Sympathists

A Claim of Sorts on Kafka

In 20th c. Literature on January 10, 2009 at 3:58 pm

imagesDean Williams, Kyoto

I must say a lot of the modern/postmodern commentary on Kafka leaves me cold. The reason: to use an Arendtian term, we have “instrumentalized” this thinker/writer. We have made him a useful construct for our psycho/historico-social complex. We see him through the prism of post-communism, or our enduring fears of Big Brother–he was the canary in the coal mine warning of the encroaching bureacratism, corporatism, cold disembodied legalism to come–he has even entered our language, Kafkan/Kafkaesque. Now, this is certainly part of the Kafkan universe, and what makes him so achingly funny, so cruel, so important. And yet, it’s also profoundly untrue and misleading.

Kafka was not a pamphleteer, a polemicist, a theorizer, a philosopher. I think he wasn’t even a writer in the traditional sense, although he was of course marvelously sensitive to language.

Matthew mentioned Augustine, and I agree that Kakfa can more profitably be put into that select group of seers religious and/or spiritual seekers (other examples being Dickinson and Kierkegaard) who used language in a more or less public way (i.e., they wrote down what they thought and published the texts, or at least fitfully sought publication) in order to explore…what?

And here’s the key point for me: we stand on the other side of a great divide; perhaps the religious/secular divide and, as Matthew mentioned via Wallace, the adult/adolescent divide (there has to be a better name for this). I contend that as Kafka contemplated and created he neither did so as a fully independent, hey-I-have-some-freetime-why-not-write artist nor as a secular philosopher. He was doubly constrained, first by his struggle with God, and second by his social/economic responsibilities to his family. As Matthew’s post pointed out, he worked hard all his life. He would not have dreamed (I believe) of quitting his 8:30 to 4:30 job to run off and “become an artist.” (Incidentally, his problem with the ladies and his serial engagements can also be put down to his trying to fulfill his familial responsibilities.) But again as Wallace noted, we live in a world where “escape” and “freedom” are the operative values. I find the religious divide even more compelling and mysterious. I don’t know what Kafka believed, but I do know what many of us believe, which is..nothing. We are not fighting with God, as Kafka and Dickinson did. Dickinson:

I shall know why–when Time is over–
And I have ceased to wonder why–
Christ will explain each separate anguish
in the fair schoolroom of the sky–

He will tell me what “Peter” promised–
And I–for wonder at his woe–
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now–that scalds me now!

These two brave beings grappled with the transcendent immanence their entire lives. Isn’t this what give their work unbelievable power? Compare The Trial or The Castle to Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm. Orwell’s novels are wonderful, and it is vital for all, young and old, to read them in order to “fight the power.” And yet they are in the end extended fictional polemics, glorified pamphlets, disquisitions on political and social and economic problems. Their message in a nutshell is: Power is bad, people use power to hurt, even kill other people. Resistance is, in the end, futile. I defy anyone to summarize Kafka’s novels in the same way. Why? Is Kafka’s writing so much better? No, both were prose stylists of almost ascetic simplicity. The reason is that Kakfa’s work is imbued with a mysterious otherworldly quality that can only be described as spiritual. Whether the court in The Trial or The Castle in the Castle are secular or psychological or transcendent entities we can never know, but the fact that this resonance, this possibility exists helps give the works their strange power, and, I argue, their continuing fascination.

Again, my main claim is that we find it difficult to fully appreciate Kafka’s literary achievements because we mostly do not think as he thought; we are not caught in a lifelong dialectical struggle between belief and nonbelief. We are not fighting God. By the same token, a true believer, say a modern orthodox Jew, has the same problem but from the other side of the prism: they cannot fathom, cannot fully apprehend, flat nonbelief.

I’ll go out on a limb: in the LITERARY context, works that are fully secular and works that are fully religious are not, in the long run, as absorbing, as profound, as those strange, rare works that shift uneasily, pendulum-like from faith to rejection of faith.

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  1. Note: This is the first full post from Dean Williams, teacher, philosopher, father, and friend. Dean is one of those rare people who has valuable things to say on a whole range of topics–he is as close to a renaissance man as you are likely to find in the present age of sepcialization. His post responds to my post “Two Essays on Kafka,” but transcends the scope of the comment section.

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