In response to:
Kafka Up Close from the February 10, 2005 issue
To the Editors:
Frederick Crews’s piece “Kafka Up Close,” while treating several new books on Kafka, perpetrates an astonishing number of factual errors and many disturbing distortions. Crews directs us to the newest editions of Kafka’s works, yet he cannot spell correctly the German title of Kafka’s most famous novel and misnames another: the correct spelling of Der Prozeß is Der Process and the name of the novel Crews chooses to call Amerika is Der Verschollene (The Man Who Was Never Heard From Again). Crews tells us that the two newest editions “now compete to be recognized as definitive.” This idea is astounding when you consider that the Stroemfeld edition is a facsimile edition of Kafka’s manuscripts, with the purpose in mind of documenting the impossibility of such a thing as a “definitive edition” of this fragmentary oeuvre. In Nicholas Murray’s new biography Kafka, Murray portrays a guilt-ridden Kafka who in 1920 jilted his fiancée Julie Wohryzek, whereupon by all accounts she died in a mental home. Crews’s version of this matter is to report that Murray’s book is “fully conversant with the current state of research” and furthermore that Julie Wohryzek died in the Holocaust! Crews asserts that Kafka composed his story “The Judgment” in one fevered night, but that this mood never returned; to prove that the mood never returned, he quotes a lamentation from Kafka’s diary written two months before he wrote “The Judgment.” Crews gives an essay by Walter Sokel entitled “Zwischen Gnosis und Jehovah: Zur Religionsproblematik Franz Kafkas” as a covert German source of Stanley Corngold’s ideas. But it is well known that this influential article has been republished in various versions in English and is cited and attributed at length in Corngold’s book.
Crews’s distortions are especially egregious in his approach to Corngold’s work throughout. Crews paraphrases the argument of Corngold’s Lambent Traces, as follows: “Kafka was a gnostic dualist who… meant his literary works to be acts of communication with a realm of transcendent essence.” It is hard to make much sense of this, either as a summary of gnostic dualism or as a digest of any argument Corngold offers. Crews appears to be either unwilling or unable to grasp Corngold’s initial and crucial distinction between the religious tradition of a transcendental, “upper-case” Gnosticism and the cultural strategy of an immanent, “lower-case” gnosticism; the latter is a “descriptor” of Kafka’s mode of writing. What his book says is that Kafka’s writing is informed ideally by this gnostic verve, a swift leave-taking from the “sensory world”; it includes the writer’s ecstasy and a sense of bodily detachment; writing as a consuming of or leaping off experience; and a vast world of inspirations (“die ungeheure Welt, die ich im Kopfe haben“) conveying the promise of a higher perception. There is nothing here about communicating with “essence” but only the hope of producing works good enough to survive in a world of books and readers. Kafka’s relation to theological Gnosticism is another thing. In his journals…
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