Reading a short analysis of the life and work of Franz Kafka in The Reader’s Companion to World Literature disappointed me. This comprehensive guide dubbed Kafka a “German novelist” whose “work deals with an incomprehensible world and authority” that “captured the imagination of a Europe caught in the 1930’s in the irrationalities of dictatorship.” Not one mention here that Kafka was a Jew who had a keen interest in Yiddish theater, Cultural Zionism, Aliya, the Hebrew language, Kabbalah, Hasidism, and Jewish education. No indication that this “German novelist” would not have written The Trial and The Castle had he not been the product of an upper middle-class, assimilated Jewish family and a Jew growing up in the turmoil of Prague in the early 20th century. No, this Kafka is simply the Generic Kafka, a universal figure who addressed universal alienation and angst in his greatest works. Very disappointing.
If you have any interest in Kafka, 20th-century literature or the impact of Zionism and Yiddish on Jewish youth and society in Central Europe a century ago, I direct you to the groundbreaking work of Professor Iris Bruce of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. This scholar has devoted her life to illuminating that which was ignored for close to one hundred years: The Jewish identity and interests of Kafka the Jew. I highly recommend her 2007 study Kafka and Cultural Zionism. This remarkable short work presents Kafka as he really was. First and foremost, Franz Kafka was a Jew struggling with Jewish dilemmas and Jewish hopes in the heart of Christian Europe in a world of anti-Semitism, Zionism, assimilation and frightening change. No room here for the Generic Kafka. Yes, his work has resonated universally. But text alone does not give us a true picture of Kafka. The context of Jewish Prague one hundred years ago must be understood to understand Kafka. There is no text without context.
I would like to provide one example from Kafka and Cultural Zionism in which Professor Bruce analyzes a short work of Kafka’s from the perspective of Kafka the Jew. “A Report To An Academy” was published in 1917 in Martin Buber’s Zionist journal Der Jude. The story Kafka tells in “Report” is of Rotpeter the Ape, captured in Africa and brought to a German zoo, who attempts to explain to a scientific committee his transformation into a human being. Rotpeter escapes the zoo and makes a living as a freak on “all the great variety of stages of the civilized world.” The ape who tries to be a man learns from humans how to shake hands, smoke, and indulge in red wine and Schnapps. He incorporates all of human behavior into his being in the quest to become human. As Bruce explains “Kafka shows little sympathy for the ape and satirizes the path of his evolution, which Rotpeter, in hindsight, calls his ‘forced career’.” Rotpeter’s attempts to pass himself off as a man creates self-hatred of his ape nature and is simply masochistic. Rotpeter’s progress is the progress of a freak, of a sideshow exhibit lacking any dignity or authenticity. He is so eager to display his human maleness that he offers to take off his pants to prove it to the Academy.
Who is Rotpeter the Freak? For Kafka, this is the Jew who hates himself and wants to be embraced by Gentile society. Professor Bruce quotes Max Brod, Kafka’s close friend, fellow Zionist, and the man who saved Kafka’s work rather than burn it all as the haunted author requested, as identifying “A Report To An Academy” as “the most original satire of assimilation which has ever been written! Read it again in the last issue of the ‘Jew.’ The assimilationist who does not want freedom, not eternity, only a way out!” Kafka’s “Report” is a condemnation of Jews who only want to be accepted by the majority culture and hate themselves. Their quest to assimilate is bound to fail. Kafka wrote this work as a Jew struggling with his Jewish identity and his Jewish journey. This work appeared in a Zionist publication. Can we really accept the idea that this was the work of a universalist and a generic man who was a “German novelist”? From this point on, Iris Bruce has made it impossible for scholars of Franz Kafka to relegate his Jewish identity to a minor factor in his writings. Kafka lived as a Jew, wrote as a Jew, and died much too early as a Jew. The Generic Kafka never existed.