ROBERTSON, Ritchie. Kafka. Judaism, Politics, and Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2001.
Who was Kafka? What is the meaning of his writings? Is there a key to decipher them? Many experts have tried to throw some light on them and dozens of interpretations can be found which are often opposed. Some have concluded that Kafka’s intention was precisely to make no sense at all and to depict the incoherence of a contradictory world by means of insoluble riddles meant to frustrate his readers. Ritchie Robertson doesn’t share this view, which he considers incompatible with admiration for Kafka and probably points to the difficulties in interpreting him (p. ix).
Understanding Kafka is certainly no easy task for several reasons: the matters he was concerned with are abstract and complex; when writing he had in mind readers with good knowledge of the details he presented; and, finally, his technique was based on subtle and often oblique allusions which can be ambiguous. To complicate things even more, Kafka’s logic is often paradoxical, his characters move about in grotesque or enigmatic settings, he relies on symbols and allegories which can be obscure and hermetic, his references are multi-layered and can even include opposing views, and time and space are often mysteriously blurred in his stories, as are the sacred and the secular. Robertson’s thorough exegesis gives us interesting clues for a better understanding of Kafka, since there is, he insists, not one single master key to access the complex world he construed.
[Professor Ritchie Robertson]
Robertson analyses Kafka’s thought in depth and its evolution in time through his writings and readings, bearing in mind the historical events of the times he lived and the people who surrounded and influenced him. Kafka was, no doubt, a man of his time who was not immune to the world around him (however shocking his comment about the outset of World War I in his diaries might be: “Deutschland hat Russland den Krieg erklärt. – Nachmittag Schwimmschule”, p. 131: “Germany has declared war on Russia. This afternoon, swimming school”).
He was a learned man with deep interest in literary and social traditions. He belonged to an elite of well-off Jews who, unlike his parents’ generation, had received the best education in German schools in Prague. His native language was German and he felt more attached to German culture than to the Czech tradition, although he knew this language and its literature well. The fact that Kafka was a Jew played a very important role in the development of his thought and writing, as Robertson remarks. Though quite reluctant to become a Zionist in his youth (in spite of his friend Max Brod’s attempts to proselytize him), by 1916 his sympathy with Zionism was clear and he was well acquainted with Hasidism, Yiddish literature (in translations) and traditions, he learnt Hebrew and in his last years he even considered moving to Palestine.
[Hasidic boys in Poland, 1910]
Kafka knew that he was a privileged man but this didn’t spare him any sufferings. On the contrary, his was a tortured mind which questioned everything and, above all, himself: he was well aware of his shortcomings and often exposed them with crudeness, especially in the letters he wrote to the women he loved (Felice and Milena, in particular) and in his diaries. His writings reflect a difficult time in history: the world was undergoing profound changes and the old references had been lost. A new technological society was developing and the individual, now so insignificant, was the victim of exploitation. The old religious beliefs were lost and the new society was ruled by the clock and money: human values were disregarded and only soulless efficiency and productivity mattered (as Kafka shows in Der Verschollene, written in 1912-1913). All faith in God and progress had been lost.
Kafka himself felt estranged in various aspects of his life: religion was not an important part of life anymore and, as a Jew, he resented the void (he couldn’t bring himself to participate in religious acts and ceremonies whose true meaning had been lost in Western Judaism and as a result he felt torn from communal life, p. 179); he also perceived a distance towards his family (the basis of the community for Judaism) whose education and vision of life was so different from his own and who frowned upon his dedication to literature; Czechoslovakia, the country where he lived, was at the time seeking its independence through nationalistic movements (let’s not forget that Kafka felt closely attached to Germany, but he was not German) and nationalistic Czechs were attacking the homes and properties of non-Czechs, many of them German Jews; he considered his own native language, German, a borrowing for a Jew; he felt he was a typical representative of the over-rational, morbidly introspective Western Jew who was looked down on by many (not only anti-Semitics but even Zionists, as well as part of the German literature of the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries) and regarded as a hollow parasite without any imagination whose only concern was to thrive by faking an unreal assimilation at the cost of giving up his own identity (p. 146). Similar expressions of self-hatred were frequent among Western Jews in Kafka’s times and many, including Kafka, turned their eyes towards Eastern Jews and admired their closeness to tradition and their true religious feelings. Martin Buber and Hasidism were highly influencial in this respect.
Kafka’s only refuge from his estrangement in all these realms was literature, which, as occurred so frequently with him, was both a relief and a new source of grief: not only did his parents despise this dedication, it also proved to be painfully incompatible with founding a family, and meant probing his wounds yet again, an extra dose of affliction. Self-scrutiny led him to a relentless analysis of each corner of his inner self and to employ his usual severity to examine his most deeply hidden filth. This, he considered, was his responsibility in life: a suicidal quest for self-knowledge. This involved pain, which for him constituted the main link with other human beings. But in Kafka’s view only in the solidarity of a community can mankind improve and the frail individual strive for personal development and spiritual advancement.
Great intellectual or ascetic deeds are not required for most, Kafka seems to say in Das Schloss (1922): all it takes is to lead a simple life in the awareness that God lies everywhere behind appearances (p. 263). This, again, points to the importance of family life within a supportive community united not by economic interest, but by common traditions and goals (all these motifs were drawn by Kafka from Hasidism). The justification of one’s life lies in taking care of simple everyday tasks: working, earning a living and taking care of the family. Erotic love is essential in finding the way to God, who is present in all things (an important aspect in Judaism and Hasidism in particular, p. 262). All of this implies that for Kafka life is justified simply by living it (p. 199). No divine intervention is to be expected or even appreciated, because there isn’t one God and no particular religion has privileged access to the truth (p. 117). Everyone must use their own resources and not seek the help of others, as guides and mediators are not to be trusted (priests, for example, or advocates like those in Der Prozess, written in 1914, who only pursue their own benefit and often take people even further from the truth, p. 114). Kafka, like Gershom Scholem, condemns the tendency of Jews to Messianism, so recurrent throughout their history in difficult times, which he viewed as a yearning for future salvation that prevented people from finding any value in the present and employing their full potential (p. 232-234).
[Image from the film Das Schloss directed by Michael Haneke in 1997]
Kafka uses the term God in a metaphorical way, and doesn’t refer to one particular deity associated with one specific religion or a special set of rules. He was a deeply religious atheist and “the object of his religious feelings was not some supernatural entity, but the collective being of mankind united in ‘das Unzerstörbare’” (p. 201), the indestructible vital moral energy inside every human being which they all share even though most are unaware of it. Equilibrium would be restored if this vital force could be reunited with man’s consciousness. Kafka goes even further and suggests, like Feuerbach, that God is precisely the evidence of estrangement because it is a mere projection of human potential and “in religion man contemplates his own latent nature”, the possibility of greatness and even perfection (p. 201).
One essential concept in Kafka’s work is “guilt”, a burden that everyone is born with as a result of the Fall and expulsion from Paradise. Man decided to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and this produced a radical split in him: he fell from being into consciousness, which put an end to the harmony in his inner self. He could now see the chasm between his perceptions and reality. What is most disturbing is the fact that Kafka considered guilt previous to any action, it is simply taken for granted, and denying it only increases the guilt. This is what happens to Josef K., the main character in Der Prozess. He is never informed of the charges against him and tries by all means to find out and prove them a mistake. But there was no one specific wrongdoing which he had committed: his whole life was morally and psychologically at fault because he had neglected some important aspects, particularly the animal side of his being (sex or contact with others, for example). His life followed a strict routine where only work mattered so his personality was full of deficiencies and repressions. But his main guilt resides in ignoring the law (“In an adult human being, moral ignorance is itself a moral offence”, p. 101) and putting forward all kinds of excuses to be acquitted by the Court (the embodiment of absolute justice). There are officials willing to help K., but he refuses to see the light of truth. The arrest itself should have stimulated him to abandon his moral indifference, but he kept avoiding it. Josef K. was incapable of a transformation that might have saved him and thus the novel’s only possible end is K.’s execution. He is killed like a dog and deprived of all dignity. It’s “pure justice untempered by mercy” without any “concessions to human frailty”, in Robertson’s words (p. 120). Though it may appear so, Kafka is not advocating for submission to such an inhuman order: rebellion is possible by being part of a community, never as an isolated individual. And thus at the very end K. starts to realize his faults, but this necessary personal development, the transformation of his consciousness and a new vision of the world that were required of him come too late (p. 129). Kafka was, no doubt, a moral rigorist (p. 103).
[YouTube video of Andreas Kriegenburg’s Der Prozess]
As an artist, Kafka felt that his contribution to society had to go further than simply living a family life which he considered ideal for most: his spiritual exploration is an attempt to approach the limits, the frontier of knowledge and “force his way beyond it into the unexplored regions of consciousness” (p. 225). For him there is a deep breach between being and consciousness (which he also refers to as appearance and reality, the absolute and the human, the spiritual world and the world of the senses), though it is only illusory and must be overcome. He considers himself an explorer with a special gift of clear vision moving forward through a desolate wasteland in search of a more habitable country (p. 222). This reminds us of Nietzsche and his own quest for truth and knowledge, alone in the highest icy mountains. Here is probably the origin of the landscape we find in Das Schloss. Both Nietzsche and Kafka considered knowledge a necessary previous impulse rather than a goal. Life itself was the goal and no other objective is to be sought: what matters is pure inquiry because, as Kafka adds, we are trapped in the deceptive world of the senses. His moral rigorism was, of course, not shared by Nietzsche.
[The original sin and the fall. Michelangelo]
Kafka’s longing for a family was put aside to answer his summons, his task as a writer: he had to be one of the scarce spiritual leaders to help his community out of the wasteland of darkness (the image of light as truth, and its opposite, darkness as confusion appears repeatedly in Kafka’s works). There were reasons for this: the difficult new times had obscured the importance of religion as the primary element of cohesion in society. For Kafka, religion is a human innate impulse, and art (through legends and myth) unveils falsehood and helps to approach ‘das Unzerstörbare’, the indestructible core, which could never be apprehended intellectually but only “by living a certain way and thus being part of it” (p. 239). Kafka considered literature important “as a vehicle of national feeling” (p. 21).
His responsibility didn’t permit him active intervention (p. 135) but his task was unavoidable. In his writings there are frequent images in which Kafka sees himself as a military leader or sometimes a watchman or guardian (let’s not forget his admiration for Napoleon, Alexander the Great or Moses). The decline in traditional values, the dwarfing of man by capitalism, the collapse of the Austrian empire and his own increasing sense of not belonging where he was (Czechoslovakia was demanding independence; Germany, where he always wanted to live, was never his country even though that was his native language and culture; there was a clear increase of anti-Semitism), together with the possibility of helping set the basis for a new community of Jews which the Balfour Declaration of 1917 made possible in Palestine, all fed by his increasing sympathy with Zionism, led him to consider it his duty to set the soil for the new society based on religious foundations in accordance with his convictions.
Contradictory as he was, however, Kafka often didn’t consider himself fit for the task, but felt obliged to undertake it since the perplexed age either provided no leaders or those who were fit to lead were not willing or prepared to answer the summons. This can be observed in his detachment from the previously admired Werfel upon perceiving that he evaded his social responsibilities by depicting a gifted man who received a call but was set back by his private traumas (p. 222).
Kafka’s views imply that “the present lacks authority, but requires not so much a political leader (Alexander) as a spiritual one (Moses). By his methods of indirection and suggestion, Kafka conveys […] a diagrammatic picture of the condition of the world. Traditional authority is impotent, society is in decline: at its best it lacks heroes, at worst it is threatened by primitive violence and anarchy. A spiritual leader is required, but none is available; instead, the task of defending the community has fallen to frail and humble people who are unequal to it.” (p. 139).
[Moses by Michelangelo]
Kafka’s main narrative achievement as a narrator, according to Robertson (who disagrees on this aspect with the view commonly held by experts) is that he attains an ironic detachment from the hero combined with solidarity towards him by means of offering two perspectives: apparently, the reader’s view coincides with that of the protagonist and therefore we can feel his sufferings, but on the other hand we receive additional information from an external narrator who doesn’t make himself too obvious but allows the reader a certain distance and a superior view. What we have is a combination of sympathetic and ironic identification which serves Kafka to illustrate that our knowledge can be “contradicted by our sensations […] This discrepancy between what one knows and what one feels […] is not easy to convey in literature” (p. 75).
Paradoxical, bewildering, puzzling, cryptic, disturbing, perplexing, oblique, subtle, enigmatic, chilling… are all adjectives that Robertson employs to define Kafka and his work. The fact that so many different interpretations of his writings are possible and coherent makes him one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, for it means that his view is not simply Jewish, or Czech or German. He is one of the most complex and subtle writers of our time. Kafka, the outcast, has a special gift to express human nature which very few writers have.
[Bridges of Prague]
(All my gratitude goes to Julia Greef for her invaluable assistance and kindness revising the text and making the necessary corrections)