At the crux of Paul North’s The Yield: Kafka’s Atheological Reformation, a study devoted to the famously obscure Zürau aphorisms, are two diagrams: the first (fig. 1) is a simple parallelogram, indeed a square, with the corners, moving clockwise from the bottom left, labeled “Being,” “Time,” “Death,” and “Will” (27). The second (fig. 2), which does not correspond to any simple geometric transformation of the first, has three lines: a vertical stroke labeled “Belonging to” on the bottom and “Faith in” at the top, a second stroke drawn from the top right (labeled “Art/Semblance”) to a point slightly below the middle of the first, and a third stroke drawn from the bottom right (“The Yield”) to a point to the left of the middle of the second line (29). For North, these two diagrams represent, if no doubt all too schematically, the yield of Kafka’s writings. As Kafka “writes down his thoughts,” the poles of the first square, “often considered not only the major but also the only poles of European thought and practice”—these “basic precepts” on which the tradition of the West would be anchored—are changed together with their relationships to one another; the parallelogram is dragged out of shape (28). This contortion, a strange spiritual gymnastics, is a yielding of the yield, and a yielding to the yield. Being itself, the term that underwrites the entire project of Western thought, yields to having and then to not-having; time yields to faith, which “positions an event of possession-taking in the future and projects a path along which it will be reached” (28). Death yields to semblance; it is not our finitude that characterizes us in our relation to God, but that we were made in God’s image, as image. And finally, will yields to the yield. Yet if one dare not speak of will yielding to the yield itself, let alone the yield yielding itself to itself—formulations like this draw us back into the realm of idealist self-reflectivity or the existential analytic—nevertheless there is a sense in which no order, no mathematical or intuitive logic, no formalized calculus or algorithm will offer us the provisional, questionable confidence that the master promises the disciple so long as she takes measured steps along the path. Not even the “Kafkan logic” that North develops in the “Excursus,” nor the subtle theory, drawn from Brentano, of the corner as boundary, offer the tentative mastery that we as readers, having humbled ourselves before the text, are still wont to demand. Rather, this logic gives a very different figure for what it might mean to be able to “make sense” of North’s text. Ability itself, he explains, “is less the actualization of a potential than the accessing of a primary impotence”:
This logic is demonstrated perfectly with the example of swimming. Water: in equal parts it buoys you up and drags you down into its depths. Because the swimmer can only swim to the extent that he is not sinking, swimming is not a power, a potency, an activity, a possibility, a positivity. Rather, to swim is to drown again and again, and one’s resistance to drowning is drawn from the profundity under it. Anyone who has tried to swim in a puddle can verify this. (164)
That swimming is something we can do, with various degrees of strength and mastery, belongs to the order of common sense. Indeed, swimming—even more than walking, thinking, dancing, singing—is emphatically an ability, and in a way that might appeal to the most hard-nosed positivist, as skeptical as she might otherwise be of all occult qualities and other such Aristotelian cobwebs and of everything merely subjective and poetic. For, of course, the claim “I can swim,” is brutally, decisively, falsifiable. Yet for North, swimming exemplifies—perfectly, indeed—a logic of primary impotence. One suspects, moreover, that what conceals this from us, allowing the web of common sense to form, is a kind of habit; the more comfortable we become with our swimming, the more it comes to seem as something we can do rather than a spasmodic flailing refusal of drowning. This habit takes the form of grace and virtuosity.
Such a logic applies no less to thinking. Perhaps the capacity for thinking is not the auto-poetic transcendental principle that it has been made out to be—and even if we no longer fess up to being Cartesians, we still all somehow think we can think and are thinking—but is merely the habit, strong and graceful to various degrees, by which we have forgotten that primal yet ever repeated failing and thrashing elicited by the depths of thought. Or as North puts it, offering a précis of a “thought” whose precision is “ferocious”—wild, savage, untamed: “Thinking is sinking.”
This is the ferocious, the wild—the wholly unorthodox—task of The Yield. To bring us to the point of sinking; to think thinking sinking into the depth of thought. It is not just that the yield, which is also somehow the ground beneath us, yields, not just that no logic can really master it; not just that the yield that can be yielded is not the true, genuine yield. Even if, in remaining a work of respectable scholarship, it is still more feral than ferocious, the point of The Yield—the point that bounds an ethics of yielding but cannot be reduced to it, and which is not a telos or purpose but the corner into which it retreats—is that for us (academics, scholars, teachers: all too confident, for all our endless rhetoric of humility, in our, if only ever tentative, capacity for thinking) the yield yields as a kind of thrashing, a treading and shredding of that protean, liquid element that our thinking has claimed as its element.
This is what is at once magnificent and unsettling about The Yield. While North demonstrates a virtuoso’s mastery not only of Kafka’s writings but of the modes of philosophical and philological reflection, one cannot help but suspect, even as one sinks into the profundity of his argument, that this very mastery, and its magisterial effects, belongs to the realm of semblance, ruse, art, and artfulness. It is not only that this mastery, in a manner that must already be familiar from Derrida and Agamben as also from a long tradition of apophatic discourse, has been turned into a double-edged sword and wielded against itself. Something else is going on. The gestures of mastery that carry us through, and that can often appear so formidable, are, in the last instance, unmasked as “childish measures.” In an extraordinary passage from the final section, devoted to and named after these childish measures, North writes:
You sidestep, tease, dress up, hide, drag your feet, sing, evade a parental summons, stay up under the covers with a flashlight, nap during a lesson, ask again “But why?” and “But why?” and “Why?” until the question becomes exhausted, plug your ears. . . . Something trivial distracts you . . . you lose your train of thought. If we wanted we could imagine these non-acts as counterparts, under the aegis of yielding instead of acting, to responsibility, love, identity, obedience, learning, working, waking, daytime, daytime awareness, truth. You might imagine the modes of yielding practice as a set of antipodes to philosophical attitudes; instead of metaphysics, excuses; instead of politics, diffidence; instead of redemption, a hideout; instead of truth, fibs. (286)
Not least among these childish measures, I suspect, is a kind of aping and mocking of the parental voice, the voice of authority, of responsibility, of work. The power of this gesture, of this measure and counter-measure, consists in the absence of understanding, obedience, Gehörsam and gehören. To understand the voice of authority—the voice of reason, the summons of consciousness—is already to heed it, either by submitting to it or wielding it against others. But to imitate it without understanding, to reduce it to the mere semblance of authority by which it dresses itself up and makes its way about the world, is to open up a space of evasion, of daydreams; of the fragile truth of those exquisite moments in the child’s life, suffused by an aching and beautiful melancholy, that have not yet been claimed by activities, toys, friends, and all these other paths to becoming. And yet “against all appearances,” these childish measures, the “tricky attempts of children to avoid duty, pressure, violence, identity, responsibility,” “cannot be carried out by children” (290). But perhaps there is really only one thing that a child can never manage: aping a child aping an adult.
Even if the concept of “play,” North insists, is not enough for these childish measures, it would not be wrong to say that The Yield, which insists on a model of dialogical engagement, yields nothing less than a kind of playdate between Kafka and North, unscripted, unscheduled, and joyously free of parental oversight. Hence its dominant mood, which subtends all its scholarly sobriety: the playful and generous grandiosity of make believe. This mood corresponds to the happiness that has always been extinguished in the instant that the limits of the world become known. This grandiosity is, in the best possible sense, perplexing: it gives us to think, it yields thought. Or simply, it is yielding. Moreover, though, it is a kind of fidelity to Kafka’s intention to realize that this intention cannot stop short of the “good, the true, and the being-ground of everything” (xv). Kafka’s intention cannot stop short of all this, and even of God, because, as the preface intimates, Kafka finds himself in a world for which there is no place to “breathe or move or change” (xv). The only real act that is possible is “making room,” yielding . . .
At the heart of this perplexity is a typographic question: the parallelogram has not only contracted and deformed into another figure, but a letter, and indeed a “K”—the abbreviation by which Kafka himself, the living individual, identified the protagonist of “The Castle,” that novel of Kafka’s which, for North, seems to come closest to the thoughts of the Zürau aphorisms. The expropriated propriety of the proper name, reduced to its most proper identifying element—the archē or initial that takes the lead in every alphabetical ordering—becomes the figure by which North seeks to find his way into Kafka’s labyrinthine path. And yet this K, at once so familiar and so enigmatic, stands for yielding. Yet—and yet is “yet” not itself the particle of yielding—yielding is a giving by giving away and giving way; a refusal to stand. The “K” is, as it were, the last stand of understanding. And one could almost imagine the “K”—and as letters go, isn’t it awkward, strange, precarious?—flopping over to its left, with the vertical shaft, the last stroke of the square’s rectitude, taking root in the yielding earth and growing into a “Y.” Yet if it can yield yielding in this way, it is also only because it is not quite, not yet, there. This magical perplexity—it brings us, like the youngest child at the Seder, to ask “Why?”—is doubled, trebled by a further complication. For P., the yield has everything to do with a critique of the logic of having that, as he argues in the first chapter, underlies the entire project of ontology, up to and including Heidegger, for whom “having” remains as an indestructible residue. Even Derrida, P. argues, will not go as far as Kafka.
Yet this makes it all the more perplexing, and in the best possible sense, that this revolution and revelation, a coup de grâce beyond the blows of agonistic thinking and beyond the simple faith of theology, is given over—yielded—to a proper name, or rather to its fragment and relic. This perplexity is wondrous because it demands of us that we read P.’s text against the grain of its consummate, uncanny mastery; as at once his own and not his own, as Kafka’s and not Kafka’s. As if: P = NP, and P ≠ NP. But this should not surprise too much: “This ‘not and not-not’”—“not a Jew and not not a Jew,” Kafka said of someone—“is a logical category peculiar to Kafka, or so I believe, a nondialectical self-relation that he develops across the thoughts as an instrument for cutting a pathway through theology and philosophy” (26).
If P. is right, then K.’s literature gives utterance to a truth beyond the horizon of Western thought, and indeed beyond the horizon of horizontality. And precisely because it was always there, beneath our feet: the yielding ground. If P. is right, the thinking of this yielding belongs to Kafka, or at least to K. This means not only, in a trivial way, that Kafka discovered the yield—an absurd formulation—or that he mastered it—even more absurd though not without truth—but that he yielded to it, and through a body of work that, like a gnarled tree, is twisted, strange. But what if the yield is not just the ground in which Kafka’s thought takes root by making room, but a different element: spirit, wind. One is reminded of a passage from Zhuangzi, the Taoist author whom Kafka cherished: when the great wind arises, “raging cries emerge from all the ten thousand hollows. . . . And once the sharp wind has passed, all these holes return to their silent emptiness. . . . It gusts through all the ten thousand differences, allowing each to go its own way. But since each one selects out its own, what identity can there be for their rouser?”1 Perhaps there is not only a yield of earth but also a yield of spirit. While the great wind of the yield—spirit as yielding—becomes loudest through the contorted hollow of Kafka’s writings, the yielding ground, and hence the systematic tendency that culminates in the atheological treatise that P. so brilliantly excavates from the Zürau thoughts, is itself only the detritus of a tradition that has already yielded.
The symposium, after which this forum is modeled, is a funny thing. It is all about taking a stand. But also about yielding, in a very literal sense: the perpetual agon of the agora, the perpetual back-and-forth of the dialectic, yields to a sequential ordering, with each speaker obliged to yield to the next. It is perhaps unsurprising that Socrates, that consummate street fighter of the logos, rather than entering directly into Agathon’s house, stood for a long while, lost in his thoughts, in the portico—and not even of Agathon’s house, but of his neighbor’s. Yet here the discourse was about love, which stands before us a hard nut to be cracked open. Yet if all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, and Plato the cracking open of the Socratic nut—the statues of Silenus, antique tchotchkes, to which Alcibiades, yielding to all the other speakers but getting the last word, compares the stub-nosed master—then the symposium retains its validity throughout the history of philosophy as a privileged forum, an opening for thinking. Yet if P. is right, then Socrates himself must yield to the yield. K. is otherwise, otherwise even than the alienus and alter of deconstruction. And so too the symposium, as form, must yield.
It is to the credit of The Yield and these four remarkable responses that they are each of such different character; that each sounds in its own way, whether by running with or against the grain—the wind?—of North’s arguments. There is even a remarkable and beautiful awkwardness and dissonance that sounds between them, and which rests in the fact that the The Yield at once agonizes over theology, philosophy, and Kafka, but also deflects its own agonistic intention. The awkwardness, in other words, stems from the difficulty of pinning down a region outside the text from which it would be possible either to resist or not to resist. For Robert S. Lehman (“Aesthetic Unconsolation”), this will involve insisting on an image of philosophy as that which, in Wilfrid Sellars’s words, aims “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” By insisting on a more established philosophical agenda, against North’s seeming resistance, Lehman seeks to suggest that Kafka’s project, as conceived by North, could be understood in terms of an account, already found in Alexander Baumgarten, of the “singularity of an aesthetic judgment.” Davide Stimilli (“Second Thoughts”), moving in a very different dimension, will contest North’s insistence on transforming Kafka’s “loose collection of aphorism” into a “treatise in thoughts,” thereby seeking, “like any well-intentioned father” . . . to gather together, at the crack of the whip, his fugitive sons. Just as Lehman voices resistance to the rhetoric of mastery that seems to follow from the rejection of philosophical logos, Stimilli will insist that “it is unquestionable, to my mind, that Kafka’s sympathy goes to the slave and never to the master.” Eli Friedlander (“On Having and Being”), approaching The Yield in a rather different spirit, yields to the yield, thinks along with it, culminating in an illuminating comparison with Benjamin’s “Kafka Essay.” Finally, Erica Weitzman (“Better Weapons”), drawing on Blanchot, seeks to bring out the implications and stakes of a reading of Kafka that, as she notes, insists “on a truly radical Kafka”; a Kafka who is not merely a “half-comprehensible curiosity,” let alone a “cryptogram of preexisting ideas and figures,” but a “challenge to the very premises of our ways of thinking and being.” That her response, as one suspects, lies at once closest to and furthest from The Yield, and the yield, is clear when, bringing her argument to a close, she rephrases Kafka’s aphorism: “In the struggle between you and the world, second the world” becomes “In the struggle between you and the world, provide the weapons.” She adds: “Kafka gives the weapons to the world against which he is contending. But they are his weapons too, the weapons of the image before semblance, through which death enters in.”
Zhuangzi, The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Brook Ziporyn (Cambridge: Hackett, 2009).↩
There is an element of pleasurable surprise whenever we encounter in a book a writer whose appearance is somehow unexpected in that context, but also a certain amount of discomfort, as if that calling upon, that summoning, were not entirely justified. That is why I was both delighted and amazed to encounter in The Yield a mention of the “unorthodox psychoanalyst W. R. Bion.” At the same time, the qualifier “unorthodox” in the context of a book ostensibly dedicated to “Kafka’s atheological reformation” also caught my attention: which orthodoxy was Bion challenging? Which theology? The challenge may be directed toward a certain orthodox way of thinking rather than a certain orthodox psychoanalysis, as is apparent already from a consideration of the essay that is here summoned: one promising no less than “A Theory of Thinking,” which Paul faithfully summarizes as follows: “Thinking is a post-hoc maneuver for overcoming and domesticating the disturbances that are thoughts” (12). The essay was later republished in a collection Bion titled Second Thoughts, and I confess unabashedly my borrowing his title for my own. Bion added to the reissue in volume form a commentary on the papers, as opposed to a possible revision that he rejected as a matter of principle. His explanation of that choice amounts to a theory of reading, as Bion extends the reach of his main methodological principle, which intimates the analyst to abandon memory and desire, to reading as such: “The papers should be read in the same conditions as those in which a psycho-analysis should be conducted—without memory or desire. And then forgotten. They can be re-read; but not remembered.”1 I have tried to follow Bion’s advise in writing these second thoughts and hopefully “seconding” Paul’s first thoughts, in one of the senses of “secondness” that he brilliantly comments upon in Kafka, and thereby also contributing to a certain form of “gardening” that I take to be not only what the book is about, as he declares in the preface, but also his ideal of criticism.
After introducing him so prominently and promisingly, I wish that Paul had been more deferent to Bion’s authority, and not tried to “think” the “thoughts before the coming of a thinking that would tame them” that he takes to be Kafka’s entries in his octavo notebooks; but it was perhaps too unorthodox a suggestion (12). As is evident already from Paul’s summary above, for Bion every thought is a second thought, and that is why Kafka could not have second thoughts, either, and not because “they came as they came, without second thoughts, as it were”: unfortunately (or too loyally), Paul forgets Bion, and therewith forgets the disturbance that is Bion’s thought. In so doing, however, and more troublingly, he ends up “taming” Kafka’s entries by translating back into thoughts what are indeed “thoughts without thinking.” Unassumingly, thus, but relentlessly, The Yield itself becomes the “treatise in thoughts” that it claims Kafka’s loose collection of aphorisms to be. The choice or the suggestion of the form of the treatise, as tentative and openended as it is (but it culminates in the capitalization [or is it rather a capitulation?] on p. 241: “The Treatise, or whatever it is”), inserts, I am afraid, a systematic intention where none was to be detected; unless, that is, one were to think of the treatise along the lines of Benjamin’s account of the “Traktat,” in the “Erkenntniskritische Vorrede” to the German baroque drama book, as the best suited to the “kontemplative Darstellung,” or, in German unadulterated by Latin, “Betrachtung,” because of its avoidance of the uninterrupted pursuit of an intention. But Paul seems to think of the treatise more along the lines of the “Abhandlung,” and of himself as Kafka’s G. E. Moore, who famously suggested the Latin Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, coined after Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, as the translation of the German title Logischphilosophische Abhandlung for another work sui generis, Wittgenstein’s opera prima (perhaps the mere numeric sequence, like in the Werkverzeichnis of a composer’s output, remains the best ordering principle): as we know from Wittgenstein’s correspondence with his translator C. K. Ogden, he took the suggestion evenhandedly, without much fanfare, and I suppose Kafka would have reacted in a similar way had an editor suggested that his aphorisms be collected under any title, be it as beautiful as Novalis’ Blüthenstaub or the plain alternative Vermischte Bemerkungen, as he would have probably not objected even to Max Brod’s uninspiring choice Betrachtungen über Sünde, Leid, Hoffnung und den wahren Weg. In Brod’s case, however, as often in spite of his awkwardness, there is at least an echo of Kafka’s own vocabulary: his opera prima, a collection of short stories (or are they rather aphorisms, parables, even—dare we say—thoughts?) was titled Betrachtung (we know that the singular here was very much intentional, as Kafka resented the publication of five of the ten pieces in the journal Bohemia under the editorial title Betrachtungen in 1910, and later also rejected Kurt Wolff’s suggestion that his second book, Ein Landarzt, be placed under the subtitle Neue Betrachtungen), and it may be useful to think of the Zürau notebooks as paving the way, after the first Kafka of the Betrachtung, to the second Kafka of the “selbstbiographische Untersuchungen” (a journal entry from 1921) that will preoccupy the last years of his life, as (the first) Wittgenstein shifted from the hieratic language, the hieroglyphs of the Tractatus, to the modest “album” that collects the “landscape sketches (Landschaftsskizzen)” of the (second Wittgenstein’s) Philosophische Untersuchungen. Let me quote the entire entry here, Kafka’s Discourse de la Méthode:
[EXT]Writing denies itself to me. Hence plan for autobiographical investigations. Not biography but investigation and detection of the smallest possible component parts. Out of these I will then construct myself, as one whose house is unsafe wants to build a safe one next to it, if possible out of the material of the old one. What is bad, as if in the midst of building his strength gives out and now, instead of one house, unsafe but yet complete, he has one half-destroyed and one half-finished house, that is to say, nothing. What follows is madness, that is to say, something like a Cossack dance between the two houses, whereby the Cossack goes on scraping and throwing aside the earth with the heels of his boots until his grave is dug out under him.2[/EXT]
And if Betrachtung were not yet Kafka’s Meditationes de prima philosophia, the Zürau aphorisms have to be his Cartesianische Meditationen, encompassing and anticipating (or rather remembering: there were for sure objections that had been forgotten, K. realizes too late, as he lifts his hands and spreads out his fingers at the end of The Trial) also the objections of his interlocutors: or is it just one, the one suddenly appearing at a window in the distance and stretching his arms out, the gesture K. mimics? Or the one that gave its generic name to another collection of aphorisms Brod gathered under the title Er? And he could have named it no less arbitrarily A Gathering of Fugitives, to evoke the title of a Lionel Trilling book. It may be instructive to quote Trilling’s explanation from his preface:
In the preface to a collection of critical writings the author commonly undertakes to identify the principle that binds the separate pieces together into a unity. So far as I am aware, there is no such principle in this volume—there is no unity to it. I think of its contents as being what used to be called fugitive essays. The old name seems appropriate even though it has never been clear to me just what fugitive essays were fleeing from. Perhaps it was unity.3
Unity, another name for the father: we also know that Kafka indulged in what Malcolm Pasley called “semi-private games” and titled Elf Söhne a story whose eleven characters are eleven stories of the collection Ein Landarzt and thought about collecting under the title Söhne the three stories Das Urteil, Die Verwandlung, and Der Heizer. Like any well-intentioned father, Paul is trying to gather his fugitive sons here, and in doing so, he has, almost unavoidably, to wield the whip, as so often the officers in Kafka’s stories, but it is unquestionable, to my mind, that Kafka’s sympathy goes to the slave and never to the master: Paul writes that Kafka’s “protagonists decline to use power, dismiss the Übermensch, and would rather stay under the thumb of a master than become one,” and while I wholeheartedly agree with the first half of that statement, I have to disagree strongly with the second. Karl Rossmann, who puts up a valiant fight to get away from Brunelda’s claustrophobic flat, can already tell the difference between service (Dienst) and slavery (Sklaverei), which is not lost on the two K.s, either, who would certainly prefer, at a minimum, like Bartleby, not to stay under the thumb of a master, not even “will-I, nill-I,” like the protagonist of Poe’s “The Imp of The Perverse,” who realizes: “to think, in my situation, was to be lost,” and this contains, I would say, Bion’s whole theory of thinking already in nuce: in our situation, to think is to be lost.4 It seems to me that Paul reaches a similar conclusion at the end of the book, when we, all of the sudden, find ourselves in the exhilarating atmosphere of Hawthorne’s Boston, in which the reverend Dimmesdale experiences an extraordinary “revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling,” as he is visited by a multiplicity of that very imp: “In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code . . . was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse”; a revolution culminating, and making Hawthorne “blush” even just “to tell it,” in the “ludicrous” and “horrible” impulse “to stop short in the road, and teach some very wicked words to a knot of little Puritan children who were playing there, and had but just then begun to talk.”5 It may seem that the “knot” of innocent children are here at the mercy of a Prospero teaching them how to curse, like Caliban, and educating them thereby to a slavery that ought to be never confused with service; but children are far cannier than they seem, as Georg Bendemann’s father knew all along, since they taught themselves how to play, and “their games are in fact their lessons,” as Edward Tylor reminded us, our superstitions survivals, or even a symptom of Aufklärung, as Nietzsche knew, too.
Philosophers, and we should certainly count Kafka among them, have thus far only described the struggle in various ways; children will have to change the way they fight it.
W. R. Bion, Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis (London: Heinemann Medical, 1967), 163.↩
Frank Kafka, Dearest Father, trans. Ernest Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (New York: Shocken, 1954), 350.↩
Lionel Trilling, A Gathering of Fugitives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), vii.↩
Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Tales and Poems (New York: Penguin, 1982), 284.↩
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 169–71.↩
On Having and Being
I am grateful for this opportunity of the Syndicate symposium to engage with Paul North’s impressive and thought-provoking book, and take it as a guide for immersing myself in Kafka’s “Thoughts.” I have neither written on Kafka in the past, nor have I had any sustained engagement with most of the philosophers that Paul North draws into the orbit of his work. In what follows I will attempt to relate North’s reading of Kafka to themes in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Kafka, on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death.” This response has two parts: first I begin by choosing some moments, a very limited path in Paul North’s rich and complex book, reformulating for myself some of his insights, so as to lead, secondly, to the form they take in Benjamin’s “Kafka essay.”
In Kafka’s world, Paul North argues, there is a yield to yielding, a peculiar fulfillment internal to abandonment. One of the virtues of the book is in making clear how difficult it is to precisely characterize what such yielding comes to, and how drastically it challenges of our ways of thinking of activity and passivity, especially as it comes to articulating the highest spiritual aspirations that once were the concern of theology. A related achievement of Paul North’s book is in bringing out the specificity of Kafka’s thoughts on that matter, in relation to other philosophical attempts to articulate an idea of a higher passivity, or to overcome the aporias of will and action (in particular in relation to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger).
It is a commonplace that Kafka shows us at every turn the radical difficulty of the space of action, the unimaginable obstacles in acting to even make the smallest significant difference in the world (“His exhaustion is that of the gladiator after the fight, his work was the whitewashing of one corner in a clerk’s office” [§34]).1 Merely renouncing action and thereby hoping to find the bliss of a precious far niente, as Rousseau calls it in his Reveries, is no solution.2 The difficulty is not just of limiting activity, but pertains equally to rethinking our passivity. Suffice it to recall the parable “Before the Law” to recognize that passivity and patience are just as problematic as impatience and acting.
Paul North relates this problem with the space of action to the significance for Kafka of the possessive, of having. The possessive is not just the form of the will that seeks to succeed and accumulate possessions (that is, which makes through action a state of things being one’s own). Self possession permeates how the self has thoughts, perceptions, desires as well as how it judges (say, how we take objects to have properties). The possessive form is that of the subject’s relation to itself in relating to objects, which manifests itself through all the reaches of experience. (North suggests that some such formulations of the duality of self-possession and intentionality can be found in Kafka’s intellectual surroundings in Brentano and Marty.)
The subject’s orbit of “having” is initially set in opposition to merely “being”: “There is no having, only a state of being that craves the last breath, craves suffocation” (§35). The duality of having and being can be traced back to the legacy of Kant and in particular to the resurgence of Spinozistic themes in German Idealism. In his Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism Schelling diagnoses the illusion involved in a dogmatist ethics which takes itself to strive for the ultimate union with Being as such. It is like imagining one’s own death, imagining one is still there to see what it is like not to be. It is in that sense the craving for the last breath, for suffocation. Language itself points to the difficulty with simply opposing having and being: “In German the word sein stands for the verb to be and for the possessive pronoun his” (§46). It is far from clear what it would be to yield to existence without any attempt to have, to appropriate, or to possess. As North puts it: “[Kafka] likes neither the possessiveness of ‘everything’ nor the total productiveness of ‘nothing.’ So what then is faith?”
Is the struggle then to renounce having and merely be? Struggling is one of the most fundamental spiritual tropes. Yet, the form of possession permeates our conception of the character of life as struggle. In Kafka’s world one does not struggle against temptation. Struggle is temptation itself: “One of the most effective means of seduction that Evil has is the challenge to struggle.” Even as one struggles to distance oneself from evil, this taking distance cannot avoid the necessity to grasp, to possess, the very thing that is to be distanced: “as firmly as the hand grasps the stone. But it grips it firmly only in order to fling it away all the further. But the way leads into those distances too” (§21). And similarly, the aim to destroy all semblance would turn semblance into something stable to hold fast: “Towards the avoidance of a piece of verbal confusion: What is intended to be actively destroyed must first of all have been firmly grasped; what crumbles away crumbles away, but cannot be destroyed.” One form of the attempt to destroy semblance is casting doubt or questioning (Descartes’s methodical doubt comes to mind). But precisely for that reason questioning cannot be the way to existence. Faith has the character of the unquestionable, the believer does not ask: “Previously I did not understand why I got no answer to my question; today I do not understand how I could believe I was capable of asking. But I didn’t really believe, I only asked” (§36).3 One cannot hope to remain with the indestructible by methodical critique or questioning that takes itself to destroy prejudice. In something of a reversal of the Kantian critical moment Kafka writes: “There are questions we could not get past if we were not set free from them by our very nature” (§56). The theological tradition would refer here to the indestructible, to existence as such, as the highest actuality, and conceive of the very form of questioning as already involving the partiality of negation: “Doing the negative things is imposed on us, an addition; the positive thing is given to us from the start” (§89). In that sense all that would be needed is to clearly see what is already there. Clarity suffices to have what we thought we needed to actively work to destroy crumble away of itself: “One can disintegrate the world by means of a very strong light.”
This leads me to consider the relation of art to such light. “Our art is a way of being dazzled by the truth: “the light on the grotesquely grimacing retreating face is true, and nothing else” (§62). Retreat appears here as the form of the counter movement to the possessive. It is turning back on self-control or control of one’s own orbit of reality, fed by the sense of infinity that one struggles to encompass. But retreating is not a turn into the inner world (“Never again psychology!” ), nor is it a simple characterization of the role of memory in accepting one’s place in the world. This narrowing, or what Kafka calls “making oneself infinitely small” (§90) must allow one to recognize clearly “the good fortune that the ground on which you are standing cannot be larger than the two feet covering it” (§24).4
The avoidance of the possessive is closely related to the way one conceives of the function of the image in general, and the image of art specifically. The dimension of the image is internal to action, insofar as we have to represent to ourselves purposes for the will to achieve. The image would provide desire with its fleeing horizon. Since the image puts us into action, it belongs to the arsenal of possessing. But this makes it, as North points out, also an image that feeds our anxiety. The image is a constant reminder that our quest can eventuate in possessing but not in being, and recognizing it as such leaves us in “trembling and palpitations” (§37). An image for desire is also an image of death: “Death is in front of us, rather as on the schoolroom wall there is a reproduction of Alexander’s Battle. The thing is to darken, or even indeed to blot out, the picture, in this one life of ours through our actions” (§88). To darken or to blot out this presence of death is first of all that which is the function of our restless action. But as in Altdorfer’s painting where the swarm of action is a battle, it is precisely this activity that makes death omnipresent. I take it that it is in order to avoid this dead end that North further attributes importance to the implication in this last thought that the image, being a reproduction that hangs on the wall, is a photographic image. The photographic image promises a reality that is its origin. Holding to the promise of a reality beyond the appearance of this world is itself the source of the evil in the image, the death in the image. It is that which sets us onto a path of pursuing that reality. This gives another sense to darkening or blotting out. It is the work on and with the image to do away with the semblance of a reality inhering in it: “Photographs pretend to be the model of what we ought to see or what we would see if our perceptions weren’t limited, and this deception is the fatal one. Let not our phantasms be taken from us, only release the myth that we can avoid them. Kafka sees an opportunity in this type of image, in images with a high reality index to demonstrate the illusory and, what’s more, dangerous character of the real.” The temptation of the image is that it points to a true world beyond itself: “The world’s method of seduction and the token of the guarantee that this world is only a transition are one and the same” (§105). Our spiritual suffering is closely related to our seeking another place which is it. Doing away with the sense of this world as a limit would lead to forego the wish to be elevated beyond the limits, and can itself transform suffering: “Only here is suffering suffering: Not in such a way as if those who suffer here were because of this suffering to be elevated somewhere, but in such a way that what in this world is called suffering in another world, unchanged and only liberated from its opposite, is bliss” (§97).5
What would it be to cloud the image so as to remain with absolute clarity? How is this the character of the literary activity (which as Paul North reminds us must not forget the image of the artist that might be at its highest when the genius takes itself to do nothing new). The literary image unfolds, as Benjamin says of Kafka’s parables. Unfolding should not be taken as an unveiling, as the revelation of a secret hidden in the folds. “The world ‘unfolding’ has a double meaning. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper. The second kind of ‘unfolding’ is really appropriate to parables; the reader takes pleasure in smoothing it out so that he has the meaning on the palm of the hand. Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom. That is why their effect is literary” (SWII, 802).6 Unfolding doesn’t so much resolve, but rather does away with the enigma, with the sense of a solution that is hidden out of sight. The image unfolds and vanishes at the same time. It beautifully comes to nothing.
Referring to the sadness in one of Kafka’s childhood photographs. Benjamin writes: “The ardent ‘wish to be a Red Indian’ may have consumed this great sadness at some point: ‘If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a galloping horse, leaning into the wind, kept on quivering briefly over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there were no spurs, threw away the reins, for there were no reins, and barely saw the land before one as a smoothly mown plain, with the horse’s neck and head already gone’” (SWII, 800). The consuming sadness expresses itself in a wish-image, but the image consumes the sadness in unfolding the wish. The unfolding, that is the articulation of the wish, is also its disappearance. This peculiar fulfillment by the vanishing of the wish is also the point of Benjamin’s Hassidic parable: “In a Hassidic village, so the story goes, Jews were sitting together in a shabby inn one Sabbath evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so everyone spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question. “I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn’t have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.” The others exchanged uncomprehending glances. “And what good would this wish have done you?” someone asked, “I’d have a shirt,” was the answer” (SWII, 812).
The dispossession of the beggar brings out how much “activity” there is in not acting, or in retracing one’s step so as to remain with the infinitely small reality that is the ground under your feet. Indeed, the activity is one that is connected with the breathtaking speed that is necessary to go through the space of the wish in order to dissolve it in the unfolding of the literary image. This swiftness of activity which is not an action to change reality, can also be identified, as Benjamin points out, in the figure of the presence of mind of an actor. To be play-acting is not to play a role, but rather to play oneself.7 This is why Benjamin stresses that Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma is also a race track. For surely, so as not to fall back into the problematic conception of the image, we should avoid seeing playfulness in terms of its fundamental contrast to the serious (as in Kant’s aesthetics). Seriousness is internal to the play-acting: “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’” (SWII, 814).
It would be beyond the scope of the present short response to elaborate how these themes relate to the understanding of the primal, of the forgotten and of remembrance in Kafka’s world that are central to Benjamin’s essay. Let me conclude with a line from the end of Benjamin’s 1938 letter to Scholem on Kafka: “To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing; it is the purity and beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.”8 To fail so that everything works for you like in a dream, would be one more way of expressing the yield of yielding.
References to Kafka’s “Reflections” is from The Blue Octavo Notebooks, ed. Max Brod, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991). I refer to the reflections according to their numbering.↩
For a discussion of the problem of passivity, of abandonment or yielding, and of being as the sentiment of existence in Rousseau, see my J. J. Rousseau: An Afterlife of Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).↩
Note the ambiguity of this last sentence. It can be taken to mean that asking cannot be the way to real faith. But it can only be taken to mean that our entanglement is with our concern whether we are capable of asking or not (the critique of our faculties or capacities), instead of just asking. For a development of this thematic of the unquestionable in Benjamin, see my “The Appearance of the Ideal of Philosophical Questioning in the Work of Art,” Yearbook for Comparative Literature 57 (2011) 103–16. For a different perspective on that issue in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, see my “Logic, Ethics and Existence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus,” in R. Agam-Segal and E. Dain, Wittgenstein’s Moral Thought (London: Routledge, 2017).↩
“Two possibilities: making oneself infinitely small or being so. The second is perfection, that is to say, inactivity, the first is beginning, that is to say, action” (§90). Since in beginning there is action, there is also danger and, in narrowing the circle of existence, “check whether you are not in hiding somewhere outside your orbit” (§94). Another danger is of taking this turn too personally, when narrowing your reach means being callously indifferent to the weal and woe of humanity. So this making oneself infinitely small must be impersonal, not merely giving up the struggle to make something of yourself, to fashion your own individuality but also thereby partaking in the “incomparably indivisible union that exists between human beings.”↩
One could hear in this an echo of Hegel’s assertion that “the consummation of the infinite End consists merely in removing the illusion that makes it seem yet unaccomplished” (Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic, trans. William Wallace [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975], Zusatz to §212, p. 274).↩
References to Benjamin’s essay immediately following the quotation are to The Selected Writings, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).↩
Benjamin suggests in “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” how playing oneself is one of the peculiar possibilities opened by the photographic image. See my “Wittgenstein and Benjamin on Pure Realism,” in K. Zumhagen Yekple and M. LeMahieu, Wittgenstein and Modernism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017).↩
Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 566.↩
One of the great benefits of Paul North’s book, as I see it, is to insist on a truly radical Kafka. The fact that even today Kafka remains a figure for a certain idea of incapacity and alienation is a regrettable tribute to the fact that, while innumerable scholars have thought about Kafka, few have given themselves the task of thinking with him. This is what North sets out to do. That means: not merely seeing Kafka’s work as a half-comprehensible curiosity—or worse, a cryptogram of preexisting ideas and figures—but as a challenge to the very premises of our ways of thinking and being. As North aptly puts it, “Kafka’s realism involves pointing out primary fictions” (186). To read Kafka without condescension (including the reverential condescension one affords the genius and the Sonderling) requires suspending these primary fictions (to the extent possible) and following out Kafka’s implacable logic from its sources to its ends.
In my remarks, I will attempt to tease out some of the implications of this logic in North’s analysis, which, in its sensitivity and rigor, seems to me to be the equal to Kafka’s own deliberations. In other words, I will ask the naïve question that North, for all his fine ear for distinction and masterly contextualization of Kafka’s work, does not ask: What are the stakes? For it is clear that The Yield is not merely a neutral work of philological reconstruction, but an affirmative judgment on Kafka’s positions, including and especially there where they are not unambiguously positional. Here I will confine myself to North’s reconstruction of Kafka’s “aesthetics” in the chapter “The Problem of Our Art,” leaving aside the chapters on (in North’s stealthily systematic presentation) Kafka’s ontology, religion, logic, and ethics, even though the themes and motifs of these other chapters inevitably resonate in this one. According to North, Kafka attempts to think a relationship of art to truth that eludes both the Platonic critique of semblance and the Nietzschean celebration of same: on the one hand, the conviction that the phenomenal world, and all the more its artistic reproduction, is a fatal falsification of the true idea, and on the other hand, the cheerfully nihilist bid that these images, whatever their lack of truth value, can be marshaled as self-expression and subjective freedom. The problem with both of these extremes is that they each remain dependent on the idea of semblance itself—that is to say, on an idea of an image-art in negative or positive relation to an external truth that demands to be known, be it in sensual or in discursive form. Thinking on art has been since its beginning a matter of negotiating this relation; in response to this, according to North, Kafka will smudge the image, make it muddy, layer it over with a patina of obscurity to counteract the all but definitional clearness of the aesthetic object’s appearance.1
But what is so bad about an art of clarity, of appearing, of—in a phrase of North’s that no doubt wants some unpacking—“the purity of the death image” (187)? What is wrong with aesthetics as the domain of “sensibility, image, light, and its relations with truth” (184)? And why is death, of all things, the ultimate figure of this? North cites a number of Kafka’s aphorisms in support of this last term, the most important of which is probably the one listed as number 88 in Kafka’s ordering: “Death hangs before us like [etwa wie] an image of the Alexanderschlacht on the wall of the schoolroom. Everything depends on whether we can through our own acts darken or totally extinguish the image.”2 One might speculate, however, that one of the things that lies behind the mysterious primacy of the “death image” in North’s take on Kafka’s aesthetics is a text that goes unmentioned in North’s book, namely Blanchot’s famous essay “Literature and the Right to Death.” (North discusses other of Blanchot’s writings extensively in this chapter, but not this one.) For Blanchot, “death” is the name for the objectification and abstraction inevitably carried out in language, a more or less Hegelian act of negation through abstraction: “I say, ‘This woman.’ . . . For me to be able to say, ‘This woman,’ I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The world gives me the being, but it gives me the being deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being—the very fact that it does not exist.”3 “Death” is the negativity that interposes itself between the immediacy of reality (or “life”) and a language of pure self-reference (and here Blanchot makes the conventional association to the language of mathematics, “which is spoken in a rigorous way and to which no entity corresponds”).4 It is, in short, mimesis as an act of violence, of possession. (A more accurate title for Blanchot’s essay, or at least this part of it, would have been “Literature and the Right to Murder.”) It is no coincidence that Blanchot takes “this woman” as his example of that which literary language kills, for mimesis is founded on a fantasy of the absolute other for which—though Blanchot does not say this—“woman” has long been the archetypal object. Representation is the prerogative of the male gaze. But beyond that, representation in this sense is the force of finitude itself, “[driving] the inhuman, indeterminate side of things back into nothingness”5 as a function of their having been described. This is the inherent “non-realism” of realism—“the shadow which is its prey”—that drives representative literature itself to ever greater frenzies of appropriation.
Of course, to this form (or “slope [versant]”) of literature, Blanchot poses another: literature as “the being which protests against revelation, . . . the defiance [défi] of what does not want to take place outside.”6 This is a literature of a language that sucks back into itself, that takes itself and the impossibility of representation itself as its object as at once an act of discretion toward the world and a rueful understanding that every attempt to capture the world in language will be thrown back on the self-reference of language anyway. This form of literature as the “triumph” over linguistic meaning,7 while neither unambiguous nor absolute, is nevertheless less quixotic than the first, for it makes its failure the mark of its success and respects the paradoxes of representation as the internal dynamic of literature per se, “[shining] admirably,” as Blanchot writes in another, not unrelated essay, “from the vain effort . . . made to extinguish itself.”8
Blanchot cites Kafka as one of the examples of this latter literature. However, an irritation creeps in here. Is Kafka really so like Mallarmé, Lautréamont, or Ponge, the other examples Blanchot gives? Doesn’t Kafka indeed describe concrete things and stories, and memorable ones at that? Isn’t his language the angular language of the lawyer, the bureaucrat, and the logistician, rather than the sussurous equivocations of the poet for whom meaning has become “detached from its conditions, separated from its moments, wandering like an empty power”?9 Doesn’t the summary of Kafka’s œuvre as a “struggle . . . to work at dying completely”10 belie the implacable precision of his writing and the perverse richness of his imagination? In short, isn’t Blanchot’s Kafka a little vague?
This is also an irritation I had every once in a while in the course of reading North’s book. But North is, I think, cannier than Blanchot here, certainly more attuned to the fact that for Kafka there is something more at stake in the encounter with the sensual world than just the retreat into abnegation or mimetic taboo (even if an abnegation or mimetic taboo considered as something inherent to literary language as such). North is surely being ironic when, in a footnote, he cites Kafka’s friend Oscar Baum’s statement that Kafka was “a poet of very strong imagery” (337n87)—Baum was blind. Or perhaps it is not so ironic after all (or perhaps it is also Baum’s irony), and images for those who see the world not through their eyes is precisely the issue. In any case, it is clear that mere ineffability is not what is going on here. As North writes in another footnote, “Kafkan atheology [and, a fortiori, Kafkan aesthetics] draws its concepts resolutely from the sensible realm, rather than from the realm of freedom” (333n22). Kafka’s writing is of course not a straightforward description of the sensual world (as if description were ever actually “straightforward”). Nor is it an attempt to escape the sensual world, or discard the art that (in some accounts) is tasked with reproducing it. Rather, it is an unremitting engagement with the sensual, and even more, with the primary fictions of its thinking as they have operated throughout history and in the literature and art of Kafka’s own time.
“There is nothing other than the spiritual world; that which we call the sensual world is evil in the spiritual world and that which we call evil is only a necessity in a moment of our eternal development [Es gibt nichts anders als eine geistige Welt; was wir sinnliche Welt nennen ist das Böse in der geistigen und was wir böse nennen ist nur eine Notwendigkeit eines Augenblicks unserer ewigen Entwicklung].”11 With this aphorism (which North does not cite), Kafka drives his nail into the church door of Western thought. “Evil” is but the name given to the sensual world by the spiritual world that has set itself above and against it, the postlapsarian world, the world which exists as it were by definition as the human consciousness of sin. (Another aphorism makes this point even more intransigently: “Evil is an emanation of human consciousness at certain transitional moments. It is not actually the sensual world that is semblance, but its evil, which nonetheless to our eyes makes up the sensual world [Das Böse ist eine Ausstrahlung des menschlichen Bewußtseins in bestimmten Übergansstellen. Nicht eigentlich die sinnliche Welt ist Schein, sondern ihr Böses, das allerdings für unsere Augen die sinnliche Welt bildet].”)12 But this spiritual world is also the only world; thus evil is inescapable—more than inescapable, indispensable. Moreover, this evil is indispensable precisely as a moment in our eternal development, which is to say, as a moment in history, whose onset is cotemporaneous with the fall of man, which is cotemporaneous with the emergence of the spiritual world from whose perspective and from whose perspective alone evil is said to exist.
Every aphorism of Kafka’s about the nature of original sin and the expulsion from Paradise circles around these points. The thought is less felix culpa than Möbius strip: the precondition of the world of which there is nothing other is its own negation that it itself has created. And while there are few things in the Hebrew Bible more multivalent than Genesis 2–3, one of the more surprising implications of Kafka’s retelling is the one for what North, playing on a title of Kafka’s, calls “the problem of our art.” For the particular dilemma of art in this context is that it is inevitably complicit in the sensual world, which the spiritual world, in which art is just as complicit, relegates to “evil,” “semblance,” or “deception.” North sees Kafka as addressing this dilemma in part through a shifting of the relationship of truth to semblance itself: “As a continual repulsion, the true world gives life to semblance without becoming the metaphysical or eschatological solution to the problem of semblance” (200); “art’s receding in the face of truth is what is true about it” (208). For me, there is something still a little too Schopenhauerian about this sentiment, still too inclined to posit “semblance” or “world” as a veneer beyond or underneath which the true reality lies hidden. (Why Kafka is not an Expressionist: the Expressionists think they can portray that force by means of the semblance that ostensibly opposes it.) Even if the truth of semblance is its untruth, this merely repeats the problem on a higher plane. What Kafka does is rather to explode the idea of truth as the other of semblance within semblance itself. For evil, in North’s words and my emphasis, is the “seduction to a reality beyond semblance” (187): the temptation to mediate the sensual by recasting it as an image of its opposite, the promise of knowledge in the fruit, is the origin of “semblance” itself in the affirmation of its transcendence.
Realist representation—to return to the concerns of art—thus entails the re-confirmation of idealism in mobilizing the sensual against itself, using representation to point beyond it. (This might be the sense of the painting of the Alexanderschlacht to which Kafka obliquely refers: finitude below, transcendence above, and at the top a text explaining the relationship between the two.) Thus semblance itself is never truly semblance; even the most stripped-down naturalism ultimately confirms Plato. And this apparently ineluctable Platonism leaves a remainder, for “once God [or the ideal] withdraws, once the nothing or the impossible is exposed as the basis of all things, faith shifts its attention to sex, shit, and dirt, the imperfect, the low, the fallen—to God’s residue, if you will” (11). North is quite right here to contrast the “atheology” of Bataille (of which the above is a synopsis) to that of Kafka. Bataille is like those martyrs in another one of Kafka’s aphorisms who “do not underestimate the body, they allow it to be hoisted up on the cross. In this they are one [einig] with their adversaries.”13 That is: Bataille’s theology of transgression, however scandalous, remains to the end a theology, precisely insofar as it is of transgression. To blaspheme is still to recognize God. This is also the logic behind that “documentary style” in which “dirt and decay were made the earmarks of the real” (215): the meaningless immediacy of dirt becomes a sign for the real in contrast to an idea of a meaning that is not that, and whether the one or the other is valorized is of less importance than the dialectic that determines them both.
The problem with a conventionally mimetic literature is thus not only that it is inherently self-defeating, nor only that it violates its objects by considering it under the aspect of possession and abstraction. The problem is also that this literature thereby turns the object outside this imagined possession and abstraction into an unthinkable thing, an improper and filthy excess that is nevertheless the bearer of reality. (As another aphorism has it: seen with “weak eyes,” the world “becomes bashful [schamhaft] and beats up [zerschmettert] the one who dares to look at it.”)14 This is the literature that Kafka grew up with, the primary fiction, as Kafka will point out, of realist fiction itself.15
At one point in his book, North quotes Kafka’s aphorism (one of the better known ones) “In the struggle between you and the world, second the world.”16 This occurs towards the end of the section “For a Kafkan Logic,” in the context of North’s discussion of Kafka’s use of the second person and, from there, North’s judicious meditation on the idea of the displacedness, surrogacy, or secondhandness of revelation. Such an idea is thoroughly in keeping with Kafka’s attentiveness to the perverse power of indirection (one might say, a particularly “Jewish” form of prophesy versus the dazzlement of apocalypse). And yet, there is also another way to read this aphorism, one that may be even more in keeping with North’s analyses. For in the starchy conventions of the Hapsburg Empire, with which Kafka would have been familiar, to second someone in a duel—the chief meaning of Kafka’s verb sekundieren—does not mean simply standing by as witness or sidekick, but implies an extremely specific set of duties. The second has, so to speak, a primary role: it is he who is charged with delivering the initial challenge, with mediating between the involved parties, and with taking care of the selection and distribution of arms. In this context, Kafka’s aphorism can be rephrased as: In the struggle between you and the world, provide the weapons.
Kafka gives the weapons to the world against which he is contending. But they are his weapons too, the weapons of the image before semblance, through which death enters in.
This is not to say that the artwork necessarily portrays things in a clear manner, but that the artwork is compelled to show itself in the clarity of its own appearing.↩
Franz Kafka, Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II (NS 2), ed. Jost Schillemeit, in Kritische Ausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2002), 133. I reproduce North’s translation, quoted on 190.↩
Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” trans. Lydia Davis, in The Work of Fire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 300–344, here 322. Blanchot’s analysis is not dissimilar to André Bazin’s notion of the “mummy complex” of the photographic image, with North discusses on 213–16.↩
Blanchot, “Literature,” 322.↩
Blanchot, “Literature,” 338.↩
Blanchot, “Literature,” 330.↩
See Blanchot, “Literature,” 331.↩
Maurice Blanchot, “Reading Kafka,” trans. Charlotte Mandell, in The Work of Fire, 1–11, here 11.↩
Blanchot, “Literature,” 331.↩
Blanchot, “Literature,” 338.↩
NS 2, 124, my translation.↩
NS 2, 132, my translation. To my ears, North’s translation of this aphorism—“It is not really the sensual world that is semblance, but its evil that admittedly constructs the sensual world for our eyes” (187)—not only gives far too active a role to evil, but also implies that “the sensual world,” “evil,” “semblance,” and “our eyes” are set in opposition to one another, rather than inextricably intertwined.↩
NS 2, 120, my translation.↩
NS 2, 125, my translation.↩
Thus the only thing I take issue with in North’s reading is his remark that “the darkened portraits of the castle officials that hung around the tavern are undoubtedly photos” (214). They could be. But they could also be the black-toned, age-dimmed images of mid-nineteenth-century portraiture, analogue to the mid-nineteenth-century realism that The Castle resembles like the afterimage its object.↩
NS 2, 124, quoted 173.↩
Paul North’s superb new book sets out to articulate, through a reading of Franz Kafka’s so-called “Zürau aphorisms,” an ontology of yielding—of giving way or letting go. This, North explains, means finding in Kafka’s thought a confrontation with “what will not yield” (33), with Being, that archetype of obduracy. North concedes the strangeness of this enterprise, that “little could be odder than finding in Kafka a confrontation with a central philosophical concept or idea,” for Kafka “avoids conscious references to philosophy” and indeed is after a mode of thinking “outside the parameters of the consolation of philosophy” (where the latter, consolation, “has been the center of the Western intellectualist project”) (33, 20). Not surprisingly, then, the relationship of Kafka to philosophy will prove to be complicated, but complicated in ways that nonetheless allow Kafka to be put into dialogue not only with the tradition of ancient and modern philosophy (which North handles impressively) but also with a more recent tradition, a tradition that gets going in the early years of the nineteenth century and culminates in the work of figures such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, all of whom in different ways take up the philosopheme of philosophy’s end. We might say that North’s Kafka, the “philosopher” of the yield, is an inheritor of Nietzsche, an alternative to Heidegger, and a confederate of Derrida; as such, he is also a “philosopher” of the end of philosophy.
I find myself in the position of being convinced by practically everything that North says about Kafka but somewhat anxious about what else this might commit me to. To lay my cards on the table, I am not especially well disposed to that version of modern thought that exhausts itself describing what philosophy cannot or can no longer say or think or do. I prefer, rather, something like Wilfrid Sellars’s more irenic conception of the philosophia perennis:
[EXT]The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under “things in the broadest possible sense” I include such radically different items as not only “cabbages and kings,” but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to “know one’s way around” with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, “how do I walk?,” but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.1[/EXT]
My sense is that what Sellars is describing does cover the projects not only of Aristotle and Kant but also of the more recent tradition, up to and including the work of someone like Derrida. My sense that North would disagree is based in part on a short discussion of one of Derrida’s texts, Aporias, that appears early on in The Yield. There, North describes as “faulty to the point of falsity” any portrayal of Derrida as “a holder of beliefs, positions, or theses, as a producer of concepts or of philosophies, since this is what his style staunchly refused” (44). And, noting the centrality to Derrida’s project of the struggle against Heidegger’s –eigen–, North continues: “No matter how and how often he had ‘deconstructed’ the proper, Derrida never put it behind him, for whatever reason. Maybe he thought the anti-appropriative lesson had not yet been learned by his readers and students” (45). I think that I understand what North is laying out as Derrida’s vigilance vis-à-vis the “proper” and why this should make Derrida’s text hard for more conventionally minded philosophers to stomach. My concern, however, is that if North is right and Derrida is really a thinker for whom beliefs, positions, theses, concepts and philosophies have been subtracted, while style, lessons, and students remain, then precisely the wrong intellectual holds have been barred. And Foucault was perhaps right in his response to Derrida’s “Cogito et histoire de la folie,” in his assessment of Derrida’s “textualism” as amounting to a “pedagogy that gives . . . to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.”2 Maybe predictably, I am more sympathetic to the unashamedly philosophical readings of Derrida’s project carried out by critics such as Rodolphe Gasché, Martin Hägglund, and Henry Staten, not only because it seems to me that they get right what is most radical about this project but also because they serve as a bulwark against the transformation of the philosopher into the master.3
If I bring up these broad questions about the status of philosophy in The Yield, the reason is not just that I’m more confident in my ability to write competently on this matter than I am on my ability to do the same with North’s remarkable readings of the details of Kafka’s texts. I also see bound up with the question of philosophy’s status another question, one that might have a more direct bearing on the interpretation of Kafka that North proposes. I mean here the question of the aesthetic, not necessarily in the sense invoked by North a handful of times in his book—wherein it tends to be treated as a synonym for semblance (184)—but in the more technical sense that it took on between roughly 1735 and 1829, between Alexander Baumgarten’s Reflections on Poetry and the last of Hegel’s Berlin lectures on the philosophy of fine art. Basically, what I’m wondering is whether some of the most original maneuvers that North sees Kafka making against the philosophical tradition are not anticipated by the tradition of philosophical aesthetics, and whether Kafka’s proximity to this tradition could shed a different sort of light on Kafka’s “devotion to ‘literature’ above all else” (184). More specifically, I’m wondering whether Kafka’s search for “a thought that does not console”—where “consolation is a form of substitution: a thought for an experience, one thought for another, and at times one kind of thought for another kind of thought”—might not have necessarily led Kafka onto the terrain of the aesthetic (where the latter can still be described by the larger project of what Sellars characterizes as knowing one’s way around).
There are, I suspect, reasons why North is reluctant to go this particular route in his discussion of Kafka’s thought. Here, it is helpful to turn briefly to a text that North reads in The Yield’s penultimate section, Heidegger’s 1936 Freiburg lectures on Nietzsche, The Will to Power as Art. Approaching this text in relation to Heidegger’s immediately postwar reflections on Gelassenheit as Nicht-Wollen (347n130), North uses it to drive a wedge between Heideggerian Gelassenheit—which preserves the themes of “pertinence, minenness, owning, and possession” (270)—and Kafkan yielding—which points a way out of the sphere of the proper. What does not come up in North’s reading, though, is the centrality to Heidegger’s lectures of the need to have done with aesthetics (in its traditional sense) so as to think alongside great works of art. Now, Heidegger’s opposition to the program of philosophical aesthetics shows up already in 1931–32 in The Essence of Truth, his lectures on Plato’s allegory of the cave, where he states that “poetry makes beings more beingful. . . . But in order to understand what the work of art and poetry as such are, the philosopher must first cease to think of the problem of art in aesthetic terms”;4 and it persists through the 1930s, most famously in the different versions of “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In the Nietzsche lectures, however, it is laid out in the greatest detail. For aesthetics, Heidegger writes, “the artwork is posited as an ‘object’ for a ‘subject,’ and this subject-object relation, as a relation of feeling, is definitive.”5 Aesthetics thus fits comfortably into the modern world picture. For the latter, with its ideology of homo mensura, the human subject, man, becomes the measure of art.
This denunciation of aesthetics lives on in the tradition of post-humanist thought. So, for example, in The Space of Literature, Maurice Blanchot pronounces the following judgment on aesthetics: “Investigations on the subject of art such as those the aesthetician pursues bear no relation to the concern for the work of which we speak. Aesthetics talks about art, makes of it an object of reflection and of knowledge. Aesthetics explains art by reducing it or then again exalts it by elucidating it, but in all events art for the aesthetician is a present reality around which he constructs plausible thoughts at no risk.”6 An object of reflection, a present reality. . . . The source of Blanchot’s criticisms is quite clear. Would North or North’s Kafka endorse these criticisms? In order to stage a contest between Heidegger and Kafka, one has to assume that they share enough to make such a thing practicable. Would the rejection of the aesthetic be something that they share? Is the aesthetic too much a part of the “Western intellectualist project” or the modern Weltbild to help us think beyond the latter’s less desirable constituents?
At any rate, and as my earlier comments indicate, I believe that we miss something if we follow Heidegger (or follow Blanchot following Heidegger) and consign aesthetics to the historical-philosophical dustbin. And this something, I want to claim, is precisely the point of contact between the aesthetic and a version of what North characterizes as unconsolatory thinking. We can catch a glimpse of it already in Baumgarten’s Reflections, wherein the twenty-one-year-old philosopher, ostensibly operating within the strictures of Leibnizian-Wolffian rationalism, ascribes to poetic language a specifically “sensate perfection,” a quality that resists its translation into or its replacement by the intellectual perfection sought by the philosopher or the scientist.7 But it appears most vividly in Kant’s Third Critique, in Kant’s claim that what we take up in an aesthetic judgment is something singular.8 Kant makes this point directly in the second moment of the “Analytic of the Beautiful,” which concerns the quantity of an aesthetic judgment. Here, he distinguishes between the judgment this rose is beautiful, which is aesthetic, and the judgment roses in general are beautiful, which is “no longer merely aesthetic but a logical judgment based on a conceptual one.”9 In saying that the former is an aesthetic judgment and the latter is not, Kant means to mark something that probably all of us have experienced: the sense that, when aesthetic judgment is at stake, this is never substitutable for that. In other words, that aesthetic judgments are, in their logical quantity, singular explains why, for example, we tend to reject the idea that a paraphrase is as good as a poem—that paraphrase is not this poem—and why we can recognize the difference between the judgment this sunset is beautiful and the judgment this sunset is an example of atmospheric refraction.10
My claim, then, is that in Baumgarten’s notion of “sensate perfection,” and with still more insistence in Kant’s notion of the singularity of an aesthetic judgment, we encounter a mode of representing the world that eschews measurement, comparison, substitution. While sensate perfection describes the impossibility of translating the language of the poet into the language of the philosopher, of substituting the one for the other, aesthetic singularity describes the impossibility of exchanging an aesthetic representation for its concept or its use or another of its type. Maybe I’m oversimplifying what North means when he characterizes consolation as a form of substitution—a thought for an experience, one thought for another, and at times one kind of thought for another kind of thought—but the singularity of an aesthetic judgment is as close as I can get to conceiving of it. It helps me to see, for example, why North is uncomfortable with descriptions of Kafka’s thoughts as “fragments” (in the sense that the Schlegels or Novalis composed fragments) (12): as fragments, they would invite us to exchange them for the whole that they synecdochally figure. And it helps me to see as well why Adorno could believe that he’d found an ally in Kafka—I mean the Adorno of that section of Negative Dialectics titled “Idealism as Rage,” and the critique therein of the system of German idealism as a “belly turned mind,” which can only digest the non-identical, substituting the concept for the singular thing.11 Most generally, it helps me to see how the search for a discourse that does not console should lead Kafka to literature rather than to philosophy (though a literature that philosophy has still presented us with the best tools for cognizing).
Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in In the Space of Reasons, ed. Robert Brandom and Kevin Sharp (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 37.↩
Michel Foucault, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” trans. Geoffrey Bennington in Aesthetics, Method, Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press), 416.↩
See, for example, Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).↩
Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Parable of the Cave and the Theaetetus, trans. Ted Sadler (New York: Continuum, 2002), 47.↩
Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 1, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 78.↩
Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 234.↩
Alexander Baumgarten, Reflections on Poetry, trans. Karl Aschenbrenner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954), 78.↩
Interestingly, Heidegger exempts Kant’s Third Critique from his denunciation of aesthetics, but he does so only after first separating it off from anything that could make it recognizably an aesthetic project. So, for Heidegger, the Kantian “beautiful” has nothing to do with pleasure; it is, rather, a way of describing the how of an object’s appearing: Das Wort “schon” meint das Erscheinen im Schein solchen Vorscheins (Heidegger, Nietzsche, 1:110). The question of whether Heidegger’s Kant is still able to preserve those aspects of the aesthetic that, for me, align with what North describes as Kafka’s search for “a thought that does not console” is too large to address in this response. For a reading of Kant’s aesthetics that attempts to develop a version of the Heideggerian interpretation, see Walter Biemel, Die Bedeutung von Kants Begründung↩
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 59.↩
For a longer discussion of the singularity of aesthetic judgments, see Robert S. Lehman, “Formalism, Mere Form, and Judgment,” New Literary History 48.2 (2017) 245–63.↩
Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1966), 22–23.↩
2.18.21 | Paul North
Response to Robert Lehman
The kind of conversation Robert Lehman starts up is just the kind I always want to have and so rarely have had since graduate school, and I can only thank him and respond in kind. Yes, and yes, and—let me think. Yes, The Yield gives short shrift to disciplines and their histories and the live wires still burning in them. No doubt to dismiss “philosophy” is a childish gesture, although Lehman doesn’t say it this way—I do, and it probably is. It is also, I have no doubt, a remnant of something I wanted to say alongside Nietzsche: that some of what has been done under the name of philosophy should be salvaged and celebrated, but mostly outside the project of philosophy. For if its “aim . . . is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” as Lehman says quoting Sellars, it cannot satisfy the criterion of success that Sellars sets for this “aim”—namely to proceed “in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.” If the methods of philosophy say that no intellectual holds are to be barred, then the aim of philosophy cannot be only to find how things hang together. Finding what hangs together bars a whole set of holds, including the one that asks the question what understanding is. This is where to my mind Kafka steps in, where philosophy often—taking the Sellars quote as the center of one demarcation of this field, whose extremes no doubt touch poetry, visual art, mathematics, sociology, theology, and so on—shies away, just when it could take leaps. Teaching however, and even more than this, learning—whose medium is lessons—is by definition broader than any of these. They all enter it at some point and depend on it for their transmission, all have to be teachable to some degree at every point, and some, like the best of philosophies, never leave it. Teachability is the sine qua non of philosophy, along with other modes of human activity and receptivity. In any case, the polemic of The Yield is not so much against philosophy as a discipline or against disciplines as such; rather, and this is just where Lehman reminds me of the very point I had forgotten, it is against a form of thinking that consoles. The philosophical content, if you want to call it that, of The Yield is precisely to drive thinking beyond consolation, beyond the consolations of philosophy. Robert Lehman doesn’t address the philosophical content of the book, the quadrangle of being, time, death, and art that get reinterpreted. Overall, I try to follow out Kafka’s inkling that a thinking that doesn’t console could lead to a living that isn’t a power struggle. Thinking, I take Kafka as saying (or thinking!) in one early pensée, is always consoling, is structurally, materially consoling. A thought, even if it is of something that doesn’t console, consoles to the extent that it makes an effect or phenomenon or eventuality thinkable. What happens happens; what is thinkable has been rendered less than a happening. So Kafka asks what it would mean to have a thought that does not console. One of these thoughts would be, for sure, the thought that everything does not hang together. But only if this thought is not the instrument for bringing the outside inside. Perhaps it could be a thought without a thinking, as the wild psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion suggested all thoughts were in their originary attack. Thinking, he said, was a post-hoc reaction, an immuno-attack on a thought that disturbed the hanging-together of the psyche or the world. These are the kind of thoughts I was thinking Kafka was having. Whether this style of activity is in philosophy or out of it may be an academic question.