Nov 25 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

London - Georgian Apartments

The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

(Read PART III here.)

Toward the end of Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, the riddling narrative “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) (1924), the narrator asks:

Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?
(The Complete Short Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 376)

Here readers are asked to ask: is holding the memory of the piping more important than unlocking the riddle to whether or not the piping is singing? Compare a reflection in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Dom dzienny, dom nocny (House of Day, House of Night) (1988):

Oddly, it’s never the actual story that comes back to me, but the memory of Marta telling it, a small figure, with her round shoulders in the cardigan with the loose buttonholes and her bony fingers.
(House of Day, House of Night), trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), p. 5)

But suppose it is important for readers to consider the question of whether Josephine’s piping is prosaic, while true singing is something poetic? Does her piping constitute a sort of poetry? Or is piping mere prose, so that true singing, then, is true poetry? What if Kafka’s narrator is tone-deaf? And what do readers of Kafka remain blind to when reading “Josephine the Singer?”


While discussing blind John Milton (1608–1674), Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), himself nearly half-blind since childhood, once explained that:

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason…. Invention is almost the only literary labour which blindness cannot obstruct, and, therefore, he [Milton] naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy, and the melody of his numbers.
(“Milton,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779))

Compare that to when Wittgenstein (1889–1951) spoke of blindness and imagination:

When blind people speak, as they like to do, of blue sky and other specifically visual phenomena, the sighted person often says “Who knows what he imagines that to mean”––But why doesn’t he say this about other sighted people? It is, of course, a wrong expression to begin with.
(Bermerkungen Über Die Farben (Remarks on Colour), ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), III, no. 294)

What might the right expression be? According to Owen Barfield (1898–1997):

In a word, imagination involves a certain disappearance of the sense of ‘I’ and ‘Not I’. It stands before the object and feels ‘I am that’.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 30)

In other words, imagination is not “I am” or “I am that I am,” but––“I am that”––as when uttering the old folk phrase, There but for the grace of God go I. As Barfield explains, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived,” (Romanticism Comes of Age, p. 39).

And this ability to momentarily lose one’s sense of ‘I’ in imagining ‘I am that’—is a kind of freedom, as Lessing (1729–1781) recognized:

Now that only is fruitful which allows free play to the imagination. The more we see the more we must be able to imagine; and the more we imagine, the more we must think we see….. In poetry a robe is no robe. It conceals nothing. Our imagination sees through it in every part.
(Laokoön oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoön: an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) (1766), trans. Ellen Frothingham, (Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1887), III, V)

Finally, let readers here at Bookbread return to Johnson on Milton, and how:

These are very imperfect rudiments of Paradise Lost; but it is pleasant to see great works in their seminal state, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence; nor could there be any more delightful entertainment than to trace their gradual growth and expansion, and to observe how they are sometimes suddenly advanced by accidental hints, and sometimes slowly improved by steady meditation.

Kafka’s works are, if nothing else, pregnant with latent possibilities of excellence. Reading them requires steady meditation—the kind of meditation that leads to self-abnegation––where one loses one’s sense of an ‘I’ while reading.

I find this particularly true of his final work “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” Or should I say: I find this particularly true upon reflection of the memory of reading Kafka (but perhaps not during the act of reading Kafka)? ’Tis but another riddle I imagine.

Nov 18 2022

The Riddling Imagination – Part III

pencil shavings


(Read PART I here.)

(Read PART II here.)

The pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen,
And down the mountainside.

More thoughts on imagination and Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) final work, the riddling narrative “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—amid differentiating this difference emerges an enormous riddle. Here is what I imagine to be the story’s key passage:

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 (New York: Schocken, 1946, 1971), p. 361)

Kafka was born only 51 years after the death of Johann von Goethe (1749–1832). They were not as far apart as sometimes seems. Early on in his autobiography Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830), Goethe recalled the civic piping from his childhood—a piping that linked the living to the dead—generational sounds shared, all received in one accord:

It was impossible to have these ceremonies, with their power of conjuring up the past, explained to use without leading us back into former centuries and informing us of the habits, customs, and feelings of our ancestors, who in a strange way were made present to us by pipers and delegates, apparently risen from the dead, and even by tangible gifts which we might ourselves possess.

(Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, trans. R. O. Moon, (Washington D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949), “Book I,” p. 16)

Kafka’s narrator in “Josephine” also recognizes some social advantages to the piping—that it lets the citizen-listener forget about the workaday world for a little while:

Of course it [Josephine’s singing] is a kind of piping. Why not? Piping is our people’s daily speech, only many a one pipes his whole life long and does not know it, where here piping is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while. We certainly should not want to do without these performances. (The Complete Short Stories, p. 370)

Can one gamble on a riddle? If so, then, under the credit of my imagination, I wager that Kafka’s narrator recognizing the social advantages of piping partially answers the great riddle presented in his tale of “Josephine.”

But to gamble is to dream. It is not so much that gambling and dreaming lack certainty but that each activity slacks on certainty (or “certainality”). Without certain certainty there are only resemblances and contrasts. Camouflage versus distinction. One gambles on the resemblance (or contrast). One dreams up the resemblance (or contrast). And if concerns song or pipe, one listens for resemblance (or contrast).

Is the following a resemblance or a contrast? In the preface to his 1946 novel The Great Divorce: a Dream by C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) dreams of a hierarchy that sets the structure for all things Good. Oh, were Kafka’s narrator such a dreamer rather than a riddler! For then: if piping be not as good as singing, Good singing should then continue to differentiate itself from mediocre pipping. As Lewis theorizes:

We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.

Recall that readers have been told to imagine it was the Pied Piper who took away the children of Hamelin, not a singer like Josephine, nor a dreamer like Lewis. In Hamelin, piping ruined the community rather than soothed it: Yet why the piping ruined the town, remains, as in “Josephine,” the great unsolved riddle:

Parallel to their collection of Volksmärchen, the Grimms also gathered Deutsche Sagen, legends and sagas, which appeared in two volumes in 1816. Only one, but perhaps the best known in this country, is included here, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” It is, of course, not a fairy tale but a popular legend with a basis in historic fact, most probably the story of recruiting officers who enticed young people away to do battle or to colonize in the East.

(Helmut Brackert, “Introduction,” The German Library Vol. XIX: German Fairy Tales, eds. Brackert and Volkmar Sander, (New York: Continuum, 1985), p. xxix)

Oct 12 2010

VIDEO – Which kinds of German works make it into English? (Deutche Welle)

Multimedia – DW-WORLD.DE.