Swans Commentary » swans.com August 24, 2009  



How Kafka Became So Kafkaesque


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - August 24, 2009)   Franz Kafka has a generally acknowledged low number in the twentieth century's top ten writers list, and an only somewhat less generally acknowledged place among the century's top whiners. But among the top whiners he was. Caught up in the whirlwind of the Enlightenment and its revolutions that tossed everybody, but especially Jews, around like debris in a tornado, the hypersensitive Kafka recorded in the very flesh the confusion that beset Jews who lived then. His journey out of, and then back into, Judaism, is revealing both for him and for us.

Kafka blamed, first of all, his father for his predicament. Kafka is notorious for his attacks upon his father in violation of the fifth, the most important, of the Ten Commandments. This in spite of his father's being not that bad a guy. Hermann Kafka was a domineering character, and he did want Franz to make a living, to get married, and perhaps, to get out of the house, but Franz depicts him as a monster. In The Judgment Kafka imagines Georg, the narrator, in a discussion with his father about a friend in Russia he has been deceiving about things back home. The father at first seems weak, almost dying, and ignorant of the friend's situation. But suddenly the father leaps out of bed, looms over Georg, declares that he has been informing Georg's friend of the truth all along, and insults Georg's fiancée. The friend seems to have replaced Georg in the father's affections. At the end of The Judgment Kafka imagines Georg hanging by his fingers from a bridge and waiting for the traffic crossing the bridge to be noisy enough to hide the sound of his splash when he lets go, a suicide apologizing for itself. There is hardly an image in literature more abject.

Most writers would give their best quill to find themselves in Kafka's real situation. His job, his universally-recognized horrible job, was ridiculously easy. According to one of Kafka's letters to Milena, it was so easy that he didn't know what they paid him for. The paperwork was trivial, but when he didn't like that he got to travel around to examine those who had made claims against the insurance company for which he worked. Franz got out of the office a lot, and he liked traveling. When there was a purge of Jews in his insurance company, Kafka, because of his connections, but even more because of his superiors' recognition of his worth, was spared. Because of his great value, the company refused to let him be drafted and sent into the trenches during the Great War, probably saving his life. When important speeches were to be made they usually gave Kafka the honor of writing them, making him indispensable to his higher ups. Everybody seems to have respected and indeed admired him. Also, he got extensive vacations, at least one month every year, which his income allowed him to spend being coddled in a sanitarium. It may not have been the ideal situation for a writer, but what job would be?

In his writing life he had the admiration of the whole "Prague Circle." Most of them were Jewish, and all, it seems, encouraged him. Among them was Max Brod, Kafka's childhood friend and devoted admirer. Brod picked up every scrap Kafka wrote, publishing some and saving all. Brod was constantly making efforts to further Kafka's literary cause and in the end preserved his work. When Brod got Meditations published in Robert Musil's Journal, Brod, Musil, Otto Peck, and Albert Ehrenstein all gave laudatory reviews to this work of an unknown writer. Their influence inspired at least half a dozen other sympathetic reviews. Later, Kafka, true to his self-hating nature, made Brod promise to destroy every bit of his writing after his death. Brod, remaining loyal to Kafka's literary cause, reneged. What unknown writer wouldn't like a circle of well-known friends all ready to help him?

So what did Franz Kafka have to complain about? To answer that will require a closer look at Kafka's situation. Franz lived with his parents and sisters in the parental home far into adulthood. His paternal grandfather, Jakob, had lived in abject poverty in the little town of Wossek. Jacob, his wife, and six children all inhabited a one-room cottage with a dirt floor and straw roof. They went through famine and suffered from the cold. They mentioned sores on their ankles that lasted all winter. Life was damn hard. One of those children was Kafka's father, Hermann, who never forgot these beginnings (who could?). He left home at fourteen and became a peddler. The removal of residence restrictions in 1848 sprang a mass migration of Jews from pent-up small towns like Wossek into large cities, and the trickle became a flood swelled by one Hermann Kafka, who went to Prague.

That journey cannot be measured in miles. Hermann Kafka went from Wossek, a half-step from the shtetl where life under the authoritarian rule of the rabbi had been more or less the same drab round for centuries, into the kaleidoscopic modern world. The attraction of this dazzling world of enormous opportunity, especially for Jews, blew up the old impoverished Jewish communities. In 1763, Frederick II of Prussia had decreed universal compulsory education. Austria-Hungary, of which Czech Bohemia was a part, followed suit in 1774. The burgeoning Industrial Revolution and European imperialism needed an expanding supply of educated managers, and suddenly everybody had a chance to move up. Since literacy was already so important a part of religious Jewish life, Jews did well in this new secular education. However, secular education replaced the religious Jewish education that had held the community together within a rigid structure until that time. Emancipation directly attacked the integrity of the isolated Jewish communities both by allowing emigration and enforcing secular education. Franz Kafka was educated in one of the secular schools in which German was the language of instruction. Since most of the Orthodox Jewish community opposed these schools, Franz Kafka became, within himself, a battleground for Jewish orthodoxy as against enlightenment ideas. Franz denounced school as a "conspiracy of the grownups" thus blaming this situation upon his father. In addition to substituting for, and thus ending, traditional Jewish Orthodox education, Kafka's German language education also assimilated the Jews to the German speaking oppressors of Czech-speaking Bohemia, striking the sparks that would eventually burst into the flames of the pogrom and anti-German riots of 1897.

The new Jews, suddenly freed from strict Rabbinic authority, still thought of themselves as Jews and gathered in clans whose social hierarchy depended on just how assimilated and unJewish one could make oneself. Enlightenment Jews, as I call those who rushed into these cities, embraced Western Civilization with a vengeance and made every effort to assimilate themselves. That meant first money: Hermann was ferocious about money, and who can blame him. But it then meant being unJewish by rejecting Jewish religious practice and embracing the noblest and truest thought of Western Civilization. And that was where Franz came in.

It was from the Löwys, his mother's family that Franz thought he got his spirituality. Julie Löwy, Kafka's mother, was from a family several rungs up in the enlightenment Jewish-attempted-climb on the ladder to goyism. Julie had grown up as the stepdaughter of her father's new wife, the servant and surrogate mother of her three stepbrothers. One can imagine that, with the bearing and red hands of a servant, she was hard to marry off in her own obsessively social-climbing class. For that reason she was given to Hermann, who, a rung or two down, was only one step from the shtetl but energetic and ambitious. Herman, with his keen awareness of poverty, probably saw Julie as worth ten of the Jewish princesses who, I assume, scorned him. She was the only one who did any work.

Together Julie and Hermann rushed into this new world. As far as Enlightenment Jews were concerned any Semitism was anti-Semitism. For their goal was to disappear as Jews and become whatever was best in the neighborhood. In Prague at that time these Jews tried to become German. Julie's father named her brothers Richard, Rudolph, and Siegfried. Hermann and Julie, in this game along with everybody else, named their first-born Franz Kafka in honor of the emperor Franz Joseph.

Hermann, and his apparently fanatical but very practical moneymaking, dominated the house. He was an Horatio Alger hero if there ever was one, and the Kafkas prospered in Prague. Only because of his father's hard-won success could Franz have even hoped to enter the literary world. But given that the whole goal of urban Jewish life was to slough off Jewishness and don bourgeois respectability, Franz's hostility to his father was, in a bizarre way, an act of filial piety. Hermann Kafka did not beat his son or wife. He did not do any horrible things to any of his family. What he did do was allow bits of shtetl life to cling to him in the form of crudeness and half-remembered Jewish ritual. Franz Kafka often mocked the half-baked Judaism his father practiced. And Herman was not refined enough in his "child rearing methods." Once he put Franz out on a balcony because Franz had repeatedly called for water in the middle of the night just to irritate the father. I myself imagine a scene where it would take a lot of self-control to not smash the fucking kid's head against the wall. But I would bet that Hermann felt the sting of Franz's criticism. For he too wanted to leave his Jewish crudeness behind. All Enlightenment Jews, including Hermann, wanted to shake off the dust of the shtetl as fast as they could. These Jews wanted out of the stifling, rabbi-dominated, utterly absurd, 39-kinds-of-work-that-you-couldn't-do-on-the-Sabbath life of shtetl based Orthodox Judaism. Enlightenment Jews threw off their Jewishness without a second look -- until later. They changed their names, never went to temple, converted to Catholicism, and denied that they were Jewish even though all their friends were. Franz's renunciation of his father was a natural part of the process, and one that his father abetted.

Franz Kafka was the oldest of six children. His two brothers died in childhood, leaving Franz with three younger sisters. Now in a Jewish family this makes the boy a prince, usually with disastrous results. Although the family revolved around the father, it is hard to imagine Franz, the only male child and the oldest, swaddled in a nest of three sisters, as having anything but a pretty good time of it himself. Because of his father's prospering business that also occupied his mother, servants brought him up. He had a French governess who served as his first erotic focus. Poor Franz! No wonder he complained bitterly about his childhood. "To the end of his days Kafka felt that his childhood had crippled him, rendered him unfit for life among the living." (1)

Kafka's life with women was, to say the least, ambivalent. He met Felice Bauer in 1912, became engaged to marry her a year later, remained engaged to her, on and off, until 1917, and then broke off the connection. Kafka knew, or at any rate thought, that married life would end his literary vocation. Though he seemed to want to marry he also obviously didn't want to, and it is hard to imagine any self-respecting modern woman tolerating Kafka's shabbily concealed cold feet rubbing up against her for so long. Although Kafka often declared his ardor, his impediments to marriage included, for example, what an unknown doctor would tell him that would depend, not on a medical diagnosis, but on the "personality of the unknown physician." Kafka followed this revelation with a volley of self-disgust that defended passive-aggressive fortifications built to turn back just about any demand for action. In a letter of June 16, 1913, he followed his marriage proposal with a long list of all its disadvantages for Felice. To Kafka's horror, she accepted. Two weeks later, instead of sketching in words the charm of their future life, Kafka wrote, "What I need for my writing is seclusion, not 'like a hermit,' that would be insufficient, but like the dead." How enticing. In another letter he names four literary heroes, one of whom is Kleist. He then asserts that only Kleist got it right because he shot himself rather than marry. That in a letter to Felice who, maddeningly, stuck with him nevertheless.

One can only blame Kafka's desire for marriage on his desire to be a good person. The unmarried Jewish man is nothing but a bum. Franz Kafka saw marriage as essential to fully human life and at the same time a spiritual death sentence. Having had no experience of poverty, Franz Kafka was not fanatical about money and he experienced the West as the Enlightenment, bursting with ideas and arts. Kafka embraced Western thought as an ascetic, nearly religious practice, probably on the model of Flaubert, whom he admired. But it was obvious that there was something inhuman in this asceticism. Franz imagined his choice as between more-than-hermit-like isolated devotion to his writing and real human bourgeois family life that was at the same time literary death. Although Kafka's literary friends were marrying left and right without it apparently affecting their production, Kafka was clearly right to see marriage, for himself, as spiritual death and, on the other hand, bachelorhood as human death. Kafka was one of those people who both needs to be alone and can't be alone. Ambivalence and uncertainty were his natural environment, and he made his writing out of it.

Franz Kafka was not a writer ambitious for success, except on a higher plane. He was the real thing, a devotee of what he saw as some kind of truth. Everyone who knew him commented on his purity. He was scrupulous in his art and never compromised in the hope of selling it. This in spite of his often-shabby behavior in his personal life. The way he clung to Felice and then took up with Grete Bloch when Felice sent her friend Grete as a go between does not ennoble him. Kafka's purity was an intellectual virtue only. If Kafka's search for the highest things had any roots in his Judaism it is hard to see it as having been transmitted through the dogged Hermann. Julie, too, was not particularly spiritual though Franz traced his own spirituality to his mother's maternal grandfather, Amshel, who was a rabbi.

If this was a source, the Enlightenment transformed it to something unrecognizable. For Orthodox Judaism, however exalted spiritually, is anathema to enlightenment intellectual and artistic activity. The incredible bouquet of Jewish intellectuals, artists, musicians, bankers, comedians, moviemakers, scientists, and entrepreneurs that bloomed in the Enlightenment grew almost entirely among those freed from the stifling rote learning of the Hebrew Shule. The centuries of authoritarian Jewish Orthodoxy show none of the creativity the Enlightenment released. Nor was there any evidence of the supposedly Jewish traits of musicality, humor, and brilliance during this time. On the contrary, those centuries are a wasteland of stagnation. The brilliant Jew is an Enlightenment product.

When the old order disintegrated and the Enlightenment, behind Napoleon's armies, threatened to dissolve all boundaries in a universal equality, nationalism became the political glue that held states together. Fearing England would succumb to the passions the French Revolution had unleashed, Edmund Burke, the father of Conservatism, appealed to his countrymen to reject the "rights of men" in favor of the rights of Englishmen, rights rooted in ancient custom rather than ideas. Later, Germany and Italy unified under the banner of nationalism, and Louis Napoleon calmed French class warfare with the balm of exalted "Frenchness." This nationalism was in large part a reaction to the Enlightenment's "all men are created equal," for it clearly allowed distinctions that started at birth, distinctions out of which national boundaries could be forged. And the nationalist reaction started almost immediately.

Enlightenment Jews were hungry to be taken into Europe's bosom. Since nationalism had, almost from the beginning, begun to cloud the Enlightenment, their suit was hopeless, requiring them to be "exception Jews," that is both Jews and not Jews. Kafka made the murky ambiguity of his position his milieu. "Where the hell are we? What are the rules?" his characters seem to cry, always searching for explanations and ideas. The newly emancipated Jews needed all their wits just to find out what the hell was going on, only to have their efforts reveal to them that the answer was "to be loved be other than you are." In Kafka's most famous story, Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a giant insect. Of course he has always been an insect, but has now revealed himself to be one. His change bothers him because he can't go on just as before. The revelation of what he really is makes it impossible to continue his life, and, paradoxically, makes Gregor more human as his family withdraws all affection from his now-repulsive being. No matter how much Jewishness the Jews sloughed off they were still Jews, in danger at every point of suddenly revealing themselves as "oriental." What it meant to be a Jew took on an ever more inward aspect. Judaism, which started out as the observance of Torah practice, became a culture, then a psychology, and finally, the inescapable fact that one's mother was a Jew. No matter what he did, in the end a Jew was still a Jew.

Although the Enlightenment ideal was that all men are created equal, the French Revolution ended in the terror and it is hard to argue with Burke when he claims "that not the despotism of a prince, but the condition of a gentleman, was the grand object of attack." Revolution does not establish principles so much as release passions, especially envy. Since that time, all the ills of the world from Nazism, to Communism, to bad style, to just plain boredom have been laid at the feet of this ideal. How much of the horror is actually attributable to the ideal of Enlightenment universal equality and how much to the fanaticism of the nationalist response to it no one will ever know. The word "totalitarianism" that collapses everything together just obscures the question.

Zionism is one more nationalism, but with a twist because of the situation of Enlightenment Jews. It involves not merely an emigration to a new land but also an attempt to re-embrace a lost religious practice. One very interesting case is that of Kafka's close friend, Hugo Bergmann, with whom the adolescent Kafka used to debate these questions. Bergmann, though an Enlightenment Jew, was a Zionist from an early age and remained one throughout his life. In a letter to the atheistic Kafka, apparently answering Kafka's question as to why Bergmann was a Zionist, Bergmann evades the question by saying it is simply part of his life. He compares the exaltation Kafka draws from his flights of imagination to what Bergmann gets from religious practice. Elsewhere Bergmann attributes his Zionism to a feeling he got when he returned to the home of his paternal grandparents, witnessed their spiritual practices, and contrasted them with his own shallow Enlightenment home. He accuses Kafka of being a good debater, and congratulates himself on withstanding Kafka's atheistic onslaught on one occasion.

Bergmann's Zionism grew from a feeling he got when he had the opportunity to experience Jewish religious practice. As such it required him to wall off Enlightenment reason, which Bergmann quarantines as Kafka's "debating skills." When he describes himself as "holding out" against Kafka's attacks it is clear that, win or lose, these attacks would have no effect on the unwavering Bergmann. Bergmann managed to cage the beast of reason, although, one imagines, his reason was never that wild a beast. But Bergmann later wrote books about Kant and Brentano and even wrote a textbook on logic thus refusing to abandon his childhood adoption of Western Civilization. He trotted out the tamed wolf of reason like a trained dog, one of a high pedigree that he marched up and down in the Faubourg Saint-Germain of Western thought. Like so many, he transformed reason into an ornament of the soul rather than the soul's authority. He seems almost to have wanted to prove that his abandonment of the ideals of the Enlightenment were no impediment to his commitment to Enlightenment intellectual rigor. His book Faith and Reason seems, from the small part I have read, not to come to grips with the problem. Reason cannot shake real faith, and that is that. But in this book Bergmann does see reason as another Religion, thus tacitly admitting the conflict.

As nationalism battered the Enlightenment ideal of universal human equality, Enlightenment sciences continued to prove their rich fecundity, especially in the invention of war toys. No one could afford to abandon the scientific part of the Enlightenment. But could it be separated from the ideal of equality? The problem was that the Enlightenment sciences claimed to explain the world's existence, if not its moral and legal foundation. It was a world without God in which people could be distinguished only by their differing ability to understand it. Nationalism, religion, and all unscientific opinions were nothing more than superstition. The Enlightenment, with only philosophers for friends against a world of enemies in high places, swept all before it though the power of its ideas, but its ideals were less successful, and many wanted to separate the two.

Enlightenment Jews who became Zionists held out the hope, a hope strong in Israel today, that a brilliant Jewish physicist might also be an Orthodox Jew, a compartmentalized person with both a critical mind and unquestioning faith. Because scientific thinking inculcated the searing habit of doubt against which religious faith had a hard time standing, a person, like Bergmann, who wanted both, simply had to wall off his religious practice from his critical mind. Faith protected itself by calling reason "debating skills." "God is a mystery," they must say. Religious practice, especially Jewish religious practice, requires one to embrace absurdities. One cannot drive on the Sabbath because driving is like riding a bicycle and riding a bicycle is like riding a horse. When riding a horse one might break off a branch to use as a switch, and breaking off a branch to use as a switch is like harvesting grain. But harvesting grain is forbidden on the Sabbath because it is one of the 39 kinds of forbidden work. Therefore one cannot drive on the Sabbath. Such Medieval reasoning shores up Jewish religious practice, but cannot withstand modern logical Enlightenment criticism. If you are going to obey Sabbath restrictions, you do it because you do it, without thinking. Indeed, you must forbid yourself to think. In the past long practice in rote learning shored up such a mentalité, but a physicist needed a different kind of education.

The stolid Bergmann could simply wall off reason and embrace the irrational spirituality of Judaism, but Kafka had no such luck. He and his characters needed to know. Faith, as the conclusion of Zionism, and the Enlightenment, as Kafka's vocation as a writer, warred within him garbed as his contradictory desires both to marry and not to. Since he couldn't do both, no compromise or dual nature was possible. The West, for Kafka, was not a place to plunder, but a spiritual home even if it was a whirlwind. For that whirlwind existed in his own breast, indeed, it was him. The world revealed itself to him through Enlightenment thought. That thought did not just supply him with a living. Flaubert, Dickens, and Kleist were truth itself. Kafka had also read Nietzsche and knew of his unwelcome guest at the door: nihilism. He lived in what Enlightenment ideals and ideas had wrought, nihilism, and for Jews, an assimilation that was essentially impossible. For Kafka, Orthodox Judaism eventually inspired nostalgia, a longing for a lost home as imaginary as Amerika. He wished to be part of it, but he could never seriously try to return to it even when he saw that all other routes were cut off for him.

The Enlightenment ideal of universal human equality was an ethical and moral foundation. It justifies the modern legal system we take for granted. Guilt or innocence depends upon finding out what really happened and what the law really is. That system is structured to find guilt or innocence independent of social status. Religious or feudal courts simply allow rabbis or lords to hold sway. They decide by their own lights, favoring those of higher status. It was the Dreyfus case and then the Dreyfus Affair that pitted anti-Semitism directly against the ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality. Anti-Semitism corrupted a court system that was supposed to make justice depend upon facts rather than influence and pedigree. It was the still burning embers of the Enlightenment that ignited the indignity of Zola and the other Dreyfusards, for, although we take it for granted, it is not a matter of course that facts are what counts in a criminal case. The Dreyfus Affair petered out when "there were no more Dreyfusards." That is, the Enlightenment ideal had lost steam. (2) It was the failure of the court process in the Dreyfus Affair that convinced Herzl of the futility of Jewish assimilation and started him on his Zionist crusade. Zionism is a product of the recognition of the failure of the Enlightenment ideal.

To abandon the enlightenment ideal of universal equality is to abandon the idea of justice that rests upon it and the entire legal system designed to reveal the objective truth. The Dreyfus Affair, with all its shenanigans, did just that. But nationalism cannot serve as a foundation for justice. Nationalism draws a ring around what is human. Concepts of justice apply only to those inside, but there is no reason not to make the ring smaller. Why the rights of Englishmen rather than the rights of Yorkshire men? For that matter, why not just look out for number one. Or why not the rights of the rich? Is health care a human right or only for those who can pay for it? In the ongoing class warfare the elites used nationalism to corrupt the Enlightenment system of justice and empty the justice "system" of content. Just as Enlightenment universal equality leads logically to socialism, nationalist distinctions lead logically to a dog-eat-dog individualism, or simply to Nazism. And so it has proved out. We are left with the machinery of a system of justice based on universal equality in a world more and more nationalistic, if not simply individualistic. And everyone thinks it is normal.

Franz Kafka was not the kind of writer who plans his books and then carries out the plan. Many of his stories seem to erupt from nowhere, or perhaps the unconscious, in a fit of activity. Even his novels seem to have had only a vague plan at most, and they are completely episodic. It is a mistake to think that he is ever trying to illustrate this or that theme. He seems more like the condemned man in The Penal Colony: a poor soul, guilty of he knows not what, who is to have his sentence written on his flesh with tiny needles controlled by a machine. Kafka does his writing on his own back with these needles. Both The Penal Colony and The Trial are about systems of justice. In both cases it is a question of finding out what the superiors know. Kafka seems to have thought of himself as inhabiting a world with rules inaccessible to him. In The Penal Colony the machine writes those rules in the flesh and blood of the condemned man. The previous Commandant, who is now dead, knew the inner working of the machine of justice. The present Commandant disapproves of the machine but continues to use it without knowing how it works because he cannot change it. The machine is breaking down and parts are hard to find. An officer who is an adherent of the ideas of the old Commandant is in charge, but he is having a harder and harder time keeping the machine working. The officer decides to substitute himself for the condemned man so as to experience the enlightenment the machine is supposed to produce, but the machine self-destructs, killing him horribly. He gains no enlightenment. In the end the explorer, the narrator from another country, leaves, preventing the soldier and the condemned man from escaping with him.

Whatever Kafka's intention, the machine in The Penal Colony is an accurate description of the moral confusion of the twentieth century and the chaos of the twenty-first. It is a machine, built with Enlightenment technology, embodying an earlier concept of Justice that is no longer accessible to us. Its adherents are ever fewer and it is breaking down. We think we are following a concept of Justice when we use the machine in complete ignorance of how it works. The superiors gain their authority from their connection to this earlier knowing authority who did not pass on his knowledge. Instead of producing enlightenment, the machine produces horrible torture and death.

The Enlightenment opened up the West to Jews only to have the counter-Enlightenment and its nationalisms slam it shut. Only in the Americas did assimilation pay off, but even some American Jews, accepting the horrible European end of Jewish assimilation as inevitable even in the teeth of their own experience, think assimilation impossible. Those Jews, like Kafka, who had taken the Enlightenment ride out and back, could never return to Orthodox Judaism, for the war continued to take place within themselves. Ernst Pawel did well to title his biography of Kafka The Nightmare of Reason. Others, like Bergmann, wall off reason to make room for orthodoxy in a dual life, an out Kafka found impossible. Kafka, spiritually, is all the characters in The Penal Colony. He is also Gregor Samsa, reviled when he reveals himself. And that is what he had to complain about.




1.  Ernst Pawel, The Nightmare of Reason, A Life of Franz Kafka, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Geroux, 1984) p. 13.  (back)

2.  Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt, Inc, 1994) p. 93.  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published August 24, 2009