The Riddling Imagination – Part II


(Read PART I here.)

I again return to Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924).

Again, throughout the “story,” the narrator repeats (emphasizes?) the difference between true singing and mere piping—and that differentiating this difference presents 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.

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

In Kafka’s one dramatic work Der Gruftwächter (The Warden of the Tomb) (1916–17), readers-audiences encounter the following exchange:

PRINCE: And what about the guard in the tomb itself?

CHAMBERLAIN: In my opinion this would have a police connotation. It would mean a real guarding of unreal things beyond the human sphere.

(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Tania and James Stern, p. 207)

How would one differentiate the two, between the real singing and the unreal singing?

Thus the riddle: What kind of imagination did Kafka, as a writer of “Josephine the Singer,” display? I’ve generally been bred by books to read the Penman of Prague’s texts as a combination of spontaneity and calculated brooding. Every line in the story seems accidentally inevitable as well as inevitably accidental. He sometimes comes across so precise as to seem mechanical—Professor Nabokov (1899–1977) once said of Kafka’s (Germanic) style in The Metamorphosis was nearly “scientific.”Yet Kafka (as a writer) remains wholly, utterly, and merely human-all-too-human.

Though that’s not so bad. For Kafka (or his literary characters and narrators) are often good-humored humans, even amid intense anxiety of the story’s situation—in the case of “Josephine”—readers are treated to a trial over judging whether certain sounds are vibrant songs or simple pipe tunes.


Confession: I also hear a spirit of reverie welling up out of Kafka’s narrator in the passage from “Josephine the Singer” And in my own reverie of rereading and remembering Kafka and his narrator, I recall what, though in quite a different context, Dr. John Locke (1632–1704) said of the concept of reverie:

When ideas float in our mind without any reflection or regard of the understanding, it is that which the French call reverie; our language has scarce a name for it:

(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), (II, xix, 1))

For Marie-Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal (1783–1842), a prolonged period of reverie may involve a thousand details—yet those thousands may lead to what he calls “crystallization”:

The imagination finds its progress barred by the ominous warnings of memory, and crystallization stops dead….

I have been advised in the first place to dispense with this word, or, if I cannot do that, to include frequent reminders that by crystallization I mean a certain fever of the imagination which translates a normally commonplace object into something unrecognizable, and makes it an entity apart. Among those who can only achieve happiness through vanity, the man who wishes to excite this fever must take great pains with his cravat and be constantly on the watch over a thousand details, none of which must be neglected.

(De l’amour (Love) (1822), trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale, (New York: Penguin, 1957, 1975), (I, xv), pp. 64–65)

Under Stendhal’s scheme, such crystallization is what the seriously idle reader would eventually hope for in the grand (and unrewarding) attempt to understand Kafka’s narrator.

For there remains part of me as a reader that wants to say: Kafka’s narrator is engaged in a Franco-Lockean reverie of determining authentic, bardic singing from the derived pipping of jesters. Kafka’s narrator is trying to determine: What is real, what is unreal? He (or she) is trying to unriddle a riddle. And most of us do this to some extent in everyday life. Will the car ahead actually turn left just because it’s blinker indicates it will? (“Are these girl-scout cookies made from real girl scouts?”)

Post Script

Stendhal the Frenchman (though pretending to be an Italian in his essay De lamour) goes on to explain two kinds of imagination:

1. Keen, impetuous, spontaneous imagination, leading instantly to action, chafing and languishing at a delay of even twenty-four hours…. It is characterized by impatience, and flares into anger against what it cannot obtain. It perceives external objects but these merely add fuel to its fire; it assimilates them and at once converts them to increase the passion.

2. Imagination which kindles only slowly, but which after a time no longer perceives external objects and succeeds in becoming exclusively concerned with, and dependent on, its own passion. This kind of imagination is quite compatible with slowness and even scarcity of ideas. It is conductive to constancy.

(De l’amour, (§ Various Fragments), p. 228)

Thus one can only hope that a deep reverie in piping may lead to the recognition (recognosis, as in, a repeated gnosis—to re-know what you already know, as in Plato’s Menon) of actual singing––a recognition that might even lead to the actualization (via crystallization) of pure song. The great unutterable thing in itself. One cannot rid oneself of the riddle.

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