The Mosaic Sadness is the emotional condition of our mortality. When we realize failure is our destiny—incompletion, disappointment—it is the inevitable response. At the end of life, we may, however, get a chance to look back at all our successes and our failures and realize how puny they all are. And, if we are as fortunate as Moses, we may catch a glimpse of the Promised Land on Canaan's side, to wit: what fulfillment, satisfaction, liberation, community, and success might look like. What the future might hold.
Franz Kafka was exquisitely aware of this condition. It marks much of his best, most enigmatic, writing. And it plagues his later diaries.
"Of all writers Kafka was possibly the most cunning: he, at least, was never had! To start with, unlike many modern writers, he wanted to be a writer. He realised that literature, which was what he wanted, denied him the satisfaction he expected, but he never stopped writing. We cannot even say that literature disappointed him. It did not disappoint him – not, at any rate, in comparison with other possible goals. For him, literature was what the promised land was for Moses. ‘The fact that he was not to see the Promised Land until just before his death is incredible,’ Kafka wrote about Moses in his diary. ‘The sole significance of this last view is to show how imperfect an instant human life is – imperfect, because this aspect of life (the expectation of the Promised Land) could last indefinitely without ever appearing to be more than an instant. Moses did not fail to reach Canaan because his life was too short, but because his was a human life.’ This is no longer a mere denunciation of the vanity of one ‘aspect of life’, but of the vanity of all endeavours, which are equally senseless: an endeavour is always as hopeless in time as a fish in water. It is a mere point in the movement of the universe, for we are dealing with a human life." G. Bataille, "Should Kafka Be Burnt?" in Literature and Evil @ 152.On Kafka's view, per Batille, this Mosaic sadness is our existential situation: the water in which we qua fish swim. An ironic, violent, trickster god denies us our heart's desire despite our faithfulness to this god's calling, and only because of our finite humanity—a finitude into which this selfsame god has capriciously flung us (out of, I might add, pique). It is a profoundly religious point of view: nothing we can do can or even should move the great god. And that's probably as it should be.
Though it should not be a call for self-pity. If this life were the paradise of the Promised Land, there would be no need to strive to better ourselves or our condition. Aspiration would be irrelevant, rendered moot by perfection.
This is entirely in keeping with the theory of literature I've put forth on this blog under the Label Ur-story. Dealing with this existential situation of Mosaic sadness—the recognition and acknowledgement of our mortality—is the substance of literature, and I've attempted to show how a number writers have adressed it.
In the notion of Mosaic sadness, we find the convergence of both theology and literature. It is at the root of what it means to be human, and at the same time it implies our limitation.
We do not live forever. We will not live forever. Some god has decreed it. We can, however, imagine what it might mean to have eternal life, to reach the Promised Land. However, if we are true to ourselves and our situation, we must acknowledge and learn to cope with the foundational sadness that is our essence.
Religious traditions have tried to provide a salve, a consolation, in the form of a Heaven or a Paradise in an afterlife. Look beyond this cruel situation: hope lies in the great beyond. This is their ultimate interpretation of the existential quandary.
Literature details the varied responses of flawed human beings within the finitude of this life to this situation. Get angry. Go to war. Take intriguing journeys. Suffer and moan. Laugh. Love. Seek clues to solve great mysteries. Imagine an alternate reality. Dream the future.
But what if Canaan isn't all it's promised to be?
The Kafka diary entry quoted by Bataille is dated October 19, 1921. Not three weeks later, Kafka sinks even further into existential despair. On second thought, what if the Promised Land is not all it it's cracked up to be? And the wilderness is still Wilderness? In his diary entry of January 28, 1922, he writes:
"...I am already a citizen in this other world, which is related to the ordinary world as the wilderness is to cultivated land (I have been forty years wandering from Canaan), look back as a foreigner, am of course also in that other world—that I have brought along as paternal inheritance—the smallest and the most anxious one and am only capable of living there because of the special organization there, according to which even for the lowliest ones there are exaltations that come like lightning, of course also millenial shatterings that crush like the weight of the sea. Should I not be thankful in spite of everything? Would I have had to find my way here? Could I have not been crushed at the border through 'banishment' there, combined with refusal here. Was not because of my father's power the expulsion so strong that nothing could withstand it (not me)? Of course, it is like a reversed wandering in the wilderness and with childish hopes (especially with regard to women): 'I shall nevertheless perhaps remain in Canaan' and meanwhile I have been in the wilderness for a long time, and there are only visions of despair, especially in those times when even there I am the most miserable one of all, and Canaan must represent itself as the only land of hope, for there is no third land for human beings."Kafka's sadness is double: "Canaan requires conformity, and the desert, which may provide refuge from the misery of Canaan, cannot protect against despair and illusory hopes." B. Goldstein, Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness @ 63-64.
Moses at least had hope—for his people, if not for himself.
Poor, deluded Moses.
(to be continued)
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