Kafka's Blues: Figurations of Racial Blackness in the Construction of an Aesthetic

Kafka's Blues: Figurations of Racial Blackness in the Construction of an Aesthetic

by Mark Christian Thompson


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ISBN-13: 9780810132856
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

MARK CHRISTIAN THOMPSON is an associate professor of English at Johns Hopkins University.

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Kafka's Blues

Figurations of Racial Blackness in the Construction of an Aesthetic

By Mark Christian Thompson

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3286-3


Becoming Negro

I. Mein Vater ist noch immer ein Riese

Kafka himself asserted that "Das Urteil" marked the Durchbruch in his art. As Stanley Corngold has shown, Kafka's breakthrough story is also at the same time a sexual maturation, in that writing for Kafka is a form of sex, and it is with "Das Urteil" that he learned to do it right (Corngold 2000, 136). "Das Urteil" also marks the moment in which the erotics and exotics of writing clearly trump those of normative sexual partnership. As Jahraus notes,

Wenn man zusätzlich bedenkt, dass Kafka Felice Bauer nicht nur das Manuskript des Urteils geschickt, sondern ihr diese Erzählung auch gewidmet hat, dann wird klar, dass die Erotik des Schreibens gegen die Erotik der Partnerschaft ausgespielt wird, ja mehr noch, dass die Partnerschaft nur dazu dient, dass Kafka aus ihr jene erotischen Momente abzuziehen und auf das eigene Schreiben übertragen kann, so als ob es darum ginge, im Schreiben Erfüllung zu finden und Anforderungen zu genügen, was Kafka in einer Ehe für unmöglich hält. (Jahraus 2002, 410)

Moreover, if one considers the fact that Kafka not only sent Felice Bauer the manuscript of "The Judgment," but also dedicated the story to her, then it becomes clear that the erotics of writing are being played over and against the erotics of partnership and, furthermore, that this partnership only serves one purpose: so that Kafka can pull out of it its every erotic moment and use it for his writing, as if the point of the relationship were for Kafka to find the excitement and fulfillment in writing that he believed was impossible to find in marriage.

It is through the lack of marital fulfillment that writing becomes fulfilling. The type of writing that rejects domestic alliance in favor of its own favors and, indeed, feeds off of illegitimate, exotic sexual relations, is itself exotic and illegitimate.

Thus proper and improper, endogamous and exogamous forms of sexual conduct are linked to legitimate and illegitimate forms of writing. Ultimately, control over the body (and so over an unmediated language of pure signification) that inhabits the legitimating space of patriarchal power is determined by sexual possession. This is why the father in "Das Urteil" intimates that he could easily have Fräulein Brandenfeld, his son Georg's fiancée: the woman's character makes her unsuitable to the structural needs of patriarchal power. This Machtapparat (power apparatus), as Jahraus calls it,

lässt sich ... durch drei Merkmale definieren: Erstens: Ein Machtapparat setzt voraus, dass die sozialen, erotischen und ökonomischen Strukturen als Bestimmungsmomente der bürgerlichen Existenz des Subjekts untrennbar miteinander verzahnt sind. Zweitens: Diese Verzahnung wiederum beruht auf einem Element der Verbindung — und das ist Macht. Nicht nur alle Relationen, in denen Figuren stehen, sondern die Konstitution des Subjekts selbst beruht ausschließlich auf Macht. Heiraten beispielsweise ist eine zentrale Frage der Macht. Und drittens organisiert sich die Macht nach dem Prinzip der Machtökonomie, was Machtakkumulation — vergleichbar der Kapitalakkumulation — bedeuten kann, aber letzten Endes in jedem Fall so etwas wie Übergang oder Aufteilung bedeutet (Jahraus 2006, 418).

can be defined ... by three characteristics. First, a mechanism of power assumes that social, erotic and economic structures serve as touchstones for the existence of the bourgeois subject, and are indivisible from it. Second, the binding force of these characteristics with bourgeois existence is power. Not only the relations between characteristics, but the constitution of the subject itself is fully determined by power. For instance, marriage is a central question of power. And third, power is organized by the principles of its economy, that which accumulation — comparable to the accumulation of capital — can ultimately mean in terms of expansion or partition.

As the central question of the Machtapparat, marriage is a thing of the past for the father and no longer possible in the future for the son. In the vacuum left behind by the death of the mother, a power struggle ensues that is as much about sexual potency as it is about traditional bourgeois values. Attempting to usurp the father's position as head of the family and sovereign in charge of the Machtapparat, Georg indirectly calls the father's sexual potency into question. This is in part brought out in the story by biblical allusion and is key to the story's rumination on racial blackness.

Of course, "Das Urteil" contains interpretive references to the Bible, all potential hermeneutic tools for readings of the story and meditations on Kafka's relation to Judaism. However, Kafka's use of religious tropes are idiosyncratic to such an extent that even in cases where there is a clear rethinking of a story from Genesis, the appropriation itself obviously need not be limited to a meditation on Jewish themes. As Robertson writes,

Kafka is a highly individual and challenging religious thinker. His thought does not proceed within the framework of any one religion, but defines itself against a number of theologies and philosophies. ... For one simplifies Kafka and denies his originality and his eclecticism if one locates his thought within any religious system. Rewarding though it has been to see Kafka through lenses provided by Judaism, we need to see it only as one of the sources on which he drew for his highly personal intellectual and spiritual exploration. (Robertson 1985, 120)

One such moment of "eclecticism" in "Das Urteil" pushes such readings in a different direction. When Georg sees his father undressed, or "naked" (he wears only an open robe, a pair of filthy underwear, and socks), "Das Urteil" makes use of the Genesis story of the curse of Ham, a biblical allusion Kafka had already explicitly made in "Beschreibung eines Kampfes" (written between 1903 and 1907), referring to "Noah in his cups" (C 13). In the biblical passage, Noah, Ham's father, has drunk himself into a stupor and fallen, naked, unconscious, only to wake to find that his son, Ham, has seen him in his natural state. As punishment for this "crime," Noah curses Ham's descendants, who are described as swarthy in skin color, to perpetual servitude. The tribe of Ham is now identified as that of Africa, constituting the biblical story as the origin of the "black race" and the scriptural authorization for New World slavery. Indeed, the argument was avidly and popularly taken up by proponents of slavery looking to justify biblically the African slave trade and black enslavement. Historically speaking, this use of the story is its most well known and politically remarkable, and Kafka's appropriation of the drunkenness of Noah, this chapter contends, contains the thread of blackness and the African slave trade within it. Ultimately, this chapter finds that Georg Bendemann is one of Kafka's artist figures condemned to his vocation in and as Hamic exile and, in this way as well as by being associated with "deviant" sexuality, is implicated in slavery and blackness.

The story begins with Georg contemplating how to break the news of his recent engagement to Frieda Brandenfeld to a failing friend set up in Russia, and to his father. Where the friend in Russia has habitually failed, Georg has succeeded. In his father's stead as head of the family business, the concern has flourished. And with his coming nuptials, Georg is poised to take over the role of paterfamilias in every sense, thus covering up his father for good. Not only is the family business under Georg's control earning more money than ever before but also Georg intends to bring a woman into the family to replace his mother. Through marriage, Georg will consolidate his power. Following what might seem like the natural course of events, the son will supplant the father in every conceivable way.

When Georg enters his father's room to inform him of the good news, Georg's father stands and literally reveals himself to his son:

Der Vater saß beim Fenster in einer Ecke, die mit verschiedenen Andenken an die selige Mutter ausgeschmückt war, und las die Zeitung, die er seitlich vor die Augen hielt, wodurch er irgendeine Augenschwäche auszugleichen suchte. Auf dem Tisch standen die Reste des Frühstücks, von dem nicht viel verzehrt zu sein schien.

"Ah, Georg!" sagte der Vater und ging ihm gleich entgegen. Sein schwerer Schlafrock öffnete sich im Gehen, die Enden umflatterten ihn — "mein Vater ist noch immer ein Riese," sagte sich Georg. (D 50)

His father was sitting by the window in a corner hung with various mementoes of Georg's dead mother, reading a newspaper which he held to one side before his eyes in an attempt to overcome a defect of vision. On the table stood the remains of his breakfast, not much of which seemed to have been eaten.

"Ah, Georg," said his father, rising at once to meet him. His heavy dressing gown swung open as he walked and the skirts of it fluttered around him. — "My father is still a giant of a man," said Georg to himself (C 53).

In this primal Noahic (and noetic) scene, the father's dressing gown opens, prompting Georg to comment on his father's enormous stature, or simply on the father's enormity. The body of the father asserts itself against Georg through its sheer physicality (Jahraus 2008, 414). The logic of the father's body, the absolute coherence and clarity of its language, is juxtaposed with the seemingly disjointed, fragmentary, indeed drunken nature of his verbal locutions. And despite his linguistic dexterity later in the story, the content articulated by the father could be tantamount to nonsense and seems to be authoritative only because of Georg's argumentative ineptitude. As Berman writes of Georg, "Language gets the better of him, or remains beyond his grasp, sometimes erratic, sometimes recalcitrant, but never fully under his control. Without an effective command of language, he is hardly in a position to argue his own case. Evidently, the logic of argumentative judgment cannot count on the linguistic capacity that it would require to be successful" (Berman 2002, 95). Berman's point is valid; and yet the same could be said of the father, who seems fully in control of his linguistic utterances. He speaks well, but what he says makes sense only insofar as there is no credible opposition to it. Thus "the logic of argumentative judgment" is inadequate.

An example of this logic's nonsensical, drunken character issues directly from, and is figured as, the father's mouth. Where the father's mouth lengthens to reveal a black, toothless maw, the words that issue from the infernal chasm are hieratic, ending with the question, "Hast du wirklich diesen Freund in Petersburg?" (D 52) ("Do you really have this friend in St. Petersburg?" [C 56]). No amount of friends, society, or brotherhood can replace the father in Georg's inner life. The father occupies the central place in Georg's existence, and, upon rising and Noahically revealing his phallic power while at the same time opening his black hole of a mouth — one that sucks in the sense of words while sparing their sound — the father destabilizes Georg's petit bourgeois life.

The ensuing struggle between father and son, the verbal confrontation that ends with the son's Hamic exile qua suicide, is won and lost before the first word is spoken. The body of the father curses Georg the moment it rises. If there was a doubt or hesitation on Georg's part to conclude that his father was still "ein Riese," the sight of the father as he stands, as his robe opens to reveal the enormity of his body, and presumably his penis, is enough to silence all concerns. The father's body speaks louder and is far more articulate than anything he actually has to say. Indeed, it is the father's physical condition that provides the grounds for cursing the son: "Beim Anblick der nicht besonders reinen Wäsche machte er sich Vorwürfe, den Vater vernachlässigt zu haben. Es wäre sicherlich auch seine Pflicht gewesen, über den Wäschewechsel seines Vaters zu wachen" (D 54) (The not particularly clean appearance of his underwear made him reproach himself for having been neglectful. It should have certainly been his duty to see that his father had clean changes of underwear [C 84]).

At no other time in the story does Georg admit to having been neglectful or in the wrong. His Hamic "suicide" and its attendant apology, because of their disjointed, chaotic character, nullify any coherent sense of remorse Georg seems to show. More than regret, Georg displays a growing feeling of Hamic horror, which is awakened by the father's feverish movements: "Auf seinen Armen trug er den Vater ins Bett. Ein schreckliches Gefühl hatte er, als er während der paar Schritte zum Bett hin merkte, daß an seiner Brust der Vater mit seiner Uhrkette spiele. Er konnte ihn nicht gleich ins Bett legen, so fest hielt er sich an dieser Uhrkette" (D 55) (He carried his father to bed in his arms. It gave him a dreadful feeling to notice that while he took the few steps toward the bed the old man on his breast was playing with his watch chain [C 84]).

Seeing the father play with the watch chain provokes an indescribable fear. The reason for Georg's disgust and ominous sense of terror is not narrated because it cannot be narrated. To speak Hamic dread would be to diffuse its disruptive potential. The only way for Georg to relate his inner state without falsifying it is to allow his body to articulate the emotion, to let his body speak for itself, to pronounce it without voice and in so doing avoid the dissonance inherent in translation. Indeed, where the body is concerned, there is here no need of translation. Here body language is prior to the spoken; it is the language of Babel open to all and without need of mediation and interpretation. The body speaks and is language unto itself. In this way, when the father's body becomes pronounced, it is irrelevant what drunken words come out of his mouth. The body speaks the curse because it is the scene of the crime. What the father actually says only becomes intelligible and meaningful as the story progresses, as he "sobers up."

Thus, the Noahic body of the father pronounces its damning sentence simply by the fact of its movements. This is why Georg, horror-struck, seeks to cover up his father's body:

"Bin ich jetzt gut zugedeckt?" fragte der Vater, als könne er nicht nachschauen, ob die Füße genug bedeckt seien.

"Es gefällt dir also schon im Bett," sagte Georg und legte das Deckzeug besser um ihn.

"Bin ich gut zugedeckt?" fragte der Vater noch einmal und schien auf die Antwort besonders aufzupassen.

"Sei nur ruhig, du bist gut zugedeckt."

"Nein!" rief der Vater, daß die Antwort an die Frage stieß, warf die Decke zurück mit einer Kraft, daß sie einen Augenblick im Fluge sich ganz entfaltete, und stand aufrecht im Bett. Nur eine Hand hielt er leicht an den Plafond. (D 55–56)

"Am I well covered up now?" asked his father, as if he were not able to see whether his feet were properly tucked in or not.

"So you find it snug in bed already," said Georg, and tucked the blankets more closely around him.

"Am I well covered up?" asked the father once more, seeming to be strangely intent upon the answer.

"Don't worry, you're well covered up."

"No!" cried the father, cutting short the answer, threw the blankets off with a strength that sent them all flying in a moment and sprang erect in bed. Only one hand lightly touched the ceiling to steady him. (C 84)

The father "schien auf die Antwort besonders aufzupassen" to his question, "Bin ich gut zugedeckt?" because to cover the body is in this situation to destroy the person as a communicative being and so to stifle his judgment and power to curse. By covering up the father's Noahic body the way Noah's other sons did after Ham's "treachery" had been exposed, Georg seeks to demolish the father's word, his power, his malediction. The struggle between father and son is dramatized by the physical-linguistic battle being played out between the sheets. That Georg's father has enough strength to throw back the covers literally validates and proves his assertion that he still has enough power left to rebuke the son's attempt to usurp his patriarchal sovereignty, and that Ham's transgression cannot be forgiven. Control of the body, then, is control over linguistic utterance here understood as body language and the power to curse; as such, it delimits total control. The body and the language it speaks portray the ebb and flow of Noahic power between father and son, such that their biblical confrontation is indeed as much physical as it is verbal. This is crucial, for this "physical" confrontation does nothing less than create human racial difference through an act of sexual impropriety.


Excerpted from Kafka's Blues by Mark Christian Thompson. Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

Part I
Chapter One: Becoming Negro
Chapter Two: Being Negro
Chapter Three: Beyond Negro
Part II
Chapter Four: Negro's Machine
Chapter Five: Negro's Manumission
Chapter Six: Negro's Martyrdom

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