Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kafka's Combinations

You can see why Blanchot gets caught up in Kafka’s headache-inducing Letters to Felice, because they have the kind of narrative involution and recession, and precision about indescribable feelings, that Blanchot wants in his fictions. Blanchot would like especially to draw a general insight from the logical trap Kafka builds for himself by trying to “convince [Felice Bauer] of what he is”:

to say everything . . .means to tell how he will make her unhappy or, more precisely, the impossibility of communal life to which he is condemning her; and this with nothing to make up for it, so that she may accept it and see it precisely as impossible, from which it will follow that none of the answers that she gives him can satisfy him. For if she says to him, perhaps out of levity, out of affection, perhaps also out of a proper concern for nuances: "You speak too abruptly about yourself," or else "things are perhaps as you say, but you cannot know that they will not change when we are together," this hope that she maintains despairs him: "What do I have to do? How can I make you believe the unbelievable?" . . . . This on the one hand. But on the other hand if, convinced or eventually hurt, she takes her distance, becomes reticent, formulates doubts, writes less, then he becomes all the more despairing, for he has the feeling that she misjudges him precisely because she knows him, thus deciding according to the knowledge he gives her of himself, instead of deciding, not blindly, not by weighing the reasons, but in all clarity under the attraction of the impossible. There are, he says, three answers; there are no others that she can make: "It is impossible, and therefore I do not want it." "It is impossible, and for the time being, I do not want it." "It is impossible, and therefore I want it." This third answer, the only correct one (which might, inspired by Luther, take this form: "I cannot do otherwise, in spite of everything"). (L’Amitie [1971], trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg [Stanford UP, 1997], 274)

Blanchot believes Kafka pursues something like the sublime and wants Bauer to do the same; he tries to convince her the whole thing is impossible not so that she will leave him, but so that she can want it for the right reason, because it’s impossible. The fact that Blanchot is so invested in formalizing the logical possibilities of Bauer’s answer is interesting in itself—as though Kafka and Bauer had to work to the end of a symbolic problem to settle their affairs. Blanchot’s “therefores” are also interesting, because they show the way that Kafka interpolates cause and effect into what may be just preference. Both of these formal features support the idea that Kafka is looking for support from some unknown law of nature. But the three “answers” that Blanchot says Felice Bauer might give aren’t the only ones. First of all, the second answer, the one with the temporal hedge in it, isn’t really a separate possibility and isn’t really an answer. And there are two other possible semantic combinations that Blanchot doesn’t mention.

Kafka does consider the combination normal people would prefer, but it’s his worst nightmare, so I understand why Blanchot doesn’t bother with it. If Felice seems to think “It is possible, and therefore I want it,” then Kafka tells her, “You lack true insight into my wretched personality, disregard my confessions” (Letters to Felice [ed. Erich Heller and Jurgen Born, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth; Schocken Books, 1973], March 6-7, 1913; p. 215). If she thinks it’s possible, she doesn’t know him, so it’s impossible. The second non-answer, the one that decides “only for the time being,” only waits for the first, pragmatic possibility to come about: “you . . . may think that at some time I might yet turn into a useful human being with whom a steady, calm, lively relationship would be possible. If this is what you think, you are under a terrible misapprehension” (Kafka 215). These answers are only the other side of the other thing that sensible people think, “It is impossible, and therefore I do not want it.” That formulation is better than “Possible/Want it” because if Bauer were to think it, at least her observation would be credible, she’d be talking about the right person. That’s why Kafka keeps thinking that this must be what she really wants to say. And, although he hopes that she may want it because it’s impossible, that seems like too much to hope for, and would also leave him in the situation of wanting her to want it because it’s impossible, even though this would mean her commitment to a life of misery; that she can say it doesn’t mean she should say it. She would have to be actually unable to say anything else, i.e., be persuasively as hopeless, as incapable of anything better, as he is . . . which strains belief. So, Blanchot’s answers--negative/negative (waiting/not answering) and negative/positive—and one other, the worst, positive/positive.

But logically, one side of the square is still missing: positive/negative, “It is possible, and therefore I do not want it.” Isn’t this one really the best, from Kafka’s perspective? It’s the only one that gets him off the hook, because if Felice isn’t motivated by compassion (something that worries him a lot), her judgment that “It is possible” would suddenly be credible. Being followed by nothing, it would bring no ethical anxieties about her future; and being non-utilitarian, Felice would be joining him in “a relation of strangeness” (Blanchot 275) that couldn’t be perceived as calculation. Kafka would be validated and free. He practically instructs her to say it: “And now, dearest, take me as I am, but don’t forget, don’t forget to throw me out at the right moment!” (Kafka 216).

Image: Elena del Rivero, Les Amoreuses: Elena & Rrose, 2001


kfd313 said...

Yes, but aren't the four possibilities of this kind of logical square--negative/negative; negative/positive; positive/negative; positive/positive--*all* taken together what Kafka finally wants the answer to move beyond? (Even if he may not know it?) I.e, none of them are or could be the right answer since they would be predicated on a logic that excludes--cannot encapsulate--the (il)logic of unconditional love? What he wants, it seems to me, is an answer that would leap over the obstacles of the structure of the questions themselves. This is not the sublime, at least in Kantian terms, so much as it is the moment when an answer to a question is given that--positive, negative or some combination thereof--has not been posed, but that has always been desired precisely because it would negate all the questions and their forms. So what would that answer look like? I'm not sure, exactly, but I don't think it would contain the terms of the question.

RT said...

Yes, that's a more sympathetic reading. Mine is suspicious that Kafka doesn't mean what he's saying, that what he wants is an out. Yours is better for the terms B. sets up if you're interested in them for themselves.