Running After Tops

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There goes a philosopher running after a children’s top. His glee! His ardour! Look how the top spins and wriggles away from him. Now he’s caught it—it’s stopped spinning—he’s inspecting it, grimacing, disgusted, and throwing it to the ground in disappointment.

Oh look another top!

Off he runs after the toy as enthusiastically as after the first. Now he’s caught it, he’s inspecting it…

This inveterate optimist is of Kafka’s imagining (from his short text The Top), and his behaviour is justified: For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. This character is more allegorical placeholder than philosopher.

But I won’t interpret the allegory.

Over the past weeks I’ve had my say regarding Kafka’s work, so for the next few posts I’ll let the experts speak: Anne Carson, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, and Jorge Luis Borges.

A well written commentary intended for a general audience doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the primary source beforehand. However, if upon enjoying the commentary you decide to go and make yourself familiar with said primary source—all the better! The four authors above reignited my interest in Kafka, and perhaps they will do the same for you.

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Carson, philosopher and poet of metaphors, begins the preface to her book Eros the Bittersweet, with a short recounting of Kafka’s story The Top. It is akin to, but more precisely and elegantly phrased, than mine above. You have an idea, though.

And what is the story about?

Carson says:

The story is about the delight we take in metaphor. A meaning spins, remaining upright on an axis of normalcy aligned with the conventions of connotation and denotation, and yet: to spin is not normal, and to dissemble normal uprightness by means of this fantastic motion is impertinent. What is the relation of impertinence to the hope of understanding? To delight?

And further? If metaphor is a wickedly mesmerising expression of meaning, what stands above it, beyond it? What is the ultimate motivator of the most captivating metaphor?

Carson says:

The story concerns the reason why we love to fall in love. Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.

Falling in love is the suspended moment of living hope. You jump, essentially, with no safety net but with all the impertinence towards the laws of physics.

And in the end?

Carson says:

Suppression of impertinence is not the lover’s aim. Nor can I believe this philosopher really runs after understanding. Rather, he has become a philosopher (that is, one whose profession is to delight in understanding) in order to furnish himself with pretexts for running after tops.

As is true of anyone who pursues goals for the joy of the pursuit.

5 responses

    • Ha, well, yes, Carson wasn’t saying a fundamentally fresh idea regarding the journey, but she was saying it in an interesting way 🙂 (Metaphors and beauty, as spinning tops, that however is quite fresh! I have now finished the book, and it taught me a new perspective on both subjects. Metaphors and eros are both bittersweet.)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I loved the story of the Top. And you have ignited in me a desire to get back and read more of Kafka. By talking about the joy of running after the top to discover the world and also the destroying of the one thing that makes a top different from the shaped wood or brass in the hand – and that is the spinning, Kafka awakens a huge philosophical and scientific question. It is the joy of all enquirers. But Carson’s annoyed me for by explaining it so clearly she stopped my joy of thinking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I see what you mean, and I agree that ultimately any connoisseur-reader will have thought through a primary text themselves, precisely for the joy of it.

      On the other hand, time is limited and primary sources are vast, so selected anthologies and commentaries are helpful to highlight certain texts, reviving interest, if a bit of annoyance and envy, too, that they’ve already grokked it before me.

      In particular, Carson’s interpretation is bent to her own purposes in Eros the Bittersweet (a book which is a masterpiece in its own right, btw), and if there were five other interpretations of the same story I’d read them for comparison and for fun. It’s like asking my knowledgable friend for an opinion. It’ll influence me, but also spur me to find my own line of thought…

      Regardless, I’m glad that it’s inspired you to get back to Kafka!

      Liked by 1 person

      • And I’d continue to read Rachel Carson’s interpretation so that I could understand why it annoyed me. And it was probably envy as well. But most of all it is just a continuing of my taking of notes for my class in Literature 7409 which I am so enjoying. And thanks for all the classwork you keep setting me.

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