Experiments in cultural connectivity: Early twentieth-century German-Jewish thought meets the Daodejing

Peter Fenves*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In the middle of a fragment of a story that Franz Kafka wrote near the end of the First World War under the title “Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer” (Building the Great Wall of China), he provides a description of a non-Chinese construction project: “You must admit,” writes the narrator who presents himself as a minor figure in the construction of the wall, “that deeds were accomplished at that time that fell just short of the building of the Tower of Babel, although they were the opposite when it comes to being pleasing to God – at least according to human calculation. I mention this fact because during the early stages of construction a scholar published a book that explicated the comparisons very precisely.”1 Nowhere does the narrator of Kafka’s story explain the basis on which the scholar” compares the two gigantic construction projects. The scholar claims to have visited the ruins of the Tower of Babel; but it does not appear as though he has read the account of its collapse in the opening book of the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, the biblical narrative informs the narrator’s analysis of the comparison, for, as the quotation above indicates, he seems to understand the putative lesson of the narrative—and understand, furthermore, that this lesson is valuable “only according to human calculation.” What is altogether missing from the comparison between the Great Wall of China and the Tower of Babel in Kafka’s incomplete story of their comparison is what the biblical story of the Tower itself serves to explain, namely the multiplicity of languages and thus the diversity of cultures. One reason for the absence of any reference to linguistic differences and cultural diversity in Kafka’s story can be immediately identified: the story proceeds as though it were exempt from the punishment that was inflicted upon humanity, according to the biblical story, as a consequence of the attempt to build a tower that reaches the heavens. In this regard, it is altogether appropriate for a member of the Chinese “literati” to have intimate knowledge of the biblical text, for the two cultures—Chinese and Jewish—would stand in some as yet undefined mode of linguistic-cultural connectivity. Kafka’s story, which was never published in his lifetime, can be seen as an experiment in cultural connectivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTensions in World Literature
Subtitle of host publicationBetween the Local and the Universal
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9789811306358
ISBN (Print)9789811306341
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Experiments in cultural connectivity: Early twentieth-century German-Jewish thought meets the Daodejing'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this