Friday, December 28, 2007

FRANZ KAFKA, EDMUND WILSON, LOUIS FERDINAND CELINE, THE ORDEAL OF CIVILITY

86

"The misery of having perpetually to begin, the lack of the illusion that anything is more than, or even as much as, a beginning, the foolishness of those who do not know this, and play football, for example, in order at last "to advance the ball" one's own foolishness buried within one as if in a coffin, the foolishness of those who think they see a real coffin here, hence a coffin that one can transport, open, destroy,exchange

Among the young women up in the park. No envy. Enough imagination to share their happiness, enough judgment to know I am too weak to have such happiness, foolish enough to think I see to the bottom of my own and their situation. Not foolish enough; there is a tiny crack there, the wind whistles through it and spoils the full effect.

Should I greatly yearn to be an athlete, it would probably be the same thing as my yearning to go to heaven and to be permitted to be as despairing there as I am here.

No matter how sorry a constitution I may have, even if-- "given the same circumstances"-- it be the sorriest in the world (particularly in view of my lack of energy), I must do the best I can with it (even in my sense of the word)-- it is hollow sophistry to argue that there is only one thing to be done with such a constitution, which must perforce be its best, and that one thing is to despair.
----FRANZ KAFKA October 16, (1921)Sunday


87

I put the quote from Kafka's Diary there as a way to tell against myself. I have never really "gotten" Kafka. I think I have read myself through almost all of his work. He does not stick. I know that there are many--- Nabokov, Calasso come to mind--- who look to him with...

As far as I know, Edmund Wilson is the only writer to not be taken in by Kafka: "Kafka's reputation and influence have been growing till his figure has been projected on the consciousness of out literary reviews on a scale which gives the illusion that he is a writer of towering stature," "A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka"
July 26, 1947. CLASSIC AND COMMERCIALS.

"If,however, one puts Kafka besides writers with whom he may properly be compared, he still seems unsatisfactory. Gogol and Poe were equally neurotic, in their destinies they were equally unhappy; and if it is true, as Mr Savage says, that there is present in Kafka's world neither personality nor love, there is no love in either Gogol or Poe, and though here are plenty of personalities in Gogol, the actors of Poe, as a rule, are even less characterized than Kafka's. But,though the symbols that these writers generate are just as unpleasant as Kafka's, though,like his,they represent mostly the intense and painful realization of emotional cul-de-sac, yet they have both certain advantages over Kafka --for Gogol was nourished and fortified by his heroic conception of Russia, and Poe, for all his Tory views, is post-Revolutionary American in his challenging , defiant temper, his alert and curious mind. In their ways, they are both tonic. But the denationalized, discouraged, disaffected, disable Kafka, though for the moment he may frighten or amuse us, can in the end only let us down. He is quite true to his time and place, but it is surely a time and place in which few us will want to linger -- whether as stunned an hypnotized helots of totalitarian states or as citizens of freer societies who have relapsed into taking Kafka's stories as evidence that God's law and man's purpose are conceived in terms so different that we may as well give up hope of ever identifying the one with the other."

88

In the title of John Murray Cuddihy's book THE ORDEAL OF CIVILITY we probably have everything we need to know about Kafka. The sub-title elaborates: "Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity." Cuddihy is or was a professor of sociology at Hunter College. The question of course: if one is not Jewish why should one care about Kafka?

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The problem of Kafka is also the key problem in the United States when it comes to the question of what German writers are available. If one is honest, Americans only know two German language writers: Kafka and Remarque. They know Remarque for his sentimental ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT which they read in Junior High School and they read maybe the Metamorphosis by Kafka in college. That is it.

Of course on the positive side by focusing all the reading of German literature on Kafka and Remarque Americans are preserved from Gunter Grass and Christa Wolf.

But the loss: without Ernst Junger, Robert Walser, Uwe Johnson, Arno Schmidt my own life would be far dimmer than it might be. These writers, each so different from the other, combine to provide a way to understand the world, a way to describe the world that enables the thoughtful person to find his or her own way in the world: they do not seek disciples which of course is what reading Kafka produces...

90.

A tonic end, finally, of the year from Louis Ferdinand Celine:

Living, just by itself-- what a dirge that is! Life is a classroom and Boredom's the usher, there all the time to spy on you; whatever happens, you've got to look as if you were awfully busy all the time doing something that terribly exciting--- or he'll come along and nibble your brain. A day that is nothing but a mere round of the twenty-four hours isn't to be borne. It has to be one long, almost unbearable thrill, a twenty-four copulation, willy-nilly.
---JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT

2 comments:

lloydmintern said...

Edmund Wilson was a petulant, disgruntled, old fashioned critic in the wrong century, whose only service to literature was to help Nabokov; and the two of them mutually mocked each other. Of course he would not get Kafka's rarified humor.

Thomas McGonigle said...

I do not understand the phrase "old fashioned critic" when applied to Edmund Wilson. He did sometimes resort to the meaningless jargon of Freud and MArx but that seems his only flaw