Tag Archive | German Modernism

Uncanny Aesthetics in Kafka

MMA_IAP_10310749191Kafka’s America shows the story of Karl Rossmann, a young boy who is forced to leave home due to his affair with the maid. He is send by his parents on a ship to New York with nothing more than a suitcase. The novel describes all Karl’s adventures through the American country, which includes places where he lives and people whom he meets.

A general view to the novel shows that every place is a place of expulsion, in other words, Karl is successively involuntary thrown away from one place to the other. Anderson suggests this idea affirming that Karl has no “sense of place” in New York. The novel, as a whole, presents a sense of “unintentional return” or “repetition” which Freud refers to the Uncanny. Even if Freud uses the term “return” implying a coming back to the same point, in Karl, this return is metaphorical, experimented through the feeling of being again expulsed. Behind it, helplessness accompanies this repetition, as Karl finds himself in animosity with his expellers. The return becomes here an experience of repetition of the unsettlement whose origin is the expulsion of Karl by his parents. It exemplifies what Freud calls “the impulsion to repeat” which is found in the unconscious and proceeds from instinctual impulses. Such compulsion is related to the repression of drives and its common in neuroses. At the end of the explanation, Freud concludes, “anything that can remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny”. Therefore, the reader encounters the Uncanny through the general wandering of Karl and the places which once and again force Karl to such wandering.

It is important to note how the structure of the buildings in general helps to maintain the suspense. As Gellen points out, Kafka presents and “architectural narration”, in other words, the structure of the buildings has a narrative function, they are “a mode of expression”. In fact, they are the “thought” of the “non-thought”; the materialization of what is hidden to the conscious (Rancière). The “architectural narration” is characterized by an over perception of the atmosphere, as Fuchs points out, Karl experiments a hyper-reality of the sensual perception, which leads to an anti-mimetic expression. The buildings represent a sort of aesthetic experience, in this case, an uncanny one. The reader knows Karl’s inner-state through the descriptions of the places as Karl’s self is projected on them. As Freud suggests, through aesthetics an author can achieve the goal of communication provoking in the reader, or public, the same feelings which lead him to make the work of art. He particularly refers to the sculpture due to its speechless form, but the mechanism of arousing feelings in “America” is near to that of speechless arts. The reader just perceives a few literal words appealing Karl’s state, the main information is put into images that create feelings.

In conclusion, the four closed spaces in America bring together an aesthetic concept taken from Psychoanalysis with the narrative of Kafka, particularly, its aesthetic effects. All of them arise the Uncanny through different spatial dispositions and situations, but the feeling is based in all cases on the “impulsion to repeat” the appearance of something threating for the self.

 America is an unfinished novel, however, there is one testimony in Kafka’s diaries of a possible ending. On the 30th of September, 1915, Kafka wrote, “Rossmann and K., the innocent and the guilty, both executed without distinction in the end, the guilty one with a gentler hand, more pushed aside struck down”. This testimony closes the circle of the Uncanny whose latest manifestation is the ultimate accomplishment of a repetitious threat, which is death. It is the death returning once and again, and it seemed to be Karl’s destiny. Exactly as E.T.A Hoffmann does with Nathaniel who finally dies because his threat, the Sandman, always reappears until becoming something inescapable.

The similarity the whole story presents with Charles Dickens’ wandering boys is also something undeniable, as Kafka itself notes in his diary:

Dicken’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel […]

However, a deep analysis of America shows how it results to be a more complicated novel than, at first sight, one can realize. The presence of the Uncanny introduces a self continually threated by the unconscious, and far from David Copperfield, Karl Rossmann, not just descends in the social scale but he also presents a very destabilized self. Indeed, a self which can be analysed upon the light of Psychoanalysis; he is a very modern character.

Baroque and Modernism: Two Styles, Two Souls

3965eadf8b2b9be1b353f0f6b2b1faa3_660The narrator of Death in Venice suggests a very interesting and challenging topic. Among all the worries about art, so typical in Mann’s novels, this one particularly presents a thoughtful question. Is the artistic style and form linked to morality? One could write pages and pages trying to reply and analyse such a dilemma, because it is a dilemma as far as such a reflection involves not just art but the whole of society.

Gustav Aschenbach, the main character of the story, is an artist and as such he is experimenting a change in his conception of beauty. Gustav’s art, since its beginning, has represented the European decadence, a feeling broadly felt in Europe since the turn of the century. But Gustav feels a rebirth in his appreciation of beauty, one which has to do with simplicity. At this point, the narrator shows a chain of reflections, of wonderings regarding such simplicity. If art is simple in its forms, will then moral suffer a simplification?

“does not this in its turn signify a simplification, a morally simplistic view of the world and of human psychology, and thus also a resurgence of energies that are evil, forbidden, morally impossible?”

He is completely joining the representation of art, that is, of aesthetics, to morality. Modernist works indeed are replete by discussions on ethics and aesthetics. To simplify the form of art could mean here for the narrator a primitiveness, a coming back to human simplicity on its moral statements, a less deep thought.

It is possible however to take a general look in the history of literature to affirm, until some extent, the possibility of this statement. If there is a moment in which the form, the style and the meaning of art is opposed to the simplicity looked for by some modernists artists, it is Baroque. The Spanish Golden Age is full of incomprehensible poets, it can be actually considered the most difficult literature in Spain. And, indeed, this literature coincides with the Imperial time, the discovery of America, and the Inquisiton. All that is marked by a strong institutional power, especially the reign, the state and the Church in their most hierarchical display. There is a lack of simplicity both in art and in the representatives of society. It is the opposite side of Mann’s dilemma; the moral code was highly established and controlled. Moreover, when Modernism arrived at Spain, it was condemned by the Church, especially because of its simplistic and free spirituality, which comes back to Mann’s idea.

Modernism is also known by its polemical topics which have to do with their aesthetic representations. Therefore, Mann is not far away of reality, and the adequacy of style and interiority seems to be a fascinating topic within the sociology of literature.

Time in European Modernism

clock-screen01 CFP MDRN conference 1: Time and Temporality in European Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (16-18 Sept. 2013)
Call for papers
Time and Temporality
in European Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (1900-1950)
16-18 September 2013 – KU Leuven, Belgium
This three-day conference aims to canvass the breadth and depth of the issues of time and temporality in European modernist writing and classic avant-garde literature.
It has often been argued that so-called “high” modernist and avant-garde writing were perhaps the first to investigate in detail the problems of time and temporality. As a result, reflection on both issues in (“new”) modernism and avant-garde studies abounds. To date, however, we lack a systematic understanding of the different forms and functions of time and temporality in the writing from the period. It is this lacuna the present conference aims to fill. We are particularly interested in (general as well as innovative case-based) considerations of modernist and avant-garde writing and practices that tackle one of the following questions:
  • How was time represented? What genres, techniques and means were deployed to evoke time?
  • In what ways was the literary representation of time influenced by (changes in) other media and art forms?
  • Which temporalities (bodily and natural time, mechanical and machine time, private and public time, etc.) were evoked and how did they interrelate?
  • How was the flow of time conceived (teleological, multilayered and -directional, cyclical, etc.) and what temporal regimes (for example, favoring the present, past or future; continuity and tradition or rupture and revolution) were at work in modernism, the avant-garde, and cognate phenomena like the so-called arrière-garde? What hitherto ignored temporal modes require further scrutiny?
  • What were the ramifications of modernist and avant-garde conceptions of time for the practice of reading, the history of the book (classics, pockets, …), and more generally for the social and cultural legitimation of literature?
  • What other (perhaps less well studied) discourses (physics, biology, engineering, philosophy, etc.) informed literary reflection on time and temporality and how were insights from these other discourses translated in literary practice?
  • How was time experienced and what were its implications for our understanding of the modern body, identity and subjectivity?
  • Were there noticeable variations in how time was dealt with in modernist and avant-garde writing in different parts of Europe (and beyond)? What, more generally, were the implications of the views of time for the understanding of space and place (in writing)?
  • Does the conception of time change in the course of the period 1900-1950, and, if so, what are the (social, literary, philosophical, …) conditions of emergence and consequences of these changes?
We welcome paper and panel proposals before 15 February 2013 on these and other questions crucial to any mapping of the literary timescape between 1900-1950. By analyzing in-depth how modernist and avant-garde writing reflected on time and change, we ultimately aim to explore the ramifications of these ideas for the literary historiography of the period.
Proposals are welcome from individuals, and from panels of three or four. We especially welcome panel proposals and prefer panels where members are drawn from different institutions, preferably across national boundaries.
Panel proposals should include the following information.
  1. Title of panel
  2. Name, address and email contact of Panel Chair
  3. A summary of the panel topic (300 words)
  4. A summary of each individual contribution (300 words)
  5. Name, address and email contact of  individual contributors
  6. Short biography of all contributors, incl. main publications and areas of expertise
Individual proposals should include the following information.
  1. Title of paper
  2. Name, address and email of contributor
  3. A summary of the contribution (300 words)
  4. Short biography of the contributor, incl. main publications and areas of expertise
Guided tours of the Husserl archive at KU Leuven will be offered to delegates upon request. A conference website is under construction. With proposals or any further questions at this stage contactsascha.bru@arts.kuleuven.be.

From German Modernism to Spanish Golden Age

Dickens_DavidCopperfieldI wish just to recall some influences on Kafka’s Amerika. This novel introduces the wanderings of a young boy, Karl who’s thrown out from home due to his “affair” with the maid. Karl arrives to America alone with a small suitcase and nothing else than his wit to survive. He lives one experience after another, each one more curious than the previous, and meets all kind of people who actually decide his new course. Kafka wrote on his diary on October 8, 1918:

“Dicken’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself”.

In fact, the adventures of Karl remain the reader Dicken’s boys in the Victorian England. Karl solitude to face all his misfortunes are similar to those of English 19th C. novels. However, if Copperfield ascends in wealth and social position, Karl actually descends (as far as we know in the novel; it’s unfinished). The figure of the wandering boy is also linked to this of the Spanish “pícaro”. The latter could actually be seen as a predecessor of those of the realistic period. The poor origin and the longing for ascending are common in both groups, but I think the cunning of the “pícaro” is something missed both in Copperfield and Karl. However the three types find themselves submitted to different authorities until achieving autonomy or more freedom.

Karl is settled in New York, which I find quite properly for the beginning of the 20th C. New York is the new alienated place of modernity where both fortune and misfortune are possible and dependent to the subject’s sagacity. In short, I think Kafka has placed himself also in the Western tradition of the young wandering born in Spain.

A Claim for…

girl-in-front-of-the-lion-cage-1901A Hunger Artist is another of Kafka’s short stories which, I guess, leads no one indifferent, at least the reader become angry in front of such an apparent senseless riddle. A Hunger Artist shows the story of a faster artist who lives in a cage and is visited by the public. The main point of the attraction is the fasting of the artist who feels misunderstood by the walkers. Some people are always trying to find the hiding food in the cage because they don’t trust the artist’s capacity for fasting. However he’s very proud of his fasting and wants to go on with it without interruption. I think the hunger artist thinks to be making a work of art of his own body. That’s not explicitly said in the narration however it can be interpreted due to the lack of understanding between the artist and the public: people is unable to appreciate art. They don’t like the aspect of the starving artist, in fact, it’s not a beautiful expression, but Kafka is constructing a metaphor through which express the problem between art and the public. How can such a subjective expression be understood by everybody? The communication between artist and public fails because of the self-expressivity of the work. Coming back to my old comment on Tolstoy’s theory of art, we see here the opposite point. Tolstoy said a good work of art should be understood by everybody, but Kafka could be expressing a completely different perspective: because art is so personal, it’s impossible to be understood. But there’s a meeting point between the extremes. Tolstoy supports his statement arguing that when the artist is being honest expressing his feelings he can’t fail in doing so, and Kafka could be appealing to the same honesty with the opposite result.

Later on in A Hunger Artist, the artist dies in a cage because no one looks at him, and he’s replaced by a panther which attracts all the attention. Why does the panther success? Maybe it represents another kind of art? Of beauty?  Has it something to do with consciousness? The artist is conscious, not the panther. So for what are people attract? Maybe for some kind of hypnotising appearance instead of  for an intellectual presence? Have society killed art by its indifferent attitude towards life?

Schnitzler, “A Dream Story”

200px-ArthurSchnitzler_DreamStoryThe friendship between Freud and Schnitzler is also reflected in their respective works. Freud said of his friend to be doing the same psychoanalytic work in his novels with an especial reference to A Dream Story. In fact what Schnitzler presents in his book is a blurred border between life and dreams. Fridolin, a young doctor, lives quite strange adventures in the time of a whole night which lead him to experience a surrealistic world and  mysterious facts. Moreover, the novel is aesthetically very well constructed and the role of Fridolin’s wife in his marvellous night is quite intriguing. The relationship of the couple where desire and rancour merge is another fact to be explored.

Europe in War

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger who was not interested in a kind of “war report”. In fact, Jünger wrote his war diary during his four years in the World War I and he gave us a piece of faithful events without space for feelings or emotions. This lack of “humanity” has been the cause of several critics,which, like Walter Benjamin, accused Jünger of complicity with the idea of “cult of the war”. The mere fact of describing war events instead of showing a personal experience or an inner-reaction lead some part of the critics to see in Jünger’s narrative a pure “war for war’s sake”.

But before going on, let us see what’s written about war in female fictions. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway shows some male consequences after being in the World War I. Woolf, as in general all women writers of this period, focuses on the consequences of war on human relations. In fact, the general is unable to react to her wife’s demands with any kind of empathy, he’s completely out of question in his returning to London. The main problem is that he can’t express himself what is going in his inner-self. And that, I guess, is the point: the lack of expressivity of the emotions. Woolf’s general, like Jünger, don’t talk about anything which is not outside themselves. The general becomes mad, but his madness is a kind of frustration because of his past experience and it’s related to the breakdown between war what he feels and what he achieve to say. The reader of Woolf knows the female side of the war and feels the destruction of the relationships between women and men. The female suffering, in contrast with Jünger’s, is narrated by an over-expression.

Therefore, I’d say both narratives are coherent with each other even if being so different in style and form. They complement both views which I find a quite interesting topic to analyse.