Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Prompted by a recent conversation about Kafka with a friend (the gist: his work is fun to think about but often tedious to read), this weekend I reread Walter Benjamin’s essay “Franz Kafka: On The Tenth Anniversary of His Death.” Like most Benjamin’s work, the essay, while rhetorically incoherent, brims with insight. The opening paragraph is especially wonderful:
It is related that Potemkin suffered from states of depression which recurred more or less regularly. At such times no one was allowed to go near him, and access to his room was strictly forbidden. This malady was never mentioned at court, and in particular it was known that any allusion to it incurred the disfavor of Empress Catherine. One of the Chancellor’s depressions lasted for an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature, and the Empress pressed for their completion. The high officials were at their wits’ end. One day an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin happened to enter the anteroom of the Chancellor’s palace and found the councilors of state assembled there, moaning and groaning as usual. “What is the matter, Your Excellencies?” asked the obliging Shuvalkin. The explained things to him and regretted that they could not use his services. “If that’s all it is,” said Shuvalkin, “I beg you to let me have those papers.” Having nothing to lose, the councilors of state let themselves be persuaded to do so, and with the sheaf of documents under his arm, Shuvalkin set out, through galleries and corridors, for Potemkin’s bedroom. Without stopping or bothering to knock, he turned the door-handle; the room was not locked. In semidarkness Potemkin was sitting on his bed in a threadbare nightshirt, biting his nails. Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sign—first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumphantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councilors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One documents after another was signed Shuvalkin. . . Shuvalkin. . . Shuvalkin. . .

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