To understand how Kafka, working through some theological issues, came to a peculiar conclusion about the good, the true, and the being-ground of everything, you will first, I think, have to accept a peculiar idea. You will have to be willing to accept a replete universe, everything together at once in a cosmos in which there is absolutely no room to breathe or move or change, no chance to be anything other than you are at this very instant. Such a universe is saturated with itself, chaotic maybe, but still all is there, filling every corner. This peculiar idea has serious repercussions: the only creation in this kind of universe is decreation, the only possible addition is subtraction, the only movement is pause, the only freedom is a species of bondage, and, yes, the only production is the production of inequality. This last corollary will take some time to explain.
Who would desire such a universe? No one would like to live there, or even be able to imagine it: everything packed into the pleroma that no one can see. Inside it, an entity or an event only happens when someone or something steps back, makes room. Making room is the only real act in such a cosmos.
A minor motif in Genesis, a tale ancillary to the story of creation but important for it too, may make this packed universe seem less peculiar an idea. It is a motif of making room, of yielding. The motif is remarkably consistent across the P and J sources for Genesis. It appears at three pivotal moments: the Garden of Eden, the forming of Adam, and the initial gestures of creation. Reading backward, God planted a garden (Gen. 2:8), God formed human being from earth (2:7), and God began to create the all (1:1). Reading forward, creation happens to an “unformed” earth. The earth “brings forth” vegetation (1:11, 1:12). Soon all living creatures emerge from it (1:24). Then the human being is formed out of earth, a geolassic creature before it is a pneumomorphic one. God needs earth. Why? The earth lets him do what he wants to do; it has give. The same give of the earth makes for the creation of the world, the creation of the model human, and the creation of the Garden, and in the Garden, also by grace of earth, come all the growths and especially the two trees, of life and of moral judgment.
No doubt earth’s give is a minor issue when compared with God’s great feats and disasters in those early years. Yet if creation is formation, something needs to be formless, and what’s more, it also needs to be formable. We can imagine a medium that is formless but cannot take a form. Water is like this, and that is why when heaven and earth are created the waters are immediately separated off. What is needed is something tohu wa-bohu, “shapeless and formless,” that gives just enough, and earth has the precisely needed give—not too much, not too little. Earth responds to forming forces by receding a bit, and after it does this, through no force of its own, life comes forth out of it, though not from it. Earth has give;1 earth yields so that there can be a yield. The replete cosmos in which things happen only after something makes room is thus there “in the beginning”; it is not so peculiar, or at least not all that new.
In a sense this book is about gardening. On one hand, I try to chronicle a highly theoretical Franz Kafka who prunes back the theological growths of a couple millennia, back to the branches, to the stalks, then to the roots, and in some cases all the way back to the earth, finding evidence of an originary yielding. He illuminates many motifs in Genesis and liberates some peculiar ideas within the major stories that have become justifications for all sorts of ideological forcings and transplantations throughout Europe and its domains. On the other hand, I also report on a highly practical Franz Kafka who soon after harvesting this crop of “thoughts” enrolled in an anti-ideological course of study at the Pomologisches Institut, where he learned “fruitology,” the art of cultivating orchards, political gardening, that is, the art of provisioning the masses. Kafka has both a theoretical and a practical interest in the earth’s “give”: earth is a model for and an essential instance of a medium whose activity is to yield.
Gardens have a rich history as more than pastimes in modern Europe. One of the few, I think, to see the gift of a garden as the “give” of the earth was Friedrich Hölderlin, for whom Gärten echoed with another verb gären, to ferment but also to decay. Anthony Adler brings this near pun to light in his book on Hölderlin’s Hyperion: “The garden is life in the middle, the life of plants in collaboration with man. The ferment, in contrast, is life in its extremity; life in its distance from the origin—an over-ripeness that falls backward to the place from whence it sprang—and also life in its under-ripeness, its barely organic origins in mulch and decay.”2 Fermenting (gären) names the natural yielding back of the fruit, the yielding of the yield, the return of what has already come to fruition to the heterogeneous humus. Kafka thinks through the backward tendency in a slightly different manner. His version of the retreat of the completed does not emphasize excess, overabundance or overripeness, hyperbole, bubbling. His garden is subject to evanescence rather than effervescence, evaporation rather than frothing and leavening, debasement without sublimation into wine; that is, his is not a dialectical garden.
Kafka’s thought bears comparison to another somewhat repugnant, also not dialectical thought. Yet no one whispers “yield” in your ear the way Nietzsche’s demon whispers the news of the eternal return of the same into his. “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again.”3 So runs the heaviest thought, according to Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s heaviest thought, Kafka’s fullest universe. What do these two superlatives have in common?
There is a remarkable similarity of effect: Nietzsche’s heaviest thought leads you to . . . do nothing, at least at first. And the fullest world likewise leads you to . . . do nothing. Then we ask: are the two resulting non-actions, are these two nothings really commensurable? Heaviest thought, fullest world. A preliminary response would be: yes. They are both monstrous and nearly total negations. If we follow the work of the negative, each of these thoughts says “no” to an unheard-of degree, no, as Nietzsche writes “to everything to which up to now people had said yes.”4 The negations then are similar in their all-encompassing scope. Yet beyond the similarity in scope we are bound to say: no. The two negations are commensurate in neither kind nor effect. Although he bears the heaviest thought, Zarathustra nevertheless pole-vaults over “no” to “yes.” He is the “yessayingest” despite his monstrous “no.” The word most used to describe the hero’s disposition in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is in fact “despite” (trotz). And then, Nietzsche reflects on Zarathustra in Ecce Homo, “that everything decisive emerges ‘nevertheless’ [dass alles Entscheidende ‘trotzdem’ entsteht]”5 is the mark of one who takes all oppositions into himself and overcomes them on behalf of a new world. He has thought the most abyssal thought and trotzdem finds that there has been no ill effect on his existence, no ill effect even if he has to repeat that same existence to infinity. Despite the heaviest thought he discovers he has the artist’s power to “create”—schaffen—and he can exercise it more strongly and more broadly than anyone on earth; he can even exercise his power on the past; he can recreate everything about which we say “it was” thus and so—alles “Es war” umzuschaffen—as a product of his own will. And then he can announce: “That’s the way I wanted it! [So wollte ich es!],”6 and everything to which he said “No, thank you” appears now to have been created by him. The heaviest thought is a means to power. The thought is heavy, but it can be lifted.
Perhaps we don’t even need to say how different Zarathustra’s heaviest thought, his defiance (Trotz), and the rhetorical overcoming of opposites (trotzdem . . .) are from Kafka’s replete cosmos with no room for action. Kafka’s quintessential negative adverb indicates that there are conditions for overcoming but they have not yet been met. Rather than trotz, his characteristic adverb is erst—“not until.” And his brands of non-act—secession, surrender, the yield—are alternatives to power. Overcoming on the one hand, yielding on the other. The protagonists in the texts by Kafka discussed below, if there are any, decline to use power, dismiss the Übermensch, and would rather stay under the thumb of a master than become one.
1. A legend from the rabbinical tradition holds that the earth refuses to be pliable once, for the angel Gabriel who has been sent to gather it for God’s project of making Adam. See Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1: Bible Times and Characters from the Creation to Moses in the Wilderness, trans. Henrietta Szold and Paul Radi (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 53.
2. Anthony Adler, “Labyrinthine Dances: Choreography, Economy, and the Politics of Gesture in Hölderlin’s Hyperion” (MS), 200.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 94.
4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 345.
5. Ibid., 124. Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische Studien Ausgabe (KSA), 6: 337.
6. Nietzsche, KSA, 4, 179. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 110.