Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Stroker? Kafka's "porn" stash

What more can be said about the revelation that Kafka owned some erotica except: please, no more? Anyone familiar with his work and with the secondary literature won't be in the least bit surprised. Even if you've read only Metamorphosis, the magazine image that Gregor Samsa had framed for display showing "a lady, with a fur hat on and a fur stole, sitting upright and holding out to the spectator a huge fur muff into which the whole of her forearm had vanished" is enough to suggest a unusually stimulated imagination. But there's much more. So why has the British media used the find to misrepresent Kafka with the same shameless inattention to reality as it has with recent events in Georgia?

Dalya Alberge claims without evidence that the erotic material has been "studiously ignored by scholars anxious to preserve the iconic writer's saintly image" and Hawes himself says "while academics pored over every postcard or diary entry written by the writer, the graphic collection of pictures was virtually unknown." The poring over every postcard and diary entry might be due to them containing words written by the writer. If we're making literary and biographical assumptions based on mere ownership, can we assume that the presence in Kafka's library of an edition of Dante's Göttliche Komödie means he was a closet Catholic with an interest in cruel and unusual torture or that he was, like Dante, concerned to find salvation in an eternity enveloped by divine light? Have scholars "studiously ignored" Dante's place in his library to preserve the writer's image as a secular jew, or is it because it provides only anecdotal evidence of influence? A scholar might see a connection between the bespoke fates of the damned in Inferno with Samsa's transformation, but that is quite different from assuming Kafka had an S&M fetish. No wonder German experts are appalled at Hawes' claims.

The media reaction is something the author and his publishers must have banked on. They will have known it would be lapped up by the British reading public. It's an ideal opportunity for them to sublimate their philistinism further and to disguise their assumptions about Kafka and Kafka scholarship as commonsense knowingness. Kevin of Lincoln reacts to the story with these impressive thoughts:
Kafka wrote a load of overrated cobblers. That he was one of the worlds first porno pervs just shows how the academic world of literature is led by the emporers new clothes. It is about time someone dismantled all these great early icons of literature & show'd them to be all human beings not gods. [sic]
It is time indeed, just as it's about time Kevin stopped giving the impression that Lincoln is populated by illiterate philistines. While he's doing that, maybe he can have a word with Obooki over the garden fence.

I exclude Nicholas Lezard from all this as he is mercifully unfazed by the “news”. It's the array of assumption displayed in the comments to his blog that need to be addressed. However, the title of his post - "Kafka's guilty pleasures" (not necessarily chosen by the author) - repeats the Guardian's lazy standby usually employed when referring to the consumption of chick lit. By assuming Kafka felt not only guilt but pleasure too, it reveals what it really thinks about the relation between reader and work. As well as the Dante edition, Kafka also owned many books by Knut Hamsun. Was Kafka an incipient admirer of Hitler too then?

The assumptions keep coming: Gaviero informs us that Kafka "was a weedy, socially awkward loner with no talent for attracting women”. From where did he or she get this image? Certainly not from Mark Anderson's Kafka's Clothes which outs Kafka as a bit of a dandy concerned with his appearance as much as any metrosexual, or from Dora Diamant's account of her first meeting with the man she would eventually live with in which Kafka comes across as a matinee idol; tall, handsome and charming.

James Walton makes an interesting point in his review of Excavating Kafka. Nowhere does Hawes mention the "similar arguments" put forward in Milan Kundera's essay In the Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (collected in Testaments Betrayed). Among other things, the essay summarises the presentation of sex in Kafka's novels, such as the "exuberant delight" of Brunelda in Amerika and the "act of love ... among the beer puddles and the other filth covering the floor" between K and Frieda in The Castle. Kundera was keen to retrieve Kafka from the saintly image portrayed by Max Brod (though this had started in the 1930s with essays by Walter Benjamin) and to distinguish Kafka from earlier writers like Dickens and Gogol despite superficial likenesses:
Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex ... as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone's life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant.
I first read this in the TLS in 1991 and it has been in book form since 1995. Perhaps James Hawes has been too busy poring over postcards and diaries to notice.

UPDATE: A report from the academy

Contact

Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Followers

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at gmail.com. Powered by Blogger.