KAFKA AND NATIONALISM
Die Furcht ist das Unglück, deshalb aber ist
nicht Mut das Glück, sondern Furchtlosigkeit, nich Mut, der vielleicht
mehr will als die Kraft, also nicht Mut, sondern Furchtlosigkeit,
ruhende, offen blickende, alles ertragende.
Let us take three components as our point of departure: the existential,
national, and social. Which one is fundamental? What is the relative
position of the national component? If we are dealing with the national
issue as such, the national component is obviously fundamental. (This is
really a tautological statement.) What matters in literature is not the
national dimension but the existential one. Franz Kafka is a case of
Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 /1/. His Hebrew name was Amschel,
after his mother's grandfather. However, he spoke no Hebrew. His
father's mother tongue was Czech, his mother's German. Kafka's father
interpreted his surname by means of folk etymology, and he chose the
picture of a kavka (v is pronounced /f/ in German), or jackdaw, perched
on an oak twig, as the sign of his shop. Kafka's mother tongue was thus
German; he could easily understand Czech too, as wittness Milena's
letters to him, written in Czech. It was only in 1917, under the
influence of Zionism, that Kafka started to learn Hebrew /2/.
Kafka never showed a desire to be assimilated. He was constantly aware
of his race, of his Jewish nationality. His attitude to Zionism as an
expression of radical Jewish nationalism went through three stages. As a
student he was very interested in the Zionist movement. He took part in
the gatherings of the Association of Jewish Students, etc. In 1913 he
even participated in the 11 th Zionist congress in Vienna /3/. This was
followed by two or three years' abstinence, when he felt, as he wrote in
a letter to Felice, indifferent to Zionism. Even though his closest
friend Max Brod was among the more prominent Zionists, Kafka simply
could not stand collectivity. Yet his attitude changed soon after the
emergence of anti-Semitism in 1916. He subscribed to the Zionist
magazine Self-Defence (Selbswehr) and started contributing to it.
Already in the special New Year issue for 1916 he had published an
article entitled «Before the Law» («Vor dem Gesetz») /4/. Yet it was
only gradually that he became an enthusiastic adherent: he complained
about the irregular distribution of the magazine and enlisted
subscribers himself. Towards the end of his life he wrote increasingly
for the magazine. The list of books on Jewish subjects that he had read
contains dozens of titles. And even though he did not think of himself
as a Zionist, he suggested to Felice that she join in the activities of
the Jewish Popular Centre in Berlin. He supported his favorite sister
Ottla in her intention to emigrate to Palestine, and promised to
contribute 1,000 korunas to the Jewish National Fund if it would help
her with the emigration procedure.
In keeping with the Zionist programme, according to which Jews should
abandon abstract occupations for concrete ones, in the first place
physical work and work on the land – i.e. that they should grow fresh
roots, Kafka took up gardening. This, of course, was largely motivated
by his illness, which he somehow saw as connected with his Jewishness:
«Such rootedness in actual soil is not the property of individual men
but is preformed in his essence and, in its turn, re-forms his essence
(and his body). And is this we are supposed to cure?» /5/.
He associated the idea of recovery with his decision to go Palestine and
engage in physical activity in the kibbutzim there. Terrible insomnia,
from which he suffered in 1923 and which brought him to the brink of
insanity, finally made him decide to leave for Palestine, a move he
considered «utterly radical» /6/.
He compared his journey to Palestine with the biblical crossing of the
Red Sea. For purely practical reasons now, he still diligently studied
Hebrew, chiefly in its conversational form.
Kafka was prevented by the advance of illness and, finally, death, but
he would never have taken the step anyway. He hesitated between the need
for complete and solitary self-sufficiency and the desire to belong to a
community. At crucial moments, however, and at other times too, an
entirely individual view of selfhood prevailed. It is in this concept of
selfhood, and not in Kafka's explicit national affiliation, that the
national and spiritual ties linking him with the Jewish people are most
Some believe that the longing for community triumphed after Kafka
embraced Zionism for the second time. In support of their argument they
adduce the following passage from «The Great Wall of China» (Beim Bau
der chinesischen Mauer):
«Every fellow-countryman was a brother, it was for him that they built
the protective wall, and as long as he lives he will be grateful to them
– body, soul, and possession. Unity! Unity! Cheeck by jowl, a genuine
popular festivity, bloodstream but rolling sweetly and coming back
throught the endless expanse of China» /7/.
What we have here, however, is chieftly irony, and this is also true of
later texts that deal even more directly with the life of an exceptional
individual within a community, a nation. Thus in «A Dog's Researches»
(Forschung eines Hundes) he looks at the community from the viewpoint of
individual existence, whereas in «Josephine the Singer» (Josephine, die
Sängerin) he deals with the behaviour of a community as it affects an
In Kafka, the attitude to the other and others, including his own
nation, is always shaped primarily through the attitude to his own being
(Sein), i.e. his finite being, the being for death (Sein zum Tode). The
ethic comes before the ethnic, the ontological comes before the
ethnical. The national precedes the social, the existential precedes the
national. For what we deal with at the existential level are not
existential questions but the manner of being, a search for answers to
questions of being.
At the same time, it is perfectly clear to Kafka that «literature
belongs to a nation before it can belong to literary history» /8/, and
this is especially true of minor literatures. Here is Kafka on the
subject of minor literatures as compared with major ones:
«What, in a major literature, proceeds from below and is lodged in
perfectly sound cellar of the building, occurs here in broad daylight;
and whatever breaks out very briefly there is displayed here as a matter
of life and death» /9/.
Deleuze and Guattari rightly stress that by 'minor literature' Kafka
does not mean the literature of a small nation but that of a minority
which uses the language of a large, or majority, nation. The initial
problem, revealed at once in the subtitle of Deleuze and Guattari's
book, is the following: how to be an alien in one's own language? How to
wrench from one's language a minority literature that will corrode it
from the inside? Thus minority literature would be that of the Jews
using the German language, that is, the literature of Kafka /10/.
Similarly, Irish literature is a minority literature if – despite the
existence of a separate Irish language – it is written in English. If
Joyce's mother tongue was Irish – his writings are part of minority
literature, a minor literature in a Kafkian sense /11/.
Deleuze and Guattari have formulated a very seductive theory on the
basis of the following statement by Kafka:
«Even when we reflect calmly on any individual subject we never reach
the border (Grenze) whereby it touches on other things but, most of the
time, we encounter the border that is shares with politics; indeed, we
tend to see the border even before it is actually there» /12/.
This, along with Kafka's statement that in a minority literature
everything happens in broad daylight and the blood that flows is real
blood, prompted the authors of Kafka: for a Minor Literature (Kafka:
pour une littérature mineure) to conclude that a fundamental feature of
minority literatures is their a priori political nature: «Everything in
them is political» /13/.
The authors then attempt to shape this fact, the truth of which has been
confirmed by the politicization of Kafka's writings the viewpoint of
Marxism and socijalist relaism /14/, into a positive political
programme. What they do not realise is precisely Kafka's ironic attitude
and resistance to the facile politicization of literature. For Kafka,
the essence of literature is elsewhere, it borders on the existential:
«The loneliness which has largely been imposed on me, although partly of
my seeking – yet was this anything but imposition of another kind? – has
now become quite unambiguous and tends to an extreme. Where does it
lead? Most likely, it could lead to madness, and there is no more to be
said about that; the blind race dashes through me and tears me apart: or
else I might – might I? – manage to remain standing, albeit with the
tiniest segment of my being, and allow the race to carry me in its
course. Where will it take me then? The race is no more than an image, I
could as easily have called it a charge against this world's last
frontier (Ansturm gegen die letzte irdische Grenze), a charge from
below, a charge by the people, and since it is no more than an image I
could replace it with the image of a charge from above, against myself.
This entire literature is a charge against the frontier and, had not
Zionism interfered, it could easily have developed into a new kind to
find of secret learning, a cabbala. The seeds are there already. True,
what is still to find is an unintelligible genius who will let his roots
grow again into the past centuries, or else rebuild these past
centuries, but instead of consuming himself in the process, it is only
then he would begin to consume himself» /15/.
Literature as a leap, as the charge against a border, against the last
border in this world, is located beyond the social, that is, in the
heart of the existential. It happens first in the world as the space of
being, and only then in the arena of national or social conflict. For it
is only in the world as the space of being that both the ethic and the
ethnic can grow.
What counts is the writer's opennes towards himself as existence,
towards his own being-in-the world (In-der-Welt-Sein). The universal
lies at the bottom of existence, in what is most individual. As sn
artist, the writer ascends towards the universal only when he descends
to his own inimitable uniqueness.
We need neither fear (Furcht) nor courage (Mut). What we need is a
serene, open-eyed fearlessness (Furchtlosigkeit) that can bear anything.
1. One of Kafka's best biographies is by Hartmut Binder: Franz Kafka –
Leben und Persönlichkeit, Stuttgart, 1979.
2. Günther Anders writes on the subject in a somewhat melodramatic vein:
«As a Jew, he did not quite belong to the Christian world. As an
indifferent Jew – which is what he basically was – he did not quite
belong to the Jews. As a speaker of German he was not quite Czech. As a
German speaking Jew he was not quite a Czech German. As a Czech he was
not quite Austrian. As a clerk in worker's insurance he did not quite
belong to the middle class. As the son of a middle-class man he did not
quite belong to the working class. Neither did he belong to his office,
for he felt that he was a writer. Nor was he a writer, for he had
sacrificed everything to his family. And 'in my family I am more of a
stranger than a stranger could ever be' (Letter to his Father)». Günther
Anders, Kafka. Pro et contra, München, 1951, p.18. For more information
about Kafka and Prague, see the collection of articles Franz Kafka aus
Prager Sicht (Verlag der Tschechoslowakischen Akademie der
Wissenschaften), Praha, 1965.
3. See Kafka's letter to Max Brod in: Franz Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924,
Frankfurt/M, 1989, p.120. On Kafka as a young man see Klaus Wagenbach,
Franz Kafka. Eine Biographie seiner Jugend, Bern, 1958.
4. It was only in 1983 that Ulf Abraham discovered the «literary»
background of Kafka's legend «Before the Law». See Ulf Abraham, «Mose
'Vor dem Gesetz': Eine unbekannte Vorlage zu Kafkas 'Türhüterlegende'»,
in: Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und
Geistesgeschichte, 1/1983, pp.636-651. See also Kar Erich Grözinger,
Kafka und die Kabbala. Das Jüdische im Werk und Denken von Franz Kafka,
5. Franz Kafka, «Betrachtungen über Sünde, Leid, Hoffnung und den wahren
Weg», in: Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande, Frankfurt/M, 1980,
6. Franz Kafka, Briefe an Ottla und die Familie, Frankfurt/M, 1974,
7. Hartmut Binder sees this as «the image of the kind of national unity
that Kafka longed and considered the guarantee of a happy life». Binder,
8. Franz Kafka, Tagebücher 1910-1923, Frankfurt/M, 1983, p.152.
9. ibidem, p.153.
10. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: «Even those who had the
misfortune to be born in the land of a major literature have to write in
its language, just as a Czech Jew writes in German or a Uzbek in
Russian. To write as a dog makes itself a den, as a mouse burrows itself
a hole. And to that end, to find one's own point of underdevelopment,
one's own tent, one's own third world, one's own desert». Gilles Deleuze
and Felix Guattari, Kafka: pour une littérature mineure, Paris, 1975, p.
33. Several scholars (e.g. Pavel Trost, «Franz Kafka und das Prager
Deutsch»; Fritz Martini, «Ein Manuskript Franz Kafkas»; Claude Prévost,
«Kafka 'Classique de notre époque malade'», Littérature, politique,
idéologie, Paris, 1973, p.188) have drawn attention to the specific
nature of the German language used by Kafka and described by himself, in
a letter to Max Brod in June 1924, as a jargon.
11. See Mario Kopiæ, «Joyce and Nationalism», Erewhon (Amsterdam),
12. Franz Kafka, Tagebücher, p. 153. On Kafka's political views see Lee
Baxandall, «Kafka and Radical Perspective», in: Mosaic (Winnipeg), III:4
(1970), pp.73-79; Friedrich Tomberg, «Kafkas Tiere und die bürgerliche
Gesellschaft», in: Das Argument (Berlin), XXVIII (1964), pp.8-13.
13. Deleuze-Guattari, op.cit., p.31.
14. See Franz Kafka: An Anthology of Marxist Criticism, edited by
Kenneth Hughes, Hannover-London, 1981. In his preface, the editor says
that no author has occasioned more profund and significant rifts within
Mliterary criticism than Kafka (p.xiii).
15. Franz Kafka, Tagebücher, p. 405.