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A Different Kafka

Saul Friedländer has a strong suspicion about what the answer might be. Describing Kafka, beautifully, as “the poet of his own disorder,” Friedländer states his case baldly:

These Diaries and the Letters indicate clearly enough that—except for the constant pondering about his writing, the quintessence of his being—the issues torturing Kafka most of his life were of a sexual nature.

Later he reinforces this view, insisting that “aside from the total primacy of writing, sexual issues turned into the most obsessive preoccupation of Kafka’s life.” Of what variety were these sexual issues? “All the sources indicate…that his feelings of guilt were related not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.” And these possibilities, Friedländer suggests, were homoerotic in origin.

In one of the more heated passages during the course of Lolita, Humbert Humbert pauses to surmise that by now his respectable reader’s eyebrows will have traveled to somewhere near the back of his balding head. No doubt there will be many Kafka admirers on whom Friedländer’s thesis will have a similar effect. It is important to stress, therefore, that Friedländer is no firebrand young academic thirsting for tenure and bent on making a scandalous name for himself. He is emeritus professor of history and holds the Club 39 Endowed Chair of Holocaust Studies at UCLA; he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945.

He was born in Prague, and a number of aspects of his life chime with Kafka’s: his father studied law at Charles University and became, like Kafka, legal adviser to a Prague insurance firm; and, tragically, “like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps.” However, these echoes from long ago

would not have convinced me of writing on a topic so far removed from my field, history, but for very specific and hardly mentioned issues that I considered important enough to be brought up in a small biographical essay.

One is reminded of the boy who cannot but speak out as the emperor swishes past in his invisible new clothes—except that in this case the royal personage is only too eager that no one should see the fancy outfit he is secretly wearing.

Friedländer bases his case mostly on internal evidence from the fictional writings, but he also follows up some excisions that Max Brod made in the published versions of the letters and the diaries. There is for instance an entry for February 2, 1922, which, Friedländer writes, Brod “censored in the English translation” but left unaltered in the German. Here is what Kafka wrote, with the “censored” passages in square brackets:

Struggle on the road to [the] Tannenstein in the morning, struggle while watching the ski-jumping contest. Happy little B., in all his innocence somehow shadowed by my ghosts, at least in my eyes [, specially his outstretched leg in its gray rolled-up sock], his aimless wandering glance, his aimless talk. In this connection it occurs to me—but this is already forced—that towards evening he wanted to go home with me.

There are also some admiring glances thrown in the direction of a couple of handsome Swedish youths. It is hardly a damning testament. What is perhaps most significant is the fact that Brod felt it necessary to make these quiet elisions, since it suggests he had definite suspicions about his friend’s sexual inclination.

Friedländer follows the Kafka scholar Mark Anderson in thinking it “highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations.”5 Nor does he for a moment seek to suggest that the “imagined sexual possibilities” Kafka may have entertained are a key to unlock the enigmas at the heart of the Kafka canon. All the same, once this particular genie is out of the bottle there is no forcing it back inside. Repressed homosexual yearnings certainly would account for some of the more striking of Kafka’s darker preoccupations, including the disgust toward women that he so frequently displays,6 his fascination with torture and evisceration, and most of all, perhaps, his lifelong obsession with his father, or better say, with the Father—the eternal masculine. For surely poor old Hermann Kafka, small-time businessman and purveyor of fancy goods, could not have fitted into the shoes, indeed, the nine-league boots, that Kafka fashioned for him in the story he considered his first real artistic success, “The Judgment,” in which a father condemns a son to drown himself, and in the never-to-be-delivered “Letter to His Father,” during the long toils of which the son declared: “My writing was about you; in it, I merely lamented what I was unable to lament at your breast. It was a deliberately drawn out farewell from you.” Here, as so often throughout Kafka’s writings, we see, in one of Friedländer’s rare lapses into near psychobabble,

an evolution in the symbolic significance of paternal authority from its most fundamental psychosexual function (in a Freudian sense) to its preeminent social function as representing tradition and the law.

Kafka’s repeated cries of self-disgust are striking, and frequently border on the hysterical. Writing to Milena Jesenská he offers one of his loveliest and most terrifying metaphors—“No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song”—but precedes it with a tortured admission—or is it a warped form of boasting?—“I am dirty, Milena, infinitely dirty, this is why I scream so much about purity.” And this from an obsessively fastidious teetotaler and semivegetarian whose elegant blue suits and spotless linen were so often commented upon by friends and acquaintances. Kafka certainly carried some dark trouble deep inside him.

His secretiveness, his drive toward an “obscure lucidity,” are evident not only in his life but also in his work and in his working methods. In a fascinating study of the original manuscript of Das Schloss (The Castle), the Kafka translator and scholar Mark Harman has traced the process by which Kafka cut and edited the work so as “to preserve an aura of ineffable mystery by making everything sound [as Kafka wrote] ‘ein wenig unheimlich’ [a little uncanny].”7

The unedited version of the novel was begun in the first person, but part-way along Kafka changed his mind and went back through the pages and switched from “I” to “K.”8 K’s character and motivations are spelled out quite openly, too much so for the author, who in revising the manuscript, Harman writes, “consistently crossed out sentences and passages that reveal a high degree of self-awareness on his hero’s part.” Reiner Stach, following Harman’s lead, points out that

Kafka would surely have undermined the mysterious, parabolic, or allegorical structure of The Castle if he had had his protagonist appear explicitly as a Jew or a writer, although this double experience of exclusion clearly underlay his dogged battle for village and castle.

As Harman writes, we can attribute many of the deletions “to Kafka’s often-expressed dislike of psychology. However, instead of entirely eliminating psychology, Kafka buried the workings of his hero’s psyche in the interstices of his writing.”

In the end, none of this mattered, as Kafka ventured steadily into a hitherto unknown realm. In March 1922 he wrote in his diary, “Somewhere help is waiting and the beaters are driving me there.” By then, however, fate had him firmly in its sights. Five years previously, in the summer of 1917, Kafka had suffered his first pulmonary hemorrhage. He greeted the onset of illness with relief—death, after all, would solve so many things—describing it to a friend as “special…you might say an illness bestowed upon me.”

There is undoubtedly justice in this illness; it is a just blow, which, incidentally, I do not feel at all as a blow, but as something quite sweet in comparison with the average course of the past years, so it is just, but so coarse, so earthly, so simple, so well aimed at the most convenient slot.

Sickness was to free him at last, from the demands of life, from himself, and even from literature. He told Max Brod, “What I have to do, I can do only alone. Become clear about the ultimate things.” He had much to write, in the short time left to him, yet his endeavor now would not be purely literary but, in the deepest sense, moral. In “At Night,” one of his late fragments, he wrote—and repeated, word for word, in a letter to Felice Bauer—“Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.” From now on he would be both sentinel and witness, and his achievement would be transcendent. In the last story that he completed, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” he describes Josephine’s piping song, which here “is in its right place, as nowhere else,” and which despite the thinness of the music expresses essentials:

Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet springing up and not to be obliterated.
  1. 5

    “Whatever homoerotic drives may have informed Kafka’s sexuality, he was most probably not a practising homosexual who simply ‘translated’ biographical experience into coded literary form.” See Mark M. Anderson, “Kafka, Homosexuality and the Aesthetics of ‘Male Culture,’” in Gender and Politics in Austrian Fiction, edited by Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms (Edinburgh University Press, 1996), p. 80. 

  2. 6

    “I find every newly-wed couple going on their honeymoon a revolting sight, whether I relate myself to them or not, and if I want to arouse disgust in myself, I need only imagine putting my arm round a woman’s waist.” Quoted in Anderson, Gender and Politics, p. 96. On the other hand, Reiner Stach is adamant that “Kafka’s female characters…are representatives of power and of a knowledge that is not acquired by social status but conferred on every female person; these are prototypes of a myth of femininity.” 

  3. 7

    See Harman’s “Making Everything ‘a little uncanny’: Kafka’s Deletions in the Manuscript of Das Schloss and What They Can Tell Us About His Writing Process,” in A Companion to the Work of Franz Kafka, edited by James Rolleston (Camden House, 2002). This essay was translated into German by Reiner Stach and published in Neue Rundschau, which, under the editorship of Robert Musil, might very well have published Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” for the first time—it appeared instead in Die weissen Blätter in 1915. Central Europe was, and is, a small world. 

  4. 8

    In January 1922, as Kafka was embarking on the composition of The Castle, he arrived one snowy evening in the health resort of Spindelmühle in the Riesengebirge near the Polish border. At the Hotel Krone, where he was expected, he found he was listed in the hotel directory as “Dr. Josef Kafka.” 

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