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Josephine the Songstress  

- Franz Kafka

Short story

Josephine is the name of our songstress. Those who have never heard her sing simply haven't experienced the power of song. Everyone who hears her is pulled out of him or herself, transported, and this is yet more of a mystery since our race as a whole has no great love for music. Peace and quiet are what we yearn for more than anything-our lives are hard-such is the music that, generally, we love above all others, we just don't have it in us after another long day of work in which we strive to do our best in dispensing with a thousand and one cares, there's just nothing left over with which we might pull ourselves to the distant heights, so far removed, where music comes alive. But we don't generally shed any tears over this, not once do we go so far as to lament our loss, it's just-at least this is my personal opinion on the subject-it's just a minor irrelevancy. There's a certain sort of sly cleverness that kicks in here, one, indeed, that we need terribly: we consider this as being our greatest asset and we use it to laugh off any and all criticism and to console ourselves about everything. Such is our way, such cleverness in all things practical; indeed, it kicks in even should there be some yearning-though there isn't-but if there were to be such a yearning for the sublime happiness that music may, perhaps, deliver. Only Josephine makes an exception, she loves music and knows how to deliver its power, and she's the only one, when she's gone then music too will disappear, and who knows for how long, right out of the midst of our lives. I've thought about this quite often, essentially what is it about music, how does it come alive and touch us so deeply. After all, we're not particularly inclined toward music, indeed, we tend to be rather adverse, so how can it be that we have any understanding of Josephine's performances?... or, since she contends that we don't understand, why is it that we believe that we do? The simplest answer is quite simply that the beauty of her singing is so powerful that even the greatest antagonism is outdone, such sensibilities crumble in her presence-but this answer is hardly satisfactory, not at all. For if it really were to be true then one would always have to have a feeling for the other-worldliness, that something was sounding forth from out of her throat that we have never heard before, something that we don't, truth to tell, even have a capacity for hearing, that we become capable of hearing it only when Josephine sings, she and she alone, nobody else delivers. But from my vantage I'd have to say that this just isn't so, at least I haven't had such an experience and I haven't been able to observe anyone else experiencing something like this either.

In private conversations amongst trusted friends we admit this quite openly, that Josephine's songs aren't, as songs go, anything all that out of the ordinary, there's nothing essentially miraculous about them. And, is it even song at all? Despite our fundamental lack in things musical we do have a substantial history that has come down to us about singing; in earlier times our forefathers were musical-there are legends that inform us about all of this and, indeed, even still we have some of these songs though, to be sure, nobody has any idea as to how they're to be sung.

I don't know why it is that in the course of centuries we became so thoroughly disinterested in any sort of music, that, indeed, we became fundamentally hostile toward it, perhaps this is due to our particular destiny, that somehow we were chosen for this: that we worship stillness, stepping back within ourselves and not really being committed and, so, in all actuality we don't have much choice in this. But however all of this may be, we still do have some premonition of what song is and our premonition, to be perfectly honest, goes against her artistry, what Josephine actually does when she's singing. For, taken in an absolute sense, is this really singing at all? Perhaps, indeed, all that she really manages to do is a sort of whistling? And everybody knows whistling inside and out, this is the core artistry of our folk or, rather, it's not even deserving of the name "art," rather it's simply how you would characterize us, this is what we do: a soft kind of whistling with an undercurrent that hisses; and there's really just two sorts: the melancholic, ascetic, dreamy sort that typically is weak and pervasive; and then there's the triumphant, full-bodied tone that tends to have sharp contours. Thus, we're all natural born whistlers and nobody would ever think about labeling this as being art; sure, now and again somebody might do a bit of research into this propensity of ours and how it contributes to some particular topic, but in general everybody whistles without even thinking about it and, indeed, without even so much as noticing it and, moreover, it's quite certain that the greater majority don't even know that whistling is the one characteristic that defines who we are most intimately.

If, then, if it were to be true that Josephine doesn't sing but just whistles, and indeed, as it seems to me, that her whistling barely exceeds the bounds of the ordinary, that really her powers in whistling don't even extend into the triumphant sort mentioned earlier whereas the whistling of our typical laborer, someone who is quite down to earth and who whistles the whole day long without any particular effort, that this just goes hand in hand with his earthly travails, well, if all of this were to be true then, indeed, Josephine's purported artistry would be refuted-but now, first and foremost, now we'd have to face up to this riddle as to why it is that her performances are so electrifying! And really, when you get right down to it, it's not merely whistling, this is not everything that Josephine exhibits in her performances-you need only place yourself in the back of the auditorium and listen attentively... or, better yet, test this out in the following manner: if Josephine is singing amongst a group of others and if you should give yourself the task of making her voice out from amongst these others then without fail you won't be able to distinguish anything else but a typical, middle-of-the-road sort of whistling that, at the most, is a bit sweeter or somehow softer and this is the only distinguishing characteristic that you might hear. But then, if you stand there in front of her so it's not merely whistling, there's yet another component that's absolutely required if one is to understand her art properly, namely that you don't merely listen to her, rather you also have to see her. Even if it were to be nothing more than our everyday whistling, still there's this oddity of how she presents herself, the drama and theatrics of her performance-that someone would put on such airs and then do nothing more than what's typical, the ordinary, middle-of-the-road sort of whistling. Cracking pecans doesn't entail any particular artistry, none whatsoever, hence nobody would be so daring as to gather up an audience and then for his performance that he would shell a pound of pecans. But, all the same, if one were to do just this and if one's performance were to be a great success, well then, obviously it couldn't possibly simply be a matter of cracking nuts! Or maybe it does have something to do with nut-cracking but it suddenly has become apparent that there's more to cracking nuts than meets the eye, that we've been overlooking something because we just happen to be so good at it and that only now its innermost essence has been put up on display whereby it is even quite conceivable that this might be a distinct advantage and quite useful, namely that the artist performing such a feat isn't really all that good at cracking nuts to begin with. Perhaps just this is the proper correlation for our appreciation of Josephine's musical performances: that we stand in awe before her for doing something that we do all the time ourselves without being amazed in the least.

About the book:

Josephine the Songstress, (or the Mouse Folk) is the last short story written by Franz Kafka. It deals with the relationship between an artist and her audience.

Multilayered and richly aphoristic, Josephine The Songstress reflects Kafka's remarkable ability to dazzle the reader with his scintillating prose.

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