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Franz KafkaReview - Franz Kafka
The Poet of Shame and Guilt
by Saul Friedlšnder
Yale University Press, 2013
Review by Joshua Gidding, Ph.D.
Jan 28th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 5)

"The Impossible Writer"

In a 1914 letter to his sister Ottla, quoted in Saul Friedländer's study Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, the thirty-year-old writer confided: "I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness."  In Friedländer's Freudian reading, one of the ways this difference expressed itself was in Kafka's repressed homosexuality, which was "central to [his] life and work."  Homoerotic attraction (on Kafka's part, never consummated) figured in four of his friendships: with Oskar Pollak, the novelist Franz Werfel, Yitzak Löwy, and Robert Klopstock.  According to Friedländer, the "shame and guilt" of his book's title derive from homosexual and sado-masochistic urges that Kafka never, as far as we know, acted upon.  Aside from his writing, these urges were "the most obsessive preoccupation of Kafka's life."  He was "the poet of his own disorder", and that disorder was primarily sexual.

Friedländer relies mostly on the Diaries to make his case.  At a nudist sanatorium in the summer of 1912, Kafka noticed "2 handsome Swedish boys with long legs, that are so shaped and tight that the best way to get at them would be with the tongue."  Yet Friedländer concludes, a few pages later: "It is highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations."  What really strikes a reader as improbable, however -- given the graphic sexual imagery in the diary excerpt -- is the statement that Kafka did not at least "consider" the possibility of such relations. 

Friedländer says the women with whom Kafka was seriously involved -- including his two-time fiancée Felice Bauer, and the married woman who perhaps best understood him, Milena Jesenska -- "either sexually repelled or frightened him."  Writing to Franz's closest friend (and future literary executor, editor, and biographer) Max Brod, Milena intuited something more basic about her lover: "This fear doesn't just apply to me; it applies to everything that is shamelessly alive, also to the flesh, for example.  Flesh is too uncovered; he cannot stand the sight of it."

This apparent aversion, however, did not keep him from having sado-masochistic fantasies of the flesh.  He confided to Milena that "torturing is extremely important to me, I am preoccupied with nothing but being tortured or torturing."  In the Diaries he was, again, more graphic:  "Always the image of a pork butcher's broad knife that quickly and with mechanical regularity chops into me from the side and cuts off very thin slices which fly off almost like shavings because of the speed of the action."  "Just whip the horse properly!  Dig the spurs into him slowly, then pull them out with a jerk, but now let them bite into the flesh with all your strength."  Friedländer cites a passage from The Trial, where the protagonist, Joseph K., enters a room and surprises two men about to be whipped by a third: "The Whipper was sheathed in a sort of dark leather garment which left his throat and a good deal of his chest and the whole of his arms bare."  Yet missing from Friedländer's  account is any sense of Kafka's dark and quirky humor -- here expressed in the outlandish incongruity of the "Whipper" tableau.  A sense of the writer's humor, in fact, is what is conspicuously lacking in Friedländer's sometimes heavy-handedly Freudian reading of Kafka, producing the following bit of verbiage, from the chapter entitled "The Son":

The difference in the sons' "transgression" and punishment between "The Judgment" and The Metamorphosis on the one hand and "In the Penal Colony" on the other may be read as 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.

Not surprisingly, Friedländer -- who is a distinguished historian of the Holocaust -- is on surer ground when presenting the historical background of Kafka's Jewish milieu in Chapter Two, "'The Dark Complexity of Judaism'" (the title is taken from a phrase in a letter to Felice).  Friedländer is very good at connecting the complications and paradoxes of assimilationist Jewish culture of the late Nineteenth Century in Central Europe with the generational conflicts of the time -- and with Kafka's own conflicts with his father, which were of central importance to his life and writing.

The Jewish 'sons'... were often unable to deal with the 'grossness' of the fathers or their mendacity (also in terms of religious observance), while the fathers, self-made men as they were, had no patience for what in their eyes appeared as the overindulgent lifestyles of the sons and what they considered the sheer ungratefulness of their progeny.

Friedländer is astute on the way in which what seems to be arrested psychological development on the part of the son was used by the writer to further his own artistic ends:

In refusing to grow up, in failing to face the major challenges of adult life (full-fledged relationships, marriage, fatherhood, and the like), Kafka was creating, thanks to his childlike dependency, his own space, the necessary condition for the writer's life.

Kafka's attraction to the ethnic "authenticity" of Prague's Yiddish Theater -- whose director, Yitzak Löwy, became a friend of his -- was another source of annoyance to his father, who "wanted to safeguard at all costs the achievements of assimilation."  Yet that attraction did not preclude Kafka's characteristic ambivalence about his own Judaism, which he described in a letter as "non-practicing" and "non-Zionist (I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it)".  Kafka's complicated identity as both Jew and writer is captured perhaps most revealingly in his description of the four "impossibilities" of the Jewish writer in German culture.  Writing to Brod, he identified "the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing differently," and "the impossibility of writing."

          Inevitably, Friedländer asks, How Jewish is Kafka's fiction?  Here -- unlike some of his Freudian readings -- he resists reductivism, citing Kafka's contemporary, the German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin:

According to Benjamin, Kafka was listening in on tradition, but what reached him was merely something vague.  No doctrine could be learned; in Kafka's work the tradition had fallen ill....  In Kafka's fiction, the Truth remains inaccessible and is possibly nonexistent.  The messengers themselves (or the commentators) have but hazy notions regarding the messages they carry; this very uncertainty and the never-ending query that ensues are the main contributions of Kafka's Jewishness to the world he created.

Friedländer nicely ends his most suggestive chapter with the speculation that Kafka's Judaism was, perhaps, "the senseless keeping of a senseless tradition, merely due to the commitment to maintain it."

This suggestivess, however, sometimes shades over into a failure to develop ideas that might have led somewhere interesting, creating a desultory and inconclusive impression that is often frustrating.  For example, Friedländer cites the critic Stanley Corngold's characterization of Kafka as "an ecstatic....  All of Kafka's writing turns on this ecstasy -- its hiddenness, its warning, its power to justify a ruined life...."  Corngold connects this "ecstasy" with "types of Gnostic teaching rampant in Prague in Kafka's lifetime."  Following Corngold's lead, Friedländer calls this ecstatic element "Kafka's private Gnosticism", and mentions the "prevalence" of Marcionism (a type of Gnosticism) in contemporary Prague.  But Friedländer has little more to say on the subject, contenting himself with a few footnotes to other scholars who have explored the territory.  (There is little original research in the book.) 

Other possible influences on Kafka suffer a similar summary fate in Friedländer's hands.  We are told that Kafka "soaked in the world of film", but learn nothing more about this, except that a passage in Amerika, his first novel, "unavoidably evokes Chaplin".  Kafka apparently was fascinated with and idealized Napoleon, which Friedländer connects with a "deeper longing for leadership that Kafka expressed in genuine, almost erotic emotion."  But just where, or how, this "deeper longing" was expressed remains unexplained.  The author spends four pages on Kafka's response to Kierkegaard, about whom he wrote two letters to Brod.  Friedländer seems particularly interested in the application of Kierkegaard's ideas about seduction, the erotic, and lying to Kafka's relationships with Felice and Milena, but the conclusion he reaches is banal and generic:

Kierkegaard's influence on Kafka stemmed most probably from the Dane's rejection of philosophical "systems" and the foundation of his philosophy upon individual experience, individual esthetic, or moral choice, on individual readiness to "the leap of faith"....  Kafka was never influenced by the Christian postulates of this earliest "existentialism", but embraced the fundamental dread and the lonely choices that belonged to the human condition as such.

This is pretty flimsy and familiar stuff, and unfortunately, Friedländer does no better in the conclusion to the book, where we are told that

in Kafka's fiction all main characters, humans or animals, try to reach some unattainable goal, and all such hopes are dashed...the possibility of entering (or returning to) some land imagined as free and promised is blocked by insuperable obstacles....  In Kafka's texts we, like the protagonists, never find out what power crushes such fundamental human hope, the symbolic sum total of all human hopes.

Friedländer's study suffers from the same indeterminacy he notes in Kafka's fiction -- though without its revelatory effect.  The book is neither fish nor foul -- neither a full-length study of the themes of shame and guilt in Kafka's writing, and their origin in the writer's repressed sexual life, nor a shorter monograph focusing on what Friedländer does best: the cultural context of Kafka's historical Jewish milieu.  The author has some interesting things to say on both subjects, but his treatment is not sustained or satisfying, and despite the book's provocative thesis about Kafka's homoeroticism, it doesn't lead to any new or original reinterpretations of the literature.


© 2014 Joshua Gidding


Joshua Gidding, Professor and Chair, Department of English, Dowling College


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