In this short essay, Sean Gaston examines the relation between metaphor and metaphrand, ranging between Torahic exegesis and a critical analysis of ‘A Country Doctor’ so as to enact a form of semantic histology with a view to establishing whether or not there is ‘a Jewish wound’.
Is there a Jewish wound? The Christian wound, first found in the Gospel of St John, presents us with a doubting Thomas, who must see and touch the body of Christ to believe in the Resurrection. For once, Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of St Thomas (1601-1602) is less graphic than the text of the New Testament. St Thomas is first invited to use his fingers to touch the nail wounds on Christ’s hands and then told: ‘reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side’. However, the purpose of this gaping wound, large enough to fill the hand of a man, is to refute the authority of an empirical viscus. Jesus loves his ironies and ends this little scene by rebuking Thomas: ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ The Christian wound is a narrative of faith: don’t see and then believe, believe and never touch. The wound is not important. If anything, it is a diversion, a blindness that wants to touch what must be holy, sacred and untouchable.
This tradition of getting it wrong, of missing the point, of not understanding the Good News, is alive in The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598), a comedy about mistakenly grabbing for that fist of flesh. As the full title suggests, it is a ‘Comical History’ about taking the story of ‘a gaping wound’ far too literally. St Thomas really was the most Jewish of the Disciples. Shylock, according to the good Christian Shakespeare, is ‘the Jew of Venice’ because he mistakes the metaphorical for the literal. Jews just don’t get metaphors, and most of all the original metaphor of the gaping wound of Jesus Christ. And yet, the great Rambam, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), argued some four hundred years earlier in The Guide for the Perplexed (1187) that what Jews did best was not to confuse the metaphorical and the literal. It was only those who treated God as an anthropocentric figure, as something that could be described on a human scale, who confused the metaphorical passages in the Torah with those of literal truth and wisdom. Sadly, Maimonides offers no commentary on one of the last passages in Deuteronomy, where Moses speaks for YHWH: ‘I myself bring death, bestow life, / I wound and I myself heal’ (mahazti vei anne erpa).
No doubt the good Jewish Kafka read his Torah. Walter Benjamin was certain of this when he insisted in a letter to Gershom Scholem in August 1934 that ‘the work of the Torah – if we abide by Kafka’s account – has been thwarted.’ At the start of ‘A Country Doctor’ (1919), a horse is missing, but other horses are found in the pigsty. After finding the horses, the servant girl responds: ‘“You never know what you have in your own house,” she said, whereupon we both laughed.’ It is perhaps a question of multiple wounds leading up to the gaping wound. The groom found in the pigsty with the horses is a stranger and bites the servant girl: ‘there are the red marks of two rows of teeth on the girl’s cheek.’ This wound promises more violence as the doctor is led away on the carriage and glimpses the groom smashing down his front door in his attempt to rape the servant girl, turning the threshold of security and hospitality into a sort of wound.
The patient’s first words, ‘Doctor, let me die,’ are a call to the comforting absolutes of Moses’ last song in the Torah: death and life, wound and healing. No one hears these words, but we alone hear the doctor’s own words as he evokes a tale of providential assistance: ‘it is in these sorts of cases that the gods send their help.’ Kafka describes him speaking profanely (lästernd), which may be because the doctor breaks the Shema, the exhortation that there is only one god for Jews, when he refers to the gods (die Götter). When the wound (Wunde) is found, it is ‘as big as my hand’ (eine handtellergroße), as big as the wound of the resurrected Jesus and as big as the metaphorical ‘gaping wound’ made literal by the comical Shylock. Worm- infested, deadly, the wound has its own life – which the Torah, when it is not thwarted, will always associate with healing – but it is a life in the wound (das Leben in seiner Wunde) that has ‘quite dazzled’ the boy. Life is in the wound. The Torah has been thwarted and now there is only the delusory task of healing without faith: ‘they have lost their old faith.’
The gaping wound is not closed or healed. As the doctor flees, stripped naked by the family and villagers, the wound remains open. When Kafka speaks of the loss of faith he refers to der Pfarrer, the priest, vicar or parson: this is a Christian story and the wounds are at once the wounds of Christ and the wounds of Judaism in the midst of Christianity and of modernity. Is there a Jewish wound?