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Kafka

But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. “Like a dog!” he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.

In the final lines of The Trial Joseph K., never having learned the charges against him or discovered the process by which he was to be, or had been, judged, having gone with the two men who never answered his question “‘So you are meant for me?’” and been stripped of “his coat, his waistcoat, and finally his shirt” and then laid down against a boulder in a quarry and stabbed in the heart, his dying thought is “it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.”

Kafka died young, a month shy of his forty-first birthday in 1924. He had seen some of his stories published but none of his novels, including his three masterpieces, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, all of them still unfinished. He instructed Max Brod to destroy his unfinished manuscripts at his death. He did not want them to outlive him. The otherwise faithful friend and literary executor did no such thing. He preserved, touched up, and published everything. Milan Kundera condemns Brod’s defiance of the writer’s wishes in an impassioned and faultlessly argued essay in Testaments Betrayed. The essay at the very least makes you glad not to have had to make that choice between the writer’s last will and testament and the future’s need and gratitude for just those unfinished works’ testimony. The condemnation of Brod is sort of like the überKantian argument that telling a lie, even to save
a life or protect a loved one, violates the moral law. So much the worse for the moral law.

The future’s need and gratitude. What we value most about literature is its reach, with increasing and amplifying significance, beyond its own time and its author’s life. The work outlives them and becomes a gift to posterity. That relation to the future is redoubled in Kafka. The posthumous reception of his work marvels at its prophetic power. Our gratitude revolves around what it reveals about the bureaucratic dehumanization that was as yet scarcely felt as he wrote The Trial and The Castle and the totalitarianisms of Nazism and communism, whose death camps and Gulag were not yet manifest. But Kafka was not at all a
prophet. He did not predict, or even warn against, the direction of Europe.

Kundera himself wrote in The Art of the Novel with much gratitude and acuity about The Trial and The Castle. As he puts it, Kafka let his own sensibility and experience in the life of the family and the office be plumbed novelistically, indeed poetically, to adduce a possible existence. The possibility he imaginatively rendered only became prophetic retrospectively. “Kafka made no prophecies.” Writing from exile in the mid-1980s, Kundera marvels at how Kafka “unwittingly succeeded in creating an image that fascinates us by its resemblance to a society he never knew, that of today’s Prague.” If not prophecy, what then? “He shed light on the mechanism he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of History.”

Kafka is the inverse of Cassandra. She utters a true prophecy no one believes; Kafka writes an unintended prophecy that becomes true. Neither is heeded. Perhaps therein lies the truth of prophecy. It is strung between truths unbelieved and truths unintended.

What Kafka could not have prophesied, foreseen, or even imagined was the fate of his three sisters. He was Hermann and Julie Kafka’s first-born. Two brothers died in infancy by the time he was seven. His sisters Gabriele, Valerie, and Ottilie, younger by six, seven, and nine years, respectively, all died in Nazi extermination camps two decades after his own death. While his work outlives him and foresees twentieth-century catastrophe, his younger sisters outlived him only to live the catastrophe. He would never know their futures, their delights and triumphs, their grief at his and their parents’ deaths, their own unspeakable terror and nameless martyrdom. The sisters K.

For some time I’ve been haunted by the fact that Kafka’s death in 1924 left him unaware of the dehumanization, suffering, and death that his sisters underwent in 1942 (Valli), 1943 (Ottla), and 1944 (Ellie). The same with Freud. He got out of Vienna at the last possible moment and died in London, September 1939. His younger sisters met the same fate as Kafka’s. Regina (Rosa), Marie (Mitzi), and Pauline (Pauli), four, five, and eight years younger than Freud respectively, perished in the Treblinka gas chambers in 1942 and 1943, and Adolphin (Dolfi), six years younger, died at Thereseinstadt in 1943. Never has ignorance is bliss seemed so vacuous and tragic. It is as though Kafka and Freud suffer, unbeknownst to themselves, a hideous inversion of survivor’s guilt.

Among the nasty twists of the imagination at its death-aware moments is the vacillation between not wanting to die and not wanting to outlive those you most love. For me, that includes first and foremost my children and grandchildren and my sister. Not
wanting to outlive means not wanting to see die. My sister and I have outlived a sibling. David, our younger brother, died in a motorcycle crash a few months after his twenty-second birthday. Over the years the grief transmuted from the loss of him to the imagined loss, decade after decade, of the life he might have had. I don’t want to suffer my sister’s death and I don’t want to leave this world without knowing she is safe. Neither desire of course is within my power. Strictly unfulfillable desires. Fortune’s wheel, like Pascal’s coin, will spin until the exact moment when its truth is revealed…for me but not to me!

The story of Freud’s sisters and Kafka’s brings out not just the vacillation between not wanting to die and not wanting to outlive. The third facet is the anxiety, the unnerving sadness, of not being able know the future and fate of those you love. 

Poe’s writing touches on the risk for death-awareness—being-toward-death as Heidegger says—to tilt into morbid fantasy and self-torment, most famously perhaps in “The Raven,” where the man mourning his beloved’s death tortures himself through the escalating questions he asks the Raven on his doorsill, knowing it will answer Nevermore! each time. I recently came across, in Brod’s biography of Kafka, the detail that the image Hermann Kafka chose for his business’s logo was a jackdaw (kavka). The coincidence of raven (Corvus corax) and jackdaw (Corvus monedula) makes me wonder what threads might link Kafka and Poe. A quick google search yields an anecdote cited by Lois Davis Vines according to which (a not necessarily reliable) Gustav Januch “recalled that he showed Kafka a selection of Poe’s short stories and that Kafka acknowledged only a superficial acquaintance with Poe’s work, stating: ‘Poe was sick. He was a poor man, defenseless against the world. This is why he sought refuge in drunkenness. Fantasy was for him only a crutch. He wrote unearthly stories to come down to earth.…I know the path he took in flight, his phantom. It is always the same.’”

The associations that have laced their way through this reflection on Freud and Kafka, older brothers and younger sisters, what outlives and what is outlived, last wills and the fate of others, raven and jackdaw, have arisen while I have been “sheltering in place” and teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic that has heightened all the world’s death-aware thoughts. The associations’ pull-and-tug took one more unexpected twist in coming across Kafka’s (presumed) reference to Poe’s phantoms. For in Mood and Trope, I briefly refer to Poe’s story “Shadow—A Parable” on account of the images it furnished Baudelaire, its translator, for his own poetry, including the sequence “Un fantôme.” The premise of Poe’s story, a kind of grim retort to the Decameron, has seven men sitting vigil over a friend who has died of the plague. That detail seemed incidental at the time.

April 2020