Brücke dreht sich um!. A Deconstructionist Reading of Kafka s Die Brücke - PDF

20 Brücke dreht sich um!. A Deconstructionist Reading of Kafka s Die Brücke Eva Hoffmann 1 Abstract: Franz Kafka s ( ) Die Brücke is one of the less well-known

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20 Brücke dreht sich um!. A Deconstructionist Reading of Kafka s Die Brücke Eva Hoffmann 1 Abstract: Franz Kafka s ( ) Die Brücke is one of the less well-known texts by one of the most prolific authors of literary modernity. However, this short prose text embodies prevalent questions of literary modernity and philosophy as it reflects the crisis of language in regard of identity, communication, and literary production. Placed in the context of fin-de-siècle s discourse of language crisis, this article provides a dialogue between Kafka s Die Brücke and Hannah Arendt s ( ) philosophy of thinking and speaking in The Life of the Mind. Contrary to Arendt s understanding of the metaphor as a carrying over between the mental activities of the solitude thinker and a reconciliation with the pluralistic world shared with others, this article argues for a deconstructionist reading of Die Brücke as a tool to reevaluate Arendt s notion of a shared human experience ensured through language and illustrates the advantages of poetic texts within philosophical discourses. Key-words: Kafka, Hanna Arendt; Derrida; language; metaphor Zusammenfassung: Die Brücke von Franz Kafka ( ) ist einer der weniger beachteten poetischen Texte des Autors. Dieser Artikel argumentiert für die Relevanz dieses Prosastückes innerhalb des Diskurses der literarischen Moderne und der Philosophie hinsichtlich von Fragen nach Identitäts- und Sprachkrise und der Möglichkeit von literarischer Produktion. Indem ein Dialog zwischen Kafkas poetischem Text und Hannah Arendts ( ) Philosophie des Denkens und des Sprechens in The Life of the Mind hergestellt wird, zeigt dieser Artikel wie Kafkas Brücke Arendts Verständnis einer Verbindung zwischen der geistigen Welt und der Welt als pluralistischen Ort, den wir mit anderen Menschen teilen, dekonstuiert und folglich auch die Annahme menschlicher Grunderfahrungen und ihrer Mitteilbarkeit in Frage stellt. Damit thematisiert dieser Artikel auch die Vorteile poetischer Texte innerhalb des philosophischen Diskurses. Stichwörter: Kafka, Hannah Arendt; Derrida; Sprache; Metapher 1 University of Oregon, Department of German and Scandinavian. 21 1 Introduction Hannah Arendt s philosophy on language and thinking is in stark contrast with Franz Kafka s fictional prose text Die Brücke (1916/1917), which concerns itself with the same subject matter of bridging an abyss. In The Life of the Mind, Arendt depicts how thinking manifests itself through speech. The urge to speak, Arendt explains, is a sign for the quest of meaning; a process during which the thinking ego seeks to attest his or her mental activities both to the world of appearances and to him- or herself. While we withdraw from the world of appearances into the realm of concepts and abstractions during the act of thinking, our common sense and our belonging to the sensory world requires examples to illustrate abstract concepts. At this point, ARENDT (1971: 103) continues, metaphor comes in. The metaphor achieves the carrying over [ ] the transition from one existential state, that of thinking, to another, that of being an appearance among appearances, and this can only be done by analogies. Kafka s Brücke, however, presents the reader with traffic between the sensory and the non-sensory world that is marked with failure and ultimately leads to violence and destruction. Kafka s bridge, which is also the narrator of the story, collapses in the very moment a wanderer approaches it for the first time a moment for which the bridge desperately has been waiting. Despite the bridge s best intention to hold up the traveler entrusted to it ( halte den dir Anvertrauten ), it is terrified by an abrupt and forceful leap the wanderer undertakes on its back (1969: 327). Struck by the sudden pain the bridge has not anticipated, it turns around to see who inflicted such pain on it and despite the realization of its mistake Brücke dreht sich um! falls into the abyss and is pierced by the once peacefully stones die mich immer so friedlich aus dem rasenden Wasser angestarrt hatten (1969: 327). Contrary to ARENDT S (1971: 105) elated account, in which the metaphor is bridging the abyss between inward and invisible mental activities and the world of appearances, and thus can be seen as the greatest gift language could bestow on thinking, Kafka s text paints a bleaker picture. For ARENDT (1971: 110), metaphorical 22 language itself metaphorically illustrated as a bridge not only makes the transcendence between the sensory world and the non-sensory world possible, but also abolishes this difference altogether: There are no two worlds because metaphor unites them.. Opposed to this logic, Kafka s Brücke creates an image of writing as alienation and embodies the experience of what it means to be outside of everything, even outside of oneself (MILLER 1991: 19). This article provides a deconstructionist reading of Kafka s text. Referring to deconstructionist criticism and its representatives like Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller, it illustrates how the story deconstructs its own writing process in its impossibility to transcend the abyss between the world of appearances and the metaphysical realm, the signified and the signifier, origin and presence, and subject and object. Kafka s text is then placed within the context of the language skepticism of finde-siècle s modernity to reevaluate Arendt s notion of language and specifically the metaphor as a reconciliation between the thinking ego and the world. Exploring the paradoxical structure of Kafka s text, the article illustrates finally how the paradoxes and aporias of a poetic text can lend themselves to a philosophical inquiry beyond the formulation of a preconceived and universal truth. 2 Longing for presence: language and the metaphysical tradition of western thought According to Jacques Derrida, any deconstructionist reading of a text must begin by identifying the fundamental conceptual oppositions they rely on: speech-writing, soulbody, intelligible-sensible, literal-metaphorical, natural-cultural, masculinefeminine [his goal is to] subject these oppositions to an internal critique that destabilizes them (HONDERICH 1995: 180). The binary opposition (Derrida refers to this idea as logocentrism) shows the conceptual movement of thought which calms movement in favor of locating centers, origins, essences (DERRIDA 1974: 274). It thus 23 refers to the idea of presence and works to the favor of the Western metaphysical tradition that privileges one side of the term over the other. In the chapter Linguistics and Grammatolgy in Of Grammatology, Derrida criticizes Ferdinand de Saussure s system of linguistics for having launched the binary sign without proceeding to erase it (DERRIDA 1974: 63). Derrida s grammatology diagnoses in the oppositional structure of the sign a longing for presence that runs through the tradition of Western thought. In order to open up the reliability of language to rhetorical questioning, deconstruction acts as a constant reminder of the ways in which language deflects or complicates the philosopher s project (Norris 1982: 19). Norris (1982: 19) writes: Above all, deconstruction works to undo the idea according to Derrida, the ruling illusion of Western metaphysics that reason can somehow dispense with language and arrive at a pure, self-authenticating truth or method. 3 Under erasure: metaphor and the suspension of meaning Rather than a correspondence between thought and word, the collapse of the bridge in Kafka s story illustrates how language is both inevitable and unreliable. Language is a differential network of meaning, which refuses the determination of a one-to-one link between signifier and signified (NORRIS 1982: 24). Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche s continuous sign-chains, without origin and end in truth, Derrida reads the entire notion of semiosis as a suspension of meaning, which constantly escapes the structure of presence (SPIVAK 1974: xliii). The sign cannot be taken as a homogenous unit bridging an origin (referent) and an end (meaning), as semiology, as the study of signs, would have it, Spivak writes in regard to Derrida (SPIVAK 1974: xxxix). The metaphor is the structure, in which presence is always marked through absence and the gesture represents the very thing it keeps absent. In this paradoxical double bind of presence and absence, the sign is always inhabited by another sign and must thus be read under erasure (DERRIDA 1974: 72). Instead of meaning, the reader is confronted with the indefinable deferring of meaning, which is only partly 24 comprehensible through its negativity, its absence, and the difference to what-it-is-not. In this way, Derrida introduces the term différance as the structure that deconstructs structuralism (SPIVAK 1974: lxi). Kafka s Brücke and the violent and graphic death of its protagonist inscribe writing under erasure into the configurations of the text. Kafka s bridge is the crossed out sign, which collapses the very moment it comes into use. The text dismantles any structure of binary oppositions as a mere comforting illusion of presence as it is conserved in the Saussurian sign (SPIVAK 1974: xl). Derrida s grammatology shows no nostalgia for the lost presence that encapsulates the unity of word and thing and hence the loss of origin and end. In fact, he determines metaphor as the sign by the trace or track of that other that is forever absent (SPIVAK 1974: xviii). The trace is thus the mark of the absence of a presence, an always already absent presence. Derrida uses terms like différance and trace as non-synonymous substitutions, which operate in a similar dislocating fashion to describe the unfolding of the functioning structure of a concept (HONDERICH 1995: 268). In Writing and Difference, DERRIDA (1974: 403) clarifies the nature of the trace: The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace.... In this way the metaphysical text is understood; it is still readable, and remains read. Kafka s Brücke can thus be read as the metaphoric crossing out of the sign, leaving nothing but the traces of the torn bridge at the bottom of the abyss, replacing the Saussurian sign with the fragmented trace. 4 A bridge to the world of appearances: Arendt s thinking ego and the metaphor In a similar vain, the life of the mind seems to occupy a dislocated, non-existing space in Arendt s philosophy. Arendt argues that thinking always requires the withdrawal of the 25 thinking ego from the world of appearances. It is an invisible activity separated from all things. It takes place in solitude when the mind is secluded from the world around it. Through representing sensory objects and non-sensory matters, the mind transcends time and space, To put it quite simply, in the proverbial absent-mindedness of the philosopher, everything present is absent because something actually absent is present to his mind (ARENDT 1971: 84). Thinking it thus always out of order, interrupts all ordinary activities and is interrupted by them (ARENDT 1971: 197). However, the activity of thinking for Arendt never loses its connection with practice and the reality of the world we live in. Although all human beings are thinking beings, we are also grounded in the world of appearances. Taking up Plato s story in the Theaetetus about the philosopher Thales who fell into a well while looking at the stars, provoking the laughter of a peasant girl from Thrace, Arendt believes that the philosopher s own common sense must be alert enough to anticipate this laughter (ARENDT 1971: 83). Thinking is only one of the many human faculties, and the philosopher s own common sense makes him aware of being out of order while engaged in thinking (ARENDT 1971: 80). In what ARENDT (1971: 83) describes as the intramural warfare between common-sense reasoning and speculative thinking, the thinking ego possesses both common sense reasoning and the faculty of thinking. ARENDT (1971: 81) points out that all the metaphysical questions that philosophy took as its special topics arise out of the ordinary common-sense experiences. Arendt thus argues for the primacy of the world of appearances. While he or she abstracts and represents objects from the world of appearances through the faculty of imagination, the thinker withdraws from reality only to be called back into the world of appearances (ARENDT 1971: 185). Thinking and living accompany each other and the mind turns continuously towards life in its quest to understand its meaning. Thus, instead of dividing the world of appearances from the realm of thinking, Arendt links them together. As human beings, we have the urge not only to think and therefore withdraw from the world of appearances occasionally, but also to reconcile our thinking with reality through common sense. Eventually the thinking ego experiences the urge to 26 speak and thus make manifest what otherwise would not be part of the appearing world at all (ARENDT 1971: 98). Since thinking deals with invisibles, we need metaphorical language as a tool to express our thoughts. However, language, by lending itself to metaphorical usage, enables us also to think, that is, to have traffic with non-sensory matters, because it permits a carrying-over of sense experiences (ARENDT 1971: 103). Thus, metaphorical language can be seen as the bridge that holds the two worlds together and closely binds the thinking ego to the world of appearances, Analogies, metaphors, and emblems are the threads by which the mind holds on to the world even when, absentmindedly, it has lost direct contact with it, and they guarantee the unity of human experience (Arendt 1971: 109). 5 The unity of human experience? Kafka and the crisis of language It is precisely the alleged unity of human experience and its communicability that enables both thinking and speaking, that Kafka s texts put into question. In the tradition of the language crisis, which found such abundant expression in the 20 th century (Kovach 2002: 85), Die Brücke depicts a world, in which expression of thought into words and the transference of the life of the mind into the world of appearances through language becomes questionable. The text hence reflects the limits of language as a tool to express reality, and testifies in the tradition of writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal ( ) to the problematic nature of the external world and the self (KOVACH 2002: 4). For ARENDT (1989: 40), thinking gets bestowed with meaning and truth in the pluralistic act of judging: Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even bear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear. In the words of Jaspers, truth is what I can communicate. 27 Through communicating and thus testing my thoughts against the opinions of others, thinking attains a form of truth that it can never obtain in the solitary act of thinking itself. Just as our sense of reality and worldliness depends on the communicability of our thoughts, we can lose our faculty of thinking without communication and interaction with one another. For Kafka and other thinkers and writers in the tradition of fin-de-siècle s crisis of language, inner experiences cannot claim any value of truth, not even for the individual. Influenced by Ernst Mach s dictum ( ) Das Ich ist unrettbar identity is understood only in the modus of irretrievable loss. The modern self is in crisis and with it its cognitive capabilities and possibilities to communicate with others. It is under these premises, as Ellen RITTER (2002: 77) writes, that a distanced mode of expression arises, a language of mediacy. Hugo von Hofmannsthal s famous expression of the crisis in language in literary modernity, which he expresses quite articulately in Ein Brief, proves to be a prevalent question for writes and thinkers of the twentieth century and beyond. Thomas Kovach (2002: 94) writes: And finally, Chando s crisis points to what was become a central preoccupation of the 20 th century, reflected in the philosophy of Wittgenstein, as well as in the more recent developments such as Jacques Derrida s deconstruction: namely the demonstration that language can no longer be relied on as a valid signifier of a reality which exists outside itself, and in fact that we cannot ever experience a reality which is not already mediated by our language. While Arendt tries to rescue both the cognition of the individual and the common sense reality of a shared world through (metaphoric) language, Kafka s text testifies to the dilemma of a language that has lost its connection with reality (KOVACH 2002: 91). Instead of presenting metaphor as the greatest gift language could bestow on thinking (ARENDT 1971: 105), Kafka s text displays a radical openness in the image of the torn bridge at the end of the text. As Kafka writes in his diary (1948: 121): Nur so kann geschrieben warden mit solcher vollständigen Öffnung des Leibes und der Seele. The 28 text thus embodies into its configurations the quest for meaning in the light of the self and its language, which is no longer reliable. RITTER (2002: 74) writes: What constitutes the importance of the work in literary history, though, is the manner, in which the form is fully congruent with the content, indeed that the content is portrayed equally through the form of the narrative as through the action itself [ ]. 6 Sliding paradoxes and the poetics of truth The collapse of the bridge that causes its violent death ( zerrissen und aufgespiesst ) bears despite of its brutality a certain wit due to the paradoxical tension of its long anticipation of the wanderer and its failure upon his arrival. However, as WEITZMANN (2011: 592) points out, Kafka s paradox-mechanisms of wit are fundamentally different from Kant s, where these moments still act as a Vehikel oder Hülle für die Vernunft und deren Handhabung für ihre moralisch-praktischen Ideen (KANT 2002: 131). Far from containing a morality or aiming at the reader s mere amusement, Kafka s text calls into question the metaphysical assumptions of Western thought as the correspondence of mind and appearance as well as the transcending role language can play in it. WEITZMANN (2011: 594) concludes: Kafka s play with the play of paradox will also be a means by which to reexamine of some of the most basic questions of philosophical inquiry. Thus, the playfully aesthetic paradox discloses the rhetorical nature of philosophic arguments, which turns literature and with it the critic in a strong position to counter philosophy s long held prejudices against poetic texts (NORRIS 1982: 21). It is precisely because of the acknowledgment and exploitation of the own rhetorical status that puts literature and literary theory in a privileged position over philosophical discourses. De MAN (1986: 13) writes: Literature turns out to be the main topic of philosophy and the model of the kind of truth to which it aspires. 29 Deconstruction as a critical theory questions the tradition of Western thought and refuses to grant philosophy the kind of privileged status it has always claimed as the sovereign dispenser of reason (NORRIS 1982: 18). Thus, a deconstructionist reading of Kafka s text challenges Western philosophy s belief in language as the binding element between thought and sensual experience. The bridge s anticipation of its own death at the beginning of the story So lag ich und wartete; ich musste warten. Ohne einzustürzen kann keine einmal errichtete Brücke aufhören, Brücke zu sein must be read a
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