“An Alienation Artist”

In the February 11, 2009 issue of The Nation I published “An Alienation Artist: Kafka and His Critics,” a review-essay on recent books by and about Franz Kafka and the Kafkaesque.


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.

Of all Kafka’s major works, Amerika: The Missing Person, his first attempt at a novel, bears the least resemblance to the author’s life and contains the least evidence of the personal turmoil Begley takes to be the thread suturing Kafka’s biography and books. Kafka started Amerika in 1911, only to abandon it in 1914. (Max Brod published an edited version of the incomplete manuscript in 1927, three years after Kafka’s death; Mark Harman’s adroit new translation is based on the restored text.) The novel chronicles the misadventures of the exiled German teenager Karl Rossmann, cast off across the Atlantic by his parents after a housemaid who seduced him becomes pregnant and bears his child. It is by turns a picaresque narrative, an archetypal immigrant’s tale, an epic road story, a bleak vision of city life and a sneering take on the “land of plenty.” But though it tracks Karl as he stumbles from job to job, town to town, Amerika is not a coming-of-age novel; if anything, it is a parody of the European Bildungsroman, with a series of mishaps preventing Karl from becoming anything at all, no matter how he tries. (The nameless protagonist of Invisible Man would face similar travails, with comparable results, four decades later.) In this respect Karl is a prototype for Kafka’s later protagonists, whose actions never produce the desired results but rather reveal the gulf between intentions and outcomes.

The book opens with a steamer inching toward New York harbor and Karl standing on its deck gazing at the Statue of Liberty: “The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.” Begley unceremoniously dismisses this substitution of Liberty’s torch for a blade as “almost surely” a “slip of the pen.” But given that Kafka declined to alter the sentence in the story’s second printing, Harman’s conjecture in the preface to his translation of Amerikais more credible: the sword provides a deliberate alienation effect, immediately placing the promise of America in quotation marks and situating the reader in a slightly disfigured reality, where metaphorical figures become as palpable and unyielding as concrete and steel.

As the ship docks, Karl becomes involved in a dispute between its stoker and his superior. This, in turn, leads him to his long-lost Uncle Jakob, who fled Germany many years ago as a pauper but has since remade himself as a shipping magnate. Jakob takes Karl in, furnishing him with a piano, a new set of clothes, a tutor, riding lessons and a fine desk “such as his father had wanted for years”; the immigrant boy determines that “one could not hope for pity” in America, but for a short while it seems to him that the fortuitous patterning of life unique to the country might elevate him to the ranks of the wealthy few who “seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides.” In this ambivalent state, Karl regards downtown Manhattan from the balcony of his uncle’s elegant apartment, which looks down on a street that is

filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted human figures and of the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, constantly scattered by new arrivals, out of which there arose a new, stronger, wilder mixture of noise, dust, and smells, and, catching and penetrating it all, a powerful light that was continually dispersed, carried away, and avidly refracted by the mass of objects that made such a physical impression on one’s dazzled eye that it seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force.

Before Kafka focused his writing on a specific, native aspect of modernity–the bureaucracy he inhabited–he zeroed in on the Manhattan street scene, where life had been transformed into a blur of speeding machines and spectral selves. Karl is stymied by his first attempt to fathom the city: instead of the boy looking at the skyline as his ship approaches Manhattan, it is the skyline that gazes at Karl “with the hundred thousand windows of its skyscrapers.”

It isn’t long until Karl is down among the masses, having been abruptly banished by his uncle for a trifling transgression. From that point on, his position in life declines precipitously. He rambles north for a while, joining two immigrants named Delamarche and Robinson until their abuse becomes intolerable; he flees and finds work as an elevator boy in a suburban luxury hotel but is eventually fired and stripped of his dignity on account of a drunken visit by Robinson; he soon finds himself running through an array of tenement towers with the police in pursuit, only to be saved by Delamarche–who immediately imprisons him in an apartment that he and Robinson share with an abominable obese singer named Brunelda, so that Karl may become their servant. The text trails off, picking up again at a putative final chapter in which Karl is seeking employment with the chimerical Nature Theater of Oklahama. By this point he is so abraded by his months in America that he refuses to give his real name, instead identifying himself as “Negro,” pleading with the circus’s bureaucrats to cart him off to the country’s unspoiled, unknown interior.

After a few hundred pages, one gets the sense that Karl’s epic journey through the gears of the capitalist machine was perfectly crystallized twenty years later, in Charlie Chaplin’s actual journey through the gears of the capitalist machine in Modern Times. “It was my intention, as I now see,” Kafka wrote in his diary three years after he had stopped working on the book, “to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have gotten from myself.” If London was the epicenter of modernity during Dickens’s lifetime, the incarnation of its most improbable fantasies and lurid failings, by the turn of the century that place was America. Kafka learned about the country through newspaper accounts, travelogues, lectures, silent films and perhaps, as Harman notes, the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; accordingly, his description of the country is a sometimes inconsistent, if imaginative, assortment of secondhand details glommed onto Dickensian urban tableaus. Nevertheless, Amerika holds within it the basic element of Kafka’s greatness, the ability to project the tremendous world inside his head onto the one we know, as if it were a screen fabricated expressly for that purpose. Within that palimpsest the contours of inner exile emerge: the general alienation that was a byproduct of the industrial age; the particular isolation felt by a Goethe-worshiping Jewish writer at a time when Jews were considered incapable of producing great literature in German; and the angst felt by the first generation of cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals, for whom, Hannah Arendt observed, “all traditions and cultures as well as all ‘belonging’ had become equally questionable.”

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.

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.”


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 thegreater 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.