“Franz Kafka is Dead
He died in a tree from which he wouldn’t come down. “Come down!” they cried to him. “Come down! Come down!” Silence filled the night, and the night filled the silence, while they waited for Kafka to speak. “I can’t,” he finally said, with a note of wistfulness. “Why?” they cried. Stars spilled across the black sky. “Because then you’ll stop asking for me.” The people whispered and nodded among themselves. They put their arms around each other, and touched their children’s hair. They took off their hats and raised them to the small, sickly man with the ears of a strange animal, sitting in his black velvet suit in the dark tree. Then they turned and started for home under the canopy of leaves. Children were carried on their fathers’ shoulders, sleepy from having been taken to see who wrote his books on pieces of bark he tore off the tree from which he refused to come down. In his delicate, beautiful, illegible handwriting. And they admired those books, and they admired his will and stamina. After all: who doesn’t wish to make a spectacle of his loneliness? One by one families broke off with a good night and a squeeze of the hands, suddenly grateful for the company of neighbors. Doors closed to warm houses. Candles were lit in windows. Far off, in his perch in the trees , Kafka listened to it all: the rustle of the clothes being dropped to the floor, or lips fluttering along naked shoulders, beds creaking along the weight of tenderness. It all caught in the delicate pointed shells of his ears and rolled like pinballs through the great hall of his mind.
That night a freezing wind blew in. When the children woke up, they went to the window and found the world encased in ice. One child, the smallest, shrieked out in delight and her cry tore through the silence and exploded the ice of a giant oak tree. The world shone.
They found him frozen on the ground like a bird. It’s said that when they put their ears to the shell of his ears, they could hear themselves.”
― Nicole Krauss,
“Obviously I’ve been reading Kafka for a long long time, since I was really young, and even before I ever read him I knew who he was. I had this weird sense that he was some kind of family. Like Uncle Kafka. [Laughs] Now I really think of him that way, the way we think about an uncle who opened up some path for being in a family that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. I think of him that way as a writer and a familial figure. I didn’t mean to write about him. That court case always fascinated me and because I spend a lot of time in Tel Aviv I would sometimes go by that house and stand outside and think, Really, all of that is in there? It just seemed wild to me. Everyone says it’s so Kafka-esque. I followed the case year by year and then at a certain point pretty early on in writing Nicole’s part I knew that I wanted to take up an offer that I had failed to take up in my own life.”
– Nicole Krauss. Interview by Alex Dueben. The Rumpus, September, 25th, 2017
Who owns Kafka?
Jewishness is linked up, time and again, with the possibility of breathing. What have I in common with the Jews? I am lucky that I can breathe at all. So is it the Jews who make it difficult for him to breathe, or is it Kafka who imagines depriving the Jews of breath?
Kafka’s suffocation fantasy reiterates a phantasmatic vacillation of size that we also find, for instance, in The Judgment. In the fantasy, Kafka is impossibly large, larger than all the Jews he imagines putting into the drawer. And yet, he is also in the drawer, which makes him unbearably small. In The Judgment, the father is by turns huge and tiny: at one moment the son, Georg, remarks that when erect, he is so tall that his hand lightly touches the ceiling, but in a previous moment, the father is reduced to the size of a child and Georg carries him to bed. The son towers over the father only to be sentenced to death by the force of the latter’s words. Where is Kafka located in that fantasy of suffocation, and where is Georg? They are subject to a perpetual vacillation in which no one finally is sustained in a manageable scale. In the suffocation fantasy, Kafka is both agent and victim. But this persistent duality goes unrecognised by those who have used the letter to call him a self-hating Jew. Such a conclusion is no more warranted by the vacillations in his text than is the triumphant claim that Kafka’s occasionally admiring remarks about Zionism make him a Zionist. (He is, after all, flirting in some of those instances.)
So Jews are his family, his small world, and he is already in some sense hemmed in by that small apartment, that relentless community, and in that sense suffocated. And yet, he was mindful of the stories and present dangers of anti-semitism, ones that he experienced directly in a riot that took place in 1918 in which he found himself amid a crowd ‘swimming in Jew-hatred’. Did he then look to Zionism as a way out of this profound ambivalence: the need to flee the constraints of family and community coupled with the need to find a place imagined as free of anti-semitism?
Consider the very first letter Kafka wrote to Felice in September 1912. In the opening line, he asks her to picture him together with her in Palestine:
In the likelihood that you no longer have even the remotest recollection of me, I am introducing myself once more: my name is Franz Kafka, and I am the person who greeted you for the first time that evening at Director Brod’s in Prague, the one who subsequently handed you across the table, one by one, photographs of a Thalia trip, and who finally, with the very hand now striking the keys, held your hand, the one which confirmed a promise to accompany him next year to Palestine.
As the correspondence unfolds over the next few years, Kafka lets her know time and again that he will really not be able to accompany her, not on this trip or on another, and certainly not to Palestine, at least not in this life as the person that he is: the hand that strikes the keys will not be holding her hand. Moreover, he has his doubts about Zionism and about ever arriving at that destination. He subsequently calls it a ‘dream’, and chides her a few years later for entertaining Zionism so seriously: ‘You flirted with it,’ he wrote. But actually, he was the one who introduced Palestine as the structure of flirtation: come with me, take my hand to the beyond.
Here as elsewhere, the problem of destination touches on the question of emigrating to Palestine, but also on the problem, more generally, of whether messages can arrive and commands be rightly understood. Non-arrival describes the linguistic predicament of writing in a multilingual context, exploiting the syntactical rules of formal German to produce an uncanny effect, but also writing in a contemporary Babel where the misfires of language come to characterise the everyday situation of speech, whether amorous or political. The question that re-emerges in parables like ‘An Imperial Message’ is whether a message can be sent from here to there, or whether someone can travel from here to there, or indeed ‘over there’ – whether an expected arrival is really possible.
I have tried to suggest that in Kafka’s parables and other writings we find brief meditations on the question of going somewhere, of going over, of the impossibility of arrival and the unrealisability of a goal. I want to suggest that many of these parables seem to allegorise a way of checking the desire to emigrate to Palestine, opening instead an infinite distance between the one place and the other – and so constitute a non-Zionist theological gesture.
We might, finally, consider this poetics of non-arrival as it pertains to Kafka’s own final bequest. As should be clear by now, many of Kafka’s works are about messages written and sent where the arrival is uncertain or impossible, about commands given and misunderstood and so obeyed in the breach or not obeyed at all.
– Judith Butler, “Who Owns Kafka?”, London Review of Books, v. 33, n. 05, 05-03 March, 2011.