This post first appeared at Medium, February 25, 2018.
I’m wearing a t-shirt now that I found on the internet and got as a Christmas gift. It’s grey and made of extra-soft cotton and it has, in large Germanic lettering, a single word on it: Kafka. Though the word has become a cliché, I think it would be a little right to call this situation Kafkaesque. I never knew Kafka personally. Had it not been for his literary executor ignoring Kafka’s request to destroy all of his written work, no one would know him. Human evolution is miraculous because a few inopportune twists and turns in the evolutionary chain would leave us either too small in numbers to control our surroundings or nonexistent entirely. Imagine if Max Brod had chucked “The Trial” into his fireplace. What kind of world would we live in?
“Kafkaesque” is a word a lot like “surreal” in that there are maybe two general definitions of it. One is historical and has a definite context to it. The other is similar to a genericized trademark: something may not actually be exactly like a Kafka scenario but the name has enough heft to make it stick on some level. It’s like when people say “ain’t” isn’t a word. It has meaning and it is now. Kafka’s stories are Kafkaesque because there is an interior logic at work that remains inaccessible to Kafka’s characters, let alone all of us reading it. Things that are Kafkaesque flow similarly to a dream. They aren’t just weird or humorous events but deeply bureaucratic in nature. Kafka was a bureaucrat, after all, so he knew. Most of the board meetings I’ve had are Kafkaesque because I don’t know what’s going on and neither does anyone else, but something still needs to be done. There is a door with access to the law (or whatever) that we all stand in front of, but we can never actually enter it, and maybe the people guarding the doors don’t understand the other side either.
I saw “or whatever” in reference to Kafka because Kafka’s creations are usually blank slates. They don’t offer much in the way of physical detail or biography because they are men (and sometimes women) centered fully in the present, dumped into a situation at the same time the reader is. We begin where they begin, right in the middle of something that doesn’t make a lick of sense but must be addressed. And gradually, little folds of meaning may become apparent, but these are soon crushed by a rolling wave of further stipulations and barriers. Kafka protagonists exist in states of permanent fluctuation and search for meaning until they usually die (or the story just ends).
A large percentage of Kafka’s work is unfinished because he either couldn’t come up with a satisfactory ending or he got bored and moved on to something else. It’s a bit like trying to study Sappho from the stray lines of her poems that survived. The work itself is oblique enough even before you remove the resolution. In this way, the best of Kafka’s work resembles the mind in its resting state, one where you are flung into an unknown, feel the interior drive towards some action or quest you can’t quite explain, and then you suddenly wake well before any of your questions are answered.
Kafka’s approach to sex in his work functions in the same way our dream quests are interrupted for some carnality. His work documents the human psyche in a way very similar to the Surrealists. Just like in “Un Chien Andalou”, we sometimes must take a break from heavy petting to drag carcass-covered pianos across a room. Kafka’s protagonists often function as a stand-in for himself, even down to their names (plenty of K’s, sometimes as a last initial and sometimes as the only identifying mark). Some adaptations of Kafka’s work just use him as the main character. There’s a bit of a stereotype of Kafka as a loveless, anxiety-flecked wreck, which is true to an extent but not the whole story. Kafka himself said he used to pass a familiar brothel “like a lover passing his sweetheart’s house”. Sometimes the protagonist wants an answer to his existential queries and sometimes he wants to roll around with a sexy bookkeeper or a shapely neighbor. Sometimes these events occur at the same time. Kafka understood very keenly how human psychology darts from desire to desire, be they high or lowbrow.
Kurt Vonnegut drew a famous chart in “Breakfast of Champions” on the subject of Kafka protagonists. It showed a baseline of happiness and joy and freedom with the Kafka character already well below it, then a sharp plummet off of the measurability of the doodle. This is usually how the stories go. Kafka was obsessed with the limitations put on personal freedom, by the state or the universe or logic or whatever. In his most famous story, “The Metamorphosis”, a person could conceivably read the story as a metaphor for bodily disgust, Jewish identity anxiety, familial failure, the plight of the handicapped in capitalism, or that indefinable whatever.
Kafka’s work is a blank slate, but Kafka the man veered between socialist and anarchist beliefs. At one point in “The Trial”, the protagonist Josef K. contemplates suicide but then decides it would make things worse destroying the seized property of the state. When Kafka does explicitly turn political/social, it stings. Kafka, unfortunately, predicted a lot of the political upheaval of the 20th century, where people who were way less educated and connected found themselves on the receiving end of totalitarian control, regimes that were Kafkaesque in the worst sense of the word. Compounded with being a chronically sick Jew, Kafka had a lot to worry about.
Kafka was afraid of his father in the same way that many of us are afraid of our parents. His father didn’t understand him and Kafka wrote an approximately hundred page letter to him trying to bridge the gap. He also never sent it (but thanks to Max Brod’s insubordination, we can read it). That one of the most important authors in the Modernist canon would worry so much about his father’s opinion of him is concrete proof that we live in an absurd universe, but that’s how it goes. His stories are nearly inscrutable, but his diaries and letters survive as well, and they give a glimpse into a Kafka who loved beer, patronized the movie theater, and laughed so hard reading his own work that he would cry. We must imagine Kafka happy. Above all things, he was human.
And so I sit here in front of my word processor, enjoying the last afternoon of my weekend before going back to my job as a bookkeeper, typing up words that I doubt anyone will read to shove into a file folder somewhere. I don’t have the stature or the quality control of a Kafka but I think this aspect of him is the most relatable. He was a brilliant man who struggled with his relationships, had a menial (but comfortable) job, stayed up late writing and stressed in the morning. I can’t imagine the peal of dread he would feel if he knew that strangers in Amerika were wearing t-shirts with his name on it. I don’t think he would even know what a t-shirt is. But because he wrote down the things that tickled him (and because his literary executor defied him), we live in the shadow of someone we didn’t know in life and must make sense of in death. It’s more than a little absurd, I admit, but that is the way that life is, then and now.
Categories: Arts & Culture