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March 04, 1983 - Image 72

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-03-04

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72 Friday, March 4, 1983


Ka a: A Tormented Jew Shaped by Father, Society


(Editor's note: Dr.
Cohen is director of the
Jewish studies program
at Tulane University in
New Orleans, La.)
When Franz Kafka died
of tuberculosis at the age of
41 in June 1924, he was
known only to a handful of
literary friends in Prague
and Berlin. His most
famous works, including
"The Trial" and "The Cas-
tle," had not yet been pub-
If he had had his way they
never would have been, for
shortly before his death he
urged his life-long friend,
Max Brod, who would be-
come his literary executor,
to destroy his manuscripts.
Kafka had already seen to
the burning of some of his
papers. Another sizeable
batch was seized in Berlin
in 1933 by the Gestapo and
has not survived. (The
Nazis were also responsible,
subsequently, for the deaths
during the Holocaust of
Kafka's sisters and their
families, and two of the
women he loved.)
`Fortunately, Brod re-
sisted the temptation to
comply with Kafka's wish,
and he managed to bring
out of Czechoslovakia a
suitcase of manuscripts
when he fled from Prague in
1939 as the Germans
entered the city.
There is a certain poe-
tic justice in Kafka's writ-
ings being saved from the
Nazis: it is his work which
defined for us the nature
and scope of interiorized
terror, the anonymous
cruelty, in which they
would become the spe-
Today, Kafka's name is
synonymous with that
overwhelming sense of
nihilism that has pervaded
our time: the rootlessness,
displacement, helplessness
and hopelessness of indi-
viduals whose destiny ap-
pears only to be the cer-
tainty of meaningless suf-
fering and ignominious de-
cline, of the happy dream of
the joy of life-exploded into a
nightmare of fear, with ex-
pectations crushed, insur-
ing the total humilitation of
the human spirit.
Because Kafka antici-
pated long before it became
a reality the nightmare
where paranoia would reign
supreme, and because his
novels and stories not only
survived their intended de-
struction and were pub-
lished, he is now recognized
as a centrally-important
master of Western litera-
The study of-his life and
works has all the markings
of a major industry: scholars
devote significant portions

of their careers to investiga-
tion and exegesis of his writ-
ings, he is required reading
in colleges and universities
throughout the world, and,
to date, more than 10,000
commentaries on various
aspects of his life and work
have been published.
Hardly a day goes by with-
out something new being

* * *
Recent Books
on Franz Kafka

classic study in powerless-
ness and despair but as a
comic farce. Indeed, when
Kafka read the opening
chapters to a few close liter-
ary friends, they all laughed
so hard, Kafka included,
that the reading was cheer-
fully suspended.
Closely connected to the
variety of meanings in the
stories are the intriguing
questions about the princi-
pal events and relationships
of Kafka's life, since it was

monumental proportions.
The more I read of and
about Kafka, the more con-
vinced I become that a true
understanding of this
writer and his work will re-
quire substantially greater
insight into the relationship
between his existential
self and his ambivalent atti-
tudes to his Jewishness, for
it is increasingly apparent
that a great deal of what he
wrote sprang specifically
out of his Jewish tensions.

Of recent interest are the
following: Ronald
Hayman's "Kafka: A Biog-
raphy (Oxford University
Press), Elias Canetti's
"Kafka's Other Trial: The
Letters to Felice" (Schocken
Books), and Kafka's "Let-
ters to Ottla and the Fam-
ily" (Schocken).
In 1980, Beth Hatefut-
soth, the Nahum Goldmann
Museum of the Jewish
Diaspora in Tel Aviv, as-
sembled a striking collec-
tion of Kafka materials
with photographs by Jan
Parik, a renowned Euro-
pean photographer, for the
Kafka-Prague Exhibition
in Israel. This exhibition
subsequently came to the
Jewish Museum in New
York, and it is now on tour
through 1984 to selected
Jewish communities in the
United States.
The attractive exhibition
catalogue, printed in He,
brew and English, with
many of Parik's photo-
graphs and two superb his own largely-immediate
Ronald Hayman in his
overviews of Kafka's life experiences Which he di- "Kafka: A Biography"
and work by David Shahan rectly and'at times miracul- notes that Franz Kafka
and Elix Weltsch, is avail-
ously transformed into lit- never "used the word
able from the Jewish erature of surpassing `Jew' in his fiction," and
"never made any of his
For all that we know characters Jewish." Yet,
In the late spring of
1983, an international about him, there is sur- increasingly, we are corn-
Kafka festival is prisingly little that does ing to recognize that the
scheduled to be held in not invite the same mul- preponderance of Kaf-
Caracas, Venezuela, with tiple responses provoked ka's work related to the
condition of the Jewish
Jewish literary by reading his works.
luminaries and Kafka
The questions we need people in Europe in the
specialists from North most to have answers for are early 20th Century, a
America and Europe those having to do with his condition with which
invited as participants.
relationship to his father Kafka identified perhaps
Despite the millions of and his mother, his atti- to a greater extent than
words already written tudes toward their Jewish- he himself realized.
His own identification
about Kafka, the flood gates ness and his own, his tor-
seem only now to be open- menting twin compulsions with his Jewish background
ing. The explanation for the to succeed in the world as a was complex, and it took
ever-increasing interest in mensch while escaping him much of his life to work
Kafka lies not only in his from
menschlichkeit toward resolutions- of his
precisely-anticipated expli- through reductionism, em- early established ambiva-
cation of the 20th Century's pathizing more with repug- lences to Judaism, for the
thrust toward fragmenta- nant animals, birds — the tensions he felt toward his
tion and the diminution of Czech translation for Kafka religion and his ethnic heri-
human values but in the is "jackdaw" — and insects tage were mixed and con-
remarkably imaginative than with human beings, fused with the serious, un-
variety of meanings \ the additional paradox of resolved problems of his
encompassed in his stories. his desperate need for the melancholy relationships to
Part of their universal ap- eunTpany of women while his parents and to women,
peal is in the multiple in- systematically rejecting problems which plagued
terpretations to which they those who professed their him to his dying
* * *
legitimately lend them- love for him, and the
Father Shaped
dichotomy between his per-
However tragic, for sistent death-wish and his
Kafka's Life
example, the implications of attraction to sucking every-
The major problem was
"The Trial" are, that novel thing out of life he could.
with his father. Hermann
can be read not only as a
His is a case study of Kafka was a large man,
• heavy-set, lower middle-
class, hot-tempered, ag-
gressive in the market-
place, rigid, uncompromis-
ing, loud and abusive,
smug; in short, a boor and a
bully of monumental prop-
ortions. Franz, with his de-
licate nature, sensitivity,
and intellectual inclina-
tions, could neither satisfy
nor placate him.

The contempt of father for
son was an albatross from
which Kafka could never
disengage himself. The
father's word was absolute
law, and any transgression
was severely punished.
Kafka's mother and his
three younger sisters
shared submissively in this
tyranny. Occasional inter-
vention by the mother was
ineffectual. Moreover, the
father removed himself as a
positive role model, for
though he was a German-
Jewish Czech, he sneered
openly at Jews, Germans
and Czechs, holding East-
ern European Jews in par-
ticular scorn.
His persistent bullying
of Kafka precluded the
possibility of a normal
childhood or adult life,
negating the prospect of
marriage and family,
since the writer would
always be locked into a
child's servitude.
Kafka thus grew up in
agonizing fear of his father,
and while he, too, was a
German-Jewish Czech,
Bar Mitzvaed at 13, he
could claim no allegiance
with Jews, Germans or
Czechs. The Germans and
the Czechs in Prague de-
spised and vilified one an-
other, and the Jews most of
From his earliest years,
Kafka was on intimate
terms with racial and politi-
cal prejudice, both from
within and from without,
insuring his developing
image of himself as a per-
, manently displaced person,
an alienatee, an exile in the
amidst of his familiars; as
one subjected to a harsh and
implacable law imposed by
an absolute authority who
gave no quarter, offered no
mercy, provided no expla-
nations, and remained aloof
and distant.
Growing up, Kafka rec-
ognized that he had two
courses of action and he took
both of them, though
neither provided an escape.
Outwardly, he undertook
the role of dutiful son and
student, going through
gymnasium and the univer-
sity to obtain his doctorate
in, of course, the law, an
elegantly painful servility,
culminating in an un-
wanted desk job with an in-
surance company.
It was a course of ac-
tion designed to placate
his father and to feed his
own obsessive need to
understand the source
and the motivation of
absolute power man-
ifested anonymously
through local agents.
That understanding
would always elude him.
The more distant it be-
came, the harder he
would search for it, and it -
became the dominant
motif in his writing.
In this respect, he bears a
surprising resemblance to
Canetti, who, made father-
less at seven, was reared by
a bullying mother, and
whose life-work was also an
investigation into the
sources of anonymous

Inwardly, Kafka's second
course of action would be to
take up residence in the fan-
tasy world of the writer, to
live the persona of the
"other," existing primarily
in a world of dreams and
nightmares, of diaries and
letters, adopting a symbolic
stance in his fiction which
would through its distor-
tions both reveal and
obscure his tortured soul. It
was a world his father could
not enter, though he often
battered its gate.

* * *

The Writer and
the Covenant

Taken together, the two
courses of action constitute
Kafka's bonding to his
father and his inheritance.
The amelioration of
tyranny would come only
through an acceptance of
implacable power and res-
ignation to it. The defeat
and the victory would be one
and the same.
Slowly, Kafka came to see
that his personal situation
was mirrored in the Euro-
pean Jews' condition. The
father's power was sub-
sumed in the idea of the Old
Testament God. The sym-
bolism was as simple as the
problems were complex:
The absolute 'Father
had singled out the son,
made him the Chosen
one, and though He re-
mained distant and inex-
plicable, He placed on the
son a seemingly impossi-
ble burden of allegiance,
at the same time casting
him adrift in the Dias-
pora, rootless, homeless,
and landless, amid in-
different, or more fre-
quently, hostile peoples.
The necessary trek
through the desert to the
Promised Land of rede-
mption carried no
guarantee that this salva-
tion would be attained;
the more likely prospect
was disaster and death.
Perhaps we have not rec-
ognized sufficiently that
Kafka's life and work thus
revolved around the ques-
tion of Covenant. He had his
contract with God, but it
was an uneasy partnership..
He couldn't be certain what
God would do, and as for
himself, he knew that he


was unable to meet the con-
tract's terms. He would
never marry, and he felt
guilty over the obligation to
"be fruitful and multiply."
Consistently, however, to
the extent of which he was
(Continued on Page 5)

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