Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Why Karl Calls Himself "Negro": The Representation of Waiting and the Waited-On in Franz Kafka's der Verschollene

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Why Karl Calls Himself "Negro": The Representation of Waiting and the Waited-On in Franz Kafka's der Verschollene

Article excerpt

Er nannte daher, da ihm im Augenblick kein anderer Name einfiel, nur den Rufnamen aus seinen letzten Stellungen: 'Negro'. *

Kafka's cryptic inclusion of the pseudonym "Negro" in his America-novel Der Verschollene, presented during the European immigrant Karl Rossmann's application process at the traveling Oklahoma Nature Theater, has prompted a variety of deliberations and interpretations. While not refuting any of these in particular, I suggest that Kafka's use of "Negro" in Der Verschollene in this perplexing and intriguing scene marks a critique on American society that is not restricted to race relations between blacks and whites in the early twentieth century. The term stands in broadly for the extreme inequalities of a markedly stratified society characterized in part by the exploitation of immigrant workers, a theme taken up not only in Kafka's Nature-Theater scenes, but throughout the novel. In support of this argument, I will outline the social hierarchies in Der Verschollene, focusing particular attention on how these power structures affect the novel's immigrants.

Previous interpretations of the protagonist's motivation for the self-imposed label "Negro" have been fascinatingly diverse. Heinz Politzer remarks on the label "Negro" as a reference to Karl's "Schwarzarbeit" as he works at various positions without the required paperwork. (1) Ralf Nicolai sees it as an allusion to Nietzsche's "slave morality," a morality based on fear and resentment among the powerless, which according to Nietzsche dominates the modern world. (2) Hartmut Binder proposes that the code name "Negro" connects Karl with the gangster world, indicating Karl's presumed foray into the dark realm of crime. (3) Meanwhile Jorg Wolfradt, in reading the unfinished novel Der Verschollene as an extended metaphor for the challenges and constraints of writing, points to the black ink wells likely used by Kafka, which would have been labeled in various languages: Noir in French, then Black in English, and finally Negro in Spanish. (4) Wilhelm Emrich discusses Karl's use of the term "Negro" as a sign of society's "black mask," adopted by Karl to cover his innate "whiteness," that is, his purity and innocence. (5) Horst Seferens connects the incident with Karl's strivings toward the utopian ideals of a just society and with the protagonist's attempts to establish an autonomous identity. (6)

Other readings are more directly related to racial issues and oppression of blacks in America, such as that of Hans-Peter Rusing, who considers the parallels between the historical slave trade and Karl's all-time nadir as he is sized up for his strength and ability to do heavy labor before being shipped off, by train, to Oklahoma. (7) Mark Anderson sees in the name "Negro" a "symbolic identification of Karl's final predicament with that of Black Americans." (8) Such an interpretation is well-founded since, as background material for Der Verschollene, Kafka reportedly relied on travelogues such as Arthur Holitscher's Amerika heute und morgen: Reiseerlebnisse, published in 1912, the same year when Kafka began his novel, which explicates the situations of both immigrants and former slaves in early twentieth-century America (cf. Binder 69). Vaguely reminiscent of Holitscher's explanation that American blacks were considered guilty until proven innocent in a court of law (9)--provided that legal and lawful steps were even taken at all--Karl's lot in America burdens him with proving his innocence, such as at the hotel where he is fired without a fair trial or an unbiased investigation into his alleged wrongdoing.

The stage name blurted out later by Karl could also be associated with the graphic photograph in Holitscher's book of a lynched African-American man in Oklahoma (367), although Wolfgang Jahn has urged us to resist the temptation to presume that the "Negro" label intimates that Karl's ultimate fate would be a literal hanging as well, if the novel fragment were to continue. …

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