Kafka and Rilke









About {theme} theory

This is used in various places on the page. The most important single {theme} is {linkage}, < >, which, like other {themes}, plays a fundamental role in the mind's making sense of experience, as well as concepts not originating in experience. For more detailed information about the {themes} and my approach, a study of Introduction to {theme} theory would be very useful (I have to say, indispensable). From the introduction:  

'{theme} theory is completely general and philosophy is only one application-sphere. These illustrative examples are very diverse in subject matter and  in degree of abstraction: for example ethical argument, concrete problems in applied ethics, Nazi atrocities, Stalin, the death penalty, mathematical and philosophical relations, the completion of a  proof, scientific correlation.  There are also marked differences in tone: the tone appropriate to abstract and systematic subject matter but also forthright criticism, for example of Nietzsche, the juxtaposition sometimes of the abstract and  the impassioned.'

'{theme} theory is based upon the conscious, and justifiable, ignoring in many cases of sphere-boundaries, such as the boundaries separating the material sphere, the conceptual sphere, the spheres of the different senses. A mathematician may attack a problem in the mind just as a soldier may attack an all-too-concrete machine-gun post. A scientific model may be material, the model constructed from materials of different kinds, such as wood and plastic, or the model may be purely conceptual, without material expression. Scientific modelling is an activity which can be practised in material or conceptual ways. Linkages may be material, such as a connecting rod in a mechanical system linking mechanical components or non-material, such as the ties of shared history linking, in some cases, nations.' Metaphor is also concerned with the crossing of sphere-boundaries but {theme} theory is a more general study, with much wider applicability. I apply {theme} theory to the study of metaphor in metaphor and {theme}.

List of {themes}:

{adjustment} Ā
{contrast} ( )
{distance} D
{linkage} < >
{ordering} Ō
{resolution} ®
{restriction} ==
{reversal} «
{separation} //
{substitution} S

In the list, the name of each {theme} is followed by the symbol for the {theme}. Clicking on the {theme} gives access to a page which gives instances of the {theme}. These instances show something of the range of {theme} theory, which addresses the most diverse areas of human experience and knowledge.




See also my discussion (on the page Seamus Heaney: translations and versions) of Seamus Heaney's translations of two poems by Rilke, 'After the Fire' and 'The Apple Orchard,' and my own translations of the poems, as well as my contrast  of Rilke with the Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, the author of the 'Laments.' 

All the translations on this page are my own, except for some quotations from Rilke's letters, Kafka's letters to Felice and Kafka's diaries. The translators of these are acknowledged.

This is a page about Rilke and Kafka, not of course a book. I discuss only a few aspects, but one of them, {restriction}, I regard as decisive. Kafka emerges from the discussion with his importance confirmed, in fact, enhanced, Rilke as far less important, someone whose reputation has been  inflated.  These two literary artists, linked by background, as members of the German-speaking minority amongst  the Czech-speaking majority of Prague, are at very different levels of accomplishment.

Rilke has surface profundity and very often not much more than that. Now, more than ever, denial of {restriction} is the source of endless illusion and disillusionment. Very many people are unable to acknowledge  harshness, unable to recognize {restriction} on their freedom of action, expect no {restriction} on their happiness. They have 'extravagant expectations' (the title of the book by Paul Hollander.) Rilke's denial of checks, frustrations, obstacles, harshness, undermines so much of his poetic work. His sustained exploration of inwardness is undeniably impressive, but is insufficient compensation for the emphasis on the disembodied life, his neglect of the embodied life. His emphasis on inwardness has a linkage with his neglect of the embodied life. In his case, the {restriction} he denied was not on anything so commonplace and important as happiness, but on something much rarer. It's expressed in one of his statements of 'surface profundity:' “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches ...' (Letters to a Young Poet.) This may have been good advice in the case of this poet and his plight, but it would be hideous advice for many others - for millions of others.

The daily life of the Jews starving in the Warsaw ghetto or in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp must have seemed poor, but they had no reason to blame themselves for not being poets enough to call forth its riches. At Treblinka extermination camp, the unspeakable sadist Gustav Wagner decided to shoot a woman and her baby. He shot her baby first and after the mother had witnessed the act, he shot her.

Rilke was writing before such events as these, but the horrors of the Second World War, like the horrors of the First World War, would surely have left him unmoved. When he was writing, acute poverty and destitution were commonplace. Many, many writers have ignored acute poverty and destitution, whilst retaining an ability to recognize the harshness in reality, but Rilke's ignorance of harshness, his inability to recognize {restriction}, makes any claim for him to be a serious writer impossible to take seriously. Rilke is very widely regarded as a serious writer but I think that this misconception will be undermined by the evidence I provide, at some length, even if the misconception is an understandable one.

{restriction} is central to Kafka.  In 'The Trial,' Joseph K.'s freedom of action is progressively restricted, in 'The Castle,' K. faces insuperable difficulties in reaching the castle. Although Kafka lived before the Nazi horrors (during which his three sisters were gassed at Auschwitz), his writing anticipated a world in which people faced insuperable difficulties in avoiding gassing in an extermination camp. Kafka's employment at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute surely helped to form his clear-sighted view of the world. It involved the investigation of accidents to industrial workers, such as falls from a height and loss of limbs.

'Ottla [one of Kafka's sisters] as the wife of an "Aryan," was exempt from Nazi orders affecting the Jews, an exemption that violated everything she believed in and, in her eyes, corrupted the very essence of her marriage. She therefore formally divorced her husband and ... was deported to the Terezin ghetto in August 1942. On October 5, 1943, she volunteered to escort a children's transport to Auschwitz,' where she died.' (Ernst Pawel, 'The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka.')

Compare the publishing history of Mozart's operas and Rilke's poetry and commentaries on Rilke. Georg Schünemann writing on Mozart's 'Cosi fan Tutte,' ' ... the full melodic and dramatic power of his years of mastery. The large number of ensembles gave him rich opportunity to heighten or resolve the dramatic conflicts, to deepen and ennoble the characters. Gravity and fun, truth and appearance, lies and deception are illumined by a magical glow that transfigures them all.' Georg Schünemann writing on Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro,' ' ... the time-honoured machinery of opera buffa - disguise, mistaken identity and intrigue - were freed of all routine elements and subordinated to a swiftly moving, lively interplay of passions and errors ... the opera buffa has become a reflection of human foibles and characters seen through the magical glow of Mozart's all-transfiguring melody.' Both of these comments appear in the prefaces to Georg Schünemann's Prefaces to the scores, with German translations of the libretto, dated Berlin, 1941. I've used his editions of these scores, like his edition of 'Don Giovanni,' many, many times as I've listened to the music. They're the basis of the well-known Dover edition.

In Nazi Germany and Austria, the music of Mozart was played, and often played outstandingly well. Norman Lebrecht (a flawed commentator but one with many strengths) has interesting things to say about the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan and David Böhm in his book 'The Maestro Myth.' All three conductors remained in Germany and Austria during the war. The commentator

Rilke too was honoured, or at least not banned. Before the war, but during the period of National Socialist domination of German (and Austrian) cultural life, including German and Austrian publishing, various books on Rilke were published, for example, Katharina Kippenberg's 'R M Rilke, ein Beitrag,' published in Leipzig in 1935, Ruth Mövius's 'R M Lilkes Stunden-Buch,' published in Leipzig in 1937. During the war, there were Fritz Klatt's 'Sieg über die Angst, published in Berlin in 1940, Lou Albert-Lasard's 'Wege mit Rilke,' published in Frankfurt in 1942, Magda von Hattingberg's 'Rilke und Benvenuta,' published in Vienna in 1943.

Kafka was Jewish, but it's unlikely that many - or any - volumes of Kafka were burned along with others in the bonfires of the night of May 10, 1933, such was his obscurity at that time. (The book-burning in Frankfurt is commemorated with a plaque in a road in the Altstadt.) If Kafka had survived as long as the Second World War, it's virtually certain that he wouldn't have survived it.

Rilke offers immense challenges to human complacency, but the Nazis obviously thought of him as a harmless, unsubversive writer. The Nazis recognized an aspect of his poetry which to them was reassuring but which to us could count as a limitation.

I've been reading the poetry of Rilke for a long time, with admiration for his strengths and increasing awareness of his limitations, as I see them. Some poets have marvellous powers of language undermined by a simple-mindedness, a stunted consciousness or other flaws. There are many, many ways to fail, ultimately, as an artist. Rilke, it seems to me, fails in 'evaluation.' He accepts almost everything, although it would be more true to say that he is only intermittently aware of the outside world. His exploration of 'inner space' has very great importance, but it was achieved at a ruinously high cost.

He brings to all the topics he writes about a depth, an urge to create profundity. He brings his profundity to bear on events which call for protest, opposition, a struggle against. He creates genuine profundity but far more often deluded profundity, just as the subconscious of the artist for some reason brings to the surface so often dross as well as artistically important material, which requires the conscious mind to sift and distinguish. Rilke failed to sift and distinguish sufficiently. In practice, he ignored and was ignorant of many things, matters of vital importance (I write in the hope that here, I can restore to the word 'vital' some of the force of 'vita,' 'life.')

He obviously knew that the First World War was recalcitrant and discordant (although he lacked the awareness of suffering to know just how discordant) and couldn't be brought into his world of acceptance, so although he lived through the conflict, he ignored it.

Kafka ignored it too, almost completely. There were, of course, evasions, massive gaps - {restriction} - in his clear-sighted examination of reality. He was vastly more able than Rilke to recognize his evasions, but there were evasions undetected by his phenomenal power of insight.

His diary entry for 6 August, 1914: 'I discover in myself nothing but pettiness, indecision, envy, and hatred against those who are fighting and whom I passionately wish everything evil.

'What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me. But the strength I can muster for that portrayal is not to be counted upon: perhaps it has already vanished forever, perhaps it will come back to me again, although the circumstances of my life don't favour its return.'

Later, in the entry for the same day:

'Patriotic parade. Speech by the major. Disappears, then reappears, and a shout in German: 'Long live our beloved monarch, hurrah!' I stand there with my malignant look. These parades are one of the most disgusting accompaniments of the war.' (Translation by Martin Greenberg with the co-operation of Hannah Arendt.)

In his letter to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, he writes (3 March, 1915), 'All I want is peace, but the kind of peace that is beyond people's understanding. Obviously - since no one in any ordinary household needs the kind of peace necessary to me; neither reading, nor studying, nor sleeping, in fact nothing needs the kind of peace I need for writing.' (Translation, James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth.) Obviously, this is far from the peace which would have ended the conflict of the warring nations.

Rilke brought the bullfight into his 'transfiguring' vision, in the poem 'Corrida: In memoriam Montez, 1830.' Francisco Montez was a bullfighter who developed a new technique for killing the bull. (Not all new techniques, not all innovations have to be welcomed. They have to be evaluated.)

A false note - a note of complete falsification, of complete distortion - appears in the first stanza:

Seit er, klein beinah, aus dem Toril
ausbrach, aufgescheuchten Augs und Ohrs,
und den Eigensinn des Picadors
und die Bänderhaken wie im Spiel.

Since, small almost, from the holding pen
he erupted, with startled eyes and ears,
and took the stubbornness of the picador
and the beribboned barbs as a game.

A game! After the wounds caused by the picador thrusting his lance into the bull, it's impossible that the 'beribboned barbs,' the banderillas, could ever be a game. The poem closes insidiously with the  sword thrust which ends the bull's life. Of course, Rilke could never have rendered the terrors of battle, the hacking and stabbing of older battles or the terrors of battle in an industrial age, and he could not view this sword thrust as anything but a momentous event in a higher plane. Although not a sentimentalist himself (his failure has to be called by a different name) he has a clear linkage with sentimentalists.

As when he wrote about the panther in its cage at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, Rilke writes in this poem as if these things have to be, could not be otherwise. He doesn't separate, as he should, death, suffering, deprivation which are an inescapable part of the human (and animal) condition, and particular instances which aren't inescapable. A contemporary attitude isn't better simply because it's contemporary - the necessary distinctions have to be made, contemporary attitudes have to be made the subject of criticism just as much as past attitudes. But I think that the contemporary appreciation of animal suffering, so much greater than anything in the past, is a real advance. It's certainly an appreciation with very deep foundations: philosophical arguments, scholarship, a thorough and wide-ranging examination which demands respect.

But Rilke's understanding was deep as well as bafflingly simple-minded and his understanding of animals was deep as well as subject to severe {restriction}. This is his note (to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe) on the phrase 'flehend nah wie das Gesicht von Hunden,' in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus, (II, 23). This happened in Spain, in Cordoba: 'an ugly little bitch, in the last stage of pregnancy, came up to me. She was not a remarkable animal, was full of accidental puppies over whom no great fuss would be made, but since we were all alone, she came over to me, hard as it wa or her, and raised her eyes enlarged by trouble and inwardness and sought my glance ... the action was nothing but giving and receiving, yet the sense and the seriousness and the whole silent understanding was beyond all bounds.'

This is obviously deep, but not nearly as deep as it appears on a superficial reading. The look of the bitch is one that many perceptive people will have noticed, even though Rilke expresses it with consummate skill. The 'accidental puppies over whom no great fuss would be made' would, most of them or all of them, surely be drowned or killed off by other means or die very quickly of starvation or disease. From my discussion of Seamus Heaney's poem St Kevin and the Blackbird, written not by Seamus Heaney - the insight was well beyond his scope:  'The dogs that are brought in suffer from distempers, from broken limbs, from infected bites, from mange, from neglect, benign or malign, from old age, from malnutrition, from intestinal parasites, but most of all from their own fertility. There are simply too many of them. When people bring a dog in they do not say straight out, 'I have brought you this dog to kill,' but that is what is expected...'

Rilke was unable to see the bitch's pregnancy in those terms, in terms other than inwardness. He has his remarkable powers of inwardness and he attributes an identical inwardness to the bitch, in this meeting of minds at least. The otherness of animals was far from being beyond his horizon, but he preferred to find sameness rather than otherness. The bull is very different, frisky, but the bull is seen in human terms, and by the end of the poem the bull is enacting completely the Rilkean stance.

Rilke is an important poet  of inwardness. Beauties and terrors owe their inner force to beautiful or terrifying outward events, but the realization of the inner is almost invariably more accomplished and more real than the realization of the outer. The outer isn't an autonomous sphere. Like the otherness of animals, the otherness of external reality is a function of his consciousness, even when the description is memorable.

The birds and the tree in 'The First Duino Elegy' are given no individuality. This isn't a fault. His poetry isn't the place to look for birds and trees described sensuously or in any detail. They  play their part in the Rilkean world but they are there to act in the empty 'spaces' which appear in this Elegy: 'Wen der Wind voller Weltraum ... ' 'When the wind full of world-space,' literally, and 'Wirf aus den Armen die Leere / zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atmen,' 'Fling the emptiness of your arms / out into the spaces we breathe.' The birds will benefit, perhaps, 'mit innigerm Flug,' 'with flight of more fervent inwardness.'

Stephen Mitchell translates 'mit innigerm Flug' as 'with more passionate flying.' 'Passionate' has suggestions of direct intense emotion, not Rilke's generally remote world of feeling. 'Remote' here should be interpreted in terms of {distance}, with no connotations of coldness.

Rilke's poetry has been described as 'solipsistic,' by, for example, the commentator Eudo C Mason, but it's better described as the exploration and enlargement of inner space, so that inner space becomes very rich, or apparently rich, better still, a disconcerting blend of richness and emptiness, but a space always more real than the world  outside the consciousness of the poet. The outer world, even when conveyed vividly, is sketched: sketches may be very vivid, of course. For Rilke, the outer world can never compete with inner space.

Rilke himself states some of the most important themes of his poetry and one of his characteristic ways of treating the themes, in The Seventh Elegy:

Nirgends, Geliebte, wird Welt sein, als innen. Unser
Leben geht hin mit Verwandlung. Und immer geringer
schwindet das Aussen ...

Nowhere, beloved, will world be but within us. Our
life passes in transformation. And always
the outer becomes more faint ...

From the First Duino Elegy:

Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, dass du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüburkamst am geöffneten Fenster,
gab eine Geige sich hin. Das alles war Auftrag.

Yes, the springtimes needed you, truly. Many a star
was there for you to sense it. There heaved
a wave towards you from the past, or
as you came by an open window,
a violin gave itself to you. All these were instructions.

This is the outer world serving the inner world. It can be viewed as archaic, with a linkage with the pre-scientific world view in which the outer world had a significance which the advance of science has made impossible to take seriously: the sun given to us as a light in the daytime, the moon given to us as a light at night, an intermittent light, though. Here, the star is given 'for you to sense it.' This poet of incomparable seriousness took too much too seriously, with gross failures in {adjustment}.

Kafka sees the outer world as sharply separated from the inner world, recalcitrant, unyielding, a source of difficulty and frustration, imposing severe {restriction}. This is a wonderful passage, in wonderful prose, from 'Das Schloss,' 'The Castle.' The 'land-surveyor' K. has arrived in the snow-bound village and is trying to reach the castle which overlooks the village:

'So ging er wieder vorwärts, aber es war ein langer Weg. Die Strasse nämlich, diese Hauptsrasse des Dorfes führte nicht zum Schlossberg, sie führte nur hahe heran, dann aber wie absichtlich bog sie ab und wenn sie sich auch vom Schloss nicht entfernte, so kam sie ihm doch auch nicht näher. Immer erwartete K., dass nun endlich die Strasse zum Schloss einlenken müsse, und nur weil er es erwartete ging er weiter; offenbar infolge seiner Müdigkeit zögerte er die Strasse zu verlassen, auch staunte er über die Länge des Dorfes, das kein Ende nahm, immerwieder die kleinen Häuschen und vereiste Fensterscheiben und Schnee und Menschenleere ...'

'So he walked on again, but the way was long. This street, this main street of the village, gave no access to the hill on which the Castle stood, it only led towards it and then, as if intentionally, turned aside, and even if it took him no further from the Castle, it took him no nearer either. K. was always expecting the road to lead back, eventually, to the Castle, and only because he was expecting this did he go on; he was unwilling, tired as he was, to leave the street, and he was amazed too by the length of the village, which had no end, again and again the little houses, and iced-over window-panes and snow and human absence ...'

Proust gives an instructive contrast (not least in Proust's matter-of-factness) in 'Du côté de chez Swann,' 'Combray' ('À la Recherch du Temps Perdu'). Marcel sees the steeples of Martinville:

Au tournant d' un chemin j' éprouvai tout à coup ce plaisir spécial qui ne ressemblait à aucun autre, à apercevoir les deux clochers de Martinville ... Les clochers paraissaient si éloignés et nous avions l' air de si peu nous rapprocher d' eux, que je fus étonné quand, quelques instants après, nous nous arrêtâmes devant l' église de Martinville.

'On the bend of a road I felt suddenly that special pleasure which was like no other, to catch sight of the two steeples of Martinville ... The steeples appeared so distant and we seemed to near them so little, that I was suprised when, a few moments later, we stopped in front of the church at Martinville.'

I view the angels of the first elegy and the other 'Duino elegies' and the Orpheus of 'The Sonnets to Orpheus' in the light of Rilke's indifference to the outward, the supremacy for him of the inward, which can populate reality so freely with angels.

Eudo C Mason in his book 'Rilke' is correct, to an extent: 'As Rilke himself emphatically declared, they are quite certainly not the angels of Christian tradition, nor are they objectively existent beings in whose reality he believed. They are then hypothetical, imaginary or symbolical entitities, but are invested with extreme density and magical, evocative force.' Rilke would never have viewed them so analytically. He could analyze in his prose works, in his commentary on the poems and his experiences, for example, but never in such terms as these. From my discussion of Seamus Heaney's poem Wolfe Tone, 'The Portuguese poet Pessoa (the 'orthonym') devised three 'heteronyms,' three poets writing contrasting poetry. More often than not, every poet who writes literary prose is an orthonym with at least one heteronym.' The poet and the prose writer are different people.

The associations of angels, prominent in Christian belief and in other theisms, will be almost impossible to overlook for many readers. Even without these associations, other readers will be distracted by speculations as to their status. At every mention of angels in the Elegies, these readers may try to think of them as 'hypothetical, imaginary or symbolical entities.' It does become progressively clearer, as the Elegies proceed, that these angels are unique and that their previous associations, and questions of their status, are almost but not quite irrelevant, but then there are new associations. The most significant is the linkage with puppets, I think, in The Fourth Elegy, which even so amounts only to this: 'Engel und Puppe,' 'Angel and puppet.'

Kitti Carriker writes in 'The Doll as Icon: the Semiotics of the Subject in Yeats's Poem 'The Dolls,' 'Little attention has been given to the problematic role played by the man-made double, the three-dimensional, physical figures such as dolls and puppets that fictional characters and craftsmen create in their own images. In Yeats's poetry, various representations from this group of literary automata appeal to the reader's fascination with and fear of images made in human likeness.' (In 'Yeats and Postmodernism,' edited by Leonard Orr.) Kitti Carriker makes a notable contribution to the neglected study of the topic.

Rilke has his angels. Hölderlin has his 'Gewaltigen,' 'mighty ones, which are more formidable than angels, without their distracting associations:

Nur einen Sommer gönnt, ihr Gewaltigen!

Just one summer grant me, you mighty one!

This is the opening line of 'An die Parzen,' 'To the Fates.'

The angels are introduced in the opening lines of The First Elegy:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetz selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Who, if I cried out, then, would hear me among the angels'
orders? and even if one took me
suddenly to his heart, I would be consumed by his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of the terrifying, which we still just endure,
and we admire it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Each angel is terrifying.

The translation of 'wenn ich schriee.' J B Leishman, A J Poulin and William H Gass translate this as 'cried,' which is ambiguous. It could refer to 'weeping,' all the more so as in lines 8 and 9 there's 'den Lockruf / dunkelen Schluchzens,' 'the call / of my dark sobbing,' but 'schriee' means 'cried out' or, as in Galway Kinnell's translation 'screamed out.' William Gass explains that he uses 'cry' rather than 'cry out' because the poet's 'cry' will not be heard - but this is a conditional - 'if he cried out.'

I translate 'aus der Engel / Ordnungen' as 'among the angels' / orders' to preserve initial vowel sounds, given emphasis here.

Here, the 'existence' in which Rilke has so little interest is, in the original, the word 'Dasein,' which has such prominence in Heidegger's 'Sein und Zeit,' 'Being and Time.'

In poetry, as in our own experience in general, the later can give {modification} of some aspects of the earlier: Heidegger's later use may modify our understanding of the earlier use. When Heidegger introduces Dasein, he discusses its ontology (1,7): ' ... we must first give a proper explanation of an entity (Dasein) with regard to its Being.' 'Being' here translates the German 'Sein,' the infinitive of the verb 'to be.' I think that Heidegger's use of Dasein, his long series of discussions and concrete uses of the word which make it one of the intensively discussed words in German philosophy, is important and has relevance to its translation in this elegy, but even if this isn't thought to be important, examination of the ontological status of Dasein, of its mode of being, makes philosophical sense. Marjorie Perloff suggests 'being' for Dasein, but in Heidegger, 'Being' is used in the ontological examination of Dasein. In section 1, 9 after the introduction, he states 'The essence of Dasein lies in its existence.' More important for me than Heidegger's use of Dasein is the distinction between existence and being in analytic philosophy according to one influential view, as here: ' ... the question arises whether existence should be distinguished from being. For example, in Principles of Mathematics (1903), Russell claims that such a distinction is in fact presupposed by any denial of existence: "what does not exist must be something, or it would be meaningless to deny its existence.' (Paul Gochet, 'Quantifiers, Being and Canonical Notation,' in 'A Companion to Philosophical Logic.') The ontology of Rilke's angels is a difficult one but I take it that they require 'existence' rather than simply 'being' - for the purposes of the poem, without regard to their actual non-existence.

These considerations have a bearing on the translation of Dasein, not Rilke's use of Dasein. This is quite simple and unproblematic. Most poets don't have and don't need the thought processes of a philosopher, whether systematic or otherwise. The matter can't be decided conclusively, but Rilke probably never gave analytical thought to the question: is the Dasein of the angels hypothetical, imaginary or symbolic?

The angels are presented in the opening lines of The First Elegy with a semantic force greater than in every later context. Even here, the crying out of the angels is vivid, the angels' 'stronger 'Dasein,' as Rilke puts it, has weak semantic force. Commentators have concentrated their attention on this introduction of the angels and neglected their later appearances, when they generally amount to 'mentions.' Commentators have generally failed to give an adequate ((survey)) of the angels. Eudo C Mason was mistaken. In almost all their appearances, the angels aren't 'invested with extreme density and magical, evocative force.'

The Second Elegy begins, 'Jeder Engel ist schrecklich,' 'Each angel is terrifying,' and then immediately moves on. The Fifth Elegy has an almost domesticated angel: 'Engel! o nimms, pflücks, das kleinblütige Heilkraut. / Schaff eine Vase, verwahrs! ... ' 'Angel! Take, pick the small-flowered herb of healing. / Create a vase, keep it safe! ... ' Picking a small-flowered herb of healing seems to me a rare descent into sentimentality. Later in The Fifth Elegy, the angel becomes someone to talk to, to tell the angel about things which turn out to have nothing to do with the angel, about lovers:

Engel! Es wäre ein Platz, den wir nicht wissen, und dorten,
und unsäglichem Teppich, zeigten die Liebenden, die's hier
bis zum Können nie bringen ...

Angel! If there were a place we didn't know, and there,
on some unsayable carpet, lovers displayed, what here
they could never bring to ability ... ' (Compare the carpet with the rugs which had such significance for Seamus Heaney  in the poem Tate's Avenue.)

The Ninth Elegy has a more extended reference, but this is simply mention extended

Preise dem Engel die Welt, nicht die unsägliche, ihm
kannst du nicht grosstun mit herrlich Erfühltem; im Weltall
wo er fühlender fühlt, bist du ein Neuling ...

despite the impressive sound-linkage, the impressive comparative, of  'fühlender fühlt.'

Praise the world to the angel, not the unsayable world. Him
you can't impress with magnificent emotion / in the universe
where he feels more feelingly, you are a novice ...

The Tenth Elegy has an almost perfunctory mention, in line 2:

Dass ich dereinst, an dem Ausgang der grimmigen Einsicht,
Jubel und Ruhm aufsinge zustimmenden Engeln.

Let me, some day, leaving behind grim insight,
sing out in rejoicing and praise for angels in agreement.

In The First Elegy, 'For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of the terrifying' is deservedly celebrated, magnificent, but this can't be applied to our own experience without interpretation. The outward causes of the terrifying for Rilke were vastly less important than the inner causes. The terrors of The First World War, for example, which Rilke lived through, but not, of course, as a combatant, were not the terrors which Rilke had in mind.

I translate 'des Schrecklichen Anfang' as 'the beginning of the terrifying' not as 'the beginning of terror' for consistency. Later, the same adjective is used of the angels, 'each angel is terrifying.'

The magnificent poetic impact of 'beauty is nothing / but the beginning of the terrifying,' which may or may not bear further examination, which may or may not have something of extraordinary importance for our understanding, is blunted a little by 'each angel is terrifying.' We can accept the angels as part of the poem, but for most of us, the angels are very unlikely to be terrifying.

I state my conclusion. The angels were a miscalculation. The 'Duino Elegies' would have been better without them. They no doubt had such appeal for him as beings who could experience emotion but not emotion with a bodily basis, beings who, unlike people, did not feel emotions he considered sordid. Even if he had never made use of the angels, the poetry which is considered to be his greatest would have retained the radical, decisive flaw of being disembodied of failing to acknowledge {restriction}. Robert Frost, acknowledging the need for voluntary acceptance of {restriction} in the writing of poetry,  declined to write free verse because 'I'd just as soon play tennis with the net down.' Because he failed to acknowledge {restriction} so comprehensively, Rilke's poetry is facile, despite appearances.

His poetry is not just selective but evasive. It goes without saying that Rilke never worked as a roofer, scaffolder, window cleaner or mason. (If this seems crude, an intrusion into the Rilkean sanctum, then the fault lies with Rilke, I think. An intrusion into the preciousness of his poetic world is justifiable.) If he had, he would have appreciated not just the terror of beauty but the terror of heights, the terror of literal falling, the terror of fractures and dislocations.

This, on falling, is beautiful, but perhaps its beauty begins to seem less impressive with critical intelligence, not the uncritical reverence for Rilke the Seer in an age when a seer is an anomaly. They are the concluding lines of the last of the Duino Elegies, the Tenth:

Und wir, die an steigendes Glück
denken, empfänden die Rührung,
die uns beinah bestürzt,
wenn ein Glückliches fällt.

And we, who have thought of happiness
as rising, would feel the emotion
that almost alarms us,
when a happy thing falls.

Here, it would be very mistaken to view the 'alarm' as anything to do with the pains of embodied life as most people experience it.

The book 'Metaphors we Live By' (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) is relevant to the rising and falling here, and in particular Chapter 4, 'Orientational Metaphors.' 'These spatial orientations - 'up-down' is the first example they give - 'arise from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment.' This isn't in the least a Rilkean viewpoint.

In their section 'Conclusions,' the authors claim 'There is an internal systematicity to each spatialization metaphor. For example, HAPPY IS UP defines a coherent system rather than a number of isolated and random cases. (An example of an incoherent system woul be one where, say, "I'm feeling up " meant I'm feeling happy," but "My spirits rose" meant "I became sadder."

See also my technical discussion in the page Metaphor.

Rilke's 'a happy thing falls' seems like a thought-experiment to do with cognitive dissonance disguised as something far more profound.

 A wider view of his treatment of falling, a wider view of his poetic world, reveal his bias. Lines from his poem 'Herbst' can also be quoted (Das Buch der Bilder, Book 1, Part 2):

The first line is

Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,

The leaves fall, fall as if from far

in which the ordinariness of 'the leaves fall' is made suddenly mysterious, and exciting, by {distance}.


Later, 'Wir alle fallen,' 'We are all falling'

Und doch ist Einer welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.

And yet there's One who  this fall
endlessly gently in his hands holds.

The concluding lines should not be found in the least impressive - again, despite appearances - let alone consoling. The lines are a form of poetic piety.

Kafka was drawn to the incorporeal too, but unlike Rilke, without consequences which were damaging to his art. He was immersed in the lore of Hasidism. ' ... he felt strongly drawn to the antirational, mystical elements in Hasidism, whereas the petrified formalism of the traditional synagogue left him supremely unmoved.' Of the Hasidic tales, ' ... all these stories - I don't know why - are the only thing Jewish in which, regardless of my condition, I always and immediately feel at home.' They didn't influence his novels and short stories, except, very memorably, the section in 'The Trial' where the priest draws attention to Joseph K.'s delusions about the Court by citing writings which 'preface the law.' A man from the country asks for admission to the Law, but is refused by the door-keeper. This door-keeper, but far more the other door-keepers, are the closest thing in Kafka to Rilke's angels. If the man from the country is tempted to enter, 'Wenn es dich so lockt, versuche es doch, trotz meinem Verbot hineinzugehen. Merke aber: Ich bin mächtig. Und ich bin nur der unterste Türhüter. Von Saal zu Saal stehen aber Türhüter, einer mächtiger als der andere. Schon den Anblick des dritten kann nicht einmal ich mehr vertragen.' 'If you are tempted, try to get in despite my ban. But note this: I am powerful. And I am only the lowest door-keeper. From hall to hall, door-keepers stand, each more powerful than the last. Even the sight of the third I am not able to bear, not once.'

The door-keepers are far more formidable than Rilke's angels. There's no question of distracting thoughts such as, these 'are hypothetical or imaginary entities ...'

In Rilke, the world, not the mind, is an epiphenomenon. Like muscles which have nothing to act against, the mind in Rilke has only limited possibilities for exercising its powers. His world has insufficient tension. In 'The Trial,' the everyday world and the mind in this world are in great tension with the reality which threatens Joseph K. The reality which has irrupted into his life with his arrest and the reality of the everyday world are presented with  unforgettable power, but a power which does not depend upon absolutes or exaggeration, but gradations and  nuances of terror and {restriction}.

The opening of Chapter II, 'Erste Untersuchung,'  'First Interrogation,' is exemplary, like so much else in the novel: 

 'K. war telephonisch verständigt worden, dass am nächsten Sonntag eine kleine Untersuchung in seiner Angelegenheit stattfinden würde.' 'K. was informed by telephone that next Sunday a brief inquiry into his case would take place.' The authorities seem amenable and flexible - inquiries would perhaps not take place every week, they would not be long, owing to the strain involved, Sunday was chosen so that his work would not be affected but if he preferred another day, they would do their best to meet his wishes - but this is disturbing flexibility, and the disturbance is suddenly intensified with the offer to hold interrogations at night 'although then, K. would probably not be fresh enough.' The mere mention of night-time interrogations is terrifying, then the flexibility of 'Jedenfalls werde man es, solange K. nichts einwende, beim Sonntag belassen,' 'At any rate they would expect him on Sunday, provided that K. had no objection' The more than sobering corrective is given at once:

Es sei selbstverständlich, dass er bestimmt ercheinen müsse, darauf müsse man ihn wohl nicht erst aufmerksam machen.' 'It went without saying that he must appear, this didn't need to be brought to his attention.'

The everyday world now complicates this communication from the authorities and K's dealings with the authorities. He has resolved to keep the appointment on Sunday but has received the telephone message at the bank. The  Deputy Manager wants to use the telephone. He lifts the receiver and whilst waiting to be connected, asks K. if he would like to join a party on his yacht on Sunday. Attending would be very important to K., as the invitation came from a senior official, at a time when K. had become important himself at the bank, but K. felt compelled to refuse, mentioning the prior appointment on Sunday. The claims of the everyday world and the claims of the authorities who demand his attandance are in superb tension here.

The outer world is not only distant for Rilke but marked by transience. So much in the world is transient, of course, but Rilke 'speeds it up.'  In his 'Guide to the Lakes,' Wordsworth compares the mountainous scenery of the Lake District with the Alps. In the Lake District, 'a sense of stability and permanence.' In the Alps,' 'it is difficult ... to escape the depressing sensation that the whole are in a rapid process of dissolution.' So many of 'The Sonnets to Orpheus' give a similar impression of rapid process, of a world in flux, more even than the Duino Elegies, although transience permeates these too, as in,

Wer aber sind sie, sag mir, die Fahrenden, diese ein wenig
Flüchtigern noch als wir selbst ... ?

But who are they - tell me - the itinerants, these
a little more fugitive than ourselves, even ... ?

And, from The Second Elegy,

... Wir nur
ziehen allem vorbei wie ein luftiger Austausch.

... We alone
roam past all things, like an airy exchange.

Change is part of the subject-matter of Metaphysics, such as the changes which convert a solid fuel into the drastically different ash, and the change of disappearance.

Wo ist ihr Tod? O, wirst du dies Motiv
erfinden noch, eh sich dein Lied Verzehrte? -
Wo sinkt sie hin aus mir? ... Ein Mädchen fast ...

Where is her death? O, will you discover
this theme, before your song consumes itself? -
Where is she falling from me? ... A girl, almost ...

(The Sonnets to Orpheus: I, 2 )

Stephen Mitchell's translation of 'Wo sinkt sie hin aus mir?' 'Where is she vanishing?' enhances the association of disappearance in 'your song consumes itself, but 'sinken' means 'sinking,' 'going down,' not 'vanishing.

'dumpf ordnende Natur // vergänglich übertreffen.' 'dull, organized nature // ephemerally outdone.'

(The Sonnets to Orpheus: II, 28)

Geh in der Verwandlung aus und ein.

Go out and in through transformation.


zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne,
Zu dem raschen Wasse sprich: Ich bin.

To the silent earth say: I flow.
To the swift water speak: I am.

(The Sonnets to Orpheus: II, 29)

O wie er schwinden muss, dass ihrs begrifft!

Rilke writes, 'Unser / Leben geht hin mit Verwandlung,' 'Our life passes in transformation,' but of course none of the transformations he writes about approach the shattering 'Verwandlung,' 'Metamorphosis' which is the subject of Kafka's short story, in which Gregor Samsa found himself transformed into a gigantic insect. But whereas Rilke's poetry is concerned with metaphysical changes, transformations and flux, Kafka's Metamorphosis is a way of giving memorable expression to something different, the plight of the individual in the ordinary world, an extraordinary story conveyed in prose not generally highly charged but having exactly that effect on receptive readers.

In the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, the ordinary world is almost always at great {distance} from the inner world, the inner world takes account of the ordinary world only intermittently, and the inner world always has {prior-ordering}. Kafka doesn't transcend the ordinary world but does transform it. His world is far more concrete than Rilke's, but sometimes the concreteness of the world is memorably dissolved.  This happens in a magnificent passage in 'The Castle,' at the beginning of Chapter 8, 'Das Warten auf Klamm,' 'Waiting for Klamm.'

The opening of the novel had given a view of the castle which belonged to the ordinary world, but only just, before the ordinary world asserted itself, with, for example, the straw sack which was given to K. to sleep on.

'Es war spät abend als K. ankam. Das Dorf lag in tiefem Schnee. Vom Schlossberg war nichts zu sehn, Nebel und Finsternis umgaben ihn, auch nicht der schwächste Lichtschein deutete das grosse Schloss an. Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke die von der Landstrasse zum Dorf führt und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor.

'Dann gieng er ein Nachtlager suchen; im Wirtshaus war man noch wach, der Wirt hatte zwar kein Zimmer zu vermieten, aber er wollte, von dem späten Gast äusserst überrascht und verwirrt, K. in der Wirtsstube auf einem Strohsack schlafen lassen, K, war damit einverstanden.'

'It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay in deep snow. Of the Castle hill there was nothing to see, mist and darkness concealed it, and not even the faintest glimmer of light showed that the Castle was there. For a long time, K. stood on the wooden bridge that led from the country road to the village and looked into the seeming emptiness above.

'Then he went to find accommodation for the night; at the inn they were awake, the landlord couldn't let out a room but he was willing, though annoyed by this late guest, to let K. sleep on a straw sack in the bar. K. agreed.'

The beginning of Chapter 8. After the first paragraph, the  world is slowly transformed.

'Zunächst war K. froh, dem Gedränge der Mägde und Gehilfen in dem warmen Zimmer entgangen zu sein. Auch fror es ein wenig, der Schnee war fester, das Gehen leichter. Nur fing es freilich schon zu dunkeln an und er beschleunigte die Schritte.

'Das Schloss, dessen Umrisse sich schon aufzulösen begannen, lag still wie immer, niemals noch hatte K. dort das geringste Zeichen von Leben gesehn, vielleicht war es gar nicht möglich aus dieser Ferne etwaszu erkennen und doch verlangten es die Augen und wollten die Stille nicht dulden. Wenn K. das Schloss ansah, so war ihm manchmal, als beobachte er jemanden, der ruhig dasitze und vor sich hinsehe, nicht etwa in Gedanken verloren und dadurch gegen alles abgeschlossen, sondern frei und unbekümmert; so als sei er allein und niemand beobachte ihn; und doch musste er merken, dass er beobachtet wurde, aber es rührte nicht im Geringsten an seine Ruhe und wirklich - man wusste nicht war es Ursache oder Folge - die Blicke des Beobachters konnten sich nicht festhalten und gliten ab. Dieser Eindruck wurde heute noch verstärkt durch das frühe Dunkel, je länger er hinsah, desto weniger erkannte er, desto tiefer sank alles in Dämmerung.'

'At first, K, was glad to have escaped the crowd of maids and helpers in the warm room. It was freezing a little, the snow was firmer, the going easier. But darkness was now beginning to fall and he walked more quickly.

'The Castle, whose outlines began to dissolve already, lay as still as ever, never yet had K. seen the faintest sign of life, perhaps it was impossible from this distance to make out anything, yet the eyes demanded it and were unwilling to tolerate that stillness. When K. looked at the Castle, often it seemed to him as if he were observing someone who sat there quietly and gazed ahead, not lost in thought and so shut off from everything, but free and untroubled; as if he were alone, with nobody to observe him, and yet must notice that he was observed but remained with his composure not disturbed even slightly - one didn't know if it was cause or effect - the gaze of the observer could not remain but slid away. This impression was strengthened today by the early dusk. The longer he looked, the less he could make out, the deeper everything sank into twilight.'

The starting point is everydayness, the crowd of maids and helpers in the warm room. When Rilke abandoned everydayness, an important source of contrast became unavailable.

Those times of fading light in this passage are a common enough theme in poetry, of course, but in the poetry of Rilke fading and similar transitions are central, particularly in the Sonnets to Orpheus, although this is from the Duino Elegies, The Second Elegy:

Denn wir, wo wir fühlen, verflüchtigen; ach wir
atmen uns aus und dahin; von Holzglut zu Holzglut
geben wirschwächern Geruch ...

But we, when we feel, evaporate; oh, we
breathe ourselves out and away; from embers to embers
we give out fainter scent ...

Impressionism in poetry can be described as giving {prior-ordering} to optical or other sense experience. Few poets have been as unimpressionistic as Rilke. {distance} has many, many instances which are optical, but Rilke's {distance} is mainly inward, as here, in 'the nearest thing' (The Fourth Elegy):

Uns aber, wo wir Eines meinem, ganz,
ist schon des andern Aufwand fühlbar. Feindschaft
ist uns das Nächste ...

But for us, when we intend one thing, wholly,
already the energy of the other is perceived. Enmity
is for us the nearest thing ...

'das Nächste' here is the superlative of 'nah,' 'near, close,' which appears in this, from The Sixth Elegy.'

Wunderlich nah ist der Held doch den jugendlichen Toten ...

Strangely close is the hero to those who die young ...

These lines from The Seventh Elegy have two instances of 'Nächste,'

Jede dumpfe Umkehr der Welt has solche Enterbte,
denen das Frühere nicht und noch nicht das Nächste gehört.
Denn auch das Nächste ist weit für die Menschen ...

Each dull turning back of the world has such disinherited ones,
for whom neither the earlier nor yet the most immediate belongs.
For the Nearest is also far for mankind ...

Here, I translate the second instance of 'Nächste' as 'most immediate.' The 'earlier' and the 'most immediate' can be viewed as instances of {distance}, of temporal {distance} from the datum-plane of the present.

See also my page on {distance}, for example, an instance of {distance} in Thucydides 'The Peloponnesian War,' iii, 2: ὅπως ἀσαφῆ τὰ σημεῖα τῆς φρυκτωρίας τοῖς πολεμίοις  καὶ μὴ βοηθοῖεν,

To return to the quotation I gave earlier, from 'Letters to a Young Poet,  “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches ...' Nietzsche would have despised Rilke if he had known his work. He might have cited Plato, whom he did oppose, for his immateriality, amongst other things. The immateriality of Plato (at far remove from the concreteness, the recognition of harshness, the emphasis on {restriction} in history, of Thucydides) has a linkage with the immateriality of Rilke.

But there's  cross-linkage (a significant linkage despite significant contrasts) between Rilke and Nietzsche. What Rilke writes here has strong linkages with what Nietzsche wrote about human suffering, equally falsifiable. (Not, obviously, falsifiable in the same sense as a scientific hypothesis.) See my page 'Nietzsche: contra' and in particular the section Nietzsche and pity. The falsifying counter-instances are important here, rather than the different  responses, lack of pity in the case of Nietzsche. Both Rilke and Nietzsche fail in {adjustment}. They bring to bear the same response to situations which require {resolution}.

Rilke's account fails - or is falsified, even if not with anything like scientific conclusiveness - in the face of harsh experiences where it would almost be farcical to suppose that the sufferer could call forth their riches. A young Russian poet fed almost nothing and being worked to death by the Nazis with endless beatings, a young poet who had been enslaved by the Romans and who could be whipped, racked, crucified or burnt alive at the whim of the owner, and who was tortured and killed, a young poet who was forced to do back-breaking work in the mines.

Although his wording is vastly superior, Rilke's sentiment can be compared with the trite sentiment of Frederick Langbridge, 'Two men look out the same prison bars: one sees mud and the other stars.' There are conditions of confinement where this is a reasonable observation, there are extreme conditions of confinement where this is obnoxious.

Both Kafka and Rilke convey an assurance and a stability which are easily overlooked. Samuel Beckett on Kafka: 'The Kafka hero has a coherence of purpose. He's lost but he's not spiritually precarious, he's not falling to bits. My people seem to be falling to bits. Another difference. You notice how Kafka's form is classic, it goes on like a steamroller - almost serene. It seems to be threatened the whole time - but the consternation is in the form. In my work there is consternation behind the form, not in the form.'
(Samuel Beckett, interviewed by Israel Shenker
New York Times, 5 May 1956, Section II, 1, 3.)

This describes well, or interprets well, the Kafkaesque poise, which is startling.

The attractive notion that Kafka's work is permeated by serenity - baffling and mysterious serenity - fails to do justice to some unattractive problems in his work, above all in 'The Castle.' In this novel, there are whole sections and many sections which at the first reading and after many readings are full of material which seems to lead nowhere in particular, but which are not so much Kafkaesque as sub-Kafkaesque. Some of these are trying and tiresome. They  could almost justify a sub-title for the novel: 'The Castle: The Trial.'

From time to time, a conductor is claimed to be the composer's co-creator, a much more radical claim than the usual exaggerated claims for the importance of a conductor, based on the conductor's larger-than-life personality or the conductor's musical insights. In the case of some directors' contributions, I think the claim to be Kafka's co-creators would be  justifiable, in some ways. A great deal of the greatness in 'The Castle' is implicit, hidden, fugitive. These contributions bring this material to the surface.

 I think above all of the film of 'The Castle' directed by Rudolf Noelte. K.'s visit to the Superintendent and his wife, with the attendance of the two assistants, is one of its highlights. It reveals the extent of Kafka's superlative imagination and it adds its own superlative imaginative reconstruction. The accumulation of the papers, the covering of the floor with papers, the use of papers to make paper hats and a paper aeroplane (there's no better way of appreciating Kafka's comic gifts, although the paper hats and the paper aeroplane aren't to be found in the text), are beyond praise.

The first glimpse of the papers (at 9:00 in the second Youtube film


is impressive, but in the rest of this section and in the third section


the effect is progressively intensified. (No English sub-titles are provided for the German dialogue but the loss isn't too important.) This is art of a high order, based on Chapter 5 of 'The Castle' but independent, to an extent.

The film shows {restriction} by legalistic and bureaucratic entanglement by vivid symbolic means - the proliferation of pieces of paper. The text shows the same process by verbal means, by entanglement of language - less vivid but, cumulatively, very impressive - in the first section of Chapter 5, up to 'Seine Auffassung der hiesigen Behörden fand K. zunächst beim Vorsteher sehr bestätigt.' 'K. soon found his impression of the place's authorities confirmed on his visit to the Superintendent.'

The convoluted intricacy of this section will dispel any wrong ideas that Kafka's style is uniformly clear or plain or serene. Kafka is sometimes more Thucydidean than Kafkaesque in style. Clear, plain statements are immediately qualified, undermined, contradicted, complicated. The linkage with 'The Trial' is strong. It's stated in the passage here that this concerns K.'s 'case' ('der Behandlung seiner Angelegenheit') and here, dealings with the authorities are as convoluted and tortuous as Joseph K.'s dealings with the authorities in 'The Trial,' even though it's stated - to begin with - that dealings with the authorities are 'very simple' ('ganz einfach.') But by the end of this section, the warning is given of the need for  'great caution at all times' ('immer grosse Vorsicht'). By meeting his wishes in all unimportant matters, the authorities have robbed him of the possibility of light and easy victories and taken away the satisfaction of light and easy victories and the confidence in other, greater struggles. An apparent indulgence and liberality on the part of the authorities has had unwelcome results, such as a troubled and alien existence. Carelessness in direct contact with the authorities, the need for the greatest caution in every other respect, the need looking around on every side before every step.

Film as a medium has the disadvantage of plainness, lack of intricacy, but not so Kafka's text. 'Blocking' is an important metaphor for {restriction} in Kafka. The way ahead involves unexpectedly severe difficulties. Here, we have {restriction} by 'entanglement.'

Commentators have drawn attention to the importance of Kafka's writing as a 'healthy corrective.' His  interests are overwhelmingly literary, or, better, his interests are overwhelmingly in living literature, but his writing, completely contemporary, supplies devastating indictments of some contemporary abuses, such as bureaucratic abuses. The beneficial effects of his writing go far beyond the more obvious examples. Kafka's writing is in opposition to so many smug, simple-minded statements. If we imagine tables on which are placed such august volumes as 'The Grandeur of Rome,' he overturns the tables. ('The Grandeur of Rome' presents a view of ancient Rome which excludes the darkest side of Rome, such as slavery and the Colosseum.)

It's a flaw in 'The Castle' that the kind of difficulty-strewn discussion which is so effective in the fifth chapter of the novel (if 'The Castle' is a novel) is repeated too often. K.'s relationships with women, above all Frieda, are too often presented with the same relentless thoroughness. A discussion calls for much the same treatment, in terms of complexity and entanglement, as Kaka's own treatment of these meetings of minds and persons and anti-meetings of minds and persons (Kafka's treatment is predominantly in terms of minds rather than mind and body, of whole persons.)

He does justice to the inability of people to engage fully with each other, but he does no justice to the ability of people to find fulfilment in each other, at least sometimes. Kafka's disillusioning is distorting.

Michael Haneke's film of 'Das Schloss' is complex in its presentation of K's relations with women,which in the case of Frieda at least amounts to something like a relationship.  The film presents the relations well but goes beyond that. The film distorts by presenting the best possible case for Kafka's portrayal of K's relations. Something similar to tenderness is shown in the film but not in the novel.

A writer who would be able to present unalloyed joy, happiness and fulfilment might well distort by being unable to present disillusionment, lack of fulfilment and the inertness to be found in relationships, which make disillusionment and lack of fulfilment artificially vivid. It's doubtful if there can be such a thing as a universal writer. Even Shakespeare, if not far from being a universal writer, fell short of being a universal writer. Shakespeare's concrete, vivid people enter into concrete, vivid relationships with each other and their inner  life, such as the inner life of Hamlet, is shown in concrete and vivid terms - which has the obverse, contrasting disadvantage of a weakness in depicting the neutral, unsatisfying, un-vivid aspects of human life. So much of human interaction, so much of our surroundings, are far from vivid and far from intensely disillusioning, for that matter, but grey and inert to a greater or lesser extent.

A great deal of 'The Castle' is an artistic failure, I think, but artistic failure may distort less (in some ways but not all ways) than artistic strength. In its admixture of artistic strength and artistic failure, I think of 'The Castle' as having strong linkages with Wordsworth's 'The Prelude.' Both works interest me far more than those works in prose or poetry which are generally regarded as being unqualified or almost unqualified artistic successes.


The Oxford Kafka Research Centre is the leading academic centre in the English-speaking world.


Professor Ritchie Robertson, a co-director of the centre, has written very illuminating studies of Kafka, including 'Kafka: Judaism, Politics, Literature' and 'Kafka: A Very Short Introduction' (which includes material of great interest to people not at an early stage in their involvement with Kafka's writing.) Both works discuss Kaka and aphoristic form.

Mauro Nervi's 'The Kafka Project' can be strongly recommended:


Mauro Nervi is an Italian poet with a strong interest in philosophy.