We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883- June 3, 1924) instructed his literary executor, Max Brod, that everything he wrote was “to be burned unread.” We are fortunate that Brod did not comply with his friend’s request.
I fell for you in Shoshana Felman’s class at Yale, where I sat in on my famous colleague’s seminar. You were a new passion of hers, and soon to be mine. What blew me away was your “Letter to His Father.” Anyone who has ever felt misunderstood by an authority figure can relate to this extended letter. Even though it was never sent, it has had an extraordinary effect on so many of us over the years.
Although I was just an auditor in Felman’s course, I decided that I would write a paper for it. My first thought was to write a letter to you about what I had learned through reading your work. It has actually taken me twenty years to do that. The medium of the letter seemed particularly apt given the importance of letters in the life of a reluctant “man of letters” like you. But I subsequently changed the focus of the 1996 paper and wrote on a less-studied piece of yours, “A Report to an Academy.” I called it “On Dropping One’s Trousers At The Academy: A Public Forum Goes Private, As Ape Bares All.” Felman had left Yale by the time I sent the paper to her—and it didn’t surprise me that she did not immediately reply. But when more than a year later she wrote back to apologize for the delay, and to say that she felt that my paper was “absolutely brilliant,” I was thrilled. I will be telling you more about that paper soon.
In class, Felman used to talk about the importance of the signature in both literal and metaphorical terms. Although composed of individual letters of the alphabet, a signature on a letter marks its author. The signature on a letter is, nevertheless, much more than a sign-off. The letter itself can be viewed as a unique type of signature in ways that an email or a blog cannot. This contention--that physical, hand-written letters have a certain indelible magic and author’s presence to them that has, sadly, been lost in the digital age--is at the heart of my book of letters. You, who had wanted Max Brod to burn all of your work may be surprised to learn that my discovery of you, which came late in my life, is largely behind my drive to write this book.
You came into my life again when my son, who conducted interviews with fellow writers for The Daily Beast magazine, asked for my help as translator for an interview with Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, the French-speaking author of Kafka in Love.
Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s Kafka in Love, (originally Kafka, L’Éternel Fiancé) which draws on your letters to the women you could never bring yourself to marry, showed me that, in our shared devotion to Kafka, we both understood you perhaps better than the women you left behind. I wonder if you will agree. I wrote to her about this, and we recognized that we are kindred spirits.
Here is part of our correspondence:
In my recent message I alluded to a little piece that you inspired me to write. Le voici!
In Love with Franz
Jacqueline Raoul-Duval and I are in love with the same man. But we have decided not to fight about it. His name is Franz. If he were still alive, he probably would have found room in his heart for both of us, but without being able to commit definitively to either. That's just the way he was.
Maybe things would have been better for all of us if he had had better luck with respect to timing and genes. Jacqueline and I understand how impossible it must have been to be such a sensitive young man born into a Jewish family headed by a terrifying father who thought his son must have come from another planet. And all this against a backdrop of increasingly virulent anti-Semitism.
Maybe modern medicine could have given him more than the fatal dose of morphine for which he begged to end his suffering.
The skin of an artist of Franz's ilk is paper thin. His own harshest critic, he is convinced that his work is not measuring up, while at the same time remaining at all costs totally committed to it. It was hard for the women in his life to come to terms with this.
And yet, he somehow managed to find the women he needed in his life to make his mark. That mark was long in coming, but once it did, there was no turning back.
I often wonder how he would have responded to his own success. Would it have spoiled him? Confused him?
I like to think it would have made him happy. When one writes so close to the bone, even a little understanding from others can go a long way.
Jacqueline and I would have offered him this. And we still do.
--Diane Joy Charney February 3, 2013
As you can see, that was several years ago, and it is thanks to you, Franz, that Jacqueline and I have become friends and writing partners. You may have had a hard time finding your own soulmate, but in our case, you turned out to be quite the matchmaker. I have done a number of translations of her work, and we love to compare ideas about you and other authors. In her memoir, Nuit de Noces, Jacqueline reminded me that you and Marcel Proust, another recipient of my letters, had been in Paris at the same time, and might have crossed paths. You are certainly doing so in my book. I am often amazed at how much in tune Jacqueline and I are on so many literary questions, and today offered a striking example.
I had never mentioned anything to Jacqueline about that one and only quirky paper I wrote about you. But today I forwarded to her an article by Rafia Zakaria from “The Guardian” newspaper, “Franz Kafka’s virtual romance: a love affair by letters as unreal as online dating.” The subtitle was: “His love letters were sent by post rather than email, but Kafka’s affair with Felice Bauer recoiled from reality in a way that has become familiar in the internet age.” Of course email and the Internet will be foreign concepts to you, and my guess is that you would find them as nightmarish as so many other aspects of modern technology. And what would you think of having your face on the statue of a giant, 45-ton rotating head by Czech artist, David Cerny? A photo of this stainless-steel, mirrored bust that is located in a busy Prague shopping center accompanies the “Guardian” article, and I have also seen a video of the head in motion on the Insider Art web site. Be that as it may, as soon as I saw the title of the article, I felt sure that there would be a reference to Jacqueline’s wonderful book about you, but this was not the case.
“The Guardian” journalist tells the story of your five-year largely epistolary relationship with Felice that included hundreds of letters, two engagements, but only a handful of deeply disappointing meetings. As a veteran of many years of a long-distance relationship, I can relate to the disparity between the controllable persona as constructed in writing, and what happens during more direct contact. It's easy for painstakingly constructed letters to become rehearsals or even substitutes for so-called "real life."
By the way, this project has brought home to me some of the reasons why I am the one who is writing letters to you, and not vice versa. Writers like you and Flaubert cast your lot with your writing. You resemble the Olympic superstars I've just been watching at the 2016 Olympic Games who are always going for broke. The long distance running legend Mo Farrah falls, gets up, neutralizes a Kenyan and Ethiopian strategy to squeeze him out, and still manages to win the gold. Something similar can be said about the great writers like you who hung on to go the distance: in the tug between life and work, there was no question that work had to be the priority. Despite the fact that both you and Flaubert eluded marriage, I had already noticed how far apart you and he are from the point of view of character, confidence, and general savoir-faire. Yet when it comes to your writing, you are in agreement about the need for a room of your own. This is clearly demonstrated in Jacqueline’s brilliant comparative study of you and Flaubert on literature and love that was published in my translation by Versopolis. In your final letter to your two-time fiancée Felice shortly before dying you wrote: "I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.”
In his final letter to Louise Colet, Flaubert writes: "I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing that your persistence might provoke me to humiliate you, wisdom leads me to warn you that I shall never be in." Soon after, Flaubert published Madame Bovary.
The question of talent aside, I see that I have never had what it takes to prioritize work over life. I have been happy to be a small fish in a big ivy-covered pond. And to be a fervent fan of those who choose to do otherwise. Most of the authors, you included, to whom I have written were not so concerned with pleasing an audience, or even having one. But I am grateful to be able to have read you all, and to call myself your admirer.
On the theme of being a little fish in a big pond, unlike you, I have been lucky to have jobs I love. I once wrote about myself in the context of my work of helping others to write. The piece was called,
“On Being An Inner Voice”
So what's it like to be a Writing Tutor? I've been thinking about why I'm sure this is the best job at Yale. As a start, consider all the temptations of the Blue Book, and how many lifetimes it would take to work your way through our seductive course catalogue. Well, to be a Writing Tutor feels like a risk-free way of being able to take every course at Yale.
But that's only the beginning. As the Writing Tutor, if I'm lucky enough to "connect" with our freshmen, I have the chance to work with them over the four years of their Yale career. What a privilege it is to watch the way students, during their time with us, grow as writers and thinkers!
Then there's the issue of personal style and character. I sing alto. Although I've been a serious musician all my life, when I decided to take up a string instrument, I chose the viola, which in French (my academic passion) is translated as "l'alto." There was a strategy behind my choice of this instrument. My sense is that skilled violinists are easier to come by than violists. Further, although my husband, son, dog, and cats would probably disagree, I've always had the feeling that, even in the wrong hands, the viola never sounds half as wretched as a poorly played violin. And now for the clincher: every quartet needs one, so even a mediocre player like me can have opportunities to play alongside talented Yalies who make the sound that I can only dream of producing. Because I know how to blend, I try my best NOT to play any unintended solos, which leaves me free to imagine that I have the luscious tone of my stand partner, who might be an amazing player from the music school, as was often the case during our concerts.
In fact, it's rare for the viola to have even an intended solo. Violists generally play a supporting role, and to be an inner voice can give an entirely new meaning and sense of access to a piece of music I think I already know well. Similarly, to help students find their own voice that will allow access to their ideas, showing them to best advantage, gives me great satisfaction. And to be able to build on what is sometimes our initially hesitant relationship is often a delight.
My office, from which no one gets out alive without hearing my "Be like Perry Mason, the lawyer who always wins" spiel, is full of touchstones--reminders of these Yale relationships that go back to 1984. Even though it's been more than 50 years since I was a freshman, I remember as if it were yesterday, the terror I felt at having to write my first college paper. Coming from Middletown High School which, just as it sounds, was neither here nor there, did not help my confidence. I try to make my office feel like a cozy refuge for those convinced that Yale Admissions made a big mistake letting them in here, and that they'll soon be found out--which is just about everyone. For parents to leave their brilliant kids with us for four years has always felt to me like a sacred trust.
In an article from the Escapes section of the "New York Times," I was moved by the words of a Williams College alumnus who had bought a vacation house close to the campus to be near his son, a Williams undergrad. As an empty-nester, I could definitely relate to what he said: "College towns have such energy. You have all these kids breaking away for the first time, and there's a thirst for knowledge that seems to permeate everyday life. Something about the combination of education, excitement, and fresh, new beginnings makes these towns really vital. They have a culture and community that transcends their small size, and you really do feel younger and more alive when you're here." This dad, who might have been talking about our college, figured out a way to remain close to the town and the son he loved. Although my married son has, for a number of years, lived abroad, I take heart from the students who come my way as they make their own way in the world.
Franz, I find it heartbreaking to contrast the nurturing and loving attention my colleagues and I so naturally give to our student writers with what you had to endure.
But back to the present. You and I have a rendez-vous. It's August 15, when all Italy shuts down for the Feast of the Assumption, and "Happy Ferragosto" is the greeting of the day. This is fine if all is going well, but it's certainly no time to have an accident or illness that requires medical attention. (We found that out the hard way three years ago when on Ferragosto my husband slipped and busted his leg.) Or to find out that you've run out of a key ingredient for that dish with which you were planning to impress your Ferragosto visitors.
This year's Ferragosto turned out to be a day full of surprising serendipity of the sort you might appreciate. Let me explain.
One: In the midst of my writing about you, I googled "Kafka and Swimming" and discovered "The Great Swimmer," a piece of yours that I had never seen before.
Two: And because it was 90 degrees and my Czech friend, Pavla, was hosting two longtime girlfriends from the Czech Republic, she wrote to ask if they could all come here to swim. In an email titled, "It's Czech Visitor Day at the Charneys," I answered without hesitation:
"Franz Kafka and I will be here all day, and to have some Czech chicks for company would please him no end. Their male consort is also welcome."
Three: Your "Great Swimmer" piece features an Olympic swimming champion at the very time when, once every four years, as is the case at this writing, many of the world's eyes are on the Olympic swim competitions.
There's quite a difference, however, between your unlikely champion swimmer and American swimming legend, Michael Phelps, who ends his Olympic career with the largest number of medals in Olympic history. As they do in this excerpt from your "Fragments," everyone may be shouting to him, "Hail the great swimmer! Hail the great swimmer!" But unlike your protagonist who wins the swim competition, Michael Phelps does know how to swim, he knows why his country sent him to represent it at the Olympics, and he appears to speak and understand the language of his home country.
Because “The Great Swimmer” piece only appears as one of your hard-to-find "Fragments," I'm going to quote it. As is often the case in my encounters with you, I don't pretend to understand what is going on here. But I can't resist thinking about it. You do this to people. We become charmed and bewitched by what appears to be your natural charisma, you have us in your grip, and then you run the other way as fast as your legs can carry you. The equivalent of this happened with all but one of the women who loved you. But even after all the false starts and broken engagements, Felice Bauer said, "Franz is a saint." (Zadie Smith in the "New York Review of Books," "F. Kafka, Everyman"). Like it or not, we are all in your thrall.
Hail the great swimmer! Hail the great swimmer!" the people shouted. I was coming from the Olympic Games in Antwerp, where I had just set a world record in swimming. I stood at the top of the steps outside the train station in my Hometown—where was it?—and looked down at the indiscernible throng in the dusk. A girl, whose cheek I stroked cursorily, hung a sash around me, on which was written in a foreign language: The Olympic Champion. An automobile drove up and several men pushed me into it. Two other men drove along—the mayor and someone else. At once we were in a banquet room. A choir sang down from the gallery as I entered and all the guests—there were hundreds—rose and shouted, in perfect unison, a phrase that I didn't exactly understand. To my left sat a minister; I don't know why the word "minister" horrified me so much when we were introduced. At first I measured him wildly with my glances, but soon composed myself. To my right sat the mayor's wife, a voluptuous woman; everything about her, particularly her bosom, seemed to emanate roses and the finest down. Across from me sat a fat man with a strikingly white face, whose name I had missed during the introductions. He had placed his elbows on the table—a particularly large place had been made for him—and looked straight ahead in silence. To his right and left sat two beautiful blond girls. They were cheerful and constantly had something to say, and I looked from one to the other. In spite of the more than ample lighting, though, I couldn't clearly recognize many of the other guests, perhaps because everything was in motion. The waiters scurried around, dishes arrived at the tables, and glasses were raised—indeed, perhaps everything was too well illuminated. There was also a certain disorder—the only disorderly element, actually—in the fact that several guests, particularly women, were sitting with their backs turned to the table and, further, in such a way that not even the backs of their chairs were between them and the table, but rather that their backs were almost touching the table. I drew the attention of the girls across from me to this, but while they had otherwise been so garrulous, now they said nothing, and instead only smiled at me with long looks. When a bell rang, the waiters froze in their positions and the fat man across from me rose and delivered a speech. But why was he so sad? During the speech he dabbed at his face with a handkerchief, which was quite understandable in light of his obesity, the heat in the room, and the strains of the speech itself. But I distinctly noticed that the whole effect was merely a clever disguise, meant to conceal the fact that he was wiping tears from his eyes. Also, although he looked directly at me as he spoke, it was as if he weren't seeing me, but rather my open grave. After he had finished, I, of course, also stood up and delivered a speech. I felt compelled to speak, for there was much that needed to be said, both here and probably also elsewhere, for the public's enlightenment. And so I began:
"Honored guests! I have, admittedly, broken a world record. If, however, you were to ask me how I have achieved this, I could not answer adequately. Actually, I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but have never had the opportunity. How then did it come to be that I was sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is, of course, also the question I ask of myself. I must first explain that I am not now in my fatherland and, in spite of considerable effort, cannot understand a word of what has been spoken. Your first thought might be that there has been some mistake, but there has been no mistake—I have broken the record, have returned to my country, and do indeed bear the name by which you know me. All this is true, but thereafter nothing is true. I am not in my fatherland, and I do not know or understand you. And now something that is somehow, even if not exactly, incompatible with this notion of a mistake: It does not much disturb me that I do not understand you and, likewise, the fact that you do not understand me does not seem to disturb you. I could only gather from the speech of the venerable gentleman who preceded me that it was inconsolably sad, and this knowledge is not only sufficient, in fact for me it is too much. And indeed, the same is true of all the conversations I have had here since my return. But let us return to my world record."
I could attempt to tease out some bits for comment--how the fat man hiding his tears might represent your mostly terrifying father, but with whom you imagined in your last letter to him, sharing a beer near the swimming pavilion. And how those two beautiful blond girls at the fat man's side might resemble your dear sisters. And how the intense focus on the voluptuous bosom of the mayor's wife that "seemed to emanate roses and the finest down" might evoke your mother. And how all of this unexpected swimming success might represent your own disbelief at some of your own success, despite your feelings of total alienation. And how the sinister-sounding (not honorific) comment about the acclaimed swimmer’s ride to the celebratory banquet, "An automobile drove up and several men pushed me into it," recalls K's execution at the end of The Trial.
With respect to the language question, in your Swimmer story, except for the "inconsolably sad" fat speaker, no one seems disturbed by the mutual lack of comprehension. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, cite "The Great Swimmer" in their highly regarded work about you, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. There they delve more deeply into the role played by your dual-language heritage.
In your Swimmer piece, I find echoes to several of my other letter recipients, notably Albert Camus (this swimmer and Meursault might speak the same language) and André Aciman.
But back to my own Ferragosto swim guests from Czechoslovakia. When I asked them what they recalled about you from their school days (Were you presented to them as a local hero?), I got some blank stares. These women who are around fifty and who grew up under communism said they were more likely to have heard about Russian heroes and to have been forced to study the Russian language than to have learned anything about you. One says she vaguely remembered visiting a temporary exhibit focused on you in the context of the mistreatment of Jews in Prague. She recalls the notice outside the exhibit that warned about its potentially disturbing content, but she went in anyway. For her, the content of the exhibit is hazy; similar to the effect on the great swimmer of the ceremony that purported to honor him, all she remembers is that she emerged "inconsolably sad."
What I heard from my Czech friends fits with what I learned in a 1989 “Chicago Tribune” article by Paula Butturini. There's more than one reason why you were not a big feature in the Czech school curriculum:
Sixty-five years after his death, Franz Kafka's nightmarish tales of anxiety, arbitrary oppression and faceless authority are about to be reissued in the city of his birth. But scores of living Czechoslovak writers remain off limits, their books unavailable, their names unmentionable. By Czechoslovak standards, the decision to lift the ban on Kafka, one of this century's outstanding authors, is a triumph of the changes sweeping the East bloc as a result Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.
Do you recall that at the beginning of my letter I referred to a quirky-sounding paper I wrote about you for Shoshana Felman's Yale class, "Literature and Testimony"? I later submitted it for consideration at the Modern Language Association annual convention. I'm going to take a risk by showing it to you and asking you what you think of it. To tell the truth, I'm not so sure what I think of it now, twenty years after the fact. But here goes.
ON DROPPING ONE'S TROUSERS AT THE ACADEMY: A PUBLIC FORUM GOES PRIVATE, AS APE BARES ALL
What better place to talk about “A Report to an Academy” than at the Modern Language Association convention? And on the topic of public versus private language, no less! Here's the story of an ape who goes from being wounded, captured, and enslaved, to being invited to speak to an Academy. Isn't that the ultimate revenge? And at the end of his report, he modestly points out how well he's learned his lessons from the many self-appointed teachers he's "used up." Henceforth, he does his own hiring, and now when he rings, his manager "comes and listens" to him. At the end of it all, he's able to say, "I achieved my goal." Wouldn't we all like to do as much? Yet despite what appears an enviable position, a price has been paid. There's no "free lunch"–-not even for such a uniquely talented creature.
"... I am made unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may not be better, but at least I am different." Although said by Rousseau, this apparent reveling in one’s originality can be applied to this former ape who has successfully learned to "play the game." It could apply as well to the ape's creator, Franz Kafka. There is perhaps an irony in that Kafka's "noble savage" has not only found a "way out" of captivity, but has come out "on top" due to his ability to mimic his human captors. This imitation, however, was only a means to an end. The ape is careful to point out, in any case, that a "way out" is not the same as freedom. This resourceful personage recognizes that since there can be no freedom for him (what poses as freedom is, frankly, a mixed blessing, anyway), he has found the ultimate coping mechanism: the ability to adapt. Maybe there are lessons here for all of us?
“A Report to an Academy” is full of traps and tricks. First, the duplicitous nature of the title: this short piece does much more than report. Moving slyly from the public sphere of reporting and giving testimony, it can be viewed as a private confession–-an indirect autobiography-- one that sheds light on many of the perplexing aspects of other Kafka texts. And like all confessions, it has a hidden agenda. It is a story that begins with a wound (actually, two). But these wounds scar over as the victim proceeds through the various stages of adjustment to his initially inarticulate captivity. Although skeptical of his ability to remember his former life, the ape recovers enough of his past story to help him recover from his trauma. At the end of the process, he finds he has brought about a total reversal in the power structure.
But let us begin at the beginning where the ape addresses the "honored members of the Academy" who want to know about his past –-what went into his evolution (regression?) from captive ape to guest of honor:
"You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape" (emphasis, mine). The lines of demarcation between the human and ape camps are clearly drawn, with “apedom” having been definitively abandoned. The protagonist accepts the closing of this door of memory as a necessary privation: "I could never have achieved what I had done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrance of my youth" (The Basic Kafka, Washington Square Press Pocket Books, 1979, p. 245). As the protagonist submits himself to the yoke of his new "forced career," he feels "more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better." The opening through which he had once come is now so "distant" and minuscule that even if he could get back to it he "should have to scrape the very skin from his body" to crawl through: there will be no "going home" again. While noting their common ancestry, in a backhanded compliment/insult, the erstwhile ape states that he feels just as far removed from his ape ancestors as do the gentleman of the Academy (p. 246).
The mocking tone continues as one of the primary rituals of civilization, the handshake, comes under ironic fire. In saying that he hopes to "add frankness in words to the frankness of that first handshake," the ape recalls the shameful history of the betrayals of trusting natives by those in power. By alluding to "the line an erstwhile ape has had to follow in establishing himself in the world of man" (my emphasis), the speaker calls attention to the phony role-playing lines he has had to master en route to his current "unassailable" position.
By portraying the "leader" of his ambush as hiding ignominiously in the bushes, the ape shows his own capture to be the result of cheap shots. The particular sensitivity and vulnerability of this creature is underscored by his being "the only one" of an entire "troop of apes" that was hit. His status as chosen victim is further highlighted by the sites of his wounds: the cheek, which he must not have had time to turn, and “below the hip." It is unclear whether the second wound is in the rear (the other cheek), or, as the nickname "Red Peter" may imply, in the genital area.
In any case, with tongue firmly in (albeit wounded) cheek, the victim of what he describes as a "wanton" shot denounces the hypocrites who dare criticize his predilection for taking down his trousers to "show where the shot went in." Unlike them, and unlike the author, he professes to be "open and above board," with "nothing to conceal" (p. 247).
What follows is a type of gestation period inside a "three-sided cage nailed to a locker; the locker made the fourth side of it." It will be from this site, which recalls Kafka's drawing of the three-sided enclosure from The Trial, that the ape notes: "I came to myself." Among the several allusions to the slave trade are the ape’s desire to see the "windbag" author who criticized his so-called “exhibitionism” have his "fingers shot away one by one," and the posture-contorting conditions of the cage. This gestation period gives way to a rebirth of sorts: "there was a gap running through the boards which I greeted with the blissful howl of ignorance... But the hole was not even wide enough to stick one’s tail through...(p.248). Yet after what sounds like an infant’s first cry, like a good baby, "he reportedly made uncommonly little noise." Following a rebellious, angoisse-filled period of feeling forsaken and beating his skull against the locker, further Christ-like images abound: he was "pinned down...motionless with raised arms....Had I been nailed down, my right to free movement would not have been lessened" (p. 248). Out of the depths of his despair, a logical conclusion emerges: since according to those in power, the only place for apes is in front of a locker, "I had to stop being an ape."
Following a Camus-like philosophical musing about the distinction between a "way out" and freedom (which he recognizes as vastly overrated), the role reversals continue, as the individual in the cage begins to observe closely those on the outside. In retrospect, his memories show a charitable view of the next "calm" stage, as he realizes that his survival depends on finding a way out, but that flight is not the answer. One thinks here of the dilemma of Kafka himself over how to live, as expressed in his letters and fiction: flight into marriage would not prove to be the solution; a total commitment to the writing life would be his best hope. For the ape, outright attempts to escape to so-called freedom are full of risks, all of which come down to the “freedom” to be devoured--a fate one reserves for those deemed "other." No, he concludes: to adapt is the only way.
Perhaps in the way that those in the powered majority tend to resemble each other, all those on the other side of the cage look alike to the captive: "the same faces, the same movements, often it seemed...there was only the same man" who "walked about unimpeded" (p. 251). One is reminded of how largely the tyrannical presence of his father loomed for Kafka. But whereas in real life, Kafka was always stymied and silenced in the face of this ultimate authority figure, here, his fictional creation figures out that to imitate these fools--an easy task--will be his ticket out.
Despite some initial repulsion and misadventures, through a combination of motivation and attentiveness to his models ("such a student of humankind no human teacher ever found on earth"—a paraphrase from Rousseau about his own uniqueness), it becomes second nature to indulge in the vices (spitting, smoking, drinking) that the student-ape observes as the hallmarks of civilized man. For successful, crowd-pleasing mimicry of man, all it takes is to swig whiskey, throw away the bottle, rub the belly while grinning, and to befoul oneself in one's own cage.
Like Kafka's effort in the “Letter to his Father” to be his own devil’s advocate and offer excuses to temper his father's cruelty, the student-ape takes a charitable view of what looks like sadistic reprisals from his teacher for his occasional failure to make the grade: "He would hold his burning pipe against my fur...but then he would himself extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand" (p. 252). Unlike Kafka himself, this recipient of the wrath of his mentor has a skin thick enough to minimize pain. Once the ape’s "artistic" performance of emulating a human bursts forth to the narcissistic delight of all, there is no turning back: "The line I was to follow had been decided, once for all." The lesson is clear: to model oneself on one’s master leads to approval and a type of freedom. "One learns when one has to,... when one needs a way out; one learns at all costs.... One flays oneself at the slightest opposition" (p. 253).
In an exchange of identities, his first teacher's reaction was to be nearly "turned into an ape" himself, and temporarily "taken away to a mental hospital." Whereas in “The Judgment,” the terrifying father accuses the son of wanting to kill him and imposes a definitive counter-sentence of death by drowning, here the newly empowered "top dog" considers it "fortunate" that his mentor was soon "let out again." Yet despite the exhilaration the ape gets from his new "enlightenment," the modest-sounding claim to having nearly "reached the cultural level of an average European" is very reminiscent of Kafka's downplaying, in the “Letter to his Father,” of his own educational accomplishments. This was in response to his father’s acknowledgment of them: "... You have always regarded me as particularly diligent.... It would be more correct to say that I studied little and learned nothing... The sum total of knowledge is extremely pitiable... Particularly in comparison with almost all of the people I know" (p. 220).
Kafka's own modest expectations as expressed in the aforementioned letter are in stark contrast to the ape's empowered position at the end of his report. In this "lawyer's letter" that becomes "the trial" of the father, Kafka charges his father with making his failure a self-fulfilling prophecy ("You are unfit for life") and with placing him in a no-win position with double-binds at every turn. Kafka's movingly expressed aspirations are a far cry from being the guest of honor invited to speak to an Academy: "It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little" (p. 225).
In spite of "a success that could not be increased," the ever-sensitive ape-performer's attempts to share his life with the "half-trained little chimpanzee" from whom he takes "comfort as apes do" only saddens him: “By day I cannot bear to see her for she has the insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal in her eye; no one else sees it, but I do, and I cannot bear it" (p. 254). One thinks here of Kafka's combination of overwhelming love, empathy, and guilt with respect to his mother (whose first allegiance is always to her husband), and of his own verdict in the “Letter to his Father” that he is "mentally incapable of marrying" (P. 230). The ape’s portrait of conjugal life is probably what the author feared life would be for the wife of Franz Kafka, whose first allegiance would always be to his writing, if he could continue to write at all. As Camus, in his penetrating thoughts on Kafka notes, "Sisyphus was a bachelor."
Why is “A Report to an Academy” so interesting? In an undergraduate course where this text was read, we all laughed when someone proposed that every graduate student thinks he's an ape, but is trying to hide it: each worries that he's not as good as the others and will be "found out." Yet he still has the pain/consolation? of thinking he's better than the others, and that no one will recognize this. No one offers greater insight than Kafka into the whole concept of how being chosen (whether like this ape, like the Old Testament Sarah to bear a long-desired son, or like Abraham to sacrifice that son) can become a punishment. We students of literature know what Kafka means when he exposes the double-edged sword of being the "top student."
Readers of Kafka also know that the usual course of events in his work is like the scenario of his "A Little Fable" in which the mouse laments the way the world is getting smaller every day. At first the world seems so big that it inspires fear. Then as the walls begin to narrow, the reassurance gives way to renewed panic: "I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands that trap that I must run into." The cat, of course has the answer that gives the illusion of freedom: "You only need to change your direction, said the cat, and ate it up" (p. 157).
Choice in Kafka is usually presented as an illusion. To anyone seeking the right path, the typical answer would be a version of the previously cited cat’s exhortation: "Give it up! Give it up!" (the title of one of Kafka’s shorter stories). Regardless of how one chooses to live his life, what direction one takes, how one uses his allotment of time and energy, in Kafka’s world, the outcome is the same: to be devoured by the stronger. But, aha! What if there were a way to give the impression of having become the stronger, but without completely "selling out"? He who figures this out is sure to be the academy’s honored guest. They'll all want to find out how he did it. There always appears to be a market for the morbid fascination with our idols' private stories. We want to know how to become them, or at least to console ourselves (after delving and finding the "dirt") that the price is too great--that we are better off where we are.
In Kafka's writings, we repeatedly see a tortured, difficult protagonist who continues to torture himself and be an accomplice to his pathetic fate. Here, in "A Report to an Academy" it's the opposite – – the underdog appears to get the upper hand. Why? Is this really the case? How can it be that a crafty victim-turned-apostle who is merely seeking a way out of his own misery upends the power structure and emerges as top ex-ape?
It is particularly ironic that the role of spreading the word is left to a formerly inarticulate ape, who, like the author, moves from a position of feeling voiceless to mastering the public language, and then to inventing a private one that is capable of arousing shocks of recognition and admiration in a diverse audience.
As is the case of the prize-winning Olympic swimmer who has no idea why he won, no one would probably be more surprised than Kafka to see how, in speaking about his own particular case, he succeeds in profoundly touching a global audience. But isn't this what every writer of transcendent appeal does?"
Back to you Franz. I find it hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since our first encounter. I think of you as a recent passion of mine, but I also have a sense that you have always been speaking to me. I’m grateful to have had this chance, thanks to you, to revisit this old paper that has been longing for a wider audience. By the way, how necessary is an audience? What if Felicia and Max Brod had followed your directive to burn most of your work? Thanks to your mother’s intervention, your unsent “Letter to His Father” did not reach its stated audience. But that did nothing to diminish its power perhaps for you, and certainly for the rest of us.
I thought I had ended my letter above, but then, as often happens when I am trying to close a letter to someone like you, something comes my way that begs to be included. I think you will see what I mean. What follows is my answer to a precious message I wrote in response to my Writing Partner’s comments on what I wrote about you.
I can see why you made the association between what I wrote to Franz and your own experience. From what I read (present tense) and I have read, I see that it is not easy even to be a widely acknowledged genius. It must be even worse to be a genius who is not, in his lifetime, acknowledged for his gifts. A similar sadness comes through poignantly in the following words from a letter exchange between another great man who was a genius in his field and the woman he loved, but could not bring himself to marry:
Unhappily, my nature prevents me from enjoying life, except superficially at brief moments, and it prevents me from allowing happiness to any one who stays near me. I have lived with guilt in the place where love should have been – and still don’t know why....I live most of the time in dissatisfaction and with a depressing sense of having squandered and left unused, such gifts as I had. Had you lived near me...you would have lived to share a wreckage of hopes.
This feels as if it could have been written by Franz to most of the important women in his life. To see it is a hopeful reminder that in writing my own letter to Franz, I am perhaps striking a chord with which others can identify. Despite the sadness of the situation, to know that I may have struck such a chord would temper that feeling of sadness.