Friction: Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Wittgenstein

I knew that I would write no books either in English or in Latin in the coming year, the years after that, or in all the years of this life of mine. There is only one reason for this, a strange and embarrassing one; I leave it to your infinite intellectual superiority to give it a place among what to your clear eyes is an orderly array of mental and physical phenomena. It is that the language in which I might have been granted the opportunity not only to write but also to think is not Latin or English, or Italian, or Spanish, but a language of which I know not one word, a language in which mute things speak to me and in which I will perhaps have something to say for myself someday when I am dead and standing before an unknown judge.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Lord Chandos Letter”

This language he describes is as universal (in the sense that it cannot be contained, and is infinite in that regard), and utterly private–what is a language that he hears but of which he does not know a single word? The language that seems to speak of a union of noumenal and phenomenal substance, unmediated by language?

I know who to turn to for this…

The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.–We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investications, S.107

There will be more about slipperiness shortly; it figures in a book I’ve been meaning to write about for months. But my sense of what Wittgenstein says here is that with the removal of the requirement of meaning, language loses its sense, and with it the troubles of its inadequacy for its requirements of meaning and logic. But it is precisely the inadequacy we face whenever we try to place these requirements on it, and so any examination of language’s use must proceed from constant attention to the inadequacy of language to fit the meanings that are contained in what “mute things speak” to Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos.

Likewise the friction in Kafka’s The Castle between K. and the authorities, of which Lars at Spurious writes:

The drama of the novel – the collision between K., who wants to know he has a place in the village, and the implacable authorities would then be determined: it can only be a matter of frustration, of the alternation between moments of grace and moments of setback.

The supposed ending that was never written–K. dies and is finally granted permission to stay in the town, though his mission is not formally recognized–speaks to the end of the conflict. K.’s death signals the collapse of his will, or words, or what-have-you, that has kept him alienated from the town and active.

The self that frees itself from the alienation (i.e., friction) it feels from Sein, as Heidegger posits as a positive, is for Kafka nothing more than a dead self, just as it is an impossibility for Wittgenstein. Likewise, the mute, perfect language of Hofmannsthal’s narrator, which will only going to be accessible to him after death.