Foundations of Knowledge in Max Frisch’s "Man in the Holocene" and Foucault’s "The Order of Things"

The Tiger and the Open Window

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 9




Quest for Knowledge

Foucault on the ‘Analytic of Finitude’

Foucault, and Geiser Bound to the Back of a Tiger



Like with all literature ‘infinite’ is the best way to describe the amount of differing interpretations that are possible. In this research essay on Max Frisch’ novella Man in the Holocene the quest for knowledge, its possibilities and its foundation are at the center of attention. For this Foucault’s archaeological study of the historically changing arrangements and foundations of knowledge as elaborated upon in The Order of Things will be used as a conceptual framework.

The protagonist Geiser, by means of his cognition, is trying to open up the truth of the world around him. Emphasis seems to be laid on man’s finitude as a foundation of knowledge and the consequent self- constitutive power of the individual to produce knowledge. The mental deterioration of Geiser seems to further stress the finitude of man as a condition for knowledge. However, as Foucault poignantly makes clear, Man is a very recent invention and the individual is not self-constitutive of knowledge. Man thinks he is sovereign, all the while he is necessarily and inevitably bound by bodies of discourse that form the condition of his existence.

It is important to state that the question who the narrator is is quite unclear. However, leaving aside the distinct secondary texts featured in the novella, the main body of the text is clearly focalized through Geiser and as such the text will be analyzed as being inner thoughts of Geiser. In addition, it must be stated that the confusion and chaos that is apparent throughout the novella are not only to be read as symptoms of his dementia or coming apoplexy, for there are multiple possible readings of this. This research essay is not primarily concerned with the psychological or medical aspects of this novella and hence the text is open for other interpretations, such as the one before you.

Quest for Knowledge

Man in the Holocene is very much about a quest for or even the possibility to have a knowledge of the world. This is apparent in Geiser’s efforts to fathom and order his surroundings by accumulating a wealth of knowledge represented by the considerable amount of secondary texts with which the main body of text is interlaced. These are clearly distinct from the main body of text because they have a different layout and font and are placed in text boxes with a darker background, as can be seen in figures

Figure 2 (Frisch 9)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1 (Frisch 62)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1-6. 10 Times a self-made note by Geiser is featured in the novella and 56 times an actual copy of the secondary texts sometimes including images is displayed.

It is stated that Geiser prefers factual books, with the twelve-volume encyclopedia Der Grosse Brockhaus featuring prominently in the novella, as well as a history of the canton Ticino, the Swiss encyclopedia, a book about Iceland, and the Bible (Frisch 5, 10). First he simply reiterates the encyclopedia in the main body of the text, as for in stance with the different types of thunder (Frisch 5). Then he underlines the passages he wants to remember with a ballpoint (Frisch 19). To better memorize Geiser starts to transcribe the texts on bits of paper to put on the wall of his house (Frisch 19), before he realizes that it is much easier to just cut out the texts he wants to put up (Frisch 35). The same text box distinct from the main body is shown but now it is made explicit that he cuts out these bits of paper to affix on the wall instead of underlining them.

The thunderstorm that keeps Geiser awake makes him try to understand thunder by reading about it in the encyclopedia: “The twelve-volume encyclopedia Der Grosse Brockhaus explains what causes lightning and distinguishes streak lightning, ball lightning, bead lightning, etc., but there is little to be learned about thunder; yet in the course of a single night, unable to sleep, one can distinguish at least nine types of thunder:” (Frisch 5). The mountains, rocks, glaciers and landslides around him lead him to read into geology as well: “Geological formations, layers that are clearly distinguished from the stratifications beneath and above them by the petrified animals and plants (See Characteristic Fossils) within them and that represent a (stratigraphic unit).” (Frisch 35). Also, the encounter with a salamander in his bathroom and later in his living room again returns him to the encyclopedia to try to understand his surroundings better. In figure 1 the passage from the encyclopedia including an image of a skeleton of an amphibian is shown (Frisch 62).

It is however, not only these natural phenomena that occupy Geiser’s mind. He is also very much concerned with the more fundamental questions of the existence of the world, God and Man. Geiser for example wonders: “When did man first emerge, and why?” (Frisch 18). This question is followed by an article from the encyclopedia wherein the different epochs of the earth are expounded upon, such as the Triassic, Jurassic and Mesozoic periods (Frisch 18). Striking is the statement that man first appeared in the Pleistocene, and not in the Holocene as the title suggests (Frisch 19). Even the existence of the world is a focal point for Geiser’s wonder, for the first passage from the Bible is shown, as can be seen in figure 2 (Frisch 9). The passage is followed by the topic of the human brain and its implications for the existence and knowledge: “Geiser wonders whether there would still be a God if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator.” (Frisch 9). Geiser appears not to be a believer, for he does not believe in the Flood that the Bible speaks about (Frisch 16). Nevertheless, this first passage from Genesis is one of the most important passages in human history for at least the Western world providing a possible explanation for the existence of the world. The mention of the human brain in the act of Creation is of special interest here, for it touches upon the subject of physicality being a condition for knowledge as Foucault in the paragraph ‘analytic of finitude’ is also concerned with.

Foucault on the ‘Analytic of Finitude’

In The Order of Things (1966) Foucault tries to conceive of an archeology of knowledge whereby he identifies three different epistemes in human history which all entail different conditions for knowledge, viz: the episteme of the Renaissance, the episteme of Classical thought, and the episteme of modern thought, with the latter primarily being the one he seeks to uncover.

Foucault elaborates upon an ‘analytic of finitude’ which is specifically tied to modern thought. In this mode of thinking man’s body which occupies an ambiguous space forms the positive foundation in which man can learn that he is finite and upon this learning all knowledge is then based: “We know that man is finite, as we know the anatomy of the brain” (Foucault 342). The human body provides the outline for a possible objectivity of knowledge of nature based upon actual experience (Foucault 350). Empirical knowledge is only produced through actual experience and this experience is also “the original form that makes them possible in general and designates their primary roots” (Foucault 349). Exactly the indications that man is not infinite form the basis for a positivity of knowledge (Foucault 343). Exactly the limits of the body and man’s inherent finitude, are the conditions for knowing: “the limits of knowledge provide a positive foundation for the possibility of knowing” (Foucault 345).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Foundations of Knowledge in Max Frisch’s "Man in the Holocene" and Foucault’s "The Order of Things"
The Tiger and the Open Window
Leiden University
Narrative, Voice and Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2011 KB
Frisch, Foucault, The Order of Things, Archealogy of Knowledge, Man in the Holocene, Analytic of Finitude, Novel, Literary Studies, German literature, Discourse, conditions of knowledge
Quote paper
Sjors Roeters (Author), 2017, Foundations of Knowledge in Max Frisch’s "Man in the Holocene" and Foucault’s "The Order of Things", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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