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.


  1. Anonymous8:18 am

    Steve -- thanks for the nod towards my ongoing interview with Dan Hind (on ReadySteadyBook).

    Dan's book isn't perfect (what book or argument is!?), but its key insight, for me, is the very simple reminder that it isn't e.g. your local acupuncturist, vegan neighbour, pomo professor in the ex-Poly up the road, that is a threat: it is politicians and the weapons they can unleash.

    Being afraid and distrustful of Gordon Brown is far more reasonable than being afraid and distrustful of your Muslim friends, neighbours and colleagues. This is important to remember in these increasingly worryingly racist times.

  2. Anonymous1:16 pm

    I am just reading through the cited resources, thanks for those. Certainly living, continuing to be in the world, is an act of faith, a reliance upon something.

  3. Just to add a piece I penned a few days ago on reason itself being at its very root a leap of faith, Steve:

    An awareness that subordinates itself to pure reason must end in absolute nihilism, ie total scepticism about language itself. This is because if one managed to follow reason through to its end, which is to say to its root, one would arrive at the inescapable point where the first step of reason is itself a leap of faith; a leap of faith in which one decides to accept language as inherently corresponding to truth or meaning, and hence a means of divining truth. In fact, there are two main leaps of faith being made here; that truth exists, and that the symbolic world of language corresponds to it. The slave to reason would be forced into the mentioned position of absolute nihilism, as by their own terms of strict rationalism, the entire edifice of their thought depends on an impermissible starting point. They would have nothing to base a faith in language's being imbued with a meaning with which life is also imbued, and so language would have to be abandoned before it begins.

    However, having finished quoting myself, I disagree with the idea that we are doomed to ignorance. There are entire philosophies suchas Buddhism based on the direct experiencing of pure mind or consciousness...language is a product of the mind after all, and why should the mind be a slave to an emanation of its own being.



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