What lurks beneath the skin

Franz Kafka
November 1, 1996

Sander Gilman's so-called "new psychohistoricist'' tome is a rather thrilling attempt to present Franz Kafka, the man and the works, in an ambitious spread of discursive contexts from the fin de si cle (the last one, not the present one). What arrests Gilman in this most arresting of criticohistorical narratives is how Kafka's writings construct a Jewish self - the self as Jewish man, one problematically gendered, in a weak body sick unto death, a Jew taking on the burden of bodily feebleness, somatic otherness, neurasthenia and TB, all accepted as the predestined heritage of Jews as that was defined and dictated within a syndrome of then-current racist political, medical and anthropological discourses which were preoccupied with questions of manhood, racial hygiene and the rinsing away of "degenerate'' types from western society.

The argument is that though the pain, and the angst, and the TB which killed Kafka were undoubtedly real, they were also what Kafka's anti-Semitic times expected Jews to suffer. The Dreyfus case, an obviously important part of the contemporary steering of Kafka's self-fashioning, was the ample illustration of such cruel assumptions in practice.

Gender, race, the body in pain, oppressive ideologies in theory and in practice - this vast agenda is of course, very much of our own fin de si cle. But modish though its bodiliness might be, Gilman's placing of Kafka's selfhood difficulties within the debates about Jewishness and the Jewish body going on around him, really does pay off in terms of our grasp both of Kafka and his world.

The main actant in this story is Kafka's body. The Jewishness of the body-in-question is a key part of the Jewish Question. Kafka's body, the Jewish body, is on show; it performs its plight about manliness and health. It is no surprise to find Kafka's texts filled with watchful, watched bodies - on display, on stage, paraded, in circuses, comprising a great theatre of gazed-at ones.

Essential Jewishness was, of course, male. The defining cut and scar of circumcision were for men only. But the Jewish male had a feminised body. It was measurably thin in the chest, wasted like Kafka's Hunger Artist, unfit for military service and the approval of the soldierly father. Kafka was "the thinnest person I know''.

Phthisic Jewish women, such as the actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Rachel Felix, became, it is argued here, types of Jewish maleness. As T. S. Eliot well knew, you could tell a Jewish hand because it was phthisic, and the phthisic hand was a womanly one - like Princess Volupine's in "Burbank''. Dreyfus was the apparent exception to this Jewish effeminacy; he was the Jew as a soldier. But anti-Semites dragged him down, reducing his military bulk by torture on Devil's Island, turning his body back to stereotypical Jewish feebleness. Kafka's The Trial is a response to this persecution. Gilman thinks the story "Metamorphosis'' a panicky registering of the horrors of such swift bodily demotions. Perhaps it is.

The Jew's body was thought to be utterly readable as Jewish, and the signs were pretty bad. The filth and ill-conditioning of the ghetto showed in the scabbiness of the skin and the dragging foot of limping Jacob-Israel's descendants. The pathology was visible. No wonder Kafka has a vulture, in the little text "The Vulture'' that quite rightly magnetises Gilman, biting a victim's feet, or that he invents the Penal Colony punishment machine which inscribes the penalty for wrongness on the condemned man's body. These are evidently imaginings of Jewish sufferings in general - what the penal knife cuts into the flesh is a Schrift, a scripture (a point Gilman misses); the victim's body is wrapped in padding that recalls the cotton-wool a circumcised penis is dabbed with. But they are also a Jewish writer's tortures in particular. The death sentence is an inscription, a sentence. The foot-gnawing vulture finally dives bloodily into its victim's mouth, filling his speech cavity with blood.

Bad blood. Worse than the manifest signs of filthy Jewishness was the filthiness within. How duplicitous of some Jews, assimilated ones for instance, to look normal and healthy! But there was bad blood beneath all their skins, in all probability syphilis too, and TB bacilli in their lungs. These people were carriers of infection, especially within, diseases as dark and mysterious as their dark, bloody rituals. TB was thought to be transmitted by the very tools of circumcision and by the spittle of the mohel who did the cutting.

Really telling among Gilman's never uninteresting concerns is this relating of Kafka's Jewish anxieties to the contemporary broodings and fantasisings on the diseases and dangers within the Jew's body - the fin de si cle obsession with Jews and TB, the endless debates about their proneness to the disease, and whether kosher food and ghetto life promoted TB or slowed it down, and, of course, to the almost rabid middle-European preoccupation with Jewish ritual blood-lettings in circumcision and by kosher butchers. "Franz Kafka is gradually replaced by Franz Kafka's lung", as Gilman says of the long appendix of medical documents that he provides us with. It was only what Kafka's contemporaries expected of Jews. Just so, Kafka's texts are full of awful cutting and blood-letting.

Troubling themes, then, from troubled times. And on occasion Gilman's arrangement of them is a bit confused. He is very repetitive. But then these body questions will proliferate and do not exist in neat compartments. More disconcerting is the way Gilman's readings often sit askew, or fly away from the texts they purport to gloss. It is simply over-reading to take Kafka's account of his coughed-up blood "washing away'' his headaches as declaring the power of blood to "wipe out the old illness that dominated the body'', or to think Kafka's tears at a rare moment of his father's gentleness as evoking the spectre "that Kafka will become his father''.

There are lots of such shaky interpretative squeezes. They shake one's confidence in Gilman rather. What they do not do, though, is undermine the book's powerful main thrusts - nowhere more powerful that its envoi about where all these warping racist discourses that so wrecked Kafka's happiness would lead to in the Hitlerzeit. On one occasion Kafka wept over Stefan Zweig's play Ritual Murder in Hungary, disturbed no doubt by encountering the old myth about the murderous intentions of Jews towards Gentiles which was just another version of the myth of the Jew as germ carrier. And who indeed could refrain from weeping over Dr Kurt Heissmeyr's demonic "experiments'' with Jewish physical reactions to TB, his eugenicist investigations into the wickedly alleged complicity of Jews as such with a killing disease, in which Jewish children were transported specially to Hamburg from Auschwitz to be infected with TB bacilli through skin cuts, injections and by rubber tubes poked direct into their lungs? Kafka was right to be anxious about such men and their belief in the Jewish body's readiness for germ carrying. And we are right to be angry with such demented eugenicist theorisings. Unstopped, they did not stay merely theoretical for long.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, University of Oxford.

Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient

Author - Sander Gilman
ISBN - 415 91177 X and 0 415 91391 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 328

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