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)