Franz Kafka

Lambent Traces

By Stanley Corngold

Princeton University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-691-11816-7; 296 Pages, Hardcover $45.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Jeff Nowak

lambent, adj.
1. Of a flame (fire, light): Playing lightly upon or gliding over a surface without burning it, like a ‘tongue of fire’; shining with a soft clear light and without fierce heat.

Literary criticism is a pile of decomposing shit – but I mean that in a good way. Think of it as the compacted leavings of an author, those words which garner so much attention it’s as if they give off a stink. Certain people are drawn to these words in a basic, indescribable, almost microbial way. They latch themselves onto the leavings. They can’t get enough of the words. To justify this attraction, they transform an obsession into a viable way to waste their time. They call each other profound thinkers – one becomes an eminent critic, another takes it upon himself to become a Kafka
guru on the Internet. And so these critics and gurus do their best to explain themselves by explaining what they’re attracted to.
Theories incubate; disagreements fester. What’s important about the author is his relationship with his father, or maybe it’s his religious sensibility, or maybe it’s his political situation as a representative of a oppressed minority. Given enough time, an entire ecosystem evolves around a few boxes of moldy documents; ideas and discussions and entire careers. It’s a lively field, benefiting both the shrewd and the imaginative, but as the arguments grow, the leavings dissolve, until critical discussion expands to the point of infinity or absurdity, whichever comes first. Perpetual essays can be gratifying, and they can certainly stimulate the mind, but sometimes the original intent becomes lost. Art becomes the handmaiden of theory.
The study of Kafka’s leavings has progressed to the point where critics can now lay claim to an “original” Kafka. Unlike Shakespeare, who has decomposed so far that we can argue he is really Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon, Kafka’s words still point the way to the man himself. Kafka can be understood in a way that Homer, Cervantes, and Dante cannot. His time is still our time. He has not yet been over-explained, and critics can ask, What would Kafka do? If Kafka were alive today, would he argue with what has been said about him? Has he been over-politicized? Or under-politicized? And would he really be shocked to discover that Max Brod published everything he could get his hands on?
Stanley Corngold has a mighty reputation in Kafka studies, one which he deserves, and his latest book gladly continues his own search for the original Kafka. As long as one can appreciate Corngold’s dense, convoluted style, and as long as one accepts that Lambent Traces is intended for those who may know a little too much about Kafka criticism, it provides a fine example of what can be done when a sharp critic puts his mind to a great author. Corngold is both meticulous and creative in a field that too rarely combines both qualities. Not only is he an encyclopedia of Kafka criticism, he can also make persuasive arguments that would sound absurd coming from anyone else. In one work, he compared the complex contradictions of Kafka to a double helix, with two opposing elements swirling around each other in a confusing twist. In another, he summarized every existing article written about The Metamorphosis.
Lambent Traces is a collection of essays compiled under a general thesis: too many critics are focusing on the cultural and political side of Kafka. Yes, Kafka was Jewish, and some of the anti-Semitism of the early 20th century may have played a role in his fiction. However, when a book such as Sander L. Gilman’s Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient attempts to transform Kafka’s writing into a subconscious filtering of anti-Semitism, then it’s gone too far. Corngold spends three chapters picking apart major works of Kafka criticism – such as Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature –  in order to pull Kafka away from the worldly interpretations which keep the author solidly defined by his culture.
According to Corngold, Kafka was not just a man of his culture; he was also a man who reacted to his culture and who looked beyond it. Much of Lambent Traces explores Kafka’s mysticism, his obsessions with immortality and the metaphysical. Needless to say, this is a complicated topic, and to make his task easier, Corngold pulls out an old trick: he divides Kafka into two parts.
One finds the notion of “two Kafkas” often in Kafka criticism, where he is typically divided into the bachelor and the family man. The bachelor is the writer, the ascetic, and the mystic. The family man does his job well, desires marriage, and is grounded in the empirical world. The conflict between these two sides produces many fascinating results. On the one hand, Kafka wants to marry. On the other, he wants to write. So he writes endless letters to his fiancee Felice Bauer in an attempt to stall their marriage. Corngold keeps this idea of the bipartite Kafka interesting by focusing on the interaction between his two sides – mutually exclusive yet joined at the hip, they intertwine and struggle. Corngold is particularly interested in places where the differences are at their most subtle, and he unwinds Kafka’s double helix with great enthusiasm. Additionally, Corngold extends this struggle of dualities from Kafka’s interior world to his exterior world. He has two types of fathers: one supports his writing, the other is firmly against it. There are even two types of deaths. One death is a literary exit from the world, removing oneself to a point where only perfect observations are allowed. The other kind of death is less pretty: a complete destruction of the self.
Most of Corngold’s categories are tied to the choice of writing or not writing. Kafka finds himself stuck between embracing literature and rejecting it. This conflict dragged itself out to the very end. He asked Max Brod to burn his papers, knowing that Max Brod was the last person who would carry out such a task. Lambent Traces is at its most fascinating when Corngold focuses on this division. For instance, in analyzing “The Judgment,” Corngold comes to the conclusion that Kafka’s breakthrough story is an expression of “ecstatic death.” Why is Georg’s death so happy? Because it is Georg who dies. The three main characters of the story are Georg, his father, and Georg’s friend in Russia. The dual Kafka requires that Georg and Georg’s friend are in fact two sides of the same person. Georg (the family man) is getting married, but his friend (the bachelor) is alone in Russia, a land where priests exert influence over mobs. Since the father sentences Georg to death, and since the friend is left alive, the father has actually been on the side of the bachelor all along. The mystic bachelor wins, and Kafka’s writing has justified itself. In other texts, the father represents the family and it is the bachelor who suffers.
Despite their subtle twists and turns, Corngold’s arguments are developed with the utmost caution. Every statement must be qualified, and no statement is complete without a handful of careful distinctions. Although sometimes these qualifications come close to swallowing up the original point, once the argument sees the light of day, it proves to be surprisingly compelling.
Another reason to read Lambent Traces is to benefit from Corngold’s detailed knowledge of Kafka criticism. He frequently quotes other authors in the field, not to bolster his credibility, but to argue with competing texts. He disagrees, differentiates, and dismisses – and seems to have a blast while doing so. In a chapter on translation, Corngold expresses concern over the recent facsimile reproductions of Kafka’s manuscripts. After he records a debate he’d once had over a translation of Amerika, he writes, “My joy in welcoming the authorized (facsimile) manuscript version of Kafka’s works is tempered by my sadness that it may prove an end to such discussions.”
Interestingly, Corngold’s passion for disagreement casts a certain shadow of doubt over his essays. At times it seems unclear whether Corngold is looking to better understand Kafka or just relishes a good debate; one even suspects that he argues for a dual Kafka just for the fun of watching the two sides duke it out. Additionally, by claiming that Kafka is being politicized and demysticized, Corngold turns his criticism of Kafka into a critique of cultural studies in general, and his attempt to wrest Kafka away from the political has the aura of a righteous quest. Again, no matter how persuasive his arguments, one still wonders about his intent – is Corngold really arguing for Kafka or against cultural studies? If the book is simply an argument against a worldly, political Kafka, then what we have is a reactionary picture of Kafka – one that is mystical enough to offset the critical trends of the day, but perhaps too mystical in the long run.
This is what’s so fun and frustrating about literary criticism: that so much rigorous thought can lead to the worship of the Argument and the evasion of the Author. Kafka himself is just a flickering element in this terrain, gliding along the surface without making any fierce impact. There is Brod’s Kafka, Gilman’s Kafka, Benjamin’s Kafka, Deleuze’s Kafka, Corngold’s Kafka, and countless others, but when we discuss the difference between these interpretive creations, we are discussing Brod, Gilman, Benjamin, Deleuze, and Corngold. Too often, Kafka is left behind.
At least I find one consolation for myself. When Kafka criticism finally evolves beyond the need for Kafka, the original writing (whatever that may be) will become pure, something rarefied from either the critics scrambling around me or the theorists floating above me. No longer intimidated by a torrent of jargon or distracted by words about words, I will put down my copy of Lambent Traces, I will put down this review, and I will pick up The Trial. It may be sentimental, but it’s all I got.

Jeff Nowak
8 July 2004