Welcome back to my current thematic mini-series on Literary Time Consciousness. In this post, I’m picking up on questions (and a good deal of vocabulary) I raised at the end of last two friday’s posts on Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness (here and here). For this post I have drawn heavily from my undergraduate thesis on time, and as such I owe the inspiration to work with Kafka in this way to my excellent advisor.
When we write and tell stories, we take something internal and subjective, and make it objectively perceivable. When we read, we take someone else’s act of consciousness and internalize it as our own. Literature, in its manipulation of immanent content, can shape our experience of phenomena and undermine the structure in which intention functions. Its ability to reenact perception allows it to add an extra layer of intention removing us even further from our perception of the “real”, thus rendering our intentional experience changeable, rather than static or stable. As our meaning-laden subjective experience obfuscates the “pure truth” or “ideal” of objective reality, a story can override our own personal subjective experience. In a story, the immanent act of consciousness is not just represented – its made manifest.
If all perceptions are intentional and revisable, then literature is a product of those revisions, and in turn produces new intentions (and revisions), which are then revised as they are perceived by the reader. Reading effectively shows us the shifting nature of what we think is reality, and in this way can suggest what is real – what might be thought of as the “essence” of time, the temporal, meaning experience of sequence as retention and protention, without any fixed intentionality, reflection, or expectation.
Kafka’s literature is particularly exemplative of the kind of writing that can change perceptions and undermine the perception of time as a seemingly inexorable force, and so I will look at his short stories, “The Great Wall of China“.
I’ll start with a famous excerpt from this story known as the “Imperial Message.” Even on a literal level, we can see how Kafka challenges teleological authority by negation. Logic tells us that the messenger must necessarily get through the crowded palace, but in the end, the dreamer by the window is left waiting. On a more structural level, Kafka guides the reader through a process of struggle and contradiction. In one sentence, he the messenger pushes his way through the crowd, and then in the next, he has accomplished nothing. At first, the messenger:
…moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else.
Yet merely two sentences later:
Never will he win his way through.
Readers find themselves in much the same position; oat times you feel like you’re moving through the story, and at others as if you have accomplished nothing, and are, like the messenger, still stuck in the crowd, struggling to make headway. In the end, the reader is put in the position of the dreamer, as the excerpt finishes with a hopeless lament:
But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.
Without the telos, the delivery of the message, the reader is left simply waiting.
Structurally, the text performs its own message, namely, that there is no message. What the reader makes of it is up to his/her own intention, but the primal impressions of the moment are gone with no illumination of purpose. The whole time, the narrative voice speaks to “you,” the reader, placing “you” figuratively into the story to experience its message. What this does is actively engage the reader into a conscious process while they are reading. It is not simply a passive story, but one of streaming primal impressions that are challenging perception while they are being perceived.
In the longer work from which this passage arises, the “Great Wall of China,” the validity of teleological temporality is further called into question. In this story, the narrator speaks at length about perceived purpose. When the authorities, who are to the narrator some practically mystical unknown force, decide that they will build a wall around China, they change life for generations of people. For all of the narrator’s life, building the wall has been the higher good. The story begins:
Fifty years before the start of construction it was announced throughout the whole region of China which was to be enclosed eithin the wall that architecture and especially masonry were the most important areas of knowledge, and everything else was recognized only to the extent that it had some relationship to those.
The narrator speaks of what he knows, and how memory and time do not matter in the face that which is perceived to be true. Looking simply at the content alone, it is easy to make an analogy to the flexibility of teleology and temporality. I’m put in mind once again of a string of twinkle lights, where one light may, when lit, cast light onto the bulbs to which it is adjacent, suggesting that another bulb has come before it and another will follow but in no way implying which, just as any given moment will be inexorably linked to a previous moment (retention) and then next (protention) without any coherent meaning. It is only through the process of making these moments revisable that we are able to reflect upon a preceding pattern and look forward with expectation – just as it is only after we have watched the twinkling lights that we might be able to construct a meaningful pattern. Says Husserl:
In any moment no matter what, a greater or lesser fluctuation will always take place, and this the continuous unity with respect to a given moment will be linked to a difference of another moment which provides an indirect separation from the first.
In this case, there are gaps between the walls as the laborers build them in a segmented fashion. There are many reasons given for this within the narrative, but the undercurrent is that the gaps in the wall are what keep the system in place. If the wall were completed in a linear fashion, then all of the workers would know exactly what was going on, and how they fit together with the final goal of finishing the wall. In this way, Kafka cuts his characters off from any sense of linear teleology, and demonstrates the perspective of those who are not working with the larger goal in mind.
Instead, the focus of the workers is on their own small piece of the wall; that is their world, focused on a segment rather than the completed line. In a way, this too is a contradiction; it segmenting the wall construction, the authorities are removing the linear functionality of the end goal (which is building the wall) and substituting another, small goal (build this piece of the wall). At the same time, the supposed goal of the wall – protection against aggression – is lost in the shuffle. The gaps in the wall are weak points and yet they are a fact of life for those building the wall. It is as if the telos, and the purpose is lost in the practicality of building the wall. The narrator questions this process early on in the piece:
But how can protection be provided by a wall which is not built continuously?
This begs the analogous question, but how can a life be ordered, meaningful, and sensical which is not fulfilled continuously? Looking at Kafka’s writing, we have the answer in more ways than one; the immediate reaction, “In fact no only can such a wall not protect, but the structure itself is in constant danger.”
Under the previously stated analogy, this would at first suggest that a life without continuous order and a goal in mind would be chaos. However, it can be interpreted in the inverse position. We live our lives, focusing on finishing little tasks with the overall goal in mind – that of attaining some sort of teleological meaning – and in the end we end up shorting ourselves of the meaning that can be attained in the present. In attempting to better accomplish the overall goal of making the wall, life for the workers became segmented into steps that related to the end goal. Broken down into small tasks, life becomes made up of simply finishing the day and the work by the deadline. The narrator states:
Such masons, of course, were driven not only by the desire to carry out the work as thoroughly as possible but also by impatience to see the structure standing there in its complete final perfection.
But in the very first paragraph, he says:
In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.
In the story, the emphasis is not on living, and in so creating this false structure of goals that lead to the telos, life in the present loses its entire function.
What can be gained from debunking the myth that time order is a path long which we work in order to reach an endpoint? Because, I think, in some twist of irony, in giving meaning to the causal order of things in relation to a temporally viewed goal, we lose the meaning that can be gleaned in the present. If each moment is just a step on a long stair towards a metaphorical platform, then it is as insignificant as the next. What literature can do is open this up. In his critical commentary on Husserl, James M. Edie argues:
Experience precedes any thought about experience. When we being to reflect on experience and ‘attend to’ it, we discover that consciousness has already been at work ahead of us. We discover an intersubjectively constituted world of meaning and value to whose constitution we have already contributed without knowing it. We discover ourselves as fatally immersed in a world which is already ours.
Viewing this world differently and discovering ways to understand time differently can open up each moment to new levels of meaning that would otherwise be lost if only viewed in relation to an origin and telos. It is important to know that there can be as much life and meaning in ten minutes as there can be in ten years if we are to appreciate life in a way that makes it worthwhile. We force ourselves to stick to strict timelines and clocks, and we waste time in small increments, because we view such small increments as worthless. As Edie says:
The irreversibility of time is experienced only in the primary world of everyday life, and not in the worlds of imagination, dreaming, or categorical thought.
In recognizing this, we have the opportunity to free ourselves of the structure in which we have been so indoctrinated. In literature, we have the opportunity to not only make that recognition known, but to actively subvert that indoctrination.
 Husserl, Edmund. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. Ed. Martin Heidegger. Trans. By James. S. Churchill. Intro. By Calvin O. Schrag. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1964. 113
 Edie, James M.. Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology: A Critical Commentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. 87
 Edie 98