That Merciful Surplus of Strength
The following essay is a reproduction of the opening of chapter 1 Blanchot's Vigilance by Lars Iyer.
Poor Kafka has to work; he cannot find enough time for writing. He lacks time, he is never solitary enough, there is always too much noise, he is always too weary. Then, becoming ill, he realises that there will never be enough time, that time is not time enough and writing requires something else from him. But what is this demand? Blanchot compares his predicament to Kierkegaard’s (1).
Abraham, according to Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Silentio, must sacrifice not only Isaac, but God – his faith in God. For Isaac is the bearer of God’s future on earth. Isaac is the promise, the future, and it is the future of God’s chosen people that Abraham must sacrifice. Abraham must act without guarantee; he does not sacrifice Isaac in the faith that all will be returned to him in the afterlife. Isaac himself is hope; it is the future – God’s future, the future of the chosen – which must be destroyed. But Abraham, we know, will receive the future through his willingness to obey God’s command. This is not a simple resignation to a higher power. Kierkegaard distinguishes between the knight of resignation, who, seeing no alternative, obeys God, and the knight of faith – Abraham – who can maintain his faith in what appears to the unbeliever to be simply absurd. What faith does Abraham maintain? That Isaac is the future. That God requires him to sacrifice the future, then, in order to receive the future.
Some say Isaac is a version of Regine, the fiancée whom Kierkegaard renounced in order to write. He had to sacrifice her – but to receive what? Another future; one no longer lived in the ethical sphere of existence, but in the religious one. But what of Kafka? If he sacrifices his engagement, what then? He will not enter the religious sphere; he will not receive the future by placing it at stake. And if he gives up work in order to write, if he does nothing else but write? Kafka links the demand of writing to his own salvation. He is a bachelor; he will have no attachments because his attachment to writing is greater than anything. Writing, for Kafka, is a way of being. Kafka does not choose to sacrifice everything to writing; he has no choice. But for what is his life sacrificed? What does he sacrifice by writing? Read his notebooks. Kafka begins story fragments again and again; he does not complete or trouble to rewrite them. They begin and break off. It appears that it is not completion he wants, but something else – that what he writes will never be of any worth and his hope lies in an impossible writing that demands he complete none of his stories. They are sacrificed to a still greater demand. He seeks to unwrite writing as he writes it. It is the attempt to realise worklessness, to put it to work, to which his life will be sacrificed.
‘I cannot write’ – ‘you must write’ – ‘I cannot finish a story’ – ‘it is by this incompletion that you will be sacrificed to writing’. Comparing Kafka to Abraham on Mount Moriah, Blanchot notes, ‘For Kafka the ordeal is all the graver because of everything that makes it weigh lightly upon him’; then writes, ‘What would the testing of Abraham be if, having no son, he were nevertheless required to sacrifice this son? He couldn't be taken seriously; he could only be laughed at. That laughter is the form of Kafka's pain (2). It is the laughter, one imagines, of Kafka’s family, his colleagues: ‘you have produced nothing. You are wasting your life’: incredulous laughter. Worse: there is the pain of the fiancée he deserts and the disappointment of those around him.
Compared to writing, everything for Kafka disappoints. He falls short of his vocation and this is why, in what he writes to his friends and lovers and in his diary, it seems he is always in lieu of his own existence. But one should not be too quick to understand the privation to which he seems bound by his desire to write, nor indeed to interpret his Diary or even his literary writings as being marked by despair. His life is lived in the shadow of writing; he remains in writing’s space, in literature’s remove even when he does not write. This is already a great deal.
Kafka sets himself an impossible task: to pursue a story across days and nights, to maintain that prolific energy which allowed him to complete a story in a single creative gesture. Of course this energy failed him; his stories were botched, he thought, and could not find their way to a conclusion. And if he had time, all the time in the world, would he be able to write? If he needed no sleep and just wrote, one day after another, would he create a work which would allow him to answer his vocation? Kafka is like that man from the country who asked the doorkeeper for access to the Law. The doorkeeper says he can’t let him in now. ‘Later then?’, asks the man. ‘It’s possible’, says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at this moment’ (3). The man waits for days and years, until, in the last moments of his life, he realises that no one else has ever asked for admittance to the Law. Why?, he asks the doorkeeper. 'No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it' (4).
It is, perhaps, something analogous to the entry to the law that Kafka seeks as he pursues the story night after night. Does he realise that its essential characteristic is to be interminable and that to write lines on a page is already to betray the peculiar absence of time which marks the work? That the work he seeks to realise would not be commensurable with those tasks he accomplishes in the world?
Kafka suffers from what Blanchot calls the day: the opening of the world as a field of tasks and projects as it is measured by what is possible for the human being. Kafka wins an important legal case, but this, for him, is only the interruption which compromised the composition of his Metamorphosis. He brings documents home to work on cases for worker’s compensation, but this only prevents him clearing his desk and writing, as he does every night, from eleven o’clock until three in the morning.
‘Were it not for those terrible nights of insomnia I would not write’. Kafka suffers from the day, his job, his family; he writes to discover that peculiar absence which unbinds time from itself, that disarticulation which breaks him from the chance of even beginning to write words on the page. Writing is a pseudo-task, the simulacrum of a project: you can’t complete what does not even allow you to begin and you can’t begin a task which seems to require that you relinquish the very possibility of setting out.
How to understand the strange drama of writing, this demand which sends you on a great detour before you ever write a line? Kafka’s letters, notebooks and diaries allow him to mark time with respect to the absence of time, to find himself just as he begins to lose himself; they save him, but what can we expect from them but despair? As soon as he writes, he is lost. And when he writes about losing loss, when he writes about writing, his loss is redoubled.
Doubly lost, and commenting on the great refusal to which writing is linked, Kafka comes closest of all to the condition of writing. For isn’t literary writing a lament for what it is not? Isn’t it an experience of a detour without issue, pointlessness itself? Whence the temptation to ally writing to a great political cause, or to give up writing altogether: one to which Kafka often resorts in his diaries and letters, setting out his plans to emigrate to Palestine or telling Janouch of his new habit of undertaking two hours of manual labour each afternoon. But he does not yield to this temptation; writing saves him. From what does it save him? From a life lived outside writing. But isn’t writing precisely the door which will not admit him? Isn’t the way barred by the great doorkeeper with his Tartar beard?
Kafka waits. He is eminently patient. And whilst he waits, he writes with a writing which is not yet the writing he seeks. With one exception (The Judgement), it disappoints him – but that story disappoints him because it raises the bar too high. Still, at least the vocation of writing allows him to keep before him what his book is not: the absence of the book it designates in vain.
What does Kafka want? What is at issue in this knot of patience and impatience? There is a clue in the following disingenuous remark:
I have never understood how it is possible for almost anyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of suffering them; thus I, for example, in the midst of my unhappiness – my head, say, still on fire with unhappiness – sit down and write to someone: I am unhappy. Yes, I can even go beyond that and with the various flourishes I might have talent for, all of which seem to have nothing to do with my unhappiness, ring simple, or contrapuntal or a whole orchestration of changes on my theme. And it is not a lie, and it does not still my pain, it is simply a merciful surplus of strength [Überschuß der Kräfte] at a moment when suffering has raked me to the bottom of my being and plainly exhausted all my strength. But then what kind of strength is it? (5)
What, in the midst of unhappiness, allows one to write ‘I am unhappy’? A peculiar strength – a merciful one, in which I am permitted strength enough to report my unhappiness. But what does it mean to invoke mercy? Does the capacity to write mean my unhappiness is any less complete? That I am any less unhappy than I thought?
A surplus of strength: at least I can ring changes on my suffering, at least, using my talent, I can begin to write. But does it alter my basic situation? Does it offer therapy or cure? If it allows me to take distance from my suffering, it is the same distance which causes me to lose my suffering anew. Does the fact that I can add flourishes to my writing – that I can orchestrate it, transforming it, perhaps, into a fiction – transmute that suffering? One cannot protest that such flourishes are lies whatever their beauty. For Valéry, Pascal's despair was too well-wrought to be believable. But what Valéry has misunderstood is the surplus of strength which gives birth to writing: the way writing solicits a writer as soon as she writes ‘I am suffering’. For that ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ who suffers; to write is to discover the strength of creativity – of the power to generate sentence after sentence. A merciful strength makes writing possible even as suffering seems to make everything impossible.
The merciful surplus in question does not merely bracket Kafka’s suffering as if he had entered, with literature, into a space which had no relationship with his ‘empirical’ self. Suffering is transmuted – but what has it become? The merciful surplus of strength has generated another self: the agent who rings changes on the suffering it reports; the poetic self who is creative, articulate and generative. Who is this other self? Not simply the negation of the first, suffering self who took up his pen to write of his suffering. The literary self is still bound to suffering, but in the manner of a surplus; now it is possible to ring changes upon suffering (6). Literature is born.
Suffering becomes literature. Yet literature, too, is suffering. Kafka to Janouch: ‘Art for the artist is only suffering, through which he releases himself for further suffering’. But why this new suffering? Is it because the changes one must ring upon suffering cannot be sustained from now until eternity – because, soon, the writer will fall from the surplus of strength and become once more incapable of writing, mired in the suffering with which he began? It is the gaps of non-writing within writing that are frightening. What appears to be the second suffering, the suffering of art, arises from the sense that the literary work must be endless if it is to prevent the return of the suffering from which the writer began.
Write to escape suffering. Suffer because you can never write enough. This aporia, if it sums up the relationship between Kafka and writing, is dependent on the fact that neither the empirical self nor the poetic self is ever satisfied with what has been written. Writing itself does not alleviate suffering; this is clear enough from the pages of Kafka's diaries where one finds over and again remarks like ‘wrote nothing today’.
Contrast this with the 'surplus of strength' of which Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo to describe the state of mind he was in when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy. It becomes, this surplus, the strength to comprehend the affirmation of life. It is the 'ultimate, most joyous, wantonly extravagant Yes to life', the 'highest' and the 'deepest' insight. But Kafka's fictions do not change his dissatisfaction. He once wrote to a correspondent that he was made of literature. And it is true, when borne on the draft of a merciful surplus of strength, that writing is his, or that he is sacrificed all at once to writing – The Judgement, after all, was written in the course of a single night. But when he is not? When that strength fails him? Kafka suffers because he can never hold onto literature.
1. See The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 57-83; L'Espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), 63-102. On the importance of Kierkegaard for Blanchot, see Mark C. Taylor’s essay in the collection Nowhere Without No, edited by Kevin Hart (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2003).
2. Ibid., 62; 71.
3. The Trial, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 267.
4. Ibid., 269.
5. Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, translated by Martin Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 183-184.
6. See Corngold, The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). I am indebted to this study.