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  • Of Rats and MenBolaño Meets Kafka
  • Brett Levinson (bio)

Kafka, Bolano, Josephine, community, communion, folk, school, separation, rhythm, literature, consensus, balance, excess, neoliberalism

Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho opens with an epigraph from Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” One story therein, “Police Rat,” directly discusses the Kafka text. Through the intertextual dialogue, Bolaño strives to expand upon the fundamental question raised by the Kafka parable: “How and why (rather than what) is literature?” Bolaño, for his part, asks: How and why is literature within the social and political setting of neoliberalism?

“Josephine,” of course, describes a diva around whose recitals, according to the first-person narrator, the “mouse folk,” congregate in silent, rapt attention. Though called a singer, Josephine does not actually sing. Singing is just the best description that the narrator can offer for her act. The mouse folk, in fact, have a tradition of song, though it now belongs solely to memory. It involves, or involved, an extraordinary performance. Josephine’s crooning seems the opposite, as it is very near to “piping,” the most common, banal [End Page 93] noise that the mouse folk emit. Indeed piping, like breathing, is so much a part of everyday life that it disappears under or into the other components of mouse existence, above all, the arduous work of survival that each community member relentlessly undertakes, and must undertake, else the community perish.

Josephine’s art, nonetheless, is somehow distinct from the drone it resembles. Yet the narrator cannot name a single quality of Josephine’s singing that separates it from the ordinary noise—save its weakness or quietness. Perhaps, the narrator conjectures, Josephine is just a poor or inexperienced piper whose expression, precisely because feeble or “off,” recalls piping in general (the familiar premise is that daily instruments, such as voices, go unnoticed when they work well, revealing their function and importance only when they fail). Or maybe, he (or she) implies, Josephine is akin to the front person of a pop group who repeats trite tunes, yet acquires a following, emerges as a star, eventually becoming famous for being famous. The singularity of Josephine’s performance, in any case, leads her to request exemption from more typical communal toil. No one else can do what she does, and her recitals are key components of communal life. By all logic, the singing should thus “count as a job”—as opposed to the piping it almost duplicates, which no individual would conflate with productive labor.

One can list, then, six chief components of mouse society: singing (a thing of the past), piping, work, Josephine’s art, procreation, and the folk itself. Of course, to label Josephine’s activity “art” is already to jump to conclusions. Never does the narrator say that Josephine is an artist. The question indeed is: just what is Josephine doing? And how does her theater complement or disrupt, define or undefine, the other facets of mouse life?

By linking “piping” to what Heidegger labels das Man, the “they” or the “one,” we begin to glean a response.1 Impersonal but passed down from generation to generation and person to person, Heidegger’s “they-speak,” like piping, emerges as the common sense or chatter of every individual. It consequently seems natural, which is why it goes unheeded. They-speak, however, does not become itself by itself. A speaker sends a missive. The message, if proper to they-speak, is grasped exactly as intended, since all folks within the particular “they” share the same sense and sensibility. The speech, stated [End Page 94] differently, operates as if it were the individual’s property, one that the I fully commands and controls, just as he operates his fingers via his brain. Or, stated in reverse, the Other’s performance (the Other’s proper understanding of the statement), because it conforms to the volition of the I who speaks (again, it cannot not, since the sense that “intended” is common to all), discloses this I as a master of language and of relations, hence as a self-determined subject. The milieu of the community, piping...


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pp. 93-109
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