Commentary Magazine

Jewish Dreams and Nightmares

What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.

—Franz Kafka, Diaries

There is something presumptuously proprietary about the whole idea of sorting out writers according to national, ethnic, or religious origins, like so many potatoes whose essential characteristics can be determined by whether they come from Idaho or Maine. Obviously enough, the primary focus for useful criticism of any original writer must be on the stubbornly individual imagination that has sought to articulate a personal sense of self and world through the literary medium, and this attention to individual peculiarities rather than shared characteristics is especially necessary in understanding serious writers since the middle of the last century, so many of whom have been alienated in one way or another from their native social groups. Indeed, as Kafka’s chilling confession of self-estrangement reminds us, some of the most troubled, and therefore representative, modern writers have been alienated from themselves as well, haunted by the fear that every affirmation or act of communication was a falsification, a betrayal.

Nevertheless, the onerous question of the writer’s background persists. One justifiably speaks of Melville, Hawthorne, even Poe, as essentially American writers, for their achievement cannot be intelligently grasped without an awareness of its intimate relationship with the common social and cultural experience of 19th-century America. Even more strikingly, the Jewishness of writers like Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem obviously has the greatest relevance to any serious assessment of their literary enterprise because their fictional worlds are shaped out of the stuff of East-European Jewish life, its language, its folklore, its religious traditions, its social realia. With Jewish writers, however, the attempt to attribute literary qualities to ethnic origins is in many instances acutely problematic. The Jews, in any case a perplexing group to define, become almost perversely elusive as the process of modernization spreads after the French Revolution. It is by no means clear what sense is to be made of the Jewishness of a writer who neither uses a uniquely Jewish language, nor describes a distinctively Jewish milieu, nor draws upon literary traditions that are recognizably Jewish. If one were to compile an anthology of all the unabashed nonsense written by literary critics over the past fifty years, a good many pages would have to be devoted to what has been advanced about the Jewish values, vision, and world-view of a wide variety of apostates, supposed descendants of Jews, offspring of mixed marriages, or merely assimilated Jews, from St. Theresa and Heine down to Proust and even J. D. Salinger.

One cannot, however, simply discount the possibility that some essentially Jewish qualities may adhere to the writing of the most thoroughly acculturated Jews. Most readers have sensed in at least some of these “post-traditional” or “transitional” Jewish writers certain modes of imagination or general orientations toward art and experience that seem characteristically Jewish, even where the writer scrupulously avoids all references to his ethnic origins. The difficulty, of course, is to translate such vague intuitions into clear descriptive statements about what actually goes on in the literary works.



I was led to ponder again this intriguing but treacherous question of Jewish literary identity by an essay of Leslie Fiedler’s, “Master of Dreams,” published in the Summer 1967 issue of Partisan Review. What Fiedler sketches in his essay might be described as a single grand mythic plot which, in sundry variations, modifications, and reversals, is presumed to underlie all Jewish literature, and, apparently, all Jewish cultural activity as well. Fiedler’s point of departure is the Joseph story in Genesis, which he interestingly characterizes as a “dream of the dreamer, a myth of myth itself.” Joseph, whose troubles begin because of his own seemingly grandiose dream, makes his way to power by interpreting the dreams of others and so translates his original dream into dazzling fact, his father and brothers—and virtually the whole world besides—bowing down to him as viceroy of the mightiest king on earth. In the light of this communal dream of the Joseph story, Fiedler sees the Jew’s characteristic cultural role as a vendor of dreams and an interpreter of dreams to the world, that is, as poet and therapist (in Fiedler’s anecdotal English, “My Son the Artist” and “My Son the Doctor”). The Jewish sons who become poets, according to this account, continue to pursue the original myth of myth: their fictions are about the attempt—what some of them now recognize as a doomed attempt—to make the splendid dream literal fact, and their fictional surrogates are even frequently called upon to resist the temptations of a Potiphar’s wife in order to remain faithful to the dream they bear within them. Fiedler concedes that there are wide differences in the literary forms adopted by Jewish writers, but he suggests that they all belong to a single tradition both because they all participate in a Joseph-like myth of myth and because they share a distinctive purpose, which, in keeping with the double role of the biblical master of dreams, is “therapeutic and prophetic.”

Before I speak to the issues raised by this interpretation—and the hasty account of it here hardly does justice to its athletic ingenuity—I would like to point out a general characteristic of Fiedler’s critical enterprise which this essay makes particularly clear. Fiedler’s criticism has a paradoxical doubleness of effect. On the one hand, because his favorite critical activity is the relentless pursuit of archetypes, an ill-considered literary fashion of the 50’s that went out with the Eisenhower administration, there is often an odd hint of datedness in what he writes, despite the swinging, up-to-the-minute prose he affects. One senses in Fiedler, on the other hand, a peculiar venturesomeness and energy of imagination that set him off from the academic mythmongers of the 50’s, indeed, that endow his work with a perennial fascination. The main impulse of Fiedler’s criticism is neither analytic nor evaluative but poetic:1 the fidelity it most steadily preserves is not at all to the works or figures discussed but to its own inner coherence as a poetic invention.

The treatment of the biblical subject in “Master of Dreams” suggests a useful analogue for Fiedler’s criticism—Midrash, the early rabbinic method of homiletic exegesis. One possible way of describing Midrash is as the art of imaginatively connecting things intrinsically unconnected, and the same could be said of much that Fiedler has written. Since for the creators of the Midrash the entire Bible, together with the Oral Law, exists in one eternal, divinely revealed present, everything is potentially an intricate commentary on everything else. One needs only the recurrence of, say, a verb-root in a verse in Genesis, in Isaiah, and in Psalms, to see the later statements as explications, developments, fuller revelations of the earlier one. When, for example, the Midrash Bereshit Rabba tells us that Abraham’s “splitting” of wood for the sacrifice of Isaac was answered on a grand scale by God’s “splitting” of the Red Sea for his descendants, our real knowledge of the relevant verses in Genesis and Exodus has not been augmented, but what we may enjoy is following the trajectory of the interpretative imagination from point to point, not unlike the delight we take in the linking of ostensible disparates that is effected through poetic metaphor. This procedure is not so far removed from that of modern archetypal criticism, which in just such an instance might easily speak not of verbal continuities but of “the recurrence of the cleavage motif,” with or without Freudian innuendoes.



Fiedler is more subtle and inventive than most mythopoeic critics in his articulation of archetypes, but he clearly shares with the medieval Midrash an indifference to historical perspective which allows him to speak of the varied literary productions of far-flung times and places as one eternal system, and he is thoroughly midrashic in his readiness to establish through the merest hint of an association a “real” connection between things. Thus, there is actually not the faintest suggestion in the biblical story that Joseph is either a poet or a therapist. He interprets dreams for purposes at once practical and divine, but surely not to cure anyone, while the common association between dreamer and poet which Fiedler invokes is not even vaguely intimated in the biblical account. Though Fiedler would have us think of Joseph as a prototype of both Freud and Kafka, it makes better sense on the grounds of the text itself to imagine Joseph rather as a sort of ancient Near Eastern RAND Corporation figure—the Jewish intellectual as government-planner, manipulating that great Pharaonic power structure from the very top, managing, through his two Seven Year Plans, to centralize control of land and economic resources to a degree unprecedented in Egyptian history. If Fiedler’s own bold anachronisms invite anachronistic response, this, too, is in the ahistorical spirit of midrashic interpretation: the rabbis did not hesitate to represent Joseph as an earlocked talmudist applying himself to the subtleties of the Law in the study-house of Shem, and by the same logic he can be given a Viennese beard, a passion for literary self-expression, or a knowledge of computer mathematics.

There is, then, a special fascination in Fiedler’s criticism, but as in the case of the ancient Midrashim, we may sometimes want to qualify that fascination with an adjective like “quaint.” The real question raised by his whole scheme of an archetypal Jewish myth of myth is not whether it is firmly anchored in the biblical story but whether it is really helpful in locating and identifying a distinctive Jewish movement in Western culture, and in this essential regard I cannot see that it has any utility at all. On the contrary, it seems to me to encourage a common error much in need of correction. For there has been a tacit conspiracy afoot in recent years to foist on the American public as peculiarly Jewish various admired characteristics which in fact belong to the common humanity of us all. The Jewish folk is imagined as possessing a kind of monopoly on vividness, compassion, humor, pathos, and the like; Jewish critics and novelists are thought to be unique in their preoccupation with questions of morality; and now we are asked to believe that the Jews have all along exercised a privileged control over the cultural market on dreams.



When Fiedler characterizes the Joseph story as “the dreamer’s own dream of how, dreaming, he makes it in the waking world,” and then goes on to represent modern Jewish writing as a varying account of the difficulties of “making it” through dreams in actuality, he is describing not a distinctively Jewish imaginative mode but the central tradition of the novel, from Don Quixote to Lolita. Cervantes had hit on a new set of literary terms to encompass a new, radically disorienting world (the one we still inhabit) by inventing a dreamer who madly and persistently tried to live out his shining dream in a gray existence stolidly resistant to dreams and intolerant of their perpetrators. The model of the heroically unhinged Don, progenitor of a genre, is followed by Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin and his Raskolnikov, Melville’s Ahab, George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Gide’s Lafcadio, Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus as well as his Leopold Bloom—in fact, by the protagonists of most of the substantial novels written over the past two centuries. One might of course seize on the conjecture of some literary historians that Cervantes himself was a Marrano or the descendant of converts from Judaism, but this would be to succumb to a kind of philo-Semitic version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an explanation of Western culture. According to such a theory, which seems to be tacitly assumed by many critics, the main currents at least of modern culture all derive from subterranean Jewish sources: a tenuous connection through three Christian generations with Jewish forebears is supposedly enough to infect the writer with a uniquely Jewish imagination, and this in turn he passes on to the Gentile world around him. (Fiedler applies much the same logic to fictional characters in describing the hero of An American Dream as an “essentially” Jewish figure by arbitrarily identifying him as a compound of two projected characters in Mailer’s unwritten long novel, one Gentile and the other one-quarter Jewish, which then enables him blithely to assert that “Stephen Rojack . . . is half-Jewish, since in the world of myth a quarter Jew plus a full Gentile equals a half-Jew.”) All this is undoubtedly somewhat less incredible than the obverse theory that the Jews have secretly seized control of Western civilization in order to destroy it from within, but it resembles the Protocols myth in reshaping observable realities to fit the contours of collective fantasy.

It is not the Jewish dreamer in Exile but the writer at large who “thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well,” and the “prophetic” and “therapeutic” ends which Fiedler assigns to Jewish writers are in fact the general aims of most serious European and American writers at least since the middle of the 19th century. The Joseph scheme works all too well in too many cases, whether we apply it to the writer’s life or to his literary creations. Who, for example, could be closer to the archetype of Joseph than Charles Dickens, a master of dreams who determined from early youth to realize a great dream of worldly success and achieved it by creating and selling dreams to the millions—“the artist as tycoon,” in F. W. Dupee’s telling phrase—even to acquiring the very Gads Hill mansion he had envisaged from afar as a boy? The prophetic and therapeutic impulse in Dickens’s novels hardly needs comment at this point in time, and it is equally clear that in the works of his maturity, by bodying forth in fiction his own dreams, he was interpreting the collective dreams of a culture to which part of him remained permanently alien, from his descent into the pit of the blacking warehouse as a child to his glorious assumption into the palaces of the great.

Or, using this same mythic touchstone to identify characteristically Jewish literary inventions, one might justifiably conclude that the most remarkable American Jewish novel is neither Call It Sleep nor Herzog but Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison prefaces his book with a dedication to Morteza Sprague, “a dedicated dreamer in a land most strange,” which is a neat description of the archetypal Joseph himself and also accurately characterizes Ellison’s protagonist. The novel begins and ends with a dream, and many of the intervening episodes are strikingly dreamlike, for the protagonist is at once attempting to escape a nightmare and realize a dream of worldly success, on the world’s own meretricious terms. His slow recognition of who he really is—“I am your brother Joseph,” one almost hears him saying in the poignant scene where he realizes his deep kinship with an evicted Harlem couple—involves a rejection of the false dream, a perception of the extent to which the nightmare is reality. In this version, it is at the end of his long journey from home that he is cast into a dark pit, Joseph-like, by those who should be his brothers, and he promises us that he will emerge from these depths with a new, unillusioned strength. There are even Potiphar’s wives to mislead this young man with a vision on his progress through a land most strange. In contrast to the three sexual partners of Stephen Rojack—that highly suppositious “mythical” Jew—who are improbably seen by Fiedler as Potiphar’s wives, the two white seductresses in Invisible Man are really imagined as alien women who, by using the hero for their own gratification, would thrust him into a false role, would unwittingly involve him in a symbolic betrayal of himself and his people. It is difficult, finally, to think of a novel written by a Jew as intent as this one on enunciating a prophecy and effecting a kind of therapy. The young Negro, by working out the visions that haunt him, ends up deciphering the darker dreams of American society as well. It is entirely appropriate that the novel should conclude with a long dreamlike sequence charged with intimations of apocalypse, the nightmare now galloping across the waking world, and that this episode in turn should be followed by a formal, allegorical dream of apocalypse, prophesying doom to America if it does not act quickly to redeem its own humanity.

The tracing of archetypes is a pleasant enough pastime, but its value as a means of making useful literary identifications is dubious. Ellison himself has stated the matter succinctly in objecting to another archetypal interpretation of his novel: “archetypes are timeless, novels are time-haunted.” If we are to discover any clue to the connection between a writer’s origins in a particular group and the nature of his work, we must begin in time, which is to say, we must take history seriously into account. The case of Kafka, whom Fiedler cites as the great modern paradigm of Joseph as artist, the Jewish son as dreamer, takes us to the heart of this whole issue. No other Jew who has contributed significantly to European literature appears so intensely, perhaps disturbingly, Jewish in the quality of his imagination as Kafka. Though he never introduces explicitly Jewish materials into his work, though he never really writes “about” Jews (even symbolically, I would argue), most readers of The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, and the shorter parables and fables, have sensed that this peculiar mode of fiction would never have occurred to a Christian imagination. One is struck by the emphatic difference of Kafka’s work from the various kinds of fiction that have been predominant in the European novel, but it is not so easy to determine whether or how that difference is Jewish.



To think of Kafka as a Joseph-figure will not really help us, for reasons which I hope I have already made clear. The invocation of that archetype does not, for example, enable us to distinguish between Kafka and Dickens, a writer whom he admired and imitated, and who shared with him a “Jewish” preoccupation with failed relationships between fathers and sons. Critics have made a variety of other suggestions about the Jewishness of Kafka’s fiction, some of them comical, some interesting, some perhaps even credible. To begin with, there has been a general rush to align Kafka with various Jewish cultural traditions, without regard to the degree of familiarity he may actually have had with them. The fact that Kafka is both a Jewish writer and an arcane one has invited a certain degree of loose talk about the “kabbalistic” elements in his work, though he had no direct knowledge of the Kabbalah, and the Germanized home in which he grew up was hardly the sort where he could have picked up very much of it through oral tradition. More plausibly, comparisons have been drawn between the Hasidic folktale and the parable-form Kafka favored in which the order of action is so often inscrutably miraculous. The biographical evidence, however, suggests affinity rather than influence. Kafka was fascinated by whatever he learned of Hasidic lore, but the better part of his acquaintance with it took place toward the end of his life, through his friendship with Georg Langer and from his reading of Buber’s early compilations, especially Der grosse Maggid, which did not appear until 1922. Again, a good many critics who have never studied a page of Talmud have not hesitated to describe the peculiar questioning movement of Kafka’s prose as “talmudic,” but there is virtually no real similarity, and in any case Kafka’s knowledge of the Talmud, until his last years, was confined to quotations passed on to him by those of his friends who had once studied in the East-European yeshivot. One is free to suppose, of course, that Westernized Jews as a rule simply continue to talk and think in talmudic fashion, but such a supposition can be made only out of ignorance of both the Talmud itself and of the way modern Jews actually talk and think.

Heinz Politzer, in his book, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, links Kafka’s fiction somewhat more probably with a still older mode of Jewish literature. Politzer compares Kafka’s spare, taut tales, which repeatedly generate a sense of fatal significance in the events narrated, to the narrative method of the Hebrew Bible. Picking up the notion developed by Erich Auerbach of the biblical story as a tale “fraught with background,” Politzer argues that in Kafka’s enigmatic fictions one can observe this same general effect of starkly drawn surfaces which suggest a heavy pressure of dark meanings behind them that are never spelled out by the narrator. In Kafka, he goes on to say, as in the ancient Hebrew stories, the characters are at once impersonal and more than personal, uncannily representative in their very distance and peculiarity, inviting multiple interpretation by leading us to think of them as our surrogates in a cosmic drama. Kafka certainly read the Hebrew Bible in translation intently, occasionally even alluded to aspects of his own experience in biblical terms, and at the end of his life was learning to read it in its original language. It is at least plausible that his familiarity with the Bible helped him work out his own characteristic narrative art; in any case, he must have discovered in it a compelling imaginative kinship. Such notions of kinship, however, can be adopted for the needs of precise literary analysis only with great caution, for they are but a step away from assuming a Hebrew Imagination over against a Greek Imagination as timeless categories, which, of course, would bring us back through another door into the wide and woolly realm of myths of culture.

Critics less interested in Kafka’s treatment of literary form than in his moral, philosophical, and theological concerns have associated him not with Jewish literary traditions but with the distinctive values and assumptions of historical Judaism. Thus, the absence of any radical disjuncture in Kafka between spirit and flesh, this world and the next, even between the prosaic and the miraculous, has been attributed to his Jewish background, which, it must be admitted, is a suggestive idea if not altogether a demonstrable one. The fact, on the other hand, that moral or spiritual obligations in Kafka so often take the form of commandments from an unreachable authority and frequently necessitate tortuous interpretation, can obviously be connected with Kafka’s personal awareness of rabbinic Judaism, and represents a particularly Jewish formulation of a general spiritual predicament. Still clearer is the condition of exile—for Jews, a theological category as well as a historical experience—which underlies all of Kafka’s major fiction. It is this, above all else, that commentators have quite properly stressed in identifying the distinctively Jewish note in Kafka: if modern literature in general is a literature that adopts the viewpoint of the outsider, Kafka, as the alienated member of an exiled people, is the paradigmatic modernist precisely because he is a paradigmatic Jew.

The general validity of this familiar idea is, I suppose, unassailable, but its usefulness is limited because of the very fact that in its usual formulation it remains so general. “Exile” tends to be applied to Kafka and to other Jewish writers as an evocative but unexamined abstraction with a supposedly fixed meaning, when in fact exile meant different things to different Jews at various times and places, and for most of them, at least until fairly recently, it was quite distinct from alienation, a concept with which many literary critics automatically identify it. It makes sense, therefore, to try to state in concrete terms how this particular writer seems to have encountered the experience of exile and then how that encounter enters into the substance of his imaginative work.



Living in Prague, Kafka of course belonged to a very special kind of double exile—he was a Jew in the Austro-Hungarian empire and a German writer in a Czech city. His position, moreover, as an employee in a state-sponsored insurance agency extended his initial sense of himself as a suspect intruder: at his office he was, as he pointedly phrased it, the single “display-Jew” in a “dark nest of bureaucrats,” and so every workday forced upon him at least the negative awareness of Jewishness as a condition of being unwanted, mistrusted, transparently dependent on the favor of others. At the same time, Kafka was acutely conscious of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood, even without any deep knowledge of the former or very much external involvement in the latter, until the Zionism of his last years. He was inclined to view the Jews of his own generation as in fact transitional, standing uncertainly at the irrevocable end of a long process of Jewish history, but this sense of belonging to a twilight period seems to have had the effect of sharpening his interest in the history and culture of his people. The Yiddish theater in Prague, for example, held a fascination for Kafka out of all proportion to the artistic merit of the plays it presented because he saw in it the living manifestation of an uninhibited, self-sufficient folk culture, unlike anything he had known personally. The mere idea of Yiddish literature continued to attract him—he carefully read and took notes in his diary on Pines’s Histoire de la littérature Judéo-Alle-rnande—because with its obvious stress on “an uninterrupted tradition of national struggle that determines every work,” he envisaged it as an alluring antithesis to that anguished exploration of a private world which writing was for him.

The case of Kafka, the acculturated Jew, shows how a man may feel his way into a body of collective history precisely through his consciousness of being outside it: Kafka brooded over the experience of the people from whom he derived, and I would argue that certain key images and states of awareness that were the product of European Jewish history exerted continual pressure on his imagination as he wrote. In this connection, there is one passage in his recorded conversations with the Czech writer Gustav Janouch that is especially revealing. Janouch had asked him if he still remembered the old Jewish quarter of Prague, largely destroyed before Kafka could have known it; this, according to Janouch, is the reply he received:

In us it still lives—the dark corners, the secret alleys, shuttered windows, squalid courtyards, rowdy pubs, and sinister inns. We walk through the broad streets of the newly built town. But our steps and our glances are uncertain. Inside we tremble just as before in the ancient streets of our misery. Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance which has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age.

This remarkable statement is a kind of spiritual autobiography, a summary of what the awareness of being a Jew meant in Kafka’s inner life; at the same time, it might be observed that what he has in effect described here is the imaginative landscape of all three of his novels—the hidden alleys and sinister attics of The Trial, the medieval squalor and confusion of the courtyards, the dubious inns and devious byways in The Castle, and even the new-world landscape of Amerika, which begins with skyscrapers but breaks off in a dark and filthy garret where the protagonist is held prisoner. The world of Kafka’s novels incorporates the maddening impersonality and inscrutability of modern bureaucracy in an image of an insecure medieval community derived from a ghetto which Kafka remembered obsessively without ever having known.



Let me emphasize that the recognition of such a connection may tell us something about the genesis of Kafka’s enigmatic fictions but it is by no means a key to their meaning. What Kafka’s imaginative intimacy with the Jewish past did was to give a special shape to the imagery and a particular sharpness to the edge of feeling in his work, but the work is surely not intended as a representation of Jewish experience. It is, for example, a serious misplacement of emphasis to describe The Castle, as a few critics have done, as a Zionist myth of an outcast in search of a land, though the novel would not have been conceived in the terms it was and would not carry the conviction it does without Kafka’s concrete imagination of uncertain steps and glances along the ancient streets of Jewish misery. Or again, to insist that the eternally exiled hero of “The Hunter Gracchus” is an avatar of the Wandering Jew would be to force a hauntingly elusive tale into the predictable contours of allegory. It seems wiser to say that Kafka’s general and untranslatable fable of a wanderer through awesome eternity is imagined with such disturbing intensity because of the presence in the writer of Jewish memories, personal and collective, out of which he could create this particular “ghost of a vanished age” walking open-eyed through a dream of damnation. It is not as an archetypal Jew that Gracchus speaks at the end of the story, but the words and images his inventor chooses for him resonate with the experience of rejection and exclusion of many generations: “Nobody will read what I say here, no one will come to help me; even if all the people were commanded to help me, every door and window would remain shut, everybody would take to bed and draw the bedclothes over his head, the whole earth would become an inn for a night.” It is one of those unsettling moments in Kafka when, in the retrospectively ironic light of history, we see the recollection of the past as a grimly accurate prophecy of the future.

Another major theme of Kafka’s, which he often connects with the situation of the outsider or pariah, is the irruption of the inhuman into the human, or more generally, the radical ambiguity of what seems to be human. While this movement of his imagination was obviously energized by the tensions and fears of his own private neuroses, it seems to me that his notion of a convergence of inhuman and human frequently draws on his hallucinated memory of the Jewish past. Even in a bizarre story like “A Report to an Academy,” which is so far removed from any overt reference to Jews, I would contend that Kafka’s fictional invention is formed on a kind of “analogical matrix” of his experience as a transitional Jew. The scientific report, one recalls, is that of a gifted ape who has managed “with an effort which up till now has never been repeated . . . to reach the cultural level of an average European.” In the tortuous confinement of a cage so small that he could neither stand nor sit, the idea had dawned on the ape of getting out by imitating his captors, and he began, most appropriately, by learning to spit, and then to drink schnapps by the bottle, an act which at first violently repelled him. In retrospect, the ape stresses again and again that he finds no intrinsic advantage in being human: “there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason . . . ah, one learns when one has to; one learns when one needs a way out.” Conversely, the ape makes no special plea for apehood; there may be nothing particularly admirable in being an ape rather than a human, but, if one begins as an ape, it is at least an authentic condition, what one would naturally prefer to remain, other things being equal. When at the end of the report the ape adjures his audience, “Do not tell me that it was not worth the trouble,” there is a quaver of doubt in his voice: cages are admittedly maddening to live in, but has he not lost a great deal by betraying his native self for a way out, selling his birthright, so to speak, for a mess of lentils?

Now, one of the distinctive qualities of a Kafka parable is that it has no paraphrasable “moral,” and I would not want to transform “A Report to an Academy” into an allegory of assimilation. I suspect, however, that this fable which calls into question the whole status of humanity was initially shaped around Kafka’s awareness of himself as part of the modern movement of Jews who had emerged from the confinement of ghetto life to join European culture, and that the ape’s disquieting ambiguity about his own achievement flows from Kafka’s insight into how much of themselves Jews had left behind in their former existence without even the compensation of genuine acceptance in the “human” world outside the cage. The very contrast between human and Jew was one that modernizing Jews themselves implicitly accepted in their desperation for a way out. The poet J. L. Gordon’s famous line, “Be a man outside and a Jew at home,” summed up this whole self-negating mentality as it was articulated in the Hebrew Enlightenment, and Kafka himself must have been particularly struck by Gordon’s formulation, for he copied it into his diary when he ran across it in Pines’s history.

Typically, however, confusions between human and inhuman in Kafka terrify more than they perplex, and the imaginative core of that terror is often Jewish for this writer who lived so intensely with the fear and trembling of a vanished ghetto. The nightmarish little tale entitled “An Old Manuscript” is paradigmatic in this respect. Again, the terms of reference of the story are as universal as those of some ancient myth. A nameless town in a nameless empire has been taken over by fierce, implacable nomads who speak no recognizably human tongue. The Emperor remains a powerless spectator, shut up in his palace, a little like the symbolic King of banished sons in many of the midrashic parables, while the townspeople, in the person of the cobbler who is the narrator, confess their incapacity to cope with the terrible strangers:

From my stock, too, they have taken many good articles. But I cannot complain when I see how the butcher, for instance, suffers across the street. As soon as he brings in any meat the nomads snatch it all from him and gobble it up. Even their horses devour flesh; often enough a horseman and his horse are lying side by side, both of them gnawing at the same joint, one at either end. The butcher is nervous and does not dare to stop his deliveries of meat. We understand that, however, and subscribe money to keep him going. If the nomads got no meat, who knows what they might think of doing; who knows anyhow what they may think of, even though they get meat every day.



One does not have to invoke mythic archetypes to feel the bone and blood of Jewish memories in these ghastly images. Behind the nameless nomadic horsemen are dark hordes of Cossacks, Haidameks, pogromists of every breed—the alien and menacing goy in his most violent embodiments, speaking no intelligible language, obeying no human laws, even eagerly violating, as we learn in the next paragraph, the Noahide injunction against consuming the flesh of an animal while it is still alive. To the Jew trembling before the torch and axe and sword of the attacker, it seemed that the enemy quite literally could not belong to the same species, and so here the ironic displacement of inhuman and human of “A Report to an Academy” is reversed: the Jew, in the analogical matrix of this story, associated with vulnerable humanity, and the Gentile with inhuman otherness.

What should also be noted is that the story pronounces judgment on the passivity of the townspeople as well as on the stark bestiality of the nomads. Edmund Wilson has accused Kafka of “meaching compliance” with the brutal and unreasonable forces he means to expose in his fiction, but I think this misses the point, for the object of Kafka’s “satire” (the term is applied by Wilson) is not only the inhuman powers but also man’s pathetic inadequacy of response to them. To put this in terms of the ethnic background of Kafka’s imaginings, he never sentimentalized Jewish history; though he was intrigued by the lore of his forebears and their unusual sense of community, he remained ruthlessly honest about the way Jews were. In the passage quoted, one can see a distinctly familiar response of Jews to violence and impending disaster—the attempt to buy off calamity, to temporize with it. (How sadly characteristic that the tradesmen of the community should answer the terrible challenge only by pooling resources to subsidize the principal victim of the invaders!) The story makes clear that this response represents a failure of courage and of imagination as well: in the face of imminent and hideous destruction, where bold, perhaps violent, action is required, the townspeople can muster no more than a piously impotent wringing of hands, a collection of donations, and the grotesquely timid understatement that “This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.”

Kafka, in sum, addressed himself to the broadest questions of human nature and spiritual existence, working with images, actions, and situations that were by design universal in character; but his self-awareness as a Jew and his consciousness of Jewish history impelled his imagination in a particular direction and imparted a peculiar intensity to much of what he wrote, where the abstractness or generality of the parable is strangely wedded to the most concrete sense of actual experience felt and recollected. He could envision the ultimate ambiguities of human life in general with a hyperlucidity because he had experienced them in poignant particularity as a Jew. Out of the stuff of a Jewish experience which he himself thought of as marginal, he was able to create fiction at once universal and hauntingly Jewish.

All this far from exhausts the question of how Kafka’s antecedents enter into his writing, but it should at least suggest that there is no simple formulaic key for identifying the Jewish character of all Jewish writers. As I have tried to illustrate in the case of Kafka, one must always attend to the particular ways in which Jewish experience impinges on the individual, and this impingement is bound to differ in small things and large from one writer to the next. The varied materials of art itself, with their confusingly various connections with reality, are more recalcitrant, less pleasingly symmetrical, than the neat designs of archetypal criticism, but, in the final analysis, they are a good deal more interesting.




1 In a recent piece, “My First Gothic Novel” (Novel, Fall 1967), Fiedler has, while modestly claiming for himself a place with the great critics of the ages, asserted, “I am, almost above all else, an evaluating critic.” What this means, though, is that he expresses emphatic opinions about the writers he discusses, not that he offers, in the manner of serious evaluative criticism, reasoned and persuasive criteria for assessing literature.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.