Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reflections: Dopplegänging It

Have you ever found yourself understanding—understanding with real breadth and depth—another person concerning whom that understanding reveals the source of one’s personal existential trials in a clear light? For me, there have been at least two such persons: Simone Weil and Franz Kafka.

(What follows from this point on is only the roughest sketch of the possibilities touched upon, but in the form of a blog post, it will have to suffice.)

If Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, writing in the 19th century, began the most lastingly influential critical/taxonomic vivisections of Western bourgeois man—i.e., the first Modern man—it was Kafka, writing in the 20th century, who, having internalized the spiritual angst and existential anxiety revealed by those predecessors, exposed in his writings the dark depths of Modern alienation.

In proclaiming Kafka’s “central place in this century’s canon,” my favorite literary critic, Harold Bloom, notes in his indispensable text, The Western Canon:

“Certainly ‘Kafkaesque’ has taken on an uncanny meaning for many among us; perhaps it has become a universal term for what Freud called ‘the uncanny,’ something at once absolutely familiar to us yet also estranged from us. From a purely literary perspective, this is the age of Kafka, more even than the age of Freud. Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.”

Bloom—himself a kind of Gnostic Platonist—quotes the following as the acknowledgement of “a dualism that Kafka finds exists at the heart of everything and everyone”:

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.

And when the world has been unmasked, Kafka says, what is revealed is that:

There is nothing besides a spiritual world; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call Evil is only the necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.

Compare this, if you will to what Simone Weil, in speaking in the context of necessity, calls “gravity”:

We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention.


Generally what we expect of others depends on the effect of gravity upon ourselves, what we receive from them depends on the effect of gravity upon them. Sometimes (by chance) the two coincide, often they do not.

Particularly in light of that second quote, consider now these reflections of Roberto Calasso from the pages of K.:

Kafka was an expert on the feeling of being foreign or extraneous, and he began, in his last period, to consider it and represent it in his work in commonplace situations that became suddenly illuminating. For example, the family’s card-game ritual. For years, in the evening Kafka’s parents played cards. For years they asked him to take part. For years the son said no. ...Kafka inferred something quite profound: his behavior with his family made clear to him why “the current of life” had never swept him along, why he had always remained on the threshold of things that then eluded him.

I am reminded here of Simone Weil, always on the threshold of the Church, refusing to enter, much as Kafka refused to play cards with this parents.

Calasso continues:

It was Kafka’s suspicion, and this too arose from his observations of the family card game, that any practical initiatives on his part to camouflage himself in normalcy (and these could be as diverse an office job or halfhearted attempts to devote himself to gardening or carpentry) were simply palliatives or a clumsy way of masking behavior that remained as unmistakable, in its hopeless inconsistency, “as the behavior of a man who chases the wretched beggar from his door and then when he’s alone plays the benefactor by passing alms from his right hand to his left.”

I often find myself, in similar ways, feeling an inability to connect with others and instead playing a role in which both they and myself are imaginary creatures.

Again, Calasso:

This behavior corresponds to the sensation of going through life pressing his head “against the wall of a windowless, doorless cell.” The rest—“my family, the office, my friends, the street”—were “all fantasies, some closer, some further off.” Of them, “the closest” was “the woman.” And thus the endless attraction, since that closest of fantasies could condense within it all the others and act as their emissary.

In my own alienation, I find myself wondering: is what “the woman” was for Kafka as “the Cross” was for Simone Weil? Similarly, I am intrigued by speculating that what “the Castle”—with its all-powerful, intractably exclusionary, hierarchical bureaucracy— signified to Kafka, might in some important way be analogous to that which kept Simone Weil “waiting for God” on the cathedral steps, never to enter.

As presented in Simone Pétrement’s definitive biography of Weil, we learn that:

[Simone Weil] believes that Christianity is Catholic by right but not in fact.
“So many things exist outside [the Church], so many things that I love and do not want to give up… ....there is an absolutely insurmountable obstacle… It is the use of the two little words ‘anathema sit.’ …I remain with all those things that cannot enter the Church, the universal repository, on account of those two little words. …In order that the present attitude of the Church might be effective and that she might really penetrate like a wedge into social existence, she would have to say openly that she had changed or wished to change. …After the fall of the Roman Empire, which had been totalitarian, it was the Church that was the first to establish a rough sort of totalitarianism in Europe in the thirteenth century... And the motive power of this totalitarianism was the use of those two little words: ‘anathema sit.’”

As one might have heard it said in a smoke-filled church basement: “I can I.D. that totally.”