Martin Walser On Kafka, Faith And Atheism

The European
By Alexander Görlach

Alexander Görlach of The European sat down with the German writer and intellectual Martin Walser to discuss the role of faith, the false promise of atheism and the writings of Franz Kafka.

The European: You have written about man’s deep desire for justification. Where does that desire come from?

Walser: We can see the desire in everything that men have said, thought and written to justify themselves. In earlier times, people felt they had to justify our actions before God. They did not think that they could truly speak for themselves, that they could act freely. A higher authority was invoked to judge man’s actions. From that, different religious moral codes came into being, all driven by our inability to justify ourselves.

The European: In addition to the religious component, you also mention a social component –- justification of the rich vis-à-vis the poor, for example.

Walser: Yes, that was added later. However, the original desire for justification does not include a social component. In Christianity, the idea of mercy through good deeds entered history only during the time of Martin Luther. St. Augustine or St. Paul radically rejected that idea, and I was very impressed by that attitude: You were committed to a God against whom you had no powers. You were chosen, or not. That is a rather radical conception of human being, marked by a severe lack of human agency. But with Luther, religion came to be seen as a thing of the world, as practical. So you had to act in certain ways to be able to justify yourself. And the old wound of lacking justification has continued to bleed -– that’s what I am interested in. The authors Franz Kafka and Karl Barth have quite a bit to say on that question.

The European: For Barth, lived religion is the “useful” religion of the church. He seeks to transcend the church to find pure religion. But isn’t religion always manifest in practice? I think that Barth was looking for something that does not exist, that he drifted towards dead ends and nihilism.

Walser: The term “nihilism” doesn’t fit with Barth, although it is sometimes used. He is someone who evades easy categorization because he maintains his faith throughout his life. He might have a very negative take on it, but he is not losing his faith. When he writes that “we are hoping for no hope,” there is a temporal horizon: A place behind which the new world and the new man can be imagined. Never does he reach a point where it becomes nihilistic. Barth does not retain the comfortable relationships that the Protestant church maintains with God, he does away with those structures. But you can’t say that he finds peace in nothingness.

The European: One of the features of Barth’s writing -– a criticism of the status quo –- is also a central aspect of your own biography. You live a bourgeois life while questioning many basic tenets of it, never resting, always questioning conventional wisdom.

Walser: When I read Barth, I notice -– and I am sure many others do as well -– that we have fallen asleep and have produced legitimizing explanations for all kinds of substitute pleasures. Of course Barth can motivate you to wake up and to stop retreating to pseudo-justifications for social, political or biographical success. But that alone is insufficient. That is the reason why Kafka’s “The Trial” is so important for me. The protagonist Josef K. is asked to appear before a court on his 30th birthday to testify about his life. When he realizes that he cannot justify his life with the things he has done, he despairs. He sees lawyers, artists and finally a priest. The more he strives for justification, the more he realizes that he is lacking it. You cannot finish the book without confronting these themes in Kafka’s writings. The book is incredibly radical; it ends in a staged suicide. That is more than simple fiction.

The European: This brings us back to the first question, and to a phrase from Christian catechism: “Why are we on earth?” Do you think that we could embrace a positive existentialism that does not rely on religious or other justifications? You have called that idea “to say Yes to the No in the world.”

Walser: There is no standard answer to that question, you must find your own. People who don’t pay attention to the question of justification are often rather uninteresting, in my opinion. I am most fascinated by characters who struggle with the demands of justification. And you cannot escape questions of faith in that context. “Does God exist?” remains a central question that can never be conclusively answered if we believe Barth or Kierkegaard. Josef K. focuses on justification as such, and Kierkegaard links the question of faith to the question about God.

He cannot prove divine existence, but that does not make him a nihilist. It simply means that every “yes” is followed by a “no,” and vice versa. As Kierkegaard writes, the size of one’s faith can be measured by one’s lack of faith. I agree.

The European: I think that we have to understand Barth in the context of existentialism. Here’s someone who does not want to give up his faith, but who struggles to make sense of it through the traditional methods and arguments of Christian theology.

Walser: The existentialism of Sartre has nothing to do with Barth. Sartre is completely within this world, not otherworldly. He can be justified through social actions. Camus, maybe. But I am interested in something else. Once you have awakened to the question of faith, you cannot simply return to your everyday agenda like a committed atheist could. You cannot retreat to the comforts of atheism. Behind us are 2,000 years that have been marked by questions about God. Today’s atheistic calm, even from intellectuals, is equal to the eradication of our intellectual history.

The European: Why?

Walser: Because we would have to admit that we were crazy. You cannot spend 2,000 years trying to understand God and then simply abandon the question and declare that we’re not interested in it anymore.

The European: Skepticism, atheism, existentialism –- all those intellectual traditions have their own long histories that have co-existed with theology.

Walser: I believe that the most important condition for faith is sensitivity to beauty. We have the capacity to find something beautiful. Take Bach or Schubert: Their music was dedicated to God but filled and shaped their worldly lives. If you are a committed atheist, you lean back and miss all the richness of that history. As an atheist, you cannot fully make sense of the music, you have no explanation for their perennial motion and rhythm. I have been touched by that history and I am still moved by it. So I cannot simply abandon questions about the existence of God. I am touched by the works of beauty that have been brought into the world through religion, and I cannot simply embrace the everyday experience of atheism. Our history toward transcendentalism is too rich for that. You don’t need music to express that history –- Barth or Kierkegaard use language. Barth’s commentary of St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans” are 600 pages of passionate prose. Before reading Barth, I thought that only Nietzsche could be so passionate in writing, in his “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” for example. But Nietzsche’s passion is leading nowhere; the Übermensch doesn’t exist. It is a tendency, not a subject in historical time. Since Nietzsche, nobody has questioned positivism with that much passion.

The European: Barth’s religious writing is still grounded in worldly events, not in transcendental narratives. True religion is focused on liturgy, history and holy books. Isn’t that hard for you as a writer, to see the lack of narrative?

Walser: I don’t see why the New Testament wouldn’t apply to Barth.

The European: Religion lives from its common practices and narratives. But Barth deconstructs the Bible to such an extent that the original story gets lost. I would think that writers lament that loss of narrative.

Walser: It is certainly true that Barth breaks with several narratives. There’s a certain naivety in narrative stories that you cannot find in his writing. But there’s also the affirmation that Christianity and faith would be empty without resurrection. That, too, is a narrative. He says repeatedly: “If you leave out resurrection, you are no longer acceptable.” Here, he really makes use of the Christian narrative. Later, he posits Jesus as the mediator between God and man, but I wasn’t interested in that anymore. It sounded too positive.

The European: Jesus always reappears. What importance does he have for writers, and for you personally?

Walser: I cannot answer that. Jesus is many things, depending on one’s age. I cannot say what that means for me. There is no doubt that he is the biggest challenge in our lived history. That’s why Barth writes that “without resurrection, there is nothing.” When we read that, we should all recognize that it puts us into an uncomfortable position.

And when our personal thoughts evolve around Christ, we shouldn’t expect to give fixed answers. I would certainly like to retain a bit of flexibility.

The European: You have said that the intellectual longs for justification while the hungry are already justified. Why are intellectuals despairing in the world?

Walser: It’s their job, you might say. But that is certainly not the case for all intellectuals. Those who use language and have nothing but language to express themselves live in a cage that cannot feel comfortable. Kant once said that reason can only grasp the things it has created. I say: Language corresponds only to itself. Intellectuals suffer from that. And once you begin to question language, you cannot stop at studying linguistics. Analytical philosophy becomes insufficient, artificial grammar becomes insufficient.

The European: Because truth can only arise from the pragmatic use of language, not from the study of grammar?

Walser: Yes. When you read Kafka’s “Trial,” you notice how much language is capable of. It can recount the complete story of human imperfection. If you cannot live without justification, you cannot live; period. And the path toward it is the path of language.

The European: To keep the awareness of language alive -- is that your justification as an author?

Walser: Yes, but your question implies that a writer would not be justifiable otherwise, when he is not writing. When you are that open, you cannot rest. Everyone has a different way of coping with that openness. Kafka wrote “The Trial,” and later “The Castle.” In the latter work, human existence is even more radicalized that in the “Trial.” And if Kafka had lived longer, he would have radicalized it even further. Kafka’s writings are the summit. No writer can achieve more than that. The earlier he abandons that task to do something else, the less likely he is to become as big as Kafka. Everyone can decide what the right path might be. Apart from Kafka, I would only list Dostoyevsky and maybe Robert Walser.

The European: Still, authors are engaged with the world. So there must be a connection between language and history.

Walser: Of course. Every speech act marks a specific moment in linguistic history. But what is the reference point of language in each case? I first learned that from Kierkegaard when I studied him for 10 years. He says that only the expression is indirect. It sounds a bit trivial, but it is incredibly precise and correct. This is important: Everything direct is positive, everything indirect is negative. Kierkegaard has wonderful passages about this that I could read every day. He gives precise instructions about the tests we have to administer to language to make it intelligible. Once you embark on that voyage, you begin to see much more. Novalis wrote a monologue that picks up Kierkegaard’s idea. He reached the same conclusion when he realized that language will always fail when it becomes direct. There is no direct message, only indirect messages exist. I once published a little book about irony and self-confidence where I collected all of Kierkegaard’s quotes on the topic.

The European: You seem concerned about the world, and about what man can say and know within the world. Why did you describe the Greek tragedy as the mirror image of the world?

Walser: I was impressed by Nietzsche’s mention of Dionysius and dissonance. He said that we must proceed until the point when music dissonances turn into enjoyment, when we can rest to embrace them and must not avoid them any longer. If you can tolerate those dissonances, Nietzsche writes, you have made it very far. Dionysius is the incarnation of that; Nietzsche calls himself a disciple of Dionysius. During his time other intellectuals called him mad because of it, because they had to reject the expressive character of his letters. Nietzsche’s writings had ceased to be conventionally usable.

The European: What remains of him?

Walser: In the end, Nietzsche almost calls to God. That is what I implied when I talked about the two millennia of Christian history that built up toward God. Shouldn’t we be allowed to rest at this point? I seek for my own imaginative world to be connected to those last years of Nietzsche. You cannot simply discard God like a box that has been emptied. It’s easy to say, but Nietzsche does it with an incredible linguistic passion. He is one incredible example, Karl Barth is another.