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Three Thoughts on Kafka and Violence

Since I’ve recently done a lot of Kafka re-reading--and, let’s be honest, one post on Kafka is just not enough--I threw together a post with some of my stray thoughts on Kafka and violence.

1. Read these Kafka stories about violence:

As I wrote last week, everyone knows about “The Metamorphosis”, but few people know about Kafka’s other works. These are my Kafka must read short stories about violence:

- First, of course, is “In The Penal Colony”. So, if you missed it, read my discussion of that story from last week.

- Second is the very surreal, very haunting short story “A Country Doctor”.

- Next, we have “An Old Manuscript” a short, haunting story about what happens when you invite the barbarians into the gates. More on this soon. Find a PDF here.

- Finally, “Jackals and Arabs” a story about Jackals, Arabs and violence. Which brings me to...

2. 9/11 ruined meaning.

Meaning changes, which is obvious. As society advances, changes, adapts, modernizes, the meaning behind old works of art changes. The modern viewer’s relationship to Renaissance art, which is mostly non-secular, is entirely different from the probably religious viewer in the 1500s.

Looking at art in the 21st century, 9/11 changed everything. I can’t think of another artist’s work whose meaning changed so dramatically following 9/11 as I can with Kafka’s "Jackals and Arabs". (Actually I can. Off the top of my head, Camus’ The Stranger is a great candidate. Any piece of work from Egyptian Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. That crappy Denzel Washington terrorism film or Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor. Or anything mentioning Muslims in a pre-9/11 context. Or anything written by any Muslim writer anywhere, at any time.)

Which is the point: 9/11 changed everything, including the Western world’s understanding of Muslims, Arab and Islam. Any latent meaning those groups held as symbols changed radically when the planes hit the towers. (Yes, an argument could be made that it wasn’t 9/11, but the Western world’s reaction to 9/11 that changed this meaning--i.e. blaming Islam, not radical Islamists--but that’s another post entirely.)

In the case of “Jackals and Arabs” (It’s very short. Read it here.) the meaning of “Arabs” has obviously changed. In short, Jackals approach a European during his visit to Arabia, and ask him to kill the Arabs with an ancient pair of scissors. Before 9/11, everyone would fear and despise the Jackals. Now, some Americans would root for them.

Another change. It’s possible to read the story as an analogy between the Jews and Muslims, but Kafka wrote “Jackals and Arabs” twenty years before Israel was created, and, as most people don’t know, Muslims didn’t hate Jews before the creation of the modern state of Israel. Most major Islamic cities had Jewish suburbs in them. Even though some Muslims probably disliked the Jews--I’m sure there was tons of anti-Semitism--Christians were a bigger threat to the Jews than Muslims. Hitler proved that pretty definitively.

Reading “Jackals and Arabs” today, I’m not sure I can even understand it. Still fascinating, its original meaning has been totally lost.

3. Is “Jackals and Arabs” racist?

I had a friend read the story recently, and he thought it was really racist. I disagree. For one, the Jackals, the racists in the story, are just characters. For two, both sides--the Jackals and the Arabs--hate each other, and are unjustifiably cruel to one another: The Arabs whip the Jackals for fun; the Jackals vainly try to murder the entire Arab race.

I’d offer a more complex reading of the story. This story isn’t about culture, but rivalry. it’s about cycles of violence. At least, that’s what I think. The glory of Kafka is that there isn’t one meaning. So like last week, read the stories and enjoy. Good luck in figuring them out. They call it Kafka-esque for a reason.

One comment

This won’t be the last post on Kafka, either. An Old Manuscript has tons of relevant advice on counter-insurgency, if you know where to look. Actually, that might be a longer form article.

Eric mentioned that Denzel Washington movie (I think Bruce was in it too.). It was surprisingly prophetic that, when the US would be confronted with terrorism that our response would be incidents of torture and disregard of civil liberties by some authorities to “protect our freedoms”. That said, after 9/11, tons of novels and films completely changed their cultural context.