Tradition (Obsolete Technology) (Kafka Complete Stories) (Judaism)

In a story by Kafka, tradition takes shape as a machinic thing, an obsolete technology against or out of sorts with the modern grain that continues to function, sort of. Tradition is like the piecemeal construction that is “The Great Wall of China,” full of gaps “which were filled in only gradually and bit by bit” (p.235), “a few precepts that been drilled into people’s minds for centuries, precepts which, though they have lost nothing of their eternal truth, remain eternally invisible in this fog of confusion” (p.242); like the performance of professional fasting by “A Hunger Artist,” that will surely come back into fashion one day in the future (p.273). Tradition retains the power to press itself upon a person’s flesh, like the apparatus in “The Penal Colony,” breaking down and patched together, like a “shabby ceremony carried out with a machine already somewhat old and worn” (p.153)

In contrast to the storm that Walter Benjamin pictured blowing the angel of history backwards into the future, for Kafka, the push from the past is just a puff of air,  but it’s hold on Kafka was just as indubitable, or perhaps a little more ticklish.

“[M]y memory of the past has closed the door against me more and more. I could have returned at first, had human beings allowed it, through an archway as wide as the span of heaven over the earth, but as I spurred myself on in my forced career, the opening narrowed and shrank behind me; the strong wind that blew after me out of my past began to slacken; today it is only a gentle puff of air that plays around my heels; and the opening in the distance, through which it comes and through which I once cam myself , has grown so small that, even if my strength and my will power sufficed get me back to it, I should have to scrape the very skin from my body to crawl through…Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike.” (“A Report to an Academy”) (p.250)

In tradition, Kafka saw “this greater sense of possibility that moves us so deeply when we listen to these old and strangely simple stories. Here and there we catch a curiously significant phase and would almost like to leap to our feet, of we did not feel the weight of centuries upon us…[F]ormer generations were not better, indeed in a sense  they were far worse, far weaker…but all the same, dogs, –I cannot put it any other way– had not yet become so doggish as today, the edifice of dogdom was still loosely put together…and the Word was there, was very near at least, on the tip of everybody’s tongue, anyone might have hit upon it.”

Like the shabby, semi-communicative star-shaped creature Odradek in “The Cares of a Family Man,” “the whole thing looks senseless enough but in its own way perfectly finished…Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out, but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, the, that he woill always be rolling down the stais, with the ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful” (428).

In contrast to Buber and Rosenzweig, the approach to tradition in a story by Kafka is always more cagey, more coy. Perhaps Buber and Rosenzweig tried to give tradition and its objects  (texts) and concepts (creation, revelation, redemption) more animation than perhaps they can bear. Like Odradek, perhaps Jewish tradition is a more wayward thing or more like a puff of air blowing at the heel.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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