Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Laughing in the Wreckage: epistemological collapse, ontology and humour in Kafka and Borges

Both Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are generally, and in my opinion correctly, hailed as two of the most important and influential writers of the 20th Century. Their fiction changed and revolutionised the way one could write, inspiring and informing whole generations of authors both philosophically and stylistically, not to mention the elucidating effect they had on the theoretical concerns of the second half of the century, post-1968 Theory in particular. Neither author’s work totally fits under the heading ‘modernism’ but, despite the fact their work is replete with many of the hallmarks of postmodernism, it would be incorrect to simply label them as postmodernists. My aim in this piece is to analyse their work through its humour, for I believe their humour is one of the most interesting ways in to exploring what exactly their work is ‘doing’, using Brian McHale’s epistemological/ontological shift thesis as a backbone.

In Postmodernist Fictions, Brian McHale set out to distinguish the traits of postmodernist writing from all else, specifically modernist fiction, and to create an encompassing poetics of the movement. In doing so, he based his argument on Roman Jakobson’s idea of the dominant; or rather he based his argument on a deconstruction of Jakobson’s theory. According to Jakobson, “the dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components”[1]. McHale, unable to abide by the ‘either-or’ nature of the theory in light of the deconstructive approach emblematised by Derrida and the poststructuralists, picks it apart somewhat:

'There are many dominants...depending on the level, scope, and focus of the analysis. Furthermore...the same text will yield different dominants depending on what aspect of it we are analysing...Different dominants emerge depending on which questions we ask of the text' [my italics].[2]

In acknowledging this he dispels potential criticism that could be directed towards his own binary, in the process informing us what questions he will be asking, essentially summarisable as: what literary devices are commonplace in modernist texts, compared with postmodernist texts? From this he draws his interpretation of the dominants of both movements and the shift between them, namely that “the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological”, compared with the ontological dominant of postmodernist fiction[3]. My own understanding of the epistemological/ontological shift in relation to the fictions of Kafka and Borges will become apparent. Before this, an understanding of McHale’s terminology is essential, and it is perhaps best explicable through Dick Higgins, who McHale cites as an influence. The epistemological, or modernist, foregrounds questions such as “How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?”[4] and “What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of reliability?...What are the limits of the knowable?”[5], whereas the ontological, or postmodernist, foregrounds questions like “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?”[6] and, bearing either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on that of the fictional world it projects, “What is a world?...What is the mode of existence in a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured?”[7] Of course, he accepts that epistemology cannot be considered separately from ontology and vice-versa; his argument merely hinges on which of the two is primary, or which, literally, comes first: one has to, even in objection, “mention one of these sets of questions before the other set...Literary discourse, in effect, only specifies which set of questions ought to be asked first of a particular text”[8]. Thus McHale skirts the problem of the binary, clarifying his theory in the process.

To return to Borges and Kafka, what I propose to demonstrate is how their work exists in a kind of between state, situated on the line between modernist/postmodernist, epistemological/ontological; they are both at the same time as well as neither. In a sense, they are the ‘/’ that separates the two. And in doing so, it should become clear that this is possible in large part due to the humour contained in their writing. However, it is now essential that I somewhat define what is meant by ‘humour’, and a brief excursion into the criticism of James Wood is necessary.

In Wood’s introductory essay to The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, another binary (not that dissimilar upon closer inspection to McHale’s) is constructed. Wood argues that, broadly speaking, we can filter humour into two categories: the comedy of correction and the comedy of forgiveness, while acknowledging that this can only be done “a little roughly”[9]. “The latter is a way of laughing at; the former a way of laughing with”[10]. It is also worth pointing out that the former is more prevalent in pre-modernist, if not modern, literature. For now this definition of Wood’s terminology should suffice, as it will, along with and alongside McHale’s, be further elucidated and applied in the following paragraphs. With these necessary definitions out of the way, I can now properly begin and bring the focus back to the main subjects of this essay, the fictions of Franz Kafka and of Jorge Luis Borges.

There are two Borges stories, both from Fictions, which I will look at: ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ and ‘Funes, His Memory’. Through both of these stories one can gather a reasonably complete understanding of what exactly Borges’ fiction ‘does’, especially in relation to the topics raised by this essay. As for Kafka, I will be considering The Trial.

‘The Lottery in Babylon’ is set in a wholly artificial, appropriated Babylon; it is Babylon in name only. Immediately we enter a null realm, an other place, the kind of unlocation that likely influenced in some sense Calvino’s later Invisible Cities and other such non-locatable postmodern worlds[11]. Equally immediately, we learn that the ‘reality’ of this Babylon is not important. It doesn’t matter where or when it is set. Not only would we not be able to situate it convincingly in any historical period, but to try and do so would be misguided and superfluous. The story exists out of time in a fictional world, a metaphysical world, situated only within itself and its ideas. It implies as much itself: “I have known that thing the Greeks knew not – uncertainty”[12]. It is shunning the safe absolutes of logocentric thought and embracing otherness, embracing that which cannot be fully known. The narrator, before delivering his history and description of the Lottery run by the shadowy Company, points out that about the Lottery’s/Company’s “mighty purposes I know as much as a man untutored in astrology might know about the moon”[13]. It is unclear who our narrator is, who he is addressing – all we know is that he no longer lives in Babylon but once did – or how true any of what he is saying is. He depicts how a lottery which started as mere entertainment for the common-folk gradually became the driving force of Babylonian society, how the lives of all its inhabitants became dictated by chance lottery drawings. As the Company grew, their sway on the functioning of Babylon became more obscure. No-one knew what was ‘natural’ and what was as a result of the Company. Some claimed “the company has never existed, and never will”, others questioned whether or not “the drunken man who blurts out an absurd comment, the sleeping man who suddenly awakes and chokes to death the woman sleeping by his side”[14] is acting on his own or at the behest of a drawing by the Company.

The sheer inconclusiveness of who the narrator is, who he is addressing, and where and when the story is set, coupled with the philosophically inclined thought experiment of a world dictated primarily by chance (the kind of chance of which the people whom it affects do not necessarily even know is chance), intentionally creates humour. Borges is playing with the idea of fiction and epistemological certainty. He has written, seriously but with a charmingly playful, ironic tone, that it is best to “pretend that [the imaginary books and worlds in his fiction] already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them”[15]. The logistics, the fictional reality of his stories and their content, revel in their own uncertainty, make you laugh along with them, forgiving their elusiveness (as if it needs forgiveness) and not so much suspending but disregarding any notion of your disbelief and following their absurdly cogent/cogently absurd depictions of worlds and ideas, the humour very much being derived from their lack of care for basic epistemological ‘necessities’ such as who is speaking this story and whether or not they are supposed to be reliable or unreliable.

Similar things can be read into ‘Funes, His Memory’, and one can also take from it a general, if effective, structural explanation of how Borges’ stories work in Fictions. It, like so many of his best stories, is a kind of teasing comedy. It presents a fantastical idea rendered via the anecdotal evidence of another (who is upfront about his unreliability), explores the idea and disturbs it by pointing out the impossibility of ever being able to understand or know it with epistemological certainty, then ends enigmatically. The point of the stories seems to be to play with, to riff on, fantastical ideas, generally philosophically informed, while refusing to elucidate them or even remove them from the level of anecdote. The inconclusiveness and elusiveness seems to be the point: we are fascinated by the ideas and want to know them, but, as is implied by Borges, we never can know them, we never can know anything for sure, no matter how much we want to, and this is the point and purpose of his stories, his revolt against the impossibility of truth and transcendental knowledge. After the narrator tells us of Funes’ infinite capacity for memory and how he encountered it just once, for one night, many years ago, he is himself forced to accept epistemological impossibility:

'I come now to the most difficult part of my story, a story whose only raison d’ê that dialogue half a century ago. I will not attempt to reproduce the words of it, which are now forever irrecoverable. Instead I will summarise, faithfully...[and ask] my readers to try to hear in their imagination the broken and staccato periods that astounded me that night.'[16]

We readers, like the narrator, are seeking clarity, seeing truth. But the moment has passed, the ‘original presence’ has gone, and we are left only with stand-ins, deferrals; we must accept the text as such and hope that the narrator’s ‘faithful’ attempts to accurately render what happened are as close to epistemological certainty as they can be, at the same time as acknowledging such certainty does not exist. We are left with a humorous absurdity, an essential paradox, deconstructive in nature – for is a deconstruction not, at its core, simply a pointing out of the impossible at the same time as believing, impossibly, in possibility? It brings to mind Socrates’ thoughts on knowledge: “Socrates consistently maintains that he knows nothing, and is only wiser than others in knowing that he knows nothing...[yet] he thinks the search for knowledge of the utmost importance”[17]. Borges’ stories fascinate us with the fantastic, deconstruct themselves and, in engaging us, forgive the absurdity of us expecting something more conclusive from them just as we forgive them for not giving us more; we sideline what we can know about them and focus on what they are, on their being, on their ontological world and its relations to and with our own individual ontological realms. They make no attempt to correct us, as in Wood’s first form of comedy; the only certainty in them, their only judgments, are of their own being and, in the process, our being becomes connected with theirs’. The most corrective they get is in perhaps inspiring us to reconsider our own ideas of truth, epistemology and knowability. They debunk epistemological notions by pointing out their fallacies, by working within them, leaving their ontological state the ‘realest’ or most tangible thing we as readers and critics can consider, and can take from them what we will.

Kafka’s work does similar things as Borges’, and many of the analyses above can be fairly uniformly applied to it. As such, I will look primarily at the aspects of his work which differ from Borges’, even if the aspects I wish to consider differ in the same vein. As Camus famously said of The Trial, “it is the fate and perhaps the greatness of that work that it offers everything and confirms nothing”[18]. I concur. In fact, the entirety of this essay could be spent listing the possible ‘meanings’ of The Trial and all the vague ideas, signifiers and symbols contained within it that imply, but never confirm, its meaning. Instead, I would like to hone in on what I consider to be its overarching purpose, which is arguably also one of the overarching purposes of many, if not most, of his other works: the dismantling of any grand, objective notion of truth and knowability or, expressed differently, a deconstruction of epistemology. And, like Borges, he succeeds in doing this through humour.

Kafka’s entire oeuvre can be reasonably comprehensively summarised by Camus, who draws on an absurd story/amusing anecdote:

"You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor...asked him ‘if they were biting’, to which he received the harsh reply: ‘Of course not, you fool, since this is in a bathtub’"[19].

The man “allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it”[20]. Kafka’s work takes very much the same approach regarding epistemology: his narrators search for an understandable truth, an understandable meaning, an explanation and justification for what is happening to them – an explanation they will never find. Likewise, we readers will never find anything explicitly ‘true’ in Kafka, will never find any concrete ‘meaning’. With Kafka, it seems, there are no “final signifieds”[21]. The Trial is a prime example of this. Along with K., we do not know what he is being accused of nor, because we do not know the alleged crime, whether or not he is guilty. Furthermore, how much of what is being depicted is ‘real’? McHale points out that if it is possible to “recuperate [a text’s] internal contradictions by invoking the model of the ‘unreliable narrator’”[22] then the epistemological is still the text’s dominant. K.’s reliability is doubtable, but it would be incorrect to simply term him an unreliable narrator; nor does the story seem to indicate this as correct. Nonetheless, it is implied a number of times that the events following K.’s being informed of his arrest may only be happening because he is allowing them to. K. proclaims his innocence yet does not really know he is innocent – how could he? When he is told by Titorelli the painter that “since you’re would be possible to ground your case on your innocence alone”[23], K., instead of acknowledging the advice, merely argues with Titorelli’s lack of logic and contradictory pronouncements about the court: “You made the assertion earlier that the Court is impervious to proof, later you qualified that assertion by confining it to the public sessions of the Court, and now you actually say that an innocent man requires no help”[24]. It is characteristic of K., in that he needs to know, and nothing anyone tells him, no matter how pragmatic and beneficial, is taken on board. Essentially, he refuses to accept that he just needs to be, he doesn’t need to know, and this plays a part in his eventual murder.

As with Borges, Kafka is pointing out the absurdity of searching for truth, of expecting logocentric certainty, and he is doing it through epistemology. K.’s main goal is to find out information he doesn’t need to know, as he is told from the start (“the best thing now would be to bother no more about...justice or injustice”[25]). But still he searches. It takes over his life. He is, in a sense, building his life around an epistemological dominant, and in doing so he loses his life. The humour in the story is more prominent than in Borges’ work and somewhat different. The absurd is more pronounced. The way his characters react in a state of complete naturalness[26] to bizarre, extraordinary events, mirrored by the matter-of-fact prose, creates an atmosphere of heightened absurdity. There is comedy in our wanting to know things we will never know, and knowing we will never know them. But there is a more sinister humour at work in Kafka, one that is notably absent in Borges. Just as Kafka is using epistemology to point out the impossibility of objective truth and knowledge, implying that one’s primary concerns should be ontological, he is also using the comedy of correction to undermine the idea of judgment: for does a judgment not imply a knowledge secure and absolute enough from which to judge? Nearly everyone K. encounters tells him not to worry, to forget about the arrest and get on with his life (at least until he, arguably, turns it into more than it is and makes it a more present concern). He does not listen; he subscribes to the idea of justice and injustice; he opens himself up to judgment, to correction, and when he is finally judged (murdered), he still knows nothing, can only utter, ambiguously, “Like a dog”[27]. It appears to be advocating the comedy of forgiveness at the same time as compelling us to judge K., to laugh at him for allowing this to happen. As with everything about Kafka, there is then uncertainty as to whether judgment and correction are being directed at us, whether in all this ambiguity we, searching futilely for truth, are to be judged for doing so. The text could be said to be laughing at us for believing in it, for allowing ourselves to try and find something certain in it. K. dies unaware of why what has happened has happened; we finish the novel, we are severed from it, and nothing has been confirmed. K.’s search and our search are in a sense one and the same.

What, then, can we say conclusively about the epistemological/ontological divide, other than that Kafka and Borges rupture its efficacy, comprehensively distort its functionality? It is possible that the answer, or at least the response, to this question lies in the work that came after them, the postmodern writing from which McHale drew his binary. That, however, would be a different essay. What can be shown as conclusively as possible is the progression from Kafka’s destruction, his rupturing, of the epistemological via the epistemological, to Borges’ primarily ontological fiction depicted via the destroyed certainty of epistemological knowledge. Whereas in Kafka’s work the dominant is still epistemological, epistemology only comes to the fore in Borges when one asks the kind of questions which allow it to do so. It is the worlds and the characters that inhabit them that Borges is concerned with. The connection between the two authors is acknowledged obliquely in ‘The Lottery of Babylon’. Describing the Company’s obfuscations and attempts to prevent people ever reaching a state of complete knowing and understanding, he writes of mystical places in which it was rumoured one could gain “access to the Company”. One of these is “a sacred latrine called Quaphqa [Kafka]”[28]. It is obviously comedic and riddled with irony, but more importantly it establishes an understanding of Kafka’s subversive aims (none of the places described could realistically give access to anything, echoing everything this essay has discussed) and a commonality of expression between the two. Fittingly, neither of them tries to solve the problem of the epistemological dominant. They merely deconstruct it or play with its failure, and in Borges’ case make it a secondary, but still wholly present, concern. It is my belief that, to ‘solve’ the problem of needing to reach some form of conclusiveness from their work, beyond a mere appreciation of its (for want of a better word) intellectual aims, we must turn to their humour. It not only sweetens the heavy philosophic concerns of the two, but it helps create them. They appreciate the absurd, paradoxical nature of existence and, as much as they draw attention to it, they also find the comedy in it which, no matter how black, and, in the case of ever-elusive Kafka, how caught up it may or may not be in the comedy of correction, is ultimately forgiving and freeing. In the process they free themselves from themselves, from, at least to an extent, their academic context and historicity, and enable the reader to enjoy their innovations, their scriptible infinitudes, their unsolvability, lightened and deepened by their sophisticated understanding of the redeeming nature of the humorous. We may not find in Borges and Kafka an answer to the concerns they raise; what we instead find is forgiveness for what we cannot find. We can laugh with their circular, deconstructive logic and refusal/inability to be fully understood, and the finding and foregrounding of the humour their texts are rich with becomes an acceptable, if deeply (and essentially) imperfect, solution to the inability to solve anything through dated logocentric reasoning. The epistemological dominant has failed and here, amongst the wreckage, all we can do for certain is laugh.

[1] Roman Jakobson, ‘The dominant’ in Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska (eds.), Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), p. 105
[2] Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 6
[3] Ibid., p. 9
[4] Dick Higgins, A Dialectic of Centuries: Notes towards a Theory of the New Arts (New York: BOA Editions, 1978), p. 101
[5] Ibid. McHale, p. 9
[6] Ibid. Higgins
[7] Ibid. McHale, p. 10
[8] Ibid, p. 11
[9] James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (London: Pimlico, 2005), p. 4
[10] Ibid.
[11] ‘The influence of Borges is observed early in Invisible Cites...marking Calvino’s turn to a more compassionate postmodernism’, Constance Markey, Italo Calvino: a journey towards postmodernism (Florida: Florida University Press, 1999) p. 107
[12] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ in Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 51
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid, p. 57
[15] Ibid Borges, ‘Foreword’, p. 5
[16] Ibid Borges, ‘Funes, His Memory’, p. 95
[17] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Oxon: Routledge, 2005), p. 97
[18] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 124
[19] Ibid Camus, p. 116
[20] Ibid, p. 117
[21] See Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 142-149
[22] Ibid McHale, p. 12
[23] Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 169
[24] Ibid, p. 170
[25] Ibid, p. 20
[26] Ibid Camus, pp. 113-4
[27] Ibid Kafka, p. 251
[28] Ibid Borges, p. 54

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