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Number 12: Summer 2016

Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours

Werner Prall

“The great swimmer! The great swimmer!” the people shouted. I was coming from the Olympic Games in X, where I had just set a world record in swimming. I stood on the stairs at the train station in my hometown – where is it? – and looked out at the indistinct crowd in the dusk. A girl, whose cheek I stroked briefly, hung a sash around me, on which was written in a foreign language: To the Olympic champion. 

This scene is the beginning of a brief dream-like fragment found in Franz Kafka’s notebooks of 1920 (cited in Stach, 2013, p.370). The champion swimmer is then taken to a banquet in his honour which he experiences in a very hazy, alienated way. Nothing appears to make sense. He does not recognise any of the guests, nor does he understand their language. He feels it necessary, nevertheless, to address the guests and to make the following statement: ‘Honored guests! I have, admittedly, set a world record, but if you were to ask me how I did it, I could not give a satisfactory answer. The fact is that I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but never had the opportunity. So how did I happen to be sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is the question I have been pondering’ (ibid, p.370-1).

As so often in Kafka we find here a scene that strikes us as absurd and uncanny almost in equal measure. How is it possible to be the fastest man in the lane whilst being incapable of swimming? How did this man even make it to the Games? There is a crisis of recognition which works in more than one direction. The celebrated hero cannot make out the faces of the crowd, or what they are saying; others appear just as a blur to him. Equally, he cannot recognise himself in the image these others thrust upon him: the champion swimmer deserving to be feted. But maybe most importantly he fails to recognise himself in his experience—whilst he realises that he performed to an extraordinary level he cannot comprehend what happened to him. This action hero appears to be suffering his triumph primarily in the passive register and far from revelling in his glory he is confronted with a dawning realisation of an inner division.

The nonsense produced in this scene is, for all its lack of logical consistence, not an absence of sense but a sense-surplus, a more-than-sense. But what does it consist of? Can more meaning be derived from this? Kafka, like the champion at the end of his speech, seems to be as surprised as we are by the image he had produced. Another fragment two months later shows him still thinking about the enigma of swimming, although here no direct reference to the Olympic champion is made: ‘I can swim like the others, only I have a better memory than the others, I have not forgotten my former not-being-able-to swim. But because I have not forgotten it, the being-able-to-swim does me no good, and I still cannot swim’ (ibid, p.375).