“Is Franz Here?” Kafka’s Revision and Personalization of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s Schlemiel Narrative

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Kafka read the Hasidic masters by way of Martin Buber’s translations. And of the Hasidic masters he read, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was, without a doubt, the most literary.   As Ruth Wisse and David Roskies point out, he made the Hasidic story (or parable) into something literary rather than something merely anecdotal.   To be sure, they both argue that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav had a major influence on Yiddish literature (especially in his figuration of the schlemiel.) He turned storytelling into a more religious activity and used it as a medium to address modern struggles and philosophical (and not just religious) questions.

Unlike any other writer, Rodger Kaminetz has looked into the relationship of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav to Franz Kafka. But Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka is more than an academic investigation; it is a rendering of Kaminetz’s personal relationship to these writers and his own spiritual journey. One would think that these two writers – one secular and assimilated, the other a Hasidic Rebbe – have nothing in common with each other. But Kaminetz shows, in a deeply personal way, that there are many common points of interest with respect to the tensions between despair and faith.

Like Kaminetz, I am interested in the relationship of Kafka and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. However, I am most interested in how they share a deep interest in the schlemiel.   For both Kafka and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, simplicity is a key trait of many of their characters.   And it is a key trait of the schlemiel.   Rabbi Nachman’s most important story on the schlemiel – which casts him as a simpleton – is “The Sophisticate and the Simpleton” (the “Hakham and the Tam”).   In this story the schlemiel is figured as a second rate cobbler who’s life is transformed when he is asked to visit the king. While he accepts the offer, the “sophisticate” finds every reason to doubt the same offer that is made to him. He insists that “the king doesn’t exist,” and even convinces the master (and several others) that if they haven’t experienced the king why would they continue to believe that he exists?

Kafka, no doubt, read this story and created his own version. He also went so far as to personalize it by putting himself in the shoes of the schlemiel.

On July 29th, 1917 Kafka titles his entry: “Court jester. Essay on court gestures.” Before writing a parable, Kafka notes that the “great days of the court jesters are probably gone never to return. Everything points in another direction, it cannot be denied.” However, Kafka preserves the spirit of the jester and the kind in a parable. He describes “our King” in terms that are contrary to the way royalty is described. Kafka’s King is – like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s (in another narrative) – “humble” and poorly dressed:

Our King made no display of pomp; anyone who did not know him from his pictures would never have recognized him as the King. His clothes were badly made, not in our shop, however, of a skimpy material, his coat forever unbuttoned, flapping and wrinkled, his hat crumpled, heavy boots.

Kafka describes his body as having a “strong face with a large, straight, masculine nose, a short mustache, dark somewhat too sharp eyes, a powerful, well shaped neck.” But the “movements of his arms” are “careless.” (I have noted, in another place, how, for Kafka, movement taps into a deeper level of reflection for Kafka.) Taken together, these movements and the attire of the King, suggest a kind of Midrashic reading of God’s presence (the shechina) which is “in the dust” and in “exile” with the Jews.

At the end of the parable, Kafka sees himself in relation to the King who calls on him by his first name.   The schlemiel, apparently, can help the king:

Once he stopped in passing in the doorway of our shop, put his right hand up against the lintel of the door, and asked, “Is Franz here?” He knew everyone by name. I came out of my dark corner and made my way through the journeymen. “Come along,” he said, after briefly glancing at me. “He’s moving into the castle,” he said to the master.

Kafka’s parable is a revision and personalization of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s schlemiel narrative. The implication is clear.   The schlemiel, for Kafka, is a kind of court jester. But he is not a fool – as many a court jester is – he is a simpleton and a cobbler. His job is to make garments. And, as the Zohar and Hasiduth often relate, a garment is a metaphor for a way of apprehending God and is posited as a medium through which one “clothes” holiness.

Although the schlemiel may be second-rate cobbler, the King wants him to live in the castle. In Kafka’s parable, he calls on “Franz” to “come along” and be – like a jester – closest to the humble king.   The interesting thing is that this figuration of the King is much different from the one we see with respect to Abraham – who is also called on. That call inspires “fear and trembling.” This call does not.   After all, in this parable the only sacrifice “Franz” has to make is to leave his fellow “journeymen” behind.

But in Rabbi Nachman’s narrative there is a greater sacrifice and this prompts a question with respect to Kafka’s parable. In his story, the “sophisticate” is left behind because he can’t believe that he would be called on by an actual king. Its all make believe. The simpleton doesn’t think that way.   With this in mind, does Kafka also renounce the sophisticate? Kaminetz struggles with this in his book since he sees Kafka’s “irony” as getting in the way of his faith. But in this parable there is no irony.

In this parable, Kafka’s personal god has a family resemblance to Rabbi Nachman’s.   It is the god of the schlemiel. And at any moment, the humble King can walk into the shop and call on the cobbler to come near.   But he can’t be called on unless he cobbles together garments (narratives) with the utmost humility. In this sense, not only the subject but also the writer is a simpleton. But this call can only be heard if the author renounces the sophisticated ironist.   The irony of this renunciation is that – in the end – this act seems to be comedic.

Since Kafka is so touched by modernity, isn’t he acting “as if” he is a simpleton? As Ruth Wisse suggests, the secular schlemiel acts “as if” the good exists in order to redeem what is best about humanity.  Did Kafka do this? Or did he sincerely think that by becoming a schlemiel he would be called on and drawn near to the humble king? Perhaps Kafka was taking his chances with the schlemiel and its relationship to God by revising and personalizing Rabbi Nachman’s parable?

I’ll let the question stand….as Kafka himself phrased it:

Is Franz here?

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