In Isaac Babel’s story “The King,” and Franz Kafka’s piece “A Report to the Academy,” the narrators desperately attempt to portray an idealized vision of perfection. Despite the narrators’ hopes, the harsh, imperfect reality is eventually exposed. From their over-compensatory confidence and denial, the narrators reveal their serious anxieties about a dark, guilty aspect of truth, which lingers in their eager efforts to conceal such imperfection. Both of these pieces express a desire for an ideal, but even the narrators’ conception of such perfection cannot endure. The narrators ultimately admit the irremovable stain of reality that prevents the possibility of their idealistic illustrations. The anxieties exhibited in such narration reveal the hopes for the Jewish people and expose the desperate feelings of defeat about an inherent, irremovable fault that impedes upon the ideal Jewish experience.
The narrator of “The King” desires to project Benya Kirk as a representative for all Jews, illustrating communal Jewish power, righteousness and indestructibility. Through his word choice and framing of the story, the narrator evidently strives to convey Benya and his actions as strong, courageous and flawless. Still, the reader doubts this sincerity as the blemishes of Benya Kirk’s character seep through the narrator’s protests. When Benya tries to convince Eichbaum to give him the hand of Zilya to marry, Benya dances about a questionable balance between courtesy and indecency. At first, Benya upholds a virtuous etiquette, promising Eichbaum his lasting support. Benya vows to his future father in law, “’When you die, I’ll have you buried in the First Jewish Cemetery, right by the gates” (136). With these words, Kirk recognizes the value of legitimate Jewish power, embodied by the communal significance of burial place, and, as he mentions next, becoming an “Elder of the Brodsky Synagogue” (136). He valiantly asserts that he has both the power and the desire to bring such Jewish honor to Eichbaum. This integrity and strength illustrate the narrator’s perception of the ideal Jew—Benya upholds traditional Jewish communal values and also manifests the modern power to carry out these promised actions. Furthermore, Benya claims in his persuasion, “And your son-in-law will be the King, not some snotface! The King, Eichbaum!” (136) Benya Kirk declares his untouchable reign over all Jews, acting as the ambassador for Jewish authority. His confidence and assertiveness defy the common stereotype of a weak, insignificant Jew. Benya boldly rejects such a label—he, as a Jew, is not the average “snotface” that comes to mind (136). He is much more than that. Benya Kirk, in the narrator’s eyes, is the ideal Jew.
Despite Benya’s strong qualities, the reader instinctually feels that there is another side to him—the depiction of this ideal Jew is not the full picture. In the same speech to Eichbaum, Benya Kirk says, “I will kill all the dairymen except you” (136). This assertion displays Benya’s violent instinct, which plays a large role in the stories but is never discussed as dangerous or criminal. The readers know better than this; we are surprised and appalled by Benya’s violence. Beneath Benya’s elegance and persuasion brews a raw, human urge for violence that is unbecoming and prevents his attaining our approval of perfection. In addition to this flaw, Benya Kirk employs dirty coercion when addressing Eichbaum. “…Don’t forget, Eichbaum, you yourself were no rabbi in your youth,” Benya threatens, “Who was it who forged that will?” (136) From this quote, we see that Benya pairs his value of Jewish communal respect with deceitful intimidation. His use of blackmail and bribery exhibits Benya’s dirty, low aspects of his character. While he dresses like a spiffy, honorable man (in an orange suit with a diamond bracelet) and presents himself with authority and dignity, Benya still stoops to underhanded methods and plays a dirty game (135). The readers are left with a funny taste in our mouths—just how ideal is this man? Is Benya Kirk really the perfect person to represent the Jews?
The most telling aspect of this dialogue between Kirk and Eichbaum is, in fact, the narrator’s reaction to it. Without including Eichbaum’s response to Benya’s blackmail, the narrator sums up the conversation with, “And he got his way, that Benya Kirk, because he was passionate, and passion holds sway over the universe” (136). The narrator disregards the bulk of Benya’s persuasion—blackmail, bribery, and intimidation—and instead illuminates Benya’s strength and power. “Passion” is a word of honor and morality, of action and inspiration (136). Such qualities are those that the narrator emphasizes about Benya Kirk as a representative of idealized Jewishness. One who is passionate and who always gets his way embodies the opposite image of the stereotyped Jew who is weak and passive. The narrator prescribes the cause of Benya’s success to his morally upright strength, his passion. In reality, of course, the reader knows that Eichbaum had no choice but to comply with Benya’s request due to Kirk’s dirty blackmailing and threatening. From the narrator’s obvious choice to guide the reader away from Benya’s dishonesty, the idealization of Benya represents the narrator’s inner anxiety about the Jewish people. The narrator wants Jews to be aggressive, successful, and respectable, yet he tries to avoid the acceptance of a darker, unsettling reality that lies beneath this hope.
Eventually, the end of the story reveals this disturbing truth. After a fearless victory over the police, Benya Kirk is solidified as a hero. (137) It would seem that the narrator, who idealizes Benya, would wish to end the tale with this triumph and positive sentiment for the King. Instead, though, the narrator includes a disconcerting detail with the last sentence: “With both hands [Dvoira] was edging her timid husband toward the door of their nuptial chamber, looking at him lustfully like a cat which, holding a mouse in its jaws, gently probes it with its teeth” (139). This grotesque imagery evokes a shudder from its readers, finishing the story with squints and frowns on our faces. The moment with Dvoira and her new husband displays the unexposed side effect of Benya’s so-called heroism. Benya Kirk, who is idealized by the narrator for his honor and power, not only leads the Jews to victory over the oppressors. He also causes this uncomfortable, erotic, basely animalistic incident that definitely does not fit into the narrator’s definition for the perfect Jew.
This moment represents the basic, inherent flaw in the narrator’s idealization of his hopes for strong, untouchable Jewishness. The narrator tries to ignore his feelings of doubt about his ideal Jewish goal in his attempts to disregard Benya’s lesser qualities. In his effort to disguise these flaws from the reader, the narrator is actually striving to convince himself that his dream is possible. But, in the end, the narrator senses that he is faking his certainty, just as the reader recognizes. The narrator believes that something inherently flawed and unchangeable in the Jewish people will forever prevent this idealized future. Disappointed and defeated, the narrator finally surrenders to this harsh reality and exposes it to the readers, so we may experience this same collapse of hope. From this narration, we may glean an understanding of the anxieties about a hopeless Jewish future, without a possibility for Jewish strength, authority, or honor.
The narrator in Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy” employs similar desperate actions to portray an idealized perfection and stifle the deeper, guilt-ridden truth. The ape spends all of his speech hoping to prove to his audience, and to himself, that he has successfully become fully human. Just as the narrator of “The King” quickly dismisses Benya’s flaws and instead emphasizes his idealized qualities, the ape in Kafka’s piece frames himself in a similar manner. He discredits those who critique him as animalistic, and he belittles the ape-like features of his character, like his wounds, limp, and willingness to pull down his pants in public. The narrator in Babel’s story idealizes Benya in hopes to depict his perfection, just as the ape idealizes his own condition and frames his speech in desperation to portray himself as the perfect human being. In both cases, the reader recognizes the narrators’ ignorance about the faults in these idealizations and is therefore suspicious about an undermining reality.
As we saw in the last sentence of “The King,” these protests for perfection cannot endure on false grounds for so long. The ape ends his speech with a comparable moment, as he finally exposes his instinctual flaw that prevents his perfection as a completely transformed human. He admits, “There sits waiting for me a half-trained little chimpanzee and I take comfort from her as apes do” (259). Like the actions of Dvoira after the wedding, the ape discloses an uncomfortably erotic and animalistic detail. After such effort to protest any similarity to apes, he at last confesses that, at the end of the day, in darkness and privacy, he reverts to his instinctual manners, “as apes do” (259). By doing so, the narrator forfeits his overt idealization of himself and acknowledges his unchangeable, irremovable inclination for raw, basic animal desires.
The ape does not admit this moment enthusiastically, but rather is weighed with much guilt, as he writes, “By day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of a half-broken animal in her eye; no one else sees it, but I do, I cannot bear it” (259). Despite his attempts to downgrade any ape-ness, he is aware that deep down, he embodies an inevitable fault that will prevent him from ever reaching his ideal as a full human being. When the ape acts on this flaw, like during his relations with the chimpanzee, he feels disgust and hatred for his ape-like inclinations. This disgust leads to an overarching guilt and anxiety, which encourages the narrator to continue protesting his idealized perfection so he may hope to convince himself of his worth. A similar anxiety is exhibited by the Babel’s narrator, who also chooses his idealized words and stories with the aim to persuade himself and the audience of the possibility for Jewish strength and authority.
Both of these pieces express deeper anxieties about the future of the Jewish people. While Babel’s story displays hopelessness for Jewish power, Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy” seeks to prove the impossibility for successful Jewish assimilation. The ape represents a Jew who works to be immersed in modernity, intellectualism and the secular world. Like the ape, who can never full rid himself of his animalistic and guilty instincts, Kafka implies that the Jew, too, can never effectively escape the flaw of innate Jewishness. This symbolism implicates Kafka’s negative, guilty associations with his Jewishness and his feelings that Jewishness is inherently unshakable.
These narrators tirelessly attempt to illustrate an idealized fantasy, yet they both ultimately submit to a reality that undermines this goal. With such over compensatory protest and concealment, the narration illuminates to the readers much more than just a story. The narration in “The King” and “A Report to the Academy” reveals the complex anxieties about an idealized Jewish future and the hopeless surrender to an intrinsic Jewish flaw.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Introduction to Modern Jewish Literature with instructor Saul Zaritt at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.