not secular; s/he is religious. S/he is not saved by laughter and the gods; s/he is saved by God:

Laughable it is…for he who with quiet introspection is honest before God and concerned for himself, the Deity saves from being in error, though he be never so simple; him the Deity leads by the suffering of the inwardness of truth.  (258)

In other words, for Kierkegaard, God has the last laugh.  For him, people who believe that their words and ideas will save them will always fail. Their martyrdom is (or will be) tainted by this or that irony.

To illustrate, Kierkegaard tells the story of a thief who dons a wig and robs an innocent bystander.  But after committing the crime, the criminal takes off his wig and runs away.  A “poor man” comes along and puts the wig on and he, unfortunately, becomes the scapegoat. Since man who is robbed sees the wig, and not the man, he makes an oath that the poor man – that is, the innocent man – is the criminal.

The irony is that when the man who steals happens upon the court case, puts the wig on, and says he is the real criminal, the oath taker realizes he has made an error; but he can do nothing since he already swore that the poor man with the wig (the wrong man) was the criminal.

The lesson is obvious.  Kierkegaard sees all public oaths and all statements – statements one is willing to stake everything on – to be laughable.  The oath is ironic; it is not a truthful commitment.  In addition, it is the poor and innocent man – who happens to be walking by – who is the victim of irony (and not just the victim of the theft who made the wrong oath).

The final lesson that Kierkegaard wants to teach us is that people who are more concerned with the “what” (the “hat”) rather than the “how” (inner passion and conviction) will always be deceived.

The only thing that can save us from the absurdity of irony (the “error”), says Kierkegaard, is faith.  Faith, “the how,” is greater than “the what” (the public proclamation of truth).  The inner oath, so to speak, is greater than the outer oath.  Apparently, the inner oath cannot be ironic while the outer oath can.

Therefore, laughter, for Kierkegaard, leads to faith since one will realize that truth cannot exist in exterior reality.  All public acts – even the most noble – will lead to error and irony.  Faith may not.  It is a “possibility” or risk that Kierkegaard would like to take.

For Kierkegaard, the internal absence of irony makes faith better than laughter since irony may lead to faith or skepticism.  Kierkegaard chooses the latter.  Laughter may be the gift of the gods, but for the Kierkegaard of The Postscript, the greater gift is the gift of God: the gift of faith.

However, there is a problem.  Kierkegaard’s description of Abraham in Fear and Trembling insists that the inner “secret” of Abraham’s faith-slash-wisdom is not a faith untainted by foolishness but…foolishness:

But Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.

To say that the “secret” of Abraham’s wisdom is foolishness implies his faith is ironic.  A secret implies something hidden from view; what Kierkegaard would call the “inner” or “subjectivity.”  Given what we have learned from The Postscript above, we can understand that this public commitment can be called ridiculous, but his inner commitment (his inner “oath” of faith) should not.

To say that this is a secret invites the question: can anything, even something so serious as faith, escape laughter?  If the secret of faith is irony, then everything is touched with laughter – even the state of “fear and trembling” that Abraham goes through when he “decides” to act.   But can this really be the case?  If faith, an internal oath, is better than the external oath, shouldn’t it be unblemished by irony?  Is irony, still, a saving grace for Kierkegaard?  Is it the secret of faith?  Is Kierkegaard taking the side of the holy fool?

And how does this fare with the schlemiel?  Is Kierkegaard’s notion of irony consistent with a Jewish concept of irony?  Does the schlemiel have a secret, too?  And is this secret foolishness?

The answers to many of these questions come from Kafka.  For him, Abraham was a schlemiel of sorts.   Kafka’s comic rendering of Abraham and his situation makes Abraham into a simpleton and not so much a passionate knight of faith.

To play on Kierkegaard, I’d say that the issue, for Kafka, is not so much whether faith puts an end to laughter as who laughs and how one laughs in relation to “the commandment.”

(I will turn to Kafka’s Abraham in the next blog.)

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 1)


For Kierkegaard, the kata-strophe recurs over and over.   It rotates.  And if we look into the kata-strophe literally, we see that one strophe or verse runs into another.  One group of words counters or negates the truth of another and this, for Kierkegaard, is a kata-strophe.   Strangely enough, for Kierkegaard, this kata-strophe is not simply tragic.  It is laughable.  But this laughter is accompanied by an inner, religious, silence.

In my last blog entry on Kierkegaard laughter, boredom, and the rotating kata-strophe, I noted Kierkegaard’s ultimate wish in his book Either/Or.    The opportunity to make this wish was given to him by the gods.  It was given to him, unexpectedly, when we was in depths of despair:

Something wonderful happened to me.  I was carried up into the seventh heaven. There all the gods sat assembled.  By special grace I was granted the favor of a wish.  “Will you,” said Mercury, “have youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beautiful maiden, or any of the other glories we have in the chest?  Choose, but only one thing.”  For a moment, I was at a loss.  The I addressed myself to the gods as follows: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose this one thing, that I may always have the laugh on my side.” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 36)

Kierkegaard chooses laughter.  This implies that his choice of laughter over all else will be with him to the very end.  More fascinating is the fact that he is given this opportunity by the gods and not by God.  Given that the gods give him this opportunity and laugh their immortal laughter in assent, makes it explicitly clear that this is a Greek and not a Biblical opportunity.

Kierkegaard knows this and is acutely aware that the comic salvation of the Greek gods may not be consistent with the salvation of Biblical God.  With this awareness, Kierkegaard does something that was never done before in the history of philosophy: he tries to reconcile Greek irony with faith.

We see this attempt in The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” which was published in 1846.   What most thinkers find most significant about this publication is the fact that it introduces Kierkegaard’s thesis that “truth is subjectivity.”  What many fail to notice, however, is that Kierkegaard makes great efforts to apply his ideas of irony to religion and reconcile his view of laughter, which will always be at his side, with faith.  More importantly, for us, Kierkegaard’s comic-faith model can be read against the schlemiel-as-prophet.

Does Kierkegaard’s reading have anything in common with a Jewish reading of comedy and laughter or does it posit a nuanced Christian reading of the relationship of faith to comedy?

In The Post-Script, Kierkegaard returns to the dialectic of remembrance and forgetfulness that we saw in Either/Or.   Here, he notes that absent-mindedness in relation to one’s existence, which has everything to do with this dialectic, is comic:

Either he can do his utmost to forget that he is an existing individual, by which he becomes a comic figure, since existence has a remarkable trait of compelling an existing individual to exist whether he wills it or not…Or he can concentrate his entire energy upon the fact that he is an existing individual…The existing individual who forgets that he is an existing individual will become more and more absent-minded. (203, Anthology)

Kierkegaard goes on to argue that Hegel’s philosophy is absent-minded and distracted.  It forgets that “those to whom the philosopher addresses himself are human beings” and not concepts.  When the philosopher “confuses himself with humanity at large,” he will come to learn that the “royal ‘we’” no longer has power: “When one discovers that every street urchin can say ‘we’, one perceives that it means a little more, after all, to be a particular individual”(206).   Kierkegaard finds the philosopher and the “basement dweller,” who also “plays the game of being humanity,” to be equally “ridiculous.”

So, if the average man and the philosopher are both absent-minded, who is left?  It seems both of them are caught up in forgetfulness?  Where is memory and remembrance? On the side of existence?

Kierkegaard, in a bold move, turns to religion as the place of remembrance:

Say, rather, which you will always remember; for this expression connects itself more closely with the subject of our conversation, namely, that we ought always to bear in mind that a man can do nothing of himself. (239)

However, Kierkegaard is not satisfied with this because of the language that is used.  He puts the word “always” into italics.  He is, in other words, suspicious of such verbal oaths.   He is more interested in the religious as such which strikes one “dumb” (242) and puts one at a loss for the “right word.”  The relationship to God in prayer, for Kierkegaard, discloses one to one’s powerlessness.  And what happens, in the faith experience, is that the subject realizes that they cannot “bring” God together with “accidental finitude.”  They are left to suffer with this contradiction.  And this is not a laughing matter. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, seems to find no room for irony in this unhappy consciousness which is unable to speak.  To be sure, Kierkegaard notes that faith is equivalent to the “repulsion of the absurd” (which is another way of saying a repulsion of the ironic and the ridiculous).

But faith doesn’t have the last word.  At the end of The Postscript, Kierkegaard turns back to his ally: laughter.  And in this last section, Kierkegaard attempts to reconcile the gift of the Greek gods with the God of monotheism.

The question remains: Do we ever stop laughing?

(We will return to this in the next blog entry – Part 2.)