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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.