An old leaf – lessons from Kafka against extremism

Area of ​​the Gaza Strip bombed / Reproduction Telegram


Kafka's narrative resonates today as an inverted allegory: the emperor turned into a barbarian butcher


An old leaf is a text by Franz Kafka written in the years 1916-1917, that is, in the middle of the First World War. It integrates the set of small narratives of the work a country doctor. A common thread between these narratives is that the characters are thrown into the center of social nightmares, of human communities that are as incommunicado as they are violent and that harbor hatred for what we call civilization.

It is an enigmatic allegory and, in reality, the writer's hermetic style often provoked criticism from Marxist intellectuals who at the time considered him an alienated and anti-historical artist (such as, for example, György Lukács and Bertold Brecht) while, on the other hand, On the other hand, Jewish intellectuals thrilled with each image and aporia of the narrator as textual proof of their links with the Zionist cause (such as, for example, Max Brod and Gershom Scholem).

I do not propose to present here a state of the art of the critical reception of Kafka's texts in the thoughts of other contemporary thinkers. But it seems opportune to me to return to Kafka's allegories as a key to reading our world, firstly, to move us away from an unbearable editorial return of the so-called Kafka biographism and the interest in his sexual intimacy that only impoverishes the critical content of the artist's work.

Secondly, it is necessary to mention that one of the central elements of the Kafkaesque narrative concerns the problematic relationship between myth and violence, as highlighted by the philosopher Theodor Adorno. Unlike other authors (Marxists or Zionists), Theodor Adorno recognized that Kafka was a narrator for dialectical spirits: a lesson certainly learned from another philosopher (as dialectical as Kafka), namely: Walter Benjamin.

However, it is necessary to clarify that in Kafka's time, Zionism was not exactly an extreme right-wing ideology. In important intellectual sectors there was belief in cultural and literary Zionism; there was talk of a confrontation between the Jew and himself, which confrontation was socially symbolized within the traditional Jewish family with arguments and conflicts between children and their parents.

In other words, cultural Zionism was not exactly a legal and political belief – much less a military one – in the founding of a Jewish State. The radicalization of Judaism – where the great representative was Martin Buber – made mention of putting literature in the foreground and not politics. It was literature that could rekindle the Jewish ideal. It is curious in this sense that Martin Buber outlined a concern with the fact that cultural Zionism was a resistance to the attempts of myth, specifically the myth of the obedient Jew, something quite prone to certain interpretations of messianism, notably the great messiah.

Theodor Herzl, in turn, said that the Jewish State was a collective personality that needed to cleanse the many retrograde ideas of Judaism itself. Judaism, according to Theodor Herzl, was going through a moral crisis, an obscuring of its own libertarian values, a Judaism that no longer cared about community life and was increasingly integrated with bourgeois values. This refined and critical Zionism got in the way.


The piece An old leaf appears to be as archaic as it is extemporaneous. Archaic because it seems that we are reading a text that makes reference to the Chinese world (due to the presence of an imperial authority) or a text from the Jewish tradition (due to the ambiguous use of the term “nomad”). Extemporaneous because the archaic dimension of the text crosses a demarcated historical temporality and haunts our time, making supposed references to the civilizing failure of liberalism, especially when the narrator says that nomads do not understand “our way of living or that our institutions are so incomprehensible how indifferent” (Kafka, An old leaf, P. 20).

The narrative piece initially makes a reference to an old problem: the problem of neglecting the border, of defending the homeland; a historical problem present in nationalist ideologies, in the Jewish desire at the time to protect themselves against their anti-Semitic enemies or any xenophobic state. In any case, the narrator is a shoemaker, a representative of the civilian population who wakes up perplexed by the military occupation of his country's central square. The invaders (the nomads) loathe houses, are obsessed with weaponry and are unhygienic. Language is not a cultural institution and they refuse even sign language. Making faces and drool that slips out of their mouths is common for them.

I confess that one of the most violent and disturbing scenes in contemporary literature seems to be condensed in this short narrative. The butcher, tired of the barbarians' plunder, decides one day not to slaughter the ox, as if this would sabotage or interrupt the invader's ritual violence. It turns out that the nomads attack the live ox from all sides with merciless bites, tearing off pieces of its hot meat and with the animal's mooing propagating in a terrifying way in the narrator's hearing and disappearing in a pool of blood and remains.

The subjects, in turn, await a political signal from the emperor. But this character appears in the window of his castle in a reclusive and powerless manner. His power or at least the belief in his power seems more like a phantasmagoria. Kafka was, without a doubt, a writer who was notably provocative with our salvation beliefs – whether religious or secular. Ultimately, the narrator awakens to the fact that a possible salvation weighs on the shoulders of the population itself. Kafka literally mentions the workers of this kingdom, namely: artisans and merchants. Will they be the ones who will be able to expel the nomads and their violent practices? The narrative remains open to dialectical spirits, as Theodor Adorno would say. But what would Kafka's lessons be for this context of Jewish extremism?


After the so-called flour massacre, Benjamin Netanyahu continued to boast that Jewish authority is now firm, strong and capable of expelling any invader, any nomad, in a political and military scenario that reminds us of the Kafkaesque narrative. The Kafkaesque narrator says that the workers do not boast about their task of saving the country. This observation makes us ask: is Benjamin Netanyahu's political Zionism capable of saving Jewish memory?

Inverting the parable: Benjamin Netanyahu now proposes to be the true emperor, but in becoming emperor he is now also the butcher himself. In fact, the political allegory of the ox and the butcher is common both in the speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees the Palestinians as animals that must be surrounded and slaughtered, and in the speeches of Bolsonarism, which compared people of African descent to the image of lazy and useless animals for society. its ultraliberal economy.

In fact, Bruno Altman rightly denounces that the far right of Benjamin Netanyahu's government has incorporated supremacist ideals. It is a government that benefits white and European Jews with a highly colonizing and racist education. The Jewish extreme right appropriated the totalitarian myth of bourgeois security: this ideal of security was a constant delirium of social hygiene and, later, transformed without any disguise into a project of genocide, to the point that the territory of childhood and the territory of Death no longer has any distinction in Gaza.

Walter Benjamin, an important reader of Kafka, wrote in his work Flights that the bourgeois never completely abolished the old medieval conception of fortification. He always sought to transform the world so that it would be a habitable place and, in fact, it would not be strange, therefore, for the bourgeoisie to assimilate death in a degenerate way. Netanyahu can be seen as this degenerate character who makes power his fortified box.

If the bourgeois society of the 19th century had a totemic relationship with furniture and interiors to purify the allegories of death – still quoting Walter Benjamin – the extreme right, in turn, assimilated the totemic relationship with walls, barbed wire and weapons to expel their would-be demons or their would-be nomads. A old sheet of Kafka now resonates as an inverted allegory: the emperor turned into a barbarian butcher.

It was this ideology of legitimate violence that made the Israeli embassy invite Lula to visit the Holocaust museum with the purpose of demonstrating the Brazilian leader's historical ignorance. Let us not forget, however, that this embassy is the same one that serves a leader who did not feel any discomfort in suggesting the export of the Gaza model (from the besieged city) to the Brazilian outskirts governed at the time by his far-right ally in Brazil.

*Flávio Valentim de Oliveira He is a professor of philosophy. Author, among other books, of Art, Theology and Death. Philosophy and literature in Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin (Appris). []

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