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The Shining Ice

7th of May, 2022

One of Franz Kafka's most formally fascinating stories is Elf Söhne, in which a man begins by telling us that he has eleven sons before describing each in detail. Detail here is italicised, because the word belies the bottomlessness of Kafka's study in personality. These eleven sons do not take action, and they do not exist as pivots in a machine of narrative plot. They exist only as illustrations of Kafka’s ability to observe: as tendencies and timbres that the reader recognises in all people. A habit of disquiet. An affliction of too much nonchalance. They are ghosts that possess a quite different sort of internal infinity: not in that they are conscious and breathing people with subjective experiences, but in that they are the visible surface layer of a potential for invention that possesses that fractal quality of infinite resolution. One might delve with finer and finer particularity into their universes without finding that they become grainy. One might never find that their colours become muddied: that rainbow veins continue to wind through every successive stage of magnification. Kafka anticipates Borges in this respect, as each son (and which 20th century writer is not the father of his characters?) is awarded only a few sentences, but the brevity of each individual description opens a space where successive turns can never return one to the entrance, and only deeper into an irresistible spiral.

Elf Söhne has inspired little of the acclaim from critics that some of Kafka’s other stories have. Much less than it deserves, at any rate. But among Kafka’s friends the piece was especially well loved and influential. Kafka’s close friends Felix Weltsch and Max Brod were famously especially fond of the story and counted it among his best—Brod’s own career as a literary critic and journalist in Bohemia in the late 1920s is well peppered with admissions of his regret that the story was not better regarded during Kafka’s lifetime. Herbert Fraenkel, another Czech-Jewish writer of the time (and similarly unduly ignored even now)—counted the story among his most important influences. Though perhaps more indebted to Stefan Zweig than Kafka more generally, Fraenkel was only too ready to admit the importance of Kafka’s technique of observation; perhaps because, as a younger man, Fraenkel never counted Kafka among his close friends directly and only had access to his illuminated person via his friendship with Brod and Weltsch.

As a German language Jewish writer of lower middle-class background in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s there was always something of a tension of identity in Fraenkel’s short stories. This tension developed a much richer and more complex character when, after the Nazi occupation in 1938, Fraenkel escaped with Brod and Weltsch to Mandatory Palestine. In 1944, now living in Jerusalem as an alienated and depressed loner, he composed his bizarre detective story parody Das Glänzende Eis. After the young daughter of an aristocratic family in 18th century West Pomerania goes missing, a policeman named Kurt, who is ostensibly investigating the incident, attends various dinner parties and balls and spends his efforts ingratiating himself with the local gentry instead of doing his job. Kurt’s fascination with the behaviour and mannerisms of the upper classes shifts imperceptibly between the vigilant and dutiful act of interrogation and a perverse lust for his social superiors. His sensory faculties are poisoned by the mystique of power and the pursuit of justice becomes quite impossible. The girl is never found.

Fraenkel, like Zweig, tended to back off slightly from the revolutionary formal technique that is implied to lie in wait behind his subtle plotting. With Das Glänzende Eis though, with its focus on the powers of observation as a central theme, the influence from Elf Söhne is more pronounced than anywhere else. The apogee of this Kafkian phenomenon of personality comes near the end of the book, as the policeman is suddenly confronted by a painter, the only man of low birth other than himself to feature in the final act. This is the last point in the story when Kurt exercises anything close to critical judgement, and the intensity of this final act of scrutinisation meets the paralysing austerity of the painter’s gaze.

“His round head was crowned with coarse and vivid black curls, but everything else about the face was composed of lacteal textures. His hairline was high, and his forehead was wide and curved. The vast majority of the space on his face was dominated by wide grey eyes and a long and rounded nose; his mouth and chin huddled precariously at the edge of his little skull. The watery pools of his eyes lacked definition, as though he were a poorly made bas-relief. They didn’t move enough. Under that sluggish nose though, as though to make up for the lack of flickering light in his eyes, the aperture of his mouth twitched and articulated phantom sentences; before he had even spoken. All of his thinking was done with his thin grey lips: under the glassy eyes of a donkey or a cow sat this fervent calculator, which instantly dispelled any notion that the brain behind it (for which it almost suggested speech) was that of a simpleton. The face was strangely inviting, despite its ugliness. It was animated by lines—of motion, and of division and idealist suggestion. A line divided the lifeless north from the churning south, a line drew one’s eyes into the chin’s corner and away from the domination of the extensity of his eyes. A line that resembled a trail of thoughts implied an internal movement which happened all at once, without succession and only in simultaneity: in the incommensurable timbres of violin and piano, which cannot be mediated except in the wider formal structure of the sonata, that dialectic of texture and time.”
Das Glänzende Eis, Page 48 (Anthony Mackay translation)

Fraenkel’s story, by its narrative content but also by its philosophy, is anachronistic. As a matter of purely historical accuracy, nothing resembling a detective existed in 18th century Europe. Policing in its modern form is a relatively recent phenomenon, not taking off outside of the great urban centres of Western Europe until the late 19th century. But this final observation, on the incommensurability of the voices of the piano and violin, could not have come from a pre-Hegel observer. Nor is it likely to have come from anyone whose primary experience of listening to a violin sonata was not the scratchy recordings of the 1930s. Fraenkel belonged to that first generation of listeners for whom the material and spiritual constitution of instrumental music was influenced by the hyperreality of recorded sound: where the shellac record’s bottleneck of frequencies flattens notes of the piano into rounded limestone cubes and the violin’s song is rarefied into icy feline flashes.

Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E Flat Major, performed by Jascha Heifetz in 1934.

In Eliane Radigue’s Occam XXII, a piece of music for solo vocalist, the performer is asked to make a series of slow and sustained utterances which gradually shift in pitch and timbre over the course of about 15 minutes. In a recording included on the album Occam 4, released on Shiiin, Yannick Guédon begins with the hushed whooshing of an extended whisper, before moving on to soft lip vibrations, then a low groan from the belly, rising in pitch and intensity toward shrill head tones. In his review for his blog Esoteros, Michele Palozzo writes that “Guédon’s ritualistic monody lets emerge diplophonic effects referable to the Tuvan folk tradition, a guttural tremor rising from the throat towards sharper head trebles. A perfectly vertical line is drawn along the performer’s body, the permeable channel of an acoustic current as quiet as it is inexorable.”. For Palozzo, the lines traced by Guédon’s voice actualises a parallel time in which individual utterances move in lines along the body, according to the natural morphology of the human voice, while in the background the structure of the musical composition traces that same path—though on the time-scale of a geological epoch.

For Palozzo, as for Fraenkel, a line is an abstract geometrical figure that cannot be defined in teleological terms: any line’s purpose and meaning can be dislocated according to a logic of variable topology. A line is a contronym: a word that describes its own opposites. They are markers both of division and of the unity of a structure: a line divides a body along the coronal plane, and a line unites bodily processes of survival and metabolism along the spinal chord and digestive tract. Conceptual lines of demarcation divide the body into organs, and the univocity of existence and immanence unites these organs—or the limbs of the human face—into a machine that moves in concord. A line is a history of motion that, despite modelling spatial change, can only be conceptualised as the final, eternal, simultaneous calculation of variables.

Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, by Alexander Calder (1933)

The two treatments of personality in Elf Söhne and Das Glänzende Eis embody two somewhat opposing tendencies, in the ineffability of gesture in Kafka and in the mystified materialism of Fraenkel. The similarity of these approaches is more pronounced than my description of their technical dichotomy suggests. Pareidolia, the phenomenon whereby observers impose meaningful constructions on meaning-neutral stimuli, is often described as either a tendency of perception or an illusion. The most common example is for people to see faces where there are none: in clouds, on toast, on the fronts of cars and in electrical outlets. The unusual truth is that this is only an illusion insofar as all perception is an illusion.

When we look at a real face, what we typically see is meaningful—the face is more or less attractive or familiar or friendly. We see expression, both in the usual sense of a facial expression and in that Spinozan sense of expression: as a character of immanence present in the thisness of things. But, if we stare at a face for too long, the brain can accidentally deconstruct the phenomenon of faceness, and we realise that we are looking at geometry: at flesh, which in its status as material is not qualitatively different to the water of a cloud or the plastic of a plug socket. The materiality of experience is subject to the same dislocation that the contronym of straight lines is: materiality and phenomenology are differentiated only by the variable topology of experience. Neither expresses their thisness any less if we assert this.

“Sometimes he looks at me as if he wants to say: ‘I will take you with me, Father.’ Then I think: ‘You’d be the last I would entrust myself to.’ And again his look appears to say: ‘Then let me at least be the last.’

Those are my eleven sons.”

Further Reading:

Ballet for Inanimate Dancers
Guan Pinghu and the Golden Disc
Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere by Alexander Calder