Sunday, August 03, 2008

The watchman said nothing

In the comments to my recent post about Kafka's story "First Sorrow", there was a brief discussion about what it is about Kafka's stories that makes them on the one hand so interesting and alive, and on the other so slippery, even easily forgotten. Lloyd Mintern wrote the following:
Perhaps the reason Kafka's stories are so susceptible to being forgotten, that they slip away in whole, is that they are so familiar. They seem on the one hand like little artistic gems, but at the bottom they are utterly plain and life-like. For instance this trapeze artist story I think is entirely based on that last sentence; it works from the ending, and he arranges it thus, in order to get to that one observation, the question. I would conjecture that Kafka wrote it after staring at a furrow line in someone's face (or his own). Applying the question of how a worry line in a face comes to be stamped there, asking for its history so to speak, needs just a context to explore; the exotic (and comical) trapeze artist will do in this case. The length is expandable, like all parables, internally; and the content is so true to life one can . . . live with it, and thus forget it for a time, until, coming back, one is shocked that someone else got it so closely.
Many of Kafka's stories are like mini-parables. I'm suddenly reminded of something Ezra Pound wrote in connection with Confucius, in his Guide to Kulchur (which I previously mentioned here, and which I haven't read more than five pages from since that post):
Said Szetsun, or rather so says his translator: "The sayings of the great sages are ordinary." This I take to mean that there is nothing superfluous or excessive in them. When one knows enough one can find wisdom in the Four Classics. When one does not know enough one's eye passes over the page without seeing it.
Many of Kafka's stories now, for me, emerge as much more than they were when I first approached them.

In the introduction to the edition he edited of Kafka's Collected Stories, Gabriel Josipovici quotes the entirety of the super-short story fragment "The Watchman":
I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: 'I ran through here while you were looking the other way.' The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. 'I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it,' I said. The watchman still said nothing. 'Does your silence indicate permission to pass?'
This is the kind of piece that, if encountered in the pages of a collection, on its own, in the midst of other similarly short pieces, there's a good chance I'd have read it and moved on, without it having made any impact. Though perhaps I'd have been puzzled and returned to it. Why is this piece here? Josipovici writes: ". . .this is a piece of writing which demands to be read at least twice; indeed, as so often in Kafka, the narrative mimics the way we are forced to read it." This is precisely so. I read it, fly by it in fact, but I'm stopped short. What was that? I must return to it.

I think, to combine Lloyd's observation with Gabriel Josipovici's, we have a writer who writes in a style that is so plain, so familiar, that it seems to invite us to ignore it, while also insisting on being re-read. (I know that when I was reading Kafka in the midst of the exuberant, noisier writers I was reading, all that Amis and Self and Rushdie, and even the great Nabokov, he somehow seemed not to fit, and I had trouble with his stories. Though the claustrophobia of the novels was somehow easier to retain.) For example, though it's hard to forget Gregor Samsa's condition in "The Metamorphosis", many of the details of that story slip right past, in the plainness of the style. Looking for one thing, I instead get another.


Anonymous said...

Kafka turns an exquisite focus on his subjects, razor sharp, cutting out background noise; everything is close up, action on a bare stage. The simplicity and the realism? A masterful slight-of-hand. What works on us is what he leaves out, and what he leaves out is virtually everything that usually matters in fiction.

As in that fragment, there is action, but as to motive, action for what purpose, implying what sort of consequences--we are left quite in the dark.

Why does the character run past the guard? Where is going? What is it that is being guarded? What would have happened if the guard had stopped him? What authority does the guard represent? What power does he yield? Why does the character not go on, why go back? Who or what stand behind the guard? Who has hired or conscripted him? Does the decision to ignore the usurper represent his authority or a kind of autonomous free agency? Is it a decision at all?

All these questions are pregnant in the silence of the guard. Simply stating them takes many more words than the Kafka needed for the fragment.

These are not general quesitons. They're specific to the action described. They're questions carved into the story in their absence. If we read with the least attention, they will seize us absolutely.

The action, what happens in the stories and the parables, vanishes into these unanswerable questions. We may forget the details, but we don't forget the discomfort of unanswerable questions: something left as a residue... what we think of as "Kafkaesque."

Levi Stahl said...

It's not new to compare Kafka's parables to dreams, but I think this specifically ungraspable aspect of them is where they most resemble dreams: they carry a sort of internal, organic sense that is extremely difficult--to the point of impossibility at times--to articulate outside their own confines, and is thus hard to even hold onto in the mind when you're not fully concentrating on it.

Richard said...

"If we read with the least attention, they will seize us absolutely."

Yes, Jacob. In fact, what's striking about these fragments is how they focus you to read with attention. If these sentences were in the middle of a page from a larger work, we might have not attended to them at all. They go by so quickly and seem like action on the way to something else. Transitional.