In 1914, three years after composer Gustav Mahler’s death, Kafka began work on a short prose fragment, which he completed some time in 1917 and to which Kafka’s editor Max Brod later gave the title ‘Auf der Galerie’.
Click here to see the fragment in German
Click here to read the fragment in English
I want to begin by addressin the fragmen's writerly-performative quality. The structuring of the text around two incompatible narratives works as a critical play on the epistemological groundedness of authoriality and subject positioning.
This critical pleasuring in the ambiguation of the authorial/narrating voice also engages at least two incompatible ‘types’ of masculinity: the ‘active’ (but, perhaps, deluded) masculine hero and the passive (but, perhaps, less deluded, less aggrandised) weeping observer.
The two paragraphs effect this duality through both narrative and indexical means: for Roland Barthes, the structure of narrative is usefully articulated through what he terms nuclei or ‘kernels’, events in the narrative that are crucial for that narrative’s cohesion – events that cannot be dispensed with if the narrative (or diegesis) is transposed from one medium to another; the index is a medium-specific operator that fleshes out the bones of the chain of nuclei through an accumulative action, grounding the diegesis in the medium of its telling.
What is significant here is the way in which Kafka attempts to subvert this functional duality (a duality articualted by Lukács as the difference between ‘Beschreiben’ and ‘Erzählen’, finding a useful complement in Jakobson’s ‘metaphor/metonomy’ duality ) by fundamentally integrating the telling of the diegesis into its writing: Kafka heaps writerly (medium-specific) indices onto the telling such that it is inseparable from its writing, inseparable from its qualitative grounding as a specific mediality.
This classically ‘modernist’ gesture – the intense medialisation of an apparently universally translatable ‘message’ – is also readable as a set of quite specific meditations on cultural agency, gender and the location of what David Schwarz has termed the ‘listening subject’.
The first paragraph plays out a hyperbolically ‘Freudian’ narrative of masculine agency. The father proxy in the ring must at all costs be vanquished by the young visitor in order to save (win) the suffering sexualised (consumptive) equestrienne from her brutalisation at the hands of the monstrous father.
The equestrienne stands as the cipher of Verkehr between the two men, a ‘transaction’ that helps mark the patrilineal and Oedipal ground of masculinity and the woman’s place in that transaction as Waaren (literally ‘goods’ or ware). The visitor is thus able to activate his masculinity by penetrating the membrane of the circle along a teleological vector; the trauma of this violent action is marked by a sudden (putative) silencing of the music with a shout of ‘Stop!’.
This shout, ‘durch die Fanfaren des immer sich anpassenden Orchesters’ (‘over the fanfares of the incessant accompanying orchestra’), rises above the degraded Alltagsmusik of the circus in order to figure the visitor as the bearer of a reproachful, ‘higher’, cultural counter-capital. Moreover, not only does the visitor traverse the boundary of the ring, but he ‘plunges’ into it: ‘stürzte in die Manege’ (literally ‘would tumble, fall or plunge’, continuing the conditional mood). This precipitous drop into the ring adds to the sense of trauma at the visitor’s incursion, which, within the Freudian logic that this paragraph sets up, is a hyperbolic (pathological) overstatement of the act of penetration.
The epistemological trajectory of this paragraph is underscored by the deployment of a range of figurations of sonic materials which draw on contemporaneous imaginations of the music/noise dualism. In this first paragraph, sound(/music) engages a complex array of tropes. On the one hand, it helps characterise the paragraph as ‘monstrous’ through the Orchestra’s cacophonous Brausen: incessant, it churns out stock fanfares, and the other noises generated my inhuman mechanisms – ventilators, steam hammers – are indexical expansions of the core image of a merely utilitarian (commercial) music.
On the other hand, sound functions as the sonic channelling of two opposing engagements of power – (i) the patriarchal monstrous brutilisation of the equestrienne marked by the Brausen and (ii) the traumatic ‘Stop!’ of the visitor – both marked by a character-giving utilisation of sound, accompaniment versus voice. In this duality of inside/outside, the first engagement of power is environmental in character, part of a circular, circumscribed ‘inner’ territory of degradation that locates the father proxy at that centre, wielding a range of masculine cultural resources that are simultaneously canonic (masculine strength, the driver of the action) and dissident (cruel, brutal).
Sound marks this territory by ‘accompanying’ the action, figuring it as a degrading sadomasochistic spectacle that can be ordered for its audience by the addition of sonic markers, like a perverse Hollywood narrative, accompanied by a ‘hidden’ post-Wagnerian orchestra.
The second engagement of power is a highly charged singular act of ‘sounding out’, carried on the voice, a mark of exemplary masculine subjectivity, but also the duplicitous bearer of a masculinity in crisis: vocal production can be seen at the fin de siècle as a supplement to the canonical mediacy (mediality) of writing where, as Sarah Webster Goodwin amongst others has shown, ‘voicing out’ draws attention to the sonorous body and is therefore dangerous in that it is grounded in the delicate body-physical, that privileged (and demeaned) site of the feminine in the nineteenth-century misogynistic imagination.
In Kafka this stands for an atavistic but ironic ‘recuperation’ of a model of masculinity lost in the great administration of the law, lost to the figure of the impresario mediator – voice as a last hope in the face of the brutalising anonymity of public masculinity, commercial culture, mechanised production.
But all this is not so.
Or so the next paragraph would seem to suggest. The sudden eruption of the indicative mood is traumatic: as Boa puts it, ‘the thudding syllables come as hammer blows to destroy the speculative edifice of a possible story’ and it is no accident that Boa should reach for the metaphor of hammer blows, resonating the ironic hyperbolic ‘Zarathustran’ masculinity of the first paragraph and thereby underlining the epistemological incongruity of the second with it.
This paragraph, by positing a second epistemologically dissonant version of events alongside the first, forces the narratee to rethink the reliability of the first paragraph fundamentally. It is thereby tempting to think of the story as presenting two realities, one false and one true, the first paragraph clearly a fiction, the second marked as ‘real’ by the indicative mood.
Yet this reading assumes a simple mapping of verbal mood to narrator reliability which, I suggest, is difficult to sustain in the light of Kafka’s use of language here: whereas the ‘truth’ of the first is questioned by the conditional mood and by the overblown heroism of the young visitor with its hyperbolic Freudian sexual circus, the second is called into question by the dream-like tone of the language: it is unfolded, almost as if in slow motion, in a long chain of clauses all of which relate back to a single grammatical subject - the adoring grandfather figure [‘der Direktor… vorsorglich sie auf den Apfelschimmel hebt… sich nicht entschliessen kann, das Peitschenzeichen zu geben… neben dem Pferd mit offenem Munde einherläuft…’].
This relay of clauses fixed to a single subject is a masterful writerly play on the German structuring of the clause around verb positioning, the closure of each link in the chain marked by the finite verb, heaping narrative action upon action to draw out the narrative line, and the narratee with it, towards an expected closure; but that closure is attenuated; the equestrienne takes her bow and, in the strange dislocated coda marked out from the rest of the paragraph by a hyphen, a characteristically dissident use of punctuation, the visitor to the gallery weeps ‘without knowing it’.
The beautiful strangeness of this ending, its pointed and studied ambiguity, brings one to rethink the simplicity of the unreality/reality dualism, and to call that binarism into question, to leave the boundary between the two porous.
As in the first paragraph, the content of the second is underscored by references to sonic materials, and, like in the first paragraph, those materials help flesh out a pointed juxtaposition of active and passive masculinities by recognising two kinds of sound – voice and accompaniment: however, it is the ringmaster that has ownership of the voice here, crying ‘English words of warning’, ‘exhorting’ the groom to be careful, and, like the visitor with his ‘Stop!’ of the first paragraph, he implores the orchestra to be silent.
The silencing of the orchestra here underscores the epistemological dissonance between the two paragraphs: in the first, the voice is owned by the visitor and engaged as a reproach to the banality and cruelty of the circus; in the second, the voice is commanded by the ringmaster, and is engaged to structure the audience’s (narratee’s) attention drawing it to his ‘kleine Enkelin’, the skilful equestrienne, by the silencing of the orchestra.
In the strange coda, moreover, the visitor sinks ‘in the final march as if into a heavy dream’, activating that commonplace trope of music as a place where subjectivity is lost, a place of dangerous and debilitating pleasures. The music operates here like a ‘sonorous envelope’.
There is a tendency in the post-Enlightenment Western European imagination of music to perceive it as a way of ‘transforming’ or temporarily suspending everyday modes of being, of moving beyond the mundane into a higher (or at least different) state of consciousness.
In Kafka, this tendency takes on an ironic or critical edge: the great post-Schopenhauerian articulation of music as a kind of narcotic is here blocked by the crossing and cancelling out of exit trajectories. One way leads to the ludicrous over-articulation of masculinity in the plunging thrusting ‘Stop!’ of the first paragraph by the (assumed) silencing of the music; the second leads to a debilitated, foreclosed masculinity, in which the music envelops the visitor and returns him to a womb-like state in which ‘crying without knowing it’ marks his infantilisation, an abject returning to the semiotic.
In both instances, the ‘way out’ is barred.