Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Will We Ever Really Understand Kafka?


In the Times Literary Supplement (UK), Gabriel Josipovici reviews several recent books about Franz Kafka, one of the singularly great Modernist authors of the 20th Century. Those of us who have read his fiction (and most students read "The Metamorphosis" at some point in high school or college), know that his writing is challenging - and it seems that the life of the author is as well. Despite the growing body of work about his writing and his life, he remains somewhat of an enigma.

As it should be.


Why we don’t understand Kafka

Gabriel Josipovici

June O. Leavitt
THE MYSTICAL LIFE OF FRANZ KAFKA
Theosophy, Cabala, and the modern spiritual revival
212pp. Oxford University Press. £40 (US $65).
978 0 19 982783 1

Stanley Corngold and Ruth V. Gross, editors
KAFKA FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
286pp. Camden House. $75.
978 1 57113 482 0

Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner
FRANZ KAFKA
The ghosts in the machine
273pp. Northwestern University Press. $34.95.
978 0 8101 2769 2

David Suchoff
KAFKA’S JEWISH LANGUAGES
The hidden openness of tradition
267pp. University of Pennsylvania Press. $65.
978 0 8122 4371 0

Shachar M. Pinsker
LITERARY PASSPORTS
The making of modernist Hebrew fiction in Europe
487pp. Stanford University Press. $60.
978 0 8047 7064 4
 

Published: 5 September 2012
Franz Kafka by Andy Warhol (detail), 1980
 
On September 23 it will be 100 years exactly since Franz Kafka wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgement”. We are probably no nearer to understanding that or any other of his works today than his first readers were, nor should we expect to be. These books help to show us why. 

Eighteen months earlier, on March 26, 1911, Kafka noted in his diary: “Theosophical lectures by Dr Rudolf Steiner, Berlin”. After commenting on Steiner’s rhetorical strategy of giving full weight to the views of his opponents, so that “the listener now considers any refutation to be completely impossible and is more than satisfied with a cursory description of the possibility of a defence”, he goes on:
“Continual looking at the palm of the extended hand. – Omission of the period. In general, the spoken sentence starts off from the speaker with its initial capital letter, curves in its course, as far as it can, out to the audience, and returns with the period to the speaker. But if the period is omitted then the sentence, no longer held in check, falls upon the listener immediately with full force.” 

Only Kafka could experience language with such intensity and express his response in such a strange and striking way. Two days later he comes back to Steiner in his diary, either to another or to the same lecture, which he proceeds to paraphrase in deadpan fashion, interspersing this with comments about his neighbour: 
“Dr Steiner is so very much taken up with his absent disciples. At the lecture the dead press so about him. Hunger for knowledge? But do they really need it? . . . Löwy Simon, soap dealer on Quai Moncey, Paris, got the best business advice from him . . . . The wife of the Hofrat therefore has in her notebook, How does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? At S. Löwy’s in Paris.”
(How Does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? was the tantalizing title of one of Steiner’s books.) Yet Kafka is sufficiently impressed to make an appointment to see Steiner in his hotel. “In his room I try to show my humility, which I cannot feel, by seeking out a ridiculous place for my hat. I lay it down on a small wooden stand for lacing boots.” Steiner is gracious, however, and tries to put the young man at his ease by asking if he has been interested in theosophy long. Kafka pushes on with his prepared speech: A great part of his being seems to be striving towards theosophy, while at the same time he greatly fears it. “I have, to be sure, experienced states (not many) which in my opinion correspond very closely to the clairvoyant states described by you, Herr Doktor.” However, he is also aware that in those states he did not write at his best, and since “my happiness, my abilities, and every possibility of being useful in any way have always been in the literary field”, he is terribly torn.

We never hear how Steiner responds to what Kafka has told him. Instead, this:
“He listened very attentively without apparently looking at me at all, entirely devoted to my words. He nodded from time to time, which he seems to consider an aid to strict concentration. At first a quiet head cold disturbed him, his nose ran, he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril.”
And with that Steiner disappears from the diaries.

June O. Leavitt, who begins her book with this episode, describes Kafka here as “ridiculing” Steiner’s claims and “satirizing” his psychic powers and self-appointed mission of enlightening humanity, describing the last paragraph as “facetious”. However, she argues, “Kafka’s yearning for transcendental mind continued despite his disappointing meeting with Steiner”. Throughout his life, she maintains, Kafka was torn between his desire to write and his experience of out-of-body states, which he longed for yet dreaded.

This brings out well how even the most learned and well-meaning critics, if they are not very careful, will start with a slight misreading and end in the further reaches of absurdity. For Kafka’s description of Steiner’s lecture and of their meeting follows the same pattern as everything else in the diary: he notes everything he sees and that happens to him with puzzled and scrupulous detachment. Pace Leavitt, he is not satirizing Steiner or the Frau Hofrat (or himself for the comedy with the hat), but merely noting it all, as though trying to pierce a mystery which is immediately comprehensible to everyone but himself.

Leavitt is surely right to remind us of the enormous popularity of theosophy and related notions in the European fin de siècle. Not only Steiner but Mme Blavatsky seemed, for many thinking people in the West, who had lost faith in organized religion, to provide the answer to their spiritual yearnings. W. B. Yeats, Maurice Maeterlinck, Vassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian were all adepts and excited proselytizers at one time or another, and T. S. Eliot introduced a “famous clairvoyante” into The Waste Land. It’s not at all surprising that Kafka should have been interested in and knowledgeable about theosophy, and Leavitt is right to suggest that his apparent fascination with Jewish mysticism, which scholars have made much of in recent decades, probably came to him via Christian (and debased) sources. Eliot’s take on Mme Sosostris was, of course, at the opposite pole from Yeats’s or Kandinsky’s. Where does Kafka stand? He was, we know, a notorious faddist, solemnly subjecting himself to nature therapy, raw food diets and gymnastics, Mazdazanism, Fletcherism and the rest. But what of his writing, which is surely the important thing? Leavitt trawls his oeuvre to find examples of mystical experiences and out-of-body states, but her insensitivity to context and nuance grows more pronounced with every page.

She examines in detail the long, abandoned story, “Description of a Struggle”, written around 1904. The narrator here seems able merely to wish something for it to happen: “So I happily spread out my arms in order to fully enjoy the moon. And by making swimming movements with my weary arms it was easy for me to advance without pain or difficulty . . . . My head lay in the cool air”. This indeed seems to be an example of levitation, and Leavitt, enlisting Steiner and Blavatsky, explains that we are in the presence of an “ether-body”, which is the true body, not the physical body we carry around with us. Now this may be theosophical doctrine. But one wonders if the main reason why Kafka abandoned the work was that it was too easy to do this sort of thing in fiction: if you can make the body fly merely by wishing it, you can do anything – but by the same token you have done nothing. Kafka was looking for a form of art that would be true to all our desires – including the desire to escape the body – but would also be ready to examine these desires. That is why when he did finally agree to let Max Brod find a publisher for his early work he ignored the long and complex but ultimately unsatisfactory “Description of a Struggle” and selected instead tiny fragments that seemed to him more “true”.

Later Leavitt examines one of Kafka’s last stories, “The Bucket Rider”, written when he had finally escaped Prague and gone to Berlin with Dora Diamant, to endure there a terrible winter of freezing conditions and dreadful food scarcity. “To grasp the inverted perspective of ‘The Bucket Rider’”, says Leavitt, “it is necessary to penetrate the narrative façade, which Kafka critics have not done.” These kinds of sentences usually herald a total misreading, and this is indeed what we get here. “Coal all spent, the bucket empty; the shovel useless; the stove breathing out cold, the room freezing; I must have coal; I cannot freeze to death; behind me is the pitiless stove, before me the pitiless sky.” This is a terrifying evocation of human destitution and desperation. The narrator goes on: “So I ride off on the bucket. Seated on the bucket, my hands on the handle, the simplest kind of bridle, I propel myself with difficulty down the stairs; but once downstairs, my bucket ascends . . . . And at last I float an extraordinary height above the vaulted cellar of the dealer”. 

Alerted by the idea of flying, Leavitt is away: “Mystical logic allows expansion of perspective beyond the conceptual framework of time and space. I claim that the narrator has already frozen to death; he is a disembodied spirit. The narrative concerns a soul in crisis”. The story ends: “And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice Mountains and am lost forever”. Leavitt fastens on the expression Nimmerwiedersehen, literally “never to be seen again”, and concludes: “This bucket rider has relinquished his craving for materiality to migrate to a higher world”. All the pain of the story’s realism is dissolved into a cosy mysticism which may bring comfort to some but does a gross disservice to a painfully honest writer.

The book grows more dotty as it progresses. The pity is that Leavitt has a good though modest point: that Kafka’s interest in theosophy and other forms of fin-de-siècle religiosity aligns him with a great many of the major artists of the period, and that dismissing this as due to personal fads, or placing an exclusive emphasis on Jewish mysticism, distort the picture. But as so often in Kafka studies, an initial insight is ruined by insensitivity to the way language works in the texts and to the overall evidence of the diaries, the letters and the rest of the fiction. 

Stanley Corngold seems to have established himself as the doyen of American Kafkaists. Ruth V. Gross’s preface to Kafka for the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Corngold, sets the tone. The idea, she explains, was “to assemble a number of distinguished Kafka researchers from North America and Europe to examine together the ways in which this extraordinary writer, who so decisively shaped our conception of the twentieth century, might suggest fruitful strategies for coping with the twenty-first”. But who ever imagined that writers should give us “fruitful strategies for coping”? They have quite enough on their plates trying to say what they feel they have it in them to say. She goes on: “How do we compose a complete and coherent account of a personality with so many often contradictory aspects?”. Again, this sounds good, but what on earth would a “complete and coherent account” of anything be like? Should we even aim for that?
Read the rest of the lengthy review.
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