The Geometry of Truth: Kafka and Badiou

“The relationship of Kafka’s heroes to that truth for which they so desperately search can best be seen in the image through which Plato, in a famous passage of his Republic, expresses man’s pitiable ignorance about the true nature of the Ideas. Chained to the ground of his cave, with his back towards the light, all he perceives of the fundamental reality of the world is a play of shadows thrown on to the wall of his prison. But for Kafka there is a further complication: perfectly aware of his wretched imprisonment and obsessed with a monomaniac desire to know, the prisoner has, by his unruly behavior and his incessant entreaties, provoked the government of his prison to an act of malicious generosity. In order to satisfy his passion for knowledge they have covered the walls with mirrors which, owing to the curved surface of the cave, distort what they reflect. Now the prisoner sees lucid pictures, definite shapes, clearly recognizable faces, an inexhaustible wealth of detail. His gaze is fixed no longer on empty shades, but on a full reflection of ideal reality. Face to face with the images of Truth, he is yet doubly agonized by their hopeless distortion. With an unparalleled fury of pedantry, he observes the curve of every line, the ever-changing countenance of every figure, drawing schemes of every possible aberration from reality which his mirror may cause, making now this angle and now that the basis of his endless calculations which, he passionately hopes, will finally yield the geometry of truth.”

— Erich Heller, Franz Kafka’s World

I kept thinking of my reading of Alain Badiou’s works a few years back which seemed like this ultimate quest for the truth-event. For Badiou there is a “hole in knowledge”, and the truth has slipped from it into the blankness of the world. The void of the world for Badiou is that of the mathematical void rather than some metaphysical emptiness. The question concerns the status of the void in relation to being. Of course, this begs the question of non-being and chance – the Lucretian insistence on non-being rather than being. For Badiou set theory provides us with a way into the void which corresponds to the ‘null set’, the empty set that must be posited in order that sets in general can be presented. It is the ‘primitive name of being’ (Badiou 2004: 57) Against Heidegger, Badiou proposes that mathematics becomes the thinking of being qua being, not philosophy.

Kafka would like some modern kabbalist seek in the darkness of tradition—through literature in all its ungrounded labyrinthine madness—that hole or abyss in which truth has exited from our world and found freedom in some other realm beyond the distorted mirrors which guarded and imprisoned us in this distorted realm of illusion. For Kafka, unlike Badiou, access to knowledge is mapped in the strange ‘tree of knowledge’ which is received tradition, and like some scholar of the demarcations of this vast labyrinth he seeks in the numbered recesses of the distorted mirror of this library the hidden hole through which access to truth is discovered. I always like the unfinished Castle because it left this incompleteness, an open ended and unsolved or unsolvable dilemma which only the reader could resolve by completing not the work but from never desisting from its task.

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