Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 1


Franz Kafka was an avid reader of Kierkegaard.  We can see from his letters, diaries, and his Octavio Notebooks that Kierkegaard was on his mind.  What interested Kafka most about Kierkegaard was his inquiry into faith.  Although Kierkegaard wrote much on irony, a topic which Kafka was very interested in, Kafka didn’t write as much on this aspect of Kierkegaard.

The biggest point of difference between Kafka and Kierkegaard can be found in their reading of Abraham.   And yet, what brings them together is the claim that what Abraham did was “foolish.”  The meaning of this, however, differs greatly.   The meaning of foolish passion, for Kierkegaard, is something Nietzsche and Bataille inherited (although they employed it in radically different ways).  The meaning of Abraham’s foolishness for Kafka, on the other hand,  is more in line with the tradition of the schlemiel.

To begin with, Jill Robbins in her book Prodigal Son/Elder Brother: Interpretation and Alterity in Augustine, Petrarch, Kafka, Levinas, cites a letter to Max Brod which shows that Kafka found Kierkegaard’s Abraham to be “monstrous.”  He is not an “ordinary man.”

In at letter to Max Brod, Kafka remarks of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “He doesn’t see the ordinary man…and paints this monstrous Abraham in the clouds.”

According to Robbins, the reason Kafka thinks this is because he believes that Kierkegaard, like Augustine, likens Abraham to Cain.  She cites Kafka’s letter to Brod as proof:

In the moment he is about to sacrifice Isaac, the ethical expression for what he is doing is: he hates Isaac.  But if he actually hates Isaac, he can rest assured that God does not demand this of him, for Cain and Abraham are not identical. He must love Isaac with all his soul.

Robbins notes, however, that Kafka is wrong: “But Kierkegaard does not say: Cain.  He speaks instead of Abraham”(91).  Citing Kafka’s parable (or rather parables) of Abraham, Robbins goes on to argue that Kafka, like Kierkegaard, is not reading the Torah so much as “thinking” another Abraham:

Like Kierkegaard, Kafka is involved in the project of thinking Abraham (or Abrahams).  Kafka thinks another Abraham, who is so capable, so much in the finite, that he is incapable of leaving the house.

Robbins is referring to Kafka’s parable, which notes his “ordinariness.”  I’ll cite the relevant parts as I go along so as to see the continuity between his letter to Brod and his parable which Robbins is examining:

I could conceive of another Abraham for myself – he certainly would have never gotten to be a patriarch or even an old-clothes dealer – who was prepared to satisfy the demand for a sacrifice immediately, with the promptness of a waiter, but was unable to bring it off because he could not get away being indispensable; the household needed him, there was perpetually something or other to put in order, the house was never ready

As one can see, this Abraham is a simpleton (a Tam in Yiddish and Hebrew).  He is not a knight; he’s a schlemiel.  Robbins stresses the differences between Kierkegaard and Kafka based on this criterion of “ordinariness” posited by Kafka himself: “This is not “the monstrous Abraham in the clouds”; it is an Abraham whose ordinariness is stressed”(92).   However, in an interesting turn, Robbins argues that Kafka is wrong; Kierkegaard also likened Abraham to an ordinary person:

The knight of faith has, externally, “a striking resemblance to bourgeois philistinism”; he expresses the “sublime in the pedestrian”; “his gait is as stead as a postman’s.”  But there is something else going on here.  Kafka has another bone to pick with Kierkegaard. According to Robbins, the key can be found in a letter Kafka wrote to Robert Klopstock in 1921.  In the letter, which includes parts of this parable to Abraham, Kafka writes:

It is different for the above cites Abrahams, who stood in houses they were building and suddenly were supposed to go up Mount Moriah; possibly they don’t yet have a son, and are supposed to sacrifice him already.

For Robbins, this indicates this “hypothesis” is a “devastating one” because “for Kierkegaard it was a fact”; namely, that Fear and Trembling was an “autobiographical allegory of Kierkegaard’s broken engagement. This autobiographical allegory is based on an analogy: As Abraham sacrificed Isaac, so Kierkegaard sacrificed Regina”(92).

Robbins extends this to Kafka who, like Kierkegaard was also childless and not married.  Citing Jean Wahl, who argues that Kafka “substitutes the proper name of Abraham for Kierkegaard,” Robbins inserts her claim: “Could we not also say that Kafka substitutes the proper name of Abraham for Kafka?  Perhaps Kafka’s autobiography – the one he never wrote – is also the Abraham story?”

Following this presumption, Robbins follows through with a reading of Kafka’s Abraham as autobiographical.  She goes back and forth between letters and the text to demonstrate it.  Citing a letter to his fiancé, Felice, Robbins notes that Kafka says that Kafka is held back by, in his words, “what is almost a command from heaven” not to marry her.  This, for Kafka, is the ridiculous nature of the command.  Regardless, the point Robbins is trying to make is that Kafka’s Abraham is a Kafka who cannot fulfill the commandment of sacrificing a son because he is neither married nor a father.

To be sure, Robbins reading finds an interesting resonance in the claim, pondered by Kafka and Kierkegaard, that the artist is a bachelor.  This is a claim which I have written on recently.   However, as I argue over there, the autobiographical reading may miss the fact that Kafka saw himself as a schlemiel.  His failure at marriage and having children is only a part of his self-understanding.  Kafka’s midrashic understanding draws on the schlemiel, on a different kind of knight; namely, Don Quixote.

As Kafka notes in his parable, at least one of his Abrahams has much in common with Quixote.  The other Abraham is called upon to make the sacrafice, but he cannot believe that he, an “old man” with an “ugly child” would be called upon.   And this humility, this ordinariness, is what makes him into a schlemiel:

True faith is not lacking in him, he has this faith; he would make the sacrifice in the right spirit if only he could believe he was the one meant.  He is afraid that after starting out as Abraham with his son he would soon change on the way into Don Quixote.  The world would have been enraged at Abraham could it have beheld him at this time, but this one is afraid that the world would laugh itself to death at the sight of him.  However, it is not the ridiculousness as such that he is afraid of – that he is, of course, afraid of that too and, above all, of his joining in the laughter – but in the main he is afraid that this ridiculousness will make him even older and uglier, his son even dirtier, even more unworthy of being called.

(I will return to this in my next blog entry.)







2 thoughts on “Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 1

  1. The quote you end with blends the silly and the sincere in a delightful way. Although I don’t buy Robbins’ “autobiographical” reading of Kafka’s reception of Abraham, I am really interested in your reading of Abraham (via Kafka) as the schlemiel. After all, Sarah laughs at Abraham in Genesis 18:12.

    In the Midrash, Abraham’s faith (which, as Kafka says, is not the problem) takes root at a young age. With the innocence and obliviousness of a child, he smashes his father’s idols without concern for the consequences. Perhaps there are two things that contribute to making the aged Abraham a schlemiel. 1) His cultural context and 2) the fact that he never outgrows the stubbornness of his youth. He still believes with every fiber of his being that there is only one Creator though the world laughs at him. The “Binding of Isaac” perhaps reveals that Abraham is willing to go to every extreme to make them stop laughing.

    • I want to write on Sarah’s laugh. Kafka mentions it as well in one of his versions of Abraham. And it is read in so many interesting ways. One of them comes from Derrida in his Acts of Religion book. As for that Midrash, I think you are on to something. I’d like to read Kafka inter-midrsashically (so to speak). It makes a lot of sense. Your reading is interesting. It suggests that we think of the meaning of Abraham’s aging in relation to this challenge. He was defiant and stood up to ridicule as a young man, but can he do it as an older man? Will it be too much? These are interesting points to consider as schlemiels are often subject to situations in which they overestimate or underestimate what is required of them or what is going on. These estimations are all good natured, so to speak, but they are comical.

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