by Corry Shores
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[Proofreading is incomplete, so please overlook my typos. My own commentary is in brackets, and boldface and underlining are also my own additions.]
Summary (with Commentary) of
“The Great Swimmer”
The Great Swimmer was returning to her hometown from the Olympic Games in Antwerp, where she had “just set a world record in swimming” (118). The people greeting her there repeatedly shouted “Hail the great swimmer!” Then a girl hangs a sash around the swimmer which says in a foreign language, “The Olympic Champion.” The swimmer is then pushed into a car and driven away along with the mayor. They arrive at a banquet hall. Then “A choir sang down from the gallery as I entered and all the guests—there were hundreds—rose and shouted, in perfect unison, a phrase that I didn't exactly understand” (118). The swimmer becomes distressed for unknown reasons when being introduced to the minister and his voluptuous wife. Across from the swimmer sat a fat man with a cheerful and beautiful blond girl sitting at both his sides. He did not recognize the other guests, perhaps since “everything was in motion” (119). The waiters brought out the food, and the people toasted. There was also a “disorderly element,” namely, there were several women sitting with their backs to the table, and somehow they are positioned such that not even the backs of the chairs intervened. When the swimmer notes this to the girls across from him, they say nothing and merely smile. A bell then rings. The waiters freeze still, and the fat man rises and delivers a speech. He was sad during it, and he wiped his face with a handkerchief in such a way that he concealed himself wiping his tearing eyes. “Also, although he looked directly at me as he spoke, it was as if he weren't seeing me, but rather my open grave” (119). When the fat man finished, the swimmer felt compelled to stand up and speak too.
The swimmer tells the guests that although he broke a world record in swimming, she in fact cannot even swim. Additionally, she does not even know why she was even sent to the Olympic Games in the firs place. Moreover, she is not even in her fatherland [this seems to contradict the opening statement that she has returned to her hometown].
“Honored guests! I have, admittedly, broken a world record. | If, however, you were to ask me how I have achieved this, I could not answer adequately. Actually, I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but have never had the opportunity. How then did it come to be that I was sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is, of course, also the question I ask of myself. I must first explain that I am not now in my fatherland and, in spite of considerable effort, cannot understand a word of what has been spoken. Your first thought might be that there has been some mistake, but there has been no mistake — I have broken the record, have returned to my country, and do indeed bear the name by which you know me. All this is true, but thereafter nothing is true. I am not in my fatherland, and I do not know or understand you. And now something that is somehow, even if not exactly, incompatible with this notion of a mistake: It does not much disturb me that I do not understand you and, likewise, the fact that you do not understand me does not seem to disturb you. I could only gather from the speech of the venerable gentleman who preceded me that it was inconsolably sad, and this knowledge is not only sufficient, in fact for me it is too much. And indeed, the same is true of all the conversations I have had here since my return. But let us return to my world record.”
From Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.
What interests him even more is the possibility of making of his own language – assuming that it is unique, that it is a major language or has been – a minor utilization. To be a sort of stranger within his own language; this is the situation of Kafka's Great Swimmer.25
[Footnote 25 [quoting]:
25. “The Great Swimmer” is undoubtedly one of the most Beckett-like of Kafka's texts: “I have to well admit that I am in my own country and that, in spite of all my efforts, I don't understand a word of the language that you are speaking.”
Gilles Deleuze, in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation
The sole spectacle is in fact the spectacle of waiting or effort, but these are produced only when there are no longer any spectators. This is where Bacon resembles Kafka: Bacon's Figure is the great Scandal, | or the great Swimmer who does not know how to swim, the champion of abstinence; and the ring, the amphitheater, the platform is the theater of Oklahoma. In this respect, everything in Bacon reaches its culmination in the Painting of 1978  : stuck onto a panel, the Figure tenses its entire body and a leg, in order to turn the key in the door with its foot from the other side of the painting.
From Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?
Through having reached the percept as “the sacred source,” through having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes. They are athletes – not athletes who train their bodies and cultivate the lived, no matter how many writers have succumbed to the idea of sport as a way of heightening art and life, but bizarre athletes of the “fasting-artist” type, or the “great Swimmer” who does not know how to swim. It is not an organic or muscular athleticism but its inorganic double, “an affective Athleticism,” an athleticism of becoming that reveals only forces that are not its own – “plastic specter.” In this respect artists are like philosophers. What little health they possess is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neuroses but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death. But this something is also the source or breath that supports them through | the illnesses or the lived (what Nietzsche called health). “Perhaps one day we will know that there wasn't any art but only medicine.”
Reproduction [quoting from source]
Hail the great swimmer! Hail the great swimmer!" the people shouted. I was coming from the Olympic Games in Antwerp, where I had just set a world record in swimming. I stood at the top of the steps outside the train station in my Hometown—where was it?—and looked down at the indiscernible throng in the dusk. A girl, whose cheek I stroked cursorily, hung a sash around me, on which was written in a foreign language: The Olympic Champion. An automobile drove up and several men pushed me into it. Two other men drove along—the mayor and someone else. At once we were in a banquet room. A choir sang down from the gallery as I entered and all the guests—there were hundreds—rose and shouted, in perfect unison, a phrase that I didn't exactly understand. To my left sat a minister; I don't know why the word "minister" horrified me so much when we were introduced. At first I measured him wildly with my glances, but soon composed myself. To my right sat the mayor's wife, a voluptuous woman; everything about her, particularly her bosom, seemed to emanate roses and the finest down. Across from me sat a fat man with a strikingly white face, whose name I had missed during the introductions. He had placed his elbows on the table—a particularly large place had been made for him—and looked straight ahead in silence. To his right and left sat two beautiful blond girls. They were cheerful and constantly had something to say, and I looked from one to the other. In spite of the more than ample lighting, though, I couldn't clearly recognize many of the other guests, perhaps because everything was in motion. The waiters scurried around, dishes arrived at the tables, and glasses were raised—indeed, perhaps everything was too well illuminated. There was also a certain disorder—the only disorderly element, actually-in the fact that several guests, particularly women, were sitting with their backs turned to the table and, further, in such a way that not even the backs of their chairs were between them and the table, but rather that their backs were almost touching the table. I drew the attention of the girls across from me to this, but while they had otherwise been so garrulous, now they said nothing, and instead only smiled at me with long looks. When a bell rang, the waiters froze in their positions and the fat man across from me rose and delivered a speech. But why was he so sad? During the speech he dabbed at his face with a handkerchief, which was quite understandable in light of his obesity, the heat in the room, and the strains of the speech itself. But I distinctly noticed that the whole effect was merely a clever disguise, meant to conceal the fact that he was wiping tears from his eyes. Also, although he looked directly at me as he spoke, it was as if he weren't seeing me, but rather my open grave. After he had finished, I, of course, also stood up and delivered a speech. I felt compelled to speak, for there was much that needed to be said, both here and probably also elsewhere, for the public's enlightenment. And so I began:
“Honored guests! I have, admittedly, broken a world record. If, however, you were to ask me how I have achieved this, I could not answer adequately. Actually, I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but have never had the opportunity. How then did it come to be that I was sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is, of course, also the question I ask of myself. I must first explain that I am not now in my fatherland and, in spite of considerable effort, cannot understand a word of what has been spoken. Your first thought might be that there has been some mistake, but there has been no mistake—I have broken the record, have returned to my country, and do indeed bear the name by which you know me. All this is true, but thereafter nothing is true. I am not in my fatherland, and I do not know or understand you. And now something that is somehow, even if not exactly, incompatible with this notion of a mistake: It does not much disturb me that I do not understand you and, likewise, the fact that you do not understand me does not seem to disturb you. I could only gather from the speech of the venerable gentleman who preceded me that it was inconsolably sad, and this knowledge is not only sufficient, in fact for me it is too much. And indeed, the same is true of all the conversations I have had here since my return. But let us return to my world record.”
Der große Schwimmer! Der große Schwimmer! riefen die Leute. Ich kam von der Olympiade in X, wo ich einen Weltrekord im Schwimmen erkämpft hatte. Ich stand auf der Freitreppe des Bahnhofes meiner Heimatsstadt – wo ist sie? – und blickte auf die in der Abenddämmerung undeutliche Menge. Ein Mädchen dem ich flüchtig über die Wange strich, hängte mir flink eine Schärpe um, auf der in einer fremden Sprache stand: Dem olympischen Sieger. Ein Automobil fuhr vor, einige Herren drängten mich hinein, zwei Herren fuhren auch mit, der Bürgermeister und noch jemand. Gleich waren wir in einem Festsaal, von der Gallerie herab sang ein Chor, als ich eintrat, alle Gäste, es waren hunderte, erhoben sich und riefen im Takt einen Spruch den ich nicht genau verstand. Links von mir saß ein Minister, ich weiß nicht warum mich das Wort bei der Vorstellung so erschreckte, ich maß ihn wild mit den Blicken, besann mich aber bald, rechts saß die Frau des Bürgermeisters, eine üppige Dame, alles an ihr, besonders in der Höhe der Brüste, erschien mir voll Rosen und Straußfedern. Mir gegenüber saß ein dicker Mann mit auffallend weißem Gesicht, seinen Namen hatte ich bei der Vorstellung überhört, er hatte die Elbogen auf den Tisch gelegt – es war ihm besonders viel Platz gemacht worden – sah vor sich hin und schwieg, rechts und links von ihm saßen zwei schöne blonde Mädchen, lustig waren sie, immerfort hatten sie etwas zu erzählen und ich sah von einer zur andern. Weiterhin konnte ich trotz der reichen Beleuchtung die Gäste nicht scharf erkennen, vielleicht weil alles in Bewegung war, die Diener umherliefen, die Speisen gereicht, die Gläser gehoben wurden, vielleicht war alles sogar allzusehr beleuchtet. Auch war eine gewisse Unordnung – die einzige übrigens – die darin bestand daß einige Gäste, besonders Damen, mit dem Rücken zum Tisch gekehrt saßen undzwar so, daß nicht etwa die Rückenlehne des Sessels dazwischen war, sondern der Rücken den Tisch fast berührte. Ich machte die Mädchen mir gegenüber darauf aufmerksam, aber während sie sonst so gesprächig waren, sagten sie diesmal nichts, sondern lächelten mich nur mit langen Blicken an. Auf ein Glockenzeichen – die Diener erstarrten zwischen den Sitzreihen – erhob sich der Dicke gegenüber und hielt eine Rede. Warum nur der Mann so traurig war! Während der Rede betupfte er mit dem Taschentuch das Gesicht, das wäre ja hingegangen, bei seiner Dicke, der Hitze im Saal, der Anstrengung des Redens wäre das verständlich gewesen, aber ich merkte deutlich, daß das Ganze nur eine List war, die verbergen sollte, daß er sich die Tränen aus den Augen wischte. Nachdem er geendet hatte, stand natürlich ich auf und hielt auch eine Rede. Es drängte mich geradezu zu sprechen, denn manches schien mir hier und wahrscheinlich auch anderswo der öffentlichen und offenen Aufklärung bedürftig, darum begann ich:
Geehrte Festgäste! Ich habe zugegebener maßen einen Weltrekord, wenn Sie mich aber fragen würden wie ich ihn erreicht habe, könnte ich Ihnen nicht befriedigend antworten. Eigentlich kann ich nämlich gar nicht schwimmen. Seit jeher wollte ich es lernen, aber es hat sich keine Gelegenheit dazu gefunden. Wie kam es nun aber, daß ich von meinem Vaterland zur Olympiade geschickt wurde? Das ist eben auch die Frage die mich beschäftigt. Zunächst muß ich feststellen, daß ich hier nicht in meinem Vaterland bin und trotz großer Anstrengung kein Wort von dem verstehe was hier gesprochen wird. Das naheliegendste wäre nun an eine Verwechslung zu glauben, es liegt aber keine Verwechslung vor, ich habe den Rekord, bin in meine Heimat gefahren, heiße so wie Sie mich nennen, bis dahin stimmt alles, von da ab aber stimmt nichts mehr, ich bin nicht in meiner Heimat, ich kenne und verstehe Sie nicht. Nun aber noch etwas, was nicht genau, aber doch irgendwie der Möglichkeit einer Verwechslung widerspricht: es stört mich nicht sehr, daß ich Sie nicht verstehe und auch Sie scheint es nicht sehr zu stören, daß Sie mich nicht verstehen. Von der Rede meines geehrten Herrn Vorredners glaube ich nur zu wissen daß sie trostlos traurig war, aber dieses Wissen genügt mir nicht nur, es ist mir sogar noch zuviel. Und ähnlich verhält es sich mit allen Gesprächen, die ich seit meiner Ankunft hier geführt habe. Doch kehren wir zu meinem Weltrekord zurück
Kafka, Franz. “The Great Swimmer.” Selection from “Fragments.” Translated by Daniel Slager. Grand Street, no. 56, “Dreams,” (Spring, 1996), pp.117-122. Available at JSTOR:
Kafka, Franz. “Es war der erste Spatenstich” (II, 9). Unpublished manuscripts: Winter 1917/18 – Spring 1922.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. London/Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London/New York: Continuum, 2003.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York/Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University, 1994.