By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Kafka and His Precursors’ is an essay by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in which Borges examines some earlier writers and argues that their themes and moods prefigure the writing of the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Towards the end of ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, Borges famously asserts that every writer creates his own precursors, and that is what Kafka has done.
Before we offer an analysis of Borges’ essay, it’s probably worth briefly sketching out his argument.
‘Kafka and His Precursors’: summary
Borges outlines some of the writers who wrote before Franz Kafka (1883-1924), but whose work prefigures Kafka’s own. He initially states that he believed Kafka to be too singular or unique to have any true precursors, but he has collected together a few of the authors whose work seems to have what we’d now call a ‘Kafkan’ or ‘Kafkaesque’ quality.
He begins with the classical philosopher Zeno, whose paradox of movement states that an object at point A cannot reach point B because it must first cover half the distance between the two points, then half of the half, then half of the half of the half, and so on.
Borges likens this to K’s situation in Kafka’s The Castle, where K’s attempts to reach the castle always end in failure, and he never manages to cover the short distance between himself and the castle outside the village. Meanwhile, in the ninth-century Chinese writer Han Yu, Borges locates the same tone as he finds in Kafka’s writing, and quotes an example.
Next, Borges considers the nineteenth-century Danish writer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose religious parables appear to prefigure Kafka’s. Sticking with religion, Borges draws a parallel between Kafka’s work on religious matters and Robert Browning’s 1876 poem ‘Fears and Scruples’, in which a man has a mysterious friend whom he comes to suspect is God.
Borges next considers two short stories which stand as precursors to Kafka’s works. The first is by the French writer Léon Bloy (1846-1917), and tells of people who possess all the paraphernalia associated with travel, but die without ever leaving their home town.
The second story, ‘Carcassonne’, is by the fantasy author Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), and tells of an invincible army which leaves an infinite castle (itself a very Borgesian detail, we might note) and conquers many kingdoms, but never reaches Carcassonne, and can only glimpse it from afar.
Borges concludes by arguing that Kafka helps us to read these earlier writers in a new way: if Kafka had never written, we would not be able to read, for instance, Browning’s ‘Fear and Scruples’ as we now can, but nor would we spot the affinities between, say, Browning, Bloy, and Kierkegaard in these respects. Every writer, Borges declares, creates their own precursors, and this is what Kafka has done.
‘Kafka and His Precursors’: analysis
‘Kafka and His Precursors’ demonstrates Jorge Luis Borges’ love of paradox. In the case of this essay, the paradox is that Kafka somehow ‘influences’ the writers from earlier centuries who sound like him. Of course, he didn’t literally influence Kierkegaard or Browning, because they died long before Kafka’s work was published, but Kafka does influence our subsequent readings of those earlier writers.
How can this be? Our concept of the literary canon is constantly changing. And we might argue that writers remain, or are added to, the great tradition of literary writing because they continue to (or, for later admissions, suddenly begin to) speak to our own beliefs, attitudes, and literary tastes.
This can work the other way as well, of course: how many once-popular writers are now little read or studied, because the worldviews they express cease to chime with our own, and as a result (rightly or wrongly on our part) they are no longer deemed ‘relevant’ to us?
For Borges, someone like Kierkegaard is made more important and relevant to us because Kafka existed, and we can now look to Kierkegaard for signs of what we might call a kind of ‘proto-Kafkaesque’ quality. If Kafka hadn’t written, we obviously wouldn’t be able to pinpoint this quality in earlier writers. Would we still value Kierkegaard as a result?
Perhaps not as much, and certainly not in the same way. Although some critics have suggested that Borges had his tongue at least partly in his cheek when he wrote ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, there is a serious point here about the ways in which our view of past writers continues to evolve as new writers come along and lend their literary forebears new ‘relevance’ or ‘greatness’.
So when Borges talks about Kafka’s ‘influence’ on previous writers, he is exposing this paradox: a quintessentially Borgesian paradox that was summed up well in David Lodge’s campus novel, Small World, in which a young academic has written a thesis titled ‘T. S. Eliot’s Influence on Shakespeare.’ Although the twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot didn’t literally influence the Bard who wrote Othello, the existence of Eliot’s work, and Eliot’s engagement with Shakespeare’s own, means that we now read Shakespeare under the influence of Eliot.
This makes sense when we consider specific examples. Many people, for instance, will find themselves approaching Hamlet and recalling Prufrock’s lines about not being Prince Hamlet; or we might have Eliot’s line ‘desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope’ in our minds when we read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, whose ‘desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope’ was ‘borrowed’ by Eliot for his Ash-Wednesday. We read and understand Shakespeare differently because of the ways in which Eliot engaged with him.
Indeed, Eliot is pertinent here because, before Borges wrote ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, Eliot had argued, in his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, that new poets become absorbed into the tradition of great poetry by engaging with that tradition: Eliot’s work reminds us of Shakespeare, we might say, and Shakespeare’s work comes to remind us of Eliot.
In his essay, Eliot argues that a modern poet should write with the literature of all previous ages ‘in his bones’, as though Homer and Shakespeare were his contemporaries. As a result, we cannot speak of a linear and one-way chain of ‘influence’ leading from Homer forwards to Shakespeare forwards to Eliot: the ‘influence’ goes both ways, because we turn to Homer (for instance) with a knowledge of Shakespeare already present within our minds.
Borges himself liked to play around with chronology in this way. Of the early Gothic novel Vathek, written in French by its author William Beckford and translated into a far more famous English version by someone else, Borges once observed: ‘the original is unfaithful to the translation’.
In other words, since the English translation is the version of Vathek we know and love, Beckford’s original seems less true to the spirit of the novel, despite being the actual original version. Usually it’s translations or later retellings which are unfaithful to the original.
And of course, Borges’ assertion at the end of ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ that every author creates his own precursors is another paradoxical inversion of our usual way of thinking about the relationship between different authors. Rather than an earlier writer ‘creating’ or inspiring a later author, the later author creates those earlier writers in his own image, and that is what Kafka has done.
Borges explores this idea in one of his best-known short stories: ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, in which the title character has managed to write several pages of Cervantes’ Don Quixote word-for-word – but without consciously copying the original. Borges’ narrator argues that although the words on the page are identical when Cervantes’ Quixote and Menard’s Quixote are placed side by side, we read Menard’s differently from the way we engage with Cervantes’ seventeenth-century original.
Indeed, we end up comparing Cervantes’ words unfavourably when we place them next to Menard’s, which seem richer and more profound because he was writing centuries after Cervantes in a different era. Menard, in a sense, has ‘created his own precursor’ in Cervantes, a kind of literary John the Baptist to Menard’s Jesus, so that even though the words of the two writers are literally identical, Borges’ narrator reads Cervantes under the influence of Menard’s writing and finds Menard to be the better writer.
Of course, Borges is taking his paradox to an extreme in that story, in exploring, not a mere overlap of ideas and moods, but a word-for-word reproduction of the original work. And it’s tempting to analyse ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ as being as much about Borges as it is about Kafka, especially since, in so many ways, Kafka is Borges’ own precursor.