Although they belong to very distant planets, Paul Valéry and Franz Kafka have at least one thing in common. Both had the honor of a celebration of their respective birthday and anniversary by Walter Benjamini .
Why did Benjamin want to give to such different writers such a symbolic tribute?
He was sensitive, I believe, to the fact that they both sought to formulate a kind of a « negative theology » in their work.
For Valéry, this negative theology is embodied in the figure of Monsieur Teste.
Benjamin explains: « Mr. Teste is a personification of the intellect that reminds us a lot of the God that Nicholas of Cusa’s negative theology deals with. All that one can suppose to know about Teste leads to negation. » ii
Kafka, for his part, « has not always escaped the temptations of mysticism »iii according to Benjamin, who quotes Soma Morgenstern on this subject: « There reigns in Kafka, as in all founders of religion, a village atmosphere»iv.
Strange and deliberately provocative sentence, which Benjamin immediately rejects after quoting it: « Kafka also wrote parables, but he was not a founder of religion.» v
Kafka indeed was not a Moses or a Jesus.
But was he at least a little bit of a prophet, or could he pass for the gyrovague apostle of an obscure religion, working modern souls in the depths?
Can we follow Willy Haas who decided to read Kafka’s entire work through a theological prism? « In his great novel The Castle, Kafka represented the higher power, the reign of grace; in his no less great novel The Trial, he represented the lower power, the reign of judgment and damnation. In a third novel, America, he tried to represent, according to a strict equalization, the earth between these two powers … earthly destiny and its difficult demands.»vi
Kafka, painter of the three worlds, the upper, the lower and the in-between?
W. Haas’ opinion also seems « untenable » in Benjamin’s eyes. He is irritated when Haas specifies: « Kafka proceeds […] from Kierkegaard as well as from Pascal, one can well call him the only legitimate descendant of these two thinkers. We find in all three of them the same basic religious theme, cruel and inflexible: man is always wrong before God.»vii
Kafka, – a Judeo-Jansenist thinker?
« No » said Benjamin, the wrathful guardian of the Kafkaesque Temple. But he does not specify how Haas’s interpretation would be at fault.
Could it be that man is always wrong, but not necessarily « before God »? Then in front of whom? In front of himself?
Or would it be that man is not always « wrong », and therefore sometimes right, in front of a Count Westwestviii?
Or could it be that man is really neither right nor wrong, and that God himself is neither wrong nor right about him, because He is already dead, or indifferent, or absent?
One cannot say. Walter Benjamin does not give the definitive answer, the official interpretation of what Kafka thought about these difficult questions. In order to shed light on what seems to be the Kafkaesque position, Benjamin is content to rely on a « fragment of conversation » reported by Max Brod :
« I remember an interview with Kafka where we started from the current Europe and the decline of humanity. We are, he said, nihilistic thoughts, ideas of suicide, which are born in the mind of God. This word immediately reminded me of the Gnostic worldview. But he protested: ‘No, our world is simply an act of bad humor on the part of God, on a bad day’. I replied: ‘So apart from this form in which the world appears to us, there would be hope…’ He smiled: ‘Oh, enough hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us’. »ix
Would God then have suicidal thoughts, for example like Stefan Zweig in Petropolis twenty years later, in 1942? But unlike Zweig, God doesn’t seem to have actually « committed suicide », or if He did, it was only by proxy, through men, in some way.
There is yet another interpretation to consider: God could have only « contracted » Himself, as the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria formulates it (with concept of tsimtsum), or « hollowed out » Himself, according to Paul’s expression (concept of kenosis).
Since we are reduced to the imaginary exegesis of a writer who was not a « founder of religion », can we assume the probability that every word that falls out of Franz Kafka’s mouth really counts as revealed speech, that all the tropes or metaphors he has chosen are innocent, and even that what he does not say may have more real weight than what he seems to say?
Kafka indeed did not say that ideas of suicide or nihilistic thoughts born « in the mind of God » actually apply to Himself. These ideas may be born in His mind, but then they live their own lives. And it is men who live and embody these lives, it is men who are (substantially) the nihilistic thoughts or suicidal ideas of God. When God « thinks », His ideas then begin to live without Him, and it is men who live from the life of these ideas of nothingness and death, which God once contemplated in their ‘beginnings’ (bereshit).
Ideas of death, annihilation, self-annihilation, when thought of by God, « live » as absolutely as ideas of eternal life, glory and salvation, – and this despite the contradiction or oxymoron that the abstract idea of a death that « lives » as an idea embodied in real men carries with it.
Thought by God, these ideas of death and nothingness live and take on human form to perpetuate and self-generate.
Is this interpretation of Kafka by himself, as reported by Max Brod, « tenable », or at least not as « untenable » as Willy Haas’ interpretation of his supposed « theology »?
Perhaps it is.
But, as in the long self-reflexive tirades of a K. converted to the immanent metaphysics of the Castle, one could go on and on with the questioning.
Even if it risks being heretical in Benjamin’s eyes!
Perhaps Max Brod did not report with all the desired precision the exact expressions used by Kafka?
Or perhaps Kafka himself did not measure the full significance of the words he uttered in the intimacy of a tête-à-tête with his friend, without suspecting that a century later many of us would be religiously commenting on and interpreting them, like the profound thoughts of a Kabbalist or an eminent jurist of Canon Law?
I don’t know if I myself am a kind of « idea », a « thought » by God, a « suicidal or nihilistic » idea, and if my very existence is due to some divine bad mood.
If I were, I can only note, in the manner of Descartes, that this « idea » does not seem to me particularly clear, vibrant, shining with a thousand fires in me, although it is supposed to have germinated in the spirit of God himself.
I can only observe that my mind, and the ideas it brings to life, still belong to the world of darkness, of twilight, and not to the world of dark night.
It is in this sense that I must clearly separate myself from Paul Valéry, who prophesied:
« Here comes the Twilight of the Vague and the reign of the Inhuman, which will be born of neatness, rigor and purity in human things. »x
Valéry associates (clearly) neatness, rigor and purity with the « Inhuman », – but also, through the logical magic of his metaphor, with the Night.
I may imagine that « the Inhuman » is for Valéry another name of God?
To convince us of this, we can refer to another passage from Tel Quel, in which Valéry admits:
« Our insufficiency of mind is precisely the domain of the powers of chance, gods and destiny. If we had an answer for everything – I mean an exact answer – these powers would not exist.»xi
On the side of the Insufficient Mind, on the side of the Vague and the Twilight, we therefore have « the powers of chance, of gods and of fate », that is to say almost everything that forms the original substance of the world, for most of us.
But on the side of « neatness », « rigor » and « purity », we have « the Inhuman », which will henceforth « reign in human things », for people like Valery.
Farewell to the gods then, they still belonged to the setting evening, which the Latin language properly calls « Occident » (and which the Arabic language calls « Maghreb »).
Now begins the Night, where the Inhuman will reign.
Thank you, Kafka, for the idea of nothingness being born in God and then living in Man.
Thank you, Valery, for the idea of the Inhuman waiting in the Night ahead of us.
In these circumstances, do we need any more prophets ?
iWalter Benjamin. « Paul Valéry. For his sixtieth birthday ». Œuvres complètes t. II, Gallimard, 2000, pp. 322-329 , and « Franz Kafka. For the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. pp. 410-453
iiWalter Benjamin. « Paul Valéry. For his sixtieth birthday ». Œuvres complètes t. II, Gallimard, 2000, p. 325
iiiWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 430
ivWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 432
vWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 432-433
viW. Haas, op.cit., p.175, quoted by W. Benjamin, in op.cit. p.435
viiW. Haas, op. cit., p. 176, quoted by W. Benjamin, in op. cit. p. 436.
viiiI make here an allusion to Count Westwest who is the master of Kafka’s Castle.
ixMax Brod. Der Dichter Franz Kafka. Die Neue Rundschau, 1921, p. 213. Quoted by W. Benjamin in op. cit. p. 417
xPaul Valéry. As is. « Rumbs ». Œuvres t. II. Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. 1960, p. 621
xiPaul Valéry. As is. « Rumbs ». Œuvres t. II. Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. 1960, p. 647