1For Montaigne, Nietzsche, or Benjamin, the ultimate purpose of philosophy becomes manifest as extasis before an easy slope — light and graceful after the manner of the heavenly vault; a delicate surface — the speckled epidermis of the ocean —, or trembling foliage.
2In order to approach the poetic relationship to the landscape — landscape that can only be understood as space inhabited by animals — we may place, at the core of such an exploration, like so many undisclosed enigmas, the animals, big and small, which inhabit Nietzsche’s oceanic shore. For, in the light of these philosophers’ quest, the figure of melancholy is equally a practice of affectivity and a conceptualisation of the origins of human reason, wherefrom lessons remain to be learned.
3On Walter Benjamin’s trace, to think melancholia means to pay attention to those texts — literary as well as philosophical — whose poetic endeavour is to offer a vision of the Cosmos by turning to natural history, to an astrological cosmology anterior to Modern Times, where, under the sign of Saturn, the relationship between memory and performance takes shape as history’s other. Texts which belong to “people of the past” who have escaped the mighty Aufklärung by which the human being has so to speak freed him- and herself from his and her animal condition.
4If one wants to discern traces of the survival of these people of the past, a process of reparation — I will take the word Rettung in the context of Benjamin’s treatise on the Trauerspiel, more exactly, in the exposition of the “method” of the treatise, the Erkenntniskritische Vorrede; and also, in the context of Kafka’s tale Der Bau — a process of reparation or Restauration should emerge, of an experience we may call of compassion. Also, a figure of melancholy as transference should be considered: transference of a particular nature, since what is of interest here is not the transfer of incorrigible affects upon a third person, but, rather, the re-enactment of early experiences of space upon the new sites we encounter. In the words of Peter Sloterdijk, who looks at our relation to spatiality as one of the forms of reparation we seek in order to undo the prejudice brought upon us by the Modern Times: the frontiers of my capacity for this spatial transference are the frontiers of my universe.
5One example of this conceptualization of the origins is the figure of the not-to-be-forgotten (Unvergeßlich). In “The Task of the translator,” Benjamin speaks about the life that is not to be forgotten, even though it has no monument or memorial, or perhaps even any testimony. Yet this figure can take the form of the forgotten precisely, like it does in Kafka’s animal tales. And since it appears that, starting with Darwin, a new imaginary inspires our conscious and especially unconscious landscapes, which envision the animal species as childhoods of the human, we may wonder, with Kafka: what have we done, by emancipating ourselves of such childhood?
6To Kafka, says Benjamin in “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death”, “the world of his ancestors was as unfathomable as the world of realities was important, and we may be sure that, (like the totem poles of primitive peoples,) the world of ancestors took him down to animals. […] Kafka never tired of hearing about the forgotten from animals.” (810)
7Of course, this he did by no means in order to better understand human history or historicity; for Kafka does not simply have recourse to some animal metaphor or another. Speaking about the animal stories — this time in his “Franz Kafka: Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer” — Benjamin dissipates such an illusion (one Brecht, for instance, stubbornly held) in no uncertain terms: “the reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time — as a mouse or a mole — you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings.”(497-8) But if Kafka’s language is not metaphorical, what kind of language is it?
8I will take the word Rettung in the context of Benjamin’s treatise on the Trauerspiel, more exactly, in the exposition of the “method” of the treatise, the Erkenntniskritische Vorrede; and also, in the context of Kafka’s tale “Der Bau,” “The Burrow”.
9Speaking about the role that empirical phenomena play, in the constitution, or architecture, of knowledge, Benjamin affirms that, through their mediating role, concepts take part in the being of ideas. It is this mediator role that allows them to accomplish one other, essential task, in his words the original task of philosophical thought: the presentation of ideas. At the same time that the salvation of phenomena — which we may understand as refuge, in the sense in which it designates the refuge of the empirical in the world of ideas — is accomplished, what is also accomplished in the process of this mediation, is the presentation of ideas by means of the empirical. The ideas present themselves not in themselves, but only within the ordering of elements belonging to the world of things, that is, within concepts. Presentation accomplished as the configuration of concepts. (Trauerspiel 214)
10In other words, in order to understand the relationship between ideas and the empirical phenomena, Benjamin imagines thatthe ideas are to things what constellations — or startableaux, Sternbilder — are to stars. They are neither their concepts nor their laws. Thus the synchronicity between the salvation of phenomena and the presentation of ideas. The gathering together of phenomena is the task of concepts, and the fragmentation accomplished through the analytical understanding in them, all the more important, as, in one and the same operation, two things are achieved: the salvation of phenomena and the presentation of ideas.
11 “Yet the burrow is not a mere hole to take refuge in,” says the mole, narrator of “The Burrow” story. (145) Through the image of Kafka’s “hole to take refuge in”, Rettungsloch, we will immediately seize the opposition between Rettung as a concept, a lofty concept suggesting, of course, not only the salvation of one’s life, but the salvation of one’s soul, and Loch, the hole, the underground where the mole lives and strives for idleness. The mole will tell us that, in fact, this hole he has built, his castle, does deserve to be regarded as a place of salvation. In the description of its ingenuous topology, as well as of the effects the burrow’s morphological perfection has on its architect and dweller, we get to understand what Benjamin means by his theory of the presentation of the idea, through the fragmentation to which concepts subject the phenomenal or empirical world.
12Where, in Kafka’s Burrow, though, are we to discern the traces, if not the very presence, of Benjamin’s melancholia?
13To Benjamin’s assertion, that Kafka’s writing on animals takes us far away from the continent of human beings, I will have to add that our reading must begin by recognizing — a melancholy recognition in itself — that our condition, today, is to inhabit a continent to such an extent far away from the continent of human beings to which Benjamin spoke, as to place Kafka’s tales at an almost inscrutable distance.
14The mole ends his breathtaking description of his burrow, of how it was built, of how it is and of how it feels, by declaring that the most profound meaning of this Rettungsloch resides in its belonging to its architect. Belong to the architect, essentially, to such an extent, as to grant him the certitude that, if his enemy were to reach inside — which is, of course, the greatest fear, the Angst that reigns over the mole’s story — and shed his blood, that blood would not be lost: “my castle… can never belong to anyone else, and is so essentially mine that I can calmly accept in it even my enemy’s mortal stroke at the final hour, for my blood will ebb away here in my own soil and not be lost.”
15After which he goes on to ask: “And what but that is the meaning of the blissful hours which I pass, now peacefully slumbering, now happily keeping watch, in these passages, these passages which suit me so well, where one can stretch oneself out in comfort, roll about in childish delight, lie and dream, or sink into blissful sleep.” (145)
16In order to bring together Benjamin’s theory of the presentation of ideas as salvation of the empirical, and Kafka’s short story, we will have to call upon some of Benjamin’s notes, belonging to his Passagen-werk and assembled in the Konvolut m under the title Idleness, Müβiggang. Yet this bringing together can only be performed with the awareness that we do not quite understand the concept of idleness, otium, or studious leisure, any longer, and this is certainly one of the reasons which prompted my earlier statement according to which “our condition, today, is to inhabit a continent to such an extent far away from the continent of human beings to which Benjamin spoke, as to place Kafka’s tales at an almost inscrutable distance.”
17Reminiscent, strangely and anachronically, of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Benjamin’s fragment begins by recalling the classical opposition otium / negotium: in ancient Greece, practical labor (Arbeit) is branded and proscribed, and although left in the hands of slaves, it is condemned because it betrays a base aspiration for earthly goods (riches). “Plato, in the Laws (VIII, 846), decrees that no citizen shall engage in a mechanical trade; the word banausos, signifying ‘artisan,’ becomes synonymous with ‘contemptible’ […]; everything relating to tradespeople or to handwork carries a stigma, and deforms the soul together with the body.” Those who practiced these professions were “busy satisfying a ‘passion for wealth’” which, according to Plato, “leaves none of us an hour’s leisure.” With Aristotle, who opposes the excess of the chrematistic to the prudence of domestic economy, “the scorn felt for the artisan is extended to the merchant: in comparison to the liberal life, as absorbed in studious leisure (scholé, otium), the affairs of trade (neg-otium, ascholia), ‘business affairs,’ have mostly a negative value.” (800)
18In spite of our remoteness, in relation to such ancient, outdated understanding of the concept of otium, I propose that Muβe or otium is to melancholia what the concept is to the idea in Benjamin’s Erkenntniskritische Vorrede quoted above. I have chosen it for the obvious role it played historically, within the definition of melancholia, before and during the Modern Times, as far as the first half of the twentieth century. This word, melancholia, occupies in my commentary not the position of a concept, but, as I have already made clear, the position of the idea.
19In the context of the larger, anthropological and philosophical examination to which they belong, these remarks should bring to the fore the question of the kind of language we may and should use, when speaking of that which pertains to the animal. In order to make clearer the distance that separates the continent of human beings we inhabit now, from the continent from which Benjamin already felt cast away, and which he invoked in his reading of Kafka’s animal tales, I will appeal Montaigne’s affirmation according to which human beings do not have the appropriate means to understand the nature and complexity of the animal. (429-430) He refers for instance to the impossibility human beings face, to represent for themselves animal communication. Which Montaigne and, I would venture to say, Benjamin, both liken to the communication between planets, communication that commands their influence on us, in other words, our destiny. Communication that may also be recognized as a “poetic relationship”.
20The constellation of texts which form the landscape of this poetic relationship — from Montaigne to Nietzsche, to Thomas Mann, to Benjamin, to Kafka, to Derrida — all state in no uncertain terms their stubborn belief in destiny. Is it because these texts belong to an era bygone — and I do include Derrida’s philosophy therein — that we seem to condescendingly tolerate their dated, if curious faith? What, in our reading, is laid bare by this will to “demystify” a position which, for us, has come to designate the mythical aspect of literature and philosophy alike?
21Jacques Derrida has shown how, for the last two centuries, we have been engaged in a process without precedent. He calls it a mutation that affects the experience of what we continue to name animal or animals. And, in counter distinction to other concepts — world, history, life — the newness of this relationship to the animal should force us to reconsider all the assumptions which set our thinking in motion. Even the affirmation that, in our relationship to the animal, we experience a historic turn, is inadequate, for it presupposes that we would still be engaged in a genealogical relationship with these animal beings with whom, after all, and since always, we were sharing the orders of bios and of zoé: life and death, life and technique, life and history. During the last two centuries the traditional forms of treating animals have been turned upside down by the development of knowledge. We are faced with a process of annihilation and of survival under artificial conditions that the people — the humans — of the past would have judged monstrous: that is, outside of all norms supposed to properly pertain to the life of animals.
22As for the expression “of the animal”, I take it in the sense it might have acquired in the wake of Montaigne and Rousseau’s thanatographic scenes, the two most famous of the French tradition, according to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. These two scenes witness to an experience of death — or, rather, a near-death experience — that, contrary to a rich tradition stating quite the contrary, can be conceived as lightness. For Montaigne, the revelation came in the presence and as a consequence of the impatience of a horse, who threw him and caused injury and loss of consciousness. Yet the experience of that accident and loss was to become the most soothing he ever knew. For Rousseau, in the presence and as a consequence of the impatience of a dog, an accident that threw him into a similar near-death encounter. These scenes allow us to conceive of Montaigne’s becoming-horse, of Rousseau’s becoming-dog, to use a Deleuzian figure of becoming. They also reach in the direction of Thomas Mann’s description of his communication — or poetic relationship — with his dog Bashan. In the German original, the master’s apparition in Bauschans Gestalt: in the apparition of his dog, the narrator recognizes “the embodiment of that other, truer, soberer life of mine, my own hearthstone, in person, as it were…” (“A Man and His Dog” 234)
23Experience is therefore here understood as encounter with death. According to Benjamin, “In the place of the force field that is lost to humanity with the devaluation of experience (der Entwertung der Erfahrung), a new field of force opens up in the form of planning (Planung). The mass of unknown uniformities is mobilized against the confirmed multiplicity of the traditional.” (Arcades 801; Passagen-Werk 962)
24Furthermore, for the purpose of our discussion on idleness, it is necessary to remember that Benjamin conceives of two kinds of experience, Erfahrung and Erleben, translated in English by “long experience” and “immediate experience”. To the first corresponds the concept of studious leisure, which would have given birth to that vision of the Cosmos akin to natural history, to the astrological cosmology anterior to Modern Times, where, under the sign of Saturn, the relationship between memory and performance took shape as history’s other. To the second, the idleness bread by the mighty Aufklärung, by which the human being has so to speak freed him- and herself from his and her animal condition. Before the Modern Times, human beings were the subjects of Fortuna no matter what. Yet their subjection to it depended on their relationship to otium, or studious leisure: if they were engaged in it, they could find a way to place themselves at the center of the wheel of fortune: “the contemplative man remains immobile at the center,” says Benjamin, quoting Schuhl’s observations in Machinisme et philosophie; if they denied it and engaged in negotium, they went up and down as the wheel turned around. “The artists of the Middle Ages,” observed Schuhl, “depict those men who pursue an active life as bound to the wheel of fortune, ascending or descending according to the direction in which it turns.” (Arcades 800)
25Let us go back to the mole’s stern affirmation, in Kafka’s thanatography, the one Benjamin called a “drifting away”: “Yet the burrow is not a mere hole to take refuge in (Rettungsloch).”
26For the one who has no familiarity with the German language as it is actually used, these German words preserve a certain fundamental originality (the very opposite, in this instance, of familiarity), not unlike the originality preserved by the Greek words that have given first organs to the body of philosophy. Original in the sense of steady, necessary words if one is to describe animal life, words which cannot be de-composed very far, and which, when decomposed or rather cut in two, perfectly preserve the meanings of their two sides: Bau, Burg, Burgplatz, Rettungsloch, Fleischvorrätten. The burrow is a construction first, the castle keep is rather the castle place (although the word for The Castle, title of Kafka’s novel, is Schluβ and not Burg, as is the case here). And better than “engaged in surveying”, the mole’s face is turned in the direction of the ten passages or corridors or roads. Just like the mole’s piled-up stores — Fleischvorräten — are morsels or pieces of meat piled one on top of the other and often rearranged by this old architect who spends his time thinking of the best place for them, best place (every room in the Bau is a Platz) and best arrangement, which can never turn to be right there where they have just been disposed. In spite of all of the moving and rearranging, the Fleischvorräten do not seem to decompose beyond the architect’s appetite for them. Immutably, eternally preserved pieces of meat. The mole does not need to go hunting any longer, it is very conceivable for him to stay within the corridors of the Bau and live there, without a care, to the end. Necessity is not the force that pushes the mole to go out and hunt, even if, of course, he is perfectly capable of discriminating between old and fresh meat, not to speak about the act of enjoying, during his rare, neurotically heightened forays, the fresh pray.
- 1 . I have slightly altered the translation of this passage from “The Burrow” (145; “Der Bau” 426).
Yet the burrow is not a mere hole to take refuge in. When I stand in the Castle Keep (Burgplatz) surrounded by my piled-up stores, surveying (das Gesicht zugewandt) the ten passages which begin there, [each of them particular and in conformity with the general plan/(jeder besonders dem Gesamtplatz entsprechend)] raised and sunken passages, vertical and rounded passages, wide and narrow passages, as the general plan dictates, and all alike still and empty, ready by their various routes to conduct me to all the other rooms, which are also still and empty — then all thought of mere safety is far from my mind, then I know here is my castle, which I have wrested from the refractory soil with tooth and claw, with pounding and hammering blows, my castle which can never belong to anyone else, and is so essentially mine that I can calmly accept in it even my enemy’s mortal stroke at the final hour, for my blood will ebb away here in my own soil and not be lost. And what but that is the meaning of the blissful hours which I pass, now peacefully slumbering, now happily keeping watch, in these passages, these passages which suit me so well, where one can stretch oneself out in comfort, roll about in childish delight, lie and dream, or sink into blissful sleep.1
27In his effort to present the difference, as well as the genealogical link, between long experience and immediate experience, between otium and the idleness characteristic of his contemporaries — to which Baudelaire had given one of its most accurate representations, under the figure of the flâneur… — Benjamin turns to the figure of the hunter. And he does so because, in his pursuit, the hunter brings a peculiar configuration into play, by dint of which long experience appears translated into the language of immediate experience. For “whoever follows traces must not only pay attention; above all, he must have given heed already to a great many things”: “The hunter (Jäger) must know about the hoof of the animal whose trail he is on; he must know the hour when the animal goes to drink; he must know the course of the river to which it turns, and the location of the ford by which he himself can get across.” If immediate experience, in his day, is no longer tied to the expectation of “adventure” — although Benjamin refers here to the 19th century, we can easily recognize in this formulation a wider reference to the Modern Times — it is because the one who undergoes an experience (derErlebende) can follow the trace (Spur) that leads there. Because the hunt is, as work, very primitive, “the experiences (Erfahrungen) of one who attends to a trace result only very remotely from any work activity, or are cut off from such a procedure altogether.” In other words, they have no sequence and no system because they are a product of chance. The preferred obligations of the idler are characterized by their “essential interminability”. This “fundamentally unfinishable collection of things worth knowing, whose utility depends on chance, has its prototype in study”. (Arcades 801-2)
28In One-Way Street, Benjamin says, in a love affair most seek an eternal homeland; others, but very few, eternal voyaging, in which the beloved will offer, to the melancholic, shelter against the homeland’s sadness, what he means is: the beloved, not unlike the concept, will allow her lover to re-enact his early experience of space upon these new stages and vistas that they, together, seek, in order to keep away the homeland’s sadness. Yet it is in Kafka’s stories on animals that Benjamin discovers the true “far away.” Far away not from the homeland only, but far away from the continent of human beings itself.
29It seems to me, nevertheless, that what I mean, by saying that we, today, inhabit a much further away continent yet, is exactly the opposite to what I have been here pondering about. For it has appeared that, with his story The Burrow, Kafka could go far away: his writing, his beloved. While my own melancholia, shining through repeated affirmations of how incomprehensible these concepts, these vistas, have become for us, points to the fear that we cannot take those long voyages any longer. As if for us there was nowhere left to go, far away.
30If otium was still, for Kafka, the very remote, yet still apprehensible — through the process of poetic conceptualization — prototype of the idler’s hunt; if Benjamin himself could still read it in such a manner, and that, quite in spite of his despair; for us such re-enactment of the Rettung, of the salvation of our empirical world by means of the presentation of ideas, has become strictly a thing of the past. Wherefrom the melancholy nature of this exercise: the doubt regarding the possibility of reparation or restoration of an experience of compassion, such as might have been learned from those “people of the past” who had escaped the mighty Aufklärung; the thought that the practice of affectivity as conceptualisation of the origins of human reason risks to remain a strictly studious, pious wish.