The Book of “Job”: A Biography
by Mark Larrimore
Susman begins and ends her book with quotations from a modern Jewish writer whose entire oeuvre has been interpreted as a commentary on the book of Job even though Job is never mentioned: Franz Kafka. She was one of the first to link Kafka’s evocations of the mute fruitlessness of modern experience to the social, cognitive, and spiritual crises of Job. A line from Kafka’s diary (January 10, 1920) limns Susman’s closing account of that messianic hope which, paradoxically, can arise only from the most total devastation:
It is no refutation of the premonition of a final rescue when the imprisonment is unchanged the following day or even more severe, or even when it is expressly explained that it will never end. For all of that can be the necessary precondition for the final rescue. (238)
Kafka is not an obvious apostle of hope, but Susman’s conception of hope is not the usual one. Kafka’s rigorous evocations of dehumanization are the most powerful accounts of what true hope and true humanity might be, precisely through their absence. “Metamorphosis,” the tale of a man who awakes to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect, describes modern Jewish, and through it, all modern human experience. Its protagonist Gregor Samsa is not only “a Job … ejected entirely from human community” but so estranged from his own humanity that he “cannot present his fate to God and demand to be dealt with in a human way” (152).
Susman first laid out the analogy of Job and Jewish experience in a 1929 essay on Kafka, years before the cataclysm. 40 Like Job the Jews know what only the truly innocent sufferer can know— that individual innocence does not register in the relationship of humanity and God, a relationship defined rather by a general human guilt. Modern Jews, Susman argues, are triply homeless. They are exiled from a homeland, from nature. In refusing to convert to Christianity, they are exiled from history. And the disenchanted modern European civilization to which they have assimilated has itself lost sight of the divine, and of the human. The Christian (or ex-Christian) still has the world and history, for his God once appeared in it. The Jew has nothing but a transcendent God beyond nature and culture, whom she cannot help constantly seeking and addressing. She is Job.
The awful truth is that the only way to encounter God unambiguously is in a suffering that defies nature and history as well as justice, and, thus, alone, can be known to be a divine sign. This is what Kafka and his characters seek. There is no lament in Kafka, only a tireless seeking for the law that might explain and redeem existence, restore humanity. “Herein lies what is so strange, so profoundly religiously shattering about Kafka’s God-remote world,” Susman wrote: “it is seen not from the world, from life, but from God, measured against him and judged by him.” Everything is in “indecipherable and uncanny relation” in the world of Kafka’s writing, and we “never know which link in the endless chain we are touching.” What has been described as Kafka’s “perceptual nightmare” may seem the end of the road for the human project to discern a “depth dimension” to our experience. 41 Yet Susman finds a messianic hope in the way Kafka’s world, so ruthlessly rendered in its “God-remoteness,” nevertheless calls for the affirmation of every part of it as, perhaps, the “necessary precondition for final salvation.”
Margarete Susman’s argument that the book of Job, more than the covenant of David, describes Jewish history and destiny makes Job’s place off the map of history decisive. Job had been a sideshow to the story of Israel, just as the story of the Jews in diaspora had been for the centuries of Christian history. Now that the idols of nation, nature, and history are crumbling, God and human destiny have become legible again— though only in negative, and in the most anguished forms of affliction and marginalization. The lesson is a hard one, bitterly hard. But if we recognize Job and Kafka as prophets, there is still hope for human life.
Our time in western history has been described as a “secular age,” an era in which “naïve” religious faith is no longer possible. Even the most devoted believer in a faith is aware that many others do not share it. 42 Religious communities flourish, to the consternation of secularization theorists, but know the world is not theirs alone— or perhaps theirs at all. The shared default experience is of a neutral world of indifferent natural laws shared by cultures and communities projecting fragile meanings on or beyond it. Every human tradition may be a sideshow.
Job is the modern soul’s guide as it navigates the religious experience of being off the map. He has offered a template for experiences of individual hopelessness since the books of Hours. His relationship with God, based on personal integrity in the absence of communal or covenantal support, resonates with modern disenchantment with religious institutions. And his book records the strange and painful discovery that God’s presence is felt most keenly in what might otherwise seem his absences: in the ethical irrationality of the world, and especially in those experiences of loss and suffering that defy human conceptions of justice or meaning. God may be understood to be the instigator of innocent suffering or to be suffering alongside the innocent— or both. The book of Job is the Schicksalsbuch for all whose God is exiled from what was once his creation.
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