- “A Place So Insanely Enchanting”: Kafka and the Poetics of Suspension
So I find myself wavering, constantly flying up to the top of the mountain, but barely able to last an instant up there. Other people waver as well, but in lower regions, with greater strength; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught by the relative who walks beside them for that purpose. I, however, waver way up high; it is unfortunately not death, but the eternal torments of dying.Kafka, Diary entry August 6, 19141
Perhaps nowhere in the Kafkan corpus is the desire for suspension—or, as Henry Sussman has put it, the desire “for the perpetual suspension of suspension”—more clearly expressed than in the late story “First Distress.”2 In it, a high-strung trapeze artist performs as a member of a traveling show. So attached is he to his art that he descends from his perch in the vaulted dome of a circus tent only when the show moves on to another venue. For such travel, racing automobiles are used to whirl the artist by night if possible or in the earliest hours of the morning through the empty streets at breakneck speed to minimize his discomfort. For railway journeys, a whole compartment is reserved in which he hangs suspended in a Gepäcknetz, or luggage rack.
During one such trip, the artist, biting his lip, declares that henceforth he must have two trapezes for his performance instead of only one, two trapezes opposite each other. His manager immediately accedes to the demand, but his compliance seems only to exacerbate [End Page 1039] the tension it was meant to relieve. Indeed, the artist’s distress continues to mount, finally brimming over in a tearful outburst. Deeply affected by the spectacle, the manager springs to his feet, climbs up on the seat, and caresses the artist, eventually coming cheek to cheek with him and allowing his own face to be covered in the latter’s tears [so daß es auch von des Trapezkünstlers Tränen überflossen wurde].3
As the desire for ever more radical forms of suspension grows, as the manager is increasingly implicated in a movement of desire that knows no bounds and is only intensified by the prospect of its satisfaction, this desire seems progressively to free itself from any determinate mooring and to hang suspended in the air like a trapeze artist hovering between two bars. It becomes, in a sense, desire that no longer belongs to anyone, a desire for artistic freedom that is itself liberated from any and all possession.
As this emancipatory movement grows, discrete bodies lose their contours and become increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another. Physical proximity, initially suggested by the touching of the protagonists’ cheeks, thus gives way at a certain point to corporeal dissolution as artist and manager lose themselves in a wash of overflowing tears. As though to suggest that the medium of dissolution were itself destined to dissolve, destined to lose itself in something even more amorphous, the wash of tears gives way in its turn to a flood of open, anxious, and seemingly endless questions. “Once such thoughts had begun to obsess him,” the manager reflects about the artist, “could they ever come to an end? Would they not continue to become more and more intense? Weren’t they a threat to his livelihood, life-threatening?” (KSS 86; GW 1: 252).
While physical bodies, discrete identities, and stable discursive positions tend to dissolve in the course of the story, the anxious questions to which they give place assume in their turn a strange corporeality. Indeed, each of the woundingly open questions raised by the manager does not so much flow from the preceding ones as double back on them, unfolding within them like a blossoming stigmata. And it is just such wounds that seem to open now on the smooth, childlike forehead of the trapeze artist, engraving themselves there as the first furrows of care. These furrows are subtly brought to our attention by the manager, who, seated again in his corner of the railway compartment, glances up secretly over the top of...