Milena Jesenská, Kafka’s translator and lover, has left us a useful and persuasive definition of fanaticism: “that absolute, unalterable necessity for perfection, purity, and truth.” It was Kafka she meant.
Then let us now praise fanaticism, how it binds the like and the unlike, how it aspires to purity, how it engenders art at its most sublime, seeking the visionary and the inescapable; and how it reveres the ascendancy of its desires.
Kafka, a fanatic of language, was not alone. America had its own language fanatics, of which he was unaware. In the novel we know as Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared, also called The Stoker), anomalous characters populating his American scenes are rife; but Kafka’s imagination, capaciously strange though it was, could not have conceived of the American Hebraists, as prodigiously single-minded as himself, who were thriving in the very years he was at work on Amerika.
That Kafka contended with his native German even as he powerfully embraced it is one of the salient keys to his character: the key is in hand, but there is no lock for it to fit into. German was his, ineradicably, yet insecurely. His famously self-lacerating lament—that Jews who wrote in German had “their hind legs stuck in parental Judaism while their forelegs found no purchase on new ground”—suggests some small helpless underground animal futilely attempting to escape its burrow. But when he crucially, even triumphantly, announced, “I am made of literature and nothing else,” it could only mean that it was German idiom and essence, German root and rootedness, that had formed and possessed him.
Why, then—early in life until late, and with strenuous diligence—did he pursue the study of Hebrew? The notebooks that survive (archived in the National Library of Israel) are redolent of an ironic pathos: an earnest schoolboy’s laboriously inked vocabulary lists, Hebrew into German, in the very hour that the world’s most enduring masterworks were spilling from this selfsame pen. When at twenty-nine Kafka was first introduced to Felice Bauer, the young woman to whom he would be twice engaged but would never marry, he thought her unprepossessing, but was nevertheless instantly drawn to her talk: she was, she told him, studying Hebrew.
The American Hebraists, poets who in their youth had emigrated from Eastern Europe, were Kafka’s contemporaries. They were also his peers in language fanaticism: they too were made of language and nothing else—but the language that formed and possessed them was Hebrew. Unlike Kafka’s feverish wrestling with the fraught and unseemly question of hind legs and forelegs, they were consumed, body and soul, with no ambivalence of belonging, by Hebrew. Not only were they fanatics in their claim of intimately ingrained ownership of Hebrew, its godlike guardians and creators, they were fanatics in their relation to their new environment. English was all around them, awaiting their mastery; and they did become masters of English, and still it was Hebrew that inflamed them. Nor were they—unlike Kafka—torn by incessant doubt and self-repudiation. Scattered in cities all over America, they sat in tranquil rooms, on new ground, immersed in the renewing sublimity of the ancient alphabet.
And then they disappeared.
Kafka did not disappear.
No Hebraist poets inhabit his Amerika, but we can try to imagine, had he journeyed, like his protagonist Karl, to the real America, and encountered, say, Preil or Halkin or Regelson, would they recognize one another as equally eaten by that glorious but perilous worm, literary fanaticism?