Metamorphosis and other.., p.25
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, p.25
What is it impels the people to go to such lengths for Josefine? A question that’s no easier to answer than the one concerning Josefine’s singing – with which it obviously stands in some relation. One might cancel it altogether, and subsume it into the second question, if it were possible to claim that the people are unconditionally loyal to Josefine’s singing. This, however, is not the case; unconditional loyalty is barely known to our people, who love above all things admittedly innocent guile, harmless gossip consisting merely of moving the lips; such people are not able to give themselves unconditionally, and Josefine probably senses this too, it is in fact what she struggles against with every effort of her weak larynx.
Of course one must not go too far either with such generalizations, it remains true that the people are devoted to Josefine – only not unconditionally. For example, they would never be able to laugh at her. I admit: there are aspects of Josefine that would encourage outbreaks of mirth; laughter is always dear to us; in spite of the misery and difficulty of our lives, a quiet laugh is so to speak always at home; but we do not laugh about Josefine. Sometimes I have the impression that the people view their relationship to Josefine in the following way: that she, a fragile, vulnerable, in some way outstanding, in her opinion vocally outstanding, creature has been entrusted to them, and they must care for her; the basis for this is not clear to anyone, but it seems nonetheless to be the case. One does not laugh about the thing that has been entrusted to one; to laugh about it would be in violation of a sense of duty; it is the height of malice when the most malicious among us sometimes remark: ‘We laugh on the other side of our faces when we see Josefine.’
So, the people look after Josefine after the manner of a father looking after a child that stretches out its hand – peremptorily or beseechingly – to him. One might suppose our people were not up to discharging such fatherly duties, but in fact they do so, at least in this case, quite exemplarily; no individual would be able to do what here the people as a whole are able to do. Admittedly, the difference in strength between an individual and the people is so vast that it’s enough to pull the party needing protection into the warmth of the mass and it will be sufficiently protected. Not that we talk of such matters with Josefine. ‘I spit on your protection,’ she says. ‘Yes, you spit,’ we think to ourselves. Anyway, it’s really no rebuff if she rebels, rather it’s quite in keeping with a child’s manner and a child’s gratitude, and it’s the response of the father not to pay any attention to it.
But now another factor becomes involved, which is more difficult to explain in terms of the relationship between the people and Josefine. You see, Josefine takes the opposite view: she believes that it is she who protects the people. When we are in dire political or economic straits, it is her song that allegedly rescues us, it accomplishes nothing less, and if it doesn’t dispel our misfortune, it does at least give us the strength to bear it. She doesn’t put it like that, nor does she put it any other way, she doesn’t speak much, she is silent in the midst of us babblers, but it may be seen in her flashing eyes, and it can be read — very few of us are able to keep our mouths closed, but she can — from her sealed lips. With every further item of bad news — and on some days they practically somersault past each other, misinformation and half-truths among them — she gets up right away, whereas normally she tends to droop in a rather tired way, gets up and stretches her neck to survey her flock as a shepherd might before a storm. It is true, children make similar claims in their wild, ungoverned manner, but with Josefine things are not so unjustified. Of course, she doesn’t rescue us and she doesn’t give us strength, it’s easy to play the part of a rescuer of these particular people, who are habituated to suffering, unsparing of themselves, quick to make their minds up, familiar with death, only appearing to be timid because of the atmosphere of derring-do in which they constantly live, and in addition are as prolific as they are brave — it’s an easy thing as I say to come along and claim to be the rescuer of these people, who have somehow always managed to rescue themselves, with such losses that the historian — in general we neglect the study of history — is apt to go rigid with shock. But it remains true that we listen to Josefine’s voice even better in emergencies than otherwise. The threats that are directed at us make us quieter, more modest, more compliant with Josefine’s bossy allure; we are happy to assemble and just as happy to go our separate ways, especially for an occasion that lies rather to one side of the tormenting main business; it’s as though we hastily — yes, and haste is of the essence, as Josefine is all too apt to forget — drank a beaker of peace together before the fight. It’s not so much a vocal concert as a popular assembly, and an assembly at which, but for the feeble whistling on the stage, there is complete silence; the hour is much too grave for us to want to chatter through it.
Such a relationship would of course leave Josefine totally unsatisfied. For all the nervous unease which fills Josefine on account of her never quite clarified position, blinded as she is by over-confidence, she fails to see certain things, and with no very great effort, she can be persuaded to ignore many more; a whole gaggle of flatterers is continually kept busy in this cause, which, in a way is also a generally useful cause — but just to sing somewhere, barely regarded, in some corner of the popular assembly, that, even though it’s by no means a small thing, is not something to which she would sacrifice her singing.
And nor is she required to, because her art is by no means unregarded. Even though we’re basically preoccupied with completely different matters and the silence obtains not solely for the benefit of the singing; some do not even look up, but rest their faces in the coat of a neighbour, and Josefine appears to be wasting her breath up there at the front; even so — undeniably — something of her whistling does get through to us. The whistling that arises, when all others are enjoined to silence, comes almost as a message from our people to the individual; Josefine’s reedy whistling in the midst of the difficult choices is almost like the miserable existence of our people in the midst of the tumult of a hostile world. Josefine asserts herself, this tiny voice, this tiny achievement asserts itself and makes its way to us, and it’s a good thing to consider this. A genuine vocal artist, if ever one such should be found among us, we would surely not find tolerable at such a time and we would unanimously reject such a performance for its poor taste. May Josefine be shielded from the understanding that the fact of our listening to her speaks against the quality of her singing. She must have a little inkling of this — why else would she seek so passionately to deny that we listen to her? — but repeatedly she sings, she whistles herself past this little dawning inkling.
But there is even a further consolation for her: we do also quite genuinely listen to her, probably in a similar way to the way one would listen to a real vocal artist; she attains effects that a vocal artist would strive for in vain with us, and that are only possible to her and her inadequate means. This principally is to do with the kind of life we lead.
Among our people there is no youth, and a negligible childhood. There are regular calls that children be granted special freedom, a time of grace, an entitlement to a little freedom from worry, a little innocent larking around, a little play, this right should be accorded to them and one should try to help it be realized; such calls are voiced from time to time, and almost everyone agrees with them; there is nothing that finds popular assent so readily, but there is nothing either that, given the realities of our lives, we are less able to afford; we assent to the calls, we try and take measures in the right direction, but before long everything is as it always was. Our life is such that a child, as soon as it is able to walk and can identify its surroundings a little, is made to care for itself just like an adult; the areas in which we live, scattered for economic reasons, are too far-flung, our enemies are too numerous, the dangers confronting us everywhere are too unpredictable — we are unable to keep the children from existential struggle, and, if we did so, it would mean their premature doom. All these sorry reasons are joined by one elevating one: the fertility of our race. One generation — and each is large — jostles the next, the children lack the time in which to be children. Elsewhere, children may be carefully cossetted, schools are established for the little ones, the children (the future of these other peoples) stream home from these schools every day, and yet every day for a long time they remain the same children coming home. We have no schools, but with us, in the very briefest intervals, tumultuous hordes of children stream out, hissing and squeaking happily until they learn how to whistle, trundling or being bundled along until they learn how to walk, clumsily knocking things over in passing until they learn how to see — our children! And not as in those schools, always the same children, no, always new and different ones, without interruption, without end, no sooner does a child appear than it’s no more a child, but already new infant faces are pushing behind him, indistinguishable in their hurry and their numbers, rosy with joy. Now, however beautiful this may all be and however much — and rightly — others may envy us, it remains the case that we are unable to give our children anything approaching a childhood. And this has consequences. A certain perennial, ineradicable childishness pervades our people’s nature; in flat contradiction to our best quality, that cool practical sense, we sometimes behave utterly foolishly, just as children behave foolishly, pointlessly, wastefully, largeheartedly, light-headedly, and all of it often for the sake of a little fun. And if our pleasure at it can naturally not have the full force of a child’s pleasure, there is still something of the same to be felt. And for a very long time now one of the chief beneficiaries of this childishness has been Josefine.
But our people are not only childish, they are also in a sense prematurely aged, childhood and old age show themselves differently with us than with others. We have no youth, we are immediately grown-up, and then we remain adult too long, a certain exhaustion and lack of hope leaves a heavy mark on our otherwise tough and optimistic people. Our lack of musicality is probably something to do with that; we are too old for music, its excitement and lift don’t assort well with our heaviness, we sigh and decline; we have retreated to whistling; the occasional bout of whistling, that will do for us. Who knows whether we have any musical talents among us; but if such a thing did exist, the character of its peers would surely inhibit its development before it had even begun. Let Josefine whistle or sing or whatever she wants to call it, it doesn’t bother us, it accords with our being, we can stomach it; if there is an element of music contained in it, then it’s certainly reduced to a bare minimum; a certain musical tradition is kept up, without in the least oppressing us.
But Josefine has more to offer our people in such a mood. At her concerts, especially in dire times, only the very young among us have any interest in the person of the singer, they watch in astonishment as she curls her lips, as she expels the air between her cute incisors, swoons in admiration of the notes she herself produces, and uses her swoon to drive herself on to greater, and to her more baffling, heights, but the bulk of the crowd — as may clearly be seen — is minding its own business. Here in the scant intervals between battles the people dream, it’s as if the limbs of each individual relaxed, as if each anxious veteran were finally able to stretch out in the big warm bed of the people. And in these dreams Josefine’s whistling is heard from time to time; she calls it dewy, we call it thrusting; but anyway, here is the place for it, as nowhere else can be, as music hardly ever finds a moment waiting for it. Some of our poor lost childhood is contained in it, something of lost joy never to be found again, but also something of the bustle of our daily lives, of their small, baffling, and nevertheless undeniable and ineradicable cheerfulness. And all this said not loudly and ponderously, but softly, whisperingly, confidingly, sometimes a little hoarsely. Of course it’s whistling. What else could it possibly be? Whistling is the language of our people, only there are some who whistle all their lives and never know it, but here the whistling is detached from the fetters of everyday life, and it frees us too for a little while. We wouldn’t miss these performances for the world.
But it’s still a long way from there to Josefine’s claim that she gave us new strength at such times, etc. etc. For ordinary people, that is, not for Josefine’s flattering cabal. ‘How could it be otherwise’ — they shamelessly say — ‘how otherwise explain the great attendances, especially at times of immediate danger, such attendances that they made timely and adequate countermeasures impossible?’ Well, this last point is sadly true, though it hardly takes its place among Josefine’s proudest claims, particularly if one adds that when such gatherings have been the object of surprise attack by the enemy, and not a few of us paid for our attendance with our lives, Josefine, who is to blame for it all, yes, who perhaps even, by her whistling, showed the enemy where to go, was always in possession of the safest place, and under the protection of her escort was the very first to be silently and hurriedly whisked away. But that is pretty universally understood, and even so the people all hurry to the place, whenever and wherever it should next come into Josefine’s mind to get up to sing. One might conclude from this that Josefine is almost outside the law, that she is free to do whatever she wants, even if it is harmful to the generality, and that she will be pardoned for everything. Were such indeed to be the case, then Josefine’s claims would be completely understandable, yes, one might see in the degree of freedom she was accorded by the people (that extraordinary gift, given to no one else, actually in contravention of the law) an admission that the people, as Josefine likes to claim, do not understand her, gawp impotently at her art, feel unworthy of her, try to make up for the injury they do Josefine by a positively desperate countersacrifice, and, just as her art lies outwith their comprehension, so her person and her wishes are also placed beyond their jurisdiction. All of which is completely and utterly wrong; it is possible that the people do occasionally throw themselves too readily at Josefine’s feet, but unconditionally they throw themselves at no one’s feet, and therefore not at hers either.
For a long time now, perhaps from the very beginning of her artistic career, Josefine has been campaigning to be excused all manner of work by appeal to her singing; she asked to be relieved of the worry of earning her daily bread, and of everything else that was to do with the struggle for survival and — in all probability — to have these worries turned over to the population in general. A ready enthusiast — and such do exist — would be capable of concluding from the peculiarity of this demand, from the mind that is capable of making such a demand, that there must be some inner entitlement to it. But our people come to a different conclusion, and coolly reject it. Nor do they trouble themselves very much with the justification for it. Josefine argues, for instance, that working is deleterious to her voice, in and of itself the effort expended while working might be slight compared to that of singing, but it was still sufficient to rob her of the possibility of resting adequately after singing and of strengthening herself for her next singing — so that she was forced to drive herself to utter exhaustion, and yet not achieve what was in her to achieve. The people hear this and ignore it. These people, so readily moved, are sometimes impossible to move. The rejection is at times so harsh that even Josefine staggers, she seems to comply, works as she has to, sings to the best of her ability, but all just for a while, and then she takes up her campaign with new vigour — for that she really seems to have limitless strength.
Well, it ought to be clear that what is at issue for Josefine is not really her literal demand. She is sensible, she is not work-shy, which anyway is a quality unknown among us; even if her demand had been approved she would certainly not lead a different type of life from heretofore, work would present no obstacle to her singing, and her singing would certainly not improve — what she wants therefore is only the unambivalent permanent public recognition of her art, going way beyond anything that had been offered to anyone hitherto. Whereas everything else seems attainable to her, this one goal persistently eludes her. Perhaps she should have directed her efforts differently from the start, perhaps she now sees her mistake, but she can’t start again, any sort of withdrawal would be tantamount to being untrue to herself, she must stand or fall with this demand.
If she really did have enemies, as she claims to have, they could smugly watch this battle develop without raising a finger. But she has no enemies, and even if certain individuals may occasionally entertain reservations about her, no one is amused by this struggle — not least because of the way the people here show themselves in a way they do not often show themselves, in their cold judgemental mode. And even if someone might approve of such an attitude in this case, the very idea that the people might one day view him in the same way must surely rob him of any pleasure. The rejection, like the demand, is very little to do with the thing itself, but is a demonstration that the people are capable of making resolute common cause against one of themselves — and the more resolutely as they otherwise look after the individual in such a fatherly, or humble as much as fatherly, way.
Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes