Kafka Feared the Clap, and Other News


On the Shelf

Just an average Kafka.


  • There’s nothing wrong with Kafka. You don’t have to look at him like that. He’s just an average Joe, our Kafka, dreaming of erotic love but reacting with complete terror when presented with the act itself. For decades, Kafka scholars have struggled to explain his aversion to sex, especially in light of his evident fondness for women—was he gay? Did he have some kind of body issue? No, his biographer Reiner Stach says: he was just petrified of venereal disease, as were many men in his era. “I read a lot of books on sexuality published in the 1900s, books usually intended for young girls and men. They are just focused on risks, never about sexuality as a source of happiness. It is not about morality or religion—just medical risks … But look at the historical and psychological context—men and women were really separated at the time … They were educated in completely different ways. So when they met for the first time, often in their early twenties, this was often very embarrassing and very frightening … [Kafka was] unable to integrate his own sexuality into his self-image because he regarded it as something both physically and ethically impure, and therefore incapable of developing human intimacy with women who actively drew him into this filth—this anti-sensual and misogynist syndrome was shared by millions of middle-class men, whose upbringing simply did not allow for erotic happiness.”
  • For Edmund Wilson and Nabokov, on the other hand, sex was the rare topic they could agree on—so much so that you wonder why they didn’t just get it over with and sleep together. Their famous feuds, as Alex Beam writes, could be broken only by a little X-rated titillation: “Sex was a subject the two men could talk and joke about. Wilson wrote a clever little limerick about Vladimir ‘stroking a butterfly’s femur,’ and he often brought Nabokov erotic books as house presents. In 1957, for instance, he took the French novel, Histoire d’O along on a visit to the Nabokovs in Ithaca, New York, where the novelist was teaching at Cornell. ‘[Nabokov] agreed with me,’ Wilson recorded in his journal, ‘that, trashy though it is, it exercises a certain hypnotic effect.’ Vera Nabokova frowned on the two men’s tittering enjoyment of nyeprilichnaya literatura (indecent literature) and made sure that Wilson took the book with him when he left: ‘She does not like my bringing him pornographic books,’ Wilson remembered. ‘She said with disgust that we had been giggling like schoolboys.’ ” 

  • The rise of the Facebook Event has meant the death of the flyer—there’s little need to advertise your parties and DJ nights with subversive, painstakingly designed pieces of paper when a simple JPEG will suffice. Hua Hsu dips into No Sleep, a collection of nineties-era New York club flyers that doubles as the swan song of a defunct underground culture: “What No Sleep depicts is a much looser time, after disco and before the gilded age of mega-clubs and luxury bottle service, when the only guiding ethos was that anything was worth a try. There are flyers in the shape of candy bars, detergent boxes, and dollar bills, printed in eye-catching neon or in austere black-and-white. The bulk of the collection being from the nineties, there are plenty of variations on the Nike swoosh, remixed Bart Simpsons, and faux cigarette logos … There’s something romantic about the power that a well-designed flyer and word-of-mouth buzz once held, and for the acts of communion and escape that took place with minimal concern for branding or profit, since there existed few ambitions greater than just making the scene a little bigger.”