No Comment, Six Questions — August 19, 2008, 7:28 am

In Pursuit of Kafka’s Porn Cache: Six questions for James Hawes

James Hawes had a brilliant start to his career as a novelist with A White Merc with Fins, and he’s gone on to have one of his works filmed and to write a work of biting satire. But before Hawes was a novelist, he was a Kafka scholar. And now he has returned to his old passion with a book entitled Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life (published as Excavating Kafka in Britain). The book has kicked up a storm in Germany, where its satirical style has gone unappreciated. I put six questions to James Hawes about Franz Kafka and a book designed to debunk the Kafka mythmakers which is accused of making some of its own.

1. After a remarkable start as a novelist and satirist you’ve turned to a work that occupies the middle ground between conventional literary criticism and satire. You have a background in Germanic philology and philosophy, as your book on Kafka demonstrates. Tell us what influence this (and Kafka in particular) had on your career as a novelist and satirist in another language.

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I studied Kafka long before I tried to write myself and inevitably didn’t have the “strength” (in Bloom’s critical terminology) to resist him: my first attempt at creative writing was a stage-play called Harry Kafka’s Crime and Punishment and all my first attempts at prose were in Kafka-clone German. All my books contain at least one image or phrase stolen straight but unacknowledged from Kafka, I suppose as sort of private homage. As a writer, I am above all in awe of his unearthly technical ability to make you empathize with his characters (i.e., accept their point of view, their psychological “reality”) without ever pleading for them. I wish to God I knew how he did it.

2. Your book drew initial press attention based on your disclosure of Kafka’s private cache of porn, namely issues of a subscriber-only publication called The Amethyst, later renamed Opals. I haven’t seen the porn stash you talk about but I am familiar with Franz Blei and his journals, especially Die Insel. Blei published literary works (some a bit trashy, others classic) and art by Aubrey Beardsley, Félicien Rops, and some of their contemporaries. Now what exactly constitutes “pornography” is very much a topic for legal and moral judgments, but this stuff strikes me as pretty far away from Hustler magazine—perhaps a bit risqué, but not much more than that. It’s also a pretty firmly entrenched aspect of the esthetic environment of Kafka’s day—I think of Thomas Mann’s magical portrait of beauty and decline in Death in Venice, especially of those rotting strawberries his hero consumes. Those strawberries constitute the vehicle of death, as it turns out–quite a graphic image when you think about it. Do you really think the label “pornography” is fair? Are you trying to suggest by it that there was a prurient side to Kafka’s personality? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to applaud his repudiation of turn-of-the-century prudery and sexual repression?

Kafka also certainly had in his possession… another of Franz Blei’s luxury subscribers-only productions—an edition of Lucian’s Conversations of the Courtesans. Like The Amethyst/Opals, this would have been impossible to sell openly, for the real attraction was not the notorious classical text but the fifteen pictures by Gustav Klimt in his most definitely-not-for-public-display manner, showing girl-on-girl legs-open action.

—From Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press. Copyright (c) 2008 James Hawes

Well, please do check the pictures out for yourself before you accept the party line that these are really just cutting-edge literary journals. The way the Kafka industry has closed ranks against my book on this is truly remarkable, because the “big daddy” of Kafka-biographers, Klaus Wagenbach, first drew the public’s attention to the real nature of Der Amethyst back in his epochal 1958 book, Kafka: Biography of his Youth. There, he says straight out that this was, in fact, “a collection of the most beautiful–and often, the coarsest–erotica.” But Wagenbach chose, as has everyone ever since, not to actually show this material to his readers. This was the age of Klimt and Schiele. Viennese society was not notably prudish by contemporary standards–yet Der Amethyst was banned as “immoral” in 1906 specifically because of one of these illustrations (which is why Blei had to change the title). There’s very little in Kafka’s life, in his mid-twenties, that would deserve the phrase “repudiation of turn-of-the-century prudery and sexual repression.” On the contrary, his sexual life as a wealthy young German-speaking lawyer-about-Prague was very typical of the day. And until he was faced later on (say, from late 1910 onwards) with the clearly looming choice between abandoning his youthful lifestyle (i.e., getting married) or risking becoming the last bachelor out in town, he seems to have been, in truth, entirely untormented by his brothel visits, etc.

This isn’t a moral attack of any kind. I merely want to make the central point that Dr. Franz Kafka was in many ways simply like other men of his time, place and class.

3. If we had to shrink your myth-debunking exercise down to just one thing, it might be that this supposedly neurotic, self-obsessed, highly introverted character who cowered in the shadow of a tyrannical father and whose genius went unrecognized was actually a charming, engaged, sexually active professional with a good record of successes both as a lawyer and a writer. But doesn’t the K-myth, as you put it, largely come from confusing the author with his characters? And with respect to the relationship between Kafka and his characters, what do you make of the role of humor in this writing?

I’d be the first to welcome a Rule of Literary studies saying that biography should be entirely banned. What we do sometimes need with Great Dead Writers is to restore an awareness not of their (alleged) psychology or their biographies, but of the world in which they lived and which they took for granted as context. In the book, I compare a Shakespearian audience, who, when the curtain rose on Hamlet, would all have known, without needing to think for a second, that when king dies and his brother (not his son) takes the throne, that son is going to have very good reason to be scared. A modern audience, however, has to be told this. So there is a vital role for history in re-creating the context of literature–but God save us from the amateur psychologizing (and P.C. sub-politics) of literary studies! If we clear all that rubbish away, I think we clearly see Kafka’s writing as black social comedy, a first cousin of Dostoyevsky’s painfully funny short stories.

4. You tell us repeatedly that Kafka invested his money in war bonds at the outset of World War I, then lost his shirt when the Danubian monarchy ceased to exist. But there’s nothing in his writings that suggests he had chauvinistic or militaristic leanings–rather more the contrary, though he didn’t seem much taken with the politics that led to and sustained the war. What is the message you take away from this—other than the obvious, that his investment instincts were not nearly as good as his father’s?

There’ve been countless attempts to present Kafka as a closet socialist, a friend of Czech aspirations, and so on. The fact is that in a public proclamation of late 1916 (to raise funds for a hospital exclusively for German-speaking mentally-damaged soldiers of Kaiser Franz Josef’s multinational army), Kafka speaks explicitly as a “German-Bohemian Folk-Comrade.” His thinking vis-à-vis the Habsburg Empire seems to have been “non-political.” Not in an oppositional sense at all, simply as conformism to the state of affairs. As Reiner Stach (whom I was very sad and surprised to see rubbishing my book even while admitting he hadn’t read it) says of Kafka’s apparent views on Habsburg Foreign Policy, “the ease with which Kafka parroted the official jargon is disconcerting.”

Kafka spoke Czech and was unusually interested in Czech culture for a German-speaker, but his fundamental cultural identification was with Greater Germany–his publishers were all from Germany, after all. Buying about $40,000 at today’s values of Habsburg war-bonds is simply more evidence that he assumed, and indeed hoped, that Germany and Austria would win World War I. Only the ignis fatuus of hindsight makes it seem surprising to us that a Jew in Prague could want this. To most Central European Jews in 1914 Russian was the language of pogroms and German the language of law, order, and progress. When I was shooting the BBC documentary of this book, the author and Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig (who knew Brod personally) told me heart-breaking stories of German-Jewish university professors who, even in Buchenwald, found it almost impossible to give up on the notion that the nation of Goethe and Beethoven was somehow still “their” natural team, and cheered German victories against the Russians. This world is so lost in the horror of the Shoah that it’s almost impossible for us to re-imagine–but that’s how Kafka felt: in late 1917 he literally dreams of dark-uniformed Prussian Guards marching to his rescue.

5. Kafka was a doctor of both laws, and elements of legal philosophy and theory, often with a heavy religious overlay, appear in most of his major works. His writings are widely read and discussed in the legal academy today, fueling discussions on procedural fairness, justice, transparency, and the humane treatment of persons under detention. In fact, googling “Kafkaesque” recently, it seems to be a staple of discussion of the U.S. prison and justice system in Guantánamo, where prisoners were held in extended isolation, subjected to a presumption of guilt and techniques designed to attack their personality and self-identification, denied confrontation with charges and evidence and subjected to procedures which were vague, indeterminate and manipulated by some unseen hand, usually in Washington, D.C. In Abu Ghraib, we learned that the prison guards developed the habit of writing the accused crimes on prisoners with a marker to shame and identify them, recalling The Penal Colony. But you seem to suggest that this is reading far too much into Kafka, who is merely describing the inquisitorial legal process he knew, not critiquing the Austrian legal system he knew or the one that emerged after the war. But isn’t it true that in the years right after the war, collapse of the machinery of justice was a major concern among intelligentsia in the German-speaking world in which Kafka traveled? Isn’t it fair to say that Kafka was concerned, perhaps even obsessed, with a justice system that would facilitate a righteous life?

Kafka has jumped clean over symbolic constructions. Psychological reality has become the reality. Dickens’s court in Bleak House wreaks psychological havoc on people with its promises of material triumph so great (and so inexplicable) as to seem almost transcendental—but there is still always real money at stake in the background. Kafka’s court induces the same psychological paralysis without ever having to tempt people: they tempt themselves because the court is nothing other than the image of their psychological need for absolute answers.

—From Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes.

I don’t think so. What Kafka is obsessed with is our suicidal readiness to buy into grand narratives of redemption and absolute certainty, however ramshackle and visibly corrupt they may be. The vital element in his works that the K-Myth obscures is that his heroes are utterly complicit in their own “entrapment.” These are not tales of innocent people suddenly swallowed up by miscarriages of cosmic justice. Of all the philosophical roots of Kafka’s thought, I believe that the single most important is Nietzsche’s famous and terrifying insight regarding the “nihilism” of modern, post-religious man (my translation is necessarily a free one): “mankind would rather long for nothingness than have nothing to long for.” This Nietzschean analysis of why modern people do what they do may well be very apposite to both the killers of 9/11 and the blank-eyed porn-stares of the Abu-Ghraib abusers.

6. The protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, you tell us, takes the form of a dungbeetle (Mistkäfer) as an act of literary homage to Goethe’s Werther, which contains a reference to a beetle (Maienkäfer) and to several other passages which seem to have influenced Kafka. You seem to be planting Kafka firmly in the German literary tradition and to be suggesting that he can’t really be understood extracted from that matrix. Am I reading you correctly? It seems incontrovertible that Kafka read and admired Goethe and that he drew heavily on many German writers in his own works, but aren’t you making an argument against the universality of one of the most successful figures of twentieth century literature? Why should you read Kafka if you don’t know Arnim from Zeltner?

whykafka-final

When I found that beetle-image in Werther, by sheer drunken chance, I couldn’t believe no one had seen it before, so I right away fired off a (still drunken) email to the Chair of German at Oxford, whom I’d once met. He said he didn’t know of anyone who’d found it, either. This was well before any thought of “Kafka’s porn” was around: it convinced me graphically that there really is what I’ve called “the unbearable blindness of Kafka studies” and that anything that could be used to crack that frozen sea, however sensationalist it might seem, was justified–if only it would help get back to Kafka’s writing as it really was, is, and always will be. And why read Kafka today? Because his analysis of the way we’re so fatally, suicidally tempted by visions of a gold-lit past, complete with all its alleged certainties and securities, is more needed today than ever. His works are one great warning against swallowing the grand illusions, one great demand that if we want to really live, we have to grow up and look life in the eye.

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