In the last decade and a half, two lines of Kafka criticism have emerged into prominence. One might be called contextualism, the attempt to place Kafka in the context of his culture and society. The other, not unrelated to the first, is the stress on Kafka’s Jewishness and its meaning for Kafka’s life and work. Sander Gilman’s book brilliantly unites both and adds an important chapter to the narrative of Kafka scholarship.
Gilman’s intent is not to present yet another reading of Kafka’s opus, but to historicize Kafka’s self-image, to anchor Kafka’s discourse and sense of self in discourses of his time—the European fin de siècle. By it Gilman understands “the long turn of the century,” a period roughly extending from two decades before Kafka’s birth, in 1883, to [End Page 522] two decades after his death, in 1924: i.e., from just beyond the mid-point of the nineteenth century to the end of Third Reich and Shoah. As a solidly proven, well-known practitioner of Foucauldian Historicism, Gilman reads history as the discourses, the political, social, intellectual, and cultural debates that form and fill historical epochs. Gilman sees the fin de siècle dominated by stereotyping discourses of “difference” that stamp deviance from ruling physical, ethnic, sexual, and cultural norms as innately inferior, dangerous, and more or less intolerable. Since the discourses of difference consider individual members of deviating groups as subject to an immutable character, nature, or essence, the term “essentialism” (although not used by Gilman himself) might conveniently unite the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, homoerotic, and eugenicist discourses to which Gilman seeks to link Kafka. The overarching discourse for Gilman of all those is anti-Semitism, since it accommodates the others in as far as it seeks to show the body of the male Jew as being inherently diseased, effeminate, and degenerate.
Gilman approaches Kafka as an example of Jewish internalizing of the anti-Jewish discourse. Kafka, in Gilman’s view, appropriates a perspective that equates Jewishness with proneness to disease of body, mind, and soul. Thus he becomes for Gilman an archetype of “the Jewish patient.” Gilman portrays Kafka’s life as dominated by anxiety of becoming what his society asserted he essentially was—a sick Jew, deformed in body and emasculated in his soul, accursed by a hopelessly faulty nature. Although Kafka attempted to circumvent this fate and transform himself, it seemed preordained, written as the law into his blood, as the punishing verdict on the prisoner of In the Penal Colony is inscribed into his body. Gilman interprets Kafka’s obsessive experiments with diet, hygiene, and athletic exercise as frantic efforts to escape from his Jewish destiny and transform his body—and with it, his self—into one not afflicted with the deficiencies ascribed, by his society and by himself, to male Jews. However, these efforts proved to be of no avail. From that sense of failed transformation, Gilman is able to shed revealing light on Kafka’s tales of metamorphosis as well as on other texts such as In the Penal Colony, The Trial, and “A Hunger Artist.”
Kafka, as Gilman makes clear, understands his own Jewishness as deracination which marks Western, “assimilated” Jews. Assimilation for Kafka could not be other than superficial, self-deceiving, and thus [End Page 523] inwardly fraudulent. There could not be, for him, true assimilation to German culture because the “being” of Jews, clinging to their bodies and their language, precluded a genuine merging with the very different “being” of Germans. At the same time, Western Jews had severed themselves from their Judaic roots, which the Yiddish-speaking and “authentic” Jews of Eastern Europe had retained. Consequently, German-speaking Jews existed, for Kafka, in a realm of inauthenticity, suspended between “authentic” Germans and equally “authentic” Eastern Jews. A telling example of this split being of the Western Jew as a hybrid or “Mischling,” Gilman sees presented in Kafka’s short text, “A Crossbreed,” about a creature half cat, half lamb, the narrator’s “paternal inheritance.” The only...