Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Josephine The Singer - Franz Kafka

Kafkaesque is an adjective that is frequently used to describe any unbelievable everyday stuff, surreal but true. I chanced across this adjective years back, and some one said it meant surreal, as most of the stories of Kafka were. So I too started using this adjective, without having read a word of Kafka. I did ask everyone of my friends who read 'serious' fiction whether they have read Kafka. Invariably the answer was No. Everyone knew about Kafka, but no one had read him - a fate that seems to befall every major writer.

Josephine The Singer, is an allegory about a writer and his position in the society - atleast that is what I understood. The story is about a community of undefined people, may be rats (as the alternate title of the short story is The Mouse People) who venerate Josephine, whose singing they all think is musical. The narrator of the story has his own doubts about the musicality of Josephine's singing. He even considers whether what she does is not mundane piping, which every one of that community does unconsciously.

Even if hers were only our usual workaday piping, there is first of all this peculiarity to consider, that here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing. To crack a nut is truly no feat, so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking. But if all the same one does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking. Or it is a matter of nut-cracking, but it turns out that we have overlooked the art of cracking nuts because we were too skilled in it and that this newcomer to it first shows us its real nature, even finding it useful in making his effects to be rather less expert in nut-cracking than most of us.

Perhaps it is much the same with Josephine's singing; we admire in her what we do not at all admire in ourselves; in this respect, I may say, she is of one mind with us.

At any rate she denies any connection between her art and ordinary piping. For those who are of the contrary opinion she has only contempt and probably unacknowledged hatred. This is not simple vanity, for the opposition, with which I too am half in sympathy, certainly admires her no less than the crowd does, but Josephine does not want mere admiration, she wants to be admired exactly in the way she prescribes, mere admiration leaves her cold.

I always had assumed that Kafka's stories would be dark and disturbing. Reading this story proved that there is quite a bit of humour in it, if you look for it carefully. He makes fun of the writer trying to carry the burden of the entire community
Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult; frequently as many as a thousand shoulders are trembling under a burden that was really meant only for one pair.

Another passage about the writer in search of readers
Josephine likes best to sing just when things are most upset, many worries and dangers force us then to take devious ways, with the best will in the world we cannot assemble ourselves as quickly as Josephine wants, and on occasion she stands there in ceremonial state for quite a time without a sufficient audience—then indeed she turns furious, then she stamps her feet, swearing in most unmaidenly fashion; she actually bites. But even such behavior does no harm to her reputation; instead of curbing a little her excessive demands, people exert themselves to meet them; messengers are sent out to summon fresh hearers; she is kept in ignorance of the fact that this is being done; on the roads all around sentries can be seen posted who wave on newcomers and urge them to hurry; this goes on until at last a tolerably large audience is gathered.

Kafka seems to tell us that the reader and the writer live in a state of uneasy truce, the writer feeling that the reader doesn't understand what he is creating. The reader feels that the writer is doing something magical (it is magical because reader can't understand it), so the writer has to be respected because he is doing something magical.

He explains about the weariness of the community that is prematurely old and stays old for a long time, hence is not interested in learning about how Josephine does what she does. He also seems to take a dig at writers who say that the pressures of daily life don't allow them to develop their skills fully. One of the sentences that stayed with me for a long time was

May Josephine be spared from perceiving that the mere fact of our listening to her is proof that she is no singer

The story ends with Josephine vanishing from the scene, leaving her admirers aghast. The narrator then ends the story saying

She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her. Not that it will be easy for us; how can our gatherings take place in utter silence? Still, were they not silent even when Josephine was present? Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine's singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?

So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.

When I read this story, I didn't know that this was Kafka's last story, written just before his death by Tuberculosis. His throat was swollen to such an extent, that he couldn't be fed (there was not intravenous feeding in 1920s), so he died of starvation. After learning this fact, I re read the story and found new meaning in the words. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that reading The Metamorphosis (another famous Kafka story) showed him "that it was possible to write in a different way "

Read the entire story here

The Wiki entry about Kafka


Anonymous said...

Such a tragic end to such a talented, yet unrecognised, genius (In his day, at least). I think we should also remember how valuable Max Brod was in the excavation of Kafka's work...

I love how his tone can be perfectly innocent but is able to capture and exploit such profound and significant issues relating to the human condition. After reading Kafka, my whole perception of reading and writing irrevocably changed.

Fantastic article...I really enjoyed reading it, thank you.

Paul Oliverio said...

O.I. Revilo says:
This is a very well written and interesting article but I do not think
the story was symbolically about a writer, per se.

I believe that Josephine The Singer could be any person in the public eye who emphasizes style over substance for an audience that cannot tell the difference.
Kafka describes Josephine as if the author were the PR agent from hell.

Anonymous said...

Yes,it is good article.Kafka's works are interesting and strange.After i read his work which called "The Castle" my minds changed about our life.and i can say the same thing about this story "The Josephine Singer".I think Kafka wanted to show difficulties andmistakes of life in this story.Although to read Kafka's work is boring,i think people who likes reading and want learn about difficulty of society deeply must read his works.
Thank You.