- Melancholy and Parapraxis: Rewriting History in Benjamin and Kafka
Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay on Franz Kafka is guided throughout by the diversions of various parables: from Kafka himself, from Jewish and Chinese folklore, and perhaps most significantly, by the story on Potemkin taken from Aleksandr Pushkin that opens the essay. These parables operate in a manner akin to that of the mosaic of quotations that Benjamin pursued in the Trauerspiel study and The Arcades Project, which attempt to allow the work to develop autonomously and contingently through the differential effects that each new citation provides, thus enabling the scholar to uncover previously overlooked aspects of the work by enabling it to reveal itself anew. The motivation for this programme lies in the hermeneutic difficulties of bringing out the truth of a particular work, that is, in the problem of interpretation. And the fact that Benjamin responds to Kafka’s work by following Kafka’s own inclination towards parable is significant, for it not only recognises Kafka’s pre-eminent significance as a writer; interpreter of texts but in doing so also brings out the peculiar status of the parable as a means of interpretation.
As the term implies, the parable is that which lies alongside [para] the main text, and so its place as an interpretive tool is constrained by the fact that its own existence as a text to be interpreted may lead to a digression in which we are drawn away from the main text and into a parabolic discussion, turning from one diversion to another. This aspect of the parable is what appealed to Kafka, insofar as the parable suspends its own significance as a tool by refusing to be interpreted [End Page 1068] unambiguously: any clues that it offers are also held in question by the fact that in offering them it also diverts the reader into further questions, perhaps unrelated to the initial question. Thus the relation of the parable to the main text becomes unclear: which is now the master text and which is the tool? What is the relation between the two, which we as readers are now suspended within? These queries are phrased and rephrased by Benjamin in his essay as he attempts to draw out the heart of Kafka’s concerns as a writer. For my own purposes, the strand of this discussion that I will focus on is that which centres on the relation of writing to history, and the particular temporal turning that Kafka and Benjamin seek to bring out in this relation.
The ambiguity of the parable as an interpretive tool is conveyed by Benjamin in the way that he uses two particular tales to bookend his essay: the story by Pushkin that opens the essay and the Jewish folktale that appears at the beginning of the last section, for the fact that these are both stories taken from outside Kafka’s work indicates part of Benjamin’s method of approaching Kafka by translating his concerns into a parallel context. Firstly, then, is Pushkin, whose own life carries some of the hallmarks of Kafka’s unhappy existence as an outsider, and the story of Potemkin and Shuvalkin; although this is well known, its details must be stressed, for it is in these details that Benjamin finds a way of reading alongside Kafka.
Prince Grigori Potemkin was chief of the Russian army and the most powerful statesman in the court of Catherine the Great, and the only one of her lovers who had managed to retain his position after losing her affections. However, he was of a deeply melancholic disposition, and when this mood took him he was inconsolable and would brook no disturbances. As Pushkin’s story relates, on one such occasion Potemkin’s depression proved deeper than usual. Days turned to weeks, and still he would not return to the court. The imperial councillors became more and more agitated as the days passed: official documents were mounting up that required his signature, and the empress was becoming angered by the delay. Struggling to know what to do, the councillors were one day discussing the problem when a lowly official by the...