Transcendent Writing Machine in Kafka and Pynchon

“Writing is a form of prayer.

– Kafka in his diaries.

We have before us two fictional texts concerning writing machines. Both write directly onto the human body and both are designed to give the subject transcendental knowledge or experience. The first is the Sentencing Machine described in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” The second is Thomas Pynchon’s “Puncutron Machine” described in Vineland. Their comparison illuminates a territory of postmodern metaphysics and transcendent belief that is curiously under-explored in most criticism about postmodernism.

The writing machine in fiction is a metaphor used by authors from Swift through John Barth, Italo Calvino, and William Gibson to explain and display their own techniques, an energized funhouse of self-reflection. However Pynchon and Kafka both use the writing machine in additional ways: to write on the body of a subject in order to produce transcendental illumination, the first as punishment, the second as an act of healing.

In his story “In the Penal Colony,” (1914) Franz Kafka describes an elaborate torture device that tattoos the naked body of a convicted criminal with a “sentence” while killing him. The “sentencing machine” uses sharp needles and the victim’s own blood to inscribe, in an extremely ornate, elaborated (and therefore even more excruciating) script, the victim’s “sentence” on his skin. Indeed, the words of the sentence itself are written only on a narrow band across the torso. The rest of the body is tortured by tattoos with exquisite curlicues, flourishes, and embellishments. We view the sentencing machine through the eyes of an Explorer who has landed on the Penal Colony. He is being given a tour by the officer in charge of administering justice and operating the machine

‘Here stands his apparatus before us. It consists, as you see, of three parts…the Bed, the upper one the Designer, and this one is the middle that moves up and down is called the Harrow. …The Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence’

The officer invites the Explorer (and Kafka the reader) to “look beyond the harrow” to where the true significance of the machine lies. “‘And how does the sentence run?” asks the Explorer. The officer, showing the absurdity of his own narrow faith, expresses surprise at the Explorer’s knowledge about the tenets of his creed: “You don’t know that either?'” he asks. He goes on to explain its operation. When he is finished, the Explorer is ready to move on to the next sight.

Now I know all about it,” said the explorer as the officer came back to him. ” All except the most important thing,” he answered, seizing the explorer’s arm and pointing upwards: “In the Designer are all the cogwheels that control the movements of the Harrow, and this machinery is regulated according to the inscription demanded by the sentence. I am still using the guiding plans drawn by the former Commandant. Here they are” – “he extracted some sheets from the leather wallet – “but I’m sorry I can’t let you handle them, they are my most precious possessions. Just take a seat and I’ll hold them in front of you like this, then you’ll be able to see everything quite well.” He spread out the first sheet of paper. The explorer would have liked to say something appreciative, but all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them. “Read it,” said the officer. “I can’t,” said the explorer. “Yet it’s clear enough,” said the officer. “It’s very ingenious,” said the explorer evasively, “but I can’t make it out.” “Yes,” said the officer with a laugh, putting the paper away again, “its no calligraphy for schoolchildren. It needs to be studied closely. I’m quite sure in the end you would understand it too.”* Of course, the script can’t be a simple one; it’s not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval…So there have to be lots and lots of flourishes around the actual script; the script itself runs around the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the bodyis reserved for the embellishments.” [ 148-149].

Later the officer tells the Explorer,

“This procedure and method of execution which you are now having the opportunity to admire, has at the moment no longer any open adherents in our colony. I am its sole advocate, and at the same time the sole advocate of the old Commandant’s tradition.”

The Explorer learns that one of the most refinements of the penal process is that the convicted does not have any prior idea of his sentence – for instance, “Honor Thy Superiors” as punishment for disobedience – nor even that he has been sentenced. The punished is supposed to “learn” about his sentence by reading it as it is transcribed painfully upon his own body. The subject is thus forced to “read” his own body as pain, the sentence dawning on the subject slowly, over the course of the hours it takes for this writing machine to do its work before bleeding its victim to death..

This is an exquisite turn, for it makes the prisoner’s reading of “the sentence” into an exercise in transcendental “illumination” (in both senses, as an enlightenment and as an embellishment of a medieval manuscript), while it forces the subject into a very strange relationship to his own body. The subject achieves a religious cognizance of his own crimes, as if the message were signalled from another world, while the skin becomes the palimpsest for a strange ritual, a kind of papyrus or better yet, a parchment, like the parchment of the scrolls of the Torah, which are also made of very fine and sensitive animal skins. Further, the punishment has to be finely adjusted, for it is no good if the victim doesn’t “get” the sentence before he is killed. The officer, recalling the good old days, says, “How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice…” [154].

The religious tenor of Kafka’s portrait is underscored by the language of the officer. reveres the former Commandant and portrays him in messianic terms.

“[T]he organization of the whole penal colony is his work. We who were his friends knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come. And our prophesy has come true; the new Commandant has had to acknowledge its truth. …

The officer also seems to be intriguing against the new Commandant, who doesn’t share the officer’s religion, his fervor for the old Commandant’s fundamentalist sense of justice. In fact, the explorer’s advent at the colony has precipitated a crisis in the officer. Banking on the Explorer’s sense of justice and as a disinterested observer, the officer is planning a public demonstration meant to strip the New Commandant of his authority. “If my indictment doesn’t drive him out of the hall it will force him to his knees to make the acknowledgment: “Old Commandant, I humble myself before you.” [159]

Howver, the officer’s coup fails, and in despair and defeat, the officer consigns himself to punishment – and transport – by the Sentencing Machine. The officer takes his place on the bed, the Harrow starts to work, and only then the officer notes that

“a wheel in the Designer should have been creaking; but everything was quiet, not even the slightest hum could be heard. Because it was working so silently the machine simply escaped one’s attention.”

The Designer starts popping open, wheels pop out and roll out until it is quite empty and then the Harrow stops writing, it “merely jabs. …leading to a horrible end, the body suspended over the pit, skewered.” The explorer looks into the face of the corpse and sees there .”no redemption, no exquisite torture…only murder.” They look for a place to bury the officer, come to the teahouse, which has the air of an ancient place, evoking old days long past “an historic tradition of some kind with the power of old days” [166]…and then they come across the humble grave of the Old Commandant, whose epitaph reads:

“Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must remain nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from his house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!'”

This tale suggests several interlaced interpretations, but most Kafka scholars agree that it is at once deeply Jewish and profoundly authorial or textual in a furtively Jewish way. Kafka began his deepening involvement with Judiaism around 1911, when he was 28, part of a more general struggle to find a foundational intellectual heritage, partly in rebellion against his father, who was decidedly secular and assimilationist. When he wrote “In the Penal Colony” in 1914, he had just completed Kierkegaard’s lacerating Book of the Judge, his statement of absolute faith in God. Under Kierkegaard’s influence, Kafka seemed to be grappling with the penal and judgmental qualities of Judaism, a struggle we can also discern in his stories “Before the Law,” The Trial, andThe Castle.

In the context of Kafka’s more general involvement in Judaism, it is easy to discern the many references in “In the Penal Colony” to the minority position of European Judaism. The entire Penal Colony seems like a ghetto, while the officer is the only remaining adherent of the old faith. It is also simple to read in the officer’s description of the mutually exclusive and strained relationship between the New Commandant and the Old Commandant, in allusions to the messianism of Judaism, and the zealous behavior of the officer himself a more general parable of the strained relationship between Christianity and Judaism and even of Judaism’s subversive, submissive, and eventually self-destructive posture vis a vis Christianity. But in this essay I will confine my considerations to the scribal concerns of Kafka in the context of Judaism – and not so much the social or cultural Jewish context but the metaphysical one. I believe Kafka is here exploring or dramatizing a personal discovery about the textuality of faith in Judaism, and it is both central to understanding the parable of this extraordinary writing machine and it adds to our understanding of the relationship between Judaism and modern culture.Judaism in one of its most potent strains suggests a unique relationship between Divine revelation and acts of reading and writing, of textuality. The history of Judaic metaphysics can be understood from this perspective as a series of entextualizations, a complex vista created by the relationship between the incomprehensibility of divine Intention and the substantiation of this Intention in written (not a spoken) words, in texts. Moses revelation on Mount Sinai is first inscribed in stone. Ultra-Orthodox belief demands that the Mosaic revelation is understood as the complete written Torah, the entire Five Books of Moses. In fact, there is even a persistent tradition that the Torah was written before Creation itself and God was simply the First Reader, reading the Torah as blueprint for the universe. The Torah represents the five books of Moses that Jews today read from scrolls unfurled in the synagogue during religious holidays, and three days a week, including every Sabbath. Written on very fine animal skins, it is unfurled and held before the reader. Other strains of Judaism take more historical views, understanding the Mosaic revelation as the first in a series of transcriptions which produces the Five Books of Moses and eventually the Tanakh (the canon of the entire Septuagint, including Prophets, Kings, the Books of Isaiah, Job, etc. all codified before the second century BCE).

But the texts and the relationship to religious literacy that seems best to capture the sensibility in which Kafka seems to be writing is the Talmudic tradition, a unique product of Diaspora Judaism. The Talmud as we receive it today was bred in the hothouse Jewish cultures of the diaspora by rabbis engaged in an ongoing symposium about the inner meanings of the Torah. It represents a series of interpretations composed from the first century through the fifteenth century CE. One of the world’s most elaborate texts, comprising 63 volumes, it was composed collectively and at times anonymously by rabbis and commentators working in the academies first of Babylon, and then of Alexandria, Cairo, Persia, Spain, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere from the first century A.D. onwards, all in correspondence with each other. Even today there are modern efforts to re-codify the Talmud and add on its margins even newer commentaries. [FN8] By contrast with the familiar and often spare stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, the Talmud gives us a mixture of close reasoning, folklore, and tales that fill in the blanks of the often spare stories found in the Torah, and elaborate structures defining Jewish ritual and statutes for changing conditions. The Talmud represents a babble of voices, and is perhaps most famous for its hair-splitting niceties, notorious for its detailed reasoning and circuitous logic, a logic based not so much in classical Greek reasoning but in a devotion to the problems and ambiguities posed by the original Hebrew phrasings of the text.

One simple icon of the differentness of Jewish reading practices is the page of the Talmud itself. Captured ingeniously by Daniel Bromberg, a Viennese printer in the 16th century, the layout here both untangles the multivocal nature of the talmud symposium and announces its elaborate multi-vocality and multivalence. elaborate script written in the margins of the ur-text.

Indeed, examining both the layout of the a typical page of the Talmud and the markedly non-Western interpretive practices that pages expresses reveals that it the Talmud is almost certainly what Kafka had it in mind when he described the work of the Penal “sentencing machine.”

He spread out the first sheet of paper. The explorer would have liked to say something appreciative, but all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them. “Read it,” said the officer. “I can’t,” said the explorer. “Yet it’s clear enough,” said the officer. “It’s very ingenious,” said the explorer evasively, “but I can’t make it out.”

“Yes,” said the officer with a laugh, putting the paper away again, “it’s no calligraphy for schoolchildren. It needs to be studied closely. I’m quite sure in the end you would understand it too.”* Of course, the script can’t be a simple one; it’s not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval…So there have to be lots and lots of flourishes around the actual script; the script itself runs around the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments.”

First there is the physical layout of the page of the Talmud which would confound the Western reader: a central text is surrounded by columns – margins of crowded commentary and commentary on commentary in successively smaller print, including hypertext-like references to other pages in the Talmud and to external sources. Where does one look first? Where on this page, which seems to unfold marginalia from a central text, does one read first? Our Western training to look for a line of thought, to follow a train of ideas, to seek an authoritative text, is betrayed as much as it is on reading a computerized hypertext.

page of talmud

A typical page of the Talmud. Mishnah in central block.  Commentary by Rashi and others arranged around perimeter.

Beyond this physical confoundment there is the semantic or literacy problems posed by the relationship between an apparently central text – in these cases the Sentence delivered by the Harrow written in a narrow band or the basic text that occupies the center of the page of the Talmud – and the elaborations on that sentence. The “flourishes” and “embellishments” seem inessential to the Western eye but capture the essence of the script, its meaning, to the trained reader. You have to labor over the script to read it, find the hidden and occult paths through the labyrinth, and in that pain and in that labor arises special acts of reading which render true, even metaphysical meaning, hidden meaning.[FN10] Unlike a technical manual or much of the Western tradition of writing for clarity, the Talmudic text and the Sentence of the Harrow are not meant to be transparent; they are meant to be vehicles for revelation. The officer exhorts the Explorer “to look beyond the Harrow for the true meaning of the sentence.”

The Sentencing Machine prolongs the excruciating torture of its victims by elaborating extra curlicues and flourishes around the letters.  Kafka may be echoing praise for Rabbi Akiva, hero of Talmudic interpretation, who is admired by Moses because he could interpret even the meaning of the “crowns”  – the apparently decorative brush strokes on the letters of the Torah.

This very particular style of hermeneutics and episteme arises and is encouraged uniquely by Hebrew readership.

The Hebrew alphabet was developed among Hebrew slaves in the South Sinai in the 16th century BCE, and as a primitive script is extremely inefficient. Hebrew was in fact the very first phonetic alphabet, and all subsequent phonetic alphabets stem from it. Yet though it has been surpassed many times in its efficiency – the Greeks or Phoenicians added vowels, the Latins some letters – even today modern Hebrew in Israel lacks vowels. This absence of vowels gives rise to a comparatively extreme occurrence of ambiguity, much more so than English or any other Latinate language, which in turn makes the act of deciphering written Hebrew quantitatively more difficult and qualitatively different. For instance, try deciphering any simple sentence in English with the vowels removed and you quickly multiply possible meanings for each word which may not be resolved until you look at the whole sentence or even paragraph or consider the context of the text. Not only is decipherment slowed, but the reader must refer to the context more persistently than he or she would in reading a more efficient alphabet.

The consequences of this simple inefficiency in Hebrew, as I argue in greater detail elsewhere, is an entire culture of literacy uniquely devoted to disambiguating difficult texts and at the same time uniquely tolerant of ambiguity. One can see how relying on Hebrew as the Talmud does (it is the compilation of dialogues among scholars often in different countries whose only common language was written Hebrew while speaking many different languages) would also induce an obsessive focus on the potential meanings of individual words – paronomasia – and even on the meaning differences contained in individual letters. Over the centuries, reading Hebrew also gave rise to an enormous, even transcendental, sense of playfulness and punning. For the great Midrashists (Talmudists), punning on a word to reveal an association between two meanings was a legitimate source of knowledge, a way of revealing what was a hidden but an intended connection. To complicate the picture, Hebrew letters also stand for numbers (aleph = 1, bet = 2, gimel = 3 and so on, through taf, the final letter of the alphabet = 400). This promoted a parallel tradition called gematria or numerology, in which rabbis look for correspondences between the values of related words and their meanings. Indeed, treating “mere” wordplay and numerology – their apparent coincidences and inessentiality – as legitimate epistemological systems, as essential to finding ou;the truth – is quite alien to the practice of Western reason since the Renaissance, and as much as anything explains the core differentness of Jewish thought. In fact, this essential difference in treating accidents of text as the source of metaphysical truth underscores the problem with explaining Western culture as Judaeo-Christian.

Violence in the Judaeo-Christian Hyphen

The hyphen in this case is, to say the least, problematic, perhaps even violent. Yet, as those familiar with skeptical, postmodern challenges to Western reason – like those captured in Pynchon’s oeuvre explored in the next column- we find a resurrection of such reasoning portrayed as a route to transcendent knowledge – in many senses truer knowledge – than those provided by the failed and deficient systems of science – the rational machines of tree-structure logic – persistently critiqued in postmodern novels. Deleuze and Guattari understand this aspect of Kafka’s metaphysics, and its postmodern quality, when they describe it as “a negative theology” and his corpus of works as a “rhizomatic writing machine” in Kafka: For a Minor Literature (1975). And Pynchon’s work resonate wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, (1973) “there’s high magic to low puns.”

The postmodern challenge to Western reason encourages a kind of superstition, in which coincidences – “tristeros” – lead characters and readers bent on deciphering difficult texts down the route to revelation. Such revelations are generally frustrated when pursued by rational means (for instance, plotting the sites of bombings during the blitz of London). But does postmodernism reject all routes to knowing? Or is knowledge, perhaps of a metaphysical or mystical nature, permitted, accessible, even encouraged?

We are able to phrase an implicit comparison between the tradition of talmudic routes to knowledge and those that arise in postmodernism. The Jewish skeptical, non-Western episteme is revealed through a reading of Kafka’s reading of the reading practices induced in the Talmud as represented “In the Penal Colony” by the sentencing machine. To help the case, Pynchon in his most recent novel gives us an obvious re-reading of Kafka’s sentencing machine, updating it for a cybernetic age and revising it to fit his own epistemological and metaphysical (as well as comic) views: a postmodern counter-episteme incarnated as a puncutron machine.

The comparison illuminates a relatively underexplored territory in postmodern criticsm, the metaphyics of postmodernism and the religious or superstitious feeling it inspires. Despite the fact that Kafka uses his machine as a critique of Judaism and Pynchon uses his machine as a point of farce, both writing machines offer compelling images. They both work on the body. that most literal aspect of our being, in order to bring the subject to awareness of forces that move beyond the physical and the beyond conventional structures of thought. Both suggest alternative routes to knowing. Taken together, and used to illuminate each other – perhaps like two columns of text side by side or like the two cylinders of a Torah scroll held open before us, imminent but somehow elusive in their calligraphy – the two images of transcendental writing machines reveal that both authors have constructed a machinery of narrative devoted to convincing us that a transcendental realm lies beyond both epistemology and ontology which dissolve into each other, a transcendental realm which Kafka critiques and asks us to dread, and which Pynchon salutes and asks us to laugh at.

Both these transcendental technologies anticipate a virtual technology where machinery will literally inscribe “fictitious” experiences on our bodies in order to achieve transcendental effects in our minds. Taken in this way, Kafka and Pynchon lie on a vector whose trajectory is towards the increasingly telepathic and neurological. Undoubtedly, as authors like William Gibson who envision this virtual future have already suggested, these transcendental effects will lead to the construction of a new metaphysics and new gods.




This was originally published as a longer essay, “The Hacker We Call God: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka,” in Pynchon Notes 34/35 (1994). A second parallel column about Pynchon’s ‘Puncutron Machine’ in Vineland is omitted here.

Excerpts from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (Schocken Books New York 1971 transl. by Willa and Edwin Muir

2 “The world is all that is the case.”

3 The Crying of Lot 49, p. 136

* Much like the condemned man who comes to understand his sentence at about the sixth hour of his “sentencing”

I.e., “understanding” the script — reading it through the body in this case, but equally through talmud torah — is equivalent to death.

4 William Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978) p. 228.

5 The Crying of Lot 49, p. 58

6 For a refractory view of this struggle and its inherently Jewish nature, see Kafka’s “Letter to My Father,”

7For some of these Jewish readings of Kafka, see Martin Buber, “Kafka and Judaism,” in Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays ed R. Gray (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1962); Maurice Friedman, Problematic Rebel rev. ed. Chicago.; Nahum N. Glatzer, “Franz Kafka and The Tree of Knowledge,” Arguments and Doctrines, ed. A. Cohen. New York, 1970. Clement Greenberg, “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka,” Commentary XIX (1955); Jean Wahl, “Kafka and Kierkegaard,” in The Kafka Problem, ed. A. Flores. New York, 1963; Harry Zohn, “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka,” Jewish Heritage (Summer 1964). See also John Updike’s Foreward to Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (1983). For an incisive and critical look at Kafka’s metaphysical stance, see Walter Benjamin’s “Max Brod’s Book About Kafka and Some of My Own Reflections, Illuminations transl. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973; German orig. 1936).

8 Mostly by Rabbi Adin Stenisaltz.

* Much like the condemned man who comes to understand his sentence at about the sixth hour of his “sentencing”

I.e., “understanding” the script — reading it through the body in this case, but equally through talmud torah — is equivalent to death.

9 See Michael Joyce’s The Poetics of Hypertext (University of MIchigan Press, 1995).

10 Kafka seems here to be making a clear reference to Jewish schooling: Jewish schoolchildren spend an inordinate amount of time huddled over texts of the Talmud. The primacy placed on reading and deciphering in Jewish education is well known, and anyone who has seen an Orthodox Ôcheder’ or schoolroom would be struck both by the intensity of reading and the apparent commotion or babble as the students practice reading and discuss meanings.

11 Kafka: For a Minor Literature (1975) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. As Ronald Bogue clearly explains it in Deleuze and Guattari (London: Routledge 1989), D&G define a rhizome “as the antithesis of a root-tree structure or ‘arborescence.’ the structural model which has dominated Western thought from Porphyrian trees to Linnean taxonomies to Chomskyian sentence diagrams. Arborescences are hierarchical, stratified totalities which impose limited and regulated connections between their components. Rhizomes, by contrast, are non-hierarchical, horizontal multiplicities which cannot be subsumed within a unified structure, whose components form random, unregulated networks in which any element can be connected with any other element. The Kafka corpus, as a rhizome, therefore, has no privileged point of entry” (107).

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