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

Language Theory Mirrored between Benjamin and Kafka

Rawad Alhashmi, University of Texas at Dallas

Twentieth-century luminaries Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) were close friends, and shared a deep interest in linguistic theories. This essay intends to demonstrate how the distinct-yet-related concepts about language of these two scholars reflect one another, expressed by Benjamin as “pure language” and by Kafka as “architectural language”. 


Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) exerted a profound influence on the theories of language and translation in the modern period. Benjamin is best known for his magna opera, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man (1916) and The Task of the Translator (1923). The former essay deals directly with linguistic theory, and the latter is concerned with translation as a form of art. The latter is also an extension of the former inasmuch as he provides a new theory of translation which posits a relationship between all languages, and maintains that the very essence of language is divine. Benjamin believes that language stems from the biblical story of creation,  namely, that God created the world through the Word. More importantly, Benjamin found a great source of influence in Franz Kafka’s work (1883 – 1924), especially his Great Wall of China, written in 1918 but published in 1930. In this paper, I would like to argue that Benjamin’s view regarding translation is reflected from Kafka’s writing, particularly in the notion of “piecemeal construction” of the wall wherein Kafka offers an implicit reference to the “architectural language” of the piecemeal construction, which in turn echoes Benjamin’s thoughts. By way of illustration, Benjamin perceives translation as fragments; he states that translation consists of  “fragments of a vessel, [which] in order to be articulated together… must follow one another in the smallest details…as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are the broken parts of a vessel” (De Man 90).

The idea of building the wall as a system of “piecemeal construction” establishes Benjamin’s notion of “pure language.” To be more specific, such architecture design is parallel to the fragmenting of languages, the multiplicity of languages which constitute or unify into one language, the language of truth. As explicitly stated by Kafka: “Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a ring of brothers, a current of blood no longer confined within the narrow circulation of one body but sweetly rolling and yet ever returning throughout the endless League of China” (142). In this context, Kafka suggests the desirability of a universal language, which is parallel to that Benjamin’s conception of pure language.