Franz Kafka: Gooner

The first hit Tweet of the Antarctic.

Rusty here. I had to take today off for reasons of pediatric dentistry, but in place of your normal tabs, here is a special report from Today in Tabs’ Senior Historical Gooning Correspondent Allegra Rosenberg on Franz Kafka and other great Posters of antiquity. Over to you, Allegra:

Have you heard? They are cancelling Kafka on Twitter for being horny. “They” being multihyphenate twenty-something anti-porn anti-sex work transphobic radical feminists, [CW: all of the preceding adjectives plus bad posts] and “horny” being one sentence in a Google-scraped biography referring to his purported interest in pornography and brothels. 

Nearly every deranged digital controversy resembles overturning a log in the forest to discover strange atavistic creatures scuttling about in mortal outrage. I truly did not know before this week that there was such a large cohort of women who believe that sex work is irrevocably tantamount to rape and any man who pays for it is inherently evil! I wish I still didn’t know! [Ed: Oh, sweet summer child.]

But, while a fascinating subject, this isn’t a report on the socio-historical situation of sex workers or men who pay for their services. This isn’t even really report about Kafka. 

Twitter thread that starts with a quote of a tweet reading “People are always shocked when you tell them that Kafka was in fact horny as hell.” The poster, @fmlverse, added: “kafka is just oomf from the 20th century.” One reply reads “kafka would've thrived on stantwt” and another, “he would be the leader of omegaverse discourse”

To the radfems, the revelation of Kafka’s tortured sexuality was cause for condemnation. But to others it was cause for gleeful celebration: he’s a normal guy, he’s oomf, he’s just like me fr, he would do numbers on Twitter, he would have loved 4chan. One word that kept cropping up is “gooner”—which as far as I can tell is 2020s slang for a porn/masturbation addict.

I believe that applying arcane post-ironic identity subgenres, as people have semi-jokingly done with Kafka in response to his new critics, is an exercise in developing empathy for people in black and white photos, in starched collars and in handwritten cursive letters. The quotidian, the erotic, and above all else the just plain silly are how we internalize the humanity of the dead. (This is something the Nixon/Kissinger fangirls understand.)

Though I’m mindful of the risks of anachronism here, looking at historical figures through a modern framing is something I love. The focus of secondary sources like biographies or documentaries tends to be on the big moments—the world-changing actions of the Great Man, the Interesting Bits which can be understood by modern readers and viewers without too much context. Learning about history through social media osmosis, you get even less: Kafka being gooner-level horny came as a shock to those who only knew him from reposted screenshots of romantic excerpts from Letters to Milena and memes about waking up transformed into a giant insect. Not everyone has David Foster Wallace’s 1998 Harper’s essay about Kafka’s “anti-neurotic, heroically sane” humor on speed-dial. 

Like famous and successful people in the present, many famous and successful people in the past were losers with antisocial complexes, perverse fixations, weird habits, and offbeat senses of humor. Horniness and humor, in particular, are two of the most fragile traits a historical figure can have. Both are delicately contextual, situated in a broader web of topical reference and subtle personality, and both are all too easily misunderstood, bowdlerized away, or just ignored because they would take too much work to unpack.

But deep in the archive, armed with the proper lens, you can find iridescent trails of humor snaking through documents like snail slime. It can be teased out, like in this amazing Washington Post examination of presidential doodles, and of course it can be uplifted into the canon—no James Joyce post is complete these days without a reply referencing his comically kinky love letters.

Maybe this is just because I also happen to moonlight as a comedy producer now and again, but in my own research I have been compelled by how damn funny some historical figures can be, and how under-acknowledged that fact seems to be in the general literature. And also because my day job (such as it is) involves being online a lot, I am compelled to pity certain people who missed out by decades or centuries on the wonders of Posting, even while I give thanks that Joyce Carol Oates has avoided joining their ranks. 

Some successful writers and artists came as close to Posting as anyone could before the infrastructure existed, like Oscar Wilde, Marcel Duchamp, and yes, Franz Kafka, but how many Posters have come and gone before the dawn of an era that could truly appreciate them? In your reading of history, Tabs subscribers, who have you come across that would fit—perhaps even better than they fit in their own time—in our deranged, lawless digital landscape? I really want to know!  

I can point to a few examples from my area of expertise, the history of polar exploration. There was Emil Racovitza, a Romanian biologist who served on the scientific staff of the ill-fated 1897 Belgica expedition. Later in life he would become legendary as the founder of the scientific discipline of biospeleology—the study of cave life—but on the expedition, as a young man trying to stave off the darkness of the Antarctic night, he drew a series of cartoons and caricatures which display a shameless love of large asses, like some kind of fin-de-siècle Sweet Bro & Hella Jeff. Here’s one depicting one of his fellow crew members kneeling on a dirty street in his hometown to watch a woman piss. You can’t tell me this guy wouldn’t have loved hentai. 

A faint pencil cartoon on yellowed paper that shows a man lying on the street holding his hat out below a buxom Edwardian woman hiking up the back of her skirts and pissing. It’s titled “Les Plaisirs de Malines”

And then there was a member of Scott’s last expedition, Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, who is remembered today mainly for what he said before he stepped out into the blizzard, choosing to die in order to give his rapidly weakening companions a chance to live:1I am just going outside, and may be some time.”

What few seem to get about this line is that it was a joke. Nearly buried in hagiography are little details which hint that like some kind of polar proto-Hedberg, Oates specialized in dry, sardonic observational humor that was difficult, and for Edwardians inappropriate, to set down on paper. But everyone who knew him seemed to agree that he was incredibly funny. So why should his last words not be seen through this lens? The first hit Tweet of the Antarctic, by one of history’s greatest Posters. 

Charled Dollman’s painting of Titus Oates staggering into a blizzard alone, bent over and headed toward his death, overlaid in the top left corner with a screenshot of the @dril tweet: “IF THE ZOO BANS ME FOR HOLLERING AT THE ANIMALS I WILL FACE GOD AND WALK BACKWARD INTO HELL”

Painting: A Very Gallant Gentleman by Charles Dollman, 1913. Words: @dril, 2012

1. They did not.

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