Sunday, 20 January 2013

Kafka: Capsizing

"“the story came out of me like a real birth, covered with filth and slime.” Kafka, Diaries


The figure of the writer conceiving, gestating and giving birth to a work is all too familiar*. It implies some organic process of development and the work's emergence as a separate thing.  What Kafka does is to intercept this metaphor at a seemingly incidental, rather literal point: the image of 'filth and slime'. This is I think a common feature of Kafka’s ‘method’: he ‘breaks’ an existing metaphor by intercepting it overstretching it in a ‘perverse’** way, in order to emerge somewhere else. 

Other examples can be found in the aphorisms: 

“I need solitude for my writing. Not like a hermit, that wouldn’t be enough, but like a dead man."

The familiar image is that of the solitary writer in his garret. Kafka stretches the image to a limit – death as the ultimate isolation – at which point it capsizes in laughter, a comic reductio of the solitary writer motif. But it is a liberating laughter, for we have passed through the figure altogether and emerged somewhere else, at another idea, namely Kafka’s idea of ‘being dead in your own lifetime’, in the company of the dead. ‘The dead’ here means a position in regard to life. Not a zombie or vampire, those familiar figures of life colonised by death, death colonising life, but the Dead as a kind of visitant, able to observe without violence or desire, grateful, unenvious, puzzled, enraptured. It is this position to which Kafka aspires in his writing. He expresses this by making the available language (the familiar trope of the solitary ) stretch, stutter and yeild another content. 
Something not dissimilar happens with “some deny misery by pointing to the sun; others deny the sun by pointing to misery.” Such aphorisms have almost the structure of a joke, a ludicrous capsize in the tail of the sentence which is also the welcome discharge of laughter. What strikes us is the formal symmetry of the clauses vying with the utter asymmetry of their content. For denying the sun is clearly madness, the gesture of a lunatic. But after this, through the other side of it, there is, once more, a reward, a gem, a new pathos – a rather heroic Canute-like, image of pointing defiantly to suffering in the face of something vast, implacable and indifferent.

* See, among many many examples, James Joyce: 
I went into the backroom of the office and sitting at the table, thinking of the book I have written, the child which I have carried for years and years in the womb of the imagination as you carried in your womb the children you love, and of how I had fed it day after day out of my brain and my memory.
** By ‘perverse’ I mean stubbornly drawing attention to what is logically entailed in the metaphor but not ordinarily implied by it. So, with Joyce’s metaphor, above, it would be seen as deliberately obtuse and wrongheaded, facetious even to respond with ‘ah, so your book will emerge covered in slime and mucus”

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