Longing for the roots. Kafka—Schulz—Celan

Sviatoslav Vyshynsky
Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

The goal of research is to examine the evolution of urban surroundings on the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire through the prism of literary process of the beginning and the middle of the 20th century, that includes the last years of existence of the Habsburg monarchy and two interwar decades after its break-up. We suggest to examine the change of the city area together with the collapse of multinational formations of the 19th century, conflict between nation genesis and multicultural “polis” of the previous age, as well as inner cultural collisions, reflected first of all in the creative work of writers, left without homeland – both temporal (the Austro-Hungarian monarchy), and spiritual (Israel as the promised land). As the examples we may provide multicultural “islands” of the imperial Ecumene, left among impetuous seas of the new national cultures – Prague in Czechia, Drohobych in Poland and Chernivtsi in Romania – and the most prominent authors, who represent existential layer of the epoch – prose writers Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz and poet Paul Celan. In the secular late modern epoch the city as a polis gradually turns into necro-polis, “city of the dead”, torn up by the roots from the land of fathers, atomized, decultured and alienated individuals-“golems” – and the first ones, who have a presentiment about that and reflect this in creative work, are the Jewish writers descending from multinational Prague, Drohobych and Chernivtsi of the time. The imperial city as a concentrated time and space of many cultures, ethnic and social groups, which meet, intersect and superimpose at the “null point” on the map, becomes at once a place of active exchange – and active levelling of the differences, with thinning of the borders leading finally to the crisis of identity and its disintegration, mirrored in the crisis prose of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz and poetry of Paul Celan. One of the signs of this process was demolition of the walls of the Prague Ghetto in 1848, mentioned in the novel “The Golem” by Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink, deeply plunged in Judaic cultural layer – and thus means not only a secular emancipation of the Jewry, but also its cultural uprooting through the levelling of tradition. In the wider sense such tendency is characteristic for all peoples, engaged in living together within the precincts of a modern secular city, but most sharply touches the Jewish history, which is a tragic search of its own identity-as-homeland across generations, and the “soul of the people”, as a new ark of the covenant called to replace its sacred locus.

We are going to show how the new state nations after the break-up of the empires, that used to merge multinationality and the spirit of medieval corporations, become the subjects of advance on a conquered city. This process was equally fastened by a drastic change in ethnic and social landscapes, with the utmost clarity captured on the examples of post-imperial Kyiv and Prague in outlines of the novels “The City” by Valerian Pidmohylny and “Walpurgis Night” by Gustav Meyrink. In much the same multinational Chernivtsi, depicted in essays by Karl Franzos as a specific island of imperial culture amidst a barbarian sea, within interwar and postwar periods for several times fundamentally changes its face – both in social and ethnic planes. This was witnessed by Paul Celan – a German-speaking Jew, born in Romania in Ukrainian city Chernivtsi, whose multiculturality at once became the main obstacle on the way of realization of his own identity. We believe that a city, and especially an imperial city, being at the same time “everyone’s” and “no one’s” land, a unique space of lack of space, condensed to an extent that it level the very notion of soil, as well as the notion of roots as a metaphysical foundation – and a unique time as a lack of time, quickened to an extent that it tears a historical pulse of a nation, always tied with agricultural cycles. It therefore becomes Leviathan, that at once emancipates individual from continuity of tradition, enriches him with all property of cultures gathered in it – and carries him beyond the boundary of serene and secluded existence of Ghetto that, being a border of a nation, not only encloses it, but also preserves its primary essence. A gnostic tragedy of a liberated and outcast Jewry, that embodies a errant archetype of the Wandering Jew, this way reflects directly the tragedy of freedom – which would take a central place in the philosophy of existentialism in the 20th century. Yet the figures of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schultz and Paul Celan take its opposite, negative pole against a background of imperial city collapse, being the authors whose creative work appears as an irrational indicator of loss and search – but not finding of the principles sought.

Multiculturality as a possibility of nearly impossible co-existence went to its extreme in historic upheavals of the 20th century, and we are interested in the way it was unwittingly reflected by tragic figures of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Paul Celan, directing them like many of their contemporaries towards existential collapse: in this sense according to the complexity and likeness of historic collisions we may consider Prague, Drohobych and Chernivtsi very similar cities – and view them as integral background for social, ethnic and cultural processes. Motives of unrootedness, oblivion and abandonment became main themes of existentialist philosophy of the 20th century from Martin Heidegger to Jean-Paul Sartre, reflecting search of human place in the being – and among other people, most densely gathered at the city point, where social ranks, cultures and nations are meeting together, falling into Nothing. In its turn, search for roots in Nothing, interlacing of images of the Ground and Being in late works of Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan signify the direction towards new finding of the foundation after the old world was run into ruins. Very similarly the spiritual search of Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink settles on the authentic Judaic tradition of Prague. Yet it is indicative that it was Chernivtsi poet who has exceeded the bounds of Kafkian absurdity, trying to grasp anew the spiritual heritage and express it in verb, that like the Verb of God, should have become pledge for salvation – as assertion of one’s own among the alien. We may further contend that exactly the nomad authors, outcast authors, who at once belong to the nomad nation, outcast nation, are those who most sharply expose the abyss of unrootedness, revealing the gnostic longing for homeland, for the foundation (der Grund in contrast to Heidegger’s “groundlessness” of Dasein). They were the first among others to understand expulsion as a main characteristic feature of human being in a modern city, and like the mythical cities Prag-Drohobycz-Czernowitz that had begotten them, in full measure stood existential No Ones among Someones, immaterial apparition, wasted to an extent that from its own devastation, from Nothing and above Nothing they seek – and find an axis in their Tree of Life, that like the graves of landless people is rooted in the sky.


Theses for the Joint fellowship program of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe and the Institute for Human Sciences (Lviv, Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, April 12, 2013).


Вишинський С. Туга за корінням. Кафка—Шульц—Целан.

© 2013

Додати коментар

Увійти через профіль для можливості залишати авторизовані коментарі.