There are multiple territories into which we can read Kafka’s frustration with extant linguistic possibility. 1) There are Kafka’s political concerns. 2) There are Kafka’s concerns with marriage and the writing of love letters (whether to Felice or Milena). 3) There is Kafka’s concern with the relationships between the Czech, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish languages and the realities implied by each. 4) There is also the immediate and intense concern for Kafka of his relationship to the Kafkan familial language, which is of course also the paternal language of Hermann Kafka.
The inheritance of a language, the birth into any communicative space, is at once liberating and constricting. One can finally give one’s self an identity within expression and communication to the other. At the same time, this expression, and henceforth the unique identity that the “I” can range over, are severely limited. As users of a language, we find ourselves in an aporetic double-bind. This is another Derridan theme. It is also a Freudian theme, represented in the Oedipus concept. Through a writing (and perhaps other arts), and Kafka saw this quite poignantly, one can overcome this bind, even if only a little bit.
This is one function of Kafka’s writing of the schizoid Letter to His Father. An excruciating text in that letter is this courageous admission: behind everything that I have written there was of course always a struggle with you.
My writing was about you, all I did there was lament what I couldn’t lament at your breast. It was an intentionally drawn-out farewell from you, and though it was really forced by you, it proceeded in the direction I determined (Kafka, Letter to His Father, Schocken Edition page 177).
Unlike Freud, Kafka does not cash out the paternal struggle by representing the Oedipal terror as neurosis caused by a sublimation of stresses into the unconscious, etc.. Instead, Kafka represents the Oedipal terror as a poverty of extant language, particularly the inherited paternal language, the inherited Oedipal language. Rather than seeing this power struggle as a psychological battle (and one that will always be lost, but can therefore be used as a ‘cause’ for problems ‘elsewhere’ in life), Kafka sees the struggle in linguistic terms. In order to overcome the double bind of his paternal inheritance, Kafka must write in a new language, he must create a new literature. Neumann, in an excellent analysis of Letter to His Father and the paternal-struggle text The Judgement, writes that Kafka sees an escape from his father in, “the development of a language of self-realization that would not be regulated exclusively by the paternal process of education, a sort of utopian establishment of a new system of communication” (225). Neumann believes in the ultimate paradox of this project and sides with Freud in thinking that Oedipal struggle can only be but lost. Yet, I don’t think Kafka shares in Neumann’s diagnosis of hopelessness.
The only text that Neumann adduces in favor of his pessimistic thesis is the one I have quoted above, namely Kafka’s writing to his father about the paternal pervasiveness present in his writing. He writes to his father that “my writing was about you”, but is this always true? Is it even possible for it to be always true? Even if he fully believes in this hopelessness at the time he wrote the Letter to His Father, one can see from the Diaries and other correspondences that Kafka often vacillated between hope and despair. And even in admitting the bind to his father he qualifies the remark saying that his writing still “proceeded in the direction I determined”. He is not completely chained. There is of yet one more rhetorical trick up Kafka’s sleeve, a trick he might have discovered in Freud. Perhaps the correct interpretation of this text is that Kafka is lying to his father. (Yes, perhaps it is not.) What one says to one’s father isn’t always what one says to one’s friends or one’s lover (one can hardly imagine Kafka actually believing in this at those times he was writing to Felice or, even moreso, Milena). Lastly, we must also remember that Kafka never gave the letter to his father. Though he wrote these lines to his father, perhaps in complete honesty, he did not deliver them. It is true that he entrusted the delivery of the letter to his mother, but the letter never reached his father, Herrmann never read it (and surely Kafka could have forced this if he were really so concerned). In a very literal sense, then, there is this fact that Kafka never admitted anything of the sort to his father. One cannot make an admission to the wind, by addressing a ghost, writing to a ghost that is not listening.
If Kafka was convinced of the hopeless poverty of the linguistic territory he occupied would it not have absolutely crushed Kafka the writer to realize that he was forever bound to this imperfect language? Would he not have stopped writing? Would you not stop? I would stop. In the fact that he merely continued to write, in merely going on (and with such a fever for the written word!) after completing the Letter to His Father, we find in Kafka a great deal of hope. Consider that The Castle (the only book-length work published after the letter to Hermann) is free of any explicit paternal struggle, a theme certainly dominant in other major early works: The Judgment, The Metamorphosis, Amerika. This sort of hope is even present in the optimistic close of the Letter to His Father. Not long after writing that letter, Kafka scribbles in his Diaries: “Again pulled through this terrible, long narrow crack; it can only be forced through in a dream” (5 Dec., 1919, Schocken Edition, page 390). If there is not a bit of hope here (in this first diary entry in five months), there is at least a hint that Kafka has recently overcome some struggle, won through something in some way, but not in a way that we would characterize as a “fight” or a “war”: it is more suggestive of forcing one’s self to finish a task, to complete a text, to close a period of time in one’s life.
This existence of the hope he holds out for writing is signaled most clearly throughout the letters to Milena. Of particular interest here is also the fact that Kafka entrusted his only copy of the letter to his father to Milena. Fairly early in their correspondence he promises to send the letter to her. He does so rather casually, thus leading one to believe that he does not view the letter as containing any particularly oppressive statements (either to his father or to himself). If Kafka really had admitted to himself in writing this letter that he could never write except under his father’s shadow, it would be surprising for him to send it to a woman towards whom he is so affectionate. To Milena he writes:
Tomorrow I’ll send the Father-letter to your apartment, please take good care of it, one day perhaps I might want to give it to my father. If possible let no one else read it. And in reading try to understand all the lawyer’s tricks, it’s a lawyer’s letter (Letters to Milena, page 63).
Kafka’s description of the letter as “ein Advokatenbrief” is particularly telling given his overarching concern with the law in his writings. Here we have, I think, another text pointing to Kafka’s frustration with the paternal linguistic territory. What does a lawyer do? A lawyer speaks and writes only. A lawyer is language. Lawyers are rhetoriticians through and through. And in so describing himself, particularly as against his father, we can see in Kafka a desperate desire to break away from his father’s language, to reterritorialize his own words. That Kafka’s own father was disappointed that he did not study to be a lawyer is particularly pleasing to Kafka, for in the letter he sees himself as a lawyer arguing a petition against his father. The letter is an indictment, a trial, a judgment, and a punishment in one turn of the pen. Such a letter can of course, only be written from inside the law.
No one can doubt that in Kafka there is certainly a struggle with the father. There is certainly in Kafka a feeling that the father has bequeathed to the son a useless linguistic inheritance. Whether or not he was pessimistic or optimistic as to the possibility of overcoming his father’s linguistic territory, there is at the very least a struggle in Kafka to reterritorialize himself. When we set this fact beside Kafka’s poetics of art-reality (word-world) monism, it becomes clear that the only means of escape Kafka saw from his linguistic and existential frustration was to write his way out of it. Kafka’s complete dedication to writing is grounded in his intense need to found a new literature. Kafka as a literature unto himself. Like all great poets, he sees that in order to produce himself and to make himself (i.e., to be the person that he wants to be) he must rely on the writing-a-new-literature that he is. He must write in order to become.