The Riddling Imagination – Part IV

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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.


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