115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Words Not Proper to Any Human Mouth": Martin Buber on the Spirit of Language and the "Guiltless" Joseph K.

Rachel Shields, McMaster University (Canada)

Martin Buber’s theory of ontic guilt derives from his reading of Joseph K.’s failure to confess in Kafka’s The Trial. Situated in conversation with the trend of postsecularism in literary studies, this paper explores Buber’s belief in K.’s guiltiness through the lens of his earlier work on the confessions of religious mystics. It is argued that Buber’s theory of ontic guilt and the need for confession rests on the existence of a spiritual life possessed by language itself. 


This paper focuses on Martin Buber’s 1957 essay “Guilt and Guilt Feelings,” in which he develops a theory of guilt that derives in large part from his reading of Kafka’s The Trial. His theory revolves around Joseph K.’s claim as he stands before the court that demands his confession, “I am completely guiltless”—words that are, Buber tells us, “not proper to any human mouth” (141). Importantly, Buber’s theory of guilt distinguishes between the mere discomfort of feeling guilty for some specific action or event and the existence of an originary guilt that is not tied to any individual, but which runs like an animating current through human language. This originary, or ontic, guilt, unlike guilt feelings, is a condition of guiltiness without the possibility of expiation; it can be thought only as a distant memory and confessed only in the most indefinite sense. For Buber, the court before which K. stands is not representative of a cruel and irrational legal system that seeks to render its subjects powerless; rather, the vagueness of the charges against K. is due to the fact that the court’s demand is not linked to any specific crime but is a request for a confession that cannot not be made: the confession that one is guilty by virtue of being a speaking subject. In uttering the phrase, “I am completely guiltless,” Buber insists that K. does not know what he is saying, that words escape him precisely because in uttering them he believes he has emptied them of the excess of meaning that bubbles below their surface. This belief is evidenced by K.’s fast belief in the truth of his innocence and the falsity of the charges against him—his belief, in other words, of the “deceit that is necessary” for dealing with the court. Buber’s reading insists, on the other hand, that the only false words uttered in the story form K.’s statement of complete innocence. This paper explores Buber’s reading of Kafka and what it might contribute to the ongoing discussion of postsecularism—the admission into our discourse about literature and culture of the religious, the spiritual, and that which requires faith—in the 21st century. For Buber, language itself has a spiritual dimension, and this spirit is forgotten when we speak as though we have control over language’s meaning. Only a confession—an acknowledgement that language comes to me rather than is spoken by me—would give K. access to the interiority of language and would subsequently enable him to escape the justice of the court’s verdict. By putting Buber’s reading of Kafka into conversation with his earlier work on the confessions of religious mystics, I argue that Buber’s unusual interpretation of the guilt of Joseph K. rests on his belief that to speak a language is to be guilty of forgetting the spiritual life of language itself. Such a reading opens up the possibility that the postsecular is a movement to recognize the forgotten spirit of the language we speak.