The Jackdaw Takes Flight

In Tarkovski’s Solaris the academicians discuss the preposterous claims made by Bertin, one of the space pilots who have investigated the eponymous planet, with its total covering of a colloidal ocean that mutates . . . What Bertin claims to have seen – formal gardens, a giant baby – is beside the point: it is the shot out of the window of the Academy, between Venetian blind slats, of a light-grey day, across which a blackbird, or possibly a jackdaw, heavily flutters. David Thompson said of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive that it was a movie he wouldn’t mind watching all the time, and that’s how I feel about Solaris, which I first saw, on general release, as a child (it was billed as ‘The Russian 2001’), and which I tend to view again most years.

The blackbird, or jackdaw, flutters across the Brutalist window. Inside I sit with the academicians; in this case they are from Brunel University and have been asked to a meeting where we will propose to them that they provide digital content for ‘Kafka’s Wound’. The first person to arrive, Andreas Kortenkamp, is a German-speaker of about my own age. I ask him about his relationship with Kafka, and he says he wasn’t much read by him or his contemporaries when they were young: Hesse was the mystical hymnist of the Terylene 1970s in the Federal Republic. It occurs to me, again, that it is in the English-speaking world that Kafka’s work has had the most impact.

In ones and twos the academicians arrive. I give my pitch: the digital essay is to be through-composed, I will post my thoughts on the blog, and respond to any input I receive, no matter how various. I sense a certain scepticism, but when I’ve finished speaking the composer Peter Weigold tells me that in this period in music the Modernist Czech composers – Janacek, Martinu et al. – struggled to reach the same sort of accommodation in music with the new technological realm as Kafka did in prose. For Kafka it was the juxtaposition of traditional shtetl and Hassidic tales with the techniques of montage that he saw in German Expressionist cinema, for the composers it was the dangling of wind-chime folk tunes in atonal wind that blew through from Vienna. Peter offers to compose and record a Kafkaesque klezmer piece, and one of his graduate students has the idea that the music can then be subjected to a computer algorithm that will make it ‘decay’ throughout the life of the project – much as the wound itself decays. I think this is a provocative idea.

The digital arts specialists offer their take. Vanja Garaj is already on board as the overall web designer, and Paulina Blahova from Multimedia Technology and Design offers to do the banner graphics necessary for the site. Brunel University also has its own cantonment in Second Life. It should be possible, they say, to create a ‘Kafka’s Wound’ exhibition space within this with links to the Space website. Colleagues from the Drama Department ask whether or not I would wish for a performance piece of some kind, an adaptation of some, or all, of the Kafka story? I say: bring it on. Already a colleague in the School of Arts, Sean Gaston, has written a short essay on the wound in the story and its Biblical antecedents, and this has got me thinking about religious iconography and the degree to which Kafka (who, Max Brod tells us, spent much of his childhood looking down from the family home in the Old City of Prague on a lifesize statue of the Madonna) would have been to exposed to it.

The physicist Akram Khan suggests that there are parallels between the fictional realm of ‘A Country Doctor’ and contemporaneous discoveries in theoretical physics and cosmology, specifically the notions of black holes and wormholes. We wonder the extent to which Kafka may have been aware of Einstein or Max Planck’s work – and I put it to Khan that he owes it to us to produce a physicist’s analysis of the text. The biologist Ian Kill has already offered a clinical view of the wound – it’s believable apart from the worms – and I hope to prevail upon him and his colleagues to offer more work on the medical environment, including Kafka’s own treatment for tuberculosis, in which the wound was conceived.

After the meeting I receive an email from Mary Richards in the Art Department who says she is considering producing a piece of puppetry, in the style of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, lifting off from the story and Kafkaesque notions of the absurd. I am enthusiastic, as Svankmajer is one of my favourite filmmakers, and like many English people of my generation I was brought up on a steady diet of Czech puppetry and animation shown on the BBC. I also receive an email from Broderick Chow in the School of Arts. A performance specialist, Chow nonetheless writes initially at a theoretical level, noting that Slavoj Zizek has interpreted the wound in ‘A Country Doctor’ in a Lacanian fashion as a tear in the symbolic order through which the real breaks through. Chow also cites Deleuze and Guittari on Kafka, and their contention that estrangement – the unheimlich quality – of Kafka’s language springs from his being a Czech writing in German. Chow connects totalising the capability of language with the Lacanian symbolic, and then suggests that in Jewish jokes the punchline is itself a sort of wound or rent in the fabric of commonsensical (ideologically constructed?) reality. He proposes a crowd-sourcing exercise: he will get friends on the comedy circuit to tell their favourite Kafkaesque jokes and relate these to the symbolic order of contemporary British bureaucracy.

Once more I’m enthusiastic, not least because I like the idea of outsourcing these theoretical concerns. I feel at a deep level that the constant seesaw in Kafka’s writings between the plain-spoken and the gnomic can be conceived of as a sort of perpetual motion prose machine, sucking generation after generation of critics into a Borgesian – and self-evidently Kafkaesque – realm of over-interpretation.

The Brunel meeting threw up exciting ideas for the development of digital content. Meanwhile, the digital researcher Ollie Brock has been ferreting away in the Imperial Museum and the BBC’s archives, and is scheduled to make further visits to the Wellcome Trust and other Kafkaesque repositories. And I have been in discussion with Amanda Hopkinson of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia with a view to setting up a sort of bull-session, at which translators from the German will, I hope, make it possible for me, a non-German reader, to understand the particular nuances of Kafka’s prose for the German-speaking world.

The jackdaw – ‘Kafka’ in Czech means ‘jackdaw’ – takes flight. The academicians sit and consider. The planet of Kafka’s writing remains thick and unknowable.

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