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Enchanted Forms: Thoughts on Meaning in Kafka and Cézanne

To be a writer is to always arrive belated to the scene. Analytic in nature, the writer’s task is to take the fullness of experience and digest it into parts. Broken down into tidy pieces, these parts can be expressed through language, and out of that language emerges a publicly legible meaning. And yet one cannot shake the feeling that this process does violence to the richness of human experience. Though a fine tool, language is always destined to fall short of capturing reality as it unfolds before us. It always comes after, arrives late. In 16th-century Europe, the search for a language that seamlessly reflects reality was cast as a quest to recapture the original harmony of the Garden of Eden. Early modern thinkers believed this Adamic language would be transparent: words would perfectly correspond to the things and experiences they described. Many subscribed to the Monogenetic hypothesis, which posited that the original language of Eden and of creation was Hebrew. From Hebrew, monogeneticists theorized, all the modern language of the world could trace their descent. Others argued that though Hebrew might not have been the Adamic language, it was the least corroded of all the living languages, preserving the most elements from this original Urspache.[1] An early 17th-century engraving by the Flemish printmaker Jan Collaert after Marten de Vos illustrates this idea, depicting the word of God as manifested in the Garden of Eden (fig. 1). God the creator takes the form of a beam of light inscribed with the Latin word for father, “pater,” intertwined with the Hebrew theonym: “יהוה.” Collaert brings together fragments of two living languages in the hopes to capturing the power of the original Urspache.

Fig. 1. Jan Collaert (after Maerten de Vos), The Creation of Eve, c. 1600. Published by Claes Jan Visscher. Engraving. Modernism in both its literary and artistic forms also wrestled with the inadequacy of artistic mediums to transparently convey meaning. One mode of response was to give up the project of meaning all together, and instead self-reflexively call attention to the medium itself: both its arbitrariness and aesthetic possibilities. German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s approach to the problem had much in common with the Renaissance writers and theologians who theorized an Adamic language that could be composed out of modern linguistic fragments. In his 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator,” Benjamin eschews the modernist skepticism towards language, and instead argues that of translation of a work can bring one closer to what he defines as “the seed of pure language.” Pure language is something “no single language can attain by itself, but which is only realized by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other,” Benjamin writes.[2] In the process of translation, of moving from one language to another, the translator can begin to approach what Benjamin understands as the mystical amalgam of all world languages. Within individual languages, Benjamin admits that meaning remains in hidden and “in a constant state of flux.” Meaning is a moving target. Might it be possible to outrun it? This is precisely what Franz Kafka attempts in his poem “The Wish to be a Red Indian.” The piece is short, but in a few lines Kafka cuts to the absolute essence of an idea. It goes: If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.[3] The poem leaves the reader not with an awareness of language, but with something beyond it: the idea of absolute freedom, or the concept of speed itself. Kafka goes about evoking this sensation very carefully, step by step. He begins with an image that was especially resonant in the 19th-century German imagination: an Indian riding a horse. Then he subtracts elements one by one. First the spurs, then the reigns, then the ground itself, until all we are left with is the sensation of pure motion through the air. It’s a powerfully abstract and intense feeling, and Kafka manages to evoke it with an almost scientific precision, like he is casting a magic spell, or reciting a sorcerer's incantation to unlock pure platonic form. Because this incantation is so powerful and precise, it carries out Kafka's task without him having to finish the work of reducing each element, racing ahead of him. Thus, “horse’s head and neck would already be gone.” Kafka’s spell outruns language, leaving us with pure sensation. Painting offers another route to skirting around the deficiencies of language. In the same way that Kafka moves bit by bit towards a seed of pure meaning, one senses before a Paul Cézanne not a polished whole, but a gradual kind of process proceeding across the canvas. In a still life titled The Large Pear (La Grosse Poire), the eye roves across the still life, perceiving it in fragments that don’t quite cohere as a totality (fig. 2). The three front peaches (apples?) read as a unit and a sort of anchoring point for the composition — my suspicion is Cézanne painted them first. Eyes moving to the right, we perceive the pear, which appears in confusing relation to the bowl beneath, floating above it rather than resting inside of it. The result is the sense that these two objects were perceived at different points in time.

Fig. 2. Paul Cézanne, The Large Pear (La Grosse Poire), 1895-98. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation. The table on which the fruit rests shifts with the movement of our eyes, resulting in an awkward, uneven tilt when perceived as a whole. Like Kafka’s language racing ahead of him, the edge of the table runs off the picture plane to the left. It feels as though the objects are in control of Cézanne’s brush rather than the other way around. The table pulls Cézanne’s eye over to the left, and his brush follows, only for him to belatedly realize that there is not enough room to fit the whole form on the canvas. In his classic evaluation of Cézanne, Maurice Denis casts this tendency as a kind of spontaneity.[4] If this composition had been planned as a whole, the table would of course fit within the frame. As for the background, the eye has trouble discerning what kind of surfaces we are viewing. A plant sits next to a screen covered in a rose pattern, but these objects oscillate between appearing as concrete forms and exercises in pure pattern and color. Cézanne has painted not objects, but perception itself: the sense of forms as the eye truly understands them, in bits and over time. He has unlocked something different than Kafka, who begins with a concrete, specific image and from there approaches an abstract sensation. As Denis notes, Cézanne does not deal in abstractions. “He never reaches the conception of the circle, the triangle, the parallelogram,” he writes, “forms are for him volumes.”Ultimate essence is out of reach, but perhaps in Cézanne that is not the point. His forms, Denis argues, cast their own kind of magic spell: The purpose, even the concept of the object represented, disappears before the charm of his colored forms. Of an apple by some commonplace painter one says: I should like to eat it. Of an apple by Cézanne one says: How beautiful! So intense is the poetry of Cézanne’s forms, that they erase the notion that they are somehow deviations from an imagined ideal. Essence is not beyond but made immanent on the canvas. Living at the intersection of two languages, translation “turns the symbolizing into the symbolized,” writes Walter Benjamin. The nucleus of language itself emerges in the movement from one specific instantiation to the next. Cézanne’s paintings are translations in the fullest, Benjaminian sense because as images they stand on their own terms, not as representative echoes. And in the movement form one language to the next — from material reality to painted reality — perception emerges. The symbolizing turns into the symbolized. Abstract forms magicked away, this unfolding of perception across the canvas has a momentum and purity of sensation all its own. Phoebe Zipper is an MA candidate in Art History and a Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant at the Center for the Study of Modernism.


[1] Luke Morgan, "Early Modern Edens: The Landscape and Language of Paradise," An International Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2007): 144. [2] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, (1955; republished New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 16. [3] In Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 390. [4] Maurice Denis, "Cézanne II," The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 16, no. 82 (January 1910): 275.

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