English text at writersmug.com
Original German text at wikisource.org
Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse was written by Franz Kafka in 1924, shortly before his death. Atypically for Kafka’s work, the narrative is written not from the perspective of the disorientated individual. Instead, the individual – Josefine – is the object of a narrative, written by an anonymous member of the society. The narrator sets out to describe Josefine and her performances, but his account quickly becomes a damning critique of the singer. By the time the narrator has finished, the very thing he had intended to describe has disappeared. In this article, I will explore this tension between the individual and the society and its relationship to Josefine’s art.
Josefine’s singing might not be special and it might not be good. It is nevertheless an expression of individuality that separates her from the crowd. What’s more, it brings the members of the society together and improves the community spirit. In this way, the singing heightens the tension between individual and society: as the group pulls together, the aloneness of the individual becomes increasingly pronounced. This has two consequences: 1. The group doesn’t understand Josefine’s art and therefore questions her special status; 2. and Josefine becomes vulnerable and weak.
Art seems to ensure the downfall of Josefine, but the society is not immune to danger simply by virtue of its size. In fact, the society itself is vulnerable. For this very reason, the group stays together, in order to realise a form of ‘safety in numbers’. There is a heavy price to pay though: the individuals must abandon individuality and personality; there is no childhood for the children, who are produced on an industrial scale; and everyone must work. For the individual who persists in self-expression, exclusion and destruction is inevitable: this is the lesson that the figure of Josefine teaches us.
In this way, Josefine’s performance of isolation and vulnerability is a reflection of the society‘s position in the wider world. It is interesting to note that Josefine is a female in a society that is seemingly dominated by men and that takes a markedly paternal stance when dealing with Josefine. Josefine has therefore a disadvantaged position in the society.This reflects the weak position held by a society of mice in a world full of predators. Because the society fails to understand this aspect of her performance, they are unable to see that they are reproducing the destructive power relationship that threatens them as a group. This has profound implications: the society should provide a group environment in which individuals gain protection. Instead, the group has destroyed the individual and suppressed the development of individuality. In the attempt to defend the group, the very thing that needed defending has been destroyed.
Kafka’s narrative depicts a rigid dichotomy of society and individual: the survival of one means the destruction of the other. It is on this basis of either/or that the ‘or’ in the title of the story can be understood. The text demonstrates, however, that overcoming this dichotomy is not impossible. When the narrator comments that the society doesn’t record any history, we seem to stumble upon a paradox: after all, writing a history is precisely what the narrator is doing. It is in this apparent paradox that the very act of reconciliation between individual and artist can be seen. The narrator is a member of the group AND is writing as an individual. Furthermore, writing is a form of art and self-expression.As we have seen, the narrator has chosen a narrative that demonstrates the importance of art. In doing so, he thereby legitimises this narrative, his own artwork.
If we accept that the society depicted is a society of mice, then the text appears to be a fable, in which a ‘message’ relevant to human society is encoded in a narrative about animals. That’s certainly a legitimate interpretation. All the same, it should be noted that there is very little evidence in the text proper that this is a society of mice. Were it not for the title, we would naturally assume the figures to be human. This being the case, the ‘or’ of the title can be read as a threat: the individual and the artist must be protected or else we are reduced to a society of mice, unable to speak out or produce beauty and eternally victims to the cycles of violence and labour.