Identity, origins, ghettoes, provincialism, Kafka

Claudio Magris


Identity is a quest that is always open, while the obsessive defence of one’s origins can at times be as much a form of regressive slavery as, in other circumstances, is willing submission to displacement.

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But a small people which has to shake off the disdain or indifference of the great of those whose greatness may perhaps have only a little while to run must also shake off its complex about being small, the feeling of having constantly to rectify or cancel this impression, or else totally reverse it, glorying in it as a sign of election. Those who have long been forced to put all their efforts into the determination and defence of their own identity tend to prolong this attitude even when it is no longer necessary. Turned inward on themselves, absorbed in the assertion of their own identity and intent on making sure that others give it due recognition, they run the risk of devoting all their energies to this defence, thereby shrinking the horizons of their experience, of lacking magnanimity in their dealings with the world.

Kafka, in spite of being so fascinated by the life of the Jewish ghetto and its literature, sadly but sternly proclaimed that a poet must remain detached from the literature of any small people, which does not tolerate a great writer because it is forced to defend itself from outside influences, and is wholly taken up with this struggle for survival. Giuliano Baioni has written that Kafka consciously became that great writer rejected by a minor, oppressed literature, intent on defending its own national identity and culture and eager for positive and consoling voices; rejected because such a writer creates a void around himself, provokes schisms and imperils the compactness of the little community.


SOURCE: Magris, Claudio. Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. London: The Harvill Press, 1997. Chapter 1: A Question of Gutters; section 9: Bissula; p. 43. Chapter 5: Castles and Huts; section 2: Where Are Our Castles”; p. 225.


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