Lost and Unfounded

Will Kafka’s work survive the distorted representations made in his name?

Judith Butler
May 3, 2021
Franz Kafka. Photo: Wikimedia

Discussed in this essay: The Lost Writings, by Franz Kafka, edited by Reiner Stach, translated by Michael Hofmann. New Directions, 2020. 128 pages.

FRANZ KAFKA’S WRITINGS have from the start been afflicted with dubious editing practices, so I suppose we should not be surprised by another round of the same. Much of the author’s work was published posthumously by his friend Max Brod, who sometimes modified it in the process, rearranging material and wrenching extracts from his diaries and letters. Scholars have been sorting through the curious and sometimes sordid history of these publications for decades. Now, the publishing house New Directions has released a collection of the author’s fragments entitled The Lost Writings, selected by Reiner Stach, the highly respected German biographer of Kafka, and superbly rendered in English by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann. Given its exciting title, one opens the book expecting to find texts that had previously been missing. Yet, as Stach admits in the epilogue, all of the so-called “lost writings” found within have long been readily available in German. 

A bit of research sheds light on the dubious framing of these findable writings as “lost.” In its initial marketing campaign for the book, New Directions presented the collection as consisting of “sixty-four marvelous Kafka stories” that had “never ever ever [been] translated” until now. “Lost,” in this case, apparently meant only “untranslated into English.” What’s more, it emerged over the course of publication that the vast majority of texts on offer in this short book—really a compilation of drafts or segments of stories—had already appeared in English and other languages, even if in out-of-print collections. By the time the book was released, the publisher had downgraded its marketing description of the “lost” material to “impossible-to-find.” We may rightly ask: Impossible for whom? For those who do not wish to be bothered by research?

Perhaps I should be generous: Translation of a text into a second language can surely lead to a sense of discovery for readers with no access to the original. But the fact remains that these texts can be construed as lost only if popular Anglophone publishing markets control the terms of reality; that is, writings come to exist only once they become readily accessible to the English-speaking general reader. Stach shrugs off the potential imputation of a deceptive framing in the book’s epilogue, where in the course of justifying “general editions for non-academic readers” like The Lost Writings, he implicitly dismisses the kind of nerdy scholar or obsessive fact-checker who might know German or other languages, or care about obscure publication details: “[A]cademic presentation and generally dry-as-dust philological commentary,” he writes, “scare off the lover of literature who is looking for something ‘merely’ to read and enjoy, not to study the texts or learn in detail of their genesis.” Readers are figured here as consumers in search of passing pleasures, and the rest of us, well, we dwell in the dust, and seem to be turning to dust at ever-faster rates.

Admittedly, my frustration with the framing of The Lost Writings is compounded by the reality that serious readers of Kafka have in fact been waiting for the release of material long kept from us: writings and drawings from a stash of Brod’s papers, held for decades in Swiss and Israeli vaults as legal proceedings sought to establish whether the National Library of Israel or the German Literature Archive in Marbach would become their rightful owner. In 2016, after eight years of legal petitions, the National Library of Israel won the rights to the collection, and spent three years collecting Kafka’s work from libraries and safe deposit boxes in Europe and digitizing the newly discovered materials. The saga has brought up a range of issues, including whether Kafka, the German-speaking Jewish author from Prague, belongs to the State of Israel, which understands itself as representing all Jewish life, or whether his writings properly belong in Marbach. Who owns Kafka, indeed? 

Kafka’s writings often explore the way the traces of the theological continue to appear in modern life, as promises of salvation invariably end in closed doors and brutal disappointments.

Given the troublesome circumstances surrounding the publication of The Lost Writings, this reviewer, at least, was left with a question: Why review it at all? I found something of an answer in Kafka’s own work, which repeatedly stages dramas of unreliable narration and the slow puncturing of overwrought expectations. In this way, Kafka seems to have anticipated the rough and profit-driven handling of his writing by future editors. Though Kafka published some of his stories during his lifetime, he famously demanded that Brod burn his trove of unfinished sketches and texts, including the manuscripts that would become The Trial and The Castle, once he was gone; perhaps he had a premonition about what the literary marketplace would do to his work after his death. Prophetic or not, he certainly understood the rough rhythm that emerges between exaggerated claims and the moments in which reality exposes their falsehood. Indeed, his writings often explore the way the traces of the theological continue to appear in modern life, as promises of salvation invariably end in closed doors and brutal disappointments.

ALTHOUGH ADVERTISING IS NOT RELIGION, both traffic in impossible guarantees, lures that excite and disappoint at the same time. In his well-known 1924 story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” Kafka introduces the title character grandly, in a style that participates in the exaggerations of publicity: All those who hear her sing are carried away, and, as Willa and Edwin Muir translate the second line, “[a]nyone who has not heard her does not know the power of song.” Yet we are then told that none of the mouse folk—a community of creatures never clearly marked as animal or human, but often read as figurative Jews—know how “to rise from anything so high and remote from our usual routine as music,” and that in fact they cannot appreciate her, since she herself is the “sole exception,” the “only one” who “has a love for music and knows too how to transmit it.” The logic starts to spin: If everyone who hears the song is carried away, yet no one can really appreciate what she does, is anyone carried away? Next we learn that Josephine’s singing is, in fact, “nothing out of the ordinary,” and the narrator, voicing the reader’s skepticism, starts to take back the earlier account, replacing superlatives with questions (“Is it in fact singing at all?”), concluding that “it is only a kind of piping,” and then wondering whether that piping is merely the mouse folks’ ordinary speech.

Yet the ideal of Josephine persists, and the mouse folk gather with great anticipation to hear her sing. One can liken her to the performers in the Yiddish theater who made art out of a language not fully comprehensible to or respected by German speakers. Indeed, one reason the mouse folk have been read as Jewish is that the German term “mauscheln,” a derogatory caricature of Yiddish, connotes a kind of mouse language. Josephine’s audience credits her with the power to gather and unite them, but her powers fade, and by the end of the story the narrator predicts that before long, she “will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon . . . will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.” With this finale, we come to understand why Josephine has also been read as a feminized form of the biblical Joseph, whose parents inflate his ego by giving him his multicolored coat, and who is then sold into slavery by his jealous brothers for telling them about a dream in which he stands out among them as superior. In Kafka’s story, it is the people who elevate Josephine as well as betray her, abandoning their hero because she cannot embody the ideal they have created for her. The singer’s ascent to an eternal ideal is paradoxically the very motion of her downfall, the passage into oblivion.

Perhaps Kafka understood that his writing might suffer the same fate as Josephine’s piping, foreseeing those who would seek to profit off his words by cutting up his pages into legible aesthetic forms. Following him, then, we should not be surprised that The Lost Writings gives us fragments wrenched from context and presented without any explanation of their place in his notebooks, diaries, or collection of letters. One might defend this procedure as an effort to replicate the sense of disorientation and loss of context that Kafka registers in his work: historical dispossession, dissolution of ground and gravity, forgotten histories and unreadable handbooks, wayward travels with indefinite destinations, communications that falter or fail. But on the contrary, I would argue, the refusal to contextualize Kafka’s writing within its own history simply exploits this disorientation, trivializing the loss of time and place that marks his work.

Despite this mangling, the works in this volume do bring us into contact with provocative forms of dislocation. Each fragment begins with a narrator giving an account of a scene or addressing someone, but we do not know who is speaking or where they are, and rarely are we introduced to the addressee. Consider a few of these opening lines: “A rainy day. You are standing over the sheen of a puddle”; “I went abroad to live among foreigners. I hung my coat on a nail, no one looked after me”; “The Count was eating lunch, it was a quiet summer’s day.” The “you,” the “I,” and “the Count” are never concretely situated in time or space; indeed, the very suspension of those coordinates sets each scene. Often the literal ground cannot be found, or does not hold. For instance, one fragment, which unfolds in a single, circuitous sentence, describes a perilous procedure: 

A delicate matter, this tiptoeing across a crumbling board set down as a bridge, nothing underfoot, having to scrape together with your feet the ground you are treading on, walking on nothing but your reflection down in the water below, holding the world together with your feet, your hands cramping at the air to survive this ordeal. 

Here, a precarious scene gradually unravels our assumptions about whether the central figure is subject to the laws of gravity. The “crumbling board” at first acts as a bridge, tenuously constructed yet still serving as some kind of ground. But as that ground proves to be a reflection in water, the “you” that had at first seemed more or less human—Kafka used the word “man,” a German indefinite pronoun referring to a non-specific person or humans in general—becomes an apparently supernatural being. Perhaps he is an inverted Atlas, holding the world together with his feet; he might also be some version of Jesus, who walked on water, or Narcissus, transfixed by his own reflection. A gentle indictment takes shape: It is not water on which you walk, Lord, but rather a reflection of yourself, a powerful narcissism on which the whole world relies. And in the sentence’s final move, this figure, however divine, is now also all-too-human: a body known only by its frantic limbs grasping in pain. In this fragment, as in many of Kafka’s stories, human bodies collapse under the weight of the ideals they are asked to uphold, exposing the tortured impossibility of a human form bearing divine powers. When theological illumination does take place, it occurs apart from, or at the expense of, the shape of the human. According to a fragment not included in this book, “The Messiah will come . . . when there is no one to destroy this possibility and no one to suffer its destruction”; in other words, the Messiah will come when no individual can receive him—perhaps when there is no longer an individual at all.

Kafka seems to honor the traditional Jewish injunction against anthropomorphizing God by locating flashes of the divine in creatures whose claim to humanity itself is slippery or troublesome, often because they are poised at an unstable boundary between the human and the animal.

Elsewhere, Kafka seems to honor the traditional Jewish injunction against anthropomorphizing God by locating flashes of the divine in creatures whose claim to humanity itself is slippery or troublesome, often because they are poised at an unstable boundary between the human and the animal. In the writer’s 1917 story “A Report to An Academy,” an ape named Red Peter delivers an address to an academic association, telling the story of his emergence into human speech and norms. As he describes his capture and transport from the Gold Coast in the hold of a ship where he is threatened with being stabbed if he moves in any direction, we realize that this animal may well have been a slave, and that he remains in captivity. We also come to understand his status as a spectacle in a colonial exhibition as a continuation of the colonization of Africans: Humans are treated like animals and then compelled to act the part of the human to the uproar and fascination of gaping onlookers. The story turns on the fact that Red Peter, as a speaking animal, confounds the distinction between human and animal that produces the spectacle of his speech to begin with—for after all, isn’t the human defined precisely as the animal that speaks? Red Peter goes on to say that he takes no pleasure in imitating human beings, but that such imitation opens for him “a way out.” He does not understand becoming human as a form of progress, a way of overcoming his animality; on the contrary, this form of life is a prison, the escape from which requires his able mimicry of its norms. Red Peter’s report, then, exposes what no “human” language can adequately communicate, namely, the cruelty of the civilizational norms that monopolize the human. As in the fragment about the Messiah’s arrival, the ideal of the human both occasions and obstructs a way out; the specter of the divine appears precisely through the negation of the human form. 

The Lost Writings features a number of figures who dwell in the zone between human and animal, from a seemingly human narrator entrapped by a hunter who calls them a “capital specimen,” to a creature that “resembles a kangaroo” with an “almost human-looking face”—as well as Red Peter himself. The speaking ape appears in two discarded drafts of “A Report to an Academy.” In the first, a reporter or spectator seeks to have a conversation with Red Peter, but a guard at the door denies him access: Between performances, Red Peter does not like to show up for humans. In another, an urbane conversation between a human and Red Peter slows to a halt as the latter finds he has nothing more to say: “Sometimes I feel such antipathy to humans that I am close to vomiting.” 

The point is not that Kafka romanticizes animality, but rather that, in his stories, the creaturely body that writhes beneath such restrictive norms of the human is where feeling, suffering, and hope can be found. One can embody such norms to get a meal, secure a shelter, keep the fans happy, but that embodiment comes at the expense of a livable body. Both Red Peter and Josephine are hailed and demeaned by their audiences and seek what Red Peter, setting aside the Enlightenment idea of “freedom,” calls a “way out.” In Josephine, whose piping dazzles her community of mouse folk by elevating their humble speech into song, Kafka evoked what we might see as the situation of an apparent artist elevated and discarded for her performance. Perhaps the oscillation between her idealization and destruction continues in the saga of Kafka’s own work, for he is, after all, one of her people, and subject to a similar fate.  

The question, then, remains: Will Kafka’s work survive the distorted representations made in his name, or go the way of Josephine? The singer seems to perish at the end of her story, but the narrator tells us that she “happily lose[s] herself,” so her death marks a joyous release from the debilitating cage of her celebrity. It is more difficult to imagine a joyous release for Kafka, long dead, as long as scattered morsels of his work are up for sale; cut up and repackaged for popular consumption on the basis of false promises, his writings become more difficult to read rather than less. Under these circumstances, how can we salvage the author from his profiteers? One way, surely, is to reconstruct a reliable publication history for his work, and thereby learn to read his texts against the market values that threaten their legibility. In this way, we can edge closer to what is written, even if it means getting a bit dusty along the way.

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor Emeritus in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and Visiting Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at The New School. Their most recent book is The Force of Nonviolence (Verso, 2020).