Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hesitation before rebirth

Kafka stays awake during the gaps when we are sleeping.
Elizabeth Costello says this while explaining to her son why Kafka's fantastic fiction is necessary to the project of literary realism. By remaining awake his writing follows "through to the end, to the bitter, unsayable end, whether or not there are traces left on the page."

It's been said that stories such as A Country Doctor are expanded metaphors but, according to the psychiatrist Aaron Mishara, Kafka's staying awake while others slept had a direct influence on his fiction and that Costello was literally correct; no metaphor is involved. Mishara's remarkable paper Kafka, paranoic doubles and the brain claims that Kafka suffered from dream-like hallucinations during a sleep-deprived state while writing and that his work "provides data about the structure of the human self. That is, it documents processes "that are not limited to the individual's experience of self in its historical context, nor the individual's 'autobiographical' memory, but reflect the very structure of human self as a transformative process of self-transcendence".

In the past I have been very critical of literary critics using scientific methods to justify itself, yet here a medical scientist allows literary creation to countermand the positivist inferences of science. Indeed, Mishara recognises that "literature documents and records cognitive and neural processes of self with an intimacy that is otherwise unavailable to neuroscience." One has to attend to literary writing as literary writing rather than only as clinical data. And while documented intimacy is Mishara's concern, for us it can teach us again how to resist dominant contemporary notions of literature as craft, as mastery, as memory, as a record of historical events, as social commentary, as a career, as something less than an impossible letting-go. "In a letter to Max Brod," Mishara notes, "Kafka writes that it is 'not alertness but self-oblivion [that] is the precondition of writing'". For Kafka, writing was a means of transformation, the seeking of an unsayable end, whether or not there are traces left on the page. His diaries are drenched in a sense of failure, of a pitiful hesitation before true transformation:
Kafka's apparent wish for rebirth is not addressed in the secondary literature but appears to inform Kafka's writings as if the writing itself were a kind of rebirth of self accomplished through its hypnagogic-doubling process. [...] Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis begins at Christmas (Christ's birth) and ends with his death around Easter (Christ's resurrection). Kafka's symbolic-images of journey or rebirth indicate a threshold between worlds or mental-states. To experience rebirth through writing, through the spontaneous, symbolic self-transformation of hypnagogic-imagery, requires a different mental-state, a trance-state open to the unconscious, symbolic formation of images as an inner (transformative) "journey" of the self.
(Original link found via Perverse Egalitarianism).

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