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Vol 3, No 3
22 January 2001
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Prague TerritoriesPrague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka's Fin de Siècle
Scott Spector
University of California Press, 2000
ISBN 0520219090

Jonathan Bolton

In Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka's Fin de Siècle, Scott Spector considers more than Franz Kafka, and more than fin-de-siècle Prague. His book investigates the peculiar problems faced by a generation of German Jewish intellectuals in the first decades of the twentieth century—the loose grouping of writers who have been called the "Prague Circle," including Egon Erwin Kisch, Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Hugo Bergmann and others.

These figures were notable for their intricate and precarious maneuverings through the minefield of identity politics in a multicultural Central European city: not only were they rebelling against the liberal assimilationism of their well-to-do bourgeois parents, but they were also responding in different ways to German, Jewish and Czech cultural traditions, each of which laid its own claims on their complicated identities. They struggled to find a space for themselves in an ideological no-man's-land where Czechs fought with Germans, Zionists with expressionists, and everybody with the liberals.

In the process, says Spector, they revealed some of the fault lines in European modernity (and in many ways presaged postmodernism), challenging accepted categories that identified nation, language and territory as an organic whole.

Approaches to cultural history

Spector calls his book "a cultural history grounded in several critical traditions" (p 25), as is evident from his introduction, where he pays homage to forerunners as diverse as Carl Schorske's Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. From Schorske, Spector inherits a methodology that pays equal attention to both politics and aesthetics, historical documents and works of literature; at the same time, he rejects Schorske's hypothesis that fin-de-siècle aestheticism was a refuge from political engagement.

For example, in discussing Max Brod's early philosophy of "indifferentism," a naïve epicureanism which took delight in all things, Spector emphasizes that this was not a passive aestheticism but rather a pointed neglect of the welter of conflicting identities thrust upon the Prague Jew. If this was escapist, it was an active sort of escapism.

From Deleuze and Guattari, Spector takes the idea that the German spoken in Prague (and hence by Kafka) was a "deterritorialized" language, ideal for subverting the dominant discourse of "High German" culture. Spector attempts to complicate this argument by examining moments of collusion and complacency, as well as opposition, in the texts he discusses.

But despite these theoretical soundings in his introduction, the body of the book refreshingly abandons the narrow lenses of subversion and collusion that dominate a lot of cultural studies work, and simply gets down to the work of mapping out the complicated relations among conflicting ideologies and identities in Prague from about 1890 through the 1920s.

Territory and roots

To call the German Jews of Prague "rootless," "caught between cultures" or "living in a triple ghetto" is a commonplace of histories and memoirs; Spector's innovation is to interrogate these clichés, looking at how metaphors of territoriality entered into the self-conceptions of Prague's German Jews. He concludes that these writers sometimes yearned for solid ground beneath their feet, sometimes delighted in their rootlessness and sometimes sought to reconceptualize their condition altogether.

Thus, for many of them, the East European Jews of Galicia represented an "authentic" form of Jewish folk culture, living as a majority in a definable territory and speaking a language, Yiddish, that emerged organically from that culture. For Prague Jews, who spoke a German language that was under attack from Czech nationalists and was scorned as a substandard dialect by purists in Germany, this was a powerful appeal. And, ironically, their yearning for a bond with an organic community, rooted to the land, paralleled the back-to-nature Volkish movements of contemporary Czech and German youth—each group identified national identity and linguistic competence with the bond to a native territory.

This equation would ultimately leave Jews out in the cold, rejected as aliens by both Czechs and Germans. But other writers sought to re-evaluate the equation of language, territory and nation. Spector's sensitive and persuasive analysis of Kafka's "Introductory Talk on the Yiddish Language" (1912) shows how, for Kafka, "the vibrancy of Yiddish does not spring from its grounding in a territorialized Volk, but in the mercurial flight of its stolen vocabulary" (pp 88-89).

Kafka, in fact, often plays the role of deconstructor in Spector's account, taking apart or reversing the more simplistic categories set up by his less mercurial (and less neurotic) contemporaries. Some of these readings are less convincing than others. For example, Spector daringly, but ultimately unsatisfactorily, identifies Felice Bauer (the lucky recipient of Kafka's conflicted affections, and dozens of his letters) with Zionism and argues that both "represented figures to which Kafka was powerfully and painfully drawn, but which he would never fully grasp; they would come to represent necessary passages to something beyond themselves" (p 147). To what, apparently, Kafka doesn't say, and neither does Spector.

Cultural Zionism

The master metaphor of "territoriality" is contextualized most convincingly in Spector's discussion of one of the most famous products of the Prague Jewish milieu, the "cultural Zionism" associated with Hugo Bergmann and Martin Buber (who gave several lectures in Prague to Bar Kochba, a Zionist organization that Bergmann led as a university student at the beginning of the century).

Bergmann's vision of Zionism called for spiritual renewal through cultural growth, the cultivation of Hebrew (yet another response to the "linguistic homelessness" of the Prague Jew), and the search for a universal humanity. Spector traces the conflict between this view and the basic tenet of Zionism, the need to re-identify Judaism with a specific geographic territory.

This conflict isn't new, nor is it specific to Prague, but Spector contextualizes it nicely, showing how Bergmann's emphasis on the spiritual is tied to the more general Prague Jewish dilemma of re-defining territory—and of re-defining oneself in extra-territorial terms. In a letter to Kafka, Bergmann expressed the hope that Zionism would let him both "fly" and "stand sturdily once more on our own ground." These "are not merely the mixed metaphors of a confused teen" (p 137), says Spector, but a creative tension underlying much of Bergmann's work.

The spatial metaphor

At other times, it must be said, the territoriality metaphor is more strained, or rather too relaxed: space is everywhere, after all, and it is not difficult to cast any text in terms of spatial metaphors. Spector is a wonderfully close reader—his careful analysis of individual words and phrases, even in non-literary works that aren't usually graced with this kind of attention, is one of the strengths of this book—but sometimes he seems to be forcing his texts into an interpretive straitjacket.

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When Werfel attacks a materialist "earth teleology" and laments all hearts "crushed by that most horrible curse of earthly work," for example, Spector claims that "The term 'earth'... is the watchword for what I have described as the 'territorial.'"

Werfel's praise for Italian opera and Russian ballet as heralding a universal human spirit is then transformed by Spector: "The space filled by the tenor and the ballet dancers represents an antinational idea" (pp 97-98). Readings such as these are more interesting than they are convincing, and in parts of the book the spatial metaphor becomes so expansive that it threatens to swallow up the rigor and care that underlie most of Spector's interpretations.

On the whole, however, Spector reveals many new insights by following the metaphors and obsessions of territoriality in both familiar and unfamiliar texts, from Kafka's notorious letter to his father to a high-school exam essay by the sixteen-year-old Felix Weltsch. Prague Territories offers a welcome complication of the standard but oversimplified view that Prague German Jewish writers were "caught between three cultures," wandering rootlessly among national identities. They did so, but they also sought consciously to reconceive "territorial" notions of identity in the crowded space of Central Europe, where every square inch was already claimed.

Jonathan Bolton, 22 January 2001

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