Friday, November 30, 2007

Franz Kafka's Letter to his Father

I read Kafka's long letter (or short booklet) to his father last night, in preparation to a lecture this morning by Haim Beer. It is an anguished description of how the father-son relationship - and, by implication, any human relationship - can go horribly wrong even with the best of intentions. Here is a typical example:
I venture to say that nothing has happened to you in your whole life that had such importance for you as the attempts at marriage have had for me. By this I do not mean that you have not experienced anything in itself as important; on the contrary, your life was much richer and more care-laden and more concentrated than mine, but for that very reason nothing of this sort has happened to you. It is as if one person had to climb five low steps and another person only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage the five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, firstly high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either.

In spite of the fact that the universal importance of the letter lies in the power of its description of domestic life, as a historian I was struck by one of its minor theme: the failure to transfer a culture which is losing its significance. Kafka the father repudiated most of his Judaism, and as a result was unable to pass on even the remnant he wished to retain. As the bitter joke goes: the fathers were apostates, the sons were ignoramuses:

Still later, I did see it again differently and realized why it was possible for you to think that in this respect too I was malevolently betraying you. You really had brought some traces of Judaism with you from the ghetto-like village community; it was not much and it dwindled a little more in the city and during your military service; but still, the impressions and memories of your youth did just about suffice for some sort of Jewish life, especially since you did not need much help of that kind, but came of robust stock and could personally scarcely be shaken by religious scruples unless they were strongly mixed with social scruples. Basically the faith that ruled your life consisted in your believing in the unconditional rightness of the opinions of a certain class of Jewish society, and hence actually, since these opinions were part and parcel of your own nature, in believing in yourself. Even in this there was still Judaism enough, but it was too little to be handed on to the child; it all dribbled away while you were passing it on. In part, it was youthful memories that could not be passed on to others; in part, it was your dreaded personality. It was also impossible to make a child, overacutely observant from sheer nervousness, understand that the few flimsy gestures you performed in the name of Judaism, and with an indifference in keeping with their flimsiness, could have any higher meaning. For you they had meaning as little souvenirs of earlier times, and that was why you wanted to pass them on to me, but since they no longer had any intrinsic value even for you could do this only through persuasion or threat; on the one hand, this could not be successful, and on the other, it had to make you very angry with me on account of my apparent obstinacy, since you did not recognize the weakness of your position in this.

And yet: for all the failures described in the letter, one needs to keep in mind that it's Franz Kafka we're talking about, one of the most important writers of the 20th century, and in his own way, an important Jewish figure, too.

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