Fragments and Wounded Bodies: Kafka after Kleist

By Shahar, Galili | German Quarterly, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Fragments and Wounded Bodies: Kafka after Kleist


Shahar, Galili, German Quarterly


Wound, Fragment, Symptom

The question of the wound as a sign and a symbol is still open. In literary discourses this question is often translated into problems of narration or representation. The wound of Philoctetes, as it is known from Sophocles, can be seen as an example of this tendency. In the field of German literature and drama, from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to Heiner Muller, the wounded body of Philoctetes demonstrates the possibilities of representation of horror and suffering (Lessing 26-40). On the same path stands Oedipus Rex: his tragic body, his wounds, his bleeding eyes provoked paradigmatic readings and allegories of the literary form from Holderlin to Freud (Holderlin 729-36). Even the Greek wound that found a cure becomes a principal theme of literary criticism. Erich Auerbach's thesis on Odysseus's scar is evidence of this concern (Auerbach 5-27). And yet, possibly more than any other figure, it is the wounded body of Christ that continues to disturb and challenge European authors and artists. The wounds of the Crucifixion, the holes of the nails and the cut on Christ's side made by the Roman's spear, are sacred signatures. The sacred body became a major source for works of art and constituted the origin of the aesthetic aura. Richard Wagner's version of Parsifal is an example of this phenomenon in the field of modern German literature.

And indeed, modern German literature can be read suggestively as an inventory of wounded bodies. Goethe's prose,1 Georg Buchner's dramas, Heinrich von Kleist's plays and novellas, E.T.A Hoffmann'sNachtstücke, Wagner's operas, Franz Kafka's stories, Heinrich Böll's early works and Elfriede Jelinek's novels are examples of a literature of wounds.2 This article, however, proposes to investigate a comparatively minor aspect of this subject, and is dedicated to the question of wounded bodies and the poetics of fragmentation in Kleist and Kafka. The correspondence between wounded bodies and fragments should be seen as a structural one, the fragment being a form of a wound in the realm of the text. Fragments, like wounds, have the texture of a cut. Fragments are broken or unfinished texts that embody "allegories" of crisis and loss in history (Benjamin, Trauerspiel 36-39; 154-56) and represent moments of absence and longing in the process of civilization (Steiner). Like the wounded body, the fragment bears the form of a rupture and stands as evidence of deficiency and imperfection. The fragment is thus the written form of absence and pain.

The correspondence of the wound and the fragment finds a further interpretation in the psychoanalytic discourse. Visions of bleeding limbs, fragmented bodies and poked eyes are read in this context as the heritage of the "castration complex" (Freud, "Das Unheimliche" 254-56). The wounds are like symptoms, signs of sexual distortion that bear the symbolic experience of castration. And the form of the symptom is that of a fragment. It is a short, closed and almost hermetic text, a broken message from the depth of the unconscious. Our reading will recall the psychoanalytic thesis on the wound and the fragment, and pay attention to the symbolic implications of the wound as a symptom of distortions in the realm of desire.3

The first part of the article deals mainly with Kleist's fragments: his anecdotes of war. These prose pieces demonstrate the meaning of the wounded body in contexts of violence and political disaster in Germany. The second part suggests a reading of Kafka's short texts, his dreams, love letters and short stories that are written as symptoms of desire and that reflect the tensions of German-Jewish identity. The relationship between Kafka's writings and Kleist's prose has already been studied.4 This article, however, offers a reading of correspondences. It searches for associations of motifs, figures, and textures in both authors. In both cases the article argues that the poetics of the fragment was principally implemented by the authors to generate a model of representation that responds to the challenge of the wounded body. …

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