Anna Aizman

The Second Mouse, or the Other Half


ISSUE 40 | HOLD OR BE HELD | MAY 2014

In Kafka’s last story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” nothing big happens. Merely: a girl mouse falls out of mouse history. The story describes Josephine’s relationship with the Mouse people. Reflecting on the privations of mouse life and on the dubious respite that Josephine’s singing offers, the narrator goes back and forth on everything. Although the people are unmusical, yet they had, long ago, a tradition of singers. Although Josephine’s music is in fact the most ordinary mouse piping, yet everyone in Josephine’s audience knows that it is not. Although Josephine’s performances imperil the Mouse people, yet they continue to gather. Already in the first paragraph the narrator laments Josephine: “when she dies, music – who knows for how long – will vanish from our lives.”

Kafka tells Max Brod that Josephine and the Mouse people are two weights on a scale. In this sense the entire species is Josephine’s ‘other half.’ But although they are equated Josephine and her people do not neutralize each other. A third element, our narrator, muddles the balancing act. Having recorded Josephine’s performances this mouse historian does not let the Mouse-Singer “rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.” Instead he banishes her from mouse time to human literature, denying her the special type of salvation reserved for mice: oblivion.

Considering that the Mouse people are “no historians,” how is the historian’s existence possible? His calling – to record a debate, to analyze performance, to tell a story – is as much a mystery as Josephine’s vocation.

Josephine’s Vocation for the People’s Afterlife

According to the historian Josephine’s vocation consists of “making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing” – that is, out of piping. Josephine’s first difference from other mice, then, is display. But in Kafka’s world an ordinary animal on display can be observed, for instance, in the cage of the late Hunger Artist. The panther, whose leaping around the cage “seemed to carry freedom around with it,” is fundamentally different from Josephine. No crowd had given rise to the panther, investing in him what the people invest in Josephine – their assembly.

The animal that performs, explains, and otherwise asserts its own form of being – as Josephine does and as does Rotpeter in “Report to an Academy” – is no ordinary member of its species. What are Josephine and Rotpeter being raised for? The work of these animals differs from the work of other mice and apes. Mice, no matter how many are killed, keep going forever. A mouse death is not an event. Mice are unworthy of being ritually sacrificed. (Ungeziefer, the word used to describe Gregor Samsa, literally means this). But of Josephine there is only one, and she wants this value recognized. Josephine's supporters protect her because of her worthiness, not only for performance, but also for ritual sacrifice.

Although her people pipe regularly, they are only described as ‘mouselike’ when they listen to Josephine. Otherwise their exact nature remains tantalizingly vague. In fact, some descriptions of the people even seem to deliberately confound taxonomy: “…quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows.” It is entirely possible that the people are mice only when they listen to Josephine in “mouselike stillness.”

“[T]his mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear” flows to Josephine’s concert. Amid chaos and danger the audience assembles, and each listener buries his nose in the neighbor's fur.

At such assemblies “[t]he harried individual once in a while [can] relax and stretch himself at ease in the great, warm bed of the community.” Each rests, nearly sleeps, in the bosom of the crowd. In the balance between the crowd and Josephine, rest becomes a potentiality – it evokes other rests. The people recall their childhood, or the possibility of childhood, since they scarcely experience one before “[o]ne generation—and each is numerous—treads on the heels of another.” Josephine’s song is an epoch of rest.

Through Josephine’s efforts, the people imagine an alternate existence. The “mouselike stillness” of the people is a foil for Josephine’s increasingly dramatic exertions. But the people cannot imagine granting Josephine’s demand, when she petitions for rest, for exemption from daily labor. Josephine had wanted to reach beyond mediation, to equal the crowd with her individual being and, by resting, to legitimize their collective respite. This is why the Mouse people immediately and unanimously reject Josephine’s petition. If the stopping of their frenetic activity becomes legal, the enemy will destroy them. Formal acknowledgement of the possibility of rest is collective suicide. Josephine, ‘the other half’ of the people, cannot rest. Redefining Josephine’s vocation, we might say that her performance invokes the suicide of the species.

Kafka’s riddle invites conjectures. If Josephine received “public, unambiguous, permanent recognition of her art,” then the respite of the people’s assembly would likewise be sanctioned, justified. Recognizing a higher aim, beyond the life of endless toil and teeming generations, the Mouse people would gather in a different way. Their conscious assembly would amount to a strike against the conditions of their life. The Mouse people would become a revolutionary body.

Fredric Jameson interprets Kafka’s story differently.1 By refusing to recognize Josephine, the Mouse people behave themselves as a radically democratic community. Jameson says that “anonymity as an intensely positive force, as the most fundamental fact of life of the democratic community” characterizes the life of the Mouse people – with or without Josephine. For Jameson, the revolution has already happened in the Mouse world, perhaps even long ago. The Mouse people are post-revolutionary; the attempt of one to be recognized as an individual is not an event. From the perspective of our un-democratic, un-revolutionary society, we cannot fathom the radical community of the Mouse people, except as a kind of death -- the death of individuality, of a society of individuals. We can see that Jameson agrees with the mouse historian: Josephine is not an event in the history of the Mouse Folk.

And yet, Josephine is an insurgent element. In a society that may not be capable of changing course (as Jameson has suggested, and I suggested, though for different reasons), Josephine incites plot. “A day or two ago” the Mouse-Singer had given her most theatrical performance of exhaustion and inspiration. Now (our mouse historian reports “the latest”), Josephine has disappeared altogether just when she was supposed to sing. Since the people do not sacrifice her to the dream of revolution, she sacrifices herself to an uncertain end.

The Historian’s Vocation against Uncertain Endings

Determining that Josephine will soon be forgotten, the narrator buries her prematurely in “the eternal history of our people.” Her voice, he says, is more powerful not as presence, but as memory. Josephine, he says, has been “past losing” – she was always already sacrificed. By denying the value of her life and art, the historian denies the possibility that the crowd will strike.

Yet Josephine’s ambiguous withdrawal does not provide a satisfactory ending, a seal for the plot. She could return to the stage, in the next “day or two,” or in some years. She could be plotting an altogether different performance. Given the possibilities, we ought to question the narrator’s haste to conclude the story. A revolution could still occur – at least among the Mouse people.

Here is a historian of a people with no history. Unlike Josephine’s piping, the historian’s work of recording is unappreciated. The peak of his narrative intrusion is a long, rambling sentence on Josephine’s work of “staging”:

True, she does not save us and gives us no strength; it is easy to stage oneself as a savior of our people, inured as they are to suffering, not sparing themselves, swift in decision, well acquainted with death, timorous only to the eye in the atmosphere of reckless daring which they constantly breathe, and as prolific besides as they are bold – it is easy, I say, to stage oneself after the event as the savior of our people, who have always somehow managed to save themselves, although at the cost of sacrifices which make historians – generally speaking we ignore historical research entirely – quite horror-struck.

The mouse historian, repeating “to stage oneself as a savior” with disgust, lets us know that he, at least, deplores the performance of salvation. This despite the general ignorance of history; the Mouse historian’s own awareness of the “cost of sacrifices” implies some interrogation of the status quo of mouse life. But perhaps the Mouse people, themselves being “no historians,” have external records-keepers who are horrified by their lives, and the mouse historian’s use of “we” is meant to deceive us. Perhaps he is no mouse at all.

Jameson seems to agree that Josephine’s performance is submerged by the narrator’s, “It is as though this ultimate emergence of the collective voice, of the people’s impersonal narrator, was the final stroke in the eclipse of those individual characters or named personalities of which Josephine was the last.”2 Per Jameson, Kafka’s last story bypassed revolution altogether. The impersonal narrator arose in radical difference from all other animals – he is no ‘other half’ to Josephine, he is no animal.

With his balance of scales and his pro and contra, like a small, predictable bureaucrat, the narrator hardly suggests utopian consciousness. His narrative style shows us the work of recording, not impersonality but, rather, a hundred little judgments. He believes that Josephine will fail and be forgotten – despite his very own work to the contrary. Mouse or not, he is already “past losing,” like the ancient singers of Mouse history. Josephine may be a mere ‘piper’, but the mouse historian sings a tale in her memory.

Except that Josephine is not exhausted by his story. It is she who expends herself. “Silent among the chatterers,” Josephine empties herself out to create abundant rest. She, not the mouse historian, shows the passage of time by marking the alternation between rest and labor with her performances. The mouse historian worries that, by staging herself as a savior, Josephine casts the secular mouse world into sacred time. Yet Josephine does not promise salvation, she represents the utterly unknown. I do not know for sure why the historian concludes that Josephine is dead and about to be forgotten. It seems he wants to bury himself and her in the impossibility of a revolutionary event. But as long as Josephine’s end is uncertain, the possibility of respite endures.

1 Modernism, Death, and Utopia,” Seeds of Time

2 “Kafka’s Dialectic,” The Modernist Papers

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