Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rethinking Kafka

I like Kafka, having read everything he wrote in or immediately after college, although it’s been a few years since I've cracked any of his books. My impression of his writing is that it consisted of very logical depictions of fugue-like states, where byzantine bureaucracies, anxiety, and the capricious powers of aloof and often distant figures (the government in The Trial and The Castle, father figures in many of his shorter stories) rule the day. The stories are filled with powerful dream-like symbolism, but - probably because a good chunk of his writings were unfinished (and certainly unpublished) at his death - fizzle out rather than have a traditional ending.

For these and other reasons, Joseph Epstein argues that he’s overrated, that he’s simply a remnant of his time and place – essentially that “[he] reads like Freud fictionalized. Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline; Kafka’s, somehow, lives on. Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority." I don't really buy this. I certainly am not a Freudian, and don't know anything about 19th century Prague, but regardless still got a lot out of his writings. I think one reason Kafka's works have thrived is that they are general and vague enough to let people impress upon them their own thoughts and options. And - of course - he quite accurately depicts the absurdity of the modern bureaucratic state (most powerfully in The Trial). However, Epstein makes an excellent point when  he criticizes Kafka’s propensity for writing dreams with bad endings:
“Kafka felt that his talent was “for portraying my dream-like inner life.” But dreams, however gripping they can be, are aesthetically unsatisfying, especially in their endings. Kafka himself did not find the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” his greatest story, satisfying, and it isn’t. Perhaps for the same reason, he was unable to complete his novels: dreams, especially nightmares, want for artistic endings.”
Again, part of this may be that he quite simply died before he could finish them, but I don't think so. The Castle in particular just fades away with no clear hint of what the ending might be. And there are many passages that, while adding to the overall mood of the whole, simply wander along with vague intentions. Of course, this may be the point:
Kafka created “obscure lucidity,” Erich Heller wrote in his book on Kafka. “His is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure,” he added, “than literature has ever known.” One thinks one grasps Kafka’s meaning, but does one, really? All seems so clear, yet is it, truly? A famous aphorism of Kafka’s reads: “Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places.” Another runs: “A cage went in search of a bird.”
 As with Kafka’s aphorisms, so with his brief parables. The parables, Walter Benjamin wrote, are “never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.”
In this sense, some of Kafka's writings are like listening to someone else describe their dreams - interesting to a point, but so filled with personal meaning that they will remain forever inscrutable. I certainly didn't know what half of what I read meant - particularly in the novels - but then i'm comfortable (and sometimes even seek out) ambiguity in my art. 

Anyways, it's always good to question your assumptions about things, so Epstein's article is a fun read. What do you think about Kafka? Overrated? Genius? Somewhere in between?

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