The Riddling Imagination – Part I

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The Riddling Imagination – Part I

[Look at you trying to read Kafka—like some goody-two-shoes English Major from the late-twentieth-century…. Kafka won’t cure cancer or homelessness or traffic congestion. Why bother with the great be-puzzler of Prague when you have bills to pay in Austin?]

I (finally and) recently got around to reading Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924), a story which, like most of the other works by that slippery author, evades interpretation.

(Let the last reader then instead try excavation and extrapolation upon this last of stories).

Throughout Kafka’s story, the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—and that differentiating this difference marks an enormous riddle:

Is it in fact singing at all? Although we are unmusical we have a tradition of singing; in the old days our people did sing; this is mentioned in legends and some songs have actually survived, which, it is true, no one can now sing. Thus we have an inkling of what singing is, and Josephine’s art does not really correspond to it. So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just a piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life. We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping––yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work––if that were all true, then indeed Josephine’s alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.

(Franz Kafka – The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

With a riddle, at least for a bookly-breaded reader like Christopher Landrum, one is never content until it is solved. As Antipholus of Syracuse says in the Comedy of Errors:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get. (I, ii, ll. 33–34)

I don’t know if William Arden Shakespeare (1564–1616) held this opinion personally. I know only that Shakespeare was capable of imagining someone else thinking, believing, and feeling this restless way about solving the riddle––the experience of one’s doubt searching for certainty—the mental sensation of an original emptiness currently seeking a final contentment—a drive of conscience that distorts the very way (both as a means and a path) to which it is driven.

To further scratch this itch I turn to Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), for whom I think has a very good answer (or beginning to an answer) to the riddle presented by Kafka’s narrator above. According to Russell:

I think it is the duty of the philosopher to make himself as undistorting a mirror [of nature via language] as he can. But it is also his duty to recognize such distortions as are inevitable from our very nature. Of these, the most fundamental is that we view the world from the point of view of the here and now, not with that large impartiality which theists attribute to the Deity. To achieve such impartiality is impossible for us, but we can travel a certain distance towards it. To show the road to this end is the supreme duty of the philosopher.

(“The Retreat from Pythagoras,” My Philosophical Development, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959)in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, eds. Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), p. 256)

Russell’s holding that “distortions are inevitable” seems to be one answer to the riddle of Kafka’s tale.

Yet the answers may be legion, infinite—because that’s what you get when you get to Kafka. So I read it this way: the duty of the serious writer (whether philosopher, historian, or prose poet) is to solve the riddle of differentiating pipping from singing––to differentiate the silence that teaches from the silence that forgets.


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