gershon hepner

Rookie - 10 Points (5 3 38 / leipzig)

Gregor Samsa - Poem by gershon hepner


He woke up in the morning thinking he was vermin,
which is precisely what his enemies believed
he was, a Jew who wrote and thought just like a German,
the Other. How he wished by them to be perceived
as something noble, butterfly or even bat,
perhaps! But no, they thought that he was vermin and
his great epiphany was realizing that
their point of view was one he could not countermand,
for his esteem depended on their vile perspective;
as soon as he adopted it, he found he could
transcend the status he agreed to be defective
by turning into what the Others thought he should.

Zadie Smith, reviewing Louis Begley’s The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay, in the July 17 NYR points out that when Gregor Samsa sees himself as vermin (not cockroach) he is adopting a view of himself that goyim have of Yidden. Zadie doesn't make that point, but it really transforms the story:
It's an awkward argument that struggles to recast repulsion as 'the cumulative effect on Kafka of the ubiquitous anti-Semitism' all around him, which in turn caused a kind of 'profound fatigue, ' compelling him to 'transcend his Jewish experience and his Jewish identity' so that he might write 'about the human condition'— a conclusion that misses the point entirely, for Kafka found the brotherhood of man quite as incomprehensible as the brotherhood of Jews. For Kafka, the impossible thing was collectivity itself:
What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.
Kafka's horror is not Jewishness per se, because it is not a horror only of Jewishness: it is a horror of all shared experience, all shared being, all genus. In a time and place in which national, linguistic, and racial groups were defined with ever more absurd precision, how could the very idea of commonness not turn equally absurd? In his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, fellow Austro-Hungarian Gregor von Rezzori presented the disquieting idea that the philo-Semite and the anti-Semite have something essential in common (the narrator is both) : a belief in a collective Jewish nature, a Semiteness. Kafka, by contrast, had stopped believing. The choice of belonging to a people, of partaking of a shared nature, was no longer available to him. He often wished it was not so (hence his sentimental affection for shtetl life) , but it was so. On this point, Begley quotes Hannah Arendt approvingly though he does not pursue her brilliant conclusion: ...These men [assimilated German Jews] did not wish to 'return' either to the ranks of the Jewish people or to Judaism, and could not desire to do so—not because... they were too 'assimilated' and too alienated from their Jewish heritage, but because all traditions and cultures as well as all 'belonging' had become equally questionable to them.'[15]
Jewishness itself had become the question. It is a mark of how disconcerting this genuinely Kafkaesque concept is that it should provoke conflict in Begley himself. 'My people, ' wrote Kafka, 'provided that I have one.' What does it mean, to have a people? On no subject are we more sentimental and less able to articulate what we mean. In what, for example, does the continuity of 'Blackness' exist? Or 'Irishness'? Or 'Arabness'? Blood, culture, history, genes? Judaism, with its matrilineal line, has been historically fortunate to have at its root a beautiful answer, elegant in its circular simplicity: Jewishness is the gift of a Jewish mother. But what is a Jewish mother? Kafka found her so unstable a thing, a mistranslation might undo her:
Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no 'Mutter, ' to call her 'Mutter' makes her a little comical.... 'Mutter' is peculiarly German for the Jew, it unconsciously contains, together with the Christian splendor, Christian coldness also, the Jewish woman who is called 'Mutter' therefore becomes not only comical but strange.... I believe that it is only the memories of the ghetto that still preserve the Jewish family, for the word 'Vater' too is far from meaning the Jewish father.
Kafka's Jewishness was a kind of dream, whose authentic moment was located always in the nostalgic past. His survey of the insectile situation of young Jews in Inner Bohemia can hardly be improved upon: 'With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father's Jewishness, and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground.' Alienation from oneself, the conflicted assimilation of migrants, losing one place without gaining another.... This feels like Kafka in the genuine clothes of an existential prophet, Kafka in his twenty-first-century aspect (if we are to assume, as with Shakespeare, that every new century will bring a Kafka close to our own concerns) . For there is a sense in which Kafka's Jewish question ('What have I in common with Jews? ') has become everybody's question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts.[16] What is Muslimness? What is Femaleness? What is Polishness? What is Englishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We're all insects, all Ungeziefer, [17] now.
[16] Sylvia Plath hinted at this: 'I think I may well be a Jew.' In 'Daddy' from Ariel (Harper and Row,1966) .
[17] As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic Ungeziefer. Variously translated as insect, cockroach—much to the horror of Nabokov, who insisted that the thing had wings—bug, dung-beetle, the literal translation is vermin. Only the David Wyllie and Joachim Neugroschel translations retain this literal meaning.


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Poem Submitted: Sunday, July 6, 2008

Poem Edited: Sunday, July 6, 2008

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