Nov 4 2022

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.

Jul 8 2022

Of Texas, to Teach and Learn from that State No More

Western book stack

Of Texas, to Teach and Learn from that State No More

With regard to Texas as something to ever be discussed for any reason, I agree with much of what Jay Leeson of Lubbock wrote this week:

I too “am out.” The bad guys have won, and it is time to go all the way and “abandon all hope” as Dante says before the Gates of Hell, rather than try to cut one’s losses.

A slightly witty essay that uses Edmund Burke to explain the book-banning situation in Texas won’t change minds or votes or status quos regarding rural Texas. Therefore, I don’t intend to write any more of them.

I will instead, pursue the truth about contemporary Texas, not that it can teach me anything, not so I can teach Texans anything, but simply to love the pursuit.

As a very non-Texan, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) once explained, the desire to find the truth for oneself has little to do with teaching truth(s) to others. Montaigne would rather know someone also seeking the truth rather than try to teach that person anything about it:

The active pursuit of truth is our proper business.

We have no excuse for conducting it badly or unfittingly. But failure to capture our prey is another matter. For we are born to quest after it; to possess it belongs to a greater power….

The world is but a school of inquiry. It does not matter who hits the ring, but who runs the best course. The man who says what is true may be as foolish as the man who utters falsities, for we are concerned with the manner of speaking, not with the matter. It is my nature to consider the form as much as the substance, the advocate as much as the cause….

And every day I entertain myself by browsing among books without a thought for their learning; and examining their authors’ style, not their subject. In the same way, I seek the company of some famous mind, not so that he may teach me, but that I may know him.

(Essais, Tome III in Essays, (New York: Penguin, 1958, 1988), trans. J. M. Cohen, “8. On the Art of Conversation,” pp. 292–93. [Cohen’s numeration follows Montaigne’s Édition Municipale.])

René Descartes (1596–1650) also got tired of teaching as well as learning. So he decided he would start being independent in his thinking, and would muster no enthusiasm for teaching others the methods of life he had learned for himself. He wanted to describe the vision of his method, not teach that method to (un)willing students:

My present design, then, is not to teach the Method which each ought to follow for the right conduct of his Reason, but solely to describe the way in which I have endeavored to conduct my own.

(Discours de méthode (Discourse on Method)(c. 1637), The Method, Meditations, and Philosophy of Descartes, trans. John Veitch, (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1901), (§ I), p. 150)

Later John Locke (1632–1704) affirms that “I pretend not to teach, but to inquire” into the “dark room” of how the mind understands itself. Locke desired to “inquire” and to “examine,” but not to “teach”:

I pretend not to teach, but to inquire; and therefore cannot but confess here again,—that external and internal sensation are the only passages I can find of knowledge to the understanding.

These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this DARK ROOM.

For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: which, would they but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.

These are my guesses concerning the means whereby the understanding comes to have and retain simple ideas, and the modes of them, with some other operations about them.

I proceed now to examine some of these simple ideas and their modes a little more particularly.

(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) [1689], Fifth Edition (1706), ed. Roger Woolhouse, (New York: Penguin, 1997, 2004), (II, xi, 17), p. 158)

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) seems to have gotten closer to the source of the phenomenon of the abandonment of teacherhood. The student learns differently than the teacher, for their imaginations, at least, according to Vico, function in slightly different ways:

Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination. Since imagination has always been esteemed a most favorable omen of future development [divination?], it should in no way be dulled.

Furthermore, the teacher should give the greatest care to the cultivation of the pupil’s memory, which, though not exactly the same as imagination, is almost identical with it.

In adolescence, memory outstrips in vigor all other faculties, and should be intensely trained.

Youth’s natural inclination to the arts in which imagination or memory (or a combination of both) is prevalent (such as painting, poetry, oratory, jurisprudence) should by no means be blunted.

Nor should advanced philosophical criticism, the common instrument today of all arts and sciences, be an impediment to any of them.

The Ancients knew how to avoid this drawback.

In almost all their schools for youths, the role of logic was fulfilled by geometry.

Following the example of medical practitioners, who concentrate their efforts on seconding the bent of Nature, the Ancients required their youths to learn the science of geometry which cannot be grasped without a vivid capacity to form images.

Thus, without doing violence to nature, but gradually and gently and in step with the mental capacities of their age, the Ancients nurtured the reasoning powers of their young men.

(De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time) (c. 1709), trans. Elio Gianturco, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990), pp. 13–14)

I don’t pretend to know exactly what Vico is getting at, other than I think he is following in the footsteps of Montaigne, Descartes, and Locke with this idea of renouncing the discipline of teaching in favor of a discipline of knowing.

But can their diagnoses concerning the problem of being a burned-out teacher find remedy through some kind of gnosis (knowing)? Vico seems to suggest this. But it also seems too much to resemble the obscurantist, the guru, the mystic. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) likes to remind us: “We gropewhen we read, particularly things tinged with mysticism, (Journals and Emerson Notebooks Vol. V (1835–1838), ed. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP), May 24, 1835, Journal B, p. 44; April 29, 1837, Journal C, p. 307).

Moreover, says Emerson:

The great distinction between teachers sacred or literary,—between poets like Herbert, and poets like Pope,—between philosophers like Spinoza, Kant, and Coleridge, and philosophers like Locke, Paley, Mackintosh, and Stewart,—between men of the world, who are reckoned accomplished talkers, and here and there a fervent mystic, prophesying, half insane under the infinitude of his thought,—is, that one class speak from within, or from experience, as parties and possessors of the fact; and the other class, from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.

It is of no use to preach to me from without. I can do that too easily myself. Jesus speaks always from within, and in a degree that transcends all others.

In that is the miracle. I believe beforehand that it ought so to be. All men stand continually in the expectation of the appearance of such a teacher.

But if a man do not speak from within the veil, where the word is one with that it tells of, let him lowly confess it. (“The Over-Soul,” Essays: First Series (1841))

Emerson continues:

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics! ….

Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one….

And the mystic must be steadily told,––All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it.

Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric,––universal signs, instead of these village symbols,––and we shall both be gainers. (“The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (1844))