The Kafka revival of 1960: Guilt, absurdity, forestalled post-trauma

Chapter 2 of my current book project — titled 1960: The Politics & Art of the Avant-garde — is about the delayed (post-traumatic) response to the mass killings of World War II precisely fifteen years later. Here, in presenting one section of this long chapter, I'm not going to describe in any detail why I think it took fifteen years before such a reckoning could occur. As I did my research and reading, I did discern such a rather sudden interest, saw it in fact everywhere. In this section I turn to a certain revival of Kafka in 1960. From this one can probably get a sense of the larger argument.

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In New York, at just this time, Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden, intellectually an unlikely pair, became friends after discovering their intense mutual concern over the obligation to defend language against those forces that would corrupt it. They came together around such a defense but they disagreed because Arendt insisted on distinctions between ethical and juridical judgment while Auden saw them as categorically merged. In November 1959 Auden published his long essay on Falstaff in Encounter; the essay, smoothly argued otherwise, interrupts itself to digress on forgiveness and pardon (there Auden insisted on a distinction, whereas Arendt, as we will see, did not). The digression was directly incited by, as noted earlier, Auden’s positive response to Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), published in Encounter and given the title “Thinking What We Are Doing.” Such consciousness was always essentially linguistic—Auden momentarily becomes a Wittgensteinian via Arendt!—and after the disasters of the 1940s needed to be redefined as such. We “can never manage” this attention “unless we can first agree about the meaning of the words we think with, which, in its turn, requires that we become aware of what these words have meant in the past.”[2] Auden believes Arendt to have written an essay in Etymology, “a re-examination of what we think we mean.”[3] It is the closest Auden will ever come to affirming Make It New — here, of course, in an ethical rather than a poetic context. Arendt’s definition of ideal political power — not power of the kind that wields violence and shows strength, but its opposite—also depends on language. She imagines, Auden notes, a politics realized “only where word and deed have not parted . . . when words are not used to veil intentions” and when deeds following such words “are not used to violate and destroy, but to . . . create new realities.”[4] Auden’s Falstaff essay tries to imagine such a prelapsarian—or, in effect, a pre-totalitarian—mode in which the word-world relationship is undestroyed and in which pardoning and forgiveness are “forbidden to calculate.”[5] Auden must have mentioned his digression on pardon to Arendt, who obtained a copy of the November 1959 issue of Encounter and then wrote her long letter of February 14, 1960.

“The command to forgive is unconditional,” Auden had written.[6] He observed the failure in dramatic writing to distinguish “the spirit of forgiveness” from “the act of pardon.”[7] When forgiveness requires action, and thus requires something that would not occur if there were no forgiving. “This means that my enemy must be at my mercy”—not ideal, given that, for Auden, charity is a disposition and should be distinct from “judicial pardon,” which is necessarily an act.[8] The distinction fails in literary representations of judgment “because silence and inaction are undramatic.”[9] This is of course exactly the opposite of the conclusion drawn by Celan, whose writing “shows a strong tendency toward silence” in a complex theorization of indirectness that makes for the entire drama of writing that defends language against corruption and produces judgment not despite but because the scales of judgment have been destroyed. In her letter to Auden (“I just read the Falstaff piece”), Arendt also disagrees: “the ‘command to forgive is not unconditional,’” following which criticism the entire letter theorizes the distinction between “forgiveness and judicial pardon.” It is only pride, not historical reality, that “insist[s] that that power of judgment remains unimpaired.” Judgment can indeed “be destroyed in the act of forgiving.” Pondering the “absurd position of the judges during the Nuremberg trials who were confronted with crimes of such a magnitude” as to render punishment nearly meaningless, she posits a theory of forgiveness that “does not aim at destruction but on the contrary at the restoration of the persons involved.”[10] Such hope would not extend, the following year, to her sense of the Eichmann trial, but it comes, thanks to Auden’s reminder, from her ethical anti-totalitarian etymology, requiring, as Auden put it, “that we become aware of what […] words have meant in the past,” if the goal is “re-examination of what we think we mean.” That, rather than personal rehabilitation—certainly this would be the case for her in the case of Eichmann—is what she means by restoration. Such linguistic responsibility must be widespread and by no means limited to the perpetrators. This notion coincides with those of many of the writers we have considered in this chapter as they seek a return to re-examinations of radical pre-war re-examinations of meaning. It also coincides in 1960 with a flood of new postwar-style re-encounters with the work of Franz Kafka. Why the resurgence of Kafka just then?

One such new encounter was Frederick Olafson’s “Kafka and the Primacy of the Ethical,” published in the Spring 1960 issue of The Hudson Review, which was largely taken up by a new reading of the Barnabas family episode in The Castle. Olafson, a moral philosopher, sought to challenge the generally accepted reading of “a morally submissive and acquiescent Kafka” by establishing how K. achieves critical detachment from the language of the Castle bureaucracy and of the village in order to the fate, usually ascribed to him, of “helpless victim.”[11] This cautiously argued Hudson Review piece, published just as Eichmann’s extradition stirred daily media coverage and conversation about perpetrators and victims, emerges as a kind of parable of post-Holocaust reconsideration of modernist skeptical ethics. Olafson seeks to revive focus on the villagers, who witness abuse of K. by the Castle admininstrators. They are guilty bystanders. By disclosing their complicity, Kafka was creating a text of linguistic moral self-ownership. The daughter of the Barnabases, in angrily rejecting a dishonorable proposal made by a high official of the Castle, brings down a punishment upon the whole family, but, as Olafson writes, “this punishment is not inflicted by the Castle” but by the villagers—an extreme ostracism. Kafka’s K. has aligned himself with the Barnabas family; Kafka’s language describing activities, customs, projects, and mutual affirmations that characterize village life in the shadow of the indecipherable totalitarianism of the Castle, in a sense ostracizes and deterritorializes readers who struggle to know what’s going on, and K. who is trapped inside what Celan would call an “alien homeland,” along with the Barnabas daughter for her exercise of “independent moral initiative.”[12] The village can’t perceive their internalization of the “cultural busy-ness” (to return to Celan’s sardonic phrase for bystanders’ facile art talk, by means of which “[t]hey say art and mean irresponsibility”[13]), which the Castle’s organizational language has promulgated. Olafson reads Kafka’s K. as a “victim[…] of what the bystanders call history.”[14] Celan and Kafka (in The Trial and especially in The Castle) offer a reading of history more radical still: as Celan put it, it is “only the victims of what the bystanders call history [who] know something about it.” Unless one deems the Hannah Arendt who covered the Eichmann trial herself a victim in Celan’s sense—she was stripped of her German citizenship, was in 1940 interned in a camp by the German occupying army in France as an “enemy alien,” was saved through an illegally obtained visa, and after the war returned to work with children survivors, although she insisted that Eichmann in Jerusalem was not itself testimony but the work of a trial reporter—her formulation does not place the victim-witness so radically at the center of the creation of a new history. But it certainly enacts a similar and, in context, controversial shift of focus from the grand perpetrator, the individuated interpreter and imposer of invincible language rules, to the guilt of the normal majority. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”[15] This statement interestingly coincides with the Auden-Arendt debate on judgment of 1959-60, for it aligns with her sense that the “failure” and “conspicuous helplessness” of the Israeli judges was necessitated by their stated narrow judicial charge, that of “understanding the criminal” rather than engaging victim-witnesses for the purpose of understanding the crime and its scope, nor the very particular history of the language that enabled it—a history languaged precisely of “our January 20th.” Celan’s “mindful[ness] of such dates” is equivalent to Auden’s “Thinking What We Are Doing.”

Absurdity and historical consciousness can merge in a text without lessening (or dismissing as merely personal) a sense of the absurd. “Would [Kafka] have made the problem of guilt seem so primary and developed it so carefully if he meant it all to be read as mere neurotic distortions?” So asked theorist of fiction Murray Krieger in The Tragic Vision (1960). And would Kafka have in such detail disclosed the Court’s hypocrisies in The Trial “if he merely wished to emphasize its apparent absurdities?”[16] Krieger’s Kafka in 1960 provides an absurdist, open, enigmatic, Aesopian text in which guilt can still be reliably read from the bottom up—“approached from below, from the details of the novel.”[17] Reading guilt in Kafka “resists systematic interpretation” but does not resist interpretation. As Suzanne Clark in Cold Warriors has put it in summarizing Krieger’s complicated postwar relationship with modernism: the tragic vision follows from “’the modernism that is characterized by fragmentation’ rather than synthesis,” and such vision was formed at a moment when, in Krieger’s words, “Justice has passed from the universal to the rebellious individual.”[18] Krieger implicitly decries an easy contemporary existentialist formula:

prewar modernism + genocidal world war = absurdity 

When we discover the “disingenuousness of straining to marshal [textual details] to prove an argument, we rather consign them to the miscellaneous absurd.”[19] To contend that modern writing [defies] synthetic, unfragmented interpretation is not the same as “obscurantism.”[20] When a minor Court official blathers on about its infallibility and insists that it “never go[es] hunting for crime in the populace, but, as the Law decrees, are drawn towards the guilty,”[21] it should not indicate the ultimate indecipherability of such “apparent contradictions and claims” so much as the need to shift the register of reading. The “mystique of hierarchy” itself can and must be read, and guilt will be disclosed as no less specific. This approach coincides almost exactly with Arendt’s interpretation of the problem of interpreting the guilt of Eichmann.

How in a supposedly end-of-ideological era does one understand responsibility without “any abstract doctrinal guilt”? Krieger is an anti-ideological critic-theorist who academically came of age in the 1950s — The New Apologists for Poetry of 1956 is his classic work — who has here reached an impasse. The political reading (that of a vague strawman Marxist) he dismissed from the start—K.’s “frequent awareness of his guilt … is not a sign of the Court’s justice by a symptom of K.’s brainwashing by the ruthless organization that has badgered him into submission”—turns out to be the most logically persuasive as the result of Krieger’s own methodological merge of modernism’s openness and his commitment as a critic to textual detail. He says he wants “the social and metaphysical levels [to] be urged at once” in this approach to the modernist novel but in the end his formalism masters the metaphysical while his inability to cope with the social creates the only dramatic agony in an otherwise smoothly competent piece—an uncharacteristic sprawling [550]-word footnote that plunders the bottoms of three pages. If critics seek a seamless move (“without a leap”) from literal to symbolic levels of reading, what prevents it is Kafka’s “failure to relate” two versions of the Court (they are actually described in contradictory ways in the novel). Krieger concedes that he cannot “do more than dodge this obstacle.” His need for semantic sense, which should have been mitigated by his commitment to the value of the modernist fragment, leads to blaming Kafka for reaching “the point where [his] aesthetic incompleteness shows.” Krieger can only repeat his hope that “the world of social-economic reality and of nightmarish fantasy”—again here identified as “the political and metaphysical levels”—would have “a single narrative source,” directly contradicting his defense of literary opacity and difficulty if they can be supported by detailed close reading, a defense his work effects.[22]

I seek a way of understanding Murray Krieger’s exhausted formalist existentialism. The ultimate question in poetics of this time—it applies to The New Apologists for Poetry and The Tragic Vision equally, where for a theorist the term “poetics” emphasizes the aesthetic in a genre—is whether the “impractical, non-propositional structure” of the modern poem can “help us understand ourselves in our world a little better.” Wesley Morris in “Murray Krieger: A Departure into Diachrony,” poses the question in this way: “Should we ask the poem to function more immediately in the realm of political action” if its obscurities inhibit the realization of literature’s representational function?[23] Morris is not interested in biography, nor in psychology, but in his discussion of the limits of Krieger’s theorizing he contends that it is “a projection of a World War II Weltanschauung” in expecting modern writing to “imitate existential reality” while recognizing that “it is the poem’s own Manichean vision that establishes the mask that it is said to imitate.”[24] Krieger’s undergraduate years at Rutgers University were interrupted by service in the armed forces in the war, including a time in India,[25] and such experience does help explain in part the intensity and uncharacteristic overwriting in Krieger’s perhaps unwitting confusion of two kinds of histories that find their way into modern literature—history as “the ‘stuff’ of the poem insofar as it is lived” (“the living, felt, pulsing history of breathing men,” as Krieger sentimentally put it) and history that is “the static formulae of ideology.”[26] The general objection to Krieger’s theory in recent decades has been that its “existential vision is out of date.” The crass version of this seems to run as follows: in the postwar 1950s existentialism was all the rage, and Krieger’s formalist instinct merged with and was compromised by his war experience and readings of Gide and Sartre. Helpfully, Morris points out that this is in itself, of course, an “historical judgment.”[27] If the effect of the end of ideology is made manifest in the Manichaeanism derived from a World War II-era sense of guilt and victimization—and in the way that exclusive focus on the “ideal of a recurrent assertion of individual freedom” but not of “political or collective action” blinds his theory of imaginative writing to “a vision more terrifying and more incomprehensible [even] than the remembered mad horrors of World War II”[28] — then the historical reading of Krieger’s historical reading, of Kafka for instance, takes us momentarily to an end of the end of ideology, where the impractical, non-propositional structure of modern writing, “contemptuous of the practical world,” produces a poetics that is “subversive of those veils of cognitive distortion”[29] and thus reveals what Krieger describing The Trial calls “a convincing dossier” evidencing guilt quite specific, a case readable even by those who do not believe in universal “notions of original sin shared.”[30]

Even leaving aside Morris’s particular critique of Krieger’s projection of the World War II experience onto a theory of modern reading, it is hard not to read about his Kafka in 1960 without thinking about that anachronism that has been tossed around in classrooms and belle-lettristic essays and in conversation hosted by reading groups of intelligent novices encountering The Trial, The Castle, “In the Penal Colony,” or Amerika for the first time: Kafka and the holocaust. Yet from everything I have been able to read and discover about the reception of Kafka’s work in the years 1945 through the late 1950s, in books, scholarly articles, essays, reviews, etc.,[31] this was by no means yet a convention. Nor was Krieger’s “projection” unique, then, at the very end of this interregnum. Nor that of the heretical mythographer and World War II combat veteran, Leslie Fiedler; the social ecologist Frank Meissner; the surrealist poet-art critic of avant-garde film, Parker Tyler; the expert on nihilist dialectics, Peter Heller—a mix of American commentators, all of whom published on Kafka in the year 1960, united by what struck Fiedler as a timely “assent to the unforeseen lucidity of the obsession, the stubborn integrity of the fragment, the irreducibility of meaning maintained like a martyrdom.” Commentary now on Kafka’s predicament was “almost obligatory.”[32] Heller’s elegantly argued analysis of ways in which Kafka’s main theme and, at once, the texture of the writing, always trace the reduction of spiritual man to “something less than human”—to debasement and barbarism—turns on the notion of a special form of alienation and strangeness: that of the assimilated western Jew attracted to “the Eastern Jews” only to find “the way back to their community … barred.”[33]

Heller’s argument that Kafka’s manner of “treat[ing] as normal an essentially alienated and pervasively dehumanized world”[34] is uniquely powerful depends on his stipulation that “we have grown accustomed as historical fact”—my emphasis—to “systematic terror, … the genocides, and the methods of total warfare” and that “even at present” can imagine “still greater disasters.”[35] The fact of the holocaust is elided with the “fact” of our finally having grown accustomed to it as fact. And all this depended in the first instance on the quality of prophecy inhering in the kind of mediumistic modern writing which is itself, like human life in lived in extremity, a “perennial ‘process’ and ‘trial.’”[36] Traditional narrative, with its referentiality, its word-world alignment and circumstantial realism, does not predict forward in such a way. Rather it was—again, I ask that we notice a dependence on the rhetoric of fact—“the fact that Kafka’s ‘concrete universals’ invite simultaneously questions on all possible levels of discourse,” the openness and opacity of the text itself, that enabled Kafka to be writing about the holocaust, and rather than this being less historical as an approach to modernism in 1960 it is being offered as more. “A few years had passed after Kafka’s death,” writes Heller in “The Autonomy of Despair” for the Massachusetts Review in its Winter 1960 issue, “when his visions seemed to come true in the mass murder of the Jews (in which all of his relatives were killed).”[37]

Moreover, to read Kafka just now is to experience an ordeal like that of the survivor-witness. So Heller suggests. He concedes that of course “the reader will not be executed at the hands of two strangers,” unlike K. in The Trial, “but as he [the reader!] emerges from this literary ordeal”—surviving the trial of the text—“he may have to ask himself whether the work and the summons were meant for him or, indeed, for any reader.” This is not intended as metaphor. Kafka is being re-read as a reluctant survivor whose anticipatory will to bear witness is agonizingly ambiguous—a state of being described later by Lawrence Langer and Terrence Des Pres (who otherwise have opposite approaches to almost every other aspect of survivor testimony) as making the witness-survivor’s predicament like that of the modern writer and the modern writer’s predicament like that of the survivor.[38] After suggesting that readers of Kafka endure their [ordeal] as a version of unwarranted summons, Heller reminds us that Kafka’s final wish was that the writing be destroyed, and asks: “Did he not disavow the wish to communicate his essential experience?” Des Pres describes such disavowal as the result of an “unexpected ambiguity”: “As a witness the survivor is both sought and shunned; the desire to hear his truth is countered by the need to ignore him.”[39] The unsayable experience of the survivor defies representation and that is the condition that, if nothing else is possible, needs bearing witness. Readers and listeners to testimony sometimes must reject the veracity of the story together with its form of telling in order for the survivor, habituated to the incompleteness and fragmentation of the effort to feel something of the ordeal’s unreality has been conveyed.[40] Heller’s essay comprehends this aspect of Kafka’s writing. “And yet Kafka,” he writes, “does communicate an essential experience of irrevocable rejection, the experience of an ultimate non-arrival.”[41] Such incessant “non-arrival” Celan theorizes as a function of, or an analogue to, the way in which Jewish life, because of its particular internal linguistic and cultural exile, has always or often had about it, predictively [proleptically?], certain modern attributes, chief among them indeed this trevail of “ultimate non-arrival.” The figure of the Jew as always already modernist. “To remember in the poem,” Celan wrote in his notebook for “The Meridian,” “—remembrance as absence”; he jotted those key phrases after copying out this, as he had found while reading Jean Paul’s Das Kampaner Tal (1797): “as on the houses of the Jews (in memory of ruined Jerusalem), something always has to be left unfinished”—a likening among (1) violent dispersion and diaspora, (2) the familial home as memory (Celan’s obsession), and (3) the written fragment.[42] Heller quotes a young Czech friend of Kafka, Janouch, who distinctly remembered Kafka telling the story of a blind Jewish poet of Prague whose eyes had been damaged in fights with Germans and non-Jewish Czechs. “He lost his eyesight as a German,” Janouch recalls Kafka saying, “as something he never really was.” He was “a pathetic symbol of the so-called German Jews of Prague.”[43] Writing as memory, remembrance as absence, internal exile as ongoing modern incompleteness: Kafka’s situation—living among Czechs, participating in German intellectual literary heritage, “belong[ing] to neither community,” considering oneself “part of a Europe that survived only as a community of letters”—was to embody an [incompleteness] and [in-between-ness] in a place “that kept the memory of its ghetto alive”[44] even as its liquidation was predictable.

So how does one read the Jewish Czech Kafka from this particular post-genocide perspective? Frank Meissner attempted it in “A Social Ecology of the German Jews of Prague,” published in the Dalhousie Review in 1960. Postwar de-Germanization under the consolidating communist regime entailed—a terrible irony compounding many previous ironies of political ethnography—the jailing and/or expulsion of Czech Jewish victims of the Nazis, the small number of survivors who returned from the camps and from exile to Prague after the war—because of their historical identification with German culture and lack of connection to qualities of Czech nationalism. Meissner’s detailed yet readable essay is one of the first to describe in English the situation of the Kafkas in the context of the postwar consequences of German Jewish history and culture uneasily residing among the Czechs.[45] His interpretation of Franz Kafka’s resentment of the “silly ‘status seeking’” of German-speaking Jews moving from rural Czech districts to the secular city is that it was the particular agonistic misalignment that enabled his “creative neurosis.” Meissner noted that his thesis was aided by the publication of the Dearest Father volume by Schocken in New York in 1954. What might fairly be called the romance of the post-holocaust landless Jew in 1960—a philosemitic fiction that seems facile and easily discounted now, after its quality as a counter-interpretive force has faded from view over time—was grounded in its connection to two factors: the then-emergent view of the survivor whose testimony can best or only emerge through narrative estrangement, and the will to re-engage prewar modernism as a heterodox or absurdist historicizing. Even the modest scholarly Meissner, otherwise firmly on the ground of evidentiary social ecology, poeticizes a bit when re-encountering the alternative to other Jews’ conversion to Christianity, embrace of Zionism, or decision to emigrate. And the alternative? “Kafka escaped into himself.” And Meissner’s epigraph is worthy of the critical hyperbole of Leslie Fiedler and the intense theorizing of Paul Celan: “The German Jew in Czech Prague was, so to speak, an incarnation of strangeness and will-to-be-strange; he was the people’s enemy without a people of his own.”[46]

Despite his mocking, annoyed tone in “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” published with other essays in a section called “Three Jews” in No! in Thunder in 1960—the same year as his blockbuster Love and Death in the American Novel—Fiedler wants to treat quite seriously the phenomenon of “the dignity of [the Jew’s] ultimate exile” and “the noblest metaphor of the Outsider.”[47] Yet he bitterly mocks the emergence of the easy identification of sympathetic respondents to Kafka after the war. “’Yes, it is like this!’ we cry. ‘Yes, I am like this!’”[48] And: “’[W]e are all Semites.’”[49] He seems just as annoyed by the easy acceptance of Kafka’s modern style: it’s the “stubborn integrity of the fragment”[50] that in the first place induces rapture over the difficulty we all claim to face. The deradicalization of such a modern style has been managed in the name of sentimental post-holocaust Semitism. Fiedler would like to clear the critical terrain of liberal overidentification in order to treat seriously Kafka’s brilliant radical linking of the “eternal … expulsion from Paradise”—the current Jewish condition—with a certain new way of writing. That exilic status is “final,” Kafka wrote (as Fiedler quotes him here), and yet there is (just as Celan observed too) an “eternal nature of the occurrence” which makes possible the kind of writing in which “we are continuously there where we know it or not.”[51] There? Where? Celan in “The Meridian” would of course say in the poem. Fiedler’s Kafka would say: in “the unforeseen lucidity of the obsession,” in “the irreducibility of meaning maintained like a martyrdom.” The “essential Jewishness of Kafka”[52] just now, per Fiedler, is that he tenaciously holds to this connection: the particular homelessness Meissner describes, the ultimate internal exile (“Kafka escaped into himself” while others became Zionists or embraced Christianity or fled) and the qualities of modern writing. Again Fiedler’s complaint is that the particular Jewishness of this situation has made it possible—at a time when “public word on Kafka is a piety, almost obligatory amongst us, to the Zeitgest,” even a “focus of love and fashion”—to forget that the “essential Jewishness of Kafka” inheres in the way he transformed a commitment to the haggadic method in which love of wisdom (content) is indistinguishable from—and, radically, less important than—the love of story (form).[53]  So “to call Kafka a Jew is not…to deny that he is a heretic.” Kafka’s modern radicalism lies in his demand that the “intolerable conditions” of faith at a time of systematic bureaucratic proto-fascism “be explained in terms of his own reason.”[54]

Fiedler argues that Kafka came to the very edge of leaping into the void, but did not leap. He was on the verge of the flight from reason altogether, but clung to a language of reason at the edge of its total failure. Fiedler admires “his refusal to leap to faith where reason eventuates in anguish.” From the perspective of a decade and a half after the total disaster he was said to have predicted, to look back at Kafka’s “refusal to leap” is to imagine such anguish even further augmented. The question becomes who in 1960 is in a position to observe the specific effects of the victim’s anguish. The “fashion” of “Semitism” creates from victimization a critical ideology, a false latitudinarianism that tends to disguise the heretical elements of a style conveying what cannot be readily known. Fiedler here is less interested in such [easy radicalism] entailed in embrace of the noble Outsider than in the “negative orthodoxy” that results when historical Judaism enforces its tendency not to “disown[…] its great heretics completely.”[55] The modernist “irreducibility of meaning maintained like a martyrdom” must not become merely obligatory if intolerable conditions are to be comprehended in an “unforeseen” clarity in this terribly unclear writing—writing so obsessively reasonable it becomes an aspect of a dreamlike surrealism. The leap beyond reason is an uneasy, daring next step.

Parker Tyler’s Kafka in 1960 seems to have already taken that next step, according to the astonishing montaged argument of The Three Faces of the Film: The Art, the Dream, the Cult, published by Thomas Yoseloff in 1960. For Fiedler, Kafka could not undertake the final flight from reason, and the result is a style of hyper-reason that made it—happily, in Fiedler’s view—impossible for facile wisdom-seeking readers (Cold War-era Americans in particular) to fathom its form, thus its radicalism remains latent in its “unforeseen lucidity.” For Paul Celan, re-considering Kafka as he prepared “The Meridian,” Kafka’s language was a matter somehow of having, not being; “being” seemed to be for Celan here a synonym for the kind of post-Disaster attentiveness to which he now aspired. (In his notes he kept repeating this formulation: “Kafka: / Language means to have, not to be.”[56]) Celan wanted for himself to go in writing where Kafka could not go—perhaps because the earlier writer did not endure and then survive the disaster toward which the having of his writing inclined. Celan’s leap in “The Meridian” seems to indicate a getting through and then beyond, from languaged world as compassed or gotten or beheld to language as known somehow otherwise (a breathturning from the world in order to get back into it). “To get oneself through language, which—Kafka!—is only a having, into an accurate relation with one’s Being—/”[57] For Parker Tyler in The Three Faces of the Film, Kafka had already made the leap when in his first incomplete novel he had experimentally resituated the body of the guilt-ridden K. from “its European constriction” to the “legendary openness” of America in Amerika[58]—a non-realist horizontal body-in-space pathology that becomes for Tyler a key to understanding the new hero that was emerging in avant-garde film at the start of the 1960s.

Parker Tyler’s experimental fiction in the 1930s had been influenced by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. His surrealist dream-poems[59] in The Granite Butterfly (published by Bern Porter in 1945) found an avid avant-garde readership toward the end of the seven-year run of the important surrealist magazine View, which Tyler co-edited with Charles Henri Ford. Many of the contributors to View had taken refuge in the U.S. during the war, and brought to New York, through View’s special issues and otherwise, the ideas and practices of European avant-gardes. Tyler had spent part of the 1930s, and the early war years, in Los Angeles, where his surrealism converged with an interest in movies; his thirty-year relationship with underground filmmaker Charles Boultenouse, which began in 1945, also greatly affected his turn toward film. The Three Faces of the Film is the first of his books to bring together all these fascinations: Euro-modernism’s open-endedness; the constrained exilic experience of guilt-ridden innocence when it encounters American vastness; and action as a kind of dream. “The Dream-Amerika of Kafka and Chaplin,” at the heart of the book, investigates all three issues at once.

As with Olafson, Krieger, Heller, and Fiedler, Tyler’s sense of the relevance of Kafka pertains to the way in the writing “the innocent [is] inextricably fused with the guilty,”[60] and K. is always, in each novel, the “’undesirable alien’ of Kafka’s Castle-land.”[61] The analysis is, like the others’, essentially a post-holocaust reconsideration. And Tyler’s focus on Amerika makes sense as an addition to analyses in 1960 of The Trial and The Castle as pre-descriptions of fascism’s effect on the Jewish body; the early novel was also known as The Disappeared (“Der Verschollene“). But the difference for Tyler is his interest in the “Dream-Amerika” in particular, the “fantasy ‘Amerika’ that we find difficult to keep separate from the real one,”[62] not just in the postwar experience of re-reading Kafka but in many contemporary avant-garde artist’s accounts of wartime annihilation. Tyler pairs Kafka with Chaplin because in each “there is the ‘crime’ of being a Jew,” but whereas Chaplin’s Charlie “cannot be aware of anything as a crime,” Kafka’s K. is “very much aware of a crime but he cannot identify what crime he has committed”[63]—and this makes all the difference, Tyler implies, between the homeless picaro wandering innocently through a guilty world and the undesirable alien guiltily trying to face the super-realism of social judgment. The latter has had and will have a greater influence on the contemporary. “The chief imaginative trend among Experimental or avant-garde film-makers is action as a dream, and the actor as a somnambulist,” Tyler wrote in an odd poetic caption called “The Dream” under a still photo taken from Stan Brakhage’s film Reflections on Black (1955). The “’exotica’ of pathology and supernaturalism” is Tyler’s provocative phrase for what happens when action in art is permitted to happen “without the restraints of single-level consciousness, everyday reason, and so-called realism”[64]—and this is exactly what he finds so important and compelling in Kafka’s Amerika. A surrealist anthropometry (for instance anamorphic photography, a specific experimental technique Tyler finds in many avant-garde films of the late 1950s, achieved through flattening and stretching of the image through a special lens) indicates a desire to represent compression as a quality of dream, especially of the body of the undesirable alien trying to retain verticality—to remain standing—across a broad landscape, which is what Tyler (along with many other critics, of course, who have written about Amerika) believes is the novel’s greatest power. Kafka in Amerika momentarily managed to survive the constraint of “his situation” by, in effect, going wide even while flattening affect. “[H]e converted his own personal myth,” Tyler writes, “with its European [geographic] constriction and metaphoric girth (the “fairy tale” land of The Castle), into a common myth with a legendary openness … America itself.”[65]

“Openness” here has a double meaning crucial to this chapter. The horizontality of the Dream-Amerika sets the human body in contrast starker than ever, and is of course a matter of thematic, socio-national setting. And a non-realist art, as a matter of aesthetic practice, leaves meaning undetermined and unblocked even if the “land of phantasmal mechanisms”[66] seems no less otherwise fascistic. Thus when elsewhere in The Three Faces of the Film Tyler turns to recent films, he often returns to the experimental anthropometry of the Kafkaesque body wandering “amid the chaos of great cities.” He considers Peter Weiss’s 1959 film, The Mirage, in which the protagonist, leaning precariously off a rickety wooden industrial scaffold, gets a high view of “industry’s ‘daymarish’ labyrinth,” seems ready to make his leap into the void—and thus, to Tyler, “illustrates the very spirit of Kafka’s novel, Amerika.” This for him is the “new hero” of a new art. Son of a Hungarian Jewish father, himself a wartime exile from Germany, and later creator of the documentary play based on the Auschwitz trials, The Investigation (1965), Peter Weiss in The Mirage in part expresses the influence of Wolfgang Staudte’s film Murderers Among Us (“Die Mörder sind unter uns,” 1946), his first screening of which in 1947 provoked in him a sense of film’s capacity after the genocide to make use of the “inexhaustible stock of painfully realistic, oddly dreamlike and surreal, shocking, accusatory, and thought-provoking visions.”[67] Weiss’s character in The Mirage is caked in drying cement, markings of his hard alienated labor; his prospective leap is a Kafkaesque/postmodern/New Left updating of the old proletarian industrial martyr who falls—or maybe dives—headlong into and is monumentally entombed in a vast vat of cement in Pietro diDonato’s crazy modernist-communist novella of the 1930s, Christ in Concrete (made into the film in 1949, its director and lead actor blacklisted at the time). By presenting the still from The Mirage as he does, Tyler emphasizes a new socio-aesthetic relationship derived from Kafka’s self-destructive “situation”: an important connection between, on one hand, the extreme occasion or instigation for a work of art and, on the other hand, the urge to push beyond established, reasoned interpretations of transcendence—what Thomas McEvilley (in discussing Yves Klein’s conceptual art of self-endangerment) calls “the meta-hermeneutics of the Leap.”[68] Paul Celan was obviously referring in 1960 with greater specificity, and more intense personal connection, to the annihilations of the war when he contemplated what he must now do in order to write, to “Leap—as entrance into the poem.”[69] Yet at the same time, Parker Tyler’s Kafka, patron of the new avant garde, helps understand the special unreasonable “new hero” of The Mirage and similar figures in other such work with the same sort of “simple attentiveness” as that called for by Celan in preference to conventional “cultural busyness.” And Yves Klein’s attempts to explore the “magico-artistic function of ‘supporting birth into the tangible word,’”[70] while seemingly situated in an art world in some respects far removed from Celan’s (although both of course were working in Paris), befit the sort of alternative “entrance into the poem” Celan and others sought at the end of the fifties.


[2] W. H. Auden, “Thinking What We Are Doing,” Encounter 12, 6 (June 1959), p. 72.

[3] Auden, “Thinking What We Are Doing,” p. 72.

[4] Hannah Arendt quoted in Auden, “Thinking What We Are Doing,” p. 74. [Find original quote in

[5] Auden, “The Fallen City,” Encounter 13, 5 (November 1959), p. 29.

[6] Auden, “The Fallen City,” p. 28.

[7] Auden, “The Fallen City,” p. 28.

[8] Auden, “The Fallen City,” p. 28.

[9] Auden, “The Fallen City,” p. 28.

[10] Letter from Hannah Arendt to W. H. Auden, February 14, 1960: The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Auden folder, Correspondence File series, “1938-1976.”

[11] Frederick A. Olafson, “Kafka and the Primacy of the Ethical,” The Hudson Review 13, 1 (Spring 1960), p. 61.

[12] Olafson, “Kafka and the Primacy of the Ethical,” p. 68.

[13] Celan, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials, p. 169.

[14] Celan, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials, p. 57.

[15] Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 276.

[16] Murray Krieger, The Tragic Vision: Variations on a Theme in Literary Interpretation (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. 116.

[17] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, p. 117.

[18] Suzanne Clark, Cold Warriors: Manliness on Trial in the Rhetoric of the West [finish citation], pp. 71, 101.

[19] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, p. 116.

[20] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, p. 116.

[21] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, p. 118.

[22] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, pp. 138-140.

[23] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, p. 139.

[24] Morris, “Murray Krieger: A Departure into Diachrony,” Murray Krieger and Contemporary Critical Theory, ed. Bruce Hendrickson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986),p. 104.

[25] See the Kriger archive at UCSD.

[26] Morris, “A Departure into Diachrony,” pp. 106, 105.

[27] Morris, “A Departure into Diachrony,” p. 104.

[28] Morris, “A Departure into Diachrony,” p. 104.

[29] Morris, “A Departure into Diachrony,” p. 105.

[30] Krieger, The Tragic Vision, p. 122.

[31] It is assumed now that Kafka criticism had all along assumed him to be a predictor of the holocaust, but this is not really an accepted critical assumption until 1960.

[32] Leslie Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” in No! in Thunder (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), pp. 98-99.

[33] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 245.

[34] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 245.

[35] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 245.

[36] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 246.

[37] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 245.

[38] [Refer to Des Pres’s first chapter about lit.]

[39] Des Pres, The Survivor, p. 41.

[40] Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies.

[41] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 232.

[42] Celan, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials, p. 105.

[43] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 244.

[44] Heller, “The Autonomy of Despair,” p. 244.

[45] See Eisner’s 1950 book on Kafka’s Prague.

[46] Frank Meissner, “A Social Ecology of the German Jews of Prague,” Dalhousie Review 34, 4 (1960), p. 511. He is quoting Pavel Eisner, Kafka and Prague (New York: Arts, Inc. [Golden Griffin Books #1], 1950), pp. 36-37. [I’d better look at this book—certainly to help confirm or refute my generalization about critics in 1945-60 NOT mentioning Kafka predicting the holocaust.]

[47] Leslie Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” in No! in Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), p. 99.

[48] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 99.

[49] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 99.

[50] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” pp. 98-99.

[51] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 100.

[52] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 99.

[53] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 99.

[54] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 100.

[55] Fiedler, “Kafka and the Myth of the Jew,” p. 100.

[56] Celan, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials, p. 112.

[57] Celan, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials, p. 197.

[58] Parker Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film: The Art, the Dream, the Cult (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), p. 94.

[59] [Get the book – can I fairly say this?]

[60] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 101.

[61] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 95.

[62] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 101.

[63] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 100.

[64] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 97 [?].

[65] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 94.

[66] Tyler, The Three Faces of the Film, p. 97.

[67] Quoted by Andreas Wutz in “The Realism in Surrealism: On the Filmic Work of Peter Weiss,” published in German in Texte Zur Kunst 87 (2012), pp. 176-181. English translation by Wutz available at (accessed March 25, 2015). The quoted phrase appears in the English translation on p. 2. The source in Weiss: “Peter Weiss, Swedish Original”, in Biografbladet  3 (1947); German translation by Jan Christer Bengtsson: “Peter Weiss über Film und Filmemachen”, in: Peter Weiss und der Film, exhibit catalogue, Nordische Filmtage Lübeck, 1986. English translation by Wutz.

[68] Thomas McEvilley, “Yves Klein: Messenger of the Age of Space,” Artforum 20, 5 (January 1982), p. 41.

[69] Celan, The Meridian: Final Version-Drafts-Materials, p. 207.

[70] McEvilley, Yves the Provocateur, p. 151.