Franz Kafka

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Franz Kafka

Post  sil on Tue Apr 19, 2011 4:35 am

KAFKA AND HIS PRECURSORS
by Jorge Luis Borges
(Translated by James E. Irby)

I once premeditated making a study of Kafka's precursors. At first I had considered him to be singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods. I shall record a few of these here, in chronological order.

The first is Zeno's paradox against movement. A moving object at A (declares Aristotle) cannot reach point B, because it must first cover half the distance between two points, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity; the form of this illustrious problem is, exactly, that of The Castle and the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature. In the second text which chance laid before me, the affinity is not one of form but one of tone. It is an apologue of Han Yu, a prose writer of the ninth century, and is reproduced in Margoulies' admirable Anthologie raisonnee de la litterature chinoise (1948). This is the paragraph, mysterious and calm, which I marked: "It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen. such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like. (1)
(1) Nonrecognition of the sacred animal and its opprobrious or accidental death at the hands of the people are traditional themes in Chinese literature. See the last chapter of Jung's Psychologie and Alchemie (Zürich, 1944) which contains two curious illustrations.

The third text derives from a more easily predictable source: the writings of Kierkegaard. The spiritual affinity of both writers is something of which no one is ignorant; what has not yet been brought out, as far as I know, is the fact that Kierkegaard, like Kafka, wrote many religious parables on contemporary and bourgeois themes. Lowrie, in his Kierkegaard (Oxford University Press, 1938), transcribes two of these. One is the story of a counterfeiter who, under constant surveillance, counts banknotes in the Bank of England; in the same way, God would distrust Kierkegaard and have given him a task to perform, precisely because He knew that he was familiar with evil. The subject of the other parable is the North Pole expeditions. Danish ministers had declared from their pulpits that participation in these expeditions was beneficial to the soul's eternal well-being. They admitted, however, that is was difficult, and perhaps impossible, to reach the Pole and that not all men could undertake the adventure. Finally, they would announce that any trip – from Denmark to London, let us say, on the regularly scheduled steamer – was, properly considered, and expedition to the North Pole. The fourth of these prefigurations I have found is Browning's poem "Fears and Scruples,' published in 1876. A man has, or believes he has, a famous friend. He has never seen this friend and the fact is that the friend has so far never helped him, although tales are told of his most noble traits and authentic letters of his circulate about. Then someone places these traits in doubt and the handwriting experts declare that the letters are apocryphal. The man asks, in the last line: 'And if this friend were...God?

My notes also register two stories. One is from Léon Bloy's Histories désobligeantes and relates the case of some people who possess all manner of globes, atlases, railroad guides and trunks, but who die without ever having managed to leave their home town. The other is entitled 'Carcass one' and is the work of Lord Dunsany. An invincible army of warriors leaves an infinite castle, conquers kingdoms and sees monsters and exhausts the deserts and the mountains, but they never reach Carcassonne, though once they glimpse it from afar. (This story is, as one can easily see, the strict reverse of the previous one; in the first, the city is never left; in the second, it is never reached.)

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, 'Fears and Scruples' by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word 'precursor' is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.(2) In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.
2 See T.S.Eliot: Points of View (1941), 25-26.

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Re: Franz Kafka

Post  sil on Wed Apr 20, 2011 11:46 pm

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Re: Franz Kafka

Post  sil on Thu Apr 21, 2011 9:23 am

I thought of those lines in a completely different way as you see...
Thanks for the tale Smile

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Re: Franz Kafka

Post  sil on Thu Apr 21, 2011 9:26 am

silent


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Re: Franz Kafka

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 23, 2011 7:23 am

Winter read: The Castle by Franz Kafka

Reader William Burrows finds that K's struggle with bureaucracy is only the surface of a story that plunges into the deep end of pain, aloneness and the longing for companionship

William Burrows

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 December 2011 09.00 GMT


Kafka's snow-bound castle is almost unbearably evocative

The Castle is Kafka at his most beautiful and, perhaps, his most emotional. The Trial and Metamorphoses are full of their own depth, and their own complicated sadness, but they don't strike the heart with the same poignancy as Kafka's final, unfathomable novel. The Castle is the story of K, who claims to be a Land Surveyor, sent by someone unknown, for some purpose unknown, to the Castle, itself an unknown quantity. What K is supposed to accomplish we never discover. Rather than a narrative that moves towards any substantive satisfaction, Kafka presents the reader with a series of frustrations, K trying again and again to progress his work, but never moving beyond the Castle's snowy environs.


The Castle (Oxford World's Classics)
by Franz Kafka, Anthea Bell

The novel begins with K's arrival at the village that lies in the shadow of the Castle - and, apparently, under its governance. The place lies deep in snow, and the Castle is shrouded in mist, so that not even a glimmer of light betrays its presence. Kafka's descriptions of the place throughout the novel are almost unbearably evocative. The reader is brought to an inhospitable, almost-polar region, where there is scarcely ever light, and one feels the physical effort of struggling through heavy snow. This is a novel best read in deepest winter, particularly when the daily trials of working life are made acute by morning and evening commutes in shivery darkness.

The atmosphere and mood of the novel are what carry it - but they are hard to describe. Saying that, you will find yourself understanding them precisely, even if, like me, you cannot fully articulate what you mean. This is what Kafka does: he destabilises us by writing about the familiar, the banality of daily existence, but disguising it so it appears to us a strange dream or fairytale. When we close the pages we are returned to reality aware of all the feelings of hopelessness that we tend to shut out so as to carry on with our daily working lives. Kafka is the syringe that draws out the reader's blood, and then the pen that writes in it.

It is a mistake to view The Castle - and indeed The Trial, as many do - as being concerned with bureaucracy and unfair process. Such readings trivialise Kafka's artistic project, and are, essentially, reductive. Kafka writes about simple and important things: aloneness, pain, the longing for human companionship, the need to be respected and understood, sex, and the struggle of being employed.

This book will make you sad for the things missing in your life. The reader is forced into confrontation with basic human need. We bear witness to K's futile struggle for recognition and respect. The whole ground of his being is undermined by those who will not acknowledge his task or his right to be in the village. K seeks companionship (shacking up for a time with a woman who has a connection to the Castle authority) but cannot stand the company of his assistants, to whom he can be unkind.

And this is also a novel for the darkest days of winter. Kafka takes you away from his or her own life, with all its stress and secret desolations, only to return you, shattered, to a new reality in which you must confront those truths you'd rather forget. This is Kafka's greatest work, and the one that best lives up to his maxim that a book ought to be a hatchet to break the frozen sea within us.

eddie
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