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MLN 117.5 (2002) 971-1002
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In the Field of Forces Between Judaism and Hellenism
Alexander Pushkin's story on Potemkin, as retold by Walter Benjamin in "Franz Kafka," is said to storm like a herald two hundred years ahead of Kafka's work. Not only is Potemkin characterized as an "ancestor" of the somnolent and unkempt holders of power in Kafka's work, but the world of offices and registries in the story is held to be no different from that of Kafka's world, and Shuvalkin the same as K. More precisely, what makes Pushkin's story the forerunner of Kafka's world and work for Benjamin, is that "the enigma which beclouds this story is Kafka's enigma" (795). 1 This enigma, that forms a "cloudy spot (wolkige Stelle)" (802), or rather, that flocculates (sich in ihr wölkt), in Pushkin's story—in other words, that constitutes this story's nontransparent and impenetrable spot—concerns the status of the law, its representatives, and its subjects. The puzzling question at the heart of both Pushkin's story and Kafka's writings, that is, at the very spot where their world-image "ceases to be transparent" (II,3,1263), 2 bears upon a law which manifests itself phenomenally only through seedy legal representatives and authorities who preside over a decrepit world entirely permeated by the sphere of the law, and whose terrible power consists in condemning its very subjects while denying them any access to it. However, to associate the flocculating enigma in both Pushkin's story and Kafka's works with the question of the law, as I do here, may seem precipitate considering Benjamin's reservations concerning the very notion of the law. 3 No doubt, the [End Page 971] term "the law" is not absent from "Franz Kafka." But as the exchange of letters with Gershom Scholem demonstrates—who, in a letter from August 1, 1931, remarks about the talk "Franz Kafka: Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer," which Benjamin gave in 1931 on the Frankfurter Rundfunk: "How, as a critic, you could manage to say anything about the world of this man without putting the doctrine, what Kafka called the law, into the center, is an enigma for me" (II,3,1156)—Benjamin did not consider the notion of the law to be key to understanding Kafka's work. In fact, in the letter of August 11, 1934 devoted to Scholem's comments about his essay "Franz Kafka," Benjamin remarks: "I hold Kafka's steady insistence on the law to be the blind spot of his work, by which I only want to say, that it just appears to me impossible to put it interpretatively into motion by way of this notion. Indeed, I do not wish to take on this concept" (II, 3,1166). 4 In another letter addressed to Werner Kraft, dated November 12, 1934, Benjamin recalls that Scholem had reproached him for "ignoring Kafka's concept of the 'laws'," and he adds: "At a later moment, I will attempt to show why the concept of the 'laws' in Kafka, in contrast to the concept of 'doctrine', has mainly a semblance-like character, and that it is in truth only for display (einen überwiegend scheinhaften Charakter hat und eigentlich eine Attrappe ist)" (II,3,1172). Finally, in the notes for the "Kafka-Revision," he remarks: "The passages where Kafka discusses 'The question of the laws' are to be compared. Among other things, one needs to investigate whether it makes sense to distinguish between 'the' law and the laws as Kraft argues. Are the laws the blind spot in Kafka?" (II,3,1250). In sum then, Benjamin holds the "law," or the "laws," to which he refers seemingly without making a definite distinction, to be the blind spot in Kafka's work. By way of this concept, interpretation is unable to make out anything of importance in the work. In addition, Kafka himself has not said anything determinate about the law or the laws. But, perhaps most importantly...