“Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers. This is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” – Franz Kafka
This quote has been bouncing around my head ever since the Tiger Woods scandal reached its thundering crescendo a few weeks back. At first, though, I wasn’t sure why this mini-parable — coming as it does from such a different age — so resonated with the way I was beginning to understand the flashpoint event that sealed the demise of a longtime American hero.
Let’s start with the general. Kafka’s parable seems to offer commentary on the way Men deal with Dissent and Difference. We’re groping at two key truths about humans, here: one, that we are inclined to favor the predictable, the orderly. Two, that we place our bets, consistently, on unstable entities.
And, Kafka suggests, this fundamental paradox leads us to act in some rather odd ways, to create all sorts of bizarre archetypes.
It doesn’t take a sour-face academician to pin down Tiger Woods as a Fallen Hero. In fact it’s so obvious, it’s been vastly underanalyzed, ask me. Let’s review for a second.
If human history can tell us anything, it’s that those we idolize and deify are bound to disappoint us. It is a tale as old as time itself: we hold humans imbued with certain Magical Qualities up for deification. We give them power. Lots of power. More, it seems, than they often have the maturity to handle. And then wait for them to betray us.
That waiting is a way of neutralizing unorthodoxy, I’d wager, by integrating threats to our social structures into the fabric of traditions. But it seems sort of unfair, because, working forward from this assertion, Tiger Woods begins to read less as a glad-handed slimeball and more as a victim of an oblique but inveterate social ritual of deification and divestment.
Here, the ritual entails three principal transformations: first, the transformation from human to superhuman (See: Tiger Woods Playing Golf at Age 2). Second, the ceremonial divesting (See: Tiger Woods Apology Speech) Last, the symbolic restoration (On the way, in short order, I’d guess: in his apology, Woods cryptically promises a return to golf “one day,” then slightly less cryptically adds that it may well be “this year.”)
At first blush, Tiger Woods and Franz Kafka couldn’t seem more different: One is a contemporary sports star who’d notched billions in endorsements before a series of figurative and literal car wrecks sent him tumbling into disrepute. The other was a nineteenth century writer and European Jew who died of Tuberculosis young, virtually unknown, and begging his friends to burn everything he’d ever authored.
One would live to see a man of similarly diverse ethnic background assume his country’s highest office; the other would die shortly before all three of his sisters perished in World War II concentration camps.
But. Using the Aryan nightmare of the Holocaust as a dividing line from which racial hatred and racial obsolescence snaked outward in opposite directions, one man, Kafka, can be seen as pre-racial, and the other, Woods, as post-racial. And I’d argue that the differences between the two men belie an equally broad swath of similarities, as it is with two sides of a coin, as it is with so many other things.
Let’s consider a few examples:
Both were caught in culturo-ethnic netherworlds: Kafka was born in the Prague of the late 1800s, yet an enclave of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His upbringing was wrought in a mess of tongues; Yiddish at home, Czech in polite society, German for all matters bureaucratic. And he was Jewish in a time when Judaism was associated with filthiness, weakness, when centuries of anti-Semitic thought were heating to a rolling boil.
Woods, too, is something of a neither-nor: one-quarter each of Chinese, Thai and African-American, plus one-eighth each of Native American and Dutch. So variegated is Woods’ ethnic makeup that he coined his own word for it: “Cablinasian,” a synthesis of Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian.
(At the risk of mixing metaphors, it is also interesting to note that the protagonist of Kafka’s most famous work, The Metamorphosis, collapses under the weight of a jumbled identify; traveling salesman Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to discover that he has been transformed from a human into an “ungeheuren ungezlefer,” which translates roughly as an “undescribable unthing.” It is usually vernacularized into “insect” in English translation of the novel, but this isn’t quite what Kafka meant.)
Both had daddy issues: Kafka never married, fearing above all else the potentiality of becoming his father; a harsh, exacting man who’d pulled himself up by bootstrap and sheer stubbornness into the ranks of respectable society. He expected his children to follow unarguing suit, but the younger Kafka had other ideas, and his works consistently portray authority figures as cold, illogical and unreasonable.
Papa Woods, too, was larger-than-life. He was driven. He was exacting. He had big plans for his offspring. And, like his son after him, he was unfaithful to his wife, a revelation which is said to have horrified the adolescent Woods, who had idolized his father.
Both had weird sexual hangups: Kafka pursued parallel sexual lives: he had a documented taste for whores, but consistently maintained relationships with respectable women. Likewise, The Metamorphosis is often read as an allegory about being torn between the powerful social urge to please those around us and the equally powerful primitive urge to satisfy our own, darker desires.
Woods married a nice girl and started a family. But he also cultivated a (purportedly insatiable) taste for women of the evening; two porn stars and a Playboy model are named among the running tally of his conquests, and some even claim he also pursued sexual relationships with other men.
Both put on extensive airs: Kafka maintained a demeanor of charm and cultivaton that made him popular with everyone, especially women. Deep down, though, he was irrationally terrified that he’d be unmasked for what he truly saw himself as: a filthy, sickly Jew.
Woods was famous for his reticence and quorum when it came to interacting with the public; He wore “power colors; his answers during press conferences were clipped and consistently glib, his handlers rarely allowed him to interact casually with fans or other golfers.
* * *
Similarities aside, the fates of the two men also read as the flipsides of a single coin; One did not see success in his life, the other did— seemingly more than he could easily abide. one was terrified of rejection and failure, the other came to believe he was immune to such things. And both battled mightily against the revelation of an inner ugliness, of the soul’s darkness bleeding outward into physical form: early on, Kafka had peered into his own heart and hated what he found there. Likewise, we peered into Tiger Woods’ heart and recoiled in disgust.
One man died before he had the chance to join a million of his brethren in martyrdom; the other seemed immortal, and thus required our assistance in his own destruction.
Before his death, Kafka penned a lengthy and damning missive to his father. In the last paragraph of this letter, he wrote:
“Naturally things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder—a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail—in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.”
If you really stop and think about it, the concept of any confession being an approximation of the truth, and not the truth itself is sort of mind-blowing. Indeed, in the end, Kafka and Woods were each forced to concede that the truth is never simple, no matter how smart you were, now matter who your dad said you were—or weren’t.
In the end, it’s a coin toss: some people become martyrs, others become heroes. But either way, there’s a penance to be paid. It’s history’s vow made good. It’s the critical and exacting eye turned selfward, then outward, then selfward again, over and over. It sees only weakness. And it demands in recompense nothing short of total destruction.