Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kafka Is So Kafkaesque

Kafka Museum and Prague Castle
When we visited Prague a few weeks ago, I took my students to the Kafka Museum. Located on the banks of the river Vlatava and next to the historic Charles Bridge, the museum houses some interesting artifacts of Kafka, whom many (myself included) consider one of the 20th-century’s greatest authors. Anything but a traditional exhibition, the museum’s organization, exhibits, and design are quite creative and reflect a modern, Kafkaesque style. Opened to the public in 2005, the Kafka Museum includes hovering three-dimensional exhibits, sets of file cabinets that house drafts and letters, holes in walls available to peep through, and two video installations projected on large walls and running on a loop. The videos are both surreal in style with strange cuts and wavy, dreamlike images and montages; one video is projected in a small mirrored room which has the effect of making the images of Prague and Kafka both more expansive and also strangely inclusive since you see yourself while you are watching.

Kafka had a conflicting relationship with Prague, where he was born and spent most of his life. He called it a “dear little mother with claws,” and the museum emphasizes the claws and horrors of the city and his writing. In fact, if I have a criticism, it’s that the museum leaves out the humor of Kafka’s writing and emphasizes only the darkness. To be honest, I thought it presented him as a bit of a psychopath, and maybe that’s how some see him, but I don’t. He was clearly troubled, but he wasn’t a budding serial killer either. It’s true that there are stories you can point to, like “In the Penal Colony”—where a foreign visitor inspects a ghastly torture device—that demonstrate the horrific and humorless, but I think these are the exceptions to Kafka’s oeuvre.

Dying of tuberculosis in 1924 at age 41, Kafka only published a few short pieces before his death, including The Metamorphosis, which famously begins: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Gregar spends the rest of the story tortured over how he is going to get to work and then feeling great shame over leaving his family in seeming financial ruin. When he finally dies, his family is relieved of the burden and embarrassment their son has created for them, and they go for a drive “in the warm sun.” His family can move into a different apartment now. And their daughter has “blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman.” She’ll now be ready for marriage. The story ends with this sentence: “And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter stood up first and stretched her young body.” The metamorphosis is complete.

The Metamorphosis is just one of several stories that reflect Kafka’s tortured but also darkly humorous outlook on life. Life for Kafka was absurd, surreal, and ridden with guilt. It was also strange and mysterious. Nowhere do we see the enigmatic aspects of life more clearly than in his unfinished novels The Trial and The Castle. Kafka asked his literary executor Max Brod to destroy all of his work when he died, but Brod ignored Kafka’s dying wish and published nearly everything he had given Brod. Even though both The Trial and The Castle are incomplete (The Castle actually ends mid-sentence!), they are still masterpieces and have great depth and complexity. I’ve taught and had some success with The Trial, but I think The Castle (at least Mark Harmon’s new [1998] translation) is even more accessible for students.

The Trial tells the story of a man named Joseph K. who gets arrested one “fine day” for no apparent reason. He spends the rest of the novel attempting to navigate the labyrinthine legal system, an arbitrary, confusing, convoluted, and unjust structure. Like The Trial, The Castle’s world is also an impossible labyrinth. In this novel, a man simply named K. (for Kafka?) has been hired as a surveyor by a village with a large, dominate castle, which is ruled by its obfuscating and impenetrable bureaucracy. Once K. arrives in town, he is given two idiotic buffoons as assistants, but no one can confirm that he was in fact hired, let alone tell him what he is supposed to survey. It’s impossible for him to even look at Klamm, the village chief, and he certainly can’t meet with him. There are characters who think they have connections and either boast of these in front of K. or advise him, but we never know whether even they are just fooling themselves. Perhaps no one really knows how the system works.

Max Brod believed that all of Kafka’s works were about finding God and salvation. But works like The Trial and The Castle have also been interpreted in other ways. Possibly they represent our futile attempt to find order in a meaningless and absurd world. Maybe they are a commentary on modern bureaucracy and the idea that as humanity has progressed, we have created systems that are impossible to navigate or understand (though this has always seemed to me the most simplistic reading). Maybe they can be likened to Plato’s cave allegory, but in Kafka’s allegory the Truth or the outside world simply does not exist—or at least his characters never find it.

We can’t help but ask ourselves: what if Kafka had finished these novels? Would the meaning be more clear? Well, reading “A Hunger Artist” and other published works proves that even published Kafka is difficult to decipher. There are no easy answers in Kafka’s world. In fact, if Kafka had been able to revise them, I doubt the revisions would very much impact the ideas in the novels. They would probably be primarily structural and syntactical alterations. But who knows?

Reading Kafka, whether published or unpublished, finished or not, is like playing a trivia contest where you never know the answers. It’s a world of endless possibilities—where meaning may be tentative but it is always evocative. And that’s the real joy.

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