Acquaintances and Literary Influences

“I never wish to be easily defined. I’d rather float over other people’s minds as something strictly fluid and non-perceivable; more like a transparent, paradoxically iridescent creature rather than an actual person.”

Franz Kafka

 
 

 
 

A Friend of Kafka, a collection of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, was published in 1970 with most of the stories appearing in the previous decade. He and his readers had plenty of time to dwell on the growing feeling of alienation that came from decades of broken promises. One of the most powerful themes in these stories is the exhausting banality of life and a total feeling of rootless isolation.

The plot of A Friend of Kafka is about a bohemian amateur philosophy and former actor, Jaques Kohn, who spent his life pursuing women, drinking and otherwise living the hedonist lifestyle that his life philosophy demanded. He was an intriguing figure for the narrator who saw in him glimpses of Western Europe. “The very way he carried his silver-handled cane seemed exotic to me. He even smoked his cigarettes differently from the way we did in Warsaw.”

Supposedly, Kohn was the first to recognize Franz Kafka’s talent, and he has corresponded with other important figures: Marc Chagall, Stefan Zweig, and Martin Buber. As the narrator’s cultural guide, Kohn shows him his letters and photographs, and he even arranges for him to meet Madam Tschissik, with whom Kohn performed and whom Kafka allegedly loved.

Kohn likes to tell a story about Kafka’s failure in a brothel. His sexual reservations are the same as the reservations he had about writing. Kohn is obsessed with the idea that he is playing a game of chess with fate. “My partner wants to play a slow game. He’ll go on taking my pieces one by one. First he removed my appeal as an actor and turned me into a so-called writer. He’d no sooner done that than he provided me with writer’s cramps. His next move was to deprive me of my potency.” In short, while he finds something invigorating about the struggle, he is slowly dying. His stories of his acting career and his knowledge of Kafka are all that keeps him from total fatalism. Many if the characters in this collection are involved in same sort of slow death. No longer capable of a projectural life, they limp along, trying to find meaning in banalities, religious, hedonism, of their own delusions.

Isaac Bashevis Singer had many literary influences; besides the religious texts he studied, he grew up with a rich array of Jewish folktales and worldly Yiddish detective-stories about “Max Spitzkopf” and his assistant Fuchs. He read Russian, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s Crime and Punishment at the age of fourteen. He wrote in memoirs about the importance of the Yiddish translations donated in book-crates from America, which he studied as a teenager in Bilgoraj: “I read everything: Stories, novels, plays, essays… I read Avrom Reyzen,Johan August Strindberg, Don Kaplanowitsch, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov.” He studied many philosophers, among them Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Otto Weininger. Among his Yiddish contemporaries, Singer considered his older brother to be his greatest artistic example; he was also life-long friend and admirer of the author and poet Aaron Zeitlin. Singer had translated Thomas Mann‘s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) into Yiddish as a young writer.

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Essay On Proust

“The time-state of attainment eliminates so accurately the time-state of aspiration, that the actual seems the inevitable, and, all conscious intellectual effort to reconstitute the invisible and unthinkable as a reality being fruitless, we are incapable of appreciating our joy by comparing it with our sorrow.”

Samuel Beckett
Proust

 
 

Samuel Beckett. Photo by François-Marie Banier

 
 

Samuel Beckett wrote Proust in the summer of 1930, in response to a commission precipitated by Thomas MacGreevy, Charles Prentice, and Richard Aldington, during his stay at the École Normale in Paris. By the end of September, he delivered it by hand to Charles Prentice at Chatto and Windus. The book sold 2,600 copies by 1937, with the remaining 400 remaindered by 1941. In retrospect, Beckett dismissed it as written in “cheap flashy philosophical jargon.

The essay served double duty as its author’s aesthetic and epistemological manifesto, proclaiming on behalf of its ostensible subject: “We cannot know and we cannot be known.” In dense and allusive language, Beckett credited his current influences (notably Arthur Schopenhauer and Pedro Calderón de la Barca) and forecast his future preoccupations, reading them into the prose of Marcel Proust:

“The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness (an objectivation of the individual’s will, Schopenhauer would say), the pact must be continually renewed, the letter of safe-conduct brought up to date. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave-sheets serve as swaddling-clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being. (At this point, and with a heavy heart and for the satisfaction or disgruntlement of Gideans, semi and integral, I am inspired to concede a brief parenthesis to all the analogivorous, who are capable of interpreting the ‘Live dangerously,’ that victorious hiccough in vacuo, as the national anthem of the true ego exiled in habit. The Gideans advocate a habit of living—and look for an epithet. A nonsensical bastard phrase. An automatic adjustment of the human organism to the conditions of its existence has as little moral significance as the casting of a clout when May is or is not out; and the exhortation to cultivate a habit as little sense as an exhortation to cultivate a coryza.) The suffering of being: that is, the free play of every faculty. Because the pernicious devotion of habit paralyses our attention, drugs those handmaidens of perception whose co-operation is not absolutely essential.

Beckett went on to pinpoint his moral focus on the fundamental quandaries of human existence, disclaiming any involvement in social issues:

Here, as always, Proust is completely detached from all moral considerations. There is no right and wrong in Proust nor in his world. (Except possibly in those passages dealing with the war, when for a space he ceases to be an artist and raises his voice with the plebs, mob, rabble, canaille.) Tragedy is not concerned with human justice. Tragedy is the statement of an expiation, but not the miserable expiation of a codified breach of a local arrangement, organised by the knaves for the fools. The tragic figure represents the expiation of original sin, of the original and eternal sin of him and all his ‘soci malorum,’ the sin of having been born.

‘Pues el delito mayor
Del hombre es haber nacido.’

The final quotation is from Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), and ‘soci malorum’ is a quotation from Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism.

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Soci malorum, compagnon de miseres!
In all his subsequent writings, Beckett continued to endorse this hamartiological conclusion; compare “The only sin is the sin of being born,” from a 1969 interview.