Academic journal article German Quarterly

Speaking for Liveliness: Franz Kafka's Obituary for Hyperion and His Introductory Speech on Yiddish

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Speaking for Liveliness: Franz Kafka's Obituary for Hyperion and His Introductory Speech on Yiddish

Article excerpt

Shortly before Franz Kafka's self-proclaimed literary breakthrough in 1912- the year in which he wrote "Das Urteil" in a single night, completed "Der Heizer" and "Die Verwandlung" within a few weeks, and had his first collection of short prose, Betrachtung, published in book form-the Prague author wrote and spoke on behalfof two verydifferentkindsofmarginalized literature. In theperiodthatJudith Ryan once called "Kafka before Kafka," he published a short commemorative farewell to the upscale literary and art journal, Hyperion (1908-10), entitled "Eine entschlafene Zeitschrift" (in Bohemia, March 1911), and gave a public lecture known as "Einleitungsvortrag über Jargon" before Yitzhak Löwy's Yiddish performance (in the Jewish Town Hall of Prague, February 1912).1

WhatpromptedKafka'salmostsimultaneousengagementwithformsofexpression at both ends of the spectrum between bibliophile aestheticism and Eastern European Jewish vernacular? Why did the writer, who is famous for shying away from public exposure, voice his thoughts on those dissimilar media in the Prague newspaper Bohemia and in front of a listening audience? And how do the two reviews-a written epitaph or obituary, and a spoken preface or introduction-relate to one another, to Kafka's complex thoughts on minor literature, and to his own literary writings?To answer thesequestions,Iwill, in thisarticle,analyzehisrhetorical strategies in both texts through close readings. Together, the review on the inevitable demise of an elitist, high modernist journal and the speech on the performative values of the often-disdained Yiddish language prefigure some of the main themes in Kafka's later oeuvre. Both texts also bring to the fore two key issues for Kafka as a writer.

The first issue is the notion of liveliness in conjunction with, and in opposition to, the contemporary literary scene. Although Kafka's review on Hyperion is among his most pronounced documents about literary-theoretical concerns, he does not mention any details regarding the content of thejournal or thefact that he published his first prose-"Betrachtung," "Gespräch mit dem Beter," and "Gespräch mit dem Betrunkenen"-in it. He also makes no explicit statements about the peculiar position of Hyperion between what one might call, from a literary-historical perspective, fin-de-siècle aestheticism and the more overtly political movement, early Expressionism.2 Instead, Kafka's text mainly combines an expression of admiration for the vision of Franz Blei, an acquaintance of Max Brod and an eminent literary editor, with acomplex explanationof why his and his co-editor Carl Sternheim's attempt to offer a grand, lively representation for those on the margins of literature had to be short-lived. In his introduction to Yiddish, Kafka also deals only briefly with the contentof the performance to come and focuses primarily on thepresumed ability of the language to convey an unmediated understanding for the audience. Both public reviews reflect Kafka's private deliberations on the dynamics of major and minor literature, written in his diary between the two reviews, which stress liveliness as a key component of minor literature. In other words, Kafka's main concerns in these disparate reviews are the conditions in which literature is distributed, as well as the underlying mechanisms of representation itself-and these concerns are linked to his ideal of liveliness. While the evaluation of Hyperionis infused with the vocabulary of stasis and death, Yiddish is described in words that evoke dynamism and life.

The second issue prefigured in the reviews is the theoretical complex around advocacy or speaking-for (Fürsprechen). Defined broadly as the communicative scenario in which someone speaks for someone or something in front of another (a person, a group, or an institution), advocacy is a central preoccupation in Kafka's work and life. Although it has its roots in the juridical sphere (where the numerous legal advocates and intercessors in the prose of Kafka, himself a doctor of law, operate), it is not restricted to this realm. …

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