A new reading of Franz Kafka was spurred by a single word

In his latest book, Johns Hopkins English Professor Mark Christian Thompson argues that blackness is fundamental to Kafka's conception of what it means to be an artist

Mark Christian Thompson

Image caption: Mark Christian Thompson

Credit: André Chung

Early 20th-century German thought and African-American literature were rattling around Mark Christian Thompson's head when he reread Franz Kafka's Amerika. Also known as The Man Who Disappeared, or Der Verschollene in German, Amerika was published posthumously in 1927 as Kafka's first novel, albeit an unfinished one. It concerns a wandering 16-year-old, Karl Rossmann, who flees Europe for New York City to escape scandal. Once in America, young Rossmann endures a series of misadventures and unfortunate encounters. As Thompson read, he came upon the English word "Negro," in a novel written in German by a Czech writer in the early 1910s. He says, "That, to me, was like an explosion—I mean, there was a German word for being black, but he didn't use it. I thought, 'This can't be an isolated incident, there must be other, related things happening.' Then it was incumbent upon me to figure it out."

The result is Kafka's Blues: Figurations of Racial Blackness in the Construction of an Aesthetic (Northwestern University Press, 2016), Thompson's most recent book. The Johns Hopkins English professor argues that blackness is fundamental to Kafka's conception of what it means to be an artist. The scholarly volume is a tightly reasoned, detailed examination of both Kafka's works and the cultural and intellectual climate in which he wrote.

The prevailing idea regarding Kafka's use of "Negro" in Amerika has been that he was comparing the injustices experienced by African-Americans to those experienced by European Jews. In Kafka's Blues, Thompson argues that the comparison doesn't take into account how blackness figures into Kafka's entire oeuvre—a research dive that required Thompson to reread an author who hadn't done much for him when he first came across him in high school.

"There's a sort of muted sensibility to Kafka, and I think I was looking—as do many high schoolers—for fireworks in my prose," Thompson says. "I didn't quite understand the fireworks were there, but they were, on mute. You could see them outside your window and then you have to add sound yourself, and that's the thrill."

Now, when asked if there's any writer he'd like to have coffee with, only one comes to mind. "When I think of the giants of world literature, Kafka is one of the names that, for me, is standing shoulder to shoulder with them," Thompson says. "I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. To devote some years of one's life to Kafka is not a waste of time by any means, to me." Thompson spoke with Johns Hopkins Magazine recently about his work.

Could you talk a bit about how Kafka's perspective of blackness was formed and shaped?

The most common understanding would have come through music and popular culture. One automatically thinks of jazz, but the turn-of-the-century moment is too early for that. There may have been some reckoning of blackness via ragtime in the arts, and via aesthetic primitivism. And already, by the mid-19th century, there is exposure in Bohemia to spirituals and work songs and touring groups of African-Americans moving through Europe. That's part of the entire equation.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was also a huge, huge novel in German-speaking lands. You can never underestimate the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was translated the year it was published, 1852. There was no lag time at all, and it's never been out of print in Germany since then. Also popular were Völkerschauen, which were shows in which Africans, and sometimes African-Americans, were displayed, as in human zoos.

'The use of that word, "Negro" ... that to me was a bombshell.'
Mark Christian Thompson

Kafka knew all of this, but he was also intimately familiar with cabarets and night clubs. He would also think in terms of the anti-Semitism of his day. And some of what may seem outlandish to us today, but nevertheless was for Kafka very real, were connections made between Jews and Africans, Jews as Africans, Africans as Jews, and so on, by way of a common origin theory which assumed some type of essential connection between blacks and Jews that went back to Africa.

As you write, musicians as early as Antonín Dvořák were being exposed to African-American music and bringing it back to Bohemia.

No Czech or German-speaking Czech or Czech-speaking German in Prague would have been unfamiliar with Dvořák at the turn of the century. The symphony From the New World is a product of that inspiration and that time in which Dvořák consciously scoured the United States for folk music, Native American music, and African-American music. He incorporated some allusions to African-American music within the symphony itself, which one magazine at the time, the Pall Mall Budget out of London, called Dvořák's "Negro Symphony" in 1894.

So there was already a precedent being set for Czech culture and Czech nationalism, that type of concentration on folk productions that goes into nationalism, as well as looking to the United States and seeing minority groups and minority struggles and finding, or imagining, common cause with them. I wouldn't push that too far. I would just simply say that there is already a tradition of it in place.

Once you had an idea of what you were looking for, how did your research of Kafka proceed?

The use of that word, "Negro," specifically in English, and the subtle identification "I am Negro"—that to me was a bombshell. I know it wasn't one for traditional Kafka studies, but to me, when I read it, my immediate thought was that no one drops that and isn't somehow invested in appropriating that identity for some important, sustained purpose. So I started reading and I quickly realized that this was a constituent factor of Kafka's aesthetic. In fact, this became a lasting developmental aspect of his career, in which it kept transforming and evolving into something else. It reflected his overall aesthetic achievement at any given time.

I tried to put it into context because I think it is erroneous to think that Kafka couldn't be concerned about these things because he's the writer of existential angst. He's a modernist, and modernism is thoroughly shot through with primitivism. Kafka spent some time in Paris, not as an expatriate, but he visited, he participated in the culture in a European climate that was very much invested in looking at African art and, after World War I, African-American expressive culture.

Your thesis is that, for Kafka, blackness is associated with this state of becoming an artist, a transformative process.

Mark Christian Thompson

Image credit: André Chung

In the early novel Der Verschollene, it's done quite openly. This is a burlesque of a bildungsroman, about a protagonist who's moving into an aesthetic sphere, of becoming an artist, which is reflected in Kafka's own life, in his own struggles with an identity as a writer. That was easy enough to see, but when it came to other texts, especially the later texts, that element was mediated in some way. You had to wipe away the fog on the mirror in order to see what was going on behind you. So you tend to come at it thematically through other forms of representation, like the Bible, and how the Bible has been made to think about race or slavery. That was really what Kafka was interested in—enslavement and slavery and how that played out racially. For instance, in "In the Penal Colony," the colonial setting provides a venue for this type of reflection.

When you start talking about specific works, such as The Metamorphosis and especially "A Hunger Artist," I find that having this element in mind offers a really compelling analysis of those stories. It's like, we thought we had known the many leitmotifs that appear throughout his work, but here's another aspect that he's using through the entire body of work as well.

We thoroughly grant to Kafka a layeredness, a textured quality to his work that is almost infinite. We can't then simply draw a line and say "but not blackness," especially not when he invites us to think that thought. We need to start thinking about that. I'm not asking anyone to accept it 100 percent as it is written, but I am asking that one accept that Kafka thought about it and incorporated it into his work—because it's there.

Once you do that, that actually does offer not simply just another interesting reading but a fact-based reading of a writer who lived in a certain place at a certain time in a particular environment, who thought about these things, indisputably, and incorporated them in his works. I wouldn't want it to become another interpretation alongside many others. I want one to have to think about blackness in Kafka, at least a little bit, before one can go on and do something else.

In the book, you write that you don't want to excuse Kafka's appropriations, but he's doing them in a way that's novel—as opposed to the primitivism in visual arts or quoting motifs in music. What, for you, is the innovative aspect of Kafka's exploration of blackness in his own work?

It's actually really fascinating because when one considers Picasso going into the Trocadéro, looking at the African masks, the Iberian works, and thinking, OK, now I'm going to appropriate this in some way and then produce something that will eventually lead to cubism, one can look at that in two ways if one wants to think of the question of racism, assuming one has a working definition of what that would mean in early 20th-century Paris. One could either say, Oh, yes—this appropriation is a type of unlawful, unwarranted, and unwanted appropriation, and therefore bad. Or one could say, Well, it's not great, but it's good. It's meant in some way that we really wouldn't associate with malevolence of any kind, or with a devaluing of ideas.

Kafka's not interested in that at all. He's not there, and that's what makes him fairly unique at the time. You can't really talk about [Kafka's] types of appropriations even as appropriations. They're more, dare I say, philosophical reflections on what race means in general. Blackness in Kafka isn't merely a thought about Africanicity or what it means to be African-American. It's about what it means to be. What is the racial context of how we understand ourselves as human beings?

I think the side he comes out on, if there's any side at all, is simply this: That these identities are in flux. That blackness only means something at a specific time in a specific place, and that it could mean something else somewhere else at some other time. This is a fluid identity for Kafka, one that can be commandeered and put into service for the purposes of aesthetic representation or whatever else he might need.

After reading your book, his engagement with blackness feels unavoidable when I reread Kafka, a reminder that scholarship as conventionally shaped along nationalistic groupings—American literature, French literature, German literature, African-American literature—can create blind spots to noticing such things. Because of your own training, background, and research, you happened to see something in Kafka that might have been overlooked or not probed deeper if you weren't already working on early 20th-century African-American literature of a particular political bent and early 20th-century political philosophy at the same time.

There are plenty of African-American scholars who are invested in areas of inquiry that aren't necessarily specific to African-American studies. That's fine. But German? No.

I am sometimes directly asked, Why do you do that? Wouldn't you prefer to stick with African-American authors? Always implied in this is where you belong. My first thought is always, You would be hard-pressed to guess correctly where I belong, just from my appearance. My reply is simply that this type of intervention that one makes both culturally and quasi-politically is quite powerful in its own way. For an African-American scholar to intervene in Kafka studies? That's meaningful, and it is meaningful not simply for African-American studies but also for Kafka studies, and German studies more generally. It is, to use a contemporary colloquialism, getting another pair of eyes on something. It puts diversity in motion. This is why we need diverse populations in academia and in research consortia and so on, because there are elements to these works which are opaque, but not to everyone. One person will see one thing because he or she is coming from one place. Someone else will see something else—because the authors that we're interested in [like Kafka] were not confined to the ways in which we were institutionally trained. They didn't say, I'm a representative national writer and therefore I will only pull from this tradition.

Exterior of an opulent building with ornamental carvings

Image caption: Topič House, Národní 9, 110 00 Praha 1, Staré Město. In Kafka's time, this was the site of an important publisher and bookstore. The facade is still visible today.

Image credit: Mark Christian Thompson

Well, there are a couple of authors who did say that, and that in itself is interesting. Kafka was not one of them. He was taking from everywhere and using anything that he could use. He looked for the material that best fit his aesthetic needs—and that could have been anything. That means that we just have to widen the field and open the door because if we're concerned with what's going on in books instead of what's going on in our own heads, then we're going to need to share these thoughts with people and with places and with ideas that we never really thought were compatible with our own. That's the power of diversity. It leads us to the truth, which is always beyond the field of vision of one person, group, or way of doing things.

It's also a very practical example of the fact that African-American cultural and knowledge production of any time period didn't influence only African-Americans. Is there anything about this book or discussions of this book that, so far, you haven't been asked about or asked to comment on that surprised you at all?

I'm actually not asked about those parts of the book that don't have to do with race. I'll give you the best example. One of the readings that I'm most proud of in this book isn't necessarily purely race-related. It's of "The Judgment" and shows that the bridge [that main character Georg Bendemann] jumps off is not Charles Bridge, but the Czech bridge [Svatopluk Čech Bridge]—which is meaningful for almost any reading of that story, because it means that [Bendemann's action] might not be a suicide, and it links up to Kafka's own life.

As I show in the book, this bridge was very close to a swim school that Kafka went to with his family quite often. Knowing that he was dying, Kafka, in his last letter to his parents, referenced that swim school and the good times they had had there. What I don't include in the book, because it just didn't fit, is that at that very swim school, which in the story is right next to where the so-called suicide takes place [in "The Judgment"], on the day Kafka was born a 3-year-old child drowned. In that whole [fictional] scene, you connect the beginning of his life and the end of his life through some kind of deep emotional connection to this swim school and that bridge. It was a newer bridge that represented Czech nationalism in the early 20th century. It was not deep enough to drown from. You can jump in and survive.

No one asks me about that. In a way, I tend to think that that reading is more threatening than the race one because it implies that you simply can't just read "The Judgment" and say whatever you want about it. Or rather, you can, but you ought to have actual geographical and cultural knowledge of where Kafka lived and worked. He lived right around the corner from that bridge when he wrote that. Important moments in his life are referenced in the story. You have to know something about the environment in which he lived, and the life that he lived.

At this point in your life, you've lived long enough in Prague to know it pretty well. How important is having an understanding of Prague, its language and its geography—I mean, granted, many decades later—but its rhythms and urban life?

There is no reading in this book that doesn't in some way decisively pivot around a place or a street or a sign that was in Prague that Kafka must have seen and somehow incorporated. In the Amerika section where I'm talking about the stoker, topič [the Czech translation of the German word for "stoker," der Heizer]—that's there. Topič was a bookstore that he and other German-language writers went to, it's something that was absolutely crucial to his life. It was also a publishing house, perhaps the most important publishing house for German authors in Prague at the time. He incorporated it, but you don't know that unless you sit in the café that he sat in, which hasn't changed much at all over the hundred years or so since he was last there. You look out the window and you can sort of see it because the name of it is still there on the building. I needed that. I needed to know the place.

It's interesting to hear that because as an American reading Kafka in English we can think of Kafka being this person who's more about allegory and ideas. And yet the geography of where he lived appears in his writings.

Critics understand the importance of Prague to Kafka, but I appreciate taking it even further, to that microcosmic material historical level where this street, right there, that sign, that's this in this story, and without that this story doesn't exist. As critics, we have to know not just the path that Kafka followed but also the events and the world that took shape around it. Part of this task is also linguistic, as a lot of Kafka's world is in Czech, so you have to do a sort of double or even triple translation in order to get to what you need. That's the type of work that Kafka was doing constantly while simply walking down the street. If we are to walk with him, we must do it as well.

Bret McCabe is the magazine's senior writer.