A couple of days ago, here on Big Other, I posted my first round of thoughts on one of Kafka’s briefest yet most resonant pieces, “On Parables.” On the one hand a pokerfaced jeu, on the other a stern admonition against that very idea, the story’s had hold of me for some time, it’s even shaken a couple of lay sermons out of me, and now this.
My second round of thoughts begins with Kafka’s own. He couldn’t have dreamed up his thumbnail tragedy without recalling how the clash of his opposed universes — Believer and Infidel, Teuton and Slav — had led to tragedies much larger. He derived inspiration in part from his readings in the Mishna rabbinic tradition, and he knew well the word for people who’ve chosen to become parables. We call them martyrs.
Jesus of Nazareth, himself a Jewish master of parable, leaves no question about how much may be at stake: Whoever loses his life will save it. Whoever commits to another world has finished with this one. Scripture of every faith is full of such men and women, giving their last measure in service to “some fabulous yonder,” and indeed since 9/11, across Euro-America, the very word “martyr” has taken on a chilling connotation. But Muhammed Attah can only be linked to Kafka’s sharply-sketched miniature, all about a change of heart, a private metamorphosis, only by stretching the arm of analogy out of its socket. A more pertinent example concerns the author’s own sister, Ottla.
Ottla Kafka was nine years younger than Franz, and like all his siblings she lived well past his own untimely demise. Also like him, she was an assimilated Jew. She married a wealthy Czech Christian, a man so “Aryan” in looks and position that, when the Nazis took over, she could have been spared the Final Solution. But Ottla Kafka resisted the blandishments of reality; she became a parable. She went so far as to divorce her husband (this must’ve been in part to protect him), and in 1941 she registered as a Jew. The last record we have of her comes from the Terezin ghetto in October 1943, when she volunteered to accompany a trainload of children bound for Auschwitz.
An extraordinary martyrdom. Another would be that of Milena Jesenka, recipient of impassioned letters from Franz (now collected in a book, to be sure). Milena was a writer herself, politically active — the only woman Kafka ever cared for who might be considered a peer. In 1922, Milena wrote the lone worthwhile obituary for the man who once called her “the most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life.” As late as 1944, too, as a leader in the so-called “women’s camp” at Ravensbrück, she went on speaking truth to power.
The stories of Ottla and Milena, in short, expose the brute force that lurks in parable. Yet in another sense, the women’s heroism sets an unfair standard.
Whenever I hear brave tales out of hard times, I suffer a whisper of skepticism.
I’ve got nothing but respect for those who’ve seized the chance to become a parable, yet I must say, I’ve never had such luck myself. Destiny has never hammered at my door. And most people — I bet — spend a lot of energy trying to avoid that truncheon-rap. I don’t mean evil people, I mean good people. The best that most can do is to select an occasional small gesture towards ethical action.
That is, we might like to help with the fragile peace taking shape in Mogadishu, the nascent livable city taking shape, despite the dozen or so innocent people blown to bits this week. But we can’t. We can’t. So we join Amnesty International, we pay our annual dues. That’s the best most readers of this blog can do: a small bet on the good.
And no sermon worth its salt (isn’t this some sort of sermon?) should denigrate these bets. Every little bit helps, especially in our Euro-American cornucopia. For myself, as a half-WASP male near the top of the food chain, gestures towards the good often take the form of declining some comfort, rather than embracing some hardship. I don’t face crucifixion; rather, I might not get invited to a party. Still however small the sacrifice, no sermon should dismiss it. There are always those at the top of the food chain who only sit and belch.
Nevertheless, Kafka’s stern divider remains. Our feeble goodwill gestures in no way take us into the light of parable. Next post — my final round of thought — I’ll see if I can locate some reconciliation.
John Domini is the author of Bedlam, Highway Trade, Talking Heads: 77, Earthquake I.D., A Tomb on the Periphery, The Sea-God's Herb, Movieola!, and The Color Inside a Melon. Domini has won awards in all genres, publishing fiction in The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere; and journalism and criticism in The New York Times, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere (including Italian journals). He live in Des Moines, Iowa.