The future is already here within me. The only change will be to make visible the hidden wounds.Franz Kafka, Conversations with Janouch
I. Kafka and Shoah
Writing to his friend Gershom Scholem in June 1938, in a letter that would prove poignantly prophetic, Walter Benjamin claimed that Kafka’s world was “the exact complement of his era which is preparing to do away with the inhabitants of this planet on a considerable scale. The experience which corresponds to that of Kafka, the private individual, will probably not become accessible to the masses until such time as they are being done away with.” 1 Although he wrestled with the temptation of granting Kafka a prophetic eminence, Benjamin desisted. Kafka’s “prescience” comes from a certain deep listening or auscultation of tradition and not from some far-sightedness or prophetic vision:
If one says that he perceived what was to come without perceiving what exists in the present, one should add that he perceived it essentially as an individual affected by it. His gestures of terror are given scope by the marvelous margin which the catastrophe will not grant us. But his experience was based solely on the tradition to which Kafka surrendered; there was no far-sightedness or “prophetic vision.” Kafka listened to tradition and he who listens hard does not see. 2
Despite Benjamin’s disavowal, Holocaust literature has conferred upon Kafka a prophetic power, and we may assign Benjamin’s letter as an inaugural moment in the association of Kafka with the prophetic and apocalyptic that obtained through the course of the century. George Steiner, for example, has claimed that Kafka “heard the name Buchenwald in the word birchwood” and that he “prophesied the actual forms of the disaster of Western humanism.” 3 Similarly, Bertold Brecht, despite his predilection for practical ideology and crude thinking, echoes Steiner by arguing that: [End Page 173]
We find in [Kafka] strange disguises prefiguring many things that were, at the time when his books appeared, plain to very few people. The fascist dictatorship was, so to speak, in the very bones of the bourgeois democracies, and Kafka described with wonderful imaginative power the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state apparat, the paralyzed, inadequately motivated, floundering lives of many individual people; everything appeared as in a nightmare and with the confusion and inadequacy of nightmare. 4
Brecht here sets up a haunting homology that links Kafka’s nightmare vision with the nightmare world of the camps. Kafka’s “strange disguises,” in Brecht’s reading, now disclose the horror they prefigured, the surreal and atrocious nightmare into which the world would wake.
More circumspect than both Steiner and Brecht, Theodor Adorno critiques the prevailing tendency of some critics to assimilate Kafka “into an established trend of thought while little attention is paid to those aspects of his work which resist such assimilation and which precisely for this reason, require interpretation.” 5 Occupying a space somewhere between Benjamin and Brecht, Adorno sees Kafka’s art as unfolding a future out of the fragmented detrius of the present. For Adorno, Kafka does not,
directly outline the image of society to come—for in his as in all great art, asceticism toward the future prevails—but rather depicts it as a montage composed of waste-products which the new order, in the process of forming itself, extracts from the perishing present. Instead of curing neurosis, he seeks in it itself the healing force, that of knowledge: the wounds with which society brands the individual are seen by the latter as ciphers of the social untruth, as the negative of truth. 6
Kafka, as my epigraph (which would also serve as an epitaph) intimates does indeed practice an “asceticism towards the future,” one in which (as we shall see) the “wounds with which society brands the individual” will be seen not simply as “ciphers of . . . the negative of truth” but as prophetic of the truth to come. If Adorno will not grant Kafka a direct line to the future image of society, he does cite favourably Klaus Mann’s contention “that...