The place of Kafka

I really got into Kafka through this essay I read in the New Yorker by Aaron Appelfeld. He wrote quite a moving piece about his own life as a Holocaust survivor, the life of Kafka and his writing, and the history of the Jewish community in Prague.

Kafka was a German-speaking Jew living in Prague who was completely assimilated and non-religious. But Appelfeld thinks that Kafka was deeply influenced by Judaism and Jewish thought, even though the word “Jew” doesn’t appear in any of his writings.

An interesting quote:

“Kafka felt, even more strongly than Freud did, that demons lurked behind the mask of Western civilization. Fifteen years after this death, they burst out of the cellar in the form of the S.S. and other heartless abbreviations. In Kafka’s work, the demons are defense lawyers and prosecutors, and there is still an illusion of justice. Words sound as though they have value.

Although the word “Jew” does not appear in any of Kafka’s fiction, he is a very Jewish writer. This is not, I think, because of his love for the Yiddish language and the Yiddish theatre and not because he studied Hebrew and Judaism intensively. Rather it is because of a deep Jewish anxiety that permeates everything he wrote. An unnamed threat, which ends in judgment and execution, stalks his riddling stories. We do not know the identity of the accuser and the accused but we do know that fewer than twenty years stand between Kafka’s apocalyptic fantasies and the Nazi takeover of Europe.

The setting of “In The Penal Colony” may be described as a place where sentencing is carried out. The accused of breaking the law are tattooed, the law that has been broken is written on the length of their naked bodies  by a huge apparatus. Carrying out a sentence involves a great deal of determination and belief in the method. Was Kafka aware of its prophetic nature? I doubt it. For the most part, a true prophet is not aware of everything he is prophesying.

Kafka is possibly the last profound connection to Jewish Prague. He is the symbol of the assimilated Jew, who shed tribal and ethnic dress and created K., the man who seems to have no identifying characteristics. Yet the creature K. is so Jewish that you cannot assign him any other identity – a wanderer, hunted despite his innocence, consumed by anxiety.”

Appelfeld also writes that after the Holocaust, refugees would sit around their houses in Jerusalem and discuss Kafka as if they were discussing religious texts. Major scholars such as Gershom Scholem (he legitimized Jewish mysticism by actually researching and writing about it, whereas before it was treated as an embarrassing side note) believed that Kafka was part of the three pillars of Jewish mystical thought: the Bible, the Zohar (Book of Splendour, Jewish mysticism’s key text) and the writings of Kafka.


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