The line I've been pursuing is that of understanding projection, of seeing, as Freud writes, how that projection gives us an immage of the dead, and - of our being bound to the dead. The codes of the dead. The books of the dead. The books compiled to honor the dead. The honor due to the dead in the disposition of what they leave behind.
Franz Steiner's book, Taboo (1952), for instance - a great instance, with that catcher's mitt poetry of coincidence - was put together in his honor, after his death, by his students, who saw that in his lifetime, he ... dispersed himself over too many areas. Fled from too many policemen. It is, the book is, according to his student, Mary Douglas, an essential text on taboo.
Steiner runs the word down to its first appearance in a European context is in the Journals of Captain Cook. There's something odd about that, Steiner thinks. After all, Cook is reporting a word, in the 1770s, that must have been known to explorers, to seamen, Dutch and Spanish, a century before that. Yet the word doesn't appear in Spanish texts, or Dutch.
Cook uses it first in connection with the sanctions concerning the dead.
“In connection with human sacrifice in Tahiti, we are told:
“The solemnity itself is called Poore Eree, or Chief’s Prayer; and the victim, who is offered up, Tataa-taboo, or consecrated man. This is the only instance where we have heard the word taboo used at this island, where it seems to have the same mysterious significance as at Tonga; though it is there applied to all cases where things are not to be touched.”
Of course, our notion of the discovery of Tahiti is filled with women who can be touched. The isle of Venus. However, as Steiner points out, Cook’s description of the women is as much about these mysterious meanings as it is about availability. Especially, Cook and his men were puzzled by eating arrangements among the Tahitians. In his journal, Cook doesn’t explicitly use the word taboo in this connection, but he gropes around for a word to describe the principles that seem to make it the case that women and men did not eat together. The most famous image from those voyages to Tahiti are, of course, of available naked women – and yet what struck Cook, as much, was their oddly stubborn refusal to eat the same table as men. The british sailors would invite them to do it – and they would always refuse. And they were adamant.
We bump up against the invisible…
Steiner came from a Prague that - when he was writing in 1950 - was as dead and gone as Cook's Tahiti. Back in the day, he knew Max Brod. And that is the man that this post is really about. The man who bumped up against the invisible. The man whose whole whole career proceeded under the mark of a taboo that nobody wanted to speak of. Let’s put Captain Cook back in the frame – put the picture of him, perhaps, on the wall. An adventure story, such as those loved by Brod’s best friend, Franz Kafka.
Brod is most famous not for anything he himself wrote, but for publishing his friend Kafka’s writing – as much as he could find. And yet, he did this in spite of finding this letter among his friend’s affects in that tragic week in 1924, when Kafka died of his tuberculosis:
Liebster Max, meine letzte Bitte: Alles, was sich in meinem Nachlass (also im Buchkasten, Wäscheschrank, Schreibtisch, zu Hause und im Büro, oder wohin sonstirgendetwas vertragen worden sein sollte und dir auffällt) an Tagebüchern, Manuskripten, Briefen, fremden und eignen, Gezeichnetem und so weiter findet, restlos und ungelesen zu verbrennen, ebenso alles Geschriebene oder Gezeichnete, das du oder andre, die du in meinem Namen darum bitten sollst, haben. Briefe, die man dir nicht übergeben will, soll man wenigstens selbst zu verbrennen sich verpflichten.
(Dearest Max, my last request: everything that can be found in my posthumous papers (thus in boxes, cupboards, desks, at home and in the offie, or wherever else they may be that you come upon them) of diaries, manuscripts, letters, my own and those written to me, sketches and so on, should be burned unread and without remnant, even all the written or drawn things that you or others have, that you might have asked for in my name. If there are letters that people will not turn over to you, at least they should promise to burn them themselves.”)
By now, there is a quite a literature about Brod and Kafka. It is, to say the least, interesting. On the one hand, what Brod reports about Kafka from direct experience is often quoted as a sort of oral testament of Kafka’s, a Gnostic gospel. On the other hand, Brod’s editing of Kafka’s manuscripts has been attacked, his heavily religious interpretations of Kafka’s work has been ridiculed as something like kitsch by people like Walter Benjamin, his attempts to make Kafka seem like a saint by, for instance, censoring evidence of Kafka going to a brothel has been exposed – and then there is the case of the letter. The contract, the curious pact. Milan Kundera used it as an archetypal symbol of the invasion of the individual’s privacy in Testaments Betrayed. In Rolf Tiedman’s essay on Kafka and shame, he summarizes Kundera’s case like this:
“Because Brod had published "everything, indiscriminately," Kundera charges him with unforgivable indiscretions, with treason against Kafka, for having published "even that long, painful letter found in a drawer, the letter Kafka never decided to send to his father and that, thanks to Brod, anyone but its addressee could eventually read.... He betrayed his friend. He acted against his friend's wishes, against the meaning and the spirit of his wishes, against the sense of shame he knew in the man."6 It goes without saying that Kundera cannot sustain this accusation; he has to resort to the supporting construction of a divi- sion between autobiographical material including diaries and letters, on the one hand, and novels and stories, on the other, a construc- tion that seems almost Jesuitical in comparison with the rest of his argument and that is useless for Kafka's work: "With regard to the unfinished prose, I readily concede that it would put any executor in a very uncomfortable situation. For among these writings of varying significance are the three novels; and Kafka wrote nothing greater than these."' Kundera would not want to do without Kafka's novels, since he wished to have written them himself; rather-although he never says so directly-he would forego the publication of incom- plete writings of "varying significance" like the texts of the volumes Brod titled Preparations for a Country Wedding and Description of a Struggle." The publication of Kafka's diaries and letters, as Kundera charges vehemently, demonstrated a lack of shame and, in Kun- dera's view, is a capital crime.”
Although Tiedman modifies Kundera’s case, generally, he takes it that, in this contract, this pact, Kafka was the one so easily shamed, Kafka was the one who was shamed, Kafka is like the Josef K at the end of the Trial, who felt, under the executioner’s knife, as if ‘the shame would outlive him” – which Tiedman, taking his clue from Adorno, interprets, literally, as a shame that is ingested by the bystanders, in them, transmitted by them. That they allowed Josef K to be executed…
This story has, however, a funny twist, in that it makes Kafka into a sort of gull. A victim. Devil’s pacts, however, are more… ambivalent than that. I’m interested in what Kafka was doing.
If we take Brod at his word, Kafka left that letter already knowing that Brod would refused to do as instructed. Brod had told Kafka this two years before, when Kafka first showed him the letter. And what funny instructions! If Kafka thought so badly of his botched work, why would he want it hunted down so ardently? It is as if it had a burning importance – an importance to be burnt. Brod was to find letters Kafka wrote – no mean task – and have them burnt. He was to go through everything, a regular anti-treasure hunt. The letter is written in the obsessive rhythm of the animal in the burrow, inventorying his endless defenses against his enemies.
But that’s not all. To my mind the letter’s logical form is closest to the parable, Before the Law, which the sacristan tells Joseph K. in The Trial. In that story, the man outside the law is compelled in a law-like way to wait for being permitted entrance into the law. It is as if he has somehow wandered out of any recognizable social space. Every reader of the novel remembers the chilling end of that parable, the conversation between the man who guards the door to the law and the man who is waiting, and is dying there after all those years:
'What is it you want to know now?' asks the doorkeeper, 'You're insatiable.' 'Everyone wants
access to the law,' says the man, 'how come, over all these years, noone but me has asked to be let in?' The doorkeeper can see the man's come to his end, his hearing has faded, and so, so that he can be heard, he shouts to him: 'Nobody else could have got in this way, as this
entrance was meant only for you. Now I'll go and close it'."
Such unutterable cruelty!
Kafka’s testament put Brod in the position of the man who sits before the door to the law, and sits there forever. Brod, the man among all men who, Kafka knew, understood the greatness of his writing. Understood, at least, that it was great, although not understanding why, however much he would like to. Why select this person, of all people, as one’s executioner/executor? What kind of trick is that to play?
Perhaps, in the end, you are tired of the one who admires you most. Who loves you for the work. That love like a debt that you owe.
Something happened when Brod picked up that letter. His life changed. It was, in its own wicked way, rather like God’s order to Abraham to kill his son. To obey the order was to disobey the moral law. To disobey the order was to disobey the divine law. And in that moment, the two – which seemed to be one thing – suddenly come apart before your very eyes. Kafka’s writings are full of taboos that are rigorously enforced, even if they exist in no set form, from no set force. Someone must have slandered Josef K. The father, in the Judgment, knows all about his son’s letters to his friend in Russia – knows that far from being a sympathetic friend, he is a rat, a vermin, a betrayer. He is condemned to death. And what happened to Gregor Samsa?
Max Brod, opening that letter, saw the divine order and the moral order come apart. He would revenge himself – revenge himself for the fact that the great work of good that he did, the saving of Kafka’s writings, was made into the act of a shameful thief – by making Kafka, as much as he could, into a saint. For if Kafka wasn’t god, then the script that was printed, oh so minutely, on his chest by Kafka’s finest punishment machine – Dearest Max – would be impossible to read.
Oh, let us not assume too hastily we know what shame is, in this scene, in this scenario, in this history, and who is shameless, and who is not.