Obooki is “illiterate philistine”

Yes, once again Stephen Mitchelmore, “the greatest litblogger in the history of litbloggering”, has employed his wonderful analytico-critical talents in making the remarkably astute observation that I, Obooki, am a philistine (or at least an implication thereof). – Still, it’s an improvement: – last time I was a “middle-brow philistine”; – now I’ve been promoted to “illiterate philistine”. (I’m glad he continues his fascination for the meanings of words, as in his profound discussion of the shift of meaning of the term “literary” recently, in which of course he made no effort to sneer at anyone).

This was all to do with an off-the-cuff accusation I made on a Guardian blog suggesting that Kafka was influenced in his habit of masturbating by Gogol. Obooki is, of course, sorry for making any such absurd claim and apologises for the scholarly offence it may have caused. He should perhaps have quoted the offending passage from Yu Ta-Fu’s famous short-story Sinking which he’d had in mind, to give his own quotation some necessary context (he was thinking of doing this, but got bored). A contemporary of Kafka, Yu Ta-Fu is here discussing his hero’s habit of masturbation in a thoroughly open manner (perhaps the very sort of open manner of someone modern like Kafka who was always so upfront about sexual matters in his books and probably the first person ever to discuss these subjects):

“Every time he sinned he felt bitter remorse and vowed not to transgress any more. But, almost without any exception, the same visions appeared before him vividly at the same time the next morning. All those descendants of Eve he would normally meet in the course of the day came to seduce him in all their nakedness, and the figure of a middle-aged madam appeared to him even more tempting than that of a virgin. Thus once, twice, and this practice became a habit. Quite often, after abusing himself, he would go to the library to look up medical references on the subject … One day he learned somewhere in a book that Gogol, the founder of modern Russian literature, also suffered from this sickness and was not able to cure himself to the day of his death. This discovery comforted him somewhat, if only because no less a man than the author of Dead Souls was his fellow sinner. But this form of self-deception could do little to remove the worry in his heart.”

These lines, which he’d only read a few days’ before, stayed in Obooki’s mind, since he’d been thinking a lot recently about the comparison between Kafka and Gogol’s work – but it wasn’t until he read the article in the Guardian that he was taken by the fanciful idea of Gogol’s influence on Kafka’s onanistic tendencies. As it happens, Obooki has recently been thinking of writing a post derived FROM HIS VERY OWN THOUGHTS on the subject of the similarities between Kafka and Gogol. Now, of course, he almost feels he shouldn’t bother – not after his argument has been so elegantly destroyed by the brilliant Mitchelmore with his one quotation from someone VERY FAMOUS AND AUTHORITATIVE.

Nonetheless, though he decided to put off his own wild project of applying HIS OWN IDEAS to the
question, valiant as ever, Obooki took it upon himself to try for once the remarkable “Mitchelmore mode of criticism” – namely, to quote from the works of the VERY FAMOUS AND AUTHORITATIVE.

Firstly, though, we’d like to take a look at the SINGLE QUOTATION Mitchelmore employs, which he claims shows how the VERY FAMOUS Milan Kundera manages “to distinguish Kafka from earlier writers like Dickens and Gogol despite superficial likenesses”:

“Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex … as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone’s life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant.”

Now, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about that first sentence which strikes me as QUITE BREATHTAKINGLY UNTRUE. Or am I to suppose that Kundera has never read Zola (trial for obscenity),
Maupassant, Lautremont, Dostoevsky, George Moore (trial for obscenity), Strindberg, or even (God forbid) Gogol – let alone slightly lesser lights such as Eca de Queiroz, Amelie Skram or 500 OTHER FRENCH WRITERS– and let alone THE ENTIRE CORPUS OF WESTERN AND EASTERN POETRY. – And so, if we laughed at the first, we laugh at the second sentence; – and then we realise in the third sentence that everything THE GREAT KUNDERA is saying is nonsense since he descends to employing that old saw of the critic wishing to praise THE GREAT WRITER: – viz., to claim that he was THE FIRST to do something.

So this is what we have: – a blatantly exaggerated and untrue claim about Kafka’s originality in portraying sexual matters as against “nineteenth-century novels” to back up the argument that Kafka only has “superficial likenesses” (though what is more superficial than sex) to Gogol and Dickens. (To be fair, I’m not about to argue that Dickens didn’t have hang-ups about portraying sex in his novels; – though, to be fair to Dickens, he didn’t just stop at sex but also had plenty of hang-ups about portraying romantic love as well.)

Anyway, here’s the “Mitchelmore-style” argument by quotation – though I feel it only fair, since literary criticism is just a childish game, to hide all my sources (or perhaps, who knows? – I just made them up).

This is just Gogol’s influence on Kafka (I don’t feel up to doing Dickens as well, and I certainly can’t be arsed with Dostoevsky; – well, maybe just a bit; – and I can’t be bothered with exact textual parallels either – these are well documented in various academic exercises):

    General Statements:

“Actually there is nothing idiosyncratic about Kafka’s genius; in form and content, he belongs to a special order of the urban grotesque, with its roots in German romanticism of the early nineteenth century and in Russian and English realism of the middle decades.”

“There is growing evidence, however, that Kafka was a synthetic writer, that his greatest works were built on frames supplied by other authors, and that he was original in the best sense, in his development of the latent tendencies in older forms.”

“Or they [Kafka’s works] can, with equally good justification, be classified within certain literary traditions, be related to Kleist, Dickens, Gogol, Dostoevsky and others.”

    Gogol’s Influence:

“Its [The Metamorphosis’] basic method, that of psychological fantasy, had been anticipated by Hoffmann in the early 1800s; its blend of fantasy with urban realism began with Gogol and Dostoevsky in succeeding decades; and its central situation, that of a son locked in his room and abhorred by his own family, was first devised by Dickens at mid-century. In effect, these writers formed a literary trend, which Kafka brought to full fruition or perhaps brought into being with his story, as he synthesized and clarified the latent form. To trace the origins of The Metamorphosis is to establish the existence of this trend, to place Kafka well within it, and to link him especially with two other masters of the genre, Dickens and Dostoevsky, who provided the immediate sources for his story.”

“Along with Gogol and Hoffmann, then, they have jointly produced a special kind of fiction, urban in genesis and grotesque in form, whose function is to express and transcend the pressures of a bureaucratic and commercial age.”

“The reader of Russian literature will be familiar with a similar technique in Gogol, especially in “Dead Souls”. It is not out of the question that Kafka, who knew Gogol well, modelled his technique on Gogol’s grotesque practice.”

    Gogolian motifs:

“Gogol too was familiar with bureaucracy, having served for a time as a government clerk in St Petersburg. But, instead of suppressing his experience, he used it to depict the insignificant lives of office drudges.”

“The loss of a nose would shake anybody out of his complacency, but not Major Kovalev – poshlost incarnate.”

“This allows him to connect Gogol’s work to a more general Russian “philosophical tradition” regarding the self, a tradition which grows out of Eastern Orthodoxy and the thought of Skovoroda, finds its first literary expression in Gogol, and is later developed by Dostoevsky and Bakhtin.”

Gogol’s Dead Souls and The Nose can be seen “as parables that illustrate the ‘possibility, or rather the impossibility, of explanation’.”

“If _______’s thesis is correct, only now after having assimilated Joyce, Kafka and the surrealists are we prepared to savor Gogol’s peculiar qualities. He was an obsessed man, an explorer of the demonic and the irrational, and his methods were those of poetry. Accordingly _______ ignores Gogol’s plots and his scanty social documentation, and analyzes his dream symbolism, his use of metaphor and simile, and above all the devices by which his ‘peripheral characters’ give texture to the background”

    Dickens’ influence (a few quotes):

“Gregor Samsa is not simply the young Kafka, as critics often hold; he is also the young Dickens, the young Copperfield, even the balding Golyadkin, who wants to dance with Klara Olsufyevna, all synthesized into one regressive hero.”

“Indeed, at every point in the story, in his distaste for his job, in his disturbance of the family, in his strongly Oedipal feelings, and in his passive acceptance of defeat and death, he resembles a Dickens hero. In confronting guilt incarnate, he resembles the passive clerk Golyadkin, who lacks the conscious criminality and pride of later Dostoevskian sinners; but this very absence of awareness is essentially Dickensian, and helps to underline Kafka’s debt more exactly. In Dostoevsky he had found a conscious and direct preoccupation with mental illness, a fruitful way of exploring the “lower depths” of human personality. But such knowingness was less suitable to his purpose, in the last analysis, than Dickensian naivete; though it established the depth or level of exploration, it failed to provide him with his point of view. For Kafka was a projective not an active stylist; he saw the world as Dickens saw it, through the eyes of a hapless child, still blind to the outward proofs of inner sickness.”

    A different influence (suddenly):

“Kafka’s surrealistic “parables” are more akin to mediaeval allegory than to nineteenth-century naturalism.”

    I thought Mitchelmore would like this one:

“_____’s suggestive reading ultimately removes Gogol from the realist or romantic camp, and places him instead into a hitherto unclassified tradition of writers such as Kleist, Kafka and Nabokov, who all realized with Kant that a noumenal world exists but that it is not accessible to our understanding.”

    A vast difference:

“The “Diary of a Madman” is not simply the story of a poor insignificant clerk who is driven insane by the frustrations and humiliations received from the ranking figures in a powerful bureaucratic machine. Popriscin is not a passive Akakij Akakievic who can vent his anger only by a fantastic return from the dead. His evenings are spent not in copying documents for his own pleasure, but in writing a diary to justify himself and wreak his vengeance upon the world.”

    Gogol on Sex:

“Sofi is unattainable, as courtly ladies should be. All Popriscin can do is gaze upon her (the Gogolian theme of voyeurism), lie on his bed dreaming of her (the repeated entry, “for the most part I lay on my bed,” with its suggestion of masturbation), and remain silent.”

“Humiliated by the drab realities of his everyday existence, the clerk attempts to correct them by associating himself with a dignified world and, when that fails, by proving himself sexually, if only in fantasy.”

“It is important to notice that Popriscin’s hidden guilt about sex comes to the surface: he associates sexual attraction with evil, with the devil himself.”

    I couldn’t be bothered with all the myriad Dostoevsky stuff, but still:

“So Kafka (having picked up quite a few pointers from Dostoevsky) suffers representatively for us all”

“sometimes it seems unavoidable to infer that Kafka and his preoccupations crawled full-grown out of the “dark cellar” of Notes from Underground”

    And, getting a bit more to the heart of the superficial similarities, by a WRITER MORE FAMOUS EVEN THAN MILAN KUNDERA

“A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat”…); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss.”

“In Gogol and Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans—and dies in despair.”

“The beauty of Kafka’s and Gogol’s private nightmares is that their central human characters belong to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around them, but the central one tries to get out of that world, to cast off the mask, to transcend the cloak or the carapace.”


Works not consulted in writing this article due to idleness, impossibility of instant access and failure to have learnt the correct foreign languages include:

  • Kafka and Gogol -by J F Parry, German Life and Letters
  • Gogol’s Parables of Explanation: Nonsense and Prosaics – by Gary Saul Morson
  • Gogol and Kafka – by Victor Erlich
  • Kafka, Gogol and Nathanael West – by Idris Parry
  • Franz Kafka “Die Verwandlung” – by Peter Beicken (which includes a section on literary relationships and influences which “primarily stresses the roles of Gogol and Dostoevski as Kafka’s literary models”)
  • Categories of the Grotesque: Gogol and Dostoevsky – by R.S.Struc, Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium: Franz Kafka: His Place in World Literature
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4 thoughts on “Obooki is “illiterate philistine”

  1. Metamorphosis the novel by Franz Kafka is to hit the display screen. A film has been underway and the preview has now been launched. The film, directed by Chris Swanton and starring Chris New, Robert Pugh, Maureen Lipman and Laura Rees follows the story of Gregor, a travelling salesman who steadily morphs into an insect, with his horrified relatives watching in disgust.

  2. I know it’s spam – but, appropriate and interesting spam. There is indeed a Metamorphosis film coming out. – Goddamnit, the trailer is such a teaser: – I just want to see what the monster looks like!

    I’m sure Mitchelmore won’t approve anyway. This Chris Swinton probably hasn’t read enough German scholarship on the matter.

  3. Ah, Mitchelmore’s rather badly-kept secret is that he’s the biggest philistine of them all. The reading knowledge of an undergraduate, coupled with the critical reasoning skills of a tantrum-prone child…

  4. Hi Aidan

    Ah yes, Mitchelmore. I’d forgotten about him. Is he still writing about Blanchot and Handke and Beckett and Kafka and Thomas Bernhard; or has he actually gone on to read anything else yet? You know, something outside that complacent comfort-zone of avant-garde mystification whose obscurity he likes to hide behind.

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