An Early Draft

Kafka and Benjamin Presentation:

Dieter Bohn

Good Afternoon, everyone. Since my paper today will treat Kafka's parables, I think it is fitting that I begin with a couple as epigraphs:

What are you building?-I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel. [K 464]

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted. [K 464]

(click "Full Fragment" for the full Draft)

My larger project is to show how Benjamin's reading of Kafka's Parables is a useful filter through which to examine The Arcades Project. Drawing parallels between Kafka and Benjamin is nothing new - but what I hope to show is that Benjamin's conception of Dialectics at Standstill is complicated, or perhaps even threatened, by his understanding of Kafka as failure. For today, however, I will just try to quickly sketch Benjamin's reading of Kafka and the connection to Dialectics at a Standstill.

It is de rigueur for any paper given on the topic of Kafka to begin with a section decrying, or at least expressing surprise at the proliferation of literature devoted to the study of his writings - generally with a tone of regret at how poorly this vast body of interpretation reads Kafka. Walter Benjamin expresses his distaste thusly:

There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka's works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points. [I 127]

Benjamin is thus framing Kafka criticism in terms of a dialectic that needs to be avoided or overcome. Benjamin seems, however, to situate Kafka not outside or beyond the dialectic, nor even within a synthesis of it, but I hope to show rather that Benjamin reads Kafka right into the center of the dialectic.

Critical misinterpretation of Kafka is not necessarily, or at least not exclusively, the failure of the Critics. Failure, for Benjamin, is what makes Kafka's parables Kafkaesque:

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. ... There is nothing more memorable then the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure. [I 145]

The failure in Kafka's parables works out in several levels, but ultimately for Benjamin it is a failure of language to convey meaning. Benjamin Writes:

Kafka's real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, [...] Kafka's writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, [...]. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it. [I 144]

The standard reading of Benjamin is that he is somehow energized by this failure, that it opens up new possibilities. So, for example, some excitable critics have made claims such as:

Interpretation sets the text in motion by opening it up to possible readings instead of fixing it in respect to one tradition. [Oksiloff 178]


Kafka criticism, with its seeming endless willingness to carry on the chain of mutually replaceable signified and signifiers, assures the ongoing emancipatory force of Kafka's work, as such substitutions are always only inadequate replacements for wisdom. [Jennings 47]

The claim that Kafka's Parables display some of the characteristics of the arbitrariness of the sign, or that they otherwise divorce language from truth is fairly widespread. Heinz Politzer's "'Give It Up!' A Discourse on Method" details some of the ways that the earlier mentioned "vast body of interpretation" has read the "Give it Up" parable:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn't very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: "You asking me the way?" "Yes," I said, "since I can't find it myself." "Give it up! Give it up!" said he, and turned with a sudden jerk, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter. [K 456]

His survey of methods, from psychoanalytic to existential to biblical all seem to correspond to the two "errors of interpretation" that Benjamin mentions. His conclusion, however, is not quite the "situating within the dialectic" that I believe Benjamin is aiming for. Politzer argues that

Generally speaking, Kafka's parables center on their paradox

This paradox then divorces the parable from truth and makes the parable essentially meaningless. Ewa Ziarek says of Polizer:

this strain of Kafka criticism in fact perpetuates both the notion of linguistic skepticism and the concept of truth distinct and separate from the process of signification. [Ziarek 178]

Ziarek is right to discount Politzer's reading as naïve, but this specific point - that it perpetuates the notion that truth is distinct from language - does not, in itself, actually refute his argument. What refutes his argument is, as Benjamin says, that the parables "had to become more than parables." These parables are not so easy to simply discount as meaningless paradoxes or even as stand-ins for the arbitrary signifier. There is something to them, or at least there seems to be. But, in the end Ziarek can't help but join in the free-for-all:

Walter Benjamin argues, however, that this failure of the transcendental purpose is not an impasse but a liberating force in Kafka's prose... [Ziarek 200]

Yet this "liberating force" has a mobility that I don't believe Benjamin would be entirely comfortable with. This mobility seems too eager to connect parables to meanings, to "collect" them together. But, as he writes in The Arcades Project, Benjamin is more than a collector:

The allegorist is, as it were, the polar opposite of the collector. He has given up the attempt to elucidate things through research into their properties and relations. He dislodges things from their context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning. The collector, by contrast, brings together what belongs together; by keeping in mind their affinities and the succession in time, he can eventually furnish information about his objects. Nevertheless-and this is more important than all the differences that may exist between them-in every collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector. [B 211]

Benjamin examines Kafka's parables both as an allegorist and as a collector - though it seems that his "collector" side is the more popular one in our contextualizing, post-modern climate. Ultimately, what I believe justifies a closer reading of Benjamin and Kafka is Benjamin's claim that

Kafka could understand things only in the form of a gestus, and this gestus which he did not understand constitutes the cloudy part of the parables. Kafka's writings emanate from it. [Illuminations 129]

The "gestus", or gesture, is a singular event, though it does contain movement. The "gesturing" that Kafka's parables consist of is, finally, nothing more or less than Benjamin's conception of Dialectics at a Standstill. But instead of a Dialectical History being frozen into an image, we have a Narrative Story being frozen into a Parable - Narrative at a Standstill. Compare his description of the Dialectic at a Standstill in The Arcades Project

Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions-there the dialectical image appears. It is the caesura in the movement of thoughts. Its position is naturally not an arbitrary one. It is to be found, in a word, where the tension between dialectical opposites is greatest. Arcades Project

With this description of Kafka's gestus:

...the gestures of Kafka's figures are too powerful for our accustomed surroundings and break out into wider areas. The greater Kafka's mastery became, the more frequently did he eschew adapting these gestures to common situations or explaining them. ... 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. [I 121]

The gestus must be a movement, but at the same time it is a "decisive thing". Gestures have a unity, but also a starting and stopping point. These points are, instead of dialectical opposites, interpretive ones. Benjamin notes at one time that Kafka

Took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. [I 124]

He also pays special attention to the fact that Kafka's wished his writings, his parables, to be destroyed. Yet at the same time, there are several places where Benjamin argues that Kafka's parables contain their own interpretation - (as a side note I might mention his affinity for the interpretation of "Before the Law" that Kafka provides.) Strangely enough, Benjamin's favorite parable happens to be mine as well, and his description of the pace of the parable is in line, I think, with the idea of the gestus and the dialectic at a standstill.

On at least on one occasion he succeeded in bringing its breath-taking speed in line with the slow narrative pace that he presumably sought all his life. He expressed this in a little prose piece which is his most perfect creation not only because it is an interpretation. [I 139].

The passage is the one I opened with, The Truth About Sancho Panza, and with it I close.

Without ever boasting of it, Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by supplying a lot of romances of chivalry and adventure for the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon freely performed the maddest exploits, which, however, lacking a preordained object, which Sancho Panza himself was supposed to have been, did no one any harm. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.

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