Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kafka's Conundrum

Franz Kafka, Passport, 1915

Consider Kafka's 55th Aphorism

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), famed short story writer and author of opaque, mysterious novels The Trial and The Castle – not to mention Amerika – also wrote philosophical reflections in the form of aphorisms. Here is an aphorism on language:

“For all things outside the physical world language can be employed only as a sort of adumbration, but never with even approximate exactitude, since in accordance with the physical world it treats only of possession and its connotations.”
–– Aphorism 55

The author's metaphysical statement on language relegates its accuracy and reliability to the designation of objects in the physical world. Written in 1917 as part of a series of thoughts and reflections, Aphorism 55 can be better understood by taking account of the author's real-world situation.

Kafka’s ambivalence towards language is not surprising, considering the role language played in his life. Kafka’s ‘native’ tongue, German, was a minority language used by no more than ten percent of the population of Czechoslovakia. Moreover, for a German-speaking Jew living in Bohemia, German was the language that had suppressed, but not entirely displaced, Biblical Hebrew and Yiddish, once the vernacular of Western European Jews.

Despite this conundrum, Kafka became one of the greatest writers in the German language.

Writer Franz Kafka was named after Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I. This seemingly patriotic gesture on the part of Kafka’s parents, however, was not as intentional as it might appear. Indeed, Franz Kafka could not have been named after one of his Jewish ancestors, though many of his male forebears on his mother’s side had been learned rabbis. In 1787, a little less than a hundred years before Kafka’s birth, a law passed by Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II mandated the adoption of German first names and surnames.

Kafka’s ebullient discovery of Yiddish theater and poetry in the fall and winter of 1911 was set against the backdrop of a century of suppression of Yiddish language and culture in Bohemia. In 1782, Emperor Joseph II forbade the Jews of Bohemia from using Hebrew or Yiddish in public records. At this time, the government encouraged Jewish families to send their children to German-language elementary schools. By 1786, ‘encouragement’ had given way to an aggressive policy of forced assimilation. In 1786, a new Hapsburg law forbade Jews from marrying unless they had attended a German-language school. Forbade them from marrying.

Kafka’s diaries of 1911 and 1912 trace his infatuation with the traveling Yiddish theater company that visited Prague in 1911, and provide a lively description of his friendship with the young actor Isak Löwy.  While the theater troupe was in town, Kafka attended plays and readings, and even organized an evening of Yiddish poetry, introducing the new genre to a skeptical audience with words of gentle encouragement and appreciation, as recorded in his diary. The return of the repressed, indeed!

Whatever sense of personal loss he may have felt with Löwy’s and the troupe’s departure, Kafka’s contact with Yiddish theater led to a creative breakthrough – and to the writing of Kafka’s famous short story “The Judgment.” The author wrote his story in a twelve-hour stretch: an all-nighter to end all-nighters! Kafka was on his way to everlasting fame, though too full of self-doubt ever to suspect as much.

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