Tier 1b Content
Typography: Advancing Ideas through Content, Sources, and Systems Mediation
with guest artists: Ben Day – Thomas Detrie – Kenneth Hiebert
| Arnold Holland | Course Coordinator | aholland@fullerton.edu |
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From Everything and Nothing. Jorge Luis Borges. New Directions. NYC NY. 1999.

Kafka and His Precursors
Translated by James E. Irby.

I once premeditated making a study of Kafka's prescursors. At first I had considered him to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods. I shall record a few of these here in chronological order.

The first is Zeno's paradox against movement. A moving object at A (declares Aristotle) cannot reach point B, because it must first cover half the distance between the two points, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity; the form of this illustrious problem is, exactly, that of the The Castle, and the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature. In the second text which chance laid before me, the affinity is not one of form but one of tone. It is an apologue of Han Yu, a prose writer of the ninth century, and is reproduced in Marguoliès admirable Anthologie raisonnée de la litterérature chinoise (1948). This is the paragraph, mysterious and calm, which I marked: 'It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen; such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, 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. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like.1

1Nonrecognition of the sacred animal and its opprobrious or accidental death at the hands of the people are traditional themes in Chinese literature. See the last chapter of Jung's Psychologie and Alchemie (Zürich, 1944) which contains two curious illustrations.

The third text derives from a more easily predictable source: the writings of Kierkegaard. The spiritual affinity of both writers is something of which no one is ignorant; what has not yet been brought out, as far as I know, is the fact that Kierkegaard, like Kafka, wrote many religious parables on contemporary and bourgeois themes. Lowrie, in his Kierkegaard (Oxford University Press, 1938), transcribes two of these. One is the story of a counterfeiter who, under constant surveillance, counts banknotes in the Bank of England; in the same way, God would distrust Kierkegaard and have given him a task to perform, precisely because He knew that he was familiar with evil. The subject of the other parable is the North Pole expeditions. Danish ministers had declared from their pulpits that participation in these expeditions was beneficial to the soul's eternal well-being. They admitted, however, that is was difficult, and perhaps impossible, to reach the Pole and that not all men could undertake the adventure. Finally, they would announce that any trip – from Denmark to London, let us say, on the regularly scheduled steamer – was, properly considered, and expedition to the North Pole. The fourth of these prefigurations I have found is Browning's poem "Fears and Scruples,' published in 1876. A man has, or believes he has, a famous friend. He has never seen this friend and the fact is that the friend has so far never helped him, although tales are told of his most noble traits and authentic letters of his circulate about. Then someone places these traits in doubt and the handwriting experts declare that the letters are apocryphal. The man asks, in the last line: 'And if this friend were...God?

My notes also register two stories. One is from Léon Bloy's Histories désobligeantes and relates the case of some people who possess all manner of globes, atlases, railroad guides and trunks, but who die without ever having managed to leave their home town. The other is entitled 'Carcass one' and is the work of Lord Dunsany. An invincible army of warriors leaves an infinite castle, conquers kingdoms and sees monsters and exhausts the deserts and the mountains, but they never reach Carcassonne, though once they glimpse it from afar. (This story is, as one can easily see, the strict reverse of the previous one; in the first, the city is never left; in the second, it is never reached.)

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, 'Fears and Scruples' by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word 'precursor' is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.2 In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

2 See T.S.Eliot: Points of View (1941), 25-26.

Borges and I
Translated by James E. Irby.

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar, Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which one of us has written this page.

Everything and Nothing
Translated by James E. Irby.

There was no one in him: behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made home feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an element rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays a being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavor of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamerland and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur's admonition, and Juliet, who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man, who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confesssion hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words 'I am not what I am,' The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.

For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theater. Within a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be someone; he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury, If was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature, His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: 'I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.' The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: 'Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.'


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