24. Kafka’s Burrow

the-burrow-fw

“There is always a moment when, in the night, the beast hears the other beast. This is the other night. And this is in no way terrifying; it says nothing extraordinary, it has nothing in common with ghosts and trances. It is only muffled whispering, a noise one can hardly distinguish from silence, the seeping sands of silence.”1
Maurice Blanchot

Quite possibly, ever since Francisco Goya created his 1797-99 Los Caprichos, with one in particular, No. 43, the Western world has been aware that it should try and concentrate a little harder and not be so skittish. The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters is one of the Enlightenments favourite tunes because it so completely sets out the stall of reason versus superstition and that the former is clearly to be preferred.

The Sleep of Reason.fw

As with Freud before him, writing on the uncanny, Maurice Blanchot realised that the Enlightenment’s call to arms could never be all pervading. When Freud described the uncanny as belonging to “the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread,”2 with its legitimacy in repressed childhood complexes or re-surfacing primitive beliefs, Blanchot enigmatically postulated, “what appears in the night is the night that appears.”3 The emerging superhighway of the enlightenment, therefore, got halted or at least traffic calmed by the presence of the uncanny and Blanchot’s thoughts on the night. To be more precise, Blanchot described it as “the other night,”4 by which he meant not the welcoming night of the sleeper but the impure night of insomnia. Of the first night, the welcoming kind, Blanchot wrote:

“Night is what day must finally dissolve: day works at its empire; it is its own conquest and elaboration; it tends toward the unlimited… the triumph of enlightenment which simply banishes darkness… night is what day wants not just to dissolve, but to appropriate.”5

Day and Night.fw

But then of the other night:

“The other night, is the first night which we can penetrate, which we enter – granted, with anguish, and yet here anguish secludes us and becomes a shelter.”6

For Blanchot, the first night was the night that enlightenment worked so hard, as he said, to “appropriate” by shining its light of reason into all the dark corners and alleyways so that we may see, understand and thereby no longer be afraid. The first night is a night that can be conquered, subdued and disciplined. By contrast, the othernight is the forever-wild primitive that will never be subjugated. This other night does come upon us, as horror movies would make us believe, with shock, surprise and suddenness, out of the blue in an instant. Because, as Blanchot realised, all the horror movie tropes can easily be rendered harmless when the cold light of day is cast upon them: vampires, ghouls, wild beasts and horrifying monsters all become neutered/comic versions of their selves when the taming light of the day shines to reveal the hoax, mistake or over inflation of the imagination. Instead, the other night can never be caught, understood or domesticated because it oozes slowly but steadfastly into our consciousness in such a way as to push out all our internalised enlightened endeavours and we, ourselves, revert back to former stages in evolutions journey. The rational confidence and intellectual gifts of the daytime, that might well brush off the theatrical whims of the first night, evaporate and disappear when the other night comes out to play to leave a base animalistic husk:

“There is always a moment when, in the night, the beast hears the other beast. This is the other night. And this is in no way terrifying; it says nothing extraordinary, it has nothing in common with ghosts and trances. It is only muffled whispering, a noise one can hardly distinguish from silence, the seeping sands of silence.”7

The Other Night.fw

Blanchot’s muse and perhaps inspiration is Franz Kafka’s The Burrow where the literal sense of the story is with the introspective protagonist, an anthropomorphic mole and his adventures in his burrow. Blanchot’s description of the other night is one that directly relates to mole in The Burrow, which we shall examine in a moment. However, one of Balnchot’s concerns with the work is its status, in some people’s minds, an unfinished piece of prose.

How the tale of the story goes is that Kafka wrote an ending whereby the mole had a physical battle with the ‘beast’ that he had started to hear. For Blanchot, such an ending doesn’t wash because he finds the given ending a perfect encapsulation of the situation faced by the mole and quotes the last sentence as verification of his position: “But all remained unchanged,”8 as translated by Kafka’s English translators, or “Everything continued without any change”9 presumably in its flow from Kafka’s original German, through a French translation unto Blanchot, and then later into English. The difference of translation aside, the issue for Blanchot was that here exists a clear statement from Kafka that the situation was one that was not resolved. The mole was to perceive the other ever more. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven with its ominous and haunting utterance ‘Nevermore’ from the poem’s eponymous character resound in our minds as we process the purgatory that both Kafka and Poe employed for their protagonists.

The Raven.fw

If one is interested, the opinion that Kafka wrote more of The Burrow has its apocryphal nature due to the tale told by Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last lover, where she, as per Kafka’s wishes, burned all his unpublished writings whilst he was on his deathbed. That she didn’t burn everything because some works ended up being confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933, I don’t think diminishes Blanchot’s view regarding The Burrow having the ending that is given to posterity and his argument. This is because, whatever actually happened to the papers, the evidence suggests that Kafka wanted his published works to not get diluted by publication of unfinished writings or, one can presume, additions or edits to previous works. This argument would perfectly support Blanchot’s needs however, there is a slight problem. Kafka died in 1924 and his editor Max Brod, with Heinz Politizer or Hans Joachim Schöps (sources vary), published The Burrow along with several other short stories in 1931 within the posthumous The Great Wall of China.The problem being we don’t know when and how Kafka gave these works to Brod.

Anyway, let’s throw Blanchot a bone because his thoughts don’t rest whole-heartedly upon the final sentence of The Burrow but rather upon the journey that the mole undergoes. So, to The Burrow.

The Mole.fw

Kafka starts the short story with a declaration on the part of the narrator and only player within the whole: “I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful.”10 To begin with the narrator, a mole, is entirely satisfied with their achievement:

“The fragrance of the woods floats in; the place feels both warm and cool. Sometimes I lie down and roll about in the passage with pure joy. When autumn sets in, to possess a burrow like mine, and a roof over your head, is great good fortune for anyone getting on in years… every now and then I start up out of profound sleep and listen, listen into the stillness which reigns here unchanged day and night, smile contentedly, and then sink with loosened limbs into still profounder sleep.”11

Soon, we learn of the mole’s fear though that the burrow might be invaded by an ‘enemy’ as the mole describes the troublesome connection with the outside word that the entrance has: “enemies are numerous and their allies and accomplices still more numerous, but they fight one another, and while thus employed rush past my burrow without noticing it.”12 The mole, we begin to understand, is obsessed with the sanctity of their home, “I can only trust myself and my burrow.”13 However, there is a knowing quality to the mole that understands there can never absolute freedom from worry: “the burrow does provide a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it?”14

The tunnels.fw

On a surface level foraging errand we learn that the mole is torn between returning to the safety of the burrow and giving the entrance away to his ‘enemies’ so that they might follow. So much so does this fear play upon the mole that it is only after a considerable time on the surface that the decision is made:

“Too exhausted to be any longer capable of thought, my head hanging, my legs trembling with fatigue, half asleep, feeling my way rather than walking, I approach the entrance, slowly raise the moss covering, slowly descend.”15

Having made it back to the burrow the mole attempts a survey of the various passages and rooms only to fall soundly asleep, with their next waking episode initiating the turning point of the story:

Sleeping.fw

“I must have slept for a long time. I was only wakened when I had reached the last light sleep which dissolves of itself, and it must have been very light, for it was an almost inaudible whistling noise that wakened me. I recognized what it was immediately; the small fry, whom I had allowed far too much latitude, had burrowed a new channel somewhere during my absence.”16

The “small fry”, about which we are left to make our own conclusions, are not to be seen as the propagators of the whistling noise that has invaded the mole’s burrow for long. However, in the meantime the mole sets to action:

“First I shall have to listen at the walls of my passages and locate the place of disturbance by experimental excavations, and only then will I be able to get rid of the noise… I must have silence in my passages.”17

After conducting various searches in vain, the mole starts to doubt that the cause of the whistling is from the “small fry” which by now should have been discovered. Lost as to an explanation, the mole admits “it is this very uniformity of the noise everywhere that disturbs me most”18 and starts to postulate other possible sources:

“But perhaps — this idea now insinuates itself — I am concerned here with some animal unknown to me… Yet it cannot be a single animal, it must be a whole swarm that has suddenly fallen upon my domain, a huge swarm of little creatures… Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them? I have already dug a host of trenches, hoping to catch one of them, but I can find not a single one.”19

Trenches.fw

The mole’s obsession by now has metamorphosed from one concerned with the sanctity of their burrow to one that cannot rest until the source of the whistling is quite literally unearthed. Plans are hatched and walls dug into in hopeless attempts to divine the origin of the noise. A trench is instigated that should lead straight to the source if continued sufficiently. Partway through the exhausting construction, the mole stops to check and listens to see if there is any variance in the whistling. Amazed, the mole believes it has stopped and that his burrow can return normality. A false hope has arisen, though:

“I remember, for I and everything in me has awakened to new life, that I have eaten nothing for a long time, I snatch something or other from among my store of food half-buried under the debris and hurriedly begin to swallow it while I hurry back to the place where I made my incredible discovery, I only want to assure myself about it incidentally, perfunctorily, while I am eating; I listen, but the most perfunctory listening shows at once that I was shamefully deceived: away there in the distance the whistling still remains unshaken. And I spit out my food, and would like to trample it underfoot.”20

The penultimate twist given by Kafka for his poor mole is that the whistling nemesis is a solitary individual, a single threat; a unique subject:

“My imagination will not rest, and I have actually come to believe — it is useless to deny it to myself — that the whistling is made by some beast, and moreover not by a great many small ones, but by a single big one.”21

Scary eyes.fw

Then, after the gruelling trials and inner turmoil we come to the end, the Blanchot end, where the other night has been set interminably in motion… “all remained unchanged.” The mole is left to forever search and be tormented by an unknown other. Which, of course, is perfect for Blanchot because if the other became determined then it would lose all presence, hold and necessary mystery. Any battle against a realised foe would destroy the otherness and create a banality; either a happy or tragic ending as the mole won or lost the conflict. Having the ending play out in a battle, would, as Blanchot knew, shine the light of enlightenment where we the audience are led to an understanding in a neatly resolved vignette that restores the order we like to feel exists in the world. Comfort and calm would prevail once more and we could go easily to our beds having been entertained by a nice little story.

Bedtime story.fw

Instead, Kafka gives us Blanchot’s ending that disrupts order, spits at the enlightenment and makes us uneasy as we start to think about the little mole and then make the allegorical leap that Kafka, of course, knew lay lurking within his prose. The mole’s struggles are our own because we, too, live our lives listening for the other at our door desiring to take away all that we have strived to build.

The other at the door.fw

Blanchot and Kafka’s ‘other’ is bleak, merciless and sends shudders down our spines because we can’t even begin to explain it, let alone control it. Our self-belief and autonomy is shaken in the face of the other. We have no choice but to become humbled if we feel any empathy with the mole. This is because the ‘other’ as a possible reality is something we can palpably feel if not necessary explain. So, rather than rejecting as impossible, the sense of the non-existent other, as certain enlightened schools of philosophy would have us believe, maybe we should own up to our feelings and admit that there feels like something is there beyond the reach of our understanding.

The possibility of the other, though, as well as being a source of fear and humility can also be the source of that which is enriching and rewarding because where Blanchot gives us back the power of the dark, his friend and colleague, Levinas, gives us a new light to view the world. A word of caution is required here because this is not a light that shines from above, a religious light, nor is it an inner light that emanates from us onto things, a la the enlightenment, but rather it is a light that softly and delicately trickles onto us from those that we all too easily call ‘others’.

Photo by Andrew Firth
Photo by Andrew Firth

References

  1. Blanchot, M., The Space of Literature, 168.
  2. Freud, S., ‘The Uncanny’, included in The Uncanny, 123.
  3. Blanchot, M., The Space of Literature, 163.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 167.
  6. Ibid., 168.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Kafka, F., ‘The Burrow’, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, included in The Complete Stories, 386.
  9. Blanchot, M., The Space of Literature, 168.
  10. Kafka, F., ‘The Burrow’, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, included in The Complete Stories, 354.
  11. Ibid., 356.
  12. Ibid., 363.
  13. Ibid., 366.
  14. Ibid., 367.
  15. Ibid., 369.
  16. Ibid., 371.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 375.
  20. Ibid., 378.
  21. Ibid., 380.

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