Karl H. Ruhleder (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: “Franz Kafka's ‘Das Urteil’: An Interpretation,” in Monatshefte, Vol. LV, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 13–22.
[In the following essay, Ruhleder discusses the major thematic concerns of Kafka's story.]
If Max Brod had not published Franz Kafka's statement explaining the true meaning of the last sentence of his Novelle “Das Urteil,” everybody would indeed reject such an interpretation as far-fetched. For Kafka said to Brod: “Do you know what the last sentence means? When I wrote it, I had in mind a violent ejaculation.”1 With these words Kafka explained the true meaning hidden under the reality of the image in the last sentence: “In diesem Augenblick ging über die Brücke ein geradezu unendlicher Verkehr.”2 The bridge is already mentioned in the sentences preceding the last, but the word “bridge” cannot contain the meaning “ejaculation,” either alone or in the context of the sentence; the first half of the sentence merely points to the simultaneousness of another event, the fall from the bridge; thus the remaining elements, the words unendlicher Verkehr must contain the meaning “violent ejaculation.”
The meaning “ejaculation” per se is obviously represented in the German word Verkehr, denoting both vehicular traffic and sexual intercourse. The essential point is that the literal meaning in the context of an action which takes place in the business world of this century contains a meaning which leads into a completely different sphere of human life. And we must, therefore, recognize that the word Verkehr possesses the basic quality of a symbol, namely two different meanings which are of equal importance to the reader. We know about its real and literal meaning: it pictures a concrete problem of modern cities. But what is the universal meaning this word stands for? Ejaculation. Kafka says no more, and it is up to us to discover the universal meaning of the symbol and of the Novelle by connecting the meaning of other words which conceal their symbolic power.3
The universal meaning cannot be inferred from the last sentence alone. But the word stands in a sentence which follows the carrying out of a sentence of death, so that the simultaneousness of the ejaculation and the fall to death call to mind Hanns Heinz Ewers' novel Alraune,4 where the condemned person suffers an ejaculation in the moment immediately preceding his death. The semen then procreates Alraune in the womb of the prostitute. Both representations have in common the motif of ejaculation immediately before the condemned one meets his death. But did Kafka intend to indicate in our Novelle that the water is about to be impregnated, the water which Bendemann touches split seconds later? The literary prototype of this scene provides more information: Hesiod reports that the semen of Uranus, who had been emasculated, engendered Venus, the Goddess of Love, with the water. Hesiod, too, reports a sentence of death, for the reign of Uranus was thereby ended at the hands of his son Cronus.5
What these three representations have in common is the element of involuntary procreation in a moment when punishment is being carried out. Ewers creates by means of artificial insemination a female who personifies love. The scars on the inside of the upper parts of her thighs point to a kind of pre-existence as a mermaid. In Hesiod's and Kafka's passages, the sperm is conceived by the water, and this fact lends the word Verkehr (intercourse/traffic) a more definite meaning in its connection with the simultaneousness of the infliction of punishment through the fall into the water: the universal meaning of the symbol seems to be the imminent procreation with the water, the imminent procreation of a love about whose qualities we cannot say anything at this moment.
Our definition of the symbolic meaning of the word Verkehr rests predominantly on Hesiod's report of the birth of Aphrodite, for this report is indeed the prototype of the central problem of our Novelle: the rebellion of the son (Cronus) against the father (Uranus). The central scene of the Novelle, the conversation between father and son, gives a description of the father in which the prototype Uranus is easily recognized, for it is modeled after Hesiod's report as well as representations in the pictorial arts. Kafka writes: “‘Nein!’ rief der Vater, … warf die Decke zurück mit einer Kraft, daβ sie einen Augenblick im Fluge sich ganz entfaltete, und stand aufrecht im Bett. Nur eine Hand hielt er leicht an den Plafond.” (S. 62) Although there are only a few traces of Uranus in the pictorial arts, some of the representations show him holding his garment in an arc over his head, the way the father holds the blanket in our Novelle, completely expanded and floating in the air.6 But Hesiod's report of the emasculation, too, is mentioned in the Novelle when the father says: “‘… weil sie die Röcke so gehoben hat, die widerliche Gans,’ und er hob, um das darzustellen, sein Hemd so hoch, daβ man auf seinem Oberschenkel die Narbe aus seinen Kriegsjahren sah” (S. 63). Although the passage does not describe the act of emasculation, the scar unequivocally alludes to it. The wound itself was obviously inflicted before this time; now it is cicatrized. But the remark about the Kriegsjahre alludes to the old war of the generations, the struggle between Uranus and Cronus.
The image of Uranus in the center of our Novelle makes us recognize that the symbol at its end—Verkehr-Ejakulation—is closely connected with its center and Hesiod's report as well. Its meaning is indeed the impregnation of the water, and we must assume that a new love is to be created, a new love possessing the quality of Aphrodite.
Consequently the central theme of our Novelle is that of the revolt of the son (Cronus) against the father (Uranus). In our interpretation of the central scene, we can therefore agree neither with Claude-Edmonde Magny nor Kate Flores. Mme. Magny's analysis proceeds from the assumption that the father is insane and that his verdict fully confirms this assumption.7 Mme. Flores, on the other hand, bases her interpretation predominantly on the “Letter to My Father,” and she writes: “Kafka deified his father, his supreme authority and goal.”8 The first of these interpretations asserts the progressive senilization, the second the deification of father Kafka. The power of Kafka's symbolism remained concealed from both interpreters.—But what happens in the central scene?
The first scene in the central section reports Georg's attempt to persuade the father to change rooms with him. In the beginning we learn that relations between the father and Georg were for months limited almost exclusively to matters concerning the joint management of the business. In the office, however, nothing whatsoever hinted at the senile condition of the father as it is reported in the course of the meeting. Georg talks to him in a business-like tone and casually says: “Ich wollte dir eigentlich nur sagen, daβ ich nun doch nach Petersburg meine Verlobung angezeigt habe” (S. 58). In the beginning of the scene, the father still is the giant of a man he always was (S. 58); he is standing in the darkness and coolness of the room; then he solidly sits with his arms crossed, assuming an attitude of superiority (S. 58). The father's decrepitude is not seen and reported by Georg until the father asks: “Hast du wirklich diesen Freund in Petersburg?” (S. 59) This question is obviously unpleasant for Georg. To be sure, no doubt is thrown on the existence of the friend in Petersburg, for later in the story we learn that the father also corresponds with the friend, but doubt is thrown on the existence of the bond of friendship, and Georg is made to realize that he is different. The question itself triggers in Georg a flood of observations which seem to express his concern for the father. But if the reader carefully weighs the meaning of the following sentences: “Die Zimmer werden wir wechseln, du wirst ins Vorderzimmer ziehen, ich hierher. Es wird keine Veränderung für dich sein, alles wird mit übertragen werden” (S. 60), then he must concede that the extent of the change would indeed be enormous. For the intended coolness and the natural twilight9 in the father's room, which lend it an almost sacral atmosphere, could not be duplicated in Georg's room. The father would not only be deprived of the atmosphere of his room but of his implicit superiority as well. For the participle übertragen refers to some intangible entity, the soul of this room, and not to the transport of objects. A change of rooms would therefore result in Georg's taking over the position of his father.
The father ends the scene by saying only one word: “‘Georg,’ sagte der Vater leise, ohne Bewegung” (S. 60). This word seems to express neither support nor reproach; nevertheless Georg considers it a reproach, for it incites him to new deeds. He begins to undress his father, who is growing weaker and weaker and finally rests on Georg's breast, playing with his watch chain. “Ein schreckliches Gefühl hatte er [Georg], als er während der paar Schritte zum Bett hin merkte, daβ an seiner Brust der Vater mit seiner Uhrkette spielte. Er konnte ihn nicht gleich ins Bett legen, so fest hielt er sich an dieser Uhrkette.” (S. 61) Although the literal meaning of the passage seems to emphasize the senility of the father, the word Uhrkette is the key to the real meaning of the passage. For Kafka wants to point out that the watch is in Georg's pocket. This fact in turn makes us realize that Georg is playing the role of Cronus10 versus Uranus in this scene, that the old war of the generations is being enacted here when the father is placed in a position—he is lying in bed—in which the emasculation took place in the past. The scene is followed immediately by the representation of the father with the blanket hovering in the air (Uranus in the pictorial arts) and the allusion to the emasculation through the word Narbe. Both protagonist and antagonist are fully aware of the fact that they are playing an old role, for Georg as well as the father concede that they have been playing a comedy: “‘Komödiant!’ konnte sich Georg zu rufen nicht enthalten, erkannte sofort den Schaden und biβ, nur zu spät—die Augen erstarrt—in seine Zunge, daβ er vor Schmerz einknickte. ‘Ja, freilich habe ich Komödie gespielt!’” (S. 63)
The central scene, to be sure, does not portray a senile but an old father; the scene does of course not portray father Kafka but a God-Father. A long time ago he had been the victim of a rebellion of his son, and now he is suppressing a new rebellion which takes place in our century. And after this scene the meaning of the last image and its symbol—Verkehr-Ejakulation—becomes intelligible to everyone. For Georg-Cronus suffers in the sense of Dante's contrapasso,11 the modern form of the punishment (ejaculation) which had been executed on Uranus (emasculation). At that time as well as now, water is the conceiving element. And in consequent continuation of the analogy, we must arrive at the following definition of our symbol (Verkehr-Ejakulation in the moment of the fall from the bridge into the water); it means the creation of a new love whose qualities approximate those of Aphrodite.
The logical dénouement of the scene of the rebellion against the God-Father is his verdict. It reads: “‘Und darum wisse: Ich verurteile dich jetzt zum Tode des Ertrinkens!’” (S. 65). “Und darum wisse” precedes the verdict as an anouncement. Its wording connects the verdict proper with the preceding sentence, which explains why the God-Father handed down his ruling: “‘Ein unschuldiges Kind warst du ja eigentlich, aber noch eigentlicher warst du ein teuflischer Mensch!’” (S. 65) The reason for the verdict is, then, the fact that Georg Bendemann is a human being who combines in himself the innocence of a child and something devilish. The use of the words unschuldig and teuflisch indicates that the action is being continued in a distinctly Christian sphere, and by using these words the...
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