What Goes Up Must Come Down: Kafka, Writing, and the Apocalyptic

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Apocalyptic disaster is and has been a preoccupation with many great writers and artists. Apocalypse is also a grave concern for prophets and prophesies that span Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern Religions. Oftentimes the apocalyptic is described as something that is not only revelatory and miraculous but also destructive. As I have pointed out elsewhere, a French Avant Garde playwright, actor, and poet like Antonin Artaud, was deeply interested in how the release of destructive energies was not simply a tragic affair. In fact, he argues that the Marx Brothers – in their first film, a comedy, Animal Crackers (1930)– released destructive energies.   Comedy, if it is relevant, is ultimately apocalyptic.   In the wake of destruction, Artaud claims that we can see our bodies and movements in new and vital ways. Although this operation “destroys the mind,” Artaud claims that a new kind of intelligence emerges which is musical and poetic.    He is enthralled with it and finds such a comic-slash-apocalyptic moment in the Marx Brothers to be mystical and inspiring.

Artaud was not alone in his artistic interest in the apocalyptic. In a diary entry from January 27, 1922, we learn that Kafka felt a “strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving comfort…in writing.”   But in a letter to Max Brod on July 5, 1922, the “dangerous” element of the element overshadows the “saving comfort of writing.”   Instead of lifting him up, writing plunges him down.

Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in these nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine….at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only of this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me.

Kafka’s reflections on writing bear a fascinating resemblance to what Gershom Scholem calls the messianic idea. In his essay on the “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Gershom Scholem discusses two aspects of the Messianic Idea: one is restorative while the other is apocalyptic.   It is the latter aspect which, according to Scholem, was suppressed by the Rabbis for millennia. And in the Middle Ages, Maimonides leaves it out of his famous account of the messianic (in the Mishna Torah).

Scholem sees the Apocalyptic idea as holding a destructive “anarchic element.” He describes it in terms of its threat to Jewish law (halakhah) since, as a part of this idea, there is a notion of a “new Torah” that will emerge. Although the Rabbis interpret this as meaning that new secrets will be revealed, they do not think, in any way, that the mitzvoth (commandments) or halakhah will be altered.

Playing on this, Scholem plays the devils advocate and images what kinds of thoughts might go through someone’s head who entertains the apocalyptic idea of a new Torah:

A positive commandment or a prohibition could scarcely still be the same when it no longer had for its object the separation of good and evil to which man was called, but rather arose from the Messianic spontaneity of human freedom purely flowing forth. Since by its nature this freedom realizes only the good, it has no need for all those “fences” (on Rabbinic law) and restrictions with which the Halakhah was surrounded in order to secure it from temptations of evil. At this point there arises the possibility of a turning from the restorative conception of the final re-establishment of the reigning of law to a utopian view in which restrictive traits will no longer be determinative and decisive, but be replaced by certain as yet totally unpredictable traits which will reveal entirely new aspects of free fulfillment. Thus an anarchic element enters Messianic utopianism. (20-21).

Scholem claims that the allure of the apocalyptic element is not only to be understood in terms of the freedom it will release, it should also be seen for its power: it will, in his words, “destroy history.” And by history, he means something that is thought to be made by and for humans. (In terms of Judaism this looms large because the “winners,” as Scholem’s good friend Walter Benjamin notes, write history. Jews were, for millennia, excluded from history. Hence, the appeal to destroy it.) The miraculous element – equated with God’s power to decide – will bring humanity and its self-image to its knees and vindicate the Jewish people. Scholem – echoing the person who revels in the apocalyptic – finds this to be very exciting.

The person who took the Apocalyptic to its limit and caused generations to push it away with both hands was the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.   Writing on him in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem describes what he elsewhere calls Zevi’s “messianic activism.” This had a major influence on those who followed in his wake such as Jacob Frank. He created a kind of nihilistic imperative the called for a descent into evil for all Jews.

The radicals could not bear the thought of remaining content with the passive belief in the paradox of the Messiah’s mission. Rather did they hold that as the end draws nearer this paradox necessarily becomes universal. The action of the Messiah sets an example and to follow it is a duty. The consequences that flowed from these religious ideas were purely nihilistic, above all the conception of a voluntary Marrranism with the slogan: We must all descend into the realm of evil in order to vanquish it from within.   IN varying theoretical guises the apostles of nihilism preached the doctrine of the existence o spheres in which the process of Tikkun can no longer be advanced by pious acts: Evil must be fought with evil…..I am referring to the fatal, yet at the same time deeply fascinating doctrine of the holiness of sin….That in the religious nihilism of Sabbatianism, which during the eighteenth century proved so dangerous to the most precious possession of Judaism, its moral substance. (315)

As Scholem notes above, the descent into evil is “dangerous” because it threatens the “moral substance” which informs Judaism.   Although radical energies may be released in this descent, the sacrifice is too great. Kafka, it seems, was aware of this. Through the descent into evil – which he equates with writing “at night” – Kafka feared the worst.

Scholem poses the Sabbatinian obsession with the Apocalyptic as a nihilistic commandment of sorts. Strangely enough, Kafka also felt as if there was a commandment to write. But when he writes of this commandment he doesn’t quite understand it because he was confused about what writing actually meant. (We also see this, above, in his January 27, 1922 diary entry.)  But in his letter to Brod it seems that he knows what it accomplishes. He can’t seem to decide on its Apocalyptic meaning.  Like Kierkegaard’s depiction of Abraham, Kafka doesn’t know if writing rises him up or brings him down. Is the commandment to write coming from Satan or God?  Will his writing release demons or will it, as Walter Benjamin said of Kafka, help?

It all depends on how one sees the stakes. If, as Scholem suggests, the release of these energies implies the destruction of the “moral substance” of Judaism and the destruction of the law, perhaps one should think again. Will aesthetics – if it is apocalyptic – always come into conflict with ethics? Or is this – since it is “diabolical” – a conflict with faith? Kafka and Scholem were fascinated with these questions since, as Jews and Jewish thinkers who were fascinated with the mystical,  they both knew that Judaism’s concern for law and morality are at stake.   Why, after all, would the Rabbis tread so carefully around the apocalyptic imaginings of the prophets?

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