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Nietzsche, Kafka, and Literary Paternity

Written by son of rambow on Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What things do we copy, writing and painting, we mandarins with Chinese brushes [mit chinesischem Pinsel], we immortalizers of things that can be written . . . ?
—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Pardon that for a barren passion’s sake,
Although I have come close on forty-nine,
I have no child, I have nothing but a book,
Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.
—W. B. Yeats, Responsibilities

Aut liberi aut libri.
—old monk’s saying

A good death consists in an illumination before dying. One such illumination is the prospect of cultural immortality, and yet it can seem odd to describe the death that consists in an illumination before dying as an affair of cultural immortality. But if we leave out of this account the good Gnostic death—which Kafka did not die, as witness his deathbed concern with the textual body of Josephine the Singer—both kinds of death we have described involve a cultural reference. In the instance of the ecstasy of writing, the product of Kafka’s states is literary works meant to be published, to see others’ light of day. In the instance of the final insight into one’s own law as obtained by the victim of a writing machine, the prisoner’s epiphany is witnessed and interpreted by a crowd of citizens.

Kafka is inclined to represent deaths as events that are witnessed, as “always already” public. The disgraceful death of Joseph K. is witnessed by his killers, as is that of the murdered Wese of “A Fratricide”:

Pallas, choking on the poison in his body, stood at the doubleleafed door of his house as it flew open. “Schmar! Schmar! I saw it
all, I missed nothing.” (CS 404)

When Kafka reflects on the deaths of his heroes as secretly a game—for he intends to die contentedly—he imagines a plurality of readers who share his heroes’ anguish:

someone is dying, . . . it is hard for him to do so, . . . it seems unjust to him, or at least harsh, and the reader is moved by this, or
at least he should be. (D2 102)

In “An Old Manuscript” the nomads “tear morsels out of the [ox’s] living flesh with their teeth” in the public square in front of the emperor’s palace (CS 417). The death of Gregor Samsa is an exception; but then again the story might have turned more than just “a bit horrible” (“fu¨ rchterlich”) if the family or the boarders or the charwoman had been on hand to watch the monster expire (LF 58, F 116). Death is an opportunity for public recognition; the prospect of cultural immortality depends on the medial means to attain it.

In “In the Penal Colony,” Kafka’s reflections on a public, medial death were left unresolved. In this chapter, I mean to put these terms—
the good death and the media (which involve the inscription of signs)— in conjunction once again, widening their context to include the example of a predecessor. My focus is Nietzsche’s and Kafka’s preoccupation with survival through their writings, which they sometimes figure as theoffspring of a literary paternity.

In the matter of Nietzsche and Kafka we have alluded (and will continue to allude) to the diffuse and inexplicit presence of Nietzsche in
Kafka’s work. The task now is to address their relation directly. But the outcome will not be a small monograph on “Kafka as a Reader of
Nietzsche,” because there is nothing in Kafka’s oeuvre resembling a direct, plainly articulated preoccupation with Nietzsche’s writings of the kind one finds in the work of Kafka’s contemporary Thomas Mann.

Unlike other young Jewish intellectuals in Vienna and Prague in the 1890s—such as Herzl and Werfel and Buber and to some extent
Kraus—Kafka was not ostentatiously engaged by Nietzsche. And yet he was well aware of him. According to Max Brod, while he and Kafka
were both law students at Charles University, they attended a lecture on Nietzsche that irritated Brod. Kafka replied by defending Nietzsche; and knowing Kafka’s character, we may assume he did so on the strength of having read him. To judge further from the evidence of a woman named Selma Kohn, we know that Kafka had read Thus Spoke Zarathustra—or at least parts of it: toward the end of her life she reported in a letterto Max Brod that in the summer of 1900, when she was a girl in Roztok, Kafka, a house guest, read her passages from Zarathustra.1 Kafka’s certifiable Nietzsche reception begins (and ends) with this probably unsuccessful attempt to seduce a young woman. We may conclude, then, that Kafka’s earliest, strongest experience of reading Nietzsche was marked by sexual desire, irresolution, misogyny—and writing. (Kafka would not have failed to note that Selma was the daughter of the chief postman.) Thereafter, we have additional recollections by Kafka’s friends that Kafka was interested in Nietzsche; yet in all his journals and correspondence, he never once writes the name “Nietzsche,” so that except for Selma Kohn’s letter to Max Brod, there are no irrefragably hard data connecting him to Nietzsche’s works.2 This state of affairs has led to the consensus that, like Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus, Kafka did not have to mention Nietzsche by name since he is everywhere in his work, like salt in seawater.

With the customary route of influence blocked, the relations of the two must be an affair of the critic’s induction, of hermeneutic speculation. In selecting texts and topics of Nietzsche that lead to Kafka’s themes and aper¸cus, one will be following one’s own bias.4 The path I shall take addresses Kafka as a reader of Nietzsche on the question of literary paternity—the relation of the producer of literature to his products as male parent to offspring. The issue is not one of a hypothetical paternal relation between Nietzsche and Kafka. That Kafka read Nietzsche as a young man and was captivated by what he read should not suggest that his literary personality came out of Nietzsche as, let us say, Kafka’s story “The Judgment” came out of him, “like a regular birth” (D1 278). We have more than once mentioned Kafka’s concern for a sort of cultural immortality through his writings; this concern has also come to be reflexively cast back upon him in the matter of the survival of his manuscripts. I am asking about this same issue in a different way. The question is Nietzsche’s and Kafka’s own views on literary paternity, a subject on which they did indeed have strong views; this allows us to formulate a relation between them on the basis of their shared illusions and critique.

Now, even to consider “literary paternity” of a “proper” or legitimate kind is to strike a defiantly modernist stance, for this stance is
radically anti-Platonic, and, in Nietzsche’s words, modernity is “the fight against Plato.”5 Literary paternity, the conjunction of male acts of writing with live proper offspring, joins what Plato’s Socrates put asunder, even if this figure remains well within the orbit of his influence. The metaphor of literary paternity is of Socratic origin, but the notion of a proper literary paternity is for Socrates untrue or incomplete.

Plato’s translator and commentator Benjamin Jowett sums up Socrates’s position in the Phaedrus:

Writing is inferior to speech. For writing is like a picture which can give no answer to a question, and has only a deceitful likeness of a living creature. It has no power of adaptation, but uses the same words for all. It is a sort of bastard and not a legitimate son of
knowledge, and when an attack is made upon this illegitimate progeny, neither the parent nor anyone else is there to defend it. . . .

to be continued

* this article quote from chapter 5 of Lambent traces: Franz Kafka / Stanley Corngold, 2006, Princeton University Press.

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