Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka

Overview

"Lambent Traces is a stunning work of literary scholarship and critical thought, a brilliant engagement with one of the towering literary figures of the last century. Corngold is today's master reader of Kafka."—Russell Berman, Stanford University

"A new book on Kafka by a scholar as formidable as Stanley Corngold is a welcome event. Corngold's writing exerts the allure of the tight-rope walker high above the circus floor and makes for ...

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Overview

"Lambent Traces is a stunning work of literary scholarship and critical thought, a brilliant engagement with one of the towering literary figures of the last century. Corngold is today's master reader of Kafka."—Russell Berman, Stanford University

"A new book on Kafka by a scholar as formidable as Stanley Corngold is a welcome event. Corngold's writing exerts the allure of the tight-rope walker high above the circus floor and makes for fascinating reading."—Mark Anderson, Columbia University

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Editorial Reviews

Focus on German Studies - David D. Kim
Readers of Lambent Traces will find themselves enraptured by Corngold's masterful explication of Kafka writing in ecstasy. This provocative work will constitute an exhilarating reading for literary scholars in general and Kafka scholars in particular.
From the Publisher
"One of the most compelling and instructive books on Kafka to appear in recent years."—Choice

"Readers of Lambent Traces will find themselves enraptured by Corngold's masterful explication of Kafka writing in ecstasy. This provocative work will constitute an exhilarating reading for literary scholars in general and Kafka scholars in particular."—David D. Kim, Focus on German Studies

Choice
One of the most compelling and instructive books on Kafka to appear in recent years.
Focus on German Studies
Readers of Lambent Traces will find themselves enraptured by Corngold's masterful explication of Kafka writing in ecstasy. This provocative work will constitute an exhilarating reading for literary scholars in general and Kafka scholars in particular.
— David D. Kim
Focus on German Studies
Readers of Lambent Traces will find themselves enraptured by Corngold's masterful explication of Kafka writing in ecstasy. This provocative work will constitute an exhilarating reading for literary scholars in general and Kafka scholars in particular.
— David D. Kim
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691127804
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley Corngold is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. His books include "The Fate of the Self", "Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form", and "Complex Pleasure" as well as two translations of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and "Selected Stories".
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Read an Excerpt

Lambent Traces

Franz Kafka
By Stanley Corngold

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-11816-7


Introduction

BEGINNINGS

"KAFKA IS NOT systematic, but he is coherent." Yet for all the progress made in cataloguing the stereotypes of Kafka's social environment (sexual politics, family politics, ethnic politics, technics of script and the other media), the fundamental figures of his thought remain unsolved.

After more than a half-century of investigation, one would think, there ought to be an answer to the question, What, then, is Kafka's argument? And yet a critic as incisive as Erich Heller, addressing the question of the meaning of The Trial, throws up his hands in the end, asking: "What is [K.'s] guilt? What is the Law?" And, what, indeed, is Kafka's Law? Here, as in everything in Kafka, it seems, in the words of Friedrich Hölderlin's hero Hyperion, "an instant of reflection hurls us down."

I cannot say what the argument is, though I will discuss various constellations of images, tropes, narratives, aperçus, and aphorisms that resemble arguments. They are the exploding patterns of Kafka's thought. Walter Benjamin saw Kafka's work as a nebula of Kabbalah and Eddington; Theodor Adorno, as a cryptogram of the waste products extruded by late capitalism on its way to fascism; Walter Sokel, as the expanded myths of"authority and the self"; Gerhard Kurz, as the product of drastic awakenings. More recently, in Schriftverkehr (textual intercourse), Gerhard Neumann and Wolf Kittler have uncovered the modern medial dimensions of Kafka's stories of communication and failed communication. Within this giant, endlessly ramified complex, argument-like figures of thought readily emerge. But these sequences do not fit the patterns of lived experience of persons generally or the customary dialectical or deconstructive moves that inform contemporary analysis. Kafka's "business," it appears, like "our business," according to Jean-François Lyotard, "is not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable." The most important word is "allusions."

Consider a text of Kafka's, not chosen entirely at random, that illustrates the sort of conceptual difficulties I am envisioning. In spring 1922, in a notebook entry that is exceptionally clear and seemingly accessible to analysis, Kafka constructed one of the many parabolic houses that abound in his confessional writings. A building arises from his failure to write; or better, as he literally says,

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, admittedly, is 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. (DF 350)

How intelligible this is. It is easy to understand what it might mean to live in a house that is unsafe, to want to build another, in doing so to want to justify even the elements of the first failed enterprise, to redeem them even, in proving them good enough to be reused. We understand, too, how one's strength might give out, and where would one be then? Neither at home in the first building nor the second, the first imperfect and yet complete, the second merely half-built: the builder is stranded between them. This is where the aphorism could end, and this is where we might reasonably conclude that here is a narrative intelligible on the grounds of its analogy with lived experience. But this is not where it ends. It continues:

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 [Absätze] of his boots until his grave is dug out under him. (DF 350, H 388)

The leap (it is swifter and less traceable than a leap) to another order of the imagination, where thought-in-images races, takes us out of a system of binary opposites-of "writing" versus "autobiographical investigations"-and out of a pattern of plausible reference to the building of a new house from the elements of the old. It takes us to another kind of literary intensity. The Cossack dance dances into the text, as text; the dance is without prototype in what has so far been given by the text and without fitting conclusion at an order of insight and reflection. The Cossack dance dances into the text as the very act of producing text. Protruding from the dancer's scraping boots are heels and, by association, pens-for Absätze means at once "heels" and "paragraphs"-while, quite consistently, Kafka's verb "scraping" (scharren) and the act of writing (schreiben) also share a root. This is to stress the art-character of the dance, the literal product of that "freedom of true description that releases one's foot from lived experience [Erlebnis]" (D1 100, GW 9:71).

Meanwhile, the qualifier "Cossack" adds another braided supplement of meaning, invoking Kafka's history of relations to the "Russian" friend of "The Judgment"; to the Russian wastes in the diaries as a paradigm of indifference; and to the Russian killing agents of pogroms. In pointing to a cold climate, it gathers together all the associations that Sokel has noted in this "existential sign"-connotations of isolation, asceticism, fanaticism, exile. But that this Cossack dance as another sort of writing should finally dig one's own grave turns reason and worldly experience upside down. It is "madness," for writing in the normal case would raise one up out of the deathlike anonymity of unarticulated life. Writing may be an act of inscribing, as one implication of "scraping" has it, and may even represent, as Benjamin remarked, the death of an intention-the death, by degrees, of an empirical self-but it also surely amounts to a construction of sorts.

There are different types of writing here to look at. Recall how the passage began: the speaker has lost touch with "real" writing, which can only be real in the sense of transcending a merely empirical self, the creature of affects and stereotypes; and he has failed. So, barred from real writing, he seeks to write autobiography, a kind of writing that on the face of it is dedicated to building up and affirming the empirical person. But that too has failed and passed into another figurative action of writing that is unlike "real" writing because the death that this new dancing implies is more grievous than the figurative death of an empirical intention; and it is unlike autobiographical writing, because it does not construct a house for the ego (L 82). But if, in being unlike autobiographical writing, it is, as writing, more like real writing, then it does not only dig out a metaphorical grave; it constructs another sort of apparatus, contributing to the manufacture of Kafka's portable house of art. And if, in being unlike real writing, it is more like autobiographical writing, then certainly, it, too, has an ego-building dimension. So what, finally, is the relation of this third kind of writing-the enigmatic "construction of the grave"-to the house of art and the half-built house of the ego?

I do not think this narrative is, on the face of it, susceptible to a Hegelian-triadic, subsumptive-model of thought. And a deconstructionist model that stresses the eternally supplementary, delaying character of the third term-the Cossack dance that undoes the ostensible binary of the houses-understates the power of the third term to produce an entirely new sequence of truth claims even from the dreadful finality of the grave as well as on the heels of the cultural reference that digs it. Nonetheless, the passage began as a sequence of restricted arguments: "Writing denies itself to me. Hence plan for autobiographical investigations." Such sequences recur in even the most unpredictably image-saturated and argumentatively torqued of Kafka's stories. And, in this case, some of this argument points to one or another of Kafka's strife-torn identity elements, elements of his chief predicament. Kafka's work, as Benjamin noted, "argues nothing but is so constituted that it can at any time be inserted in an argumentative context" (B 41).

In the two houses above, even half-built, one discerns a pattern, a genealogical reminiscence of the two houses into which Kafka was born, for he is the son of two fathers. He is the bourgeois flesh-and-blood of Herrmann Kafka, the entrepreneur and dealer in curses; and he is also someone else's son, the son of another father of whose family he is the "formal necessity" but who remains unknown.

He does not live for the sake of his personal life; he does not think for the sake of his personal thoughts. It seems to him that he lives and thinks under the compulsion of a family, which, it is true, is itself superabundant in life and thought, but for which he constitutes, in obedience to some law unknown to him, a formal necessity. Because of this unknown family and this unknown law he cannot be exempted. (GW 269)

Kafka's task is to reconstruct himself along the imaginary lines of this paternity. Readers acquainted with Benjamin's readings of Kafka may see in this formulation a domestic version of Benjamin's famous aphorism:

Kafka's work is an ellipse; its widely spaced focal points are defined, on the one hand, by mystical experience (which is, above all, the experience of tradition) and, on the other hand, by the experience of the modern city-dweller.

This genealogical pattern has plain ramifications. If Kafka's father, the urban parvenu, is not his true father, then for one moment Kafka is fatherless, he is half-orphaned. He lives in another "country," a wilderness in which, separated from his parents, he is at once exile and orphan; he is a foreigner, an "American," in search of a new Zion. Yet at other times-times that are startling-Herrmann Kafka is also the valuable, the authentic instigator of the son's search for the other father-the father of the "second" son who, at the beginning of Kafka's intellectual and artistic career, is represented by the bachelor, the writer. Consider this remarkable sentence from "Letter to His Father": "My writing was all about you," wrote Kafka.

All I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you, only although it was brought about by force on your part, it did take its course in the direction determined by me. (emphasis added, DF 177)

Now lines of relation have been laid down that Kafka's stories can accommodate, in which a father may be loved as the source, ignored as the imposter, and hated as the usurper. The sequence is not logical ("systematic"), since it violates the law of the excluded middle, but it is coherent, in the sense of constituting a pattern. This makes at least one empirical feature of Kafka's stories immediately cogent: his propensity for twinning-viz. "I"/the Praying Man (in Description of a Struggle); "I"/You, the Bachelor (in "'You,' I Said ..."); Georg Bendemann/the Russian friend (in "The Judgment"); Lieutenant Gregor Samsa/the monstrous vermin (in The Metamorphosis); Old Commandant/New Commandant (in "In the Penal Colony"); businessman/schoolmaster (in "The Village Schoolmaster"); jackals/Arabs (in "Jackals and Arabs"); K. the land surveyor and the life he left behind (in The Castle); and, in the same novel, K.'s indistinguishable apprentices, the two Friedas, and Sordini/Sortini. Perhaps the root disturbance in this doubling-the last example is vivid-is their difference precisely in the midst of so much resemblance-a sameness that emerges only as "marred" by difference, a difference that emerges only as marred by sameness.

If such distinctions sound abstruse, they are nonetheless productively played out in Kafka's novels, as par excellence, in the haunting repetitions of The Trial and The Castle. The endless resemblances of the Castle-world without qualities are full of a foreboding of danger. This world of doublings is prefigured by the sinister paintings in The Trial offered for sale to Joseph K. by the painter Titorelli:

"A landscape of the heath," said the painter, and handed K. the painting. It showed two frail trees, standing at a great distance from one another in the dark grass ... "Here's a companion piece to that picture," said the painter. It may have been intended as a companion piece, but not the slightest difference could be seen between it and the first one: here were the trees, here was the grass, and there the sunset ... "You seem to like the subject," said the painter, and pulled out a third painting, "luckily enough, I have a similar one right here." But it was not merely similar, however, it was exactly the same landscape. (T 163)

In the Castle-world the barren "heath" is covered in a snow eternally blanketing differences. The lower inhabitants are even less distinguishable from one another than Sordini and Sortini. When K. says that his place lies somewhere between the peasants and the Castle, the teacher objects, saying, "There is no difference between the peasants and the Castle" (C 9). Klamm's men, too, cannot be told apart at first sight. Confronting Arthur and Jeremiah, the assistants furnished by the Castle, K. is puzzled: "'This is difficult,' said K., comparing their faces as he had often done before. 'How am I supposed to distinguish between you? Only your names are different, otherwise you're as alike ... as snakes'" (C 18).

Such indistinction defines the architecture of the place. The village housing the Castle is a maze of ramshackle buildings. Even as a putative surveyor, K. cannot discern the village from the Castle, which is itself "only a rather miserable little town"; the snowed-in world allows for no distinctions of rank (C 8). Everywhere in the Castle-world lowers the presence of something not so much downtrodden as subhuman-prehistorical-visible in the faces of the peasants, their heads as if beaten flat under the weight of archaic authority. Here, the effect is of another sort of doubling: the sameness/difference pair operates to produce a sense of the contemporaneousness of the archaic and the modern-that fusion of aeons in Kafka originally noted by Benjamin. The danger for the hero, the surveyor K., who appears to have wandered into the village at the same time that he claims his right to live there, is to founder in unknown dimensions of indistinction. There are

hours in which K. continually had the feeling that he was so deep in a foreign place as no man before him, a foreign place in which even the air had no ingredient of the air of home, in which one must suffocate on foreignness and in whose absurd allurements one could do nothing more than go further, go further astray. (C 41, translation modified)

Repetition and difference operate their effects even as abstractions. Reflecting on "The Judgment," Kafka declared, not obviously with disapproval: "The story is full of abstractions ... The friend is hardly a real person, perhaps he is rather what father and son have in common" (LF 267). The factor that the father and the son finally have least in common, against all odds-I shall spring for this point-is the factor of paternity. The outcome of the entire complex of thought and action involved in Kafka's writing "The Judgment" is not his paternity, which remains an abstraction throughout: he cannot give himself the name of father. In the moment of writing the conclusion of "The Judgment," Kafka may have thought, as he declared to Max Brod, of "a strong ejaculation"; but when it came to reflecting on this story in one of the several diary entries that followed its composition, he said it came out of him "like a regular birth" (DI 278). A recent thesis on fatherhood helps to explain Kafka's fascinated aversion to abstractions:

hours in which K. continually had the feeling that he was so deep in a foreign place as no man before him, a foreign place in which even the air had no ingredient of the air of home, in which one must suffocate on foreignness and in whose absurd allurements one could do nothing more than go further, go further astray. (C 41, translation modified)

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Lambent Traces by Stanley Corngold Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Abbreviations for Kafka Citations xvii
Introduction: Beginnings 1
Chapter 1
In the Circle of "The Judgment" 13
Chapter 2
The Trial: The Guilt of an Unredeemed Literary Promise 37
Segue I
On Cultural Immortality 45
Chapter 3
Medial Interferences in The Trial 51
Or, res in Media
Chapter 4
Allotria and Excreta in "In the Penal Colony" 67
Segue II
Death and the Medium 81
Chapter 5
Nietzsche, Kafka, and Literary Paternity 94
Chapter 6
Something to Do with the Truth 111
Kafka's Later Stories
Chapter 7
"A Faith Like a Guillotine" 126
Kafka on Skepticism
Chapter 8
Kafka and the Dialect of Minor Literature 142
Chapter 9
Adorno's "Notes on Kafka" 158
A Critical Reconstruction
Chapter 10
On Translation Mistakes, with Special Attention to Kafka in Amerika 176
Chapter 11
The Trouble with Cultural Studies 194
Notes 205
Acknowledgments 253
Index 255

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