Screaming Chasms: Kafka’s Rhetorical Nightmare and Salvation, Scored by Adorno

By: Sruly Heller

To speak of language under Kafka, and music as characterized by Adorno, is to speak of, as Richard Leppert puts it, communication in crisis. Regarding language, there is, according to Koelb, a rhetorical gap, a broken and endless bridge, between what language defines itself as, and how it actually behaves. In contrast, Adorno posits that “music that remains true to itself would rather not exist at all,” that is to say, that music at its heart exudes such existential tension as to desire oblivion. The signifiers of language and music push towards oblivions of meaning, where language is underscored by wild gesticulation in place of sound, and music finds itself cast as language, the sound lost, a patently false skin according to Adorno. The plight of those attempting to communicate in either voice, only to find the meaning lost along the way, is the plight of the man in modernity. Meaning is on the tip of his tongue, but it lacks a ticket to ride.

What is this gap in language, and how does it compare to the eternally reifying and nullifying oscillation of music? What is it that they want? Why do they then get it? These are straight questions, and they are rhetorical questions. They mirror their subjects in that way.

Koelb describes Kafka’s employ of language as marked with aporia, that is, internal logical disjunction. He describes a branch of philosophy of language called Speech Act Theory, wherein speech is construed as locutionary structures, or speech that performs an act. These locutions take on two characteristics, illocutionary and perlocutionary. The former is an act accomplished in its utterance, from the perspective of the imposing agent, who is warning or commanding, etc. etc. The latter is embodied by its utterance, from the perspective of the receiving agent, who is warned or commanded. It is possible for perlocutionary statements to have illocution like effect, provided that the speaker carries the power to implement or render whatever the action is. Koelb brings up a pope saying, “You’re excommunicated,” or a cop saying, “You’re under arrest.” These figures, by virtue of their station, render in their words describing a state of being (and not causing it linguistically) a causal power as well.

We see these terms all throughout Kafka. It’s there in “The Penal Colony,” where the Officer weaves through illocutions of power at the start but ends with begging, the rather more supplicating side of illocution, and one at odds with his role as Officer. There is The Trial, where from the outset, and continuing until his death, Josef K is imprisoned by various locutions. Only in The Trial do we see something strange, something that gets to the heart of Kafka’s rhetoric. At the outset, K is told that “you can’t go out, you are arrested.” This comes at the very beginning of the novel, which is ostensibly about the arrest and trial of Josef K, except here, at this very first legal act, we see that there is no legal act at all. The man does not arrest K, he simply tells him he’s arrested. It is a perlocutionary act, which means it necessarily has an illocution that preceded it, which in the context of the Trial would have been the original arrest, apparently one with the details of the crime. Kafka denies us this, and thus propels the entire novel on the basis of a missing, and thus ambiguous action. Legal maneuvers, punishments, trials, executions, all these take place in the name of we’re-not-sure-exactly, a distinctly Kafkaian set of circumstances. Josef K goes along with this perlocution, essentially rendering it ex post facto an illocution, from his perspective at least. The whole novel proceeds this way, stringing along the many illocutions and perlocutions of law and justice, all rendered farcical by its lack of cosmology. Kafka thus builds an entire novel that takes place in the netherworld between word and action.

Koelb then points out that in “The Judgment” as well, the father’s “sentencing” of Georg has a perlocutionary effect, a rather clear and final one, but there is no preceding illocution to generate it. The story’s title alludes to this mystery, for how is there a judgment without a judge? Yet Georg, like Joseph K, seems to accept this as binding, as illocutionary, and finds himself compelled to die. Koelb brings up other examples, but the point is made. As he says in his conclusion, the indeterminate locutions and constant rhetorical gaps have an infinite and yawning chasm between them, and it is this unbridgeable space that defines the world of Kafka’s characters, spurring them on to action and death.

Adorno describes music as playing with gaps in a different manner. However, while the nature of its internal chaos might be different, it is similar in that these gaps are also as endless and consuming as reality itself, maybe more so. In his essay “Music, Language, Composition,” Adorno starts out by saying that:


Music is similar to language. Expressions like musical idiom and musical accent are not metaphors. But music is not language. Its similarity to language points to its innermost nature, but also toward something vague. The person who takes music literally as language will be lead astray by it.


From the get go, Adorno points out that, like language, music has a gap within itself, a rhetoriticity. Adorno states that music is “a proposition at once distinct and concealed,” its very corpus marked by contradiction, the aural circle in the square. This is in distinction to Kafka’s words, which contain the chaos of ambiguity in their meaning, not in their actual letters. If the language of Kafka can be likened to poisoned fruit, that which the body of is not inherently bad but its usage is, then music is like gas. Music is at once there and not there, bound by no meanings, and though occasionally poisonous like gas – thick and scented with the taste of fruit – it is still no more solid than air.

Music for Adorno is caught between the absolute of signification, where if met it would become language, and thus false, and the vacuity of music with no signification at all, a music that would “resemble an acoustical kaleidoscope.” Simply put, music that is all locution, all language, ceases to be music, and music with no locution is just that, music that is not saying anything. Here Adorno places music in the middle, in the chasm, as opposed to music generating the middle. This is unlike Kafka’s words, which according to Koelb, both create and occupy this endless middle. (This may be why the infinite tones of serialism appealed to Adorno; they accurately stake out the position of music). Music continuously points out that it is saying something, signifying something, only it always points to a veiled figure, painting arrows to foggy areas.

Adorno states that this is why Kafka elevated music to new heights in his literature. He says that Kafka treated the pure signifiers of language as if they were music, “broken parables” he calls it. Given this, perhaps we can now understand some of Kafka’s aporia ridden language. Perhaps the expansive ambiguities that drive the lost Karl and the doomed Josef K were not linguistic nightmares, but merely fugues and threnodies, attempting to convey with a musical perspective on language what regular language could not, would not. Maybe Kafka was not writing stories but scores, not novels but operas. Would that change their dramatic arcs? Would it still make the laughing policeman who tells us to give it up any less infuriating, or the Country Doctor any less emasculated? Would Josephine’s song still draw crowds of devoted youth? Would it still be song? And finally, if it is true that Kafka is making his language musical, then from the perspective of music, it’s being conveyed as pure signification, in the form of words. It is false music, in short. Perhaps there lies another grand aporia of Kafka, that of using false music to write true stories.

When Adorno speaks of crisis in music, as he does in “On the Contemporary Relationship of Philosophy and Music,” he speaks of music that is being produced in such numbers, that it’s very right to existence is called into question. The question of who said what and what they meant, in musical terms, thus becomes, “What right did they have to say it?” Music has become mired in such falsity that by mere virtue of playing, it becomes part of the ongoing falsity of modernity, and thus testifies to its own worthlessness, its own knowingly false pretense, as an exception to the open lies of everyday life. Thus, those who make music, which according to Adorno is everybody, can either perpetuate the lie, or turn to an extreme, as Kafka does. Adorno does not say what this extreme is, but perhaps he is referring back to Kafka’s injection of music into literature, an inherently extreme manifestation of circle in the square.

One of the most abrasive and striking ideas on music that Adorno presents is the notion that true music does not exist, wishes to not exist, wishes to not betray its essence by existing. In short, music wants to be music by not being. It is in music’s attempt at self-nullification that defines its essence, as Adorno says. He says that, “there is something enigmatic in all music.” He explains this by stating that there is no marker of any kind in music that points to a meaning or justification for itself. It offers no rhetoric in its defense, only the gap of what it is and wants. Paraphrasing Schonenberg, Adorno says that if music says something that only music can say, then it has a quality that is beyond comprehension yet entirely contingent. We don’t know what it is, but we know it has needs. The rhetoric of Kafka functions much in the same way. We don’t know what the characters are doing there, why they are there, and indeed they don’t often know themselves. What we do know is that they need, are rooted in need, in desire, contingent on what their humanity can give them, which all too often in modernity isn’t enough. Ultimately what music can give us says so much about what music is. Music can provide us with solace, with the notion of a way out, yet we often cannot abstract these ideas outside of it. It feeds us, but we are bound to the trough.

This binding, this shackle that we cannot account for, yet still feel the weight of, this is the world of words and sounds in Kafka and in Music. The weight defines our existence, indeed arguably generates it in music, as music’s fulfillment becomes its demise. So too it is with Kafka, where the words fulfilled so often spell death, though the original order is never seen. The mouse people practice no history, and so give no accounting of why. Without why, all we have left is the gap, and here Kafka places us, the people. Without the beginning, all we have is the end. Thus it is the dead, after all, in Kafka, who benefit from this potential exit, made possible by the gaps of language and music. They fulfill the thing that the tones revolve around; their gap allows to them fill in the gap, and move on into forgotten history. Joseph K, you lucky dog.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., Richard D. Leppert, and Susan H. Gillespie. “Commentary.” Essays on music. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Kafka’s Rhetorical Moment
Author(s): Clayton Koelb
Source: PMLA, Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 37

Kafka, Franz. “1.” The Trial. Definitive ed. New York: Knopf, 19571956. 4. Print.


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