Essay 2: Synthetic or Dialectical

In brief:

  • Who: All students of GN 265, spring semester 2012
  • What: a 500-900 word (maximum) essay in a “synthetic” or “dialectical” style relating to the primary literary works we’ve discussed so far, with an emphasis on (1) Hesse’s Steppenwolf or (2) Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” or The Trial.
  • When: By Friday the 20th
  • Where: Posted to this website (as a separate post — click ‘New Post’, give it the title of your essay)

Overview: Recall our in-class discussions of the analytic, synthetic, and dialectical 3-part essay styles. If you need a review, please see the page on “Three-part Essay Styles“. In class on Thursday April 12th we discussed a handful of synthetic and dialectical argument proposals for works such as Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Kafka’s The Trial and “In the Penal Colony,” and Mann’s Death in Venice. Choosing one of the discussed topics/theses or coming up with your own, appropriate synthetic or dialectical theis, write a short (500–900 word, min/max) essay. You may discuss both [a] arguments and [b] essay styles below. Post your essay (already proofread, etc.) by the end of business hours on Friday the 20th as a new post on this website (while logged in, click ‘+New’ and ‘Post’ from the toolbar).

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Style: As Applied to Monty Python’s “Black Knight”

We are rewriting the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) about the Black Knight; we are rewriting it in the “styles” of Thomas Mann, Arthur Schnitzler, and Franz Kafka, as exemplified in Death in Venice, Fräulein Else, and “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial. The “teams” are:

  • Team Mann: Rebecca, Heather, Lily
  • Team Schnitzler: Lucy, Becca, Matt
  • Team Kafka: Amber S., Joanna, Ali

Post your “translations” below.


Posted in Kafka, Mann, Schnitzler | 53 Comments

Steppenwolf: Text Specifics

We decided to look at three topics in Hesse’s Steppenwolf and how they are represented in teh text. We’re not looking to make arguments; we merely want to collect textual passages and quotes relevant to the topics—document them if you will.

The three topics are:

  1. Estrangement/Alienation and Identity (Becca, Lily, Amber S.)
  2. Popular Culture (Rebecca, Matt, Joanna)
  3. Harry Haller: Personality and (its) Parts (Lucy, Ali, Heather)

Find (a) sentences/passages and (b) page number for them. We will discuss them in class April 3, 2012. Post them below, too. Include which edition/version of the text you’re citing (translator, publisher, year).

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My annoyances with Kafka ‘scholarship,’ […]

[…] exemplified by The Trial and “schmoop”

Part the First:

We always bring certain “expectations” to a work we read, certain prejudices (‘pre-judgments’), biases, etc., and even if we are aware of some of them—e.g. race/ethnicity/nationality, class, gender/sex, religion …—we cannot know we have uncovered them all, that we have eliminated everything standing between “us” and the “work.” Privilege is, by definition, invisible to those who have it. And even if “we” as readers are distinguished by class, gender, and race (among others), we are all “readers of the early 21st-century.” No matter what our differences, we are still more like each other, perhaps, than we are like readers from fifty years ago, eighty years ago.

On the other hand, why should we even assume that these biases are “infiltrating” the space between us and text, that they are unwanted mediation, that they “corrupt” our readings? Does this not presuppose a definition of what it means to be a reader (or a subject) as an “essence”; does this not presuppose a sharp divide between subject and object? Is it perhaps not instead the case that we are our prejudices and biases, our privileges and check-boxes of attributes. That is: I am not an “I” in a “context”—I am my context, my experiences.

Part the Second:

Some expectations may be better or worse than others, not or not merely in terms of “correctness,” but in terms of how warranted they are, how much they display a proper evaluation of the work in its context and of us in ours. Expectations and assumptions, it is frequently said, often say more about the viewer-reader than they do about the object under consideration.

Certain assumptions and expectations are common to readings of Kafka’s works, The Trial not accepted. Several are revealed in the “study guides” provided at “schmoop“.

When discussing the setting we have, “An unspecified modern city […] Kafka’s The Trial is not situated in a specific city or a specific historical moment […],” which is descriptively accurate enough, but what soon follows is: “With each new setting, the novel defies conventional expectations as to what the function and significance of the setting is. The courts, for example, are usually associated with government authority and power, but in the novel, they are located in a rundown neighborhood […]” If, as in the case of The Trial, little occurs in the places we “expect,” then instead of judging the story/setting against these expectations (as “misplaced” or “displaced”) we could/should instead treat this as a kind of world-building, not a comparison with “traditional” cities but, rather, a positive description of K.’s / Kafka’s city.

Under “The Court as Religious Allegory: Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory” schmoop writes, “Kafka’s The Trial has often been read as a religious allegory, even though the novel itself seems to eschew specific religious references.” If the novel eschews specific religious references, then why should we treat it as (a) religious or (b) an allegory? Just because there is a cathedral and a priest? schmoop then jumps to an allegorical-analogical interpretation of the story: “Like God, the higher officials of the court are inaccessible to ordinary mortals; although no one can confirm whether they exist or not, they have extraordinary powers over individual destinies. Like the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the court has its own sacred texts – court documents and ancient legends about past cases.” While this is descriptively true, it does not in any particular or specific way tie into The Trial. What are the sacred texts of the court presented in the text? Does the court behave enough like a religious authority to warrant the comparison in this instance? If not, is this allegorical reading anything more than a non sequitur?

And under “The Trial Narrator” the site reads: “In Kafka’s novel, we’ve got an omniscient narrator who seems to spend most of his time perched in Josef K.’s head.” Why do they claim the narrator is omniscient? Merely because it is third-person? Limited by narrow narratological terminology, this claim about the narrator says nothing about the novel’s narration. Further sentences provide more but do not back up the starting claim—e.g. “The narrative is so loyal to K.’s point of view that it doesn’t smooth over all of his confusions and distractions”—, as an “omniscient” narrator knows or can know all, but this one seems rarely to venture beyond its narrative subject. Does the narrator “know” things that K. does not know? Does the narrator have answers to K.’s questions? Would we not be better off describing the narrative perspective—external to the subject but tied to it, with at least some access to the subject’s thoughts, uninterested in the particulars of the narrated world—than slapping the term “omniscient” onto it and then noticing how this omniscient narrator does not fulfill the expectations of such a beast?

On another page—”Modernism, Dystopian Literature“—the site states: “Kafka is often considered one of the great Modernist writers, and The Trial falls squarely within typical Modernist concerns such as the shattering of consciousness, the decay of modern society, and complex narrative structures.” Yet K.’s consciousness is hardly ‘shattered’—clearly not in the way of, say, Fräulein Else, Gustav Aschenbach, or Harry Haller—, concrete concerns of modern society seem to be barely addressed, let alone in a way that indicates or describes “decay,” and a narrative consisting of discrete chapters, a single narrative voice/perspective, and no experimentation with the order or experience of time can hardly be labeled “complex.” These top-down expectations of a term—’Modernist’—pass the given work by.

The same page states, “The Trial is also one of the great works of twentieth century dystopian literature with its portrayal of a totalitarian society where an authority, in this case the court system, has unlimited power to persecute, detain, and ultimately to execute individuals.” What is this unlimited power, what is this totalitarian society? We do not have thought police or book burners, factories and pharmaceuticals, “Hunger Games” or “Battles Royale” that explicitly, overtly, and concretely control individuals, citizen or otherwise. Why is this “power” seemingly embodied in but a handful of individuals, who do not in fact execute K. with impunity in public by the light of day for all to see? Would that not better exemplify “unlimited power”?

Part the Third:

This is not to say that all these superficial readings of The Trial are wrong; some may, in fact, be correct (or at least “more correct” than others or more right than wrong), but I remain completely unconvinced by a ‘study guide’ that doesn’t address particulars of plot, story, or character. Or one that is demonstrably incompetent when it comes to terminology.

In discussion I would, indeed, like to address:

  • the religious elements of the text / story
  • the setting (what constitutes it, how it affects our reading)
  • the narrative voice
  • modernist concerns about the individual (shattering of consciousness, alienation) and society (power, decay, totalitarianism), etc.
  • our own experience as readers with the text
Posted in Kafka | 870 Comments

Kafka: “In the Penal Colony” and the Secondary Literarure

Peter Neumeyer, in “Do Not Teach Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’” (in: College Literature, Vol. 6 No. 2, 1979. 103-112) argues against teaching Kafka’s Erzählung “In the Penal Colony” at the high school or undergraduate level (to ‘late adolescents’).

The article puts forth several arguments, first why contemporary readers cannot properly understand the text, and secondly what the main English translation to date does to hinder a good reading of the text. Neumeyer’s concluding line is telling:

Only by misrepresenting the story could one “teach” it. And doing that, one would not teach “it.”

Briefly to his main points: the “it” above to be “taught” is Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and it is misprepresented in two main ways: at the textual level with the Muir’s original/main English translation (as of 2012 there are at least 3 other ‘commercially available’ translations as well as several freely available versions of the text), and by the contemporary reader, who is ill-equipped to truly understand/comprehend the text/story. It would seem at first glance that the former objection (that of textual translation) can be progressively overcome by better and better translations, or, at least, by the comparison of multiple inadequate translations; in contrast—so again, it seems—the latter objection, regarding the inadequacy of the reader, is insurmountable.

An argument for the inabilility of the modern reader to fully understand the text comes from one of the allegorical readings of the story: that it is a kind of religious allegory, a not uncommong reading of “In the Penal Colony” (and others of Kafka’s works). In particular, Neumeyer argues that the relationship between the Old and New Commadant and the place the apparatus/machine inhabits corresponds to a pre-Reformation / post-Reformation (Catholic / Protestant) divide in world view:

And so, to return to the concern of this essay: can you teach that to your students—even to your advanced undergraduates? Will you discuss the loss of the sacramental as it made itself felt with Luther, with the translation of the Bible into the mundane vernacular, and as it further rationalized itself in the heartless Enlightenment? Will you attempt to explain the possibility of the Transcendent coexisting with the nihilisms of Treblinka and of Auschwitz?

But numerous obvious objections to Neumeyer’s point arise, only a few of which I’ll outline here:

  • By the standards raised, were almost any of Kafka’s readers (in 1919, the publication date of the story) “sufficient” readers? (Has Neumeyer simply assumed that like palimpsests European readers of 1919 carried around layers and layers of cultural-historical baggage waiting to be … revealed?)
  • Treblinka and Auschwitz? Too early for the story …
  • Would even supposedly sufficient readers of the more or less “modern” period be the kind who, while reading the story, would take such concerns into account?
  • Why have we privileged the allegorical reading that seeminly requires such extensive cultural knowlege or integration? Where has the text gone?
  • Does it not follow from Neumeyer’s argument that not only should we not teach “In the Penal Colonly” but that we should not teach any sufficiently culturally-embedded text compared to which the reader (or the reader’s personal-historical-cultural background or expectations) is sufficiently “alien” (or “alienated”)?
  • And does it not follow from that that any texts we could/should teach are precisely the ones that do not need to be taught?
  • Just as we have a potential chain of ever-improving translations through which we can get ever “closer” to the “original,” can we not also have ever-increasing degrees of understanding a text and its context so as to teach it “better” if not teach it “best”? Must it be an either/or, all or nothing approach? (and what does Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator” tell us here?)

This then, equally obviously, raises some questions (some by which of gentle question begging), such as:

  • Which or what kinds of texts/things can/should we “teach”? … if anything?
  • While Neumeyer positions “In the Penal Colony” as—by way of allegory—a story of conflicting world views, one more or less “modern” and one decidedely “pre-” to the point of imcomprehensibility, is it perhaps just a hallmark of “The Modern” that we experience such “estrangement” and “alienation”? That this is exactly what “modern(ist)” texts “teach” us …
  • … was Neumeyer’s unvoiced question, intentional or not, less about “‘teaching’ it vs. teaching ‘it'” (to rephrase his conclusion) and really about “‘teaching’ it’ vs. ‘being taught by’ it”?

Worth noting also are several points in Kafka’s German and in the Muirs’ translation that Neumeyr analyzes and contests, points where the translation “weakens” the story/original/language as well as one where the translation heightens the supposed allegory; these are found in the latter half of the article and will not be enumerated here at this point.

Finally, do you have any responses to Neumeyer’s thesis / theses, pro or con or just commentary? Furthermore, what other secondary literature on Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” have you found (via JSTOR or other sources)? Have the changed how you read (present or past) the story?

Posted in Kafka, Uncategorized | 78 Comments

GN 265: Essay #1 (Fontane, Schnitzler, Mann)

Choose one of the following topics and write an 800-1000 word essay. All essays should be fundamentally “analytic” for this assignment: the task is to ‘take apart’ or ‘break down’ larger texts or passages and use the ‘parts’ to support a larger argument.

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Posted in Fontane, Homework, Mann, Schnitzler | 61 Comments

Three-Part Essays and Arguments: A Brief Discussion and Taxonomy

Abstract: I once had my students prepare short (5—7 minutes) Referate on topics of German culture; for the sake of simplicity and cohesiveness I am had them prepare tripartite arguments, the outline to which I provide below and present as “analytic,” “synthetic,” and “dialectic” arguments.

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“Death in Venice” and the Secondary Literature

Assignment: Find three works of secondary literature on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or on Mann (writer, other works). Articles found via JSTOR or similar are fair game; as are books with sections/chapters on Mann/Death in Venice. List your three works in MLA-style. For one of them provide a brief—one paragraph—overview (what the main point is, how this might relate to our class or our reading of the work, or why you find it interesting).

Follow the model below; post your paragraphs and such as comments to this ‘story’. “First come, first served”—the work you post a paragraph about cannot be one that someone else has posted about (though they may have posted the bibiographic information). For example: the Lawson, Lehnert, and Robertson are off limits to you; the Brinkley, however, is available.

Due: by Tuesday February 21st.

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Fräulein Else #1

Today (Feb. 2, 2012) we begin discussion of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella “Fräulein Else,” and also talk a bit about Dorit Cohen’s book Transparent Minds.

What I would like to collect below are ‘first impressions’ of Schnitzler’s story.

Posted in Author or Work | 53 Comments

Effi Briest #4: The Affair

There evidently exists — or existed — a friendly, ongoing debate between two unnamed German faculty members about the extent of Effi’s infidelity or, better yet, what she exactly did with Major Crampas. Indelicately: did they sleep together?

The English Wikipedia entry states: “As the reader is only delicately told, a full extramarital relationship is consummated.” This line, often verbatim, is repeated on any number of other websites but no citation is given.

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Posted in Fontane | 2,061 Comments