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Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt.

Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

By Saul Friedlander. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

The series of little books, 'Jewish Lives," would have interested Kafka. Although he preferred autobiographies, letter collections, and journals--lives from the pen of those who lived them--it was a keen pleasure and a somewhat urgent need for him, throughout his life, to vacation in the lives of others. He reread and recommended to family and friends life-writing by Dostoyevsky, the proto-feminist and socialist Lily Braun, Salomon Maimon, and many others. At one point he developed a little theory of the effect of this type of "life-reading." One reads these things not in order to confirm one's convictions, not in order to find kindred spirits or to discover how a genius became what he is. One does it for what happens afterwards, "when, by closing the book, one is brought back to oneself again after this excursion and this rest and recuperation, one feels healthy again in one's newly discovered, newly shaken-up very own being, after beholding it for a mere instant from a distance, and which now stays at home, but with a freer head." Estrange yourself in another and you will open a space beyond yourself in your self.

Saul Friedlander's latest addition to the "Jewish Lives" series does not hold back from analyzing the truly strange vacation one takes in Kafka's life. I say it analyzes, and this mode has the effect of both showcasing its strangeness and in certain ways taming it. The book is a perfect introduction to Kafka's relationships with women, with his father, with Jews, Jewishnesses, and Judaistic religions. It should become the first place students in college courses or the general public get an immediate sense of how Kafka is being read by scholars now. The old categories--death, fear, God, sin--and the somewhat newer ones--language, law, power, authority--are gone, or almost. In their place is a Kafka for the present day, caught in a net of ambivalences toward ethnic, gender, political, and aesthetic denominations.

The new categories--Prague, Sons and Fathers, Jewishness, Sex, Writing, and Meaning--leave room for many of the complexities and indeed paradoxes of Kafka's positions. Friedlander does not let a single contrary fact go unremarked. He shows how complicated it was to call yourself "Jew" in Prague at this time, but he never tries to name once and for all Kafka's position vis-a-vis Jewishness in all its modalities--Zionist, eastern European, religious, secular, assimilated, cultural Zionist, anti-Zionist, and the list goes on. In effect Kafka is the perfect expression of the crisis and the real opening in the concept, insofar as he refuses to commit to any one of the modalities. Things are a bit less open in the chapter on "The Son." Friedlander acknowledges the historical schism that separated Jewish sons from their fathers. Kafka's father had to forge a career by compromising

on Jewishness, while Kafka, with a college education and a job working for the state, could afford, like some of his writer and artist friends, to reassess how Jewish he could and wanted to be. Regarding his attitude toward his father, a rather moralistic tone creeps in. "On occasion, indeed, Franz's complaints are literally hard to comprehend" (26). The father is normal, the son abnormal. Friedlander attributes the complaints about his father ultimately to an oedipal struggle (32). The early stories "The Judgment" and "The Metamorphosis" he sees as representation of it. But in fact the stories do not fit this Freudian mold. In neither is the son a rival for the mother's affections; in this regard, and perhaps only in this regard, Deleuze and Guattari were right. What they call anti-oedipal, and I would call non-oedipal, is more explanatory. In any case, these stories have little or nothing to do with the inner workings of the psyche.

Even if he returns quite often to a psychoanalytic perspective, Friedlander also stretches the now classic poles of interpretation--psychoanalytical, Judaistic, existentialist--toward their breaking points in sadomasochism, ecumenicalism, and humor. He suggests that the psychosexual father may in fact change, as Kafka matures, into a father who represents authority and law (37). Even within the delicious complexity of Friedlander's analyses, he tends to present Kafka the person as psychologically tortured and existentially hopeless, beset by ("a poet of"?) "guilt and shame," the stories bleak expressions of these affects, for an existence in which "hell is other people" and there is no exit (116). The happy Kafka is missing, as is Kafka the theorist of happiness, Gluck, an affect and condition to which, among many other philosophical problems, Kafka dedicated considerable thought after 1917. This is just one of many concepts or problems that interested Kafka. The stories and notes are not only expressions of an extraordinary and conflicted psyche, or reflections of an extraordinarily complex historical situation, or both; they are also explorations of possibilities--ontological, ethical, linguistic, political--in the literary and philosophical traditions that Kafka himself, with merciless irony and precision, analyzes. For Friedlander, Kafka can be analyzed but he does not analyze. This excellent introduction to one Kafka, which conceals none of his sordid and indeed often violent fantasies, turns him into a patient, and this obscures another, important, we could say "future Kafka," the one who diagnosed patients besides himself, the one who worked on the thought, politics, and art of Europe from Homer and Genesis to Franz Brentano. About Kafka and intellectual life in Prague, Friedlander writes "Kafka remained an interested outsider, as he was with most theoretical systems" (125).

An outsider may know more about the inside than its occupants. Like his secret guiding star, Nietzsche, Kafka understood the kernel of "theoretical systems" without much study, and went on to critique them in stories and fragments. One can look at "In The Penal Colony" as a reflection of Kafka's sadomasochistic urges and inner struggle. One can also look at it as an inquiry into the moral issues in a group beyond the law, a joke about the relationship between right and understanding, or a critique of the idea of punishment. The chapter "The Writer and his Worlds" names the figures with which he had contact, Anton Marty, Christian Ehrenfels, Martin Buber; yet Kafka is teflon with respect to their ideas. Literary writers are "influences," but they do not open linguistic, moral, historical, or logical horizons, from within which Kafka pursued his own project.

That this Kafka doesn't seem to have a project is dismaying, but it is not a shortcoming of Friedlander's small but packed book. Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt should, as I say, become the standard brief introduction to the pivotal hours of the writer's life and the important motifs, as we view them now, that cross freely between his letters, his diaries, and his fictions. Someone decided that Kafka belongs in a series called "Jewish Lives," and Friedlander brings us to the point at which, on the basis of Kafka's own activities and statements, we have to ask "but is he Jewish?" or "what kind of Jewish is this?" Oddly, the book does not question what "life" might have meant for Kafka--although it too is an important concept, one that he investigates, especially after 1917. "Life is a continual diversion that never lets you come to consciousness about that which it diverts from," a note from 1920 reads. Friedlander, like most biographers and critics, takes the diary entries, dream notations, and letters, if not as the gospel truth, then at least as good-faith attempts to relate experiences. He does not entertain the truly strange possibility that they are, in part, diversions, half-fictions, lives of others, and as such part of a larger intellectual project.

Paul North

Yale University
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Author:North, Paul
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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