What can Kafka tell us about the oddities of life and politics?

Franz Kafka, the Jackdaw of Prague, is one of the last century’s most cryptic, but beguiling, novelists. Largely unknown as a writer in his short life, his novels and short stories spread like Spanish flu when his friend, and subsequent biographer, Max Brod, gave him a posthumous lease of literary life. The fascination with his work grew quickly, and a contagion of interpretation has produced an especially far-reaching library of secondary literature.

One of the striking traits of the Kafka corpus is that he writes, very often with extraordinary lucidity and something like geometric precision, about things that are elusive and lucent in the way only solid objects know how. So it is, at least, internally consistent that such a paradoxical writer should shape a sprawling estate of criticism that displays almost no consensus about what his writings actually mean.

This ‘internal consistency’ dissolves like salt in water from sentence, to paragraph, to diary entry, to short story, to predictably unfinished novel. The thought is always partial, and can only intimate or, perhaps, refer analogically to the ‘whole’.

Enchanted readers go looking for clues, quite sensibly, in the Jackdaw’s own reflections: his diaries, his letters, and, especially, a collection of aphorisms written in 1917, shortly after he had been diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. And there they find, not so much a blueprint for all his writing, as a self-subverting set of gestures that erase, in the moment, the act of discovery. Thoughts, it seems, never stick:

‘Like a path in autumn: no sooner is it cleared than it is once again littered with fallen leaves.’

Even as the mind settles on an explanation, the world slips through its grip, and leaves it looking tragicomic. Many of Kafka’s stories show this problem at work: The Trial’s Joseph K blunders about the courtrooms of the Law, unable to fathom on what pretext he has been arrested. In The Castle, his indistinguishable twin tries to find his way into a seat of local authority but can’t discover the entrance.

In Kafka’s most famous short story, Metamorphosis, the comic tone twinkles. Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning as a giant cockroach, still thinks, hears and reasons as a person, and never quite manages to grasp that his newfound predilection for crawling up the walls sets him apart from the rest of the family.

One of the critical points of interpretation that bothers Kafka criticism is whether or not the reader should feel sympathy with the main protagonists, or recognise that they are, in some way, at fault. In other words, is Joseph K really guilty or an innocent victim of something insidious?

Some critics see the imagery as a sort of stand-in for irreducible metaphysical truths. On this reading the ‘law’ under which Joseph K is arrested is the moral law. The imagery of The Castle was, from Immanuel Kant onwards, a fairly common motif in German transcendental idealism, and used to characterise the difference between the phenomenal world and the world in itself (or the ‘noumenal’ realm).

Other readings, taking their cue from a famous essay by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, see the metaphysical imagery as the assertion of a hegemonic culture, excluding and alienating ‘minor’ peoples, their values, identities and territory. As a Czech Jew assimilated into western German culture, Kafka is writing with a playful irony to elicit the liminal character of difference.

Broadly speaking, the first of these readings is moral or metaphysical and the second is political. But must one exclude the other?

A substantial fund of evidence and research into Kafka makes it clear that Jewish identity as it encountered western secular culture – the Judenfrage – is a critical fault line in his writing. Deleuze and Guattari’s essay draws heavily on a single passage in Kafka’s 1911 diary which refers to the literature of ‘minor peoples’. The diary contains other such references, including to the possibility of a ‘new kabbalah’. Many of Kafka’s stories use animals symbolically; in Hasidic tradition, reincarnation as an animal was seen as a punishment for sins. Some have even suggested that in his last story, Josephine the Singer or the Mouse People, he is alluding playfully and satirically to Richard Wagner’s famously anti-semitic essay on Jewish music.

If Kafka is simultaneously aware of a reality that has a powerful hold but eludes the fixed grip of the mind that tries to grasp it, and he is also writing about the question of Jewish identity, what does this mean? The poststructuralist reading – which perhaps has more poststructuralism than Kafka in it – sees the ‘metaphysics’, or a stable view of the truth on which to hang a sense of justice, cynically. But another way to answer this question might be to say that Kafka reveals something striking about what truth, in a more traditional sense, means for politics.

Despite the groove of interpretation cut by the poststructuralists, Kafka is not usually, or at least intuitively, seen as a political writer. His ‘reaction’ in his diary to the outbreak of the First World War, shows that he was not, to say the least, a political firebrand. And this sets him apart from what we would see typically connotated by the words ‘politics’ or ‘political’: heated debate, grandstanding, outrage, stirring rhetoric, guile and ambition; behaviour that is considerably more noisy and shrill than anything we will find in Kafka’s quietly meticulous sentences.

The Jewish context is, in my view, fundamental. He is someone fully assimilated and educated into western German culture, but acutely, painfully, aware of a lost heritage and inheritance. Not least this would have been clear to him from wave after wave of East European refugees from the Russian pogroms. The dramatic tension at work in his characters is a reflection of this social, political and cultural tension; Kafka’s work is a struggle for identity, a struggle to live, a struggle which, presciently, all his characters lose.

If the novels and short stories are an anguished articulation of an idiosyncratic perspective that can’t find a voice in an otherwise homogenous culture, this might suggest a deeper political reading. The classical notion of virtue (arete) contains the idea of fulfilling a suitable role or purpose which allows someone or something to flourish. People are born with particular characters, and the potential to flourish in different ways. To cut a very long story very short, the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were discussions about how the public state of affairs (government) could bring this kind of ‘virtue’ about.

This is similar to the problem implied in Kafka’s oeuvre, with the haunting endgame that, in the politics of the modern world, virtue is more or less programmatically annihilated. Or, to temper this since not all modern political systems converge on the administered genocide of National Socialism, modern politics and culture, in their different guises, have a machine-like indifference to virtue. They are abstract and inhuman.

Kafka’s ‘thought’ – or his self-erasing assembly of thoughts – is, in the difficulty of the search, at odds with almost all political philosophies in the modern world. This might, from one angle, look like scepticism. Under examination, the idiosyncratic character of things (which in Kafka’s case includes the glowing embers of his Jewish background) will not admit the sort of analysis behind a rational philosophy of government or, more simply, a consistent moral judgement. The task of thought, and of writing, is to sweep away the leaves. The conflict in his characters, and the guilt that weighs around their necks, is born of western acculturation and a climate that is politically, socially, personally, inhospitable to the sort of ‘difference’ described by the ancient politics of virtue.

But Kafka is more than a sceptic, because there is an implied purpose behind his sceptical deconstructions and playful imagery. By pitting, incongruously, Joseph K against the Law, and Gregor Samsa against his unwieldy insect body, he shows that there is more to the ‘idiosyncratic character of things’ – or more to being – than the fitful ways the mind can make sense of it. His thought, his writing, his imagery, his literature – is profoundly crafted and goal-oriented. It desperately wants to discover forms of life. It is governed by an, almost necessarily hesitant and self-effacing, aim: to respect and discover the richness of things beyond the straitjacket of judgement. Here ‘thought’ defaults to literature, and literature, not unlike the figurative use of language in various strains of mystical thought, is sacramental; it is a way of saying things that can’t be said. Might this be the meaning of the ‘new kabbalah’? As he says himself:

‘There are questions we could never get past, were it not that we are freed of them by nature.’

Kafka writes out of highly sensitive respect for the world, and his stories usher, shepherd and illuminate it rather than corral and condemn it. He is, by this reckoning, almost unique among modern writers. Where many authors look for a prized place in the categories of modern letters, for Kafka ‘literature’ is more than literature. It is a craft that serves a purpose, and this purpose is metaphysical, which is to say that is also moral and political. In contrast to the suffocating atmosphere of modern politics, it is designed to clear the space in which life, in all its impossible and unpredictable variety, can breathe.

Few, if any, writers speak so forcefully and with such a resonant cry from inside the idiom of the modern predicament.

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