Book Review | Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

By | May 20, 2013

Saul Friedländer
Yale University Press
2013, $25.00, pp. 200

“Dearest Max, my last request: everything I leave behind me…in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread…Yours, Franz Kafka”

Dearest Max was Max Brod, who famously decided not to obey the last wish of his best friend, who died in 1924 of tuberculosis one month short of his 41st birthday. Brod, an ambitious and prolific writer himself, would have long since been forgotten had it not been for his role as the custodian, editor and publisher of Kafka’s writings. Brod escaped the Nazis on the last train out of Prague, carrying two suitcases filled with the material he was supposed to burn.The works he saved and edited made Kafka the most important literary figure of the middle of the 20th century. W.H. Auden said about Kafka in 1941: “Had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of.” Auden’s view was, to quote Kafka authority Ritchie Robinson, “encouraged by Max Brod’s hagiographic memoir…which portrayed Kafka as having a constructive spiritual message for distressed moderns.” In fact, Brod’s memoir described Kafka’s writings as redemptive and “sacred” and said of the man, “I do not wish to suggest that he was a perfect saint…[but he] was on the road to becoming one.”

Today Kafka’s personal and literary reputations are not what they were in 1941. Neither the image of the saintly invalid nor the redemptive reading of novels such as The Trial and The Castle endures. Indeed, Max Brod has become the whipping boy of the current generation of scholars who have gained access to Kafka’s original manuscripts and identified Brod’s expurgations. They miss no opportunity to malign “Dearest Max.” The Nobelist J.M. Coetzee delivered the coup de grace: “Brod’s optimistic reading of The Castle (influenced no doubt by his own Zionism) makes of Kafka—whom Brod revered yet utterly failed to understand—a rather simple and conservative thinker who responds to the challenges of modern life with a call to old verities.”

Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer has joined the revisionist critical ranks with his new biography, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. It is a slender volume of 180 pages written in a magisterial tone and unexpectedly focused on “sexual matters”— particularly on Kafka’s homosexual tendencies. He follows a trail of evidence through Kafka’s correspondence and diaries highlighted by the discrepancies between Brod’s version and the newer critical editions, his thesis being that Kafka was shamed all of his life by homosexual impulses.

The interpretive biography tells us that far from “sacred” writing, Kafka’s work reflects his struggle with what was then considered a sexual disorder. Friedländer argues that 50 years of Kafka commentary has missed the forest for the trees. “Treasures of erudition have been spent on recording the tiniest details of Kafka’s life and on excavating the philosophical foundation of each of his metaphors or name game.” Meanwhile, the “huge spires towering over Kafka territory—his sense of shame and guilt, perceived by every reader have elicited mainly very general and abstract interpretations.”  He offers two examples. The literary critic George Steiner wrote, “Franz Kafka lived in original sin…to be alive, engender further life was to sin.” And John Updike, in his foreword to The Complete Stories, wrote, “Kafka epitomizes one aspect of [the] modern mind set: a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be placated.” Friedländer believes these pundits have missed the “personal anguish” on which the “spires of shame and guilt are founded.”

Friedländer aptly quotes Erich Heller, a leading Kafka scholar of the 1970s, to explain the vast and ever-expanding Kafka commentary, describing the author as  “the creator of the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature, a phenomenon that…perpetually attracts and at the same time repels the search for what it means.”  Friedländer goes on to catalogue the many contexts in which Kafka’s texts have been explicated: “A neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism and much more; in short he has become the most protean cultural figure of the past century.”

Friedländer sweeps all this aside; his Kafka “was no builder of theories, no designer of systems, he followed dreams, created metaphors and unexpected associations; he told stories he was a poet.” Friedländer presents a picture of a man like many second-generation American Jews. He was circumcised, bar mitzvahed, taught to read Hebrew but not what it meant, and was taken to synagogue for the High Holidays. But later in life he became an enthusiast of the Yiddish theater and still later took up the study of Hebrew. If it is a question of his social identity, he was a Jew to his marrow, says Friedländer.  But as to his faith and its impact on his writings, a subject debated by Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin, here is Friedländer’s Delphic concluding question: “Was Judaism, for Kafka—and that would be the ultimate irony—the senseless keeping of a senseless tradition, merely due to the commitment to maintain it?” Like many who write about Kafka, Friedländer’s pronouncements become Kafkaesque.

But his underlying thesis is that all of Kafka’s writings were autobiographical and that is where Friedländer finds their ultimate meaning. “The writer’s limited role was to provide the community with a temporary illusion, necessary but ephemeral, a mere ‘ceremonial performance’ itself ultimately destroyed—like Franz Kafka’s own life,” he writes. Friedländer’s argument that Kafka’s writing is a reflection of himself is seen in his chapter dedicated to the analysis of Kafka’s short story, The Country Doctor—one of the few writings that Kafka published and wanted saved for posterity.  The story is one of Kafka’s most dream-like and has been much interpreted as if it were a dream. Of course Kafka is not available to give us his associations, the standard method of dream interpretation, so other commentators, like Friedländer, give us their associations. For Friedländer the story “evokes indirectly some of the major issues to which [Kafka] kept returning: a shameful absence of feelings and moral responsibility, a confused and confusing sexuality, the evasiveness of truth and, mainly, the Evil in the world and of the world.” This brilliant but far from lucid pronouncement tells us more about the man interpreting than about the dream story or the man who wrote it. As most of Kafka’s literary critics have concluded, there is not a definitive conclusion to Kafka’s stories—each of us has to grapple with the texts and find our own meaning. Friedländer however has a bottom line, the story: “epitomizes the thrust of Kafka’s work…there is no escape. The innocent victims are destroyed…there is no ‘grace’ and no redemption.”  What is lacking in this bleak vision is Brod’s telling remark about Kafka and his friends rolling around with laughter when Kafka read his stories aloud. It is humor that gave Kafka distance from the personal agony that Friedländer engages.

Had this biography been written by a person of lesser intellectual and cultural depth it would have been a disaster.Fortunately, Friedländer’s erudition serves as a buffer against his own emphasis on sexual matters. Kafka experts have long been aware of the great man’s homophilic impulses. Stanley Korngold’s 2007 article “Kafka and Sex” is more forthright and explicit, citing the earlier German literature that finds the argot of turn-of-the-century gay men in Kafka’s writings.So Friedländer’s thesis is not new and he certainly knows it. Friedländer however has his own eccentric spin—he wants us to believe that what caused Kafka’s lifelong embarrassment were merely fantasies: “All the sources indicate, however, that his feelings of guilt were related not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.”

It is by no means clear what all these “sources” are. Friedländer acknowledges Kafka’s youthful attractions to Oskar Pollack, his brilliant high school friend, to Itzhak Lowy, the Yiddish actor and to Robert Klopstock, a medical student, but he offers no evidence from any source to suggest that nothing “concrete” came of them. It is of course impossible to prove a negative and so Friedländer simply asserts it. “It is highly improbable that Kafka ever considered the possibility of homosexual relations.” This is Friedländer’s conclusion after his perusal of relevant diaries, letters and texts. But the historian has his magnifying glass too close to the text, and his professional expertise obviously does not extend to the domain of the psychosexual.

Consider what is now known about the saintly Kafka. Franz Kafka was a tall, handsome man-about-town, elegantly dressed, “a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all night cafes, literary soirees and brothels.” At home he kept a collection of pornography. Does this sound like a man who took no concrete initiatives? Friedländer has painted himself into a corner and strains to support his eccentric hypothesis. Friedländer knows that Kafka suffered from tuberculosis and depression much of his adult life, although he may not know that these conditions are often linked. He quotes from Kafka’s letter to Brod of July 5, 1922, when Kafka was again in a sanitarium for treatment of his TB:

“Last night…what I had almost forgotten during the last relatively quiet time became clear to me: namely on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges when it wills and heedless of my stammering, destroys my life…” Friedländer wants to explain what “the ‘dark power’ could be.” He adduces as evidence that a month earlier on June 5, Kafka wrote in his diary, “‘Bad days (G). Already four or five days.’ The ‘G’ means Geschlecht, sex, and the entry is not included in Brod’s edition.” That G is a sample of Friedländer’s prized archival evidence. He suggests that the “dark power” might be the onset of depression, but he concludes that “sexual urges seem more plausible.” This is an either/or question that would be meaningless to any experienced psychoanalytic clinician. Depression and perverse sexual fantasies are not incompatible—indeed, they go together. And any cultural historian familiar with “psychosexual matters” would suggest that completing the pattern of depression and perverse fantasy would be masturbation, a prototypical source of self-reproach in that era. Perhaps it is Friedländer’s own sense of propriety and reverence for Kafka that keeps him from even considering this quotidian “concrete” alternative.

Whether or not Kafka actually engaged in homosexual relations, based on earlier studies and Friedländer’s accounts it is entirely plausible that Franz Kafka was gay and was physically repelled by women. His long engagement to Felice Bauer was never consummated and he described their rare attempts at physical intimacy as “punishment.” In his accounts of his visits to brothels he indicated that he was attracted to the older and less attractive women.  And in one of his letters he reports that as a young man he was attracted only to the woman he could not be with. Kafka’s “spires of shame and guilt” are like that of any closeted, gay man in a homophobic culture struggling to understand his sexuality, except that in Kafka’s case his sadomasochistic, homosexual, perverse fantasies were also a source of his creativity. Friedländer certainly recognizes and emphasizes the creative force of the fantasies.

The artist and particularly the introspective artist like Kafka, as Freud taught us, harvests his fantasies and turns them into art. Consider the following excerpt quoted by Friedländer from a letter to Brod. “My mind is daily prey to fantasies, for example that I lie stretched out on the floor sliced up like a roast, and with my hand am slowly pushing a slice of meat toward a dog in the corner.” This is horrific sadomasochism but processed into sublime, unforgettable art that Kafka knew Brod would appreciate and perhaps even see the humor. Early on in his book, to demonstrate Kafka’s sense of guilt, Friedländer quotes from a letter to Milena Jesenka, the married woman with whom Kafka late in his short life came close to real intimacy. “I am dirty, Milena, infinitely dirty, this is why I scream so much about purity. No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.” Kafka might be confessing that he has homosexual tendencies and that is what makes him dirty. But he is also suggesting and in this letter demonstrating that the songs of angels are inspired by those “dirty” fantasies. And is there not ironic humor in that along with “spires of shame and guilt”?

Alan Stone is professor of law and psychiatry in the faculty of law and medicine at Harvard University. His most recent book is Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life.


2 thoughts on “Book Review | Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt

  1. Bill Jeffries says:

    Re Alan Stone on Kafka:
    This is the first time I have seen the useful summary of religions as the ‘senseless keeping of a senseless tradition’, thank you; it succinctly encapsulates what Daniel Dennett recently described as ‘there is no polite way to explain to religious people that their belief is bunk’ (I paraphrase, not having the quote at hand).

    Regarding Kafka’s sexuality, I have to say that, in my view, it likely had a marginal effect on his writing; but to assume or assert that he had strong homo-erotic tendencies must be surely counter-balanced by his above-board obsessions with a series of women over the last eleven+ years of his life. Friedländer is likely pursuing what he sees as an an semi-unoccupied Kafkan niche, perhaps at his Kafka-critico peril.

    ‘Attracted to women he could not be with…’ That, I am sorry to report, has been the fate of 95% of the men (and v.v. women) I have known over the last 60 years – so, not unique to Kafka, & therefore probably not at all interesting or significant re Kafka’s writing. However, cinema, as it has evolved, would probably not exist without this lusting phenomenon as its essential, and raw, material – the history of Hollywood, etc., might be a better route to pursue that line, leaving K to rest peacefully when it comes to the universal desire for the other.

    Shame and guilt are perhaps best treated, discussed and analyzed by and on the living; to assess Kafka’s shame 90 years after his death is a stretch, such that one might want to resurrect the term ‘gratuitous scholarship’ to describe the ‘in-depth’ research into the life of a man who was, after all, a writer living under and with the strains of several categories of simultaneous modernism – a time perhaps not unlike our own?

    The main peril of Kafka studies has been, and will remain, the focus by critics on any single aspect of his achievement, or his perceived ‘condition’, to the exclusion of everything else. He was a complex writer who wrote simply – we would do well to focus on his writing in as ‘ecological’ a way as we possibly can. Kafka the rhizome-maker might be a better way to proceed.

  2. Rick Bell says:

    Has not ‘The Metamorphosis’ been read as what happened when your family, employer etc. learned you were a homosexual – especially at the time Kafka was writing? That you could only be seen as ‘monstrous vermin’, filth, infected, diseased … so everyone responds with revulsion and disgust. It erases everything else anyone ever thought about you, all of your good traits and actions. A reaction captured by the quip, “I’d rather you told me you were dead.”

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