- Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance, and: Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form
Few writers have sung as sweetly, as enticingly, to the modern critical ear as Kafka. We may no longer read him, as did an earlier generation of critics, with the shudder of an alienated consciousness becoming aware of itself, but we do read; that is, we interpret. And if, as Alan Udoff suggests, we find ourselves reading in the "time of the sign," where symbol has been replaced by signifier, interpretation is the occasion to reflect on the act of interpreting; the myth of Kafka is transformed into the myth of reading Kafka.
This is the conclusion compelled by a reading of the seventeen essays collected in Udoff's volume of centenary readings, Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance. Nearly every essay in the volume invokes its own image of the fallacy of desiring to find meaning in interpretation: the stern father (Nägele), the "super-reader" (Gross), the siren's promise (Weissberg), the narcissistic reader (Sokel). This may seem a little like the liar's paradox, but actually these readings, united in their perception of difficulty as the ground, not the effect, of Kafka's project, permit the critic to be situated "before the Law" of the Kafkan text (Derrida); that is, to be directly implicated by the text, "symbolically" figured by Kafka's protagonists.
Whereas no single essay is likely to emerge as ground-breaking, several are quite suggestive: for example, Koelb's description of Kafka's irreconcilable notions of lethetic and alethetic reading; Thiher's illumination of Kafka's Lévi-Straussian quest to eliminate aleatory metaphoric productivity; Udoff's discussion of Kafka's transfiguration, keyed by the image of suppliancy, of the "Law" into the "Law of Writing." Others offer virtuoso readings of story-fragments like "The Lie of Sancho Panza" (Kudszus) or "The Neighbor" (Gross), reevaluations of old questions such as the congruence of protagonist and narrative in The Castle (Ronell) or the relationship of the impulse to write and the death instinct (Bernheimer). There is also a fascinating account of the cultural history of the hunger artist (Mitchell).
At the same time, however, several of the essays contribute rather little to either literary theory or Kafka scholarship. In some cases, an overwrought Derridean wit ("Wright Brothers" becomes "Write Brothers") obtrudes genuine insight; in others, flashy critical terminology ("intertextual loop") promises much but yields little.
Taken as a whole, the collection succeeds in asking what motivates the critical enterprise. But the impression given by this volume is that this is the only question worth asking. To simply "stay the execution," as Udoff puts it, of so-called "symbolist" readings, may be far too little for some readers. It is noteworthy that in a volume purporting to represent the "contemporary critical performance" contributions cannot be found, for example, from marxist or feminist perspectives. [End Page 826] Only two of the essays (Thorlby and Corngold) even venture to comment on the possible political, philosophical, or historical significance of the problem of meaning that everyone recognizes in Kafka. Yet if our conclusion upon reading Kafka is that the critic's wish to find meaning is merely childish, neurotic, or paternalistic, then criticism is not only inconsequential—it is rather tedious.
Enter Stanley Corngold's The Necessity of Form, in which the critic's desire to read Kafka's work as an "intelligible whole" is the starting point for an inquiry into how Kafka's rhetoric disrupts conventional assumptions about the figurative dimension of language. For Corngold, the meaning of the organic whole that is Kafka's life and literature is understood as an expression of both the triumph and despair of Schriftstellersein.
Readers familiar with Corngold's contributions to the field of Kafka studies will recognize much of the material in a volume that includes reproductions, with varied degrees of revision and addition, of ten previously published essays. This constitutes a representative, if inconsistent sampling of Corngold's work ("The...