Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The nightmare of reason

Today is Kafka's 124th birthday. Here's the final paragraph of Ernst Pawel's biography from 1984 with the winning title: The Nightmare of Reason:
The world that Kafka was 'condemned to see with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable' [a quotation from Milena's obituary] is our own post-Auschwitz universe, on the brink of extinction. His work is subversive, not because he found the truth, but because, being human and therefore having failed to find it, he refused to settle for half-truths and compromise solutions. In visions wrested from his innermost self, and in language of crystalline purity, he gave shape to the anguish of being human.
A little excessive perhaps, though accurate enough, even if I'd say his "innermost self" was his innermost non-self too and that giving shape to anguish is the opposite of anguish. Anyway, for Kafka, reason was as problematic as faith. Earlier in the book, Pawel writes of how this manifested in his work:
Obedience to the spirit of the law presupposes knowledge of its letter. But knowledge breeds doubt, and as the letter of the law began yielding up the infinite ambiguities of its spirit, interpretation became the task of a lifetime, an endless “process” to which each generation contributed its share, expanding and refining the interpretations of the previous one, heaping comment upon commentary ad infinitum, a way of life by which reason seeks to justify faith.

This tension between faith and reason, the dynamic, ever-precarious balance between essentially irreconcilable opposites, is at the heart of Jewish tradition and a source of its enduring vitality. And the struggle of Joseph K., incapable of compromise like his creator, to reason his way to faith owes its inspiration far more to that heritage than it does to neurosis, literature, or politics.
(Let it pass that 'literature' is inseparable from K's struggle).

Lately, the loudest champions of reason have refused to respect let alone justify faith. And while Dan Hind's new book from Verso entitled The Threat to Reason does not seem to redress that imbalance exactly, it does confront "the great machinery of deception" reason has set up to deny its reliance on the unquestioning faith. For further chat around the subject, see Dan's blog and the ongoing interview at ReadySteadyBook.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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