Intimacy and humanity

A doodle by Franz Kafka, with a comment by Acilius*

Part I.  Some remarks about Franz Kafka

In the Autumn of 1921, Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his sister Elli Herrmann in which he discussed, among other things, Jonathan’s Swift’s educational ideas.  This letter, published in an English translation in The Chicago Review in 1977,** contains these passages:

This, then, is what Swift thinks***:

Every typical family represents merely an animal connection, as it were, a a single organism, a single bloodstream.  Cast back on itself, it cannot get beyond itself.  From itself it cannot create a new individual and to try to do so through the education within the family is a kind of intellectual incest. (page 49)

Kafka enlarges on this statement through two very interesting paragraphs, in the first of which he describes the family as “an organism, but an extremely complex and unbalanced one”; in the second, he attributes the unbalanced character of the family to “the monstrous superiority in power of the parents  vis-á-vis the  children for so many years.”  He then comes to the heart of the matter:

The essential difference between true education and family education is that the first is a human affair, the second a family affair.  In humanity every individual has its place or at least the possibility of being destroyed in its own fashion.  In the family, clutched in the tight embrace of the parents, there is room only for certain people who conform to certain requirements and moreover have to meet the deadlines dictated by the parents.  If they do not conform, they are not expelled- that would be very fine, but it is impossible, for we are dealing with an organism here- but accursed or consumed or both.  The consuming does not take place on the physical plane, as in the archetype of Greek mythology (Kronos, the most honest of fathers, who devoured his sons; but perhaps Kronos preferred this to the usual methods out of pity for his children.)

The selfishness of parents- the authentic parental emotion- knows no bounds.  Even the greatest parental love is, as far as education is concerned, more selfish than the smallest love of the paid educator.  It cannot be otherwise.  For parents do not stand in a free relationship with their children, as an adult stands to a child- after all, they are his own blood, with this added grave complication: the blood of both the parents.  When the father “educates” the child (it is the same for the mother) he will, of course, find things in the child that he already hates in himself and could not overcome and which he now hopes to overcome, since the weak child seems to be more in his power than he himself.  And so in a blind fury, without waiting for the child’s own development, he reaches into the depths of the growing human being to pluck out the offending element…  Or he finds things in the child that he loves in himself or longs to have and considers necessary for the family.  Then he is indifferent to the child’s other qualities.  He sees in the child only the thing he loves, he clings to that, he makes himself its slave, he consumes it out of love.  (page 50)

After this description, Kafka finds it necessary to clarify.  “I repeat: Swift does not wish to disparage parental love; on the contrary, he considers it so strong a force that under certain circumstances children should be shielded from this parental love” (page 51.)  He concludes:

What then must be done?  According to Swift, children should be taken from their parents.  That is to say, the equilibrium the family animal needs should be postponed to a time when children, independent of their parents, should become equal to them in physical and mental powers, and then the time is come for the true and loving equilibrium to take place, the very thing that you call “being saved” and that others call “the gratitude of children” and which they find so rarely.


Of course Swift does not deny that parents under certain circumstances can be an excellent unit for educating children, but only strangers’ children.  That, then, is how I read the Swiftian passage.

If Kafka shared the view that “parents under certain circumstances can be an excellent unit for educating children, but only strangers’ children,” one may wonder what those circumstances would be.  What always comes to my mind when I read that line is the passage in The Castle when K. is told that he and Frieda are to make their home in a classroom:

You have, Land-Surveyor, to clean and heat both classrooms daily, to make any small repairs in the house, further to look after the class and gymnastic apparatus personally, to keep the garden path free of snow, run messages for me and the woman teacher, and look after all the work in the garden in the warmer seasons of the year.  In return for that you have the right to live in whichever one of the classrooms you like; but when both rooms are not being used at the same time for teaching, and you are in the room that is needed, you must of course move to the other room.  You mustn’t do any cooking in the school; in return you and your dependents will be given your meals here in the inn at the cost of the Village Council.  That you must behave in a manner consonant with the dignity of the school, and in particular that the children during school hours must never be allowed to witness any unedifying matrimonial scenes, I mention only in passing, for as an educated man you must of course know that.  In connection with that I want to say further that we must insist on your relations with Fräulein Frieda being legitimized at the earliest possible moment.  About all this and a few other trifling matters an agreement will be made out, which as soon as you move over to the school must be signed by you.”  To K. all this seemed of no importance, as if it did not concern him, or at any rate did not bind him; but the self importance of the teacher irritated him, and he said carelessly: “I know, they’re the usual duties.” ****

In this passage I suppose we see the obverse of the point Kafka finds in Swift.  As the family is an impossible setting for the education that raises a person above the animal level, so a schoolroom is an impossible setting for the animal connection that grounds the intimacies of family life.

The overall impression is of a horror of intimacy.  Kafka, or Jonathan Swift as Kafka interprets him,  recoiled from the intimacy of the bond between parent and child and dreamed of replacing that bond with the professional relationship between teacher and pupil.  Throughout his diaries, Kafka mirrors the desire to replace an urgently intimate relationship with a coolly professional one as he confesses that he is holding Felice Bauer and her successors at a distance while developing an ominous fascination with prostitutes.  Take for example this passage, which he wrote on 19 November 1913:

I intentionally walk through the streets where there are whores.  Walking past them excites me, the remote but nevertheless existent possibility of going with one.  Is that grossness?  But I know no better, and doing this seems basically innocent to me and causes me almost no regret.  I want only the stout, older ones, with outmoded clothes that have, however, a certain luxuriousness because of various adornments.  One woman probably knows me by now.  I met her this afternoon, she was not yet in her working clothes, her hair was still flat against her head, she was wearing no hat, a work blouse like a cook’s, and was carrying a bundle of some sort, perhaps to the laundress.  No one would have found anything exciting in her, only me.  We looked at each other fleetingly.  Now, in the evening, it had meanwhile grown cold, I saw her, wearing a tight-fitting, yellowish-brown coat, on the other side of the narrow street that branches off from the Zeltnerstrasse, where she has her beat.  I looked back at her twice, she caught the glance, but then I really ran away from her.

This uncertainty is surely the result of thinking about F. *****

Self-critical as he was, Kafka analyzed his behavior towards his fiancee as a series of attempts to avoid intimacy, and he felt terrible about it.  It’s with another image of streets and alleys that Kafka confesses that he has willfully kept Felice at a distance, and done her harm thereby:

Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.  Live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that is the only possible way to endure marriage.  But she?

And despite all this, if we, I and F., had equal rights, if we had the same prospects and possibilities, I would not marry.  But this blind alley into which I have slowly pushed her life makes it an unavoidable duty for me, although its consequences are by no means unpredictable.  Some secret law of human relationship is at work here.******

In his letter to Elli, Kafka had spoken of the relationship between parents and children as monstrously deformed by the imbalance of power between the parties, and had speculated about a way to introduce a balance between them.  Here again he is concerned about inequality in an intimate relationship, seeing his relationship with Felice as one in which he has been cast as her oppressor by the different standards to which society held men and women.  From a certain perspective we can say that Kafka speaks as a feminist in these passages; but it would be far more accurate to say that he speaks as a liberal.  To the extent that liberalism can be defined as the doctrine that society should be based on reason, the views Kafka attributes to Swift might almost be called liberalism’s reductio ad absurdum.  Perhaps this thoroughgoing liberalism reflects a side of Kafka’s sincere belief.  It is not difficult to imagine the author of the famous “Letter to His Father” speaking in this vein, and his diary entry dated 19 June 1914 suggests that Elli might have heard sentiments like those her brother here attributes to Jonathan Swift from another sibling as well:  “How the two of us, Ottla and I, explode in rage against every kind of human relationship.”*******  Perhaps, too, his willingness to believe that Swift is speaking straightforwardly when he praises the Lilliputians is in part a response to the fact that Swift, as a British subject who wrote in English, symbolized a world power that was in 1921, under the banner of liberalism, enforcing policies in Central Europe that did in fact break up families and push people into the care of impersonal institutions.

If Kafka saw families as single organisms which deformed the individuals in them, it can hardly be surprising that he was desperate to avoid forming one.  But what of other institutions that promise intimate experiences, but involve unequal power relationships that might overwhelm their individual members?  What of religion, for example?

Several times in his diaries, Kafka reflects on the intimacy of shared religious experience, often in such a way as to connect that intimacy with the sort of raw animality that he finds in the parent-child bond.   Note this account of a bris:

This morning my nephew’s circumcision.  A short, bow-legged man, Austerlitz, who already has 2800 circumcisions behind him, carried the thing out very skillfully.  It is an operation made more difficult by the fact that the boy, instead of lying on a table, lies on his grandfather’s lap, and by the fact that the person performing the operation, instead of paying close attention, must whisper prayers.  First the boy is prevented from moving by wrappings which leave only his member free, then the surface to be operated on is defined precisely by putting on a perforated metal disc, then the operation is performed with what is almost an ordinary knife, a sort of fish knife.  One sees blood and raw flesh, the moule bustles about briefly with his long-nailed, trembling fingers and pulls skin from some place or other over the wound like the finger of a glove.  At once everything is all right, the child has scarcely cried.  Now there remains only a short prayer during which the moule drinks some wine and with his fingers, not yet entirely unbloody, carries some wine to the child’s lips.  Those present pray: “As he has now achieved the covenant, so may he achieve knowledge of the Torah, a happy marriage, and the performance of good deeds.”

Today when I heard the moule‘s assistant say the grace after meals and those present, aside from the two grandfathers, spent the time in dreams or boredom with a complete lack of understanding of the prayer, I saw Western European Judaism before me in a transition whose end is clearly unpredictable and about which those most closely affected are not concerned, but, like all people truly in transition, bear what is imposed upon them.  It is so indisputable that these religious forms which have reached their final end have merely a historical character, even as they are practiced today, that only a short time was needed this very morning to interest the people present in the obsolete custom of circumcision and its half-sung prayers by describing it to them as something out of history.********

These paragraphs sit oddly together.  The opening remark that the “operation” is impeded by the traditional circumstances of its performance is belied by the lovingly detailed description of those circumstances and their profound peacefulness.  Obviously it would be missing the point entirely to turn this most intimate of rituals into an antiseptic operating room procedure.  Without the grandfather’s lap, the prayers, the wine, the hushed relatives, and the picturesque rabbi with his unassuming double-edged knife, it’s simply a medical procedure, to be recommended perhaps in rare cases.  The “operation” itself is the least defensible part of the whole thing, from the strictly rational point of view a modernizer might have been expected to adopt in 1911.  With “obsolete” in the last sentence, however, we return to the conceit that the narrator is unaware of this absurdity, that he sincerely wants to create an up-to-date circumcision, a sterilized scientific bris for the age of progress.

Undoubtedly Kafka’s irony is at work here, an irony which perhaps might have borne richer fruit in a more polished composition.  Indeed, he seems to have been dissatisfied with the entry; the next day, he wrote an account of the highly unsanitary circumcision practices allegedly prevalent among Russian Jews, which is so remarkably ugly that it reads like an antisemite’s fever dream.   I’ll quote only the last four sentences of this nauseating passage:

The circumciser, who performs his office without payment, is usually a drinker- busy as he is, he has no time for the various holiday foods and so simply pours down some brandy.  Thus they all have red noses and reeking breaths.  It is therefore not very pleasant when, after the operation has been performed, they suck the bloody member with this mouth, in the prescribed manner.  The member is then sprinkled with sawdust and heals in about three days. *********

The next paragraph is more palatable, if not exactly convincing:

A close-knit family life does not seem to be so very common among and characteristic of the Jews, especially those in Russia.  Family life is also found among Christians, after all, and the fact that women are excluded from the study of the Talmud is really destructive of Jewish family life; when the man wants to discuss learned talmudic matters- the very core of his life- with guests, the women withdraw to the next room even if they need not do so- so it is even more characteristic of the Jews that they come together at every possible opportunity, whether to pray or to study or to discuss divine matters or to eat holiday meals whose basis is usually a religious one and at which alcohol is drunk only moderately.  They flee to one another, so to speak.**********

In both of these passages, we see a similar movement from the first paragraph to the second.  The first paragraph describes in considerable detail a ritual in which people share what appear to be bonds of great intimacy, the second explains that this intimacy is mediated through something that keeps those same people from becoming too close to each other.  At his nephew’s circumcision, the ritual is lovely and tranquil; among the Russian Jews of Kafka’s Prague imagination, the ritual is an obscene Bacchanal (believe me, the passage I quoted is the printable part.)  The Prague Jews in attendance at his nephew’s circumcision only appear to be sharing a moment of the closest intimacy; in fact, their attention is focused on the distant history behind the ceremony, and only incidentally do they relate to each other at all.  The Russian Jews of Kafka’s imagination also seem to be sharing something very personal, but when we follow them home from their loathsome debauch we find that they are deeply intellectual and only too mindful of the proprieties.

Not only does Kafka see religion as a sphere in which people only appear to achieve intimacy with each other.  He also imagines the supernatural realm as a set of equally diffident relationships.  Take this diary entry, for example:

The invention of the devil.  If we are possessed by the devil, it cannot be by one, for then we should live, at least here on earth, quietly, as with God, in unity, without contradiction, without reflection, always sure of the man behind us.  His face would not frighten us, for as diabolical beings we would, if somewhat sensitive to the sight, be clever enough to prefer to sacrifice a hand in order to keep his face covered with it.  If we were possessed by only a single devil, one who had a calm, untroubled view of our whole nature, and freedom to dispose of us at any moment, then that devil would also have the power to hold us for the length of a human life high above the spirit of God in us, and even to swing us to and fro, so that we should never get to see a glimmer of it and therefore should not be troubled from that quarter.  Only a crowd of devils could account for our earthly misfortunes.  Why don’t they exterminate each other until only a single one is left, or why don’t they subordinate themselves to one great devil?  Either way would be in accord with the diabolical principle of deceiving us as completely as possible.  With unity lacking, of what use is the scrupulous attention all the devils pay us?  It simply goes without saying that the falling of a human hair must matter more to the devil than to God, since the devil really loses that hair and God does not.  But we still do not arrive at any state of well-being so long as the many devils are within us. ************

I’ve never understood the appeal of the distant, indifferent gods of Epicurus and the deists; evidently Kafka does.

Part II.  Three pieces in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic

Kafka’s letter to Elli may also have shed some light on another English author, one born the year after he wrote it: Philip Larkin.  Larkin’s most famous lines are undoubtedly the opening of his “This Be the Verse“:

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had,

And add some extra, just for you.

The May 2011 issue of the Atlantic includes a review of a new collection of  Philip Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones, with whom the poet had a relationship that not even Kafka’s famously frustrated girlfriends could have envied.  The reviewer, Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother Christopher, notes that Larkin and Jones “did not cohabit until very near the end, finally forced into mutual dependence by decrepitude on his part and dementia on hers: perhaps the least romantic story ever told.”  He supports this description with numerous quotations from letters in which Larkin apologizes for the rarity and unpleasantness of their sexual encounters.

Where Kafka retreated into a fascination with prostitutes as a way of avoiding intimacy with Felice, Larkin kept his relationship with Monica arid in part by becoming “a heroic consumer of pornography and an amateur composer of sado­masochistic reveries” and amassing “the vast library of a hectically devoted masturbator.”  Larkin’s interest in sadomasochism may have helped him develop this idea:

I think—though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on—someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex—its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t.

People often accuse feminist thinkers Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon of holding the view to which Larkin gives voice here; I don’t actually believe they do, but perhaps some of the reason people are so fond of caricaturing their views in this way is that they suspect it is the truth and they wish someone would say it.

In the same issue, Benjamin Schwarz writes an essay about novelist James M. Cain, Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, and a TV adaptation of the novel that was due to air when the magazine was on the stands.*************  This paragraph caught my attention:

[I]n Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers. (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained Mildred’s technique, “but found that this didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce—the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy—not just absorbing but romantic.

The quote from Cain might have intrigued both Kafka and Larkin. Each of those men managed to conduct his sex life in a way that had more of solemnity than of intimacy about it, and in each case it was through “small-time commerce” (with prostitutes in Kafka’s case and with magazine vendors in Larkin’s) that a barrier was put around sexuality to keep it from becoming too intimate.

Ta-Nehisi Coates compares Barack Obama with Malcolm X.  Here’s an important paragraph from Coates’ piece:

For all of Malcolm’s prodigious intellect, he was ultimately more an expression of black America’s heart than of its brain. Malcolm was the voice of a black America whose parents had borne the slights of second-class citizenship, who had seen protesters beaten by cops and bitten by dogs, and children bombed in churches, and could only sit at home and stew. He preferred to illuminate the bitter calculus of oppression, one in which a people had been forced to hand over their right to self-defense, a right enshrined in Western law and morality and taken as essential to American citizenship, in return for the civil rights that they had been promised a century earlier. The fact and wisdom of nonviolence may be beyond dispute—the civil-rights movement profoundly transformed the country. Yet the movement demanded of African Americans a superhuman capacity for forgiveness. Dick Gregory summed up the dilemma well. “I committed to nonviolence,” Marable quotes him as saying. “But I’m sort of embarrassed by it.”

Again, this reminds me of Kafka, in particular of his ideas about education. Parents may hand over their right to educate their children to teachers whose relationship to students is impersonal, and it may be beyond dispute that this is called for.  But it is sort of embarrassing to admit that the passionate relationships within the family must sometimes be reined in, that children have needs that are not simply outside the scope of what parents can provide, but needs that cannot be met in the presence of the parents.  That applies as well to the need for defense against physical violence as to the need for education.

Coates finds two similarities between Mr X and Mr O.  First is their common emphasis on the theme of self-invention, second their symbolic roles as powerful African American men:

For all of Malcolm’s invective, his most seductive notion was that of collective self-creation: the idea that black people could, through force of will, remake themselves… For black people who were never given much of an opportunity to create themselves apart from a mass image of shufflers and mammies, that vision had compelling appeal.

What gave it added valence was Malcolm’s own story, his incandescent transformation from an amoral wanderer to a hyper-moral zealot. “He had a brilliant mind. He was disciplined,” Louis Farrakhan said in a speech in 1990, and went on:

I never saw Malcolm smoke. I never saw Malcolm take a drink … He ate one meal a day. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to say his prayers … I never heard Malcolm cuss. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman Malcolm was like a clock.Farrakhan’s sentiments are echoed by an FBI informant, one of many who, by the late 1950s, had infiltrated the Nation of Islam at the highest levels:

Brother Malcolm … is an expert organizer and an untiring worker … He is fearless and cannot be intimidated … He has most of the answers at his fingertips and should be carefully dealt with. He is not likely to violate any ordinances or laws. He neither smokes nor drinks and is of high moral character.In fact, Marable details how Malcolm was, by the end of his life, perhaps evolving away from his hyper-moral persona. He drinks a rum and Coke and allows himself a second meal a day. Marable suspects he carried out an affair or two, one with an 18-year-old convert to the Nation. But in the public mind, Malcolm rebirthed himself as a paragon of righteousness, and even in Marable’s retelling he is obsessed with the pursuit of self-creation. That pursuit ended when Malcolm was killed by the very Muslims from whom he once demanded fealty.


Among organic black conservatives, this moral leadership still gives Malcolm sway. It’s his abiding advocacy for blackness, not as a reason for failure, but as a mandate for personal, and ultimately collective, improvement that makes him compelling. Always lurking among Malcolm’s condemnations of white racism was a subtler, and more inspiring, notion—“You’re better than you think you are,” he seemed to say to us. “Now act like it.”

Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as “our living, black manhood” and “our own black shining prince.” Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama. Progressives who always enjoyed Malcolm’s thundering denunciations more than his moral appeals are unimpressed by that message. But among blacks, Obama’s moral appeals are warmly received, not because the listeners believe racism has been defeated, but because cutting off your son’s PlayStation speaks to something deep and American in black people—a belief that, by their own hand, they can be made better, they can be made anew.

Like Malcolm, Obama was a wanderer who found himself in the politics of the black community, who was rooted in a nationalist church that he ultimately outgrew. Like Malcolm’s, his speeches to black audiences are filled with exhortations to self-creation, and draw deeply from his own biography. In his memoir, Barack Obama cites Malcolm’s influence on his own life:

His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.

Kafka was no prophet of self-invention, collective or otherwise, and charismatic leaders never attracted his attention.  However, the one political cause that sometimes did inspire him was Zionism.  He even seems to have toyed with the idea of moving to Palestine himself.  He occasionally made harsh remarks about Jews as a people, such as the Russian circumcision story quoted above.   Those remarks appear in the context of an explicit longing for a new social order in which Jews will no longer be everywhere in the minority, everywhere under pressure to assimilate, everywhere humiliated and relegated either to the squalor of poverty or to the shadow world of the metropolitan bureaucracy.  So I’m sure he would have understood the appeal of the Nation of Islam quite well.  Perhaps what Kafka hoped to find in the kibbutz he dreamed of joining, and what Malcolm X hoped for during his Black Muslim period, was a new world where family relations were untroubled by the stigmas imposed on the family from without.

Coates seems to favor such an interpretation of Malcolm X.  He begins his piece by talking about his mother’s childhood, spent largely in the absorption of homemade hair-straightening product.  He commits a pun when he says that at 12, his mother was relaxed for the first time in her life.  It turns out that she had undergone a hair-straightening treatment called a “relaxer.”  He goes on to describe his own childhood, passed in the 1970s, in an atmosphere where the legacy of Malcolm X was everywhere.  He suggests that he enjoyed an easy intimacy with his parents that his grandparents had never had a chance to share with them, in part because his grandparents had felt an obligation to press the standards of white America onto their children.*************

When Kafka talks about the unreasoning animality at the heart of the relationship between parent and child, and the imbalance of power that inevitably deforms that relationship, I wonder if he might imagine a world where those qualities would be tempered.  Perhaps in a family that is not pervaded by the sense of being a guest, and not a welcome guest, in the only home available to it the parents might have emotional and intellectual resources available within themselves, and social support available from their neighbors, sufficient to reinvent the parent-child relationship in such a way that its animal character is sublimated into something as humanizing as any school.  And perhaps in such a society the family’s bonds with its neighbors would include the children in a complex enough social order that the parents’ power would be moderated.  One wishes Kafka had lived to see the establishment of the state of Israel; I wonder whether he would have advised Israeli Jewish parents to send their children to boarding schools.

*A sketch by Franz Kafka, published on page 354 of Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics, 1976); edited by Max Brod, translated by Joseph Kresh

**”Two Letters by Franz Kafka,” edited and translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston; Chicago Review, volume 29, number 1 (Summer 1977,) pages 49-55

***Kafka is referring to chapter six of Gulliver’s Travels.  In his previous letter to Elli, he had written thus:

For myself I have (among many others) one great witness, whom I quote here, simply because he is great and because I have read this passage only yesterday, not because I presume to have the same opinion.  In describing Gulliver’s travels in Lilliput (whose institutions he praises highly), Swift says: “Their notions relating to the duties of parents and children differ extremely from ours.  For, since the conjunction of male and female is founded upon the great law of nature, in order to propagate and continue the species, the Lilliputians will needs have it that that men and women are joined together like other animals by the motives of concupiscence, and that their tenderness toward their young proceedeth from the like natural principle.  For which reason they will never allow that a child is under any obligation to his father for begetting him or to his mother for bringing him into the world, which, considering the miseries of human life, was neither a benefit on itself nor intended so by his parents, whose thoughts in their love-encounters were otherwise employed.  Upon these and the like reasonings, their opinion is that the parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the education of their own children.”  He obviously means by that, altogether in keeping with your distinction between “person” and “son,” that if a child is to become a person, he must be removed as soon as possible from the brutishness, for so he expresses it, the mere animal conjunction from which he has his being.  (from Franz Kafka, Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston; Schocken Books, 1977, page 293.)

It may prevent misunderstanding if I mention that in his original letter, Kafka quoted Swift in German translation, not in the original text the Winstons provide above (see pages 342-343 in Franz Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924, edited by Max Brod; Schocken Books, 1958.)

****Kafka, The Castle, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (Schocken Books, 1982) page 123

*****Kafka, Diaries, page 238 (19 November 1913)

******Kafka, Diaries, page 228 (14 August 1913)

*******Kafka, Diaries, page 290 (19 June 1914)

********Kafka, Diaries, pages 147-148 (24 December 1911)

*********Kafka, Diaries, pages 151-152 (25 December 1911)

**********Kafka, Diaries, page 152 (25 December 1911)

***********Kafka, Diaries, pages 204-205 (9 July 1912)

************Yes, I know that was several months ago.  I’m sorry, I’ve been busy.

*************And yes, I know that “press the standards of white America onto their children” is, in the context of a story about hair straightening, also a pun.  It’s catching, I’m afraid.

The Origin of Superwoman

This issue of The Atlantic has been lying around our apartment for several weeks while I worked on my actual job; last night, I had time to read it.  The one thing I wanted to note was Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece about how her view of herself as a mother has changed in the aftermath of her divorce.  Partly because she’s now virtually homeless, partly because she’s been smeared as a symbol of neglectful parenting on “blogs large and small all across our fair nation” (oh, and in the Los Angeles Times as well,) Tsing Loh now takes a hard look at the ideals of motherhood into which she was once indoctrinated and which she can no longer hope to meet.  She turns for enlightenment to a pair of books that I remember seeing all over the place in the 1970s, but that have apparently become hard to find in the last couple of decades: Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex.  She particularly recommends Greer’s chapter on “Family,” which traces the change from the traditional norm of a multigenerational extended family consisting of dozens of people related by blood who live and work together to the modern Western norm of the nuclear family, a couple and their children separated from their “stem families,” often by hundreds or thousands of miles.  Tsing Loh quotes Greer’s statement that the traditional family was a more stable system than the nuclear family because responsibility for its most crucial functions did not “rest on the frail shoulders of two bewildered individuals trying to apply a contradictory blueprint.”     

Some months ago I quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s remark that, “When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: ”You are not enough people!”  It seems that Vonnegut and Greer were thinking along the same lines in some ways.  Not in all ways; Vonnegut seems to be suggesting that we as humans, by our nature, can be nurtured only in the bosom of a close-knit multigenerational extended family, while Greer’s argument leaves open the possibility that our need for extended families is one side of a contradictory inheritance from our pre-capitalist past, and that we might in time be reshaped so that we can find happiness without returning to the days before capitalism.  That’s a big difference, of course.   And Vonnegut’s remarks leave out the main theme of Greer’s study, the inequality of the sexes in various forms of family structure.  Close-knit multigenerational extended family groupings are usually, perhaps always, strongly patriarchal; the nuclear family may dethrone  the paterfamilias, but it may also isolate a wife from other women during her marriage and throw her naked to the cold winds of the labor market in case of divorce. 

Still, where Vonnegut and Greer do agree is that the nuclear family does not put enough people under a roof to maintain a stable home life.  The Supermom ideal which Tsing Loh has bitterly learned she will never be able to meet is a symptom of this underpopulation.  The future Supermom is supposed to establish herself in “a cool Creative Class career, like Writer.”  Then, she adds to that career a second career, as Child Care Provider Extraordinaire.  “Today’s Professional Class mothers are expected to have… the personalities- and the creative aspirations- of elementary school teachers.  But if you’re like me, you can’t compete with those seasoned professionals for whom child education is an enthusiastic vocation.”  Unless your Creative Class career is as an elementary school teacher, you are almost certain to be like Tsing Loh.  Surely it would be a miracle of sorts if a person whose background was in one profession could, on the strength of no particular training, match a qualified and experienced professional in another profession, whatever her personality.     

Supermom, by dint of her miraculous gift for childhood education, then shepherds her children into Creative Class careers of their own.  And the requirements for membership in the Creative Class are unforgivingly narrow; “We see, at our Creative meetings, the line that separates state-college folk from Ivy alums.”  It’s all well and good if your kids are writers or artists or whatever, but if their degrees are from humble adult education programs like the University of Michigan or UC Berkeley, it doesn’t count, apparently.  You’re still a flop as a mother.  The Creative Class Supermom not only guides her children into this fantastically narrow mold, she does it  without stifling their individuality; “the last thing she wants to be is a 1950s style nag.” 

For those who accept defeat in the contest to be Supermom, there is consolation in the works of D. W. Winnicott, a 1950s psychoanalyst who developed a concept of the “good enough” mother.  Tsing Loh finds that Winnicott’s “good enough” mother is “actually pretty close to perfect.”  

Supermom is devoted to her children; so devoted, in fact, that she is racked with guilt if she suspects that she loves their father more than she loves them.  This, to Tsing Loh’s disappointment, is why Ayelet Waldman titles her memoir Bad Mother.  While Tsing Loh fears that she is a bad mother because she left her husband for another man, Waldman fears that she is a bad mother because she can’t keep her hands off her husband, her children’s biological father.  Tsing Loh says that this isn’t so crazy; after all, “The very success of the modern American family- where kids get punctually to SAT tutoring classes, the mortgage gets paid, the second-story remodel stays on budget- surely depends on spouses not being in love.”  Being in love simply takes up too much time and attention to meet all of Supermom’s, or for that matter Superdad’s, obligations. 

This is where it becomes crucial that “You are not enough people.”  Not only are spouses dissatisfied with a marriage that only gives them one more person to talk to, and that person a member of the opposite sex, but children are dissatisfied too.  Without grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, all under the same roof, they direct all their demands to their parents.  Without their own parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews, parents direct all of their aspirations to their children.  Because each person is only one person, nothing parent or child does can satisfy the other’s need for a bigger group.  What the parents do have to offer is chauffeur service, fees for tutoring, and entry into structured activities led by adults who wear whistles around their necks.  What the children have to offer is the good opinion of such adults.  These goods can only for a moment quiet the longing for a larger kinship group, and so each side demands ever more of them.  The two beleaguered parents insist on providing ever more education to their children; they pride themselves on it, to the point where it becomes inconceivable for them not to judge other parents based on the lengths to which they have gone in playing this particular game.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, on extended families


A quiet evening at home

In a comment thread elsewhere on the blog, Cymast, LeFalcon, and I have had a thought-provoking discussion about the concept of extended family.  So I decided to post these remarks Kurt Vonnegut, Jr made in his commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Georgia in 1999.  You may recognize the passage; it has been widely quoted.  It’s still one of the first things I think about when the topic of extended family comes up, so here it is.   

OK, now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about women. Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.

What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.

Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families any more. It used to be that when a man and women got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.

A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.

But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.

When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, not how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:

”You are not enough people!”

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty is was, or handsome.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?

I sure wish I could wave a wand, and give every one of you an extended family – make you an Ibo or a Navaho – or a Kennedy. 

Chronicles, March 2009

same-sex-weddingI first became aware of the political question of same-sex marriage in 1980.  I was in fifth grade and we were supposed to conduct debates in class about issues of the day.  I was assigned to the group opposing this proposition: “The Equal Rights Amendment should be passed.”  Researching for my part in the debate, I found an argument that the plain wording of the proposed amendment (“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”) would grant men the right to marry other men and women the right to marry other women.  This was in the context of an article opposing the amendment. 

At first I was excited to find this claim.  Up to that point all that I had been able to find were dry legal arguments that would never capture the attention of my classmates.  Here at last was a point that would grab the imaginations of everyone in the room and hold them for as long as I needed. 

But as I thought it over, I realized that there was an obvious question that would stump me if anyone asked it.  Why shouldn’t same sex couples be free to marry?  The only argument in the article was that same sex couples couldn’t reproduce.  My immediate response to that was to think of my grandmother.  When my grandfather died, she was in her fifties, most assuredly past childbearing.  Yet she remarried, and no one thought to object.  So why was the sterility of same sex couples a reason why they should not be allowed to marry? 

In the decades since, I’ve kept an eye on the debate.  I’ve found some very sensible arguments supporting the right of same sex couples to marry, and some intriguing arguments to the effect that no one should marry.  But what I have not found are many substantive arguments in favor of reserving marriage for heterosexual couples.  This is quite surprising.  One would assume that by now someone would have come up with a worthwhile argument  in favor of the status quo

In this issue of Chronicles, Thomas Fleming explains why he is opposed to same sex marriage.  (more…)