Kafka and "Religious" Texts
- I am a new member to this Kafka Club, and I thought I would begin by
browsing around your past communications. I was very interested in
the comments of your post, dated 4/02/03. You note that you prefer
to shy away from any sort of religious interpretation of Kafka's
writings. While I would not argue that Kafka can or should be
interpreted in a religious manner, I would suggest that it is absurd
(not to say Kafkaesque) to ignore the numerous influences upon
Kafka's writings, by various religious texts.
Any truly "educated" person (such as he was) of Kafka's era would
have had an education founded in the study of the great books of
Western culture. These would include Homer, Dante, Cervantes,
Shakespeare, Goethe, etc... as well as the Bible. Kafka's notebooks
and journals make clear that he has indeed read the "Odyssey", "Don
Quixote", Shakespeare, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard,
Goethe's plays and journals, Schiller, Kleist, and countless other
German authors. At the same time, he makes repeated references to
various religious and/or Jewish texts, including the Hebrew poet,
Bialik, the Yiddish writer, Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish theater, the
Talmud, and various Biblical stories. Beyond this, we know that Kafka
explored his Jewish culture to the point of attempting to master
Some of Kafka's most interesting writings include his short
aphorisms, to be found in his "Blue Octavo Notebooks". There, one
uncovers numerous Borghesian (well we can't honestly say Kafkaesque,
when speaking of Kafka himself, can we?) reinterpretations of "Don
Quixote" as well as the "Tower of Babel", "Adam and Eve and the Fall
of Man", the story of Abraham, Shulamith, etc... In one of my
favorite such aphorisms, Kafka declares, "The Messiah will come only
when he is no longer necessary" How might we apply this thought
to "The Castle" or the famous cathedral scene from "The Trial?"
My point is not to simply prove Kafka's awareness of
various "religious" texts... and even less, to suggest that we seek a
religious interpretation of his work, but rather, to suggest that
Kafka engages in a serious dialog and reinterpretation of
these "religious", "Jewish", Biblical texts as literature and as
thematic sources. Many of Kafka's shortest tales reveal a clear
affinity with Jewish parables in their brevity and unadorned
language. They also echo the Jewish tradition of Midrash, or
reinterpretation of parables, aphorisms, and short texts.
If we, for example, take a Borghesian (and Midrashic) approach to
our reading of some Biblical texts (as if the ancient Hebrew authors
followed Kafka as opposed to him writing long after them) we might
find nothing more Kafkaesque than the "Book of Job": We might imagine
Kafka beginning Job as follows: "Someone must have slandered J.,
because one morning he was arrested and all that he owned was taken
from him, even though he had done nothing wrong." After the book of
Job briefly introduces us to Job himself, we are immediately wisked
into a scene in heaven (a transition as audacious as any by
Kafka). "Heaven, it turns out," as author Steven Mitchell informs
us, "is only the court of some ancient King of Kings." This great
King is proudly holding court and bragging before his courtier's
(including the Accuser... who may or may not merely be an embodiment
of the King's own doubts) of the loyalty of his servant, Job. How can
the Accuser not take up the challenge? That, after all, is his role.
And so these two powerful potentates begin to toy with the underling
Job, who can't begin to fathom what he has fallen prey to nor why.
His whole world just falls apart one day, (just as K.'s does as he is
suddenly arrested or turned into a giant bug). As the accuser
returns to the King's court, having failed to have broken J., the
Lord utters what must surely be one of the most nausiatingly sinister
declarations in his own defense: "See, my servant J. remains loyal,
even after YOU made me torture him for no reason." This is followed
by the calm resolved cruelty of, "All right, he is completely in your
power, save only his life." The fact that this blasphemous scene is
in the Bible is alost obscene.
Kafka must have wished he had written this scene from the ancient
Hebrew work, for we see him returning to it again and again (in "The
Trial", "The Castle" , "A Visit to a Mine", etc....) Kafka
understood that Job presents us with one of the greatest (and
earliest) versions of that most favorite of Jewish theme, that of the
victim... the lesser or weaker mortals who are toyed with and abused
for no other apparent reason than that of the fact that their abusers
have the power to do so. It is the theme of weak mortals daring to
question the morality of nature, fate, life and God himself.
Beyond "Job" we might also explore another of Kafka's repeated
themes: that of the long suffering endured while of waiting...
waiting for something or someone who never comes. Kafka uses this
idea as the basis for the entirety of "The Castle", "Before the Law"
and in many other tales and scenes. One cannot help but see the
obvious resemblance between these scenes by Kafka and that of the
eternal Jewish wait for the "Messiah"... the Messiah who will only
come when he is no longer necessary.
Anyway, I have written on long enough. I must freely admit to
some degree of verbosity as opposed to our author's much-vaunted
brevity and precise prose. What can I say? I like adjectives! Anyway,
feel free to write. And please, fear not of offending
my "Jewishness", I was actually raised Lutheran, but would probably
claim to be an agnostic, if anything.