Four Stories: Josefine, the Songstress

Josefine must help out a little, there is no other way.                                           Kafka (In a letter to Max Brod, 9 April 1924)

How have you left the ancient love, that bards of old enjoyed in you!
The languid strings do hardly move, The sound is forced, the notes are few!
                    William Blake, To The Muses

By means of music the passions enjoy themselves.                                                                     Mr Nietzsche

As quiet as a church mouse. What is writing? Composition.

She does not sing but merely pipes, her alleged opponents say. Josefine is no expert on music. There is a tradition of music amongst our people. At least in legends. Once upon a time. The origins are now quite forgotten in any case and we should now only pipe but for Josefine; “with her departure music will disappear – for who knows how long – from out of our lives.”

Her song does not represent anything out of the ordinary, anything to write about. Music is not discursive, it’s mythical. It’s the stuff of legends. We all pipe but only Josefine sings – we would not dream of calling our piping an art. You have to not only hear her but see her as well to realise the effect of her singing. It’s a special kind of writing that talks to you. The exceptional writers speak to you, in not so many words. It is hard to pinpoint the reason for it.

In the modern tradition, there is nothing new under the sun. There is a reason for all things. Whatsoever a man sows that shall he reap. If we can measure it, we can use it. There is in cause and effect, a season for everything. Scientific and industrious, we labour and toil under the sun of reason.

But Josefine shows us something special (even though her singing is nothing out of the ordinary), a timelessness not in keeping with the economy of the old Preacher. The mouse people forget themselves and come running regardless of the dangers when she starts to pipe. From a distance, in the manner of anthropologists and sociologists, it is possible to oppose Josefine’s singing: mere piping in a case study of the “mouse-people.”

Its true one has to see and hear though to understand Josefine; “this piping of hers is no piping.” She gives us a sense of well-being. We cease our own piping which is strange because it is an unconscious habit with us. Some are inspired to make a noise and Josefine incorporates it into her act. She raises no objection to these small matters. She believes herself to be misunderstood anyway.

Maybe that’s why she has to sing. She comes into her own when there is a cause for larger matters of distress. When there is a social crisis, she raises up her arms and lets her song fly. Her alleged opponents would discredit her at this point: zealotry they might accuse her of. She merely pipes, they say. And they are right. But you stand in front of her and you lose yourself into the common feeling, “body pressed warmly to body, with reverently bated breath.”

What brings the people together to form a community, is unclear. The mouse-people have many enemies and where we gather in one spot, the enemy is sure to come and find us. Her singing draws us together into a single multiplicity, and hence, her art could be considered a danger to us. A nomadic science, witchcraft? We are not a superstitious people; the mouse-people don’t worship her unconditionally.

It is the lack of faith she fights against. We, the mouse-people, cannot give ourselves absolutely over to her cause, to any cause. It’s not in our nature to give unconditionally. We are an industrious, hard-working people. We begin work too early, we have hardly a childhood in which to play but must begin our labour as soon as we are able. There is too much responsibility to frivolously waste our time. Out time is too important to give unconditionally.

We feel a responsibility to protect Josefine. She would not have it if she knew. She believes herself to be free and independent. We play this game with her:

She believes that it is she who protects the people. Whenever we are in grave trouble, political or economic, it is allegedly her song that saves us… even if it does not avert our misfortune, it gives us the strength to bear it. She does not express the matter in so many words… she is the silent one among the chatterrers; but it flashes from her eyes… it is plainly to be read.

She is not performing a public service per se. She is not ideological – her art has no (dialectical) opposition characterising a political spectrum. It is real without being actual. Her ardent flatterers tell her otherwise (“you are the voice of the people”) but she believes there is no one who understands her. She is a little blinded by her own self-conceit. She believes she has opponents. She performs a becoming child for us (men or mice?) who cannot be children.

She is not a true singer; she achieves her effect by not singing properly. Her role in the mouse society is undecidable. She has recently begun to make demands upon the people, wanting to be excused from work. James Joyce wrote in a letter to his brother of a similar demand. Art sponsored by a socialist state, but allowed to work freely. This was about as far as Joyce’s socialism went according to Richard Ellmann. He worked hard to support his family, wrote volumes when the muses were upon him and researched diligently. Fiction must be based on fact, he wrote. Like Josefine, he was not shy of work. But there is another facet of (desiring-) production not directly attributable to a subject in an exchange economy. Josefine’s piping is a singular voice for which there is no substitution.

The zone of undecidability a writer inhabits is not in an allusion to truth if by allusion we mean she’s holding back, making concessions to the uninitiated, smug in her own self-knowledge. That is not Josefine’s way. The question of why the mouse-people feel responsible for Josefine and why her song ‘works’ even if its not singing, is one of those questions to which answers are not the right answers. “There are questions we could never get over if we were not dispensed from them by our very nature.” To create a memory for a people (even if they do not yet exist) is the work of art and fiction, literature, a timelessness that is not recorded in the archives of a History channel. Such that Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century could be re-created from the perambulations of Bloom and Dedalus in the pages of Ulysses. Or Kafka’s personal life in the pages of his characters by which he renders an account of himself and his property, his writings, balancing the book(s) in a Gift economy.

For everything outside the phenomenal world language can only be used allusively, but never even approximately by way of comparison, since, corresponding as it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property and its relations.

A strange economy in the literary gift of Kafka. Josefine was an extra story; he was only commissioned for three stories to which he added another. The Mouse-People was his last published story. He was dying, unable to pay his medical bills. “Josefine must help out a little, there is no other way,” he wrote to Max Brod in 1924 in an effort to get her published, to make some money. A desire for publication, for a form of immortality (what is timeless, “classic,” addressing a universal history of conflict between the ‘living’ speech and the ‘dead’ writing of language, visibility and statement), coupled to a finite humility in the subject-matter of a writing given over to a (mouse-)people.

(S)he has no recourse to discourse, a timeless metaphysic, an onto-theological tradition “since we pursue no history.” Mouse and man alike, nothing wants to die. A life is a haecceity, a singularity, striving in a primary process of desiring-production, the positive essence for all things where it is up to us to “perform the negative.” The certainty of death, the entropic principle, is the absolute from which Kafka as experimenter in literature, based his work, out of a faith and humility towards mankind, indexing a k-function in literature. To create is to remember a (mouse-)people as Josefine fades away.

Meanwhile our people, calmly, without visible disappointment, as an imperious and self-sufficient body, which can in all truth, despite appearances, only ever bestow gifts and not receive them, not even from Josefine, this people of ours continues on its way.

But Josefine’s path can only go downward. The time will soon come when her last pipe sounds and fades away. She is a little episode in the endless history of our people, and the people will get over their loss. Not that it will be easy for us; how shall our gatherings take place in utter silence? And yet, were they not silent even when Josefine was there? Was her actual piping notably louder and more lively than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime any more than simply a memory? Is it not rather that our people, in their wisdom, treasured Josefine’s song so highly just because in this way it could never fade? Kafka, “Josefine, the Songstress” from A Fasting Artist. Four Stories.

[All Kafka quotes taken from The Transformation and Other Stories (1992) and The Great Wall of China and Other Short Works (1993) translated by Malcolm Palsey, published by Penguin Books.]


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