:: Article

The Squeak Strikes Down the Story

By Nathan Dixon.


I choose foolishly to procrastinate.  Or, rather, there is no choice.  Only necessity in these sprawling days of the PhD program.  Obligations from the new life and the old life, alike, climb successively atop my shoulders, atop one another’s shoulders, to sit stacked in a precarious tower, each sagging bottom fatter than the last, the long row of vertical caterpillar feet swinging petulantly up the line.  These obligations steer me in a stumbling balancing act; I have become the wiggling tail-tip of a serpent set on end, envied by no one in this circus, not even the starved man in his cage nor the talking ape in his tweeds.  A passive character head locked into this squinting grimace, I am acted upon by unseen forces that grow taller and heavier as I shrink beneath them.  A man on a marimba plays a discordant “Flight of the Bumblebee” while a violinist imitates a mouse.  When people call me Josef K., I nod my head painfully.  When they shout, “Gregor,” and offer to toss me peanuts, I open my mouth obediently.  But now—in these precarious times of cat-like shadows creeping in the corners—might I not vault onto the painted pail of the ringmaster and assert my Josefineness all the same?  I am Diva, in a sequined red jacket and black top hat, snapping a bullwhip as I whine about my utter lack of vocabulary when it comes to music writing.  I have entered into a conversation for which I have no words.  And yet, I will sing.  Or at least I will assert that my whistling is singing, and that, if you do not understand, it is through no fault of mine.  This is the way of Josefine.  And the way of the ringmaster is to introduce the next act, the noise squeaking from the mouse hole in the baseboard where Martin Bresnick and his musicians accompany the Kafkaesque chorus with a set of the world’s smallest violins.

In the introductory note to his album Prayers Remain Forever, Bresnick avows that Kafka’s writings “are [his] Talmud and Testament” (2).  It is not uncommon to treat Kafka as an oracle, and in Bresnick’s devotion we hear echoes of Guy Davenport’s assertion that Kafka’s writings are “Prophesy,” and that all of his work “is about history that has not yet happened” (79).  Bresnick goes on to call Kafka “great, rueful,” and a “comic genius,” and to call Kafka’s character Josephine[1] “a great artist, a diva,” and a “remarkable musician” (2).  But his observations about the latter, in preparation for the music to come, do not necessarily derive from Kafka’s text.  Although the narrator of “Josefine the Singer or The Mouse People,” asserts in the third sentence of the story that “there is no one who is not enraptured by her song,” he begins casting doubt immediately on both his own statement and Josefine’s talent by stressing in the very next sentence that “the dearest music to our ears is peace and quiet” (Kafka 264).  He therefore subordinates Josefine’s enrapturing song to the superlatively better sound of absolute silence.  We see this again and again in Kafka, a statement of fact followed immediately by another statement that subverts the meaning of the first, or negates it entirely.  By the second paragraph, Josefine denies that the other mouse people are capable of understanding her—a position she holds throughout the narrative—while the narrator openly admits that “Josefine’s song qua song is nothing out of the ordinary” (265).  In using qua, he casts doubt on whether it is a song at all, which is a position that he maintains.  Her “alleged artistry”—alleged by Josefine herself—is “perfectly ordinary whistling” from afar, indistinguishable from the rest of the mouse people, or “distinguished at most by its delicacy or feebleness” (265-66).  She becomes a failure then, not only in her attempt to sing (because it is only whistling), but even in her attempt to whistle.  In Kafka’s story, it is not the voice that stands out, but the spectacle that the singer creates.  “If you stand in front of her,” the narrator tells us, “it seems to be more than whistling” (266).  One must be able to see her in order to observe the artistry, and the story is about the reaction of the people just as much—or more—than it is about the singer and her song.  Hence the double title.  Bresnick’s ekphrasis, on the other hand, even in its singular name—“Josephine The Singer”—hints at its inability to strike at the true nature of the Kafkaesque in Kafka.

Although ekphrasis originally referred to “an explanation or description of something, esp. as a rhetorical device,” it has developed into a more specific “literary device in which a painting, sculpture, or other work of visual art is described in detail” (OED).  I use the word in reference to Bresnick’s “Josephine The Singer” because the song adds details to Kafka’s work, that Kafka himself does not include—cannot include—because he works within the medium of prose story-telling, while Bresnick works within the medium of music.  According to Aristotle, “the music of the flute and of the lyre”—and, we might add in the case of Bresinck, of the violin—“are all in their general conception modes of imitation” (7).  These modes “must of necessity imitate one of three objects—things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be” (97).  Bresnick himself alludes to his imitation by naming his song after one of Kafka’s stories.  Of course, one may argue—as, in fact, John Halle does in the introductory note to another Bresnick album, My Twentieth Century—that we cannot say for sure “whether the composer’s songs are heard as a reflection on Kafka’s story, a portrait of Josephine, or are, in fact Josephine’s songs themselves” (7).  But Halle is referring to Bresnick’s “Songs of the Mouse People,” not to the composer’s later work titled “Josephine the Singer.”  Even taking as an example, though, the movement entitled “That Peace We Yearn For” from the composition to which Halle refers, we can clearly distinguish between the violin that imitates a voice and the marimba that imitates a mood.  The difference is self-evident, and in the context of Kafka’s story—to which the composition’s title clearly refers—if any single voice rises above all others to create a mood, then that voice must, of course, be Josefine’s.  Furthermore, this is not the only instance in which Bresnick uses the marimba to imitate mood in a composition that draws direct parallels to—and, in this case, actually incorporates—Kafka’s work.

In Bresnick’s “A Message From the Emperor,” two speakers, sometimes in tandem, sometimes in unison, dramatically, slowly, rhythmically, perform Kafka’s short story of the same name.  Underneath the voices, or on top of them, a vibraphone and a marimba ring and clink sometimes in accompaniment, sometimes by themselves, but always in imitation of the spoken words.  They imitate first the mood—at once imperial and morose—of the dying emperor and his subjects, then the mood and movement of the messenger bounding off with the message.  The stamping of boots adds a literal rushing quality to the xylophononic scamper, and, as the camera zooms out—“the crowd is so vast, the dwellings are unending”—the music climaxes to a strange dissonance that recalls the theme song of the “The Twilight Zone.”  The reference, if it is one, would be applicable, since this section turns into an imagined hypothetical of an open countryside, a swift flying messenger, and an easy arrival on the front stoop of the would-be recipient of the message.  The movement and mood of the music mimes that of the messenger, as does the literal door knock that follows the spoken phrase “and surely you would soon hear the splendid pounding of his fist upon your door.”  When the speakers finally pull away from the hypothetical, so too do the percussive instruments pull away from the line they have been following.  The speakers of the text return the messenger to his useless toiling through the unending chambers and crowds, the endless stairways and courtyards, and the succession of palaces that will take thousands of years to traverse.  The marimba and vibraphone hammer to intensity then fall away, hammer to intensity then fall away.  A useless banging against bureaucracy.  The music mimes the mood and motion of the messenger, until he finally tumbles from the outermost gate—the falling marimba strokes imitating this leggy thing cartwheeling out of the chaos—to discover that “nothing is gained.”  Then the music circles upon itself and increases in volume as the speakers describe the “the royal capitol, overflowing with its sediment.”  Meanings suddenly branch as the music may describe, on the one hand, the dizzy messenger twirling in place, or, on the other, the place itself filled to the brim and overflowing with physical mazes and imposing crowds of people who belong to the castle.  Heavy, discordant clangs jar the listener, as the scene itself must jar the messenger.  The music softens, rises to another crescendo, softens again, the humming bells of the vibraphone more noticeable now than the running notes of the marimba, and finally, the speakers read the last line: “You, however, sit at your window and dream the message when evening comes.”

In the context of Bresnick’s composition—the two percussive instruments persisting in the same section of song—the meanings branch again.  The speakers tell us that the dreamer, the would-be recipient of the message, dreams the message itself, ostensibly represented by this section of music that continues playing.  But the music already denotes the messenger and the bureaucratic maze through which he travels.  In which case the message that this messenger carries, contains the message of himself carrying a message. And so on, and so forth, meta-commentary spilling ad infinitum.  This is the Kafkaesque in a shrinking nutshell that nonetheless contains the ever-expanding and un-traversable royal capitol.  Bresnick thus manages to paradoxically represent both the infinitely large and the infinitely small in a single piece of music.  But he uses Kafka’s words as a crutch to make meaning.  His subsequent attempt to mime the voice of the mouse singer—whose voice cannot be mimed—falls short precisely because the unheard nature of her voice creates the uncanny bent of the story.

I went into such detail in describing Bresnick’s “A Message From the Emperor” to show that within this composition the marimba is mimetic of mood, just as it is in his “Songs of the Mouse People.”  And just as the moody marimba traverses from one Bresnick piece to another, so too does the mimetic mouse voice of the violin.  Although Halle might be right about the multiple ways to hear “Songs of the Mouse People,” the composition “Josephine the Singer” is a rodent of another color.  In his introductory note, David Lang submits that within this composition, Bresnick uses “a solo violin to depict the song of a mouse, as she transforms from a member of the community into a legend.”  Here we have Pulitzer Prize winning support for both the self-evident and titular claim that “Josephine the Singer” is an exercise in mimesis.  The composition is an extended ekphrasis—a description in detail—of the way that Bresnick believes Josefine sounds.

The crux of the problem with any ekphrasis of Kafka’s work mirrors the one that plagues Kafka’s critics.  Imbedded in the secondary text lies the risk of interpreting the primary text.  In the criticisms of other artwork, the reader assumes that the critic will perform an exegesis of the text, that the critic will first accumulate details, and then interpret them.  Jed Rasula talked about this extensively in a class on the Kafkaesque that I attended on 14 September 2017, and, as I was horrified that I might accidentally begin somnambulisticly interpreting while scribbling marginalia in the required Kafka books I had purchased, I took extensive notes on how not to take notes.  Rasula described Kafka doing a kind of anticipatory work, venturing into a future place where myth might arise without precedent.  He described the unfinished nature and the strange atmospheric consistency of Kafka’s writings, then asserted that these qualities make readers salivate.  “But behold,” he said, “and beware,” flourishing a handkerchief on which were scribbled assertions, “behold and beware the napkins of interpretation that wipe away Kafka!”  What does it mean, then, to imitate Kafka’s work?  Is it not also a form of interpretation?  Borges tells us that there are precursors to Kafka in whose writings “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present” (365).  “But if Kafka had not written,” Borges continues “we would not perceive [this idiosyncrasy]; that is to say, it would not exist” (365).  Unconscious imitation that predates the imitated model is very different from a conscious imitation that foists onto the original a concrete claim about an abstract idea.

The only musical jargon that Kafka’s narrator uses in the story of Josefine is “coloratura” (280).  He does so even as he freely admits that he “doesn’t know anything about coloratura,” and that he has “never noticed any coloratura in [Josefine’s] singing” (280).  The word is borrowed from the Italian and refers to “elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody, esp. in operatic singing,” or to “a singer, esp. a soprano, skilled in the singing of coloratura” (OED).  A diva of the mus musculus variety would be nothing if not a soprano. The first minute and a half of Bresnick’s “Josephine The Singer” might be looked at as a very mouse-like mimesis of operatic coloratura.  Incredibly high-pitched single notes of radio-like frequencies soar between the quick sawing of single notes on the violin.  The music whispers forth tentatively, screams, retreats, then bursts again, so high-pitched that it is almost too painful to listen to.  Then a more solid voice emerges, though haltingly, in spicatto bouncing bow strokes.  This is all warm up, the violin bow skipping and sliding over the cold strings.  But the warm up gives way eventually—about two minutes and fifteen seconds into the composition—to what we must admit is music.  There is no question about it.  I have notes upon notes of my dilettante musical observations, but they are of no use.  For as soon as this music emerges—the interpreted voice of Josefine—we have left the land of the Kafkaesque. Bresnick asks rhetorically in his opening note to the album, “What would life be, with its inevitable catastrophes, without [Josephine]” (2).  Although his question might refer to the preservation of Kafka’s written character in our own world, within the context in which he writes the comment appears to refer to the preservation of the character Josephine within the world of Kafka’s story.  And within this world, Kafka’s narrator answers concretely the rhetorical question that Bresnick poses.  When Josephine “hides herself away and doesn’t sing,” the “people calm, with no visible disappointment, masterly, a composed mass . . . go their own way” (Kafka 282).  The narrator even suggests in a problematic aside that perhaps Josefine is already dead.  He uses the past tense when he himself asks rhetorically “Was [her whistling] ever more than a memory, even while she was alive” (282).  We recall the Hunter Gracchus and his infinite in-between.  For although Josefine is ostensibly still alive, the narrator imagines her “released from the earthly torment” of all those who bear great gifts like burdens, “to be accorded the heightened relief of being, like all of her brothers, forgotten” (282-283).  She is a great singer and, at the same time, totally incapable of singing.  She is both alive and dead; she is both impossible to live without and already forgotten.  The paradoxes of Kafka ring moody upon our ears like the running marimba.

John Halle asserts that both the changing perspective of Bresnick’s “Songs of the Mouse People” and the questions these changing perspectives engender for the composition’s listeners are “indicative of the degree to which Bresnick requires us to live in Kafka’s (and Josephine’s) world” (7).  While this may be the case, for both “Songs of the Mouse People” and “A Message From the Emperor,” when it comes to Bresnick’s later composition “Josephine the Singer,” the composer—by interpreting rather than bearing witness to Kafka’s story— renders both his own work and Kafka’s less inscrutable and, thus, less Kafkaesque.


[1] Bresnick’s songs and all of the references to these songs and, also, all of the references to Kafka’s characters in the introductory notes to Bresnick’s albums use “Josephine,” while Hofmann uses “Josefine.”  I will use both spellings, changing them appropriately when referring to the appropriate work.


Works Cited
Aristotle.  Poetics.  Translated and with critical notes by S.H. Butcher, 4th ed., Dover, 1951.
Borges, Jorge Luis.  “Kafka and his Precursors.”  Selected Non-Fictions.  Translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger, ed. Eliot Weinberger.  Viking, 1999,    pp. 363-65.
Bresnick, Martin.  “A Message from the Emperor.”  2010.  Prayers Remain Forever, Starkland,  2014.
—.  Introduction.  Prayers Remain Forever, Bresnick, Starkland, 2014, pp. 2-5.
—.  “Josephine The Singer.”  (2011).  Prayers Remain Forever, Starkland, 2014.
—.  “Songs of the Mouse People.” (1999).  My Twentieth Century, Recorded Anthology of American Music, 2005.
Davenport, Guy.  “The Hunter Gracchus.”  The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing.       Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003, pp. 73-85.
“coloratura, n. and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/36567. Accessed 25 September 2017.
“ekphrasis, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/59412. Accessed 25 September 2017.
Halle, John.  Introduction.  My Twentieth Century, by Martin Bresnick, Recorded Anthology of American Music, 2005, pp. 2-12.
Kafka, Franz.  “Josefine, the Singer, or The Mouse People.”  Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Translated with an introduction by Michael Hofmann, Penguin, 2007.
Lang, David.  Introduction.  Prayers Remain Forever, by Martin Bresnick, Starkland, 2014.
Rasula, Jed.  “Class Discussion.”  ENGL 6830: The Kafkaesque.  Park Hall 61, UGA, Athens, GA.  14 September 2017.  Pressed.  Lecture.

Nathan Dixon is pursuing a PhD in English literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia.  His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Ruminate, Dreginald, Heavy Feather Review, and Nailed among many others.  His one act play “Thoughts & Prayers Inc.” was chosen by National Book Award Winner Nikky Finney as winner of the Agnes Scott College Prize.  His critical/academic work has appeared in Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-GardeTransmotion, and Renaissance Papers, where he previously served as assistant editor.  He co-curates the YumFactory reading series in Athens, Georgia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 14th, 2020.