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.