June O. Leavitt. The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. viii + 212 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-982783-1.
Reviewed by David Suchoff (Colby College)
Published on H-Judaic (August, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Kafka's Christianized Cabala and the Open Door
In The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modernist Spiritual Revival, June Leavitt argues for Kafka’s debt to “his own clairvoyant states of mind and a revivalist spiritualist culture” current at the turn of the twentieth century, practiced and popularized by figures such as Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant (p. 6). Kafka, she notes, met Rudolph Steiner--a popular purveyor of spiritualist doctrine--in Prague, and recorded a “satiric” diary entry about their encounter after attending Steiner’s theosophical lecture there (p. 26). Despite this reference, Leavitt takes what she calls Kafka’s absorption with what she describes as “Christianized” forms of mystical, Jewish Kabbalistic traditions, with the utmost seriousness. Hence the intentional use of “Cabala” as her preferred term in the title and throughout the book. In defining the evidence it finds convincing for Kafka’s susceptibility to and “fears” (p. 45) of clairvoyant states, and his willingness to “destroy the materialistic framework of his mind” (p. 35), The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka argues firmly that Kafka’s mystical imagination, “catalyzed by clairvoyance, was shaped to a large extent by Christian redactors of Judaic esotericism” (p. 14). Masonic rituals loom large in this picture, especially in Leavitt’s interpretation of Kafka’s “Before the Law” (1915) as embodying secret Masonic practices with which Kafka could well have been familiar.
As a result, Leavitt argues explicitly against “the school of thought generated by Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem that Kafka’s Jewish modalities were shaped exclusively by way of theoretical mysticism: that is, through reading and contemplating notions he heard at lectures” (p. 14). Leavitt instead traces an implicit development, if not flight, from the Jewish to the Christian in Kafka’s relation to the Kabbalah and mystical--that is, heretical forms of thought. “Gentle [sic] esotericism, or Christianized occultism,” Leavitt argues, “may have been particularly appealing to Kafka because his relation to purely Jewish traditions remained tenuous despite his fascination with the Bible and Hasidic stories” (p. 139). The Mystical Life makes use of the notion of Kafka’s “scathing hostility” to his own Jewish identity and what is described as Kafka’s “rather anti-Semitic letter” to Milena Jensenska of 1922 (p. 191), describing his desire to deprive Jews “simply as Jews” of air by stuffing them, “including myself ... in a drawer [in die Schublade]” (p. 139; German added by the reviewer). Here, Leavitt’s tendency to put things in either/or boxes herself misses the irony of this letter that is directed with precision against just such black and white categorization. The German idiom jemanden in die Schublade stecken, like the English “to pigeonhole,” is in fact the subject of Kafka’s comic ire in this letter: Kafka’s vivid and leadenly misunderstood image enacts the way sealed-off versions of national, religious, or cultural identity already deprives a people--eben als Juden, as his letter has it--of the foreign influences and that boundary zone of mutual overlap that keep tradition alive. Taking this passage more seriously as her key to Kafka, which Walter Benjamin once suggested would be found in a humorous sense of Jewish theology, Leavitt applies Jewish self-hatred as her universal solvent to find that “it is no wonder that Kafka flirted with and was seduced by Gentile esotericism” (p. 139).
The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka nonetheless performs a valuable service in excavating what Leavitt calls this “Christianized occultism” in Kafka (p. 139). For instance, Leavitt notices the doubtless presence of secret Masonic rituals in Kafka’s “The Building of the Temple” (1935), a parable Iris Bruce has recently noted in her Kafka and Cultural Zionism: Dates in Palestine (2007) as unfairly diminished as one of Kafka’s Jewish texts. Specifically, Leavitt interprets the text’s statement that “this temple came into being the way a temple should” as an allusion to the concept of the “unhewn temple” at the heart of Masonic mythology (p. 136). Leavitt notices similar occult allusions in “Before the Law,” which Kafka first published in Prague’s Zionist journal Selbstwehr [self-defense] (Sept. 7, 1915), pointing out that “gatekeepers were an integral part of the Masonic stage ensemble” (p. 127), with the parable’s telling of multiple doorkeepers suggesting the “hierarchs of Masonic lodges” (p. 131). At times, Leavitt deploys such discoveries as if literalizing the land surveyor function of Kafka’s Castle (1926), reading the parable as it draws sharp boundaries between discrete realms of Christian and Jewish culture in Kafka’s texts.
In this way, Leavitt’s argument imagines a world of “purely” Jewish or Christian influence, when Kafka’s deployment of mystical traditions seeks more deeply to explore the multiple, border-crossing influences exerted between apparently separate national and religious realms. Kafka thus described his literary efforts, in his most famous diary entry on mysticism, of January 16, 1922, as an “attack on the boundary” [Ansturm gegen die Grenze], which might have “led to a new Kabbalah,” as he writes, “if Zionism had not intervened” [wenn nicht der Zionismus dazwischengekommen wäre]. Many of Leavitt’s best discoveries of the multiple sources of Kafka’s greatest parables thus read as a defense against the cross-boundary effects of Kafka’s most plural and indeed--for that very messianic reason--his most Jewish works. Occult themes that connect Zionism and the Temple in his work in this way provide a doorway to Kafka’s most comic and at the same time most enjoyably critical perspectives, rather than a one-way ticket of entry to a “Christianized” culture. For instance, Leavitt’s important discovery that the “Temple” of Kafka parable reflects Masonic secrecy and hierarchical practice opens many important perspectives on, rather than alternatives to, Jewish sources that official traditions have tended to read in just such a hierarchical fashion. Thus the theme of unhewn stone appears in the Jewish Bible that Kafka so loved, in Deuteronomy 27:5 ff. There, as Emmanuel Levinas notes, the command that “you shall set up these stones; you shall lift no iron tool upon them” signifies a covenant of “peace,” where nascent Israel and its Law must be pronounced, in the presence of foreigners and internal strangers. The full dimensions of its multiple meanings can only be heard across the boundary, from the faces and interpretations of others. Kafka’s “Building of the Temple” takes this notion in a yet stronger, anti-hierarchical direction, by regarding the supposedly “barbaric” on the stones by the foreigners who produced the magnificent Temple as the mystical, as well as satirically comic, source of the building’s grandeur. The “secret” of the Temple’s magnificence is thus escaping the overt hierarchy that would have us look down on the common otherness from which it is constructed, and which signifies its authentic ethical worth.
Despite this propensity to draw boundaries between the Christian and Jewish Kafka, Leavitt’s Mystical Life remains a valuable work for the boundary zone it manages to expose. This book’s devotion to recovering these “Christian” mystical sources of Kafka’s major parables and some short stories at times depletes the potential force of her readings, as when she determines that “the Yiddish theater cannot explain the esoterics of ‘Before the Law,’” which is “devoid of angels, devils, or any reference to God” (p. 128). The Mystical Life’s reading of “Investigations of a Dog” (1924) likewise misses the comic aspects in that tale of what she accurately paraphrases as “the Word made manifest through the creation of the dog,” seeing this theme as an isolated element of the “Jesus-oriented naturopathy” Kafka experienced at Jungborn (pp. 156, 161). Despite drawing an exclusive boundary that excludes--indeed, fails to mention--Iris Bruce’s convincing reading of Bodenbarbeitung or “preparation of the land” as a comic Zionist and Jewish folkloric element of the tale, Leavitt nonetheless succeeds in identifying the hidden, transcultural effect of Kafka’s work. The Yiddish tradition, which Leavitt views as limited, was in fact a rich source of speculation about Christian categories for Kafka, just as Y. H. Brenner, whom Kafka was reading in modern Hebrew before his death in 1924, became notorious in earlier years for his willingness to engage Christian motifs in modern Hebrew writing.
The mystical and popular occult sources Leavitt identifies, and her argument for Kafka’s out-of-body experiences--seen in the larger context of Kafka’s interests--thus give us a deeper understanding of what the “mystical” actually meant for Kafka himself. In categorical terms, Leavitt’s book performs a service akin to that of David A. Brenner’s German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka’s Kitsch (2008), where the “kitsch” sources of many of Kafka’s most serious innovations were brought to view. Leavitt performs a similar service for Kafka’s mysticism, “Jewish” and otherwise: occult sources are here exposed as the popular cultural form through which an equally “Christian” practice of modernist culture effected his fiction. Despite its efforts to draw a line between Kabbalah and what it calls “Cabala,” where Kafka is here argued to have found his true religious home, The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka ultimately teaches us that what distinguishes Kafka as the central Jewish writer of modernity remains, despite the best efforts of his doorkeepers, precisely what his central parable tells us about his fiction. Franz Kafka, whether conceived of in Jewish or Christian terms, remains the writer of the open door.
. Franz Kafka, diary entry of January 16, 1922, Franz Kafka: The Diaries 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 399; German text from Kafka, Tagebücher, in Franz Kafka: Schriften Tagebücher Briefe, Kritische Ausgabe, ed. Hans-Gerd Koch, Michael Müller, and Malcolm Pasley (Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1990), vol. 1: 878.
. Levinas, “The Pact,” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).
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