“A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to Die”. Franz Kafka Diaries
”Still, some of the little details and correspondences are striking. George Steiner, who, as we’ll see, believes in some metaphysical sense that Kafka invented Hitler or at least Hitler’s concentration-camp universe, points out, on a smaller scale, that Ungeziefer, the word Kafka used to describe the insect into which Gregor Samsa metamorphosed, is a favorite word of Hitler’s, one he used to characterize the “vermin” of Europe, the Jews he wanted to exterminate like unwanted insects. But Binion was the first to apprise me of the very peculiar fact–meaningless except in a Kafkaesque way–that a man named Kafka once lived in Hitler’s house.” ( Ron Rosenbaum)
The author sets out to demolish myths. In the case of James Hawes it is the deconstruction of a legend; and to de-sanctify the misconceptions about the life and work of Franz Kafka. Hawes compiles a long list of these myths at the beginning of his book and usefully lists them thus: “mysterious genius, lonely Middle European Nostradamus, ignored by his contemporaries, plumbed the depths of his mysterious, quasi-saintly psyche to predict the Holocaust and the Gulags”. There is such an orthodox cult around kafka; the wagons are circled and drawn close together; that Hawes revisionism can be perceived as heavy lifting and forensically exhuming the corpse. But myths are myths and they are built to cling and be remembered however oddly juxtaposed the bricks that build this edifice can appear.For example, Prague’s airport is called Franz Kafka. For a writer with a rather elastic and somewhat neglectful and idiosyncratic relation to time and space, that in itself is an absurdity.
Hawes is perhaps best known as a novelist, but he’s also an academic and an expert in German literature. Armed with both the necessary skills and obvious passion, Hawes tries to build a case for how and why most people’s ideas about Kafka are, in his words, “rubbish”. Some of it fudgy and plausible B.S. but there is enough refreshing challenges to the accepted dogma that makes for a compelling reevaluation. In getting under the skin, its found he took a lot of pleasure in it himself.Some of the bluster is rather scattershot . The section on “Kafka’s porn”, for example is fairly mild.
”A millionaire’s son, a well-paid senior functionary of the Habsburg empire, a member of Prague’s German elite who consciously – and subconsciously – wanted Germany and Austria to win the first world war. A German-speaking, German-thinking Jew who foresaw the horrors of the Holocaust no more than anyone else did. A writer who, when he first read out The Trial, reduced his friends to ‘helpless laughter’.” ( Hawes )
Maybe and maybe not. And on a number of occasions Hawes commits sins he accuses others of enjoying. He claims that hindsight should be forbidden in judging Kafka’s work, and yet a few pages later he writes: “On the day Adolf Hitler walked into Lansberg Castle to begin his grotesquely and fatally light sentence . . . Franz Kafka had only two months left before he died a few score miles away.”
”Most contentious of all, though, is Hawes’s risky argument that the central image of “Metamorphosis”, a man turning into a beetle, derives from a passage in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (“One would like to turn into a june bug so that one could swim around in this sea of pleasant scents, getting all one’s nourishment like this”). That no scholar has eve
marked upon this before, Hawes claims, proves that “the K-myth quite literally makes people – even highly educated German scholars – incapable of reading what Kafka actually wrote.” But it could also simply prove that Hawes is one of the most audacious, obsessive and endlessly inventive critics of an author with whose work he is clearly and wonderfully obsessed.” ( Ian Sanson )
”The recurrence of linkages of one sort or another between Hitler and Kafka throughout “Hitler studies” is rather remarkable–and controversial. In addition to the D. M. Thomas character’s conjecture about the kinship of Kafka and Hitler as artists of the unthinkable and the unbearable, many have invoked Kafka as a prophet, seen the absurd logic of the death camps foreshadowed in “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial, and wondered whether only a Kafkaesque universe can explain the nightmare world Hitler made flesh. So many that a kind of scholarly backlash against Kafka-Hitler linkages has emerged: Michael André Bernstein, author of Foregone Conclusions, has characterized the habit of reading Hitler intimations into Kafka as “backshadowing.” And Holocaust literature scholar Lawrence Langer has argued that the Kafka linkage is another instance of explanation as consolation: “Establishing precedents for the unprecedented allays the puzzled conscience of a dismayed generation that still has trouble living with the unaccountability of the history of its time.” ( Rosenbaum )
Whether Kafka collected porn and solicited sex, is hardly shocking, and somewhat expected. Post-war Prague was inundated with sex-trade workers. More intriguing, are the more profound and unexpected personality quirks; the disturbing relationship between Hitler and Kafka, tenuous yet at the same time, insistent and begging for attention, and the creation of this monster beast of an insect that became of Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis. Especially if we read the transformation as not being physical, but as a hallucination created by mental illness.
The passing on of another odd bird, Dennis Hopper, also displays this relative notion of a small pocket of insanity tucked carefully away which has been infected with a form of traumatization. Hopper is a type of Samsa, who could move into a normal mind and lack any capacity to articulate or recall his dark experience; he had no idea he could be so far gone, yet somehow remain attached to himself. In most of his conscious waking, normal condition, he had no sense of being involved in the depths of the darkness that sprouted forth indirectly and unevenly. The Blue Velvet and Paris Trout characters were mere slivers, fragments and a caricature of deeper processes at work.
Sexually, he apparently oscillated between an ascetic aversion to intercourse, which he called “the punishment for being together,” and an attraction to prostitutes. Sex in Kafka’s writings is frequently connected with dirt or guilt and treated as an attractive abomination.
”His room on the first floor gave out on the street, a benefit he set forth in The Street Window, one of his earliest literary fragments. As he recalled in a 1920 letter to Milena Jesenska, the window served as the vehicle for his first guilt-ridden sexual encounter with a prostitute.
“I remember the first night. We were living at the time in Celetna Street, across from a dress shop, where a shop girl always used to stand in the door. There I was in my room, just a little past my twentieth birthday, incessantly passing back and forth, busy cramming for the first State Boards…(by trying to memorize material that made no sense to me whatsoever.) It was summer, very hot at the time, altogether unbearable. I kept stopping at the window, the disgusting Roman law clenched between my teeth, and finally we managed to communicate by sign language…”