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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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Doug Chayka

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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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."

There is comparatively little fodder for Kafkologists in The Office Writings, a collection of legal and policy papers penned by Kafka during the fourteen years he labored at the Austrian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. His position at this public company was made possible by what counts, in bureaucracy, as a revolution: the empire-wide compilation of industrial-accident statistics. In a critical essay included in The Office Writings, Benno Wagner suggests that the institute was at the crux of a dramatic shift in legal paradigms. Industrial society required that liability and compensation for increasingly regular workplace injuries be standardized, and devising a system to quantify these occurrences meant substituting "the principle of risk" for "the principle of guilt." A certain number of accidents would happen regardless, and it no longer made sense to search out the individuals culpable for each shredded limb or paralyzed breadwinner. Instead of adjudicating each incident, the government distributed risk by collecting insurance premiums from employers. When a worker was mutilated or killed, a trained expert compensated him or his family by referring to an actuarial table of payments.

Working in "the Manchester of the Empire," Kafka proved himself a legal innovator, developing and implementing safety measures and methods of oversight that saved the lives and livelihoods of countless workers. He appealed for the improvement of conditions in quarries, advocated for public assistance to disabled veterans and filed lawsuits against business owners who illegally withheld insurance premiums. And while he complained that the "real hell is there in the office" and, in his epistolary exchanges with friends and lovers, fretted constantly about the obstruction to writing posed by his day job, he also admitted the existence of "the deep-seated bureaucrat" inside him. In technical papers like "On the Examination of Firms by Trade Inspectors" and "Measures for Preventing Accidents From Wood-Planing Machines," he surveyed the strange terrain his literary work would excavate.

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held considerable sway over people's lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from the center of the age's contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer, the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork. Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare state, and its administration required a massive expansion and modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was "being suffocated by files and drowning in ink," wrote the governor of Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In Kafka's last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

The principal subject of Kafka's novels is not the mess of bureaucracy as such but rather alienation in the age of office jobs, assembly lines and advanced nation-states. Though Begley characterizes Kafka as reliant on fickle inspiration, which only occasionally allowed him unfettered access to what he called his "dreamlike inner life," his best literary creations, like all dreams, are clearly rooted in the everyday. Drawing primarily on Kafka's diary and epistolary exchanges with friends and lovers, Begley arrives at the thesis that his life and work are dominated by dichotomies in his psychological makeup: "between strach ('fear' in Czech) and toucha ('longing')"; between his Jewishness and his German education and literary influences; between the banality of the working day and the inner maelstrom he set out to harness each night. The Office Writings, however, convincingly suggests that his job was also integral to his writing, and that his literary production was not an escape from the alienation of daily life to that "dreamlike inner life" but a striving to reconcile the two.

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