Thursday, November 06, 2003

Franz Kafka's Letter To His Father was the topic at last Tuesday's Great Books discussion, and the group was in general agreement that Franz was a whiny little wuss. This is inevitable. Anyone who writes a forty-page letter to his dad blaming him (although he insisted over and over he wasn't blaming him) for all of his problems isn't going to gain much sympathy with most of us. A number of people began siding with the father, about whom they knew nothing except what Kafka had told them. They disliked the writer and his yammering voice. He put them on the defensive.

My take on it was this: Kafka seemed to think his father was a lion who had spawned a zebra; that is, a natural enemy, which is why he says repeatedly that his father is not to blame for being the overbearing, autocratic, hypocritical fin de siecle shithead that he basically is. It was only natural for his father to try to force Franz into being something he wasn't -- it is what fathers do. Franz lives inside his father's disapproval; it defines him, shapes him, gives him identity. His father is the God of his universe, and Franz is a bit like Job -- the Joban characteristic was pointed out by Zadie Smith in her ferociously smart New Republic essay of a couple weeks back -- a Job who is totally befuddled by a mysterious God who will grant him no relief whatsoever. this is not merely unique to Kafka, though; I think it is true of a lot of parents and children. Children are often raised with a basic sense, a basic residual understanding, that parents are right; or perhaps, not always right, but still the boss, which basically means they have a freedom to be wrong that children are simply not afforded.

Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. It did sometimes happen that you had no opinions whatsoever about a matter and as a result every conceivable opinion with respect to the matter was necessarily wrong, without exception. You were capable, for instance, of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews, and what is more, not only selectively but in every respect, and finally nobody was left except yourself. For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason. At least so it seemed to me.

It follows that a child who challenges a parent often feels wrong, simply because the parent has said otherwise. So in a sense what I think Kafka is dealing with as regards the old man is one where as an adult he knows his father is a crass, cruel vulgarian, but he still regards him much as he did as a child -- he quakes before him. Kafka's father can, in the immortal words of David Keith to Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman , "shit all over people and still sleep like a baby at night." Franz has no suck luxury.

What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power. I too, I am sure, often hurt you with what I said, but then I always knew, and it pained me, but I could not control myself, could not keep the words back, I was sorry even while I was saying them. But you struck out with your words without much ado, you weren't sorry for anyone, either during or afterward, one was utterly defenseless against you.

This is a painful and wearying read, and it is not really likeable; the person who wrote it is pathetic, but his pathos is so intense and flamboyant, so rigorously anti-Dr. Phil, anti-John Rosemond that it gains a certain intellectual momentum, as well as digging out a lot of wormy, uncomfortable truths.

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