2. Kafka, Rilke, and Rumpelstiltskin
by Idris Parry
The Listener, December 2, 1965 (Copyright
It is curious that there are versions of Rumpelstiltskin in almost every country
you can think of. It is the story of a girl who has to spin straw into gold; if she
cannot, she will have her head chopped off. If she can, she will become a queen. All or
nothing, in other words. Haven't you felt like her, sometimes? I have. If we want glory,
we have to perform better than we know. She is human of course. That is why we understand
her. She cannot spin straw into gold: so she reaches beyond her reach, with the help of a
strange little man. He is not human; he can do the job--and he does. So she becomes a
queen, by his help and therefore on his terms: she must give him the first child of her
marriage. Of course, when the child comes along, she doesn't want to give it away. And
really, for a person who is not human, he is frightfully decent about it. He will let her
off--if she can guess his name. She tries and tries and tries, and when she is in the pit
of despair a friend comes along to tell her the little man has been seen in the wood,
singing out, conveniently, that his name is Rempelstiltskin. So she tells him his name,
and keeps everything, while he, in a fit of anger which might almost be called
extravagant, grabs his left foot with both hand and tears himself apart. For him too is is
evidently all or nothing. He finds death, she gets glory. It could have been the other way
The story varies in detail from country to country. But, whatever the variations,
there is one common element: it is this finding of the right name, an odd name, plucked
out of darkness to bring power and release and happiness.
The falling together of events
So, if this fable of Rumpelstiltskin appears in so many places, among such
different peoples, we can suspect that it tells of something which puzzles and pleases
mankind. In one way, of course, it tells us that we can get more than we deserve--which is
always a comforting thought. To me, the fundamental question is whether the discovery of
the right name is an accident. If it is, then the whole thing is a swindle, and I have
every sympathy with the devil. Can it be just a coincidence that the little man gives his
name away at precisely the right moment? Yes, it can be--in the sense in which
"coincidence" means the falling together of events; in the sense in which Kafka
used the term when speaking to his friend Janouch in Prague. "Accident," said
Kafka, "is the name one gives to the coincidence of events of which one does not know
the causation. Therefore, in the world there are no accidents, but only
here..." We are told that here he touched his head with his hand. "Accidents
exist only in our heads, in our limited perceptions.
The idea of "accident" reflects the limits of our knowledge. Both science
and art try to extend experience on the basis of what we know. Art, too, must be precise
and objective. "He was a poet," says Rilke, "and he hated the
approximate." There is a right word for everything.
Rilke is haunted by the idea of limitation. Take his essay, "Primal
Sound." Here he talks about what he calls "the five-fingered hand of the
senses." That is, each of our five senses is like a finger, covering a certain sector
of experience. What guarantee is there that the five senses, taken together, do cover the
whole of possible experience They cover simply our actual experience, our human knowledge
of facts or events. There are gaps between the fingers; there are gaps between the senses.
In these gaps is the darkness which hides the connection between things. It is as though
we live in a bright pool of light, so bright that the darkness beyond is all the more
intense. This darkness is the source of our vague fears and anxieties, but also the home
of the gods. They alone see the connections, the total relevance of everything that
happens; that which now comes to us in bits and pieces, the "accidents" which
exist only in our heads, in our limited perceptions.
Where experience is total
We do not know what the gods can see, and we want to know. In that perfect
world of the gods, where all connections are visible, there can be no separation of all
the senses, no gaps, because experience is total. Rilke deliberately tries to mingle the
senses, to fuse them, to establish a total sense-perception which is not divisible into
five or any number. Orpheus becomes Rilke's ultimate image of total harmony, Orpheus who
is both singer and hearer, the magic god who sings to nature and is, in his death,
scattered over the earth to be the hearer of his own song, the completed cycle,
indivisible. This ideal amalgamation of the senses is something Rilke tries to achieve
here and now. In an early poem, music is described as "the breath of statues,
audible landscape." In another, written almost at the end of his life, Rilke is even
more explicit when he says:
Somewhere music stands, as somewhere
this light falls on ears as distant sound...
Only to our sense does this seem separate.
Thus it is not surprising the Rilke so often speaks of the poet's
task as an activity on the frontier. And we find Kafka's diaries a reference to his own
writings as "an assault on the frontier"; later on he speaks of "the
perpetually shifting frontier which lies between ordinary life and the terror which would
seem more real."
Artists are not fools. They think they can achieve the impossible. That girl was a
fool, too, when she said she could spin straw into gold. She knew it was impossible. The
evidence of her senses told her that. But the little man who comes from the dark and
offers to help? Isn't he the faith which pushes beyond reasons, beyond human evidence? He
certainly comes from the region outside the frontier of knowledge, the unknown with its
wild fears and equally wild hopes. This is the terror which would seem more real. He is, I
believe, an image of the gods, devilish in his darkness but divine in his promises. He
represents a state of mind, an optimistic, extravagant state of mind, the creative
principle unchecked by rational doubt. He is the dangerous but vitally necessary
Have you noticed what a merry old soul he is? She asks him to spin straw into gold,
and he laughs. He can't stop laughing. Because, where he comes from, there is nothing in
it. There, in that dark world where all connections are seen, not one thing is separate
from another. To us, straw and gold stand opposite each other, opposite in the way Eve
found herself opposite Adam at the dawn of consciousness, the beginning of fragmentation.
The little man is still in Paradise. He hasn't eaten the poisoned apple and acquired the
plague of imperfection. He knows that, where all is one, straw is gold, and gold is straw.
That is why he laughs. This desperate woman is ready to pay him her most precious
possession, just for doing a job that needs no effort at all, since it is already done. Of
course she agrees. She will pay, and is bound to pay--unless she fulfils a certain
condition. And the condition is that she shall discover his true name.
I suppose there is nothing that pleases us more in the theatre than a sudden change
of fortune--perpeteia, as it is called. We can seldom explain it, but we always
enjoy it, since it might happen to us. The downtrodden hero suddenly triumphs, poverty
changes to wealth, misery to joy. This is equivalent, in the world of Rumpelstiltskin, to
the apparent change from straw to gold. The irrational event which is accepted as a
natural possibility, the "accident" which not only can happen but must happen of
necessity, if only we are patient enough and wait long enough. Then the accidental is seen
as a relevant part of the total experience, in a realm where opposites coalesce. Here,
there are no accidents, and what peripeteia acknowledges is that extremes proceed
from a common source; it is only to our limited human perceptions that these are extremes,
and that there is such a state as being "opposite."
Thus, the change of fortune in the story of Rumpelstiltskin seems
arbitrary, the result of mere chance. At the end, just as he is jiggling with delight at
the prospect of taking his prince, she names his name . . .and conquers.
Kafka says of the following in one of his notebooks:
Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, jut wait, be
completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked. It can't do
otherwise. It will writhe before you in raptures.
This is what is offered to our heroine. Rumpelstiltskin writhes
before her in raptures. The world of the unknown is presented to her for unmasking. It can
be unmasked if it is given form, if the hidden connections are established and seen. They
are established when she names the name. But what does she do, to deserve her knowledge?
Nothing. It comes to her, she dose not go to it; and she succeeds for this very reason.
She fulfils Kafka's condition: she waits, and the name is offered to her. The little man
sings it to her, though her friend. Strange coincidence. But here are no accidents. The
theme of this story is man's return to the world of harmony; not through struggling
against chance but by accepting chance as the necessity it must be in the world of total
experience, where everything is integrated. Kafka also says: "He who does not seek
will be found." All the missing names are to be found beyond the frontier, in that
area which is dark and unexplored. The little man writhes before the girl in raptures
because he can do no other; he is there to be discovered, uncovered. And when he
surrenders his name he surrenders himself.
Giving form, establishing connections, naming the magic name--what is this but the
fundamental business of art? "Vision," says Jonathan Swift,"is the art of
seeing things invisible." The connections are there: to find them, to name the magic
name, is to sing the song of Orrpheus and exert power over nature. This woman not only has
the last word, she has the only word, in the circumstances.
Primitive societies prohibited the use of certain names, clearly in the belief that
to have power over these names was to have power over the persons named. Are we so
different? We damp our language down, perhaps for fear it may light up the dark. The
prevalence of euphemism in language proves that society knows, and has known for a long
time, that truth can be accurately presented, but that such uncompromising accuracy is too
sharp for comfort. Modifications are made, dangerous outlines blurred; words become soft
and friendly and dead, killed by the pleasant ease of habit. Euphemism is defensive
indifference. It sacrifices form to good form. TO know in advance the right ting to say on
any occasions infallibly to say the wrong thing. Rilke was right to insist that the poet
hates the approximate.
Yet something must be said, a name must be uttered. We fear the unnamed, as we fear
the unknown. This is Rumpelstiltskin up to that last moment which brings the change. As
long as he is unnamed he is the romantic principle a confusion of boundless possibilities.
He is passion; but passion can destroy as well as create There are fires in hell as well
as in the sun. Destruction or creation, death or life--this is the choice before our
heroine as she puzzles over the hidden name of her benefactor--and tormentor. Only the
name can resolve these apparent opposites. "All things can be put into words,"
says Kafka. He means that all thing must be put into words. And he goes on to use
the image of the phoenix, this combiner of opposites, life rising from the ashes.
"All one's ideas, even the strangest, find a great fire ready for tem, in which they
are consumed and reborn."
The business of art is to find the right name. Such a task has never been easy,
this side of Paradise. Contradictions are almost friendly features of our landscape, and
we can scarcely expect to see Eternity every night. Yet the uncovering of the name which
resolves contradictions is not merely possible (this would imply accident), it is
inevitable. This name is there, to be found and uttered. Again, Kafka, that tortured
pessimist, defies himself with optimistic affirmation:
It is entirely conceivable that life's splendor forever lies in
wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible,
far off. It is there though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon
it by the right word, by its right name, it will be come. This is the essence of magic,
which does not create but summons.