PART TWO—The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta
My previous post, digesting the first part of Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed, was concerned with how crucial ambiguity and the suspension of moral judgement are to the continued relevance of the novel. In this, humour played a key role, of course. You can read that post here. This post is centred upon Franz Kafka’s contributions to the ongoing history of the novel—and on literary history’s attempts to efface those contributions by romanticizing them…
Max Brod both curated and grossly distorted the legacy of his friend, Franz Kafka, whom he depicted, in his execrable 1926 “cartoon novel”, The Enchanted Kingdom of Love (Zauberreich der Liebe), as a “saint of our time” (36). To Brod, it is not Kafka’s art that matters, but his exemplary life, in other words: “‘he wanted to live in perfect purity, ‘” Brod writes of the roman-a-clef’s hero Garta/Kafka(37), and was “nearly a mythological figure himself”.
Now, it is only because of Brod that we know of Kafka’s work at all: he brought out all of his friend’s unpublished books, and tirelessly worked to establish his reputation, penning four critical works on him between 1937 and 1959 (38). Throughout, Kafka is depicted as
“the religious thinker, der religiose Denker. True, he “never systematically set out his philosophy and his religious world view. Nonetheless, we can deduce rather clear fundamentals from his work, from his aphorisms especially but also from his poetry, his letters, his diaries, and then also from his way of life (from that above all). . . .”
In the aphorisms especially, we glimpse above all a moral vision, and a warning of the “punishments” to be suffered by those “‘who do not follow the path of righteousness'” that Kafka models for us (39). It is not art which matters, but his moral example:
Note the hierarchy: at the top: Kafka’s life as an example to be followed; in the middle: the aphorisms, that is, all the meditative “philosophical” passages in his diaries; at the bottom: the narrative works.
Brod is not being deliberately misleading, and is no dummy, but in spite of having written twenty novels himself displays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of modern art—and thus, of his friend’s genius.
Brod’s trailblazing has unfortunately thus created a phenomenon which Kundera labels “Kafkology” (40), an entire academic industry devoted not to Kafka’s artistic vision (to be encountered in the works themselves, but to a grossly distorted abstraction he calls “Kafkologized Kafka” (to be found in his life, letters, and his “think[ing]”(41)). Kafkology can be analysed into several facets:
- “Following Brod’s example, Kafkology examines Kafka’s books not in the large context of literary history (the history of the European novel) but almost exclusively in the microcontext of biography.” His books are somehow “‘not separable from his person'” . Kafka is Josheph K, Gregor Samsa, etc., in other words, and the key thing is to come to understand not Kafka the artist, but Kafka the person.
- “Biography becomes hagiography” (41). Kafka is made into some kind of saint (religious, leftist, etc.)
- “Kafkology systematically dislodges Kafka from the domain of aesthetics“: his alleged philosophy, his letters, his diaries thus all become of primary importance, the novels far less so.
- “Kafkology ignores the existence of modern art”(42), as if the context in which Kafka’s art developed was irrelevant or even detrimental to understanding him.
- “Kafkology is not literary criticism […but] exegesis: his work is to be treated as analogical or allegorical. Literary criticism would deal with his work in terms of aesthetic context and innovation, and as the imaginative transformation of reality, but Kafkology “decodes religious messages, [and] deciphers philosophical parables.”
Furthermore, Because Brod’s attitude to his friend’s work was primarily religious in nature, he bowdlerizes Kafka’s treatment of sex and the body, and sees him as the ascetic, impotent, feeble “saint of the twisted”(43). And while 19C portayed sex, if at all, filtered though a haze of romantic passion, Kafka’s work shows sex to be tragicomically “trivial” and “ridiculous” (and yet also “exuberant”, as opposed to downplaying it entirely or, with D.H. Lawrence, making a profane kind religion out of it by “lyricizing” it. This is particularly true in his novel Amerika, whose heroine Brunelda shows just how hilariously and “morbidly alluring” and grotesque the human body is, all at once (46). Sex is not, with Brod, “a ‘symbol of feeling'”, but exists “on the borderline between the repugnant and the exciting”.
Kundera is always fascinated with borderlines of course (see The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he admits that all of his characters have traversed some border which he himself has kept behind), and here it is no different: sex, too, is an existential enigma with its own borderlines, and Kafka
unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant; its terrible triviality, which in no way lessens its frightening power, etc. (44)
This is also true in The Castle, where K and Frieda copulate “behind the bar, ‘among the beer puddles and the other filth covering the floor'”(47). But sex is not only ridiculous and animalistic, it is also poetic. Kafka soon continues:
“There hours went by, hours of mutual breaths, of mutual heartbeats, hours in which K. continually had the feeling that he was going astray, or that he was farther inside the strange world than any person before him, in a strange world where the very air had in it no element of his native air, where one must suffocate from strangeness and where, in the midst of absurd enticements, one could do nothing but keep going, keep going astray.”
In fact, what Kafka had already achieved in his novels is exactly what surrealists like André Breton complained that bourgeois realist novels (with their obsession with sensory and psychological verisimilitude) were incapable of: a “‘fusion of dream and reality'” (48). When an artist like Kafka has such a “density of imagination”, reality is suddenly illuminated by the unexpected encounters of unlike things (as in a dream). In a stunningly bizzare chapter of The Castle, Kafka continually disorients the reader with strange interruptions to the couple’s amours, only to reveal at the end that two official assistants had been voyeuristically and bureaucratically spying upon their adventure the whole time: smutty promiscuity and the bureaucratic nightmare are conjoined, and what this reveals to us (the strange reality of our own modern world) is only possible because Kafka has “[broken] through the plausibility barrier” (51)
Not in order to escape the real world (the way the Romantics did) but to apprehend it better. Because apprehending the real world is part of the definition of the novel: but how to both apprehend it and at the same time engage in an enchanting game of fantasy? How be rigorous in analyzing the world and at the same time be irresponsibly free at playful reveries? How bring these two incompatible purposes together? Kafka managed to solve this enormous puzzle. He cut a breach in the wall of plausibility; the breach through which many others followed him, each in his own way: Fellini, Marquez, Fuentes, Rushdie. And others, others.