Thursday, March 27, 2014

The satanic provocation yields before an angelic one

Winfried Menninghaus's 2003 study, Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation, includes a chapter on Kafka where he argues that 'Kafka's art consists precisely in making the presence and the strongly affective value of a disgusting subject matter, openly presented as such, almost entirely invisible, imperceptible'. (227) He traces what he calls a 'libidinal fixation' in Kafka's relation to writing:

Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward... for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind.... And the devilish element in it seems very clear to me. It is vanity and the craving for pleasure (Genußsucht) which continually buzz about one's own or even another's Gestalt -- and feast on it. The movement multiplies itself -- it is a regular solar system of vanity.... The writer... has no ground, no substance, is less than dust. He is only barely possible in the broil of earthly life, is only a construct of the craving for pleasure. (Kafka, from Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, p. 334-335)

After investigating all the wonderfully smeared, obese, deformed objects of such 'dubious embraces', Menninghaus suggests that, for Kafka, the very use of writing is to work 'the nether parts' to a careful purpose:

...what if The Trial and The Castle were also, first of all, novels which operate -- in a form that simultaneously discloses itself and makes itself invisible -- to process the vexed relations between disgust and sexuality, disgust and food, disgust and the injured, or tortured, body? (273)

Menninghaus's analysis nudges its way into the Kafkan oxymoron of 'deceiving... without deception' (Letters to Felice, 545), where he reveals how the 'invisible frankness of Kafka's texts' is 'played off... against' the texts' 'absorption in visible aesthetic "deception"'. (280) His exploration of erotics and disgust in Kafka concludes by reminding us of the way Kafka's treatment of the vetula forms a fiercely guileless cleft between the opposing intentions of romantic and classical aesthetics:

Kafka's writing answers the question how the disgusting old woman can obsessively occupy the place of desire, can appear in "innocent" openness, and yet become invisible again in the type of second-order observation which is the work of literary representation. Kafka's work interweaves the romantic license to display the disgusting with the paradoxical return of the classical intention to neutralize it. The satanic provocation yields before an angelic one, whose infernal character consists precisely in its simulated innocence. (281)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Merely by dining out often in the company of a physician

They are almost hidden in the vast work of Proust, these few short words that, together, suggest the dogged but also quietly enterprising nature of what he calls 'talent':
To my parents it seemed almost as though, idle as I was, I was leading, since it was spent in the same salon as a great writer, the life most favourable to the growth of talent. And yet the assumption that anyone can be dispensed from having to create that talent for himself (de faire ce talent soi-même), from within himself (par le dedans), and can acquire it from someone else (le reçoive d'autrui), is as erroneous as to suppose that a man can keep himself in good health (in spite of neglecting all the rules of hygiene and of indulging in the worst excesses) merely by dining out often in the company of a physician. (Within a Budding Grove)