On Kafka

“Why does the glance into an unknown window always find a family at a meal, or else a solitary man, seated at a table under a hanging lamp, occupied with some obscure niggling thing? Such a glance is the germ cell of Kafka’s work.” I3,3

… For Kafka music and singing are an expression or at least a token of escape, a token of hope which comes to us from that intermediate world — at once unfinished and everyday, comforting and silly — in which the assistants are at home. … [He] has encountered Josephine, the singing mouse, whose tune he describes: “Something of our poor, brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness which can never be found again, but also something of active present-day life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet real and unquenchable.” 2, 799

“They settled down on two old skirts on the floor in a corner. It was their ambition to use up as little space as possible. To that end they kept making various experiments, folding their arms and legs, huddling close together; in the darkness, all one could see in their corner was one big ball” [ — so the assistants in Das Schloß.]

… While they study, the students are awake, and perhaps their being kept awake is the best thing about their studies. The hunger artist fasts, the doorkeeper is silent, and the students are awake. This is the veiled way in which the great rules of asceticism operate in Kafka.

The crowning achievement of asceticism is study. Reverently Kafka unearths it from long-lost boyhood. … [lengthy quote from Amerika] … Perhaps these studies amounted to nothing. But they are very close to that nothing which alone makes it possible for a something to be useful — that is, they are very close to the Tao. This is what Kafka was after with his desire “to hammer a table together with painstaking craftsmanship and, at the same time, to do nothing — not in such a way that someone could say ‘Hammering is nothing to him,’ but ‘To him, hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing,’ which would have made the hammering even bolder, more determined, more real, and, if you like, more insane.” This is the resolute, fanatical mien which students have when they study; it is the strangest mien imaginable. 2, 814

… The Nature Theater of Oklahoma harks back to Chinese theater, which is a theater of gesture. One of the most significant functions of this theater is to dissolve events into their gestural components. One can go even further and say that a good number of Kafka’s shorter studies and stories are seen in their full light only when they are, so to speak, put on as acts in the “Nature Theater of Oklahoma.” Only then will one come to the certain realization that Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings. The theater is the logical place for such groupings. … 2, 801

What Kafka could fathom least of all was the gestus. Each gesture is an event — one might even say a drama — in itself. The stage on which this drama takes place is the World Theater, which opens up toward heaven. On the other hand, this heaven is only a background; to explore it according to its own laws would be like framing the painted backdrop of a stage and hanging it in a picture gallery. Like El Greco, Kafka tears open the sky behind every gesture; but as with El Greco — who was the patron saint of the Expressionists — the gesture remains the decisive thing, the center of the event. In “Das Schlag ans Hoftor,” the people who hear the knock double up with fright. This is how a Chinese actor would portray terror, but no one would give a start. [Quote from Der Prozeß] … This animal gesture combines the utmost mysteriousness with the utmost simplicity. You can read Kafka’s animal stories for quite a while without realizing they are not about human beings at all. When you finally come upon the name of the creature — monkey, dog, mole — you look up in fright and realize that you are already far away from the continent of man. But it is always Kafka; he divests human gesture of its traditional supports, and then has a subject for reflection without end. … 2, 802

[cf. 2, 478, from the May-June 1931 diary, in an almost identical passage — “… how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings. As far away from it as a future society will be.”]

In the penal colony, those in power use an archaic apparatus which engraves letters with curlicues on the back of every guilty man, multiplying the stabs and piling up the ornaments to the point where the back of the guilty man becomes clairvoyant and is able to decipher the script from which he must derive the nature of his unknown guilt. It is the back on which this is incumbent. 2, 811

Kafka does not grow tired of making the gestus present in this fashion, but he invariably does so with astonishment. … The invention of motion pictures and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationships which have become their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own gait on film or his own voice on the phonograph. The situation of the subject in such experiments is Kafka’s situation; this is what leads him to study, where he may encounter fragments of his own existence — fragments that are still within the context of the role. He might catch hold of the lost gestus the way Peter Schlemihl caught hold of the shadow he had sold. He might understand himself, but what an enormous effort would be required! It is a tempest that blows from forgetting, and study is a cavalry attack against it. 2, 814