Max Brod’s book on Kafka and some of my own reflections by Walter Benjamin (1938)

Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, published a biography of Kafka in 1937. The German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin gave his thoughts on the book in a letter to his friend, the Jewish scholar Gerhard Scholem, in June 1938. His comments were then extracted from the letter and published as one of the essays collected in a selection of Benjamin’s essays titled Illuminations and published in English translation in 1970.

Benjamin criticises Brod

Benjamin takes strong issue with Brod’s claim that Kafka was a deeply religious man who was well on the road to holiness. And objects to the offensively cheery bonhomie of Brod’s tone, his affable claim to be on the best possible terms with a man set apart from common humanity. It is ‘the most irreverent attitude imaginable’.

Brod thinks Kafka’s works only make sense under the category of religion and holiness, but Benjamin objects that ‘holiness’ is a category used to describe a life not works, and that ‘holiness’ anyway only makes sense within the framework of an established religion, whereas Kafka practiced no faith.

Benjamin is cross at Brod’s use of journalistic clichés, his ‘inability to do justice to his subject’, his inability to do any soul searching about his decision not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts, his inability ‘to gauge the tensions which permeated Kafka’s life’. In discussing Kafka’s work Brod doesn’t get beyond ‘diletanttish rudiments’. When he says Kafka’s thought is in line with the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, Benjamin thinks that Kafka is by far the bigger figure.

He ridicules Brod’s exploration of Kafka’s world of symbols via Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Tin Soldier. And he deprecates Brod’s implication that his and his alone is the correct interpretation of Kafka while all others (of which there already thousands) were unnecessary.

Brod’s book combines immoderate claims for Kafka’s holiness, with immoderate claims for the uniqueness of his (Brod’s) knowledge of his friend. Benjamin says it is typical of Brod’s obtuseness that he laments the way critics have criticised the way he (Brod) used extensive passages from a novel he wrote about his friendship with Kafka (Magic Realm of Love, 1928) in this biography. Brod cannot see why anyone would object to this questionable tactic.

There are, in summary, lapses of taste and judgement everywhere.

Benjamin’s own reflections

Having got that off his chest, Benjamin spends the last three pages of this short text giving his own view.

Benjamin posits that there are two poles to Kafka’s works, which contain sub-sets. At one extreme is ‘mystical experience (in particular, the experience of tradition)’; at the other ‘the experience of the modern big-city dweller’, which encompasses a variety of things, including:

the modern citizen who knows that he is at the mercy of a vast machinery of officialdom whose functioning is directed by authorities that remain nebulous to the executive organs, let alone to the people they deal with.

And which also includes knowledge of the new and weird world which has been opened up by the discoveries of contemporary physics (Einstein, relativity, Bohr and quantum physics).

Benjamin goes on to say (I think) that the paradoxical thing about Kafka is the way his conceptualisation of the ultra-modern individual is the result of, stems from, draws its power from, an engagement with the mystical tradition which delves right back into human prehistory.

(This immediately reminds me of the way the works of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce yoked together the absolutely up to date with ancient myths and legends, that the panoramic portrait of contemporary anarchy depicted in The Waste Land is underpinned by tribal myths of the Fisher King, or the way Joyce used Bronze Age legend [of Odysseus] to give structure to his astonishing portrait of contemporary Dublin in Ulysses.)

Kafka listened hard to ‘the tradition’ and somehow this made him more up to date than his modish contemporaries, than the novelists in his Prague literary circle who were much more ‘successful’ in their day and now are completely forgotten.

At which pint Benjamin says something I don’t quite understand, in fact I hover on the edge of not really ‘getting’ quite a bit in this short text. He writes:

Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition.

I expected him to say something like Kafka’s work presents a kind of distilling of tradition which is so timeless that it goes way deeper than the world Kafka actually lived in, and which explains why it has lasted, seems, in fact, to be timeless. But that’s not what he says, and I don’t really understand the sense of this sentence.

He goes on in the same vein to explain that the tradition can be defined as the truth which has been handed down, which has been transmitted. According to Brod, Kafka’s genius was that he abandoned truth and focused on the element of transmissibility.

Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of the Halakah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it.

I think this passage would be challenging to construe even if you knew what the Haggadah and the Halakah are but, not knowing what they are, it becomes all but impenetrable. On the other hand, immediately following this obscure premise, are two much more accessible conclusions.

This is why, in regard to Kafka, we can no longer speak of wisdom. Only the products of its decay remain. There are two: one is the rumour about the true things (a sort of theological whispered intelligence dealing with matters discredited and obsolete); the other product of this diathesis is folly – which, to be sure, has utterly squandered the substance of wisdom, but preserves its attractiveness and assurance, which rumor invariably lacks.

A thought which leads Benjamin up to his conclusion which is a) compressed b) highly mystical.

Some Benjamin you can understand straight away, but some is complicatedly mixed up with the learnèd references and allusions he makes, and you have to have read the works or authors he’s referring to in order to really understand his point. And then there are some thoughts which are just too mystical and abstruse to grasp; at moments he moves a few inches out of reach, and then is on the other side of the road or half way up a hill, and you wonder how he got there.

Folly lies at the heart of Kafka’s favorites from Don Quixote via the assistants [in The Castle] to the animals… This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: first, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool’s help is real help. The only uncertain thing is whether such help can still do a human being any good. It is more likely to help the angels… who could do without help. Thus, as Kafka puts it, there is an infinite amount of hope, but not for us. This statement really contains Kafka’s hope; it is the source of his radiant serenity.

You could confidently say that as soon as a critic starts invoking angels and their likes and capacities in a critical essay, you know they have passed over from dispassionate analysis into a realm which is more subjective and itself artistically minded.

Part of Benjamin’s appeal is the way he hovers either side of that borderline – wavering between objective analysis and something which is closer to artistic invocation – meaning that when you can grasp hold of his insights, they are often very, very powerful indeed.

(You can make your own mind up by clicking the Illuminations Online link below, then scrolling down to search for the essay.)


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Dates are dates of composition.

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1 Comment

  1. Praveen Narayanan

     /  September 30, 2019

    I’ve been reading your series on Kafka with delight. Thank you.

    Reply

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