[To appear, in Polish translation, in Autoportret]
Consider the following series: my soft skin; my hard excrescences (hair, nails); my teeth; my endoskeleton; a lobster's exoskeleton; an oyster's shell; a hermit crab's shell; a rodent's burrow; a wasp's nest; a beaver dam; a tent; a brick house; an apartment bloc. We've come so far, yet by nearly imperceptible steps.
Our list suggests, among other things, that we really do not have a very clear idea of where our bodies leave off and our dwellings begin. There is an old wisdom that tells us that the body itself is a dwelling. Paul's letter to the Corinthians tells us that it is 'a temple', for example, while the Pythagoreans complained that it was a 'prison'. Now in the antidualistic spirit of our own age we are taught that we should not buy into this model, that in order to be in a body one must oneself be something apart and distinct from the body, something non-bodily, which is, we are told, an absurdity. But would anyone tell us we are victims of an ontological illusion for supposing that we inhabit our homes? Is a lobster in its shell, after all? Is a rodent in its burrow?
The slippery slope from body to dwelling --a slope carved by nature itself, and not at all the invention of philosophy-- cannot but lend some validity to the old conception of the relationship between ourselves (of whatever nature these might turn out to be) and our bodies. I might not know what I am, but I am certain that the way I am in my body and the way I am in my room are not entirely different.
Kafka's 'The Burrow', written in 1923-24, is held to represent an extreme in Kafka's work: a full expression of the paranoia and claustrophobia that runs through nearly all of his stories. The story consists in a first-person relation, from some sort of ground-dwelling mammal, of life in the system of tunnels that it has recently completed for itself. J. M. Coetzee observes of the story that the anxious mood of its protagonist stems from Kafka's careful attention to temporality: the burrow is complete, but it has not yet been complete long enough for its builder to know whether it will be successful in its primary purpose: keeping our mole-hero safe from enemies known and unknown.
Curiously, for our interests here, its original title is, simply, 'Der Bau': in German, there is no lexical distinction between the holes that animals dig for themselves, and the sort of above-ground structures for the dwelling of humans dreamt up by Walter Gropius. The solitary-confinement zone of a prison is also referred to in German, euphemistically, as 'der Bau'. Presumably this is meant in the sense of a 'burrow', yet how could the shared etymology with Gebäude ('building'), Aufbau ('construction'), bauen ('to build'), etc., escape the notice of any competent speaker?
Why, now should the burrow be a suitable setting for Kafka's examination of the paranoid mood? Why should it not rather be a place of what the Danes call hjemmehygge? That is, roughly, home-hugginess: a snug, tight, feeling of all-around rightness. Well, for one thing, there is an enemy lurking nearby, ready to claw or bite our mole-hero to death.
Yet isn't there always some threat from enemies in our bodies and homes (termites, cancer), a threat that does not preclude the possibility of at least a sporadic carefree snugness in the inhabiting of them? The hero of 'The Burrow' is not entirely unable to experience such moments; it (for I will not call it a 'he') relates for example that "every hundred yards I have widened the passages into little round cells; there I can curl myself up in comfort and lie warm." But these are stolen moments, and the burrower never forgets that they could spell death for it. The best of times are "happy but dangerous hours." The animal would like to enjoy its construction, and its inability to do so only enhances the dread that is its normal condition: "Is it not a very grave injustice to the burrow," it asks, "to regard it in moments of nervous panic as a mere hole into which one can creep and be safe?" The inability to curtail this injustice goes together with the inability to ever feel truly safe.
In one astounding passage, which I have not seen commented upon elsewhere, the animal briefly describes a sort of burrow mythology, a cult of lore about unseen, transcendent beings, who come from below rather than from above: "And it is not only by external enemies that I am threatened," the hero relates. "There are also enemies in the bowels of the earth. I have never seen them, but legend tells of them and I firmly believe in them. They are creatures of the inner earth; not even legend can describe them. Their very victims can scarcely have seen them; they come, you here the scratching of their claws just under in the ground, which is their element, and already you are lost. Here it is of no avail to console yourself with the thought that you are in your own house; far rather are you in theirs." The known enemy, the invasive, fellow rodent or rodent-like creature, is easy to accommodate. It is a mortal threat, certainly, but the nature of the threat can at least be comprehended. It is the analogue in the burrow to the cancer of the body, to the termites of the house. To what, then, is this other, incomprehensible threat analogous? Why can't it be described?
I have suggested that there is no clear boundary between body and dwelling. Kafka's burrower, so jealous of its abode, often speaks of it like some aging hypochondriac. "My sensitiveness to disturbances in the burrow has perhaps become greater with the years," it complains, "yet my hearing has by no means grown keener." It is hard not to think of 'The Burrow' in relation to the 1922 story, 'A Hunger Artist'. Here, the protagonist inhabits a conventional body (though beyond this conventional body, it should be noted, he also inhabits a cage), and, in contrast with the burrowing animal he is a model of serenity. The hunger artist is forlorn to know that no one cares for his sort of art in this vulgar age, but beyond this there is no worry coursing through the story; in this respect the story amounts to something of an exception in Kafka's oeuvre. An unsympathetic reader might call the hunger artist a 'nihilist', which in this case would mean only that he is someone who has abandoned the ultimately futile effort to hold the body together. The burrower, by contrast, thinks of nothing but this, and this is both the extent of its life and the source of its anxiety. The ulitmate futility of a life sustained by this anxiety goes unproven in 'The Burrow', but only because the story itself is left unfinished.
Here, in turn, an unsympathetic reader might complain that 'The Burrow' is not so much nihilistic as fantastical. When did a rodent ever grasp its own condition so lucidly? Yet in spite of the animal's linguistic and conceptual subtlety, this story is a universe away from the anthropomorphic fairy tale. In fact, it is resolutely realist. If a rodent were thinking, this is what it would be thinking. It is not implausible --not to me, anyway-- that this is what a rodent is thinking, if not so articulately. Life is like this. Life is anxious and jealous of its boundaries, even as it remains fundamentally uncertain of where its boundaries are.
Much early modern discussion of the problem of living bodies revolved around the question whether they develop as a result of the inherence of some sort of immaterial, soul-like, formative principle or not. It was not unusual to claim, or to deny, that the soul itself is 'the architect of the body'. Thus Tobias Andreae writes in 1669 that there is a subtle principle at work in fetal development, 'a sort of architect of nutrition and growth' [nutritionis et augmentationis quasi architectus est].
But to give the soul a role in the construction and upkeep of the body is at the same time to impose upon the soul, to give it something to worry about. Thus G. W. Leibniz complains to G. E. Stahl in 1709 of the latter's theory, on which the soul is directly responsible for maintaining vital functioning: "I do not see why the soul should always fear for its body [corpori suo timere debeat]. This would be to live in perpetual anxiety [in perpetua anxietate]." If our souls were the architects and groundskeepers of our bodies, we would be just like Kafka's burrower. The only way to win any serenity for the soul is to remove it altogether from the mundane affair of organic bodily functioning, to resort to the Leibnizian alternative of a regnum in regno: a parallel, causally separate, kingdom within a kingdom. Or to deny the soul's existence altogether.
But these options were a long time in coming, and for the greater part of Western history a soul just was 'life's form', to use the Aristotelian phrase. And this was something that could be discerned, by the eye, in the organic order of nature. Wherever such order was in evidence, one could assume the inherence of an immaterial soul-like principle that had brought it about. Thus the 16th-century Dominican author Antoine Goudin writes of the formation of fossils that there is a "force, similar to the maternal bosom from which animals arise," which "assuredly plays a great role in the formation of [fossils]; this is why, according to Aristotle and Saint Thomas, earth and water furnish to everything arising from the bowels of the earth their matter and bosom, as would a mother, while heaven and the stars fulfill the office of the father, who imparts the form" (Philosophy, following the Principles of Saint Thomas, Paris, 1668).
Renaissance palaeontology, whatever its attainments, failed to take much interest in what would later be called 'ichnofossils': the geological traces of dead animals, which do not record the presence of the animal itself, but rather of its dwelling. Burrows, too, yield fossils, and it is ichnology, or palaeoichnology, whose task is to reconstruct what the world was once like from the fossils of burrows and similar traces.
What, now, if Goudin had identified an ichnofossil burrow? Could this not also be seen as a record of the working of that very force that produced the animals themselves? Is this not also a vestige of soul? It is, at the very least, a vestige of action, which in turn often served as yet another stock definition of 'life' in early modern philosophy. Thus Johannes Clauberg writes in the mid-17th century: "I call life that which cannot be understood without action." If the fossilized burrow is a trace of a life, and if life is action, Kafka's 'Burrow' cannot but cause us to see the action that produced it as action rooted in what Leibniz called timor. An ichnofossil burrow may be seen as a chunk of petrified dread.
There are also recent ichnofossils, created by human intervention. The best way to study a massive underground ant colony, it turns out, is to fill it with cement, and then to dig the solid, colony-shaped object out of the ground. The resulting form is a Geigeresque xenobiological monument, like some alien race's space station, a strange Bau of tunnels and pods. It is hard to look at it and not conclude that what one is looking at is architecture-- not in the sense that it looks like structures made by humans with biomimetic intention, but rather in the sense that what they are doing when they build their colonies is substantially the same thing as what we are doing when we build our colonies. From this perspective, architecture cannot possibly be biomimetic, since it is simply and straightforwardly biological --a sort of excrescence, an eventual ichnofossil, of a certain biological species-- and a thing cannot be an imitation of what it is.
One can imagine a variation on 'The Burrow' that takes place in just such a doomed ant colony. It would surely not be written by Kafka himself. There is nothing 'Kafkaesque' (would that we had a new adjective to replace this degraded one!) about a hecatomb; this is rather the stuff of Michael Bay movies. Unlike 'The Burrow', 'The Ant Colony' would most certainly be finished. Just imagine the terror that that concrete monument records! Imagine what someone with the expressive power of Kafka could do to convey the perspective of an ant witnessing the destruction of its world, a world created not alone, as was the burrow, but through the collective labor, and care, and worry, of billions.
I am not supposed to admit this, but I do believe, against my epoch, that an ant colony is the work of soul, and I imagine if ants could articulate a lore for themselves, of unseen, transcendent beings, they could not come up with anything more incomprehensibly wrathful than the entomologist who pours concrete into the tunnels of their world.
Ants build downward, while other insect species, such as termites, build up. It has been discovered that some termite mounds are constructed to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide in a way that duplicates certain features of the respiratory function in animals. They build for themselves a sort of giant, breathing golem. They work to keep it together. The mound is congealed anxiety, we might, again, imagine. A mound of life. The work of soul.
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To read Autoportret, go here. Learn Polish if necessary.