“Kafka and His Precursors”


Jorge Luis Borges’s “Kafka and His Precursors” begins oddly: “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors.” The use of the verb “premeditate” is odd enough, in the Spanish (“Yo premedité alguna vez”) as much as in the English, not least because it is most usually found in juridical discourse: a premeditated crime is one that is considered and planned in advance, as opposed to a crime of passion or an outburst in the heat of the moment. This strange invocation of legal discourse might suggest that some wrong-doing is afoot, or that we are hearing some kind of confession. And yet–and this is the second strange aspect of Borges’s opening gambit–it is also suggested that the crime was never committed. “I once premeditated making a study” implies that the study remained unwritten or unmade; it was only planned. We have the guilty mind (mens rea) but not the guilty act (actus reus). The crime was averted, perhaps because some flaw was found in what was otherwise a perfect plan.

But this then leaves us asking ourselves about the status of the text that we have before us, which (as the title promises and as further readings confirms) turns out to concern precisely the topic of the projected but unwritten or abandoned study: “Kafka and His Precursors.” Yet if this is not that study (perhaps because it is too short, incomplete), nor is it the premeditation of that study: at best it is an account of that premeditation, a summary and reflection upon the preparatory “notes” that would have aided in the writing itself. It is an intervention between the plan and its execution, between intention and act.

In short, the text that we have here is perhaps triply parasitic, or three-times removed from its ostensible object: it is the summary of notes towards a study of Kafka and his precursors. It is also strangely located in time: it is the reflection on a plan in the past to write a study that is still unwritten (and so is postponed to the indefinite future) about a now-dead author and his precursors that (we soon find) proceeds by enumerating them “in chronological order,” beginning with the most far-distant.

As often in Borges, the part mimics the whole or (perhaps better) we find an almost fractal arrangement in which patterns are repeated at various orders of magnitude, albeit to produce less the comfort of familiarity than a vertiginous sense of the uncanny and a shattering of logic. Elsewhere, we see this effect in his description of the “aleph,” a shimmering ball (found in the banal surroundings of a Buenos Aires basement) that contains within itself the entire universe. But Borges also suggests that such apparent oddities (or impossibilities) are remarkably common, even quotidian: think long and hard about anything, and it soon becomes (or is revealed to be) an aleph of its own. Here, these opening lines anticipate the central problematic of the essay itself, which is about the ways in which texts are related and how strange fissures or reversals upset linear temporality, just as it in turn makes (or unmakes) its point through performance as much as through argument or exposition: for this text about Kafka and his precursors is in its own way about Borges and his precursors and in it Borges himself rewrites our collective past and disturbs our conceptions of sequence and priority.

Finally, if what Borges is ultimately saying is that a writer (that writing) has the strange power to intervene in history, to remake or remodel the past just as Kafka creates his own precursors (by making us see an otherwise disparate collection of historical texts as oddly “Kafkaesque” avant la lettre), he is also unabashedly claiming that there is nothing new in this notion. This observation precedes Borges and this text, and so confirms (what is now) his repetition of what can present itself as an established fact. For in another detail, a footnote–a classic paratext or parasite, neither fully part of nor fully detached from the text itself–draws our attention to T S Eliot’s Points of View, whose very title in this context becomes simultaneously uncanny and revelatory. After all, is this entire essay not about “points of view,” and the ways in which they are constructed, obscured, or undermined?

In a rather good essay on Joyce and Borges Patricia Novillo-Corvalán, whom I am here myself copying or appropriating to some extent, notes that “Eliot postulates an aesthetic principle, through which writers are not read in isolation, but as part of a living tradition in which the new alters the old, the present modifies the past and, as a result, texts are continually re-valued from the perspective of subsequent texts” (60). And Rex Butler’s “Everything and Nothing” points out that what makes Borges original–what makes the greatest authors the most original–is precisely the fact that they “can actually appear unoriginal, to add nothing to literature, to repeat what has already been written” (134).

At which point, as I observe that I in turn am in large part simply “repeat[ing] what has already been written,” remaking and remodeling it for my own purposes, creating precursors who sadly are not quite as disparate (or quite as unpredictable) as those of Borges and Kafka, perhaps it’s time to stop what is after all only a first approach to these issues. It’s time to end, in other words, so that we can at last begin.

Milieu of Uruguay and Argentina. (Is that even grammatically correct??)

            This week we were to have read Borges, Arlt, and Hernández. However I am only going to talk about some of the stories we read for this section of arts one.

            Cooked Cat.
            Cooked Cat by Arlt is the first story I read. So please bear with me as I slog through my memory to create my thoughts on it. It is an interesting story about this horrendous family this guy stays with. It was strange because it was more a commentary on how cruel people, even towards their own family members could be. He didn’t really relate his own stories and interactions with them, but then again I guess he kind of did. With the part about hiding in the pharmacy with the relative who enjoyed counting the money in his face as if to say “I might have less money than yesterday, but I still have more than you.” The end, where they talk about the aunt. It is amazing. She tricks the cat and boils it alive for eating her chicken. Suffice to say that she would be in favor of the ‘eye for an eye.’ Except, more so for those who do wrong by her. I thought this story felt like it was lost in itself, I guess you could call it a window into this family, but the narrator (despite knowing of this) stays with them and continues to live with them. You could say that he is just surviving, but he could have tried to get away. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t find sympathy for people who keep themselves in unfavorable situations on their own will. I mean, if the family made him stay to pay off a debt or something (is that why he hangs out with them?) that is a whole other story. Because they could track him down. But if he is just bunking with them, and they let him stay for free… I’m not sure. Maybe he could find a nicer family. Or maybe that is the point. Everyone is cruel? I don’t know. I just couldn’t imagine reading the non-translated version. Especially since it is not readable and grammatically incorrect. I already have trouble with the works that have proper grammer and hidden messages, what makes abstract any easier? Which is why I was pretty glad it wasn’t abstract.

            Man on Pink Corner.

            This story was an interesting one. It kinda reminded me of the old west and in particular the book All the Pretty Horses, which follow the adventures of two boys travelling down into South America to ride on the cowboy culture that is fading in America. These two boys, here, met with more violence and other themes I seem to am forgetting. All in all, the fight scene really reminded me of this book. Also Man on Pink Corner, was a good read and, in my humble opinion, easier to follow than some of Borges other works. I particularly thought the cruelty at the end, where like vultures, many of the men pray on this once predator. The turn of tables, where even one of the most menacing guy walks away, has his body discarded, picked at, and disrespected.

            The Circular Ruins.

            Since I’ve used up many words, and have sat here for an hour writing this. Yes, I am a slow typer. 37 words a second when I am copying. I’ll make this one short and sweet. Liked this one a lot. Has a Frankenstein meets Jekyll meets Inception meets sorcery and fatherhood kinda feel/vibe. The ending was predictable. But, what can you say? It was interesting. And I like magic. And I really liked the idea of dreaming up an existence. Matrix style.


            Well that’ll be my blog post of the week. I was initially hesistant (and resistant in all honesty) to the idea of reading these short stories, but I am glad to be exposed to this genre from another country. Although Raymond Carver is still, and probably, won’t come out from the hole I’ve buried his stuff in for a while longer. But that may be more the fact I didn’t enjoy… nevermind. Happy readings. Can’t wait to finish our seminars, I’d like to know more about Cooked Cat.