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  • On the Threshold of a New Kabbalah: Kafka's Later Tales
  • Clayton Koelb
Walter A. Strauss. On the Threshold of a New Kabbalah: Kafka's Later Tales. American University Studies, Series I, Vol.. New York: Lang, 1988. 229 pp. $33.50.

Walter A. Strauss, an experienced scholar whose work is well known to students of comparative literature, turns his hand here to the close analysis of Kafka's fiction in 1917 and after. His approach is based on the notion that Kafka is a serious religious thinker—as Max Brod, for one, thought he was—whose theological/philosophical concerns work their way inevitably into his fiction. Serious and careful examination of the aphorisms and "meditations" found in Kafka's notebooks, it is argued, is the most fruitful route to an understanding of the stories and novels. "[I]f the aphorisms and meditations are formulations of [Kafka's] thought in its purest, truest form, then his fictions are structures which attempt to reflect those truths, no matter how faintly and imperfectly, by subjecting them to the illusions of language and of the world, by putting them to the test."

The heart of the book, then, is an analysis of the notebook material, particularly that treating religious or philosophical matters. It leads Strauss to conclude that Kafka was "an anima naturaliter cabbalistica," who, although he never studied Kabbalah and may in fact have known very little about it, had a view of truth fundamentally similar to that of the Lurianic tradition. Kafka and Kabbalah share a view of an unredeemed world in which language, art, and indeed all systems of meaning inevitably fail to encompass the truth. Words "can capture only the reflection of its grotesque trace of truth as the point of disappearance."

The central chapters on Kafka's aphorisms and their relation to Kabbalah are interesting and often innovative, although one may emerge still unconvinced that the aphoristic notebook entries are indeed Kafka's thought in its "purest, truest form." But the results are disappointing when it comes to Strauss's readings of Kafka's fiction, which often repeat material familiar to us from the work of other scholars, although not always acknowledging those scholars in text or notes. We learn, for example, that "Kafka's fictions (they are all larger or smaller parables) cannot be interpreted." Heinz Politzer said almost exactly this over a quarter of a century ago.

The potential reader should be warned that the book evidently lacked editing or proofreading of any kind. It is full of typographical errors, apparently omitted material, and even repetitions, word for word, of sequences of sentences. The frequent quotations from Kafka are at times unrecognizable: the last line of [End Page 828] "Josephine the Singer" is given as ". . . and be forgiven like all her brothers." Theological it may be, but it is not Kafka, who wrote "forgotten" instead of "forgiven." The missing accent marks and, most of all, the missing quotations marks make working through the text a kabbalistic adventure. At times, one is not sure whether to forgive or to forget it.

Although evident learning and labor have gone into some aspects of the volume, the book as a whole is unsatisfying and at times downright annoying. Whereas I am glad to have the benefit of Strauss's occasional insights, I wish I could have obtained it in a more congenial form, without much of the packaging. I am not altogether certain that others, even dedicated Kafka scholars, will have the patience for it.

Clayton Koelb
The University of Chicago


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