Monday, January 03, 2011
Jorge Luis Borges on "Kafka and His Precursors".
Once I planned to make a survey of Kafka's precursors. At first I thought he was as singular as the fabulous Phoenix: when I knew him better I thought I recognized his voice, or his habits, in the texts of various literatures and various ages. I shall record a few of them here, in chronological order.

The first is Zeno's paradox against movement. A moving body on A (declares Aristotle) will not be able to rench point B, because before it does, it must cover half of the distance between the two, and before that, hail of the hail, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity: the formula of this famous problem is, exactly, that of The Castle and the moving body and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature.

In the second test that happened to come to my attention, the affinity is not of form but rather of tone. It is an apologue by Han Yu, a prose writer of the ninth century, and it is included in the admirable Anthologie raisonnée de la littérature chinoise by Margouliès (1948). This is the paragraph I marked, a mysterious and tranquil one:

It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being and one of good omen: this is declared in the odes, in the annals, in the biographies of illustrious men, and in other texts of unquestioned authority. Even the women and children of the Populace know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal is not one of the domestic animals, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. And therefore we could be in the presence of the unicorn and we would not know for certain that it was one. We know that a certain animal with a mane is a horse, and that one with horns is a bull. We do not know what the unicorn is like.

The third text proceeds from a more foreseeable source: the writings of Kierkegaard. The mental affinity of both writers is known to almost everyone: what has not yet been brought out, as far as I know, is that Kierkegaard, like Kafka, abounded in religious parables on contemporary and middle-elass themes. Lowrie, in his Kierkegaard (Oxford University Press, 1938), mentions two. One is the story of a forger who examines Bank of England notes while under constant surveillance: in the same way, God must have been suspicious of Kierkegaard and must have entrusted him with a mission simply because He bnew that he was accustomed to evil. Expeditions to the North Pole are the subjeet of the other. Danish clergymen had announced from their pulpits that to participate in those expeditions would be beneficial for the eternal salvation of the soul. However, they admitted that it was difficult and Perhaps impossible to reach the Pole, and that not everyone could undertake such an adventure. Finally, they announced that any joumney—from Denmark to London, say, by ship—or a Sunday outing in a hackney coach, was in fact a real expedition to the North Pole.
Continued tomorrow.
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