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An Alienation Artist: Kafka and His Critics | The Nation

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An Alienation Artist: Kafka and His Critics

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Kafka's singular insight was that the "rationalization" of society, with the bureaucracy as its engine, was increasingly shaping individuals and relations between them. His genius was to make this observation into something more than a trope or a theme in his writing, to give this new social force a literary form. Whereas Dickens fought a war against the system--the jaundiced High Court of Chancery in Bleak House being the chief battleground--Kafka, knowing there is no other salvation, strove to turn the system on its head, lay bare its operations and have a good laugh at its expense. (Amerika is his most Dickensian novel and, as such, suffers from a paucity of good jokes.) Kafka's success in this venture has made his name into an emblem of the confounding, dehumanizing logic of modernity, and plenty of ink has been spilled over why this presents a hazard for his readers.

About the Author

Alexander Provan
Alexander Provan, a writer living in Brooklyn, is a founding editor of Triple Canopy and contributing editor of Bidoun.

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The preponderance of Begley's book is devoted to a measured account of Kafka's plodding daily life, neurotic tendencies and manic epistolary exchanges, which are by turns monotonous and excruciating, with the reader always left pitying the women on the receiving end. Begley augments his narrative with humble insights, such as, "The claustrophobia of the world portrayed in his fiction mirrors that of his own existence." The point seems to be to satisfy the reader's (and Begley's) natural curiosity but also to quarantine it. This puts Begley in the odd position of writing a biography partly to prove that, when reading Kafka, one should not rely too heavily on biography. If there is a general argument to be gleaned, it is that this grandson of a kosher butcher from the southern Bohemian village of Wossek embodied the anxieties of the age, while his masterful writing universalized them. Kafka's image of the world has persisted because he identified a quintessential quality of society and branded it--with a trial, a castle, a bug, a hunger artist, a penal colony. It would be impolitic to fault Kafka, and thus his readers, for the popularity of his conceits; so Begley dutifully chides the Kafkologists for reading The Trial "as a cabalistic parable" and distorting it to fit their "formal literary theory concerns," and for their "near-total disregard of the aesthetic aspect of [Kafka's] work." He then concludes, rather lamely, "Some things cannot be explained."

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James Hawes, in his fatuous polemic Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, contends that "the less you know about Kafka's alleged life the greater chance you have of enjoying his superb writing." All the Kafka you need is in the pages of his books (where Hawes spent many years of his life as a German literature PhD); to look elsewhere only muddles the formal brilliance and psychological acuity of Kafka's work by placing his writing in the service of what Hawes refers to as "the gatekeepers." The "adoring biographers" and "theorizing academics" are all "in the same game as the sellers of tourist knickknacks in Prague."

That resolved, Hawes commences re-education camp, plowing through 200 pages of biography to show us that no details of Kafka's life are so important as to influence our reading of his books, and because, "being human, we want to find out who made things we admire." He reveals that Kafka subscribed to highbrow erotic magazines, was a lifelong vegetarian and adhered to the dietary dictates of the "great masticator" Horace Fletcher, who advised his acolytes to chew each bite until it had been turned to a sort of saliva bisque. Kafka also practiced the calisthenics regime of Jens Peter Müller, "the most beautiful man of the new century," standing nearly naked by his window swinging his arms and legs for ten minutes each day. Hawes seems to think of himself as the Ernest Renan of Kafka studies, undermining the myth machine with a portrait of "the real Franz Kafka, warts, porn, whores, and all," the one that scholars "don't want you, dear Reader, to know."

The myths Hawes aims to debunk include: "Kafka takes us into bizarre worlds"; "Kafka was poor and lonely, or free, and thereby lost"; and "Kafka's works uncannily predict Auschwitz." Our actual world is indeed bizarre enough, and Kafka was probably more uncomfortable in his own skin and surroundings than most, if only because he was so acutely sensitive to them. As for Hawes's last claim, it's necessary to distinguish between work "predicting" and being "predictive of" the Holocaust, and Kafka's writing definitely falls into the latter category. In a late-life letter, Kafka expressed wonder at the bureaucracy's capacity for "the taking of things to a higher level," of enhancements "springing straight out of the origins of human nature, to which, measured by my case, the bureaucracy is closer than any other social institution." To achieve the productivity and expansion necessary to industrial capitalism, individuals were absorbed into massive hierarchies without glimpsing their form or limning their purpose. It was this fusion of bureaucracy, technology and power, mobilized to sinister ends, that laid the tracks, built the camps, circulated the propaganda and processed the paperwork of the Third Reich. In this sense, the Holocaust, too, is Kafkaesque.

Ultimately, the bureaucratization of society establishes order without rationality, speeding the satisfaction of the state's appetites without benefiting the individual. Though Kafka's later protagonists rarely escape with their lives, Amerika's "Negro" (né Karl) is an exception: he ends up on a train headed toward "Oklahama," where he expects a position as a technical worker with the Nature Theater. Only when he is two days removed from the deprivations and indignities of the city, nearing some dimly imagined frontier, does he content himself with gazing out his window at "the vastness of America." He no longer dwells on his prospects or even his destination but rather on the majesty of the land, with its "bluish-black masses of rock" and its "broad mountain rivers" sweeping "forward in great waves." As the distance between him and Gotham grows, and as his contemplation of the erosion and sedimentation of ages sweeps away the memories of tenement towers and luxury hotels, Karl appears to become himself again, the child who approached America and was greeted with Liberty's sword.

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