- Das gelungene Kunstwerk: Paraphrasen zu Kafka und Hildesheimer by Klaus von Schilling
“Who still meets people who really know how to tell a story?” asks Walter Benjamin in a thought-image (Denkbild) from the year 1933 entitled Erfahrung und Armut. “No, this much is clear,” Benjamin continues, “experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world. Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears [. . .] For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers. A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.”
In a sense, Klaus von Schilling’s comprehensive study of the “successful work of art” exemplified by Kafka’s and Hildesheimer’s respective efforts of [End Page 167] coming to terms with the malaise of narrating stories at the limits of modernity is also a “paraphrase” to Benjamin’s telling passage: is it at all reasonable, asks von Schilling, to speak of successful (literary) works of art in consideration of the various transformations of narratives and, in another sense, repeated deformations of narration that took place in the “short twentieth century” (Eric Hobsbawm) and that are manifest in Kafka’s but also in Hildesheimer’s texts? Von Schilling is convinced that it is indeed imperative to give an affirmative answer to this seminal question, especially when discussing Kafk a’s or Hildesheimer’s (changing) aesthetic positions. Both are paradigmatic novelists, argues von Schilling, who condense the perplexities of literary modernity in their “works” and, to borrow an expression of Karl Heinz Bohrer, stage a literary nihilism (poetischer Nihilismus). What matters to von Schilling, however, is that Kafka and Hildesheimer articulated a fundamental crisis of writing (stories) that basically circumscribes modern writing itself as a writing that has lost in confidence, not least in the confidence of “words from the dying that last, and that pass from one generation to the next like a precious ring,” as Benjamin put it.
What makes von Schilling’s study such an interesting book to read is its systematic ambition to explore the significance of Kafka’s and Hildesheimer’s aesthetic gestures against the background of a comprehensive theory of art—inspired, among others, by Adorno’s uncompleted Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction—that both problematizes the idea of the work of art (Kunstwerk) as a one-dimensional artifact and that also addresses the question of success (Gelingen) in this respect. In other words, neither Kafka’s nor Hildesheimer’s writings should be (mis)taken as cases or models of “legitimate” literature, according to von Schilling. Their relevance as inventive authors was all but readily acknowledged by literary circles, that is, their writing did not really correspond with the contemporary aesthetic common sense. Quite to the contrary: Even though Kafka as well as Hildesheimer can still be labeled what von Schilling terms bourgeois modernity (bürgerliche Moderne) at one point, their aesthetic gestures were continually interrupting conventional tastes while experimenting with unconventional literary strategies and tactics.
One of the major merits of von Schilling’s study is thus its categorical critique of a rather limited and limiting definition of a successful work of art. As von Schilling suggests, Kafka’s and Hildesheimer’s texts became successful to the extent that they were not representing a “familiar” work of art. Instead it was their fragility, vulnerability, hesitation, in short their radical failure [End Page 168] to narrate a story in the ordinary (chronological and topological) sense that eventually turned their texts into—paradoxically self-conscious—works of art that outlived both authors. In this sense, then, von Schilling favors a procedural reading of Kafka’s and Hildesheimer’s writings that does not...