George Steiner’s thesis, defended and developed above all in Language and Silence, is simple: Language has been destroyed by twentieth-century atrocities, in particular, by the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
This transformation of language, particularly German, is clearly evident in Franz Kafka’s premonitory struggle with writing.
The Metamorphosis is the story of someone who turns into an unnameable thing, a kind of insect that will turn to dust and eventually be swept away. Everything that transforms or classifies as an insect is susceptible to an insecticide and that is what Nazism did: It all starts with the classification of Jews as mice and the insecticide appears. The miracle of language metamorphosis.
So are our days: Everything has been reclassified and renamed by hours of media bombardment and peer pressure. A world of plastic people, worth nothing but consumption, selling lies and delusions to others who feel lonely and depressed for not having access to that very Nothing.
I have always found exaggerated, and typical of Jewish hysteria, Steiner’s comparison between Kafka and the prophets of Israel, but in a recent rereading of the Letters to Milena I’ve stumbled upon some disturbing passages.
I leave to my readers a particular passage from one of Kafka’s letters:
“… at times I’d like to stuff them all, simply as Jews (me included) into, say, the drawer of the laundry chest. Next I’d wait, open the drawer a little to see if they’ve all suffocated, and if not, shut the drawer again and keep doing this to the end…”
Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena
The theme of Jewish self-hatred is too vast for such a small postcard.
The letter is from 1920, Hitler had barely left the army after World War I and joined the NSDAP, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.
If the previous passage from Kafka’s letters to Milena is disturbing and prophetic, Milena´s description of a dream in 1919 is entirely futuristic:
“The planet had been swept away by war, endless trains were leaving the station one after the other… the world was becoming a network of railways that transported terrified beings, beings who had lost their home and homeland. The trains stopped in a void. It was the checkpoint! The customs inspector approached me. I looked at the documents, read them and they were written in twenty different languages: doomed to death!”
Milena, at the end of the day, saw her own destiny 20 years earlier: Milena Jesenská was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the Ravebsbrück women’s concentration camp, where she died on May 17, 1944.
“… eine viel zu gute Meinung hast, manchmal möchte ich sie eben als Juden (mich eigen eigeschlossen) alle etwa in die Schublade des Wäschekastens dort stopfen, dann warten, dann sie Schublade ein wenig herauszien, um nachzusehn, ob sie schon alle erstckt sind, wenn nicht, die Lader wieder hineinschiben und es so fortsetzen bis zum Ende.”
Franz Kafka, Briefe an Milena , Meran 13 Juni 1920, Sonntag