Imagining a Conversation on Imagination between Verbena and Lantana

Texas wildflowers

Imagining a Conversation on Imagination between
Verbena and Lantana

Can you imagine what the wildflowers have to say to us—especially now in midwinter—can you imagine all the books they’ve read, all those books that they’re ready to recite back to those who look down upon them?

For what else do the wildflowers do?

They shout from where they stand, they recite and re-sight every color, every number, every combination of color and number clawing its way out of the earth and toward the silent sun.

Yes, the wildflowers shout at the silent sun. They shout about what they’ve read.

We can imagine what they read.

We can imagine what they’ve read about the imagination.

Our ears ache as we await their great recitation.

Verbena: We have seen the man with the red beard looking and leaping and weeping and waving paint in our fields.

Lantana: That was old Van Gogh. He refused to speak to us, and only listened. But he wrote some of his letters while in our fields, and we were able to read them while he wrote. Though we were never able to look down upon him, the way he and all humans do to us, we were occasionally able to look over his shoulder. One of the last things he wrote was:

Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak. But still, my dear brother, there is this that I have always told you, and I repeat it once more with all the earnestness that can be imparted by an effort of a mind diligently fixed on trying to do as well as one can—I tell you again that I shall always consider that you are something other than a simple dealer on Corot, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which even in the cataclysm retain their quietude.

For this is what we have got to, and this is all or at least the chief thing that I can have to tell you at a moment of comparative crisis. At a moment when things are very strained between dealers in pictures by dead artists, and living artists.

Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has halffoundered owing to it—that’s all right—but you are not among the dealers in men so far as I know, and you can choose your side, I think, acting with true humanity, but what’s the use?
(“To Theo, Auvers-sur-Oise, late July, 1890,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. (London: Constable, 1929), ed. Mark Roskill, (New York: Touchstone, 2008), pp. 339–40)

Verbena: ole Van Gogh (1853–1890), and at that point in his life, what else did he have left to imagine? Even we, the flowers of the field, occasionally wither. But new things are always sprouting up. After Van Gogh came Karl Kraus (1874–1936), a man who had nothing to do with hunting in woods, farming in fields, or feasting his eyes upon wildflowers. But he had imagination. So when you say you saw Van Gogh writing in the fields, I say I see in my mind’s eye what Kraus had to say about the imagination. I see that he said:

Often I prick my hand with my pen and know only then that I have experienced what is written.

When I read it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting….

Word and substance—that is the only connection I have ever striven for in my life.
(Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Montreal: Engendra Press; Reprint Chicago UP, 1976), p. 36)

Lantana: Unless I’m mistaken, Kraus also said, of himself as a writer-artist, that:

An understanding of my work is impeded by a knowledge of my material. People don’t realize that what is there must first be invented, and that it is worth inventing. Nor do they see that a satirist for whom people exist as though he had invented them needs more strength than one who invents persons as though they existed. (Halftruths, p. 34)

Verbena: And it was Kraus who reminded us that, at least when it comes to writing about the truth (though perhaps it’s not applicable to experiencing or understanding certain truths):

The real truths are those that can be invented. (Half Truths, p. 60)

Lantana: Then, though still out of Austria, but after Kraus, emerged Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), a man who may have seen a few flowers on a stroll from Grantchester village to Cambridge town proper. What might he have imagined while walking along the banks of the River Cam? We know only what our cousins living in those fertile fields have told us. That it was Wittgenstein who said:

What is in the imagination is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.
(“Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” 317–18; see also Philosophical Investigations, (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), I. no. 301)

Verbena: Then there are those after Wittgenstein. Remember when C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), a sort of Northern-Irish Oxonian Englishman, appeared in Cambridge? What did he say about the imagination?

Lantana: He said (and I think he meant this both anatomically and musically):

Imagination is the organ of meaning.
(“Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford UP. 1939); reprinted in The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black, (NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 49)

Verbena: And there was also Lewis’s friend and intellectual sparring partner, Owen Barfield (1898–1997), who tried to teach humans what we wildflowers already know. That:

Imagination is the marriage of spirit and sense.
(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 79)

Lantana: Barfield also said:

Perception is what we see; imagination is how we look at it.
(Barfield, “Matter, Imagination, and Spirit,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (December 1974): 621–29 at 626.)

Bittersweet (But Better): Imagined Pain and Painful Imagination

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Bittersweet (But Better):
Imagined Pain and Painful Imagination

But imagination is not always fun and games. Pain can be imagined. Pain is part of the imagination. One can imagine being in pain. And to actually be in pain may have something to do with the imagination. And by “pain,” I don’t necessarily mean “icepick through the occipital,” kind of physical pain. It can be emotional pain, like sorrow, as with Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s–1400) and his Book of the Duchess (1368):

For [sory] imaginacioun
Is alway hoolly in my minde. (ll. 14–15)

Or imagination can couple with other emotional pains, like anxiety, like depression, as when the character of Satan recognizes early in the Paradise Lost (1667) of John Milton (1608–1674) that:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. (I, 254–55)

Or imagination may bed with amorous pains for a fling, as when Stendhal (1783–1842) recognizes in his exploration of De lamour (1822):

The difficulty of forgetting a woman with whom you have been happy is that the imagination tirelessly continues to evoke and embellish moments of the past.
(De l’amour, trans. Gilbert and Suzanne Sale, (New York: Penguin, 1957, 1975), (I, xxxix, ii), p. 129)

But too much labor and toil can wear down (and out) the imagination, as when Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) saw in his first volume of Democracy in America (1835):

In the Southern States the more immediate wants of life are always supplied; the inhabitants of those parts are not busied in the material cares of life, which are always provided for by others; and their imagination is diverted to more captivating and less definite objects. The American of the South is fond of grandeur, luxury, and renown, of gayety, of pleasure, and above all of idleness; nothing obliges him to exert himself in order to subsist; and as he has no necessary occupations, he gives way to indolence, and does not even attempt what would be useful.

But the equality of fortunes, and the absence of slavery in the North, plunge the inhabitants in those same cares of daily life which are disdained by the white population of the South. They are taught from infancy to combat want, and to place comfort above all the pleasures of the intellect or the heart. The imagination is extinguished by the trivial details of life, and the ideas become less numerous and less general, but far more practical and more precise. As prosperity is the sole aim of exertion, it is excellently well attained; nature and mankind are turned to the best pecuniary advantage, and society is dexterously made to contribute to the welfare of each of its members, whilst individual egotism is the source of general happiness.
(Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, (London: Saunders and Otley, 1835), (I, xviii), p. 364)

Even the pains of impotence can be intertwined with the imagination, as when novelist Ian Fleming (1908–1964) writes of his spy character James Bond in Casino Royale (1953):

The doctor had talked often to Bond about his injuries. He had always told him that there would be no evil effects from the terrible battering his body had received. He had said that Bond’s full health would return and that none of his powers had been taken from him. But the evidence of Bond’s eyes and his nerves refused these comforting assurances. He was still painfully swollen and bruised and whenever the injections wore off he was in agony. Above all, his imagination had suffered. For an hour in that room with Le Chiffre the certainty of impotence had been beaten into him and a scar had been left on his mind that could only be healed by experience.
(Casino Royale, (Las Vegas: Thomas and Mercer, 1953, 2012), (XXI), p. 138)

When we see an animal in pain, we fulfill fellow Venetian writer Karl Kraus’s (1874–1936) observation: “When animals yawn, they have human faces.” Or, as fellow-Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) might’ve put it: we interpret the animal’s behavior to mean what a human might feel like in pain. But we don’t imagine a dog experiencing pain in only a way a dog could experience pain. Instead, we hear it yelp and see it limp and know that it is in pain. But how? (Kraus, Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn, (Montreal: Engendra Press; Reprint Chicago UP, 1976) p. 120; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009) I. nos. 283, 285, 350.)

Elsewhere,* Wittgenstein explains:

Pain in the imagination is not a picture.


What is in the imagination is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.

*(“Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” 317–18; Philosophical Investigations, I. no. 300–301)

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind (Part II of II)

Mark Twain in Athens

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind
(Part II of II)

Wildfire on the mind-lands, burning books and paintings, consuming ink and hue—this marks the imagination in action. It reaches for Van Gogh one moment, Kafka the next. Flames lick at critical reflections from Arendt and Kaufmann—smoke and soot surround C. S. Lewis and J. S. Mill in Dickensian fashion. The prairie is full of fire. The enveloping imagination burns wild.

Last time at Bookbread, readers were initially presented with comments by Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) on Kafka and van Gogh and how the final act of creation occurs when the audience begins to think:

It often appears in works of art, especially in Kafka’s early prose pieces or in some paintings of van Gogh where a single object, a chair, a pair of shoes, is represented. But these art works are thought-things, and what gives them their meaning—as though they were not just themselves but for themselves—is precisely the transformation they have undergone when thinking took possession of them.
(The Life of the Mind Vol. I. Thinking, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), p.184)

Arendt’s remarks should be compared to those of Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) when he compares the letters of Kafka (1883–1924) to those by Van Gogh (1853–1890). Kaufmann sees a similarity in how each artist was able to almost detach themselves from themselves while thinking about themselves:

If ever a great artist worked under the spell of inspiration it was Vincent van Gogh. He created literally hundreds of the finest paintings in the world in a mere four years. Of his high emotional tension and total, self-sacrificing devotion there is no doubt, yet his copious letters to his brother show how far he was from regarding the fruits of his inspiration as sacrosanct. Even when committed to an asylum, he never lost or disparaged his critical powers. He discussed his works as well as his situation with a rarely equaled lucidity that furnishes a startling contrast to Buber, not to speak of Benjamin, Adorno, and Heidegger. Freud’s and Kafka’s letters are also free of falseness, pretense, and murkiness but not so intense. All three men—van Gogh, Kafka, and Freud—were distinguished by an amazing capacity for detachment from themselves and could see themselves from above.
(Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 256)

At one point in the 1919 letter to his father, Kafka’s explains what he’s trying to do with his writing:

I have already indicated that in my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me.
(Brief An Den Vater (Letter to his Father), trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, (New York: Schocken. 1971), p. 117)

And about forty years before Kafka’s letter, at one point in a letter to his brother, Van Gogh explains what he’s trying to do with his painting:

Of the drawings which I will show you now I think only this: I hope they will prove to you that I am not remaining stationary in my work, but progress in a direction that is reasonable. As to the money value of my work, I do not pretend to anything else than that it would greatly astonish me if my work were not just as salable in time as that of others. Whether that will happen now or later I cannot of course tell, but I think the surest way, which cannot fail, is to work from nature faithfully and energetically. Feeling and love for nature sooner or later find a response from people who are interested in art. It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work, so that it becomes intelligible to other people.
(“To Theo, The Hague, July 31, 1882,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. (London: Constable, 1929), ed. Mark Roskill, (New York: Touchstone, 2008), pp. 159–60)

But back to Arendt and her observation that “the transformation they [Kafka and Van Gogh’s early works] have undergone when thinking took possession of them”––for C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), the great artist like Kafka or Van Gogh presents a “total response to the world”:

Very roughly, we might almost say that in Rhetoric imagination is present for the sake of passion (and, therefore, in the long run, for the sake of action), while in poetry passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health—the rightness and richness of a man’s total response to the world….

The idea of a poetry which exists only for the poet—a poetry which the public rather overhears than hears––is a foolish novelty in criticism. There is nothing specially admirable in talking to oneself.
(A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford UP, 1942; Galaxy Book, 1961), p. 54)

Lewis is here riffing on an earlier observation by John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) that:

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action. (“What is Poetry?” (1833))

Between Kaufmann, Lewis, and Mill, readers might surmise: whatever the status of the reader, writer-artists tend to overhear themselves when they are rereading-rewriting their works. As overhearers of their own works, writer-artists must somewhat negate themselves during the act of overhearing (if overhearing here means the process of rereading-rewriting). The enveloping imagination negates as it consumes. Yet a fire cannot catch itself on fire…..


I think Kafka hints at the overhearing-through-reading mentioned by Mill when, in an early story, Kafka’s character of Raban points out the inevitable connections that are made between reading two random works:

“Well, it isn’t so important,” Raban said. “I was only going to say books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.”
(“Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country”) (1907–08), trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 74–75)

It is as if, while reading, one overhears the comparison of one book to another, or one passage from one book to another (much like how this blog post was written).

Van Gogh was, at least in his early life, notoriously unmethodical (that is, random) in his reading. As his sister-in-law Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger observed:

No other thing has taken its place yet; he draws much and reads much, among others, Dickens, Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, and Michelet, but it is all done without system or aim.
(“Memoir by His Sister-in-Law,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, p. 50)

And as Mark Roskill, editor of Van Gogh’s letters, put it:

It was characteristic of him to identify himself with fictional heroes, and to pick out from the books he read whatever seemed to have a moral and spiritual application to his own destiny.
(“[Note to] To Theo, Paris, February 19, 1876,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, p. 94)

Other critics of Vincent have noted:

Van Gogh always needed an intellectual framework for defending his opinions, his projects, and the positions he took. When he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos, for example, he plumbed Michelet in search of justifications for his stubborn arguments for marriage, contrary to the opinions of everyone around him, and also contrary to the wishes of the person in question. Along the way, he did not hesitate to take quotations out of context, to abbreviate them, to paraphrase them … an effective way of joining ranks with a thinker whose aura and gravity preclude any attempt at further argument.
(Wouter van der Veen and Peter Knapp, Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days, (New York: Monacelli Press, 2009), pp. 40–41)

Yet is there any way the arguments in this blog post could be taken further?


Let the present reader find something more random than Bookbread can feed them—perhaps only then could the argument be carried along to some new place—only by a kind of overhearing of oneself whilst reading….. burning while brooding…. the enveloping imagination transfixed on the unbound horizon of the mind-land prairie it has yet to consume…. yearning to burn all into the background.

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind (Part I of II)


The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind
(Part I of II)

This fire, these flames, is and are the imagination ablaze across the range and country and prairies and hollows and wildlands that encompass the globe of my mind. Here this mad rush of heat and energy waves both smoke and light on acquired knowledge and endured experience.

This enveloping imagination of mine reaches for whatever it can grab, then, connects it with the larger patch of bursting energy burning across the semiconscious land.

The flames grab Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and her remarks on certain works by Kafka and van Gogh––how the final act of creation occurs when the reader-listener-viewer begins to think:

It often appears in works of art, especially in Kafka’s early prose pieces or in some paintings of van Gogh where a single object, a chair, a pair of shoes, is represented. But these art works are thought-things, and what gives them their meaning—as though they were not just themselves but for themselves—is precisely the transformation they have undergone when thinking took possession of them.
(The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking, p. 184)

And flames of the enveloping imagination found and flung and fed on Arendt’s comments, then, connected them to passages from that tale from 1912––“Das Urteil” (“The Judgement”) by Franz Kafka (1883–1924)––and that tale’s absences of the character of “mother” and of the place of “Russia”––and how those absences reemphasize and highlight the ideas of “mother” and “Russia” rather than negate them:

Two years ago his mother had died, since when he and his father had shared the household together, and is friend had of course been informed of that and had expressed his sympathy in a letter phrased so dryly that the grief caused by such an event, one had to conclude, could not be realized in a distant country….

Georg stared at the bogey conjured up by his father. His friend in St. Petersburg, whom his father suddenly knew too well, touched his imagination as never before. Lost in the vastness of Russia he saw him. At the door of an empty, plundered warehouse he saw him. Among the wreckage of his showcases, the slashed remnants of his wares, the falling gas brackets, he was just standing up. Why did he have to go so far away! ….

 “You have no friend in St. Petersburg. You’ve always been a leg-puller and you haven’t even shrunk from pulling my leg. How could you have a friend out there! I can’t believe it,” [said Georg’s father].
(“Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 78, 85, 83)


And the flames move on. They now consider and consume shoes painted by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890):

(Wiki Commons)


The flames now run wild—consuming and connecting everything before them. Before Arendt, Kafka, and van Gogh, there was Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781), who suggests in a line from his play Emilia Galotti (1772), that “one praises the artist most when, in looking at his work, one forgets to praise him.”

(Nathan the Wise, Minna von Barnhelm, and Other Plays and Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Anna Johanna Gode von Aesch, (New York: Continuum, 1991), I, iv, p. 80).

Somewhat following Arendt, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) encouraged readers to ponder the negation and opposition of an idea, if one is to understand the motivations behind that idea. This process of imagining the negative—as in the case of Van Gogh’s shoes––is, at least according to Kaufmann, sometimes but haphazardly called Hegelian dialectic.

(Discovering the Mind Vol. I: Goethe, Kant, and Hegel, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 266).


The fire now burns deep: it compares C. S. Peirce (1839–1914)––a reader, but perhaps, not a follower of Hegel––and how, as Peirce and fellow philosopher-logicians might say that the sociology of humans being is based on semiotics––though non-philosopher-logicians might instead say that a human’s place in his or her community is itself a symbolic relation—a relation where the human is a symbol to the community. As Peirce puts it:

There is no element whatever of mans consciousness which has not something corresponding to it in the word; and the reason is obvious. It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign; so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the word homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought….

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man.
(“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2 (1868))


Flame and soot and smoke and ember—elements indeed of any and all’s imagination––now burn close. Closer to our own time, Umberto Eco (1932–2016) summarizes what Peirce is getting at:

It may seem paradoxical to talk of the icon, which Peirce held was the first moment of an absolute evidence, as pure disposition-to, of pure absence in some way, an image of a thing that is not there yet. It would seem that this primary icon is like a hole, given that we have everyday experience of it but nonetheless have difficulty defining it, and given that 152 can be recognized only as an absence within something that is present. And yet it is precisely from that nonbeing that one can infer the shape of the “plug” that could stop it up.
(“Cognitive Types and Nuclear Content,” Kant e lornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition), trans. Alastair McEwen, (New York: Harcourt, 1997), pp. 110–11. On the point of the plug, Eco cites: Roberto Casati and Achilie C. Varzi, Holes and Other Superficialities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994))

Wittgenstein (1889–1951) has also pointed out that space and object probably cannot be logically isolated. My imagination says I should say “probably” because Wittgenstein left some possibility open by suggesting we humans may not have yet exercised our imaginations to the fullest extent—we have not yet burned through everything:

An atmosphere that is inseparable from its object—is no atmosphere.

Closely associated things, things which have been associated, seem to fit one another. But in what way do they seem to fit? How does it come out that they seem to fit? Like this, for example: we cannot imagine the man who had this name, this face, this handwriting, not to have produced these works, but perhaps quite different ones instead (those of another great man).

We cannot imagine it? Do we try?––

(Philosophie der Psychologie – Ein Fragment (Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment) [formerly Philosophical Investigations Part II] in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009), (II, vi, 50), p. 192)

Or, as Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, imagination “seeks to sink itself entirely in the thing perceived.”

(Romanticism Comes of Age, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1967), p. 39).


Do readers-listeners-viewers really sink themselves into Kafka’s quasi-stories and the painted shoes depicted by van Gogh? I really don’t know. But it sort of makes sense to meme, neither firefighter nor firestarter—me, only a beholder of the enveloping imagination burning across my mind’s land.

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.

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

In the fourth book of the Confessions, Rousseau of Geneva says his imagination was too fertile to appreciate Paris:

How contrary to what I had expected was my first sight of Paris! The external ornament I had seen in Turin, the fine streets, the symmetry and disposition of the houses, all this made me look for something better still in Paris. I had imagined a city as broad as it was fair, whose every aspect was imposing, where all one would see were magnificent streets and palaces of marble and gold. Entering by the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, I saw nothing but dirty, stinking little streets, dark and ugly houses, an air of filth and poverty, beggars, carters, old crones mending, hawkers of herbal teas and old hats. I was so immediately and so forcibly struck by it all that none of the true splendour I later saw in Paris has erased this first impression, and I have been left ever since with a secret dislike of living in this capital.

It could even be said that such time as I have spent there since has been wholly devoted to acquiring the means to enable me to live somewhere else. Such is the fruit of too lively an imagination, which exaggerates still further the exaggerations of others, and always enhances what it is told. I had always heard Paris acclaimed in such terms that I had pictured it to myself as a second Babylon, although, had I seen this city, I might perhaps have found that it, too, fell no less short of the portrait I had painted of it in my mind’s eye.

The same thing happened at the Opéra, which I rushed to visit the next day; the same thing happened later at Versailles, later still when I saw the sea, and the same thing will always happen when I see sights that have been too warmly recommended: for it is impossible for men and difficult for nature herself to outdo my fertile imagination.

(Confessions (1779), trans. Angela Scholar, ed. Patrick Coleman, (New York: Oxford, 1994, 2008), IV, p. 155.)

And these thoughts on imagination from Rousseau came to me in the middle of traffic—when I saw the blinker to the car in front of me indicating it would soon turn left. Then, of course, the car slowed down and turned right.

The expectation I imagined (of the car turning left) turned out to be false. It turned out to be the exact opposite of what one should expect from such an indication.

Chaucer might’ve said of this an example that “Thou hast a veyn imaginacioun,” (The Knight’s Tale, Part I, ll. 1091–93).

Spenser might’ve said that I have a “gross imagination” from reading too many “rude Irish books,” (See Endnote).

Milton might add to this conversation that “man will hearken to his glozing lies,” (Paradise Lost, III, 93)––whether “his” means the lies of Satan or those of other men.

But then comes Lord Bacon, to remind me that:

Fascination is the power and act of imagination intensive upon other bodies than the body of the imaginant, for of that we spake in the proper place….

But for mine own judgemt it, if it be admitted that imagination hath power, and that ceremonies fortify imagination, and that they be used sincerely and intentionally for that purpose.

(The Advancement of Learning (1605), ed. William Aldis Wright (1858), (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957, fifth edition), (II, xi, 2), p. 146.)

For “superstition,” Bacon tells readers, “erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men.” Still:

There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.

(“Of Superstition,” Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral (1625) in Essays, ed. Brian Vickers, (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 39–40.)

I am but at the mercy of my imagination, whether it be vain, gross, rude, glozing with lies, or perhaps fascinating, or perhaps, as seems to be somewhat the case with the insincere blinker in Austin traffic, superstitious.


An endnote from Spenser:

Eudox. Believe me, this observations of yours, Irenaeus, is very good and delightfull; far beyond the blinde conceipt of some, who (I remember) have upon the same word Ferragh, made a very blunt conjecture, as namely Mr. Stanihurst, who though he be the same country man borne, that should search more nearly into the secret of these things; yet hath strayed from the truth all the heavens wyde, (as they say,) for he thereupon groundeth a very groose imagination, that the Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, first under the leading of one Scota the daughter of Pharoah, whereupon the use (saith he) in all their battailes to call upon the name of Pharaoh, crying Ferragh, Ferragh. Surely he shootes wyde on the bow hand, and very far from the marke. For I would first know of him what auncienet ground of authority he hath for such a senselesse fable, and if he have any of the rude Irish books, as it may be hee hath, yet (me seems) that a man of his learning should not so lightly have bin carried away with old wives tales, from approvance of his owne reason; for whether it be a smack of any learned iudgment, to say, that Scota is like an Egyptian word, let the learned iudge. But his Scota rather comes of the Greek [Greek], that is, darknes, which hath not let him see the light of the truth.

(A View of the State of Ireland (c. 1596, 1633), eds. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, (Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1997), p. 60.)