French translation here
London: Cuercus, 2008
US edition: Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008
“Turns out, Kafka was a wealthy, porn-loving, loyal German citizen. Who knew?” — Amazon reviewer
That face. You’ve seen it. You’re sick of seeing it. The Prophet of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and worst of all, the Orwellian aspects of Bush/Obama Administration. The corporate logo of Judaic Cultural Supremacy, the ikon of Holocaustianity. The emblem of all that you hate.
You want to smash it so hard, then put it together again to smash it again, and again.
James Hawes has good news for you: it’s a fake. A big, phony fake:
. . . the international trademark of Prague . . . was actually taken in a department store in Berlin . . . about eight months before his death, when he knew logically he was doomed. . . . This state of mind is . . . liable to make anyone look profound.
But still not profound enough. [I]n the early fifties . . . S. Fisher Co. artists retouched this picture to give Kafka’s eyes the desired gleam. Prophetic Kafka is now as famous and vague an icon as Saintly Che Guevara — and with about as much historical accuracy.
Hawes hates the photo too, but for other reasons. For him, it’s the all-too-appropriate ikon of what he calls “The K-Myth” (using “myth” as a good-thinking liberal does, to mean “phony fake”). The K-Myth is:
[T]he idea of a mysterious genius, a lonely Middle European Nostradamus, who, almost ignored by his contemporaries, somehow plumbed the depths of his mysterious, quasi-saintly psyche to predict the Holocaust and the Gulags.
Kafka was not only a literary insider but a social one too, a millionaire’s son, a well-paid senior functionary of the Habsburg empire, a member of Prague’s German elite who consciously — and subconsciously — wanted Germany and Austria to win the first world war. A German-speaking, German-thinking Jew who foresaw the horrors of the Holocaust no more than anyone else did. A writer who, when he first read out The Trial, reduced his friends to “helpless laughter.”
Yes, They have been lying to you from the beginning; from before the beginning, for as we will see, Kafka himself was an eager participant in the early parts of the stage-managing of his literary career, like any young writer, though he would have collapsed in “helpless laughter” himself to see how monstrous the K-myth has grown.
Hawes devotes most of his book to deconstructing the K-myth piece by piece. First off, that guff about poor Kafka, working long hours at his stifling office job, living with his parents, snatching a few hours for writing his masterpieces in the late nights — the original Milennial Slacker. “Actually, Kafka was . . . an ’80s Yuppie; more Gordon Gekko than Quentin Tarantino. Far from being alone and poor, he lived with his family in upper-middle-class comfort . . .”
Actually, even that understates the case; Kafka’s father (who, as we’ll see, takes a lot of heat from the myth-makers) was a millionaire, owning not merely an apartment to share with Franz but an apartment building (more Proust than Gregor Samsa) as well as an admittedly not well-performing asbestos factory.
The rent-free accommodations are especially lucrative, since Kafka, holding a doctorate in Law, has scored a plum job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, taking home the modern equivalent of $90,000 a year for a six-hour day, most of it spent discussing Heine with his boss.
Kafka writes only a few hours a day, mostly in the late nights, only because, as he admits gleefully, he spends all his free time and money in cafes and brothels, and is just lazy to boot. In short, a fairly typical rich young man with literary ambitions but little ambition; hardly a Genet scribbling on paper bags in prison.
Now, about that writing. All that time out socializing on the town sure comes in handy. Before publishing a single word, his pal, Max Brod — “a classic literary networker with fingers In many literary pies” — inserts, into a review of an established author he’s publishing in an important Berlin literary journal, the observation that this Kafka chap seem to be a great stylist. The author under review, one Franz Blei, then reviews Kafka’s first, tiny little pieces, favorably, of course; later, Kafka’s publisher will arrange the hasty publication of one story as a stand-alone chapbook, so as to qualify — and win — the prestigious Fontane Prize (rather like the National Book Award) — judged, that year, by Franz Blei.
Which is not to say that the work itself is unworthy of such judgment; only that, such assiduous log-rolling, as certain tribe well versed in it would say, “couldn’t hoit.”
But back to that day job again; it’s going to furnish Hawes with some of his most powerful, or at least controversial (and, like Kafka, he knows the value of controversy to word of mouth sales) evidence for the K-myth.
First, although I’ve been calling K a “yuppie” for shock value, he did not at least share the same kind of single-minded individualism characteristic of the Reagan-era model. No, this chap closely identified himself with his ethic comrades. Unfortunately for the K-Myth, those comrades were not the poor, downtrodden, persecuted Jews, but the German-speaking elite of the Hapsburg Empire. Kafka, in short, was a German patriot.
For example, Kafka invested a considerable portion of his savings — remember, even with all the kaffee mit schlag and Czech waitress-whores (the Prague equivalent of today‘s “actress-models“), he’s got $90,000 a year, and living rent-free — in Austrian War Bonds. That’s right, Kafka helped pay for the bayonets those Huns were skewering Belgian babies on. They paid 5% or so interest, backed up by the Hapsburg Empire, making them the no-brainer investment of the century. Ironically, it turned out to be the most “Kafkaesque” thing he ever did, the equivalent of selling the family jewels for Confederate currency, but, as the Tribe would say, who knew? And this is the schlemiel who supposedly could foresee the Holocaust?
Even more “damning,” though, was his wartime write-up of an appeal for a hospital for German-speaking — and only German-speaking, no Czech or Yiddish riff-raff need apply was made clear — wounded war veterans. I’ll let Hawes tell the tale:
There’ve been countless attempts to present Kafka as a closet socialist, a friend of Czech aspirations, and so on. The fact is that in a public proclamation of late 1916 (to raise funds for a hospital exclusively for German-speaking mentally-damaged soldiers of Kaiser Franz Josef’s multinational army), Kafka speaks explicitly as a “German-Bohemian Folk-Comrade.” His thinking vis-à-vis the Habsburg Empire seems to have been “non-political.” Not in an oppositional sense at all, simply as conformism to the state of affairs. As Reiner Stach (whom I was very sad and surprised to see rubbishing my book even while admitting he hadn’t read it) says of Kafka’s apparent views on Habsburg Foreign Policy, “the ease with which Kafka parroted the official jargon is disconcerting.”
Notice how Hawes tries to insinuate that even Franz Josef (with his anachronistically “multinational” army) was more “diverse” than white-bread Franz Kafka? “Disconcerting” to the Tribe, perhaps, or to those who “parrot” in their turn British War Office propaganda as history.
Now, if you’ve been peeking at my endnotes, you noticed the references to “pornography” and even “Kafka’s porn cache.” Yes, it all comes together in one big ball of scandal; as George Costanza once said, in a rather Kafkaesque moment, “This thing is like an onion: The more layers you peel, the more it stinks!”
For it turns out that Kafka like to spend some of that salary on subscribing to an expensive, “arty” porn journal. And, as Hawes says, while puffing his book elsewhere,
[T]he publisher of this porn in 1906 was the same man who, in 1908, was to become Kafka’s own first publisher — and the same man who would, in 1915, arrange for Kafka to very publicly receive the prize-monies from the most prestigious German literary award of the year.
Even for Prague at the fin de siècle, it seems a small world, after all!
As for the porn itself, Hawes tries to make a big meal out of it, as it were; but while he’s correct that despite the literally millions of books, theses and articles on Kafka, no one else has ever commented on it, it’s hardly as earth-shatteringly lewd as he keeps insisting; more like the censored parts of Beardsley’s drawings. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Yes, one by one, Hawes knocks the props out from under the K-Myth, until, like one of those giant papier-mâché puppet heads the anarchists wave around at their demos, it comes crashing to the ground.
Or rather, to use a more literary metaphor, it’s like a palimpsest, and after stripping the later monkish nonsense off, a lost classic stands revealed. Kafka, as I’ve been insinuating all along, the greatest writer, certainly the greatest European writer, of the 20th century — is One of Us! A White Guy!
But you shouldn’t let yourself think Hawes is One of Us. He hates the “real” Kafka, the rich, sexually-active, free-spending Yuppie, and above all, the German patriot.
He’s arguing against the K-Myth because he thinks it distorts our understanding of the writings, distracts us from the texts themselves. It does so by creating a sickly secular saint of the typically Judaic sort.
We all love the myth of the great dead romantic outsider genius (for what dubious reasons I leave you, dear reader, to wonder yourself). But knowing who Kafka really was — and therefore who he wasn’t — is the only way we’ll ever be able to read his wonderful writings in all their true, black-comic glory. If it takes a bit of shock therapy to dispel the myth, so be it.
“We”? And what “dubious reasons” are behind it?
To combat it, he constructs his supposedly historically accurate counter-figure, not as a new idol, but to disgust us with Kafka altogether as a real, individual man, leaving us with the works alone — the things themselves, as Kafka’s contemporary tribesman Husserl would say. In fact, it would be safe to say that Hawes despises the “real” Kafka and wants to dissociate him from the Holocaust precisely because he is unworthy of being its patron saint.
Having supposedly liberated us from the K-Myth which distorts our reading of Kafka‘s works themselves in — he would not say, a typically Judaic fashion — as the works of a tortured, prophetic outsider, Hawes, under the pretense of giving us a reading of “the works themselves” merely substitutes a new, equally Judaic though more secular reading, as works of “black comedy.”
While the original British title, Excavating Kafka, reflects the first part of the agenda, the subsequent American title, Read Kafka Before You Ruin Your Life (clearly meant to capitalize on the success of such DIY culture texts as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life), reflects the second, more insidious part of the agenda: Kafka as the prophet, not of the Holocaust, but of post-Modernism. As he puts it clearly elsewhere:
What Kafka is obsessed with is our suicidal readiness to buy into grand narratives of redemption and absolute certainty, however ramshackle and visibly corrupt they may be. The vital element in his works that the K-Myth obscures is that his heroes are utterly complicit in their own “entrapment.” These are not tales of innocent people suddenly swallowed up by miscarriages of cosmic justice. Of all the philosophical roots of Kafka’s thought, I believe that the single most important is Nietzsche’s famous and terrifying insight regarding the “nihilism” of modern, post-religious man (my translation is necessarily a free one): “mankind would rather long for nothingness than have nothing to long for.” This Nietzschean analysis of why modern people do what they do may well be very apposite to both the killers of 9/11 and the blank-eyed porn-stares of the Abu-Ghraib abusers.
Note the clever use of the porn trope to rope in “us” with Kafka and the Moslem extremists — moral equivalence, as the Neo-Cons would say. We’re all — except Hawes and his vaguely Marxist academic cohorts — zombies in the grip of “grand narratives,” etc.
And why read Kafka today? Because his analysis of the way we’re so fatally, suicidally tempted by visions of a gold-lit past, complete with all its alleged certainties and securities, is more needed today than ever. His works are one great warning against swallowing the grand illusions, one great demand that if we want to really live, we have to grow up and look life in the eye.
Of course, one might suggest that it is the purveyors of this somehow simultaneously smug and stale po-mo cliché that needs to “grow up” or at least leave the ’60s behind, man. Still, as the reference to Nietzsche shows, there something to this kind of thing. But if we are to assimilate Kafka to Nietzsche as a “Good European,” we need to take our Niezsche as Baron Evola did; useful as a solvent of bourgeois liberalism, but useless — indeed, poisonous — when taken as a guide to the way forward.
And speaking of academic po-moists, the reaction of the “orthodox” Kafka specialists was swift and predictable; yes, Max Brod was a mythmaker, but we’ve known this for years, blah blah blah. Hawes, himself something of a Kafka specialist, may have his own reasons for tweaking the experts. He may have simply chosen the wrong target; it may be that “Walter Benjamin exploded the Kafka myth is the ’30s” in some unreadable bit of Euro-sludge (after all, if Kafka wasn’t the biggest Judaic Genius then Benjamin was, right?), but so what? If Kafka, like Dickens and Orwell, is one of the few writers to have his own adjective, and we all know what “kafkaesque” means; that’s Hawes’ real target.
Perhaps the silliest, but most symptomatic, response is from tribesman Sander Gilman, no doubt put out that Hawes fails to mention his own biography, modestly titled Kafka. Gilman (related to Lovecraft?) fouls the waters with some typical Judaic claptrap, smuggled in through Stanley Fish, that “all biographers lie,” and so he modestly, cringingly politely, can’t really complain that Hawes sees Kafka as a regular guy, rather than being “special” (i.e., a Jewish genius jewishly obsessed with his Jewish jewitude). But it sure would be good for the Jews if Hawes would just go away:
Hawes misrepresents—but then again, as Fish believes, so do all biographers. It could be argued, for example, that I needed my Kafka to be ill and anxious and creative in order to shore up my reading of the situation of European Jews at the turn of the century. [No! Who could doubt you, boychik?] But the major difference between this writer and James Hawes is that while we all have stories we tell about the lives we write, some of us are more concerned with the nuances of the research we do and of the world that we try to describe. [I.e., is it good for the Jews?] In the end, however, it is the believability of those lies by the widest community that defines the successful biographer. Let us see whether time is kind to Hawes’s Welsh-comic [Gilman, true tribesman, found it funny that Hawes teaches in Wales], literary intellectual Franz Kafka.
Oh, boo-boo. If all biographers lie, then why should I believe your lies? I say phooey-kerflooey! Away with all this Judaic quatsch! Gilman is right; the “nuances” of Hawes’s portrait of Kafka are worrisome — they encourage the goyim, though surely that would be the “widest community” of all, one would think. Let us have a real Kafka, Kafka as he was, Kafka as he saw himself, Kafka as he wanted to be seen, however you want to put it: a proud member of the German literary and cultural tradition.
Kafka: our folk-comrade!
1. James Hawes “Tumbling the author myth: Why such anger about my revelations of Kafka’s interest in pornography? His legacy could stand a little debunking,” The Guardian, Friday, August 29, 2008, here.
2. Louis Bayard, “How Kafka-esque is Kafka? The Czech writer has become the prophet of our absurd era, but a new book intends to strip the author of his saintly reputation,” Salon, Friday, August 1, 2008, here.
3. Apparently a typical German occupation, shared by Dietrich Eckhart; see my review of Hitler’s Mentor, here.
4. Scott Horton, “In Pursuit of Kafka’s Porn Cache: Six questions for James Hawes” by; Harper’s, August 19, 2008, here.
5. See again my review of Eckhart in note 3 above.
6. Seinfeld, Episode no. 136 “The Soul Mate” (Original air date 26 Sept 1996), here.
7. “The Kafka Myth” here.
8. Speaking of which, Mark Anderson’s Kafka’s Clothes has a similar agenda, but limited to revealing Kafka the Dandy, almost a metrosexual.
9. Having already pooh-poohed the “sexual explicitness” of Houellebecq (“The Sexual Anti-Utopia of Michel Houellebecq,” here), I may not be the right person to make the call.
10. One senses, over and above the log-rolling, that Hawes wishes Kafka had not written in German at all, and , like the supposedly resigned prisoners at Auchwitz, had willingly entered the ghetto of Czech literature. Or perhaps, Yiddish — he did cultivate a taste for the Yiddish theatre — or even, dare one hope, Hebrew — thus assuaging beforehand that annoying fact, that the super-talented Jewish State has produced not one writer — any other artist — of any distinction. Perhaps Veblen was right, and the Jew thrives only on adversity? See my “The Eternal Outsider: Veblen on The Gentleman and the Jew,” here and in The Eldritch Evola.
11. “No other writer’s work suffers from this kind of prejudgment” Oh? I can think of dozens: Hitler, Goebbels, Rosenberg . . .
12. Hawes is such a believer in the Church of Holocaustianity that he actually absolves the Red Army of “whatever else they may be guilty of” in recognition of their “liberation” of the “death camps.” Millions of dead and living though brutalized German and “liberated” Slavic civilians might beg to differ, although I suppose it’s a sign of progress that he even acknowledges the “whatever else.”
13. “In pursuit of Kafka’s Porn Cache,” note 4 above.
15. See most notably Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for the Aristocrats of the Soul (Inner Traditions, 2001), especially “Part 2: In the World Where God Is Dead.” Interestingly, Evola admits in his autobiography that two of his adolescent guides were Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, with the latter suggesting a connection to Kafka through his Beardsley porn cache; see The Path of Cinnabar (Arktos, 2009), p. 8. Evola also name Otto Weininger, who also greatly influenced Kafka as well.
16. Sander L. Gilman, “Everyman’s Kafka,” Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation, no. 35, Winter 5769/2009, here.