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Amir Eshel on Franz Kafka

Amir Eshel is Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies; Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature; Chair of Graduate Studies, German Studies; and, since 2005 the Director of The Europe Center at Stanford University’s Freeman Sopgli Institute for International Studies. His research focuses on the contemporary novel, twentieth century German culture, German-Jewish history and […]

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>> This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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>> Edipas thought he had solved the riddle of the Sphinx
when he identified man as the creature who walks with four legs
in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening.
But look at what happened to him.
He and gendered children who were at once sisters and daughters,
sons and brothers.
The line that leads from childhood to senility may seem to go
in a straight line, but when it comes to things human,
when it comes to anthropos, we should be wary of our attempts
to say nothing of our desire to answer riddles.
Edipas enters the city of Thebes, apparently victorious
over the Sphinx, only to discover and do course
that the riddle was more perverse than he had suspected.
Only later does it draw him into the vortex of its intrigue,
revealing in the twists and turns of his subsequent life story
that there is more to the enigma than a straightforward sequence
of stages.
Let Edipas serve as a warning that two legs are not always
what they seem, especially when you suffer from a wound
in one foot, and that man is a wayward creature who makes his way
not along a single line, but along a great many threads
that entangles human existence in a sprawling web
at the center of which lies a knot.
Speaking of riddles and enigmas, here we are in the eighth year
of entitled opinions without ever having devoted a show to
Franz Kafka.
This, despite many and repeated requests from our listeners.
All I can say about why it has taken this long to air one is
that Kafka makes your host uneasy, nervous and wary.
I've read him, I've studied him, and I consider him one of the
very greatest modern writers.
I admire and wonder at him, but to do a show on him means having
to go back and reread him, and that means revisiting the
frustrations that have plagued my response to this writer
from the start.
I simply do not know what to make of him.
Everything about him is a riddle.
Kafka represents for me the same sort of threat as the
sphinx of thieves.
Either you accept her challenge and fail and perish, or you're
like edifice who thinks he has cracked her riddle, but ends up
following her into the abyss.
The bloated commentary on Kafka is full of readers who cannot
resist the hermeneutic challenge and plunge into the Kafka vortex with a wild,
flailing, crazy hermeneutics.
Even Walter Benjamin fantasticates extravagantly when
commenting on Kafka.
Some of Kafka's critics are clear-headed to be sure.
The guest who joins me in the studio today is one of them, but many
others respond to his enigmas with discourses that end up spinning
the natural and spouting nonsense as they crash and burn.
That's what Kafka does to his readers, or at least to some of his readers.
He renders them absurd in their attempts to make sense of it.
I'm joined today by my friend and colleague Amir Eshel, a professor of
German studies here at Stanford, who has an impressive bio that we will be
posting on our website.
Amir is a specialist of modern German and Hebrew literature.
He teaches Kafka regularly and, as I have already indicated, he is not one of those who loses
sobriety when discussing Kafka.
On the contrary, he has written about Kafka with great lucidity, especially in his
most recent book, "Futurity, Contemporary Literature, and the Quest for the Past", published by
the University of Chicago Press in 2013, hence, "Hot Off the Press."
Amir, welcome to the program.
Thank you, Robert.
Thank you for having me.
Amir, I'd like to begin with some comments that Alberkumu made in a 1951 interview
that he gave in response to the question of why he had never mentioned Kafka, the great
painter of the absurd, as one of his intellectual mentors.
Kimu answered, "I look upon Kafka as a very great storyteller, but it would be wrong to say
that he has influenced me.
I think that what repels me a little in Kafka is the fantastic element.
I am not at home in fantasy.
The artists' universe should exclude nothing, but Kafka's universe excludes practically
the whole world.
And then, I really cannot entertain an affection for a literature of total despair."
Now, I think that both of us probably agree that Kimu's comments are somewhat off the mark there,
but it's a good place to start.
So let me ask you, does Kafka's universe exclude practically the whole world, and is his literature
one of total despair?
It's a very important, interesting question, Robert, but I'd like to politely disagree
with the wonderful Alberkumu.
Perhaps by pointing to two short works by Kafka beginning with one of his first or earliest texts
namely the trees.
So with your permission, I'll read it.
The trees is printed in the first volume called "Contemplation in English."
The trees, for we are as tree trunks in the snow.
Apparently, they are merely resting on the surface of the snow, and a little push would be enough to knock them over.
No, that's not the case for their firmly attached to the ground.
But see, even that is only seemingly the case.
Now, this is for me, and an aphorism taking completely from the world.
It's of the world. It's of objects in the world, of trees that perhaps once lived in our world,
and an attempt to present an image of the world, and tie us through the world we to that world.
That would be an example for how Kameh is perhaps wrong in the first part of his assertion.
Maybe we should draw another aphorism by Kafka to the discussion, namely his short piece called "A Little Fable."
Again, I'll read it before speaking.
So it goes, "Alas said the mouse, the world is growing smaller every day.
At the beginning, it was so big that I was afraid.
I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left.
But these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I'm in the last chamber already,
and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.
You only need to change your direction, set the cat, and ate it up.
So far, Kafka. Now, we can read that little fable and lose ourselves in despair.
However, I think there's a very different way to read this parable, but also to read Kafka as a whole.
And I will draw to my help this very writer David Grossman, reflecting on this piece by Kafka.
So David Grossman, speaking in 2007, a moment of great political despair,
says that he thinks that Kafka was right in describing the mouse the way he did,
and that the mouse was right in thinking that there is no way out of the world he describes.
However, David Grossman says in 2007, "Reading Kafka, he senses something different as well.
Namely the possibility of enlarging the world or not allowing the walls to narrow the world down to close in on one."
And he continues and says, "The big Grossman, I write and the world does not close in on me.
It does not grow smaller. It moves in the direction of what is open, future, possible.
I imagine and the act of imagination revives me. I'm not fossilized or paralyzed in the face of predators.
I invent characters. Sometimes I feel as if I'm digging people out of eyes in which reality hasn't cased them.
I write. I feel the many possibilities that exist in every human situation, and I feel my capacity to choose among them."
So here is a writer who reads Kafka, and he has a very different reaction, and I think his reaction is much closer to the way I read Kafka.
Because I think a lot of Kafka, even in the darkest moment, is about choosing, is about acting, is about what Hana Arent called,
the description of the machine that is our modern world, but also thinking about ways to destroy that machine.
And thus to keep the world as Grossman says, open, future, possible.
Did I understand Grossman to be disagreeing with Kafka there or with a certain interpretation of Kafka?
Because the parable does not seem to leave a lot of room for a way out and for action.
So how do you evaluate Grossman's relation to Kafka there? Is he saying that Kafka was wrong?
Or is he saying that if Kafka read a right, will actually empower us rather than demoralize us?
I think what Grossman senses is that Kafka is writing vis-a-vis reality that presents itself as closing in on us,
and he used to us often as leaving no option in no way out, and his entire writing is a way in attempt to keep that wall,
these walls open, to push these walls away from us.
But it is up to us readers or writers writing following Kafka to help him out to participate in this process,
and that's something that I think Grossman sees himself doing.
So are you suggesting that we take a lesson from our reading of Kafka and then rather than get entrapped in the Hermeneutic, the endless Hermeneutic of the Enigmas and the Riddles,
and even the parable you read, or even in the trees, there are certain pockets of opacity and resistance that you just don't know what to make of.
So is it our taking the lesson from Kafka and then realizing that the world, as he might represent it as this kind of machine world, a nightmare world,
is finally one that is receptive to our own action?
I think it's dangerous to think of Kafka in terms of lessons, because he was definitely not a writer in the good old tradition of the Enlightenment,
and he's not an engaged writer, similar to Betelbret and others.
But I think what Kafka offers us is an approach to literature that is based in poetic thinking and writing in a way that enables us readers, an open process of thinking,
and possibly because we are thinking also participating in action.
And we could see it in the two parabes we started with or aphorisms we started with.
Kafka is all about writing in a way that enables us to lead an examined life, a life of reflection, a life of thought,
but I would add obviously also a life of action. Many of his stories and situations in the novels that he was working on describe characters,
who are at a certain crossroad and they need to decide how to proceed on that crossroad, how to act. Sometimes they fail, but not always.
I take it you agree somewhat with Hannah Arendt then when she suggests that his stories are more like blueprints rather than representations of reality.
And that they function almost as x-rays where what is under x-ray is a certain thought process.
These are mental phenomena that he is describing and that he's trying to create a space where what you call poetic thinking can take place.
And that as long as we keep open this interval that she will call it between the past and future or the world and the self.
And as long as this sort of thinking can take place then freedom is safeguarded, the possibility of action is still open and despair is warded off.
And I do have a very strong impression when I read much of Kafka's works that what is under description are thought processes more than actual real life situations.
Do you tend to agree with something like? Absolutely, absolutely. I think a lot of it is about the life of the mind and how the mind and where we tend to lose ourselves in thought processes prevents us from acting in the world.
And he offers us through his parables and fantastic stories the ability to first of all experience our reality is differently to think through the situations in which we live differently.
And then possibly but that's up to us obviously to engage the realities in a different manner than we did so far.
But would you also share my awareness about falling into the trap of overthinking endlessly what his stories or parables or aphorisms mean as many commentators as I was suggesting in my introduction do fall into what I take to be a trap of entering into a black hole that they never get out of because it's endless hermeneutics at a certain point.
Yes, I think that Kafka was very far away from endless and the new things I think both in terms of his own biography but also in terms of the writing itself.
It's not about endless thinking, it's not about the abyss of meaning, you know, Paul Demann and others.
I think it's much more about the way we engage our realities ethically and possibly even politically.
And I'm willing to defend that somewhat, you know, polemic view in the course of our conversation.
That's good, okay.
And therefore I take it that the statement that Kami makes that Kafka's universe excludes practically the whole world is completely off base.
And that red in the way you're prescribing that Kafka's literature is really all about the world.
Except it's a blueprint and not a picture.
Yes, a blueprint and not a picture.
So Amir, you suggested for our show that we could consider a number of texts besides the ones that you've already read from.
And on that list are his story, the judgment as well as the penal in the penal colony and parts of the trial and so forth.
So I would like to invite you to, you know, think aloud for our listeners about the judgment to begin with.
Because this was, I gather, he represented a breakthrough in Kafka's career as a writer.
I believe he wrote it in 1912 in one sitting and he considered it, you know, one of the most ecstatic moments of his writing.
And he felt that he kind of sustained him for a long time in the future.
So what would you like to draw attention to in this story or about its actual circumstances of its being written?
Since our time is limited, I would suggest we really focus on the end of the story because everything I think about the judgment leads to that moment.
And I think if we, if we're thinking in terms of literary history, maybe the one foundation narrative or mythology we should think about in the context of the judgment is really the binding of Isaac, the biblical moment in which God or Abraham perceives God as commanding him to sacrifice his own son in order to display his devotion and commitment to the bond.
And as we all know in the binding of Isaac, at the moment of truth, the angel comes and takes the knife away, prevents Abraham from from executing the son.
I think what we have with the judgment is a similar situation, albeit, you know, embedded in modern realities.
And only with very important deviations in terms of the plot itself.
We have here a father who's obviously enraged with his son, angry about his son, Gil O'Bendeman.
And then at the moment of truth or at the pinnacle of the plot, the father says to the son, I sentence you to death by drowning in awful death.
That also means that a guilt will not be able to utter a single word in the process of his death.
What strikes me as meaningful and haunting a, can I interrupt you, or remind our listeners that then Gail subsequently goes out of the house of the apartment and throws himself off a bridge.
Exactly. Exactly. And with your permission, I can read that section.
He, namely Gail, the son, he swung himself over them like the excellent gymnast he had been in his early years to the pride of his parents.
His grip was beginning to weaken when through the rails he spies a mortar omnibus that would easily cover the sound of his fall.
And softly he called out, "Dear parents, I've always loved you and let himself drop."
And I think the sentence of the part of the sentence and let himself drop is really crucial here, key here.
Instead of not allowing the father to execute him, instead of not absorbing the judgment and the sentencing of the father, what Gil does is to follow what he perceives to be as the father's command and thus the way he should end his life.
And he fails, he fails miserably, and his failure is the choice of death rather than the choice of life.
His inability to, yeah, put a certain border or limit to the power of the father, and it's a reversal of the biblical story because after his awful death, nothing will follow.
And if we think about this story as a kind of a blueprint, I've seen it really, the blueprint of a human situation in which humans succumb or become victims of their own notion that they have no power and no ability to resist all kinds of sentences that are expressed to them from the outside.
And thus are unable to leave their lives, both individually but also collectively.
And I think this inability to choose your life and to act on it is what haunts Kafka throughout his life.
There are aspects of that story that I, again, still find puzzling even in light of what you said to begin with, what, what, why is the father enraged against his son?
Is it mere Edipol jealousy?
The story has to do with Georg has a friend who expatriated himself in Russia and is engaged in a business, and he finally decides that he will write a letter to that friend announcing his own engagement.
And then there's this whole argument or conflict between father and son about this third friend, this almost more of a son to the biological father than his own son.
And there is a sense that this friend also comes in between him and his fiance at the beginning of the story.
The fiance says, well, maybe with a friend like that, maybe we shouldn't get me getting married.
And the idea that the son is about to get married is something that seems to really piss the father off.
And I still don't know what to make of the tension or the conflict between his choices that he's made in life.
He's made a choice to get married and become a bourgeois.
And he's a successful businessman.
And then he feels himself powered us to do anything but fulfill the sentence that his father has passed down on him.
But I still don't understand the father's rage.
I think the rage has a lot to do with a girl not wanting to submit himself to the father.
So if you think about the kind of accusations that the father levels that his son, namely that he forgot his mother.
His mother died early and a girl apparently forgot her, that he neglects his friend, that he becomes obsessed with sex and sexuality and only wants to get married in order to let his fantasies.
All these different accusations, the way I read them, are accusations about the girl's unwillingness to submit himself to the will of the father.
To follow the father's lead one way or another.
And the girl, instead of defending himself in the course of these accusations, becomes more and more victim of his own inability to put some borders in front of the father and restrict the father in his accusation.
Just send the father to hell if you allow me to say it.
So how do you understand Kafka's elation of having written that story?
And he experienced it as a real liberation, an inward spiritual liberation to have actually, is it because he got it out of his system and he came to the realization that you're describing?
Because I think it's the first time where the problem is crystallized in such a stark manner for Kafka in his writing.
Later on, he will come to similar situations in the trial, in the penal colony, obviously in the castle, where his protagonists will choose different courses of action and will act differently.
Only that, I think the problem presents itself in such a stark manner for him for the first time with the judgment.
To speak a little bit biographically before we go to the trial and see how this theme of the judgment gets carried out in different novels, he obviously had a very troubled relationship with his own father now.
Absolutely. Do you see in the father figure in the judgment some kind of reflection of his own relation troubled relation with his father?
When cannot read the judgment without thinking about Kafka's father, obviously a lot of the external characteristics of the father, are similar to Herman Kafka, who was this stronger, bigger than life, a father figure, a two very,
tiny and gentle Kafka was not that tiny, but he was certainly very gentle, and here he was, Herman Kafka larger than life, the son of a butcher, very successful in business, always interacting with the outside world, pushing himself forward,
you know, climbing the letters of society, and there was a tiny, very gentle Kafka trying to just utter a few words in the world, so obviously this relationship is reflected here very strongly.
Kafka was haunted by authority, he had a troubled relation to authority, not only the authority of the father, but that loomed to big in his personal life for sure, but he also worked in an insurance salesman, I believe.
Yeah, he was actually working for the state, making sure that companies, larger companies are liable to the safety of the workers.
Of course, the question of authority there goes beyond the domestic sphere and interpersonal relations with the father, and now it becomes one of the citizens' place in a civic context where authority is much more diffuse, it doesn't have, it's not incarnate or personified in one person like the father, and it becomes this bureaucratic machine that Kafka so well, when we call Kafka,
we're talking about the way in which a bureaucratic world is organized in such a way that you never know where the authority lies, and there is what Hannah Aaron called the "dayification of this bureaucracy in the place of the old God," and it could be the old Hebrew God, if you like, and that Kafka was especially sensitive to this day of
"dayification," and the, at least, initial powerlessness of the individual to make his or her way in this labyrinthine system, which was the Austro-Hungarian Imperial apparatus, but it was not only there, it was in the modern nation state as such, no?
Yes, absolutely, and that is something that Kafka, I think, like no one before him, sensed and was able to reproduce in a variety of literary images.
So, in her essay on Kafka, Hannah Aaron said, she really believes that this is all about the world that we've just been describing here, and that the strong temptation to approach Kafka from the point of view of
a religious interpretation is due to the fact that it's not really about theology, the way some people like Ben Yamin and others will see it all as he's kind of theological allegories and so forth.
But that if there is some reason why the religious languages appropriate is because there has been this "dayification of the system," but that, basically, I'm trying to find the passage where she says that,
the common experience of Kafka's readers is one of general and vague fascination even in stories they failed to understand a precise recollection of strange and seemingly absurd images and descriptions until one day they hidden meaning reveals itself to them with a sudden evidence of a truth, simple and incontestable.
In a certain few cases, I've had that experience of where I think that what seemed so opaque, all of a sudden now seemed very clear and simple to me in Kafka.
I think when I was invited to speak in a class of the medical humanities taught by Dr. Larry Xeroff, who has been a guest on this show actually,
The first half an hour were devoted to his discussion with his medical students in the here at Stanford, a discussion of the metamorphoses of Kafka, and he interpreted the bug or geog as what happens within a household when someone falls seriously ill,
and perhaps even terminally ill, or becomes handicapped. And then all of a sudden, within the next 20 minutes, it seemed as clear and limp and lucid an allegory as I could imagine that this is what the metamorphoses, which to me had always been in penitral, finally, seemed to reveal itself in a kind of clarity that, yeah,
but that, of course, is one way of looking at it as someone who falls sick within the household. The other way is to say that maybe it's other people have interpreted it. The bug is someone who has decided to become an artist or a writer within a family where he was completely misunderstood and this is an alien presence in a family which doesn't understand the vocation of the writer.
So, for Hannah Arendt, the simple evident truth of some of these stories, like the trial, is really about the challenges that face any citizen in a modern, highly bureaucratic kind of bureaucracy that is one of the fate of the modern world.
Do you agree with her on that? Absolutely agree with her. Robert, and perhaps we can turn to the trial and to the final scene in the trial as a way to basically unfold what she claims in a more abstract manner just by looking at the scene itself.
So, the execution begins with the following word. We have the two executioners and Joseph Kay going out in the free and he's about to be executed and so writes Kafka.
Then one of them opened his fro coat and out of a seath that hung from a belt geared around his waistcoast drew a long thin double-aged butcher's knife, held it up and tested the cutting edge in the moonlight.
Once more, the audience could begin. The first handed the knife across Kay to the second who handed it across Kay back again to the first.
So, here we could think that's a moment in which Joseph Kay could reach out and try to intervene in the process, could do something about that knife, but he doesn't.
And, Kafka continues. Kay now, perceived clearly that he was supposed to seize the knife himself as it traveled from hand to hand above him.
So far, so good. But then, writes Kafka. So he was supposed to seize the knife, but plange it into his own breast.
So, from Kay's perspective, what he was supposed to do is not to interrupt this execution, but was to take the knife and plange it into himself.
And, Kafka continues that he did not do so. He merely turned his head, which was still free to move and gazed around him.
He could not completely rise to the occasion, rise to the occasion, that's the highest irony, rise to the occasion of killing himself just like Gilak Bandaman before.
He could not relieve the officials of all the tasks, the responsibility for this last failure of his lay with him, who had not left him to remend of strength necessary for the deed.
His glance fell on the top story of the house, adjoining the quarry, with a flicker as of a light going up, the casement of a window that suddenly flew open.
And, he sees a human figure. A human figure fainted and insubstantial at that distance and that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther.
Who was it? A friend, a good man, someone who would sympathize, someone who wanted to help, was it one person only, or was it mankind?
Here we have the move from the concrete to the realm of humanity to the realm of blueprint.
Was help at hand, were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked? Of course there must be. And here it comes.
Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.
This is Kay's failure. To want to go on living, he has to interrupt that procedure. He has to somehow seize the knife and not stick it into himself, but rather use it against those who follow him who wish to execute him.
But he can't. So the logic is unshakable, but it cannot withstand a human action, a moment in which Joseph Kay would rise to the occasion and do what he needs to do, namely, continue living by resisting the
what is going in front of him. Not someone standing at the window who would come with a new argument who would convince the court or convince those who are responsible for the law.
No, it's all about Joseph Kay and his ability or inability to do what he needs to do.
And so he's executed and so writes the narrator of the story that he died like a dog.
He said it was as if the shame of it must outlive him. And this form of death and the shame that the outlives Joseph Kay in my reading and I think it's very close to what Aaron says is his inability to insert himself into the world, insert himself into the situation and prevent that which happened from taking place.
Is that his personal guilt or is it the fate of the citizen of the world that is under description?
I think the failure is his own inability to do something about the situation and the circumstances in which he finds himself.
And this inability is something that you find time and again you mentioned before in the penal colony we have in the penal colony a variety of similar moments, but the most important moment, at least in my reading is the moment in which the explorer who comes to that penal colony and is presented with a machine is capable, is able to tell the officer who loves the machine simply no.
He tells him I will not defend this machine in front of the officer who runs the penal colony, I will not do it, I will not follow your prescription or what you want me to do.
And in fact by just saying this word no he brings to the destruction of the machine even at the cost of the life of the officer who runs it.
So you read Kafka as a strong call to resistance against the absurd.
I think resistance is one way to put it, I would begin by as a strong opponent of attentiveness what Beniam calls attentiveness I think what we have with Kafka is really a writer who quote and quote teaches us to be attentive to the realities in which we live and to constantly examine them.
But then not just leave it with attentiveness but also to think about the realities in which we live in the context of the need to act, the need to do something about deny for about the execution machine or about father figures who sentence us one way or another to death.
And thus perhaps lead a different life.
Well this raises a number of questions, one is whether the resistance if you want to use that word or attention, would it take the form of action in which case we could see some kind of kinship between this Kafka and let's say the existentialists, the French as existentialists come who above all but also Jean Paul sat where
can we have a whole theory of rebellion that you might not be able to change the world but you are always free to rebel or sat where is called for engaged action all the time on Gajmall.
Now we keep going back to Hanara and here because in her reading of Kafka's parable in the beginning of the preface to the book of the book in the past in future, she reads of Kafka parable we can discuss it in a moment but she says that there were these two moments in the early 20th century where one goes from action into thinking and then the thinkers
have to go from thinking into action.
And so what I'm trying to ask is would the resistance take the form of thought or would it take the form of in the the Sarchian thing where you join the resistance and you actually fight rage against the machine as it were.
Is it this thoughtful resistance or is it an active resistance?
Well, you know, I'm trying throughout her life to make the distinction between thinking and action and partly she brings convincing or appealing arguments for making this distinction.
I'm not sure if it really works under closer scrutiny.
I think that in the preface that you mentioned before to between past and future, she says that straight forwardly in her discussion of Kafka namely and I think that in the preface that you mentioned before to between past and future, she says that straight forwardly in her discussion of Kafka
namely and I quote, the insertion of men as he breaks up the continuum cannot but cause the forces to deflect the forces of the past and the future.
However, likely from their original direction and if this were the case, they would no longer clash head on but to meet at an angle.
So this figure of speech, the insertion of men is something she returns to time and again in her writing.
Most significantly she returns to the very same mode of speaking in the human condition in which she talks about action.
And she writes and I quote again, with world indeed we insert ourselves into the human world and this insertion is like a second birth in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical
appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity and it is not prompted by utility. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join but it is never conditioned by them.
It's impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.
So far aren't but I think aren't is very close here to Kafka because in Kafka's work as the way I read in a lot is about the ability to begin.
Even beginning under circumstances that present themselves like with the story with the mouse as if no beginning is possible.
And in this regard I think it's very close to the existentialists and it's not a chance. It's not a coincidence.
In the case of the judgment as well as the trial we have protagonists who if I hear you correctly you were suggesting that one of the mistakes or let's say one of the failings is that they internalize a guilt which has been imposed upon them.
In the case of the father or a system where you've been arrested and you cannot meet your accuser on your own terms.
And that by internalizing that guilt and becoming complicit with your death sentence by the father or your execution at the hands of the executioners in the case of the trial that you have failed to overcome all the pressures that the individual feels
to internalize guilt and be put in a position of powerlessness through guilt.
So what do you think Kafka's thinking about the phenomenon of guilt has to do with his work?
So this is how I think about the notion of guilt in Kafka. I think it goes back to the original scene.
And as we all know the original thing is a very tricky moment in the history of world literature.
Because why does God, the Almighty, creates us humans knowing all along who we are and what we are?
And that's allowing us to perform that original scene. If God is who and what he is, why is he sending us to the playground to commit that sin?
Why are we guilty in other words? Why are we born guilty and why are we condemned to die guilty?
I think Kafka in his work questions, this notion very strongly, and he talks about guilt or presents metaphors of guilt.
But actually what he has in mind the way I read him is our guilt and responsibility of not assuming or not embracing our ability as human beings to decide and to choose in our own lives between the options we have in front of us.
And I think that's what we are guilty of. And it's not guilt in the religious sense of the world. It's just this inability to take to assume responsibility and to assume the liability that comes along with what it means to be human.
And again, with you permission, I'd like to draw in Kafka himself from the wonderful aphorisms that are now called the Tsurao aphorisms.
These are aphorisms that he's writing in 1917 while visiting his sister, Eutla, in the countryside.
So for example, in aphorism in 82 out of the Tsurao aphorisms, Kafka writes, why do we harp on about original sin?
It wasn't on its account that we were expelled from paradise, but because of the tree of life, least we eat of its fruit.
So it's not because we ate what we ate, but it's because of the possibility that we would have eaten from the tree of life that we were expelled from paradise.
In other words, it's because of the possibility that we would assume our possibility or capacity to act as human beings that we were expelled from paradise.
He rejects the original sin, the way the Bible describes it, and points the finger to our need to embrace and acknowledge our ability to act.
Let me bring in another one, namely about death aphorism in 8889.
Death is ahead of us, say, in the way in our classroom, we had a picture of Alexander the Great in battle.
What must be done is by our actions to bolt out or obscure the picture in our lifetime.
It's up to us to bolt out or obscure the picture in our lifetime.
That's what needs to be done, or in aphorism number, 90, two alternatives, either to make oneself infinite infin-
infin- you have to help me.
If we infinitely know infinite testimony, or to be so, either we are or we are not.
The former is perfection and hence in action, the letter at beginning and therefore action.
We have the choice, even if we make ourselves as small and as possible, as meaningless as possible, still we have the choice and still we are allowed to engage in what he calls.
Now it's not Aaron and it's not us, you and me.
Well, guilt here then has a counterpart in the concept of law.
And I appreciate and I would like to embrace a Kafka which is all about personal agency.
That it's you and it's me and it's the individual that will, does not have to surrender the power of action, the power of free thinking.
But there are historical circumstances that, again, going back to Hana, she writes here about the generation of the 40s.
So this is after Kafka's death.
The generation of the 40s, and especially those who have the doubtful advantage of having lived under the most terrible regime history has so far produced.
It's a Nazi regime.
Know that the terror of Kafka adequately represents the true nature of the thing called bureaucracy, namely the replacing of government by administration and of laws by arbitrary decrees.
We know that Kafka's constructions were not a mere nightmare.
They were reality, you know?
When you live within a society where government has been taken over by administration and where arbitrary decrees take the place of laws, and you have to go about trying to defend yourself against the accusation of guilt.
Sometimes there's nowhere you can turn.
Within the public sphere, the civics sphere in order to bring about this kind of ex-cultation that Kafka seems to call for, and where he seems to indict some of his protagonists for not going the whole way in terms of finding ways to ex-cultate themselves from arbitrary condemnations of, you know, and accusations of guilt.
But sometimes history conspires to make this not impossible, but extremely difficult, and that those individuals who fail, sometimes I believe, are innocent, or they're not guilty of their failure to ex-cultate themselves from their guilt because the pressure is just so enormous in certain, under certain conditions.
I couldn't agree, I couldn't agree more about, you know, three of Kafka's sisters, namely his entire family because his two brothers died in their childhood, but three of his sisters were killed or died during the Holocaust.
They were transported to large and to raise in state, and they and the families died during the Holocaust.
And I think Kafka sends very clearly the realities that you're referring to.
But I think that he was referring less to the inability of those who are actually those executed, who become subjected to the law the way his sisters were.
I think he was more troubled by those surrounding the event, those who could, in a variety of instances, insert themselves and prevent these kinds of realities from taking place in the first place.
I think he was haunted by the notion that because we internalize the possibility that we will be persecuted by the law, because we internalize the possibility that someone will come and take us away to a concentration camel to jail, etc., we will not do anything in order to prevent these realities.
And I think that he worried and partly experienced this reality that we withdraw from the public sphere very quickly with the justification that there is nothing we can do with the law.
And again, I think the trial is a great example for this, because one of the, with the occupation mark faults of Joseph K, is his strong belief in the institution of the law.
As authority that holds everything in it.
We tend to think that our legal system is capable of helping us to navigate in all questions of our ethical and political lives.
But it is a very dangerous illusion.
If we succumb to this illusion, we are bound to find ourselves in a society like a society Kafka describes in his work.
But we do need a society with laws and courts of appeal where some form of secular justice can be administered.
And I guess Kafka is describing worlds where such systems of justice are lacking or inadequate.
And therefore, the individual has to come to the realization that he's not going to seek.
He's not going to find that next whole patient he's looking for along those routes.
He's going to have to find it in some other mode what you call attentiveness or been hearing calls attentiveness or some other strategy.
Finding that third way.
I think this is where, you know, thinking and rethinking our position is so crucial.
And again, if we go to the trees, a text with which we began, and the way the text navigates between propositions and then questioning these propositions, this moment of, but see, even that is only seemingly the case.
This is also Kafka.
Knowing that certain propositions we hold on to very dearly and embrace and take for granted and take even for laws, we have to question.
Question and question, time and again.
Do you have a favorite Kafka book or text or short story?
Favorite is difficult to say because in different moments of the day, I tend to think of different stories, but I return time and again to independent colony.
Because I think of Kafka's entire work, this story perhaps like, you know, other captures both the kind of world we're living in.
The dangers that are facing us, it's individuals and society.
And the need to engage these realities one way or another.
I think just in terms of the artistic creation there, he's really there, it is best.
Well, what is it about the penal colony that reminds you so much of our world?
I mean, I can understand it reminding you of the world, of the forties or some other moments, but it seems like there's been such a shift in the Western world to, let's call it the political curve.
The political correctness of the traveler or the inspect, is he an inspector or is it an explorer or is it an explorer?
Explorer, yeah.
So that we no longer have the stomach for these crude primitive forms of torture and execution and we're more of an advance in light in society, which could be a lie that we tell ourselves because the forms of torture and cruelty of just more refined, more subtle.
I think that's the key. Yeah, that's the key.
So is that the key why you think it's so crucial to our world to understand this penal colony and what the X-ray that he provides of that colony to us?
Absolutely. Because as we know from the story itself, in the penal colony, it's not that the explorer, although he's able to ruin the machine at the moment in the story.
But he becomes a model for all of us that we should now follow and embrace and regard him as the way to go.
He himself, when he has the chance, is escaping that awful island and he's not allowing the condemned and the soldier to join him on the boat that takes him away from the island.
So he's not a model.
But I think that although we tend to think that the world described there is over and gone, we live in a world in which there are territories where humans are without any right whatsoever.
And in fact, even the United States at the moment still has places like Guantanamo Bay, which people are held without any legal procedure or do procedure.
And we as a society are grappling with this reality. We have no answer to it.
So the word Kafka S has become a current word in many of the Western societies.
Do you think Kafka's work has had a tangible, palatable influence on the reform of our institutions, making them less labyrinthine and less penal colony like an
empowering citizens to inhabit societies that are less opaque in there, what this arbitrary decrees, quote, "hana arith" or the replacement of government by administration.
Do you think he has had a benevolent effect on history as such?
I think he has. I think he has and here again, Benjamin's world of attentiveness comes back to us.
I think Kafka has made us more attentive. And I see teaching Kafka here at Stanford that students who read Kafka today long after Kafka died become more attentive to the world they live in, just because they read him and confront themselves with his images and characters and situations.
Thank you for coming on to entitled opinions. We've been speaking with Professor Amir Eshol from the Department of German Studies here at Stanford about Franz Kafka.
And you come back and join us in the future.
Thank you so much Robert. I'm Robert Harrison for entitled opinions. See you next week.