Kafka the Heretic


-Kafka-

« The first sign of the beginning of knowledge is the desire to die. »i

Kafka had been searching for a long time for the key that could open the doors to true « knowledge ». At the age of 34, he seemed to have found a key, and it was death, or at least the desire to die.

It was not just any kind of death, or a death that would only continue the torment of living, in another life after death, in another prison.

Nor was it just any knowledge, a knowledge that would be only mental, or bookish, or cabalistic…

Kafka dreamed of a death that leads to freedom, infinite freedom.

He was looking for a single knowledge, the knowledge that finally brings to life, and saves, a knowledge that would be the ultimate, – the decisive encounter with « the master ».

« The master »? Language can only be allusive. Never resign yourself to delivering proper names to the crowd. But one can give some clues anyway, in these times of unbelief and contempt for all forms of faith…

« This life seems unbearable, another, inaccessible. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to leave the old cell that one hates to be transferred to a new cell that one will learn to hate. At the same time, a remnant of faith continues to make you believe that, during the transfer, the master will pass by chance in the corridor, look at the prisoner and say: ‘You won’t put him back in prison, he will come to me. » ii

This excerpt from the Winter Diary 1917-1918 is one of the few « aphorisms » that Kafka copied and numbered a little later, in 1920, which seems to give them special value.

After Kafka’s death, Max Brod gave this set of one hundred and nine aphorisms the somewhat grandiloquent but catchy title of « Meditations on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Path ».

The aphorism that we have just quoted is No. 13.

Aphorism No. 6, written five days earlier, is more scathing, but perhaps even more embarrassing for the faithful followers of the « Tradition ».

« The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual. This is why the revolutionary spiritual movements are within their rights in declaring null and void all that precedes them, because nothing has happened yet. » iii

Then all the Law and all the prophets are null and void?

Did nothing « happen » on Mount Moriah or Mount Sinai?

Kafka, – a heretic? A ‘spiritual’ adventurer, a ‘revolutionary’?

We will see in a moment that this is precisely the opinion of a Gershom Scholem about him.

But before opening Kafka’s heresy trial with Scholem, it may be enlightening to quote the brief commentary Kafka accompanies in his aphorism n°6 :

« Human history is the second that passes between two steps taken by a traveler.»iv

After the image of the « master », that of the « traveller »…

This is a very beautiful Name, less grandiose than the « Most High », less mysterious than the Tetragrammaton, less philosophical than « I am » (ehyeh)… Its beauty comes from the idea of eternal exile, of continuous exodus, of perpetual movement…

It is a Name that reduces all human history to a single second, a simple stride. The whole of Humanity is not even founded on firm ground, a sure hold, it is as if it were suspended, fleeting, « between two steps »…

It is a humble and fantastic image.

We come to the obvious: to give up in a second any desire to know the purpose of an endless journey.

Any pretended knowledge on this subject seems derisory to the one who guesses the extent of the gap between the long path of the « traveler », his wide stride, and the unbearable fleetingness of the worlds.

From now on, how can we put up with the arrogance of all those who claim to know?

Among the ‘knowers’, the cabalists play a special role.

The cabal, as we know, has forged a strong reputation since the Middle Ages as a company that explores mystery and works with knowledge.

According to Gershom Scholem, who has studied it in depth, the cabal thinks it holds the keys to knowing the truth:

« The cabalist affirms that there is a tradition of truth, and that it is transmissible. An ironic assertion, since the truth in question is anything but transmissible. It can be known, but it cannot be transmitted, and it is precisely what becomes transmissible in it that no longer contains it – the authentic tradition remains hidden.»v

Scholem does not deny that such and such a cabalist may perhaps « know » the essence of the secret. He only doubts that if he knows it, this essence, he can « transmit » the knowledge to others. In the best of cases he can only transmit its external sign.

Scholem is even more pessimistic when he adds that what can be transmitted from tradition is empty of truth, that what is transmitted « no longer contains it ».

Irony of a cabal that bursts out of hollowed-out splendor. Despair and desolation of a lucid and empty light .

« There is something infinitely distressing in establishing that supreme knowledge is irrelevant, as the first pages of the Zohar teach. »vi

What does the cabal have to do with Kafka?

It so happens that in his « Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Cabal », Gershom Scholem curiously enlists the writer in the service of the cabal. He believes that Kafka carries (without knowing it) the ‘feeling of the world proper to the cabal’. In return, he grants him a little of the « austere splendor » of the Zohar (not without a pleonasticvii effect):

« The limit between religion and nihilism has found in [Kafka] an impassable expression. That is why his writings, which are the secularized exposition of the cabal’s own (unknown to him) sense of the world, have for many today’s readers something of the austere splendor of the canonical – of the perfect that breaks down. » viii

Kafka, – vacillating ‘between religion and nihilism’?

Kafka, – ‘secularizing’ the cabal, without even having known it?

The mysteries here seem to be embedded, merged!

Isn’t this, by the way, the very essence of tsimtsum? The world as a frenzy of entrenchment, contraction, fusion, opacification.

« The materialist language of the Lurianic Kabbalah, especially in its way of inferring tsimtsum (God’s self-retraction), suggests that perhaps the symbolism that uses such images and formulas could be the same thing. »ix

Through the (oh so materialistic) image of contraction, of shrinkage, the tsimtsum gives to be seen and understood. But the divine self-retraction is embodied with difficulty in this symbolism of narrowness, constraint, contraction. The divine tsimtsum that consents to darkness, to erasure, logically implies another tsimtsum, that of intelligence, and the highlighting of its crushing, its confusion, its incompetence, its humiliation, in front of the mystery of a tsimtsum thatexceeds it.

But at least the image of the tsimtsum has a « materialist » (though non-historical) aura, which in 1934, in the words of a Scholem, could pass for a compliment.

« To understand Kabbalists as mystical materialists of dialectical orientation would be absolutely non-historical, but anything but absurd. » x

The cabal is seen as a mystical enterprise based on a dialectical, non-historical materialism.

It is a vocabulary of the 1930’s, which makes it possible to call « dialectical contradiction » a God fully being becoming « nothingness », or a One God giving birth to multiple emanations (the sefirot)…

« What is the basic meaning of the separation between Eyn Sof and the first Sefira? Precisely that the fullness of being of the hidden God, which remains transcendent to all knowledge (even intuitive knowledge), becomes void in the original act of emanation, when it is converted exclusively to creation. It is this nothingness of God that must necessarily appear to the mystics as the ultimate stage of a ‘becoming nothing’. » xi

These are essential questions that taunt the truly superior minds, those who still have not digested the original Fall, the Sin, and the initial exclusion from Paradise, now lost.

« In Prague, a century before Kafka, Jonas Wehle (…) was the first to ask himself the question (and to answer it in the affirmative) whether, with the expulsion of man, paradise had not lost more than man himself. Was it only a sympathy of souls that, a hundred years later, led Kafka to thoughts that answered that question so profoundly? Perhaps it is because we don’t know what happened to Paradise that he makes all these considerations to explain why Good is ‘in some sense inconsolable’. Considerations that seem to come straight out of a heretical Kabbalah. »xii

Now, Kafka, – a « heretical » Kabbalist ?

Scholem once again presents Kafka as a ‘heretical’ neo-kabbalist, in letters written to Walter Benjamin in 1934, on the occasion of the publication of the essay Benjamin had just written on Kafka in the Jüdische Rundschau...

In this essay, Benjamin denies the theological dimension of Kafka’s works. For him, Kafka makes theater. He is a stranger to the world.

« Kafka wanted to be counted among ordinary men. At every step he came up against the limits of the intelligible: and he willingly made them felt to others. At times, he seems close enough to say, with Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: ‘Then it is a mystery, incomprehensible to us, and we would have the right to preach to men, to teach them that it is not the free decision of hearts nor love that matters, but the mystery to which they must blindly submit, even against the will of their consciencexiii. Kafka did not always escape the temptations of mysticism. (…) Kafka had a singular ability to forge parables for himself. Yet he never allowed himself to be reduced to the interpretable, and on the contrary, he took every conceivable measure to hinder the interpretation of his texts. One must grope one’s way into it, with prudence, with circumspection, with distrust. (…) Kafka’s world is a great theater. In his eyes man is by nature an actor. (…) Salvation is not a bounty on life, it is the last outcome of a man who, according to Kafka’s formula, ‘his own frontal bone stands in the way’xiv. We find the law of this theater in the midst of Communication at an Academy: « I imitated because I was looking for a way out and for no other reason ».xv (…) Indeed, the man of today lives in his body like K. in the village at the foot of the castle; he escapes from it, he is hostile to it. It can happen that one morning the man wakes up and finds himself transformed into a vermin. The foreign country – his foreign country – has seized him. It is this air there that blows in Kafka, and that is why he was not tempted to found a religion. » xvi

Kafka is therefore not a cabalist. The ‘supernatural’ interpretation of his work does not hold.
« There are two ways of fundamentally misunderstanding Kafka’s writings. One is the naturalistic interpretation, the other the supernatural interpretation; both, the psychoanalytical and the theological readings, miss the point. »xvii

Walter Benjamin clearly disagrees with Willy Haas, who had interpreted Kafka’s entire work « on a theological model », an interpretation summarized by this excerpt: « In his great novel The Castle, [writes Willy Haas], Kafka represented the higher power, the reign of grace; in his no less great novel The Trial, he represented the lower power, the reign of judgment and damnation. In a third novel, America, he tried to represent, according to a strict stylization, the land between these two powers […] earthly destiny and its difficult demands. « xviii


Benjamin also finds Bernhard Rang’s analysis « untenable » when he writes: « Insofar as the Castle can be seen as the seat of grace, K.’s vain attempt and vain efforts mean precisely, from a theological point of view, that man can never, by his will and free will alone, provoke and force God’s grace. Worry and impatience only prevent and disturb the sublime peace of the divine order. »xix


These analyses by Bernhard Rang or Willy Haas try to show that for Kafka, « man is always wrong before God « xx.


However, Benjamin, who fiercely denies the thread of « theological » interpretation, thinks that Kafka has certainly raised many questions about « judgment », « fault », « punishment », but without ever giving them an answer. Kafka never actually identified any of the « primitive powers » that he staged.
For Benjamin, Kafka remained deeply dissatisfied with his work. In fact, he wanted to destroy it, as his will testifies. Benjamin interprets Kafka from this (doctrinal) failure. « Failure is his grandiose attempt to bring literature into the realm of doctrine, and to give it back, as a parable, the modest vigor that seemed to him alone appropriate before reason. « xxi


« It was as if the shame had to survive him. »xxii This sentence, the last one in The Trial, symbolizes for Benjamin the fundamental attitude of Kafka.
It is not a shame that affects him personally, but a shame that extends to his entire world, his entire era, and perhaps all of humanity.
« The time in which Kafka lives does not represent for him any progress compared to the first beginnings. The world in which his novels are set is a swamp. »xxiii

What is this swamp?
That of oblivion.
Benjamin quotes Willy Haas again, this time to praise him for having understood the deep movement of the trial: « The object of this trial, or rather the real hero of this incredible book, is oblivion […] whose main characteristic is to forget himself […] In the figure of the accused, he has become a mute character here. « xxiv

Benjamin adds: « That this ‘mysterious center’ comes from ‘the Jewish religion’ can hardly be contested. Here memory as piety plays a quite mysterious role. One of Jehovah’s qualities – not any, but the most profound of his qualities – is to remember, to have an infallible memory, ‘to the third and fourth generation’, even the ‘hundredth generation’; the holiest act […] of the rite […] consists in erasing the sins from the book of memory’xxv. »

What is forgotten, Benjamin concludes, is mixed with « the forgotten reality of the primitive world »xxvi, and this union produces « ever new fruits. »xxvii

Among these fruits arises, in the light, « the inter-world », that is to say « precisely the fullness of the world which is the only real thing. Every spirit must be concrete, particular, to obtain a place and a right of city. [….] The spiritual, insofar as it still plays a role, is transformed into spirits. The spirits become quite individual individuals, bearing themselves a name and linked in the most particular way to the name of the worshipper […]. Without inconvenience their profusion is added to the profusion of the world […] One is not afraid to increase the crowd of spirits: […] New ones are constantly being added to the old ones, all of them have their own name which distinguishes them from the others. « xxviii

These sentences by Franz Rosenzweig, quoted by Benjamin, actually deal with the Chinese cult of ancestors. But for Kafka, the world of the ancestors goes back to the infinite, and « has its roots in the animal world »xxix.

For Kafka, beasts are the symbol and receptacle of all that has been forgotten by humans: « One thing is certain: of all Kafka’s creatures, it is the beasts that reflect the most. « xxx

And, « Odradek is the form that things that have been forgotten take. »xxxi
Odradek, this « little hunchback », represents for Kafka, « the primary foundation » that neither « mythical divination » nor « existential theology » provide,xxxii and this foundation is that of the popular genius, « that of the Germans, as well as that of the Jews »xxxiii.

Walter Benjamin then strikes a blow, moving on to a higher order, well beyond religiosities, synagogues and churches: « If Kafka did not pray – which we do not know -, at least he possessed to the highest degree what Malebranche calls ‘the natural prayer of the soul’: the faculty of attention. In which, like the saints in their prayer, he enveloped every creature. « xxxiv

As we said, for Scholem, Kafka was a « heretical cabalist ».
For Benjamin, he was like a « saint », enveloping creatures in his prayers…
In a way, both of them are united in a kind of reserve, and even denigration, towards him.

Scholem wrote to Benjamin: « Kafka’s world is the world of revelation, but from a perspective in which revelation is reduced to its Nothingness (Nichts). »
For him, Kafka presents himself as unable to understand what is incomprehensible about the Law, and the very fact that it is incomprehensible.
Whereas the Cabal displays a calm certainty of being able not only to approach but to ‘understand’ the incomprehensibility of the Law.

Benjamin shares Scholem’s disapproval of Kafka, and goes even further, reproaching him for his lack of ‘wisdom’ and his ‘decline’, which participates in the general ‘decline’ of the tradition: « Kafka’s true genius was (…) to have sacrificed the truth in order to cling to its transmissibility, to its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings (…) do not stand modestly at the feet of doctrine, as the Haggadah stands at the feet of the Halakhah. Although they are apparently submissive, when one least expects it, they strike a violent blow against that submission. This is why, as far as Kafka is concerned, we cannot speak of wisdom. All that remains are the consequences of his decline. « xxxv

Kafka, – a man who lacks wisdom, and in « decline ».
No one is a prophet in his own country.

For my part, I see in Kafka the trace of a dazzling vision, against which the cabal, religion, and this very world, weigh but little.
Not that he really « saw ».
« I have never yet been in this place: one breathes differently, a star, more blinding than the sun, shines beside it. « xxxvi


What is this place? Paradise?
And if he did not « see », what did he « understand »?
Kafka wrote that we were created to live in Paradise, and that Paradise was made to serve us. We have been excluded from it. He also wrote that we are not ‘in a state of sin’ because we have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten from the Tree of Life.
The story is not over, it may not even have begun. Despite all the « grand narratives » and their false promises.
« The path is infinite « xxxvii, he asserted.
And perhaps this path is the expulsion itself, both eternal.
« In its main part, the expulsion from Paradise is eternal: thus, it is true that the expulsion from Paradise is definitive, that life in this world is inescapable « xxxviii.

Here, we are certainly very far from the Cabal or dialectical materialism.

But for Kafka, another possibility emerges, fantastically improbable.
The eternity of expulsion « makes it possible that not only can we continually remain in Paradise, but that we are in fact continually there, regardless of whether we know it or not here. « xxxix

What an heresy, indeed!

_______________________

iFranz Kafka. « Diary », October 25, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, Ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.446.

iiFranz Kafka. « Diary », October 25, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.446.

iiiFranz Kafka.  » Diary », October 20, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.442.

ivFranz Kafka.  » Diary », October 20, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.443.

vGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on Kabbalah. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 249.

viGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, III’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 249.

viiThe Hebrew word zohar (זֹהַר) means « radiance, splendor ».

viiiGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on Kabbalah, X’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 256.

ixGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, IV’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 251.

xGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, IV’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 251.

xiGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on the Kabbalah, V’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 252.

xiiGershom Scholem. Ten Non-Historical Proposals on Kabbalah, X’. To the religious origins of secular Judaism. From mysticism to the Enlightenment. Translated by M. de Launay. Ed. Calmann-Lévy, 2000. p. 255-256.

xiiiF.M. Dostoëvski. The Brothers Karamazov. Book V, chap. 5, Trad. Henri Mongault. Ed. Gallimard. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1952, p. 278.

xivFranz Kafka, Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.493

xvFranz Kafka, Œuvres complètes, t.II, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.517

xviWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.429-433

xviiWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p. 435

xviiiW. Haas, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.435

xixBernhard Rang « Franz Kafka » Die Schildgenossen, Augsburg. p.176, quoted in Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.436

xxWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.436

xxiWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.438

xxiiFranz Kafka. The Trial. Œuvres complètes, t.I, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.466

xxiiiWalter Benjamin. ‘Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.439

xxivW. Haas, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441

xxvW. Haas, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441

xxviWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441

xxviiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.441

xxviiiFranz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. A. Derczanski and J.-L. Schlegel, Paris Le Seuil, 1982, p. 92, quoted by Walter Benjamin. Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.442

xxixWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.442

xxxWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.443

xxxiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.444

xxxiiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.445

xxxiiiWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.445-446

xxxivWalter Benjamin. Franz Kafka . On the tenth anniversary of his death’. Works, II. Gallimard Folio. Paris, 2000, p.446

xxxvQuoted by David Biale. Gershom Scholem. Cabal and Counter-history. Followed by G. Scholem: « Dix propositions anhistoriques sur la cabale. « Trad. J.M. Mandosio. Ed de l’Éclat. 2001, p.277

xxxviFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , November 7, 1917. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.447

xxxviiFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , November 25, 1917, aphorism 39b. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.453.

xxxviiiFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , December 11, 1917, aphorism 64-65. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.458.

xxxixFranz Kafka. « Newspapers « , December 11, 1917, aphorism 64-65. Œuvres complètes, t.III, ed. Claude David, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1976, p.458.

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