To write aphorisms is to partake of “a minor art of the intellectual asthma,” Austrian author Thomas Bernhard once wrote, “from which certain people, above all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses’ night tables…whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room.” The most common complaint among revisionist biographers and doting critics of Franz Kafka is that, in the eighty-odd years since his death, the deification of the writer has reduced his work to the level of the aphorism. If Kafka has not yet found his way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room, the photograph of his stony countenance and doleful eyes, so frequently invoked as a stand-in for his vision of the world, sometimes seems to be everywhere else, including the cover of novelist Louis Begley’s recent book-length biographical essay on Kafka, The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. His stories are still read widely–less so his novels–but have in the popular imagination been subsumed by a one-word slogan: Kafkaesque. That grainy likeness is its logo.
What is the Kafkaesque? It is the scene described in Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy,” in which an eloquent ape candidly recounts his arduous path toward civilization: “There is an excellent idiom: to fight one’s way through the thick of things; that is what I have done.” It is, Begley suggests, that familiar existential predicament so often played out by Kafka’s characters, who “struggle in a maze that sometimes seems to have been designed on purpose to thwart and defeat them. More often, the opposite appears to be true: there is no purpose; the maze simply exists.” It is the explosion of the international market for mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, in which value is not attached to the thing itself but to speculation on an invented product tangentially related to (but not really tied to) that thing. It is FEMA’s process for granting housing assistance after Hurricane Katrina: victims were routinely informed of their applications’ rejection by letters offering not actual explanations but “reason codes.” It is the Bush administration’s declaration that certain Guantánamo Bay detainees who had wasted away for years without trial were “no longer enemy combatants” and its simultaneous refusal to release them or clarify whether they had ever been such. It is, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “the form which things assume in oblivion.” “Kafkaesque,” in other words, is a phrase that has come to represent very much about modern life while signifying very little.
For some, the haze of the Kafkaesque has become so dense–if not Kafkaesque–as to prevent readers from seeing the real Kafka. In his “definitive biography” Kafka: The Decisive Years, which was translated from the German in 2005, Reiner Stach assembles the available bits of information about the writer’s life between 1910 and 1915 as if they were puzzle pieces, but he finds he has no key, or too many; loath to impose his interpretation of the various facts and accounts (though he must do so occasionally) or to indulge purveyors of the Kafka myth, he leaves the reader with a 600-page buildup to a titular punch line. In Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera’s book on various pre-eminent Modernists, the fellow Czech blames Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, biographer and literary executor, for the consecration of Kafka’s body of work. Brod hawked Kafka’s manuscripts as revelation, going so far as to produce a statement during Hitler’s rise to power–signed by Martin Buber, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, among others–imploring publishers to issue Kafka’s collected works as “a spiritual act of unusual dimensions, especially now, during times of chaos.” The rest is history: “Through innumerable prefaces, postfaces, notes, biographies and monographs, university lectures and dissertations,” Kundera writes, “Kafkology produces and sustains its own image of Kafka, to the point where the author whom readers know by the name Kafka is no longer Kafka but the Kafkologized Kafka.” Readers should be up in arms, and perhaps the purest among them will storm the local university, where doctoral students are even now producing narrow interpretations of Kafka’s work that fixate on middling details of his biography and blow them wildly out of proportion. For Kundera, such blasphemy has turned Kafka into “the patron saint of the neurotic, the depressive, the anorexic, the feeble; the patron saint of the twisted, the précieuses ridicules, and the hysterical.”