The Writer, the Executor, and the Critic: The Case of Kafka, Brod, and Benjamin

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
The Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street New York
New York 10011

Are artists saints?

Franz Kafka famously asked his friend Max Brod—a popular critic in his own day—to burn all of his papers after his death. This included the vast majority of Kafka’s work, as he had published only a handful of stories in his own lifetime. Brod did not oblige. Instead, he began the publication of Kafka’s writings and later composed a popular biography of Kafka in which he claimed that everything Kafka wrote, from completed novels to the most hastily-written invitation to lunch, was akin to a holy relic, each “especially characteristic of a boundlessly rich spirit which never succumbed to routine or convention.” German-Jewish philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin was appalled by Brod’s approach—placing Kafka “on the path to saintliness”—calling it “the most irreverent attitude imaginable,” combining a cloying “bonhomie” with meaningless “pietism.” Both seemed to agree on a kind of “theological” approach to Kafka, but the crucial question is, what kind of theology? An otherworldly and romantic notion of the artist as saint, transcending the commonplace? Or a worldly, materialist account in which the text can simultaneously be both about the Law (the halakhah) and the law in a modern state? How should we read Kafka? How should we understand art and the figure of the artist?

In this class, we will study short stories, diary entries, letters, and reflections by Kafka, as well as his novel The Trial. We will also read selections from Brod’s biography of Kafka and Benjamin’s writings on both Kafka and Brod, including a series of letters debating the theological issues with Gershom Scholem, as we attempt to understand the relationships—and conflicts—between these writers. Above all, we will investigate Kafka’s relationship to modernity, Jewishness, and the interplay of the two, as well as Benjamin’s valorization of Kafka alongside his rejection of Brod’s hermeneutic of “saintliness.”

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
October 28, 2015 — October 19, 2016
4 weeks