Books: Cultural Amnesia — Franz Kafka |
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Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and died in Berlin in 1924. In his brief four decades alive he created a body of work that has influenced almost everything written since: not even James Joyce had such an impact. Kafka was trained as a lawyer and was first employed in Prague’s Workers’ Accident Insurance Institution. This experience probably laid the foundations for his evocation of bureaucracy and the plight of the individual caught up in the remorseless logic of an irrational system. (J. P. Stern’s short book about Kafka is predicated on the view that Kafka’s supposedly fantastic vision was largely an account of reality; and it is a measure of the unsettling power generated by Kafka’s magic spell that Stern’s view is commonly regarded as wilfully paradoxical.) As a Jew, Kafka also had first-hand knowledge from birth of how it felt to be faced with exclusions and unpassable tests with ever-changing rules. But his vision of state terror lay deep in a psychology personal to him. Since the Nazi era need never have happened, to say that he prophesied it is actually a belittlement of his creative achievement, and only one step up from saying that he caused the whole thing. But nobody could now read The Trial without thinking of the Soviet show trials, or the short works Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony without thinking of death camps. The novels for which he is now most famous—The Trial, The Castle and Amerika—were all published posthumously, against Kafka’s wishes that they should be destroyed. (Often derided as a giftless and interfering parasite on Kafka, his friend Max Brod was in fact responsible for ignoring Kafka’s instructions, preserving his books, and thus giving us the genius that we know today.) Kafka’s very order for the immolation of his work could have been issued by the keepers of The Castle, a book which has been usefully defined as a Pilgrim’s Progress whose pilgrim does not progress. Beginners reading in English can place sufficient trust in the translations by Edwin and Willa Muir to be sure that they will get something vital from reading Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony and The Castle. But just how Kafka should ideally be translated remains a question, best tackled by Milan Kundera in the relevant sections of his Testaments Betrayed. Philip Roth is another important novelist who writes illuminatingly about Kafka. Writings on the subject by scholars and critics are without number, but perhaps the best single short essay is by George Steiner, collected in Louis Kronenberg’s indispensable Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts. The best way to approach Kafka, however, is probably just to plunge into The Castle and get lost. Getting lost and staying lost is the whole idea of the book, and a matchless symbol for how, according to Kafka, we really feel underneath, when we momentarily convince ourselves that we know what’s going on, while still suspecting that the momentary conviction might be part of the deception.

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How short life must be, if something so fragile can last a lifetime.

KAFKA WAS TALKING about a young woman’s body. Along with the anguish, there is an unmanning tenderness in the statement, and the tenderness should be remembered when we consider what a tangle the whole business of sex was for Kafka, who never quite got away from the idea that the consummation of sexual desire, if it should ever happen, would be Schmutz—something dirty. We need to remind ourselves that a man can be in that condition and still find inspiration in desire. If that had not been so for Kafka, he would never have said this. Anything Kafka said gained so much weight in the light of events that it is hard to extract it from history. Here is one thing he said, however, that has its true setting in eternity. History tells us that many of the pretty female bodies on which he helplessly doted were consumed by fire before their time. Eternity tells us that he would have been right anyway, even if the disaster had never happened. The heavenly expression before us will last only as long as a life.

“Just so long,” as Louis MacNeice put it, “but long enough.” Desire can be repressed to the point of extinction, but it is still the wellspring. As we saw when discussing Peter Altenberg, there is nothing “only” about it. Nietzsche said that sexuality saturates the consciousness all the way to the top. In European literature, ever since the poetry of courtly love first codified the visione amorosa, the identification of desire and revelation has been common currency. We can think of Wagner’s emphasis on redemption as an attempt to separate the flower from its roots, but he could have had no such aim if he had not felt the connection as a fact. If the fact is a myth, it is a myth that all cultivated mankind shares, so it is a fact anyway. When we stumble across another literature in which the fact is lacking, we tend to find that literature perverted rather than primitive. Our assumption is that the whole idea was there from the beginning, one of the first things in the mind, perhaps even before religion: primordial. We might even think that civilization began at that point, when the individual was first seen to embody the universal. It brought endless trouble: when Menelaus and Paris both burned for Helen, Troy burned with them, and Pascal was making a powerful point when he suggested that history might have turned out differently if Cleopatra’s nose had been a different length. Men have always been fools for beauty. But without being bowled over in the first place, they would never have begun to be wise. Sex, the most powerful instinct, generates the most closely focused attention: so that we see, in the desired other, the proof that creation is a miracle. Men who see the proof ten times at every pedestrian crossing are no doubt foolish, but men who see it only in their own shaving mirrors are generally agreed to be suffering from a case of arrested development.

For the narrator of The Castle, the girl Frieda is his only connection with a sane order of events as he reluctantly but steadily realizes, in the opening section of the book, that the castle has a mind of its own, and the mind will marshal infinite resources to shut him out. In Frieda’s arms he can momentarily believe that she, at least, is not doing what the castle wants. The lovers soon find that they can’t go to sleep together without expecting to find spectators gathered around them when they wake up. Even during their first sexual encounter there are probably other people in the room: it is hard to tell, but one of the novel’s mechanisms is not to permit us to rule out such a possibility. Much later, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell reprised the same relationship of physical love to hopeless odds. Orwell wanted the tenderness reduced to raw sex: Winston Smith presses Julia to admit that the act itself is enough, as if Orwell was looking for a touchstone, an irreducible impulse that the totalitarian state cannot eliminate even by control. But for Kafka, the touchstone is the tenderness. Presciently, Kafka’s nightmare state is even more controlled than Orwell’s. “You ask if there are control officials?” asks the Vorsteher (superintendent) rhetorically. “There are only control officials.” But Kafka creates Frieda as a whole personality, not just a symbol. As a personality, she wilts under the pressure of what she and K. are up against: her beauty fades. Under the influence of the Wirtin (innkeeper’s wife), Frieda reinterprets K.’s involvement with her as a stratagem for getting nearer to the castle. K. rebuts her, but he can’t refute her. How can he be sure? All he can be sure of is that he is robbing her of her vitality. Merely from the psychology of Frieda’s accusations—which any man who has stood accused by a woman will recognize—it would be one of the great scenes in Kafka, and thus in all modern literature. But to see how magnificent it is, we should look through it, into Kafka’s heart. K. hates having reduced her to this, and it is because he loves her. Rather than see her destroyed, he is even ready to contemplate that she might regain her position with Klamm—the inexorable and suitably mysterious figure of authority—thus to restore her credit with the castle. K. knows that he spells danger for Frieda, and he wants her safe.

Allegorical interpretations of Kafka’s major novels are no doubt valid—with the usual proviso that if they are all valid they might all be irrelevant—but for once the biographical element begs to be brought in. In real life, Kafka sent his imagination to rest in the minds of women. If he had not done so, his fiction would have been less different: more like ordinary fiction, and less like fact—the facts that were yet to happen. There are good reasons for believing that he could prophesy the nature of the totalitarian state because as a Jew he had already lived with its mechanisms of exclusion, the first parts of the totalitarian state to develop: he knew them so intimately, and thought them to be so pervasive, that he came to agree with them, providing one of our most tragic examples of self-directed Judenhass. But much of the prophetic element in Kafka comes from his extreme sensitivity to evanescence, and that sensitivity was centred squarely on what time could do to a woman’s life. Milena Jesenská, the woman worthy of his intellect, was wooed from the distance at which she was kept. Felice Bauer (on whom the Frieda of the book was probably based) never had a chance: even if a marriage had followed upon the repeated engagements, nothing would have happened. Kafka thought sex was a disease. But he also thought that it was a gift, or he would not have asked himself, only a short time before his death: “What have you done with the gift of sex?” (Was hast du mit dem Geschenk des Geschlechtes getan? You can hear the integrative rhythmic force of his prose even at the moment of resignation.) We hope that Dora Dymant, with whom he shared a brief spell of happiness in Berlin, would have said that he had done at least something with it. And he would never have written to Milena with his desperate complaint about the certainty of their never living together Körper an Körper (body to body) if he had not wanted that above all things, even in his consuming fear of the wish coming true.