Scott Spector. Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka's Fin de Siecle. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2000. xiv + 331 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-23692-9.
Reviewed by Hillel Kieval (Department of History, Washington University in St. Louis)
Published on HABSBURG (October, 2002)
Literature, History, and Territoriality in Prague Jewish Culture
Literature, History, and Territoriality in Prague Jewish Culture
Scott Spector's Prague Territories seeks to capture the cultural history of a moment, a highly creative moment in time, which, in the author's words, "can only be described as exceptional." The book's frame of reference is the small group of writers and intellectuals born to the German-speaking, Jewish milieu of Prague in the 1880s and active in the years immediately preceding and following the First World War (roughly equivalent to Max Brod's imagined Prager Kreis, a category that Spector appears both to challenge and, ultimately, accept). Its chapters proceed from a discussion of the language of Prague "Germans" to the literary modernism of Franz Kafka and Franz Werfel; from the journalism of Egon Erwin Kisch to the cultural Zionism of Hugo Bergmann and Max Brod; arriving finally at the efforts of such individuals as Brod, Otto Pick, and Rudolf Fuchs to mediate between various cultures--German and Czech, or the Jewish communities of eastern and western Europe.
To all of this, Spector poses the question "what, if any, is the relation of this extraordinarily wide-ranging production to the common social and political context from which it sprang?" (p. 3) This cultural production, Spector argues, took place in "uniquely charged spaces between identities"-- social, national, spiritual, and political. Moreover, the "Prague circle moment," as he sometimes refers to his subject, "constitutes a privileged site for cultural history because of the special role of the figure of 'culture' within the political discourse, along with the special function of the figure of 'language' in Kafka's Prague" (p. xi).
Prague Territories is daringly original in a number of respects. Not only does Spector seek to extract from "an example so unexemplary" insights into the more general projects of European modernity and cultural nationalism, he also has made the conscious decision to write across disciplines, producing a history largely through the close reading of literary texts.
"Territory," the book's overarching interpretive concept, functions somewhat loosely, referring at times to physical space or geography and at times standing as a metaphor for social, political, and interpersonal relations. Spector explains that his use of the concept derives in large measure from Henri Lefebvre's deployment of the related notion of "space" as an analytical category, by which he understood both a discursive system and "a matrix of socially produced relations."
Spector also finds the "figure of territory" useful in establishing literary and cultural production as political acts in their own right. Reaching back to a 1975 study of Kafka by Deleuze and Guattari, he proposes to challenge Carl Schorske's "aestheticist hypothesis," according to which the pursuit of artistic expression (and even science) in fin de siecle Vienna consituted a retreat from the political. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the "cramped space" of a minority literature in fact "forces the immediate connection of everything in it to the political."
One must ask, however, whether a term such as territory loses its analytical power when it can point to so many things at once: physical space, conflict and coexistence among social groups, and psychological space; both interiority and exteriority. Additionally, the plural usage of the term ("territories") in the title would suggest that domains of social space and interaction beyond the German-Jewish sphere would command our attention. Is there a Czech-Jewish territory in Prague? What should we know about Czech-Christian and German-Christian spaces? How many of these "territories" come into play in the production of the collective experience of the city's "German" Jews? Finally, how attenuated or multi-lingual does this space need to be before it ceases to be "German"?
Early in his reading of Kafka's literary response to the predicaments of German liberalism, Spector remarks that the noted writer succeeded in articulating "a nuanced and complex web of territorial relations ... including strands of collusion as well as resistance" (p. 29). The theme of resistance to--and compliance with--received cultural and political assumptions reappears throughout the study as a leitmotif. Kafka and his fellow Jewish writers of German, for example, may have rejected their parents' naïve confidence in the power and privilege of Austrian German liberalism, but they nevertheless had internalized many of the attitudes and assumptions on which this belief rested, including the tendency to "feminize" the Slavic other and condescend toward East European Jews.
At another level of analysis, the idea of simultaneous resistance and acquiescence is deployed in order to unmask the collusion of Kafka and the Prague Zionists--several of whom were among his closest associates--in the "re-territorialization" of Central European Jewish identity. Spector is referring here, not to the project to remove European Jewry to Palestine, but to the special interest that Kafka and his friends had in Yiddish language and culture. "Kafka's initial enthusiasm toward Yiddish culture," he writes, "was clearly grounded in his identification of 'Jews of a particularly pure kind,' the sort that accepts its Jewishness unreflectively, without self-consciousness as the non-Christian other--in other words, a territorialized Jewry" (p. 86). Several pages later Spector observes, paradoxically, that Yiddish stood in Kafka's writing for the Jewishness that existed beneath the surface culture ("masked behind assimilated cultivation") of modern, Western Jews. Finally, it stands not so much for "territoriality" as for "the terrible prospect of a liberation of language from the cozy imprisonment of territory" (p. 88).
Here, I think, we have a good example of the extreme elasticity of "territory" as a conceptual tool. The image of Yiddish qua Jewish authenticity operates both as psychological projection and as social reality; it exists both outside and within the personalities and experiences of Prague Jewish intellectuals; and it constitutes both a de-territorialized and a re-territorialized inscription of Jewish identity.
It is possible that such contradictions (possibly ultimately resolvable) result from the close, "literary" readings to which Spector subjects his texts. But they also underscore the challenges one faces in attempting to blend a kind of open-ended textual criticism with historical argument. The two key considerations that limit interpretive freedom in historical argumentation, one might suggest, are internal, rhetorical consistency (is there an internally consistent interpretive argument?) and the imperative of contextuality (by which one is forced to withdraw from one's texts and subject one's readings of them to the test of contextual plausibility). Both operations may constitute a kind of "straightjacketing" of the interpretive enterprise, but they are indispensable nevertheless.
Scott Spector's study of Prague includes excellent chapters on language, art and politics in German-Jewish Prague (chapter 2), on Prague cultural Zionism (chapter 5), and on practices of cultural mediation (chapter 7). His fascinating description of the encounter between Prague Jewish nationalists and both the ideal of East European Jewish life and its reality is, unfortunately, marred by unsubstantiated assumptions concerning the attitudinal and psychological starting points of this engagement. Hugo Bergmann's verbal sketches of Jewish society in Galicia, for example--drawn from a journey that he made in 1903--are belittled as "condescending" (p. 168), "patronizing" (p. 169), and consistent with "a German's prejudices" (p. 169). Yet the texts upon which these judgments are based, it seems to me, are more subtle than Spector allows; they reveal, in fact, that the preoccupation of the Prague Zionists with the "East" amounted to a project a good deal more complicated than the Foucauldian terms "gaze" and "desire" would suggest.
Spector also follows the major exponents of post-colonial theory in classifying the eastern reaches of the Habsburg monarchy as "feminized" in the metropol's imagination. Not surprisingly, then, he maintains that the imaginative engagement of Prague Jews with both the Slavic and the East European Jewish worlds was the expression of a kind of erotic desire for a feminized (and, hence, diminished) other. It is easy enough to make such a claim. The title of Max Brod's 1909 novel was, after all, Das tschechische Dienstmaedchen. The fact remains, however, that the critical reception of the book by Czech, German, and Jewish contemporaries was highly contentious (and, hence, nuanced). Moreover, it appears to have been a particularly sardonic review of the work in the pages of the Zionist paper Selbstwehr, of all places, that started Brod on his own path toward cultural Zionism.
In his conclusion, Spector argues that the German-speaking Jewish writers of Prague carved out a "unique space" for themselves by means of a radical reconfiguration of the terms of the cultural system in which they lived and worked. They accomplished this, not through a rejection of the dominant discourse of Czech and German cultural nationalism, but by carrying "its terms to the limits of their logical consequences" (p. 236). Far from rejecting the "laws of modern territoriality," he concludes, individuals such as Franz Werfel, Hugo Bergmann, and Egon Erwin Kisch accepted them in the extreme, creating in the process a kind of "radicalized rootlessness." It was the literary, cultural, and ultimately political act of mediation that stood at the heart of this group's self-understanding as being both Jewish and of Prague. Judaism, Spector suggests, was central to the various projects of cultural translation and mediation; and the synthesis to which these aspired was nothing short of messianic.
. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991). The quote is from Spector, p. 30.
. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), original French edition Kafka : Pour une literature mineure (Collection critique. Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1975). Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980). The quote is from Spector, p. 29.
. See, for example, the aside on p. 85: "In ways strikingly parallel to their attitudes toward the Czechs, the German-Jewish Praguers' fascination with Yiddish and its speakers was a strange amalgam of romantic glorification, envy, and condescension."
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Hillel Kieval. Review of Spector, Scott, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka's Fin de Siecle.
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