FRANZ KAFKA by Sander L. Gilman


The Jewish Patient
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 A fine-grained, scholarly exhumation of the buried cultural and especially medical lore that helped shape Kafka's conflicted self-understanding as a Jew in turn-of-the-century Austria and Czechoslovakia. Gilman (Jewish Self-Hatred, 1986, etc.) seeks to reconstruct the lost ``discourses'' of race, gender, and disease in Kafka's time. He argues that Kafka's anxieties about his Jewish identity stem directly from his anxieties about his body and its infirmities, both real and imaginary. Always underweight, nervous, and much inclined to heed the health fads of his day, Kafka fretted a great deal over his health. Then, as if in fulfillment of his expectations, he got really sick. In 1917 he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that killed him in 1924. Kafka regarded his disease as the bodily expression of some deeper spiritual malady. Gilman sensibly proposes that the writer had internalized medical and popular anti-Semitic myths about a supposedly inbred genetic legacy that predisposed Jews to certain illnesses (especially syphilis and tuberculosis) and resulted in what was thought to be the degenerate feminization of European culture at the end of the 19th century. Jewish men in particular, supposedly less robust than their virile ``Aryan'' counterparts, were thought to embody a somatic decline into sickly effeminacy. This general picture of Kafka's own self- understanding is not new. What Gilman offers in the way of fresh insight is a wealth of concrete detail from the prevailing (mis)conceptions of the time's learned and not-so-learned culture. However, Gilman is unable to parlay his deepened understanding of the cultural background into new or revealing readings of Kafka's texts. A work as central to the Kafka canon as The Castle, for example, is dealt with on a single page, which contends vaguely that the novel's setting may have something to do with tuberculosis spas of the day. Excellent, often engrossing as cultural history; disappointing as literary criticism. (illustrations)

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 1995
ISBN: 0-415-91177-X
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Routledge
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1995


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