Tuesday, November 30, 2010

we have achieved kafka-hood

"for [zadie] smith, what makes kafka universal is that he captured quotidian experience. his ability to speak to us all has to do with how well he conveyed the very local alienation of being an assimilated german-speaking jew in prague, who didn't fully 'belong' anywhere, rather than with his evocation of some vague modern existential malaise. making much of kafka's famous image of german-jewish writers sticking 'with their back legs' to judaism and reaching 'no new ground' with their front ones,...smith concludes: 'for there is a sense in which kafka's jewish question ("what have I in common with the jews?") has become everybody's question, jewish alienation is the template for all our doubts...these days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. we're all insects, all ungeziefer now.'

"never mind that kafka didn't include himself among those german-jewish authors whom he saw as flailing about with their anterior legs...smith's essay is primarily an appreciative review of louis begley's...the tremendous world I have inside my head...begley's work also relies on some dubious generalizations to make a case for its own importance. one notable instance comes in the middle of its chapter on kafka's jewish identity. begley writes that kafka's 'intermittent self-lacerating and provocative pronouncements,' as well as his oft-mentioned 'qualms' about the ability of jews to write effectively in german, 'have been used by scholars to buttress the argument that kafka was himself a jewish anti-semite, a self-hating jew.'

"begley...wants us to see kafka's response to the jewish questions of his day as normal...in commenting on kafka's fantasy of stuffing all jews (himself included) 'into the drawer of the laundry chest' and 'suffocating' them, begley writes that the 'outburst' was probably just a function of the 'fatigue' that stems from living with anti-semitism. such exhaustion might account for a desire to achieve individual release, but kafka is dreaming of genocide, which, obviously, is something else."

--from "misreading kafka" by paul reitter in the fall 2010 edition of the jewish review of books

this question, "what have I in common with the jews?", was asked in not so many words and not about the jews in a discussion I had with some friends from seminary on sunday. they are also uu ministerial students studying for ministry--although both are more interested in chaplaincy--and we were planning the order of service for an advent worship we're leading on thursday.

perhaps it is one of our ways of honoring the jewish tradition we spring out of or perhaps it's just the natural human tendency to kvetch, but when 2 or more uus gather invariably we end up talking about what's wrong with uuism, or more specifically what's wrong with uu congregations. having just come from a service at the congregation where I'm interning, whose minister is a retired english professor and whose intern is still one, and most of whose congregation is made up, like many uu congregations, of lawyers and doctors and teachers and artists and executives and engineers, we naturally fell into the common complaint uus have of the swimming-upstreamness of our tendency to gather in elite enclaves.

one, born and raised in the faith, said it might be very elitist, but she liked that there was a haven to which she could retreat on certain days to have conversations about big ideas and topics that she couldn't have the rest of the week with other people she knows. that resonates with me, as well: most of my intellectual conversations during my workweek exist because of my work as a teacher and by their nature they have to have an outcome, and invariably consist of my explaining a term or idea and requesting feedback on it. they're good conversations, mind you, and I like having them, but it's rare that they evolve on their own or continue for more than a couple minutes without my introducing something new, and because of the constraints of time I have to bring them back to the topic we're studying.

the other, like me born in a trailer but unlike me to parents in the religious mainstream, said that she was at times dismayed to hear people like her dissed. "the people we look down on, the songs we make fun of, those are my people, and it sometimes feels like I am being repudiated; not me personally, but where I come from and my experiences." I appreciate that as well--I am prime religious conservative stock (although my parents never took the more outthere tenets of 7th day adventism at anything other than face value), bred to want more out of life and for my life, who knows the difference between a fiddle and a squawkbox and cognizant of the full dolly parton back catalogue, who knows that you make do with what you have.

the conversation rambled on for a couple hours, and we never got around to diagnosing what the problem was, let alone come up with a solution. it was, in itself, an example of the worst sort of thing uus do when they get together, a curious sort of anti-uuism practiced by, devout (?) uus. but as in kafka's answer to his question what the jews are to him, it's also an example of the strength of uus to straightforwardly confront a problem and talk it to death.

1 comment:

  1. My problem with the uus is simpler. I just don't like most of the music. Or rather--it makes me miss "Beulah Land" and "Closer My God to Thee." Also, there is the class thing. In an old issue of UU World (great cover--"Liberal Religion and the Working Class--Fall 2007) there was a terrific article about this. And it is only a subset of the general failure to acknowledge classism--or class issues generally--in the wider culture. I don't have any solutions. As someone who was raised working class, passes pretty effectively for middle class but who has never really "made it" I guess I have my own flavor of alienation. Good essay, Bob.--Donna Berry