Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bericht für eine Akademie

Ihr Affentum, meine Herren, soferne Sie etwas Derartiges hinter sich haben, kann Ihnen nicht ferner sein als mir das meine.

The ape who narrates Kafka's "Bericht für eine Akademie" was captured in the jungle five years before he speaks to the scientific academy mentioned in the title. In those five years, he has gone through the million-plus years of evolution from his common ancestor with the humans he addresses. Such extreme contrasts are a feature of Kafka's worka, one of my favorite examples being the lifetime that separates one village from another in "Das nächste Dorf".

Here, the extra twist is that one could almost say that all human children go through those eons of evolution as they grow up. But of course it does not quite work, as human children are not apes when they are born, but already quite human.

Still, Kafka's ape does learn like humans do, whether as children or as adults: he learns by "aping" humans:

Ich rechnete nicht so menschlich, aber unter dem Einfluß meiner Umgebung verhielt ich mich so, wie wenn ich gerechnet hätte.

He may not be calculating, but he acts as if he were calculating, and in response to his environment. I am reminded once again of Jonathan Lethem's point in Fortress of Solitude: "The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn't."

But there's more to the ape than that, because he is desperate to learn, so he learns/studies the way someone who wants to escape a ghetto might learn/study:

Und ich lernte, meine Herren. Ach, man lernt, wenn man muß; man lernt, wenn man einen Ausweg will; man lernt rücksichtslos.

I had a student once in Saarbrücken who was from a coal-mining family, and he was like Kafka's ape: he worked harder at learning than anyone I have ever met, because, as he explicitly told me, he did not want to be metaphorically trapped in the mine, in a dying industry, so he went to night school to get his high-school diploma (Abitur), and he went to college to get a teaching credential, so that he could teach in his former school, and help others find a way out. No one I have ever taught has been so determined.

As Kafka's ape emphasizes, one does this to find a way out, because only that can truly liberate one who is trapped. Flight is useless; only the way out of going in (into humanity, in the ape's case) can help. There's something slightly frightening about this idea: in order for the outsider to not be trapped completely by his outsiderdom, he must fully integrate himself into the mainstream, at the loss of what makes him an outsider. He must "enter the academy," as it were.

Near the end of his report, the ape produces another image quite common in Kafka's work: sitting by the window and looking out:

Die Hände in den Hosentaschen, die Weinflasche auf dem Tisch, liege ich halb, halb sitze ich im Schaukelstuhl und schaue aus dem Fenster.

Kafka surely dearly loved sitting by the window and looking out in a distracted way, as in the title "Zerstreutes Hinauschauen," but elsewhere as well, as in the wonderful final line of "Eine kaiserliche Botschaft", when the message from the emperor, it is finally admitted, will never get through to you: "Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt."

Kafka's pleasure in that moment of sitting at the window in the evening and dreaming things up seems to me now, on re-reading these works, like a comment on Pascal: "Tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre." Are there any windows in Pascal's room?

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