Summary and Analysis Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" (Josephine Die Sanngerin)"



The story's double title is one of its striking outward features. Kafka attached special meaning to this, arguing that it expresses an equilibrium, a set of scales, the careful weighing between the evaluation of Josephine and the people around her. While the meaning of "singer" becomes clear, however, Kafka's decision to use the term "mouse folk" is perhaps not so clear. Apart from underlining the aspect of mass behavior of the people who adore Josephine, he could have wanted to depict the miserable situation of Jews scattered all over the world and yet, at the same time, their sense of community as an ethnically and religiously distinct group. More than any other story of Kafka's, this one reflects his growing interest in, and defense of, traditional Jewish ways above all, his positive view of the orthodox and Zionist sense of community.

The enormous power Josephine wields over the people is all the more surprising because they "forgot how to sing long ago" (they do not cherish their traditional Jewish ways any more) and do not care about music. Even more surprising, they agree that Josephine's singing is not really any better than their own. We are quickly told, however, that if this should be so, it is true only in a strictly musical sense; the essential difference between her singing and that of everybody else is still there: she sings consciously, whereas the people "pipe without thinking of it, indeed without noticing it." In her piping (for this seems to be all it is), the people's main characteristic — that is, piping — becomes a conscious action.

Another aspect to Josephine's singing leads to the people's identifying with her art. Not only does each individual listen to her singing as if he were listening for a message, but her singing "resembles people's precarious existence amidst the chaos of a hostile world." Totally absorbed by this tumult, they have forgotten about their true existence and have stopped singing, a reference to the secularized Jewry which Kafka came to despise. Whenever they listen to Josephine, the populace retrieves something of their short childhood, symbolizing a carefree (because less conscious) existence.

The narrator, the "we" of the story, tells us that nobody would really care to listen to a highly trained singer in times of general hardship; in other words, aesthetic perfection cannot be the objective of art in times such as theirs. As Kafka puts it here, "May Josephine be spared from recognizing that the mere fact of . . . listening to her is proof that she is no singer." People flock to her performances precisely because her singing is not art in the traditional sense of the word, because "it is not so much a performance of songs as an assembly of people."

Josephine, however, does not share the public's opinion of her singing. She is convinced that she creates perfect music, that her singing is infinitely superior to that of the people around her, and that nobody really understands her. She is certain the people are in need of her much more than she is in need of them. She insists that her singing takes the most decisive place in their lives and that she should therefore be exempted from all routine work. This alone would guarantee her ability to attain the highest possible artistic standard at all times. She desires nothing short of a whole-hearted recognition of her art as unparalleled and eternal. This is exactly the limit, though, to which people will Dot go. Such boundless recognition would be possible only if Josephine really stood "outside the law." If this were the case, the freedom from daily chores which people would grant her would be proof that "they are smitten by her art, feel themselves unworthy of it, try to assuage the pity she awakens in them by making sacrifices for her; to the same extent that her art is beyond their comprehension, they would also regard her personality and her desires to lie beyond their jurisdiction."

Here the essence of Kafka's view of art emerges — the view, that is, which he held toward the end of his life. He wrote "Josephine the Singer" in March 1924, three months before his death, and "A Hunger Artist," which also deals with the antithetical nature of art, two years before. In both stories, the protagonist falls victim to the temptation of deeming himself among the "select few," and in both stories his conflict results from his assumption that his art is vastly superior to the forms of expression of the people around him. In both stories, his refusal and inability to feel at ease in the "vast, warm bed of the community" cause his eventual isolation and death, and in both stories, his claim to stand "beyond the law" is rejected by Kafka. Even Josephine, whose magic makes people forget their hardships, has to remain bound by the laws of human community. The reason for this is that her individual self is at the same time the self of the people who find themselves reflected in her singing: whatever she may sing is also being sung by them, and whatever vision of freedom she may create is also present in the people sharing her performances. In its most profound sense, art is never beyond the people.

One may even go so far as to argue that Kafka foresees the disappearance of art in the traditional sense and, more important yet, that he does not shed a tear for its essential disappearance. "Josephine is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will overcome losing her" is only one sentence among many that reflects this view. The story is Kafka's final pronouncement on that esoteric notion that art is likely to die because it insists on being nothing but art. Everything seeking absolute perfection must necessarily refrain from becoming contaminated with life. But everything fleeing communion with life because of life's countless imperfections must die. To be perfect is to be dead. On one level, the story of Josephine is probably the story of a Yiddish singer-actress whom Kafka met in Prague in 1911, and on a higher level, it is the story of the universal artist faced with the large (mouselike) audience of our time. On still another level, it is the story of the inevitable death of self-imposed seclusion.

Historically speaking, the story stands as an attack on the obstinate arrogance of official art as taught and propagated by the academies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rarely had art been more hypocritical, with its insistence on "higher values" and quasi-religious "purity." It is not that art cannot have these higher values and have this religious meaningfulness; it is just that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it had long lost the metaphysical basis for such lofty claims.

Josephine's last words stand as Kafka's own last words about his life. The mere fact that he prepared the story for publication from his deathbed, while requesting that all his other pieces be burned, attests to the significance he attached to it: "Josephine . . . will happily submerge herself in the numberless masks of our heroes and soon, since we are no historians, will ascend to the heights of redemption and fall victim to oblivion like all her brothers."