Kafka and the Uncanny


Steve Stern

   Strolling through Prague with his friend Gustav Janouch, Franz Kafka was reported to have said:

In us all it still lives—the dark corners, the secret alleys, the shuttered windows, squalid courtyards, rowdy pubs, and sinister inns. We walk through the broad streets of the newly built town. But our steps and our glances are uncertain. Inside we tremble just as before in the ancient streets of our misery. Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance which has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age.

   He was speaking of the old Prague ghetto, which was razed in 1893. Kafka was born in 1883 and would have had memories, however faded, of that demolished quarter. More than a slum, it was a place of menace and mystery, wherein the 16th century sorcerer rabbi Judah Loew was said to have created the golem. This was the monster molded from clay to do battle with the enemies of Israel, whose remains (it is rumored) still reside in the attic of the Altneuschul, the medieval Old New Synagogue. The Prague ghetto was the site as well of Gustav Meyrink’s occult horror novel The Golem, and the inspiration for no end of mystical imaginings. Beyond its louche and macabre associations, though, the ghetto was also the seat of the type of traditional Judaism that had been so thoroughly expunged from Kafka’s assimilated family and the German-speaking Jews of Prague.    Freud described the uncanny as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” He expands the notion, quoting Friedrich Schelling: “Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.” The city fathers of Prague meant to erase the ghetto with its unsavory history, just as the Jewish bourgeoisie tried to dissolve their connection to the more exotic and conspicuous brand of Judaism the ghetto contained. “Be a man in the street, a Jew at home,” was their motto, never mind the schizophrenia that attitude spawned. They deplored the shabby Yiddish-speaking Ostjuden, whose society Kafka would come to champion. (“People of Prague,” he declared in an uncharacteristic public homily, “you know more Yiddish than you think.”) To his father’s outrage he embraced the culture of Yiddishkeit and later began to study Hebrew; he died a Zionist. Yet the word “Jew” never appears in any of his fictions; indeed, when asked what he had in common with Jews, Kafka replied, “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” (Another of Freud’s criteria for the uncanny: “When we feel as if a foreign body is inside our own; when we become foreign to ourselves.”)    We know that Franz Kafka was familiar with the work of Freud, though not the reverse; had Freud been acquainted with Kafka, he would have had a field day, what with the writer’s oedipal resentment of his father and his smorgasbord of phobias and obsessions, from his fletcherizing of food to his sensitivity to noise, his fear of marriage, his paranoia, masochism, anorexia, his blind obsession with writing itself–all the distortions of his psyche that inform the work and make it so difficult to separate the man from his fiction. “I am nothing but literature,” he proclaimed, “and can and want to be nothing else.” He said also, “I am a memory come alive.” In Jewish legend there’s the figure of the Angel of Forgetfulness, who gives the newborn a fillip under the nose so that its soul forgets the wisdom it learned in paradise before its birth. The idea is that so radiant a knowledge would make life in a fallen world unbearable. Sometimes I think Kafka managed to escape the angel’s tweaking and was born with that pre-natal memory intact; then, filtered through the perceptions of his earthly travail, a dangerous nostalgia was translated into nightmare.

He is a free and secure citizen of the world, for he is fettered to a chain which is long enough to give him the freedom of all earthly space, and yet only so long that nothing can drag him past the frontiers of the world. But simultaneously he is a free and secure citizen of heaven as well, for he is also fettered by a similarly designed heavenly chain. So that if he heads, say, for the earth, his heavenly collar throttles him, and if he heads for heaven, his earthly one does the same. And yet all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering.

   This liminal existence is illustrated by the phantom protagonist of his story “The Hunter Gracchus”, whose “death ship has lost its way,” so that he continues like the Flying Dutchman (or for that matter the Wandering Jew) to sail the waters of earth for all eternity. Then there’s the civilized ape in “Report to the Academy”, who insists “there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason.” A way out, that is, from the degradation of being an ape. Here we see the inhuman intruding into the human dimension, “what was meant to remain hidden coming into the open.” But these tales are not allegories; Kafka’s stories don’t have paraphrasable morals, and it’s reductive in the extreme to try and impose a neat allegorical interpretation on them. Still, you can’t help but see in these narratives Kafka’s awareness of a dual experience, death contradicting life and vice-versa, until what’s left is a stateless ghost—which is called in the forgotten folklore a gilgul or wandering soul. The ape is now neither ape nor human, just as the modern Jew emerged from the ghetto into European culture only to find that he’d lost an essential identity; nor was there the compensation of acceptance in the “human” world outside his former confinement. The theme of exile and alienation, a diaspora of the soul, is not peculiarly Jewish; it’s the theme Kafka shares with his high modernist brethren. But with him, doubly marginalized by his heritage and the German language he spoke in his native Prague, the theme resonates a distinctly Jewish past…    …and perhaps anticipates a history about to unfold. That Kafka’s work forecasts the Holocaust has become a cliché that scholars of the author tend to disdain, and I would agree: Kafka was no more a prophet than any other man of genius who, by scrutinizing his own interior struggle, reveals the condition of us all. Nevertheless, who can help but blame in part his deep self-loathing on the thousand years of European Jew hatred that his very acute sensory apparatus had absorbed? You see it in tales like “An Old Manuscript” in which the incursion of barbarians into the narrator’s timeless town echoes the Crusaders and Cossacks of yesteryear and augurs the pogroms yet to come. Then there’s of course Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis”, who is literally transformed into vermin in the bosom of his family—another example of the inhuman or unheimlich contaminating the heimlich, or the homely, familiar, intimate, complacent environment. The family ultimately resolves to get rid of “it”: the son and brother has become a neutered man, a bug, without identity, sexuality, or sensibility. The disposal of Gregor’s expired carcass evokes the fundamental idea of Mein Kampf—that the Jew must be gotten rid of; the country can only grow to fruition when the vermin is rooted out. You hear the reverberation in the cri de coeur of the Hunter Gracchus: “…No one will come to help me; even if all the people were commanded to help me, every door and window would remain shut…” There are a multitude of such instances in Kafka’s work, when the recollection of the past also functions as a grimly accurate prediction of the future. On the eve of the Second World War, shortly before his own suicide, Walter Benjamin wrote: “Kafka’s world, frequently of such playfulness and interlaced with angels, is the exact complement of his era, which is preparing to do away with the inhabitants of this planet on a considerable scale. The experience which corresponds to Kafka, the private individual, will probably not become accessible to the masses until such time as they are being done away with.”    “With our eyes open we walk through a dream, ourselves only the ghost of a vanished age.” That vanished age displaced in Kafka’s sense of self his opportunity to adapt with equanimity to his own. It’s the age, with its legendary ghetto atmosphere, that haunts the hidden alleys and dusty attics of The Trial, the squalid medieval courtyards and inns of The Castle, even the filthy garret where the protagonist is held captive in Amerika. Freud again on the uncanny: “A species of frightening that goes back to what was once well known.” There’s a fragment of an aborted story in Kafka’s diaries clearly set in the old Jewish quarter, where a rabbi is making a golem to protect his people from the threat of attack.

It soon became known, of course, that the rabbi was working on a clay figure. Every door of every room in his house stood open night and day, it contained nothing whose presence was not immediately known to everybody. There were always a few disciples, or neighbors, or strangers wandering up and down the stairs of the house, looking into all the rooms and—unless they happened to encounter the rabbi himself—going anywhere they pleased. And once, in a washtub, they found a large lump of reddish clay. [The passage goes on to describe the visitors touching and even tasting the clay—then…] The rabbi, his sleeves rolled up like a washerwoman, stood in front of the tub kneading the clay which already bore the crude outline of a human form… Though the figure obviously seemed to be acquiring a human likeness, the rabbi behaved like a madman—time and again he thrust out his lower jaw, unceasingly passed one lip over the other, and when he wet his hands in the bucket of water beside him, thrust them in so violently that the water splashed to the ceiling of the bare vault.

   One can only guess why Kafka never completed the story. Perhaps he identified with the futility of the rabbi’s enterprise: What golem, regardless of his strength, stood a chance against what the future had in store for the Jews? But in my mind the unfinished tale has more to do with the sanctity of the rabbi’s task. It was after all a public task, inspired by and in the service of a community, culture, and history inextricably entwined with the sacred. Yet the holy magic able to quicken inanimate matter is absent from the claustrophobic universe of Franz Kafka (and maybe even from that of the rabbi in his increasingly manic behavior), and without that connection…well, it’s Nietzsche who surprisingly says it best, “All purely moral demands without their religious basis must needs end in nihilism.” Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, said of Kafka: “I found in him the most perfect and unsurpassed expression of the fine line between religion and nihilism, an expression which, as a secular statement of the Kabbalistic world-feeling in modern spirit, seemed to me to wrap Kafka’s writings in the halo of the canonical.” The concept of a secular mystic reiterates the paradox at the heart of Kafka’s work, and sometimes I think that Franz Kafka, the lucid dreamer, has dreamed up our entire historical moment: his dreams are our reality. Other great modern authors have become adjectives—Joycean, Proustian; but Kafkaesque describes the very air we breathe, a rarefied air which Martin Buber, whose Hasidic tales Kafka devoured, claimed “is full of souls.” And Kafka, for whom the godless world itself was uncanny, declared with perhaps an impish nod toward Buber, “There are only miracles.”