Sunday, 28 July 2013

Kafka's Room and the Philosopher

“Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one's ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall. 

For philosophers are beings who have passed through a death, who are born from it, and go towards another death, perhaps the same one.

These are two unrelated ideas, from Franz Kafka and Gilles Deleuze respectively. But together they might open a window onto how philosophical and literary texts are differently read.

Much of the criticism levelled at philosophers like Deleuze (or more generally ‘continental philosophy’) relates to the obscure style, the use of ‘techniques’ more associated with poetry and literature, the predilection for a language which, taken literally, is ‘nonsense’. And yet, had such ideas been expressed by a 'literary' writer, they would meet with a different, more generous response. 

Take Kafka's image, above, that we carry a room around inside us. In a literary text, something like this is entirely tolerable, in fact welcome.  Nor is it just that in the case of Kafka we are appreciating something specifically literary, in the narrow sense - the style and silence, the economy of language. No, we think it's a beautifully suggestive Idea. For sure it's neither a paraphrasable philosophical idea nor a piece of surreal whimsy. Perhaps another way of putting it: what Kafka gives us is not so much an idea as the place where it might start. It has something to do with personal space, with memory, with loneliness, with intimacy and haunting..

What happens when we think is that we feel an idea come to us like a fleeting wind, and unless we catch it then and there with words it vanishes. But we don't have to catch the whole idea, fully developed and elaborated. The thing is to draw the outline of the idea, a few watchwords that will enable us to return to it. An idea begins as a kind of space that opens up before we have all the content.

What Kafka has done is demarcate, beautifully, such a space.  And what literature does is to open such spaces again and again. But it seems to me that this is also what a philosopher like Deleuze does, with his rhizomes, his witches, demons, revenants, his plains of grass.. He is a philosopher who marks out a space and a direction.

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