by Michael K. Iwoleit
There are writers who have spawned a whole industry of interpreters. The volume of interpretative literature not uncommonly surpasses the work of the respective writer many times over and the sophistry critics invest into even the most marginal aspects of the work seems to be motivated by a strange ambition to overcome the practicality of writing with the grandeur of theory. The damage done this way to the general acceptance of the writer can sometimes hardly be estimated. Umberto Eco has written a whole book about the limits of interpretations and the title essay of the book that made Susan Sontag famous, Against Interpretation from 1962, is a scathing attack on the business of foisting intentions and meaning on fictional works that no sane human being, except the interpreter, has ever thought of.
As far as I can see there are two kinds of writers especially prone to be exploited by critics: The first, Joyce and Pynchon are examples, show an extraordinary richness of allusions, arcane knowledge and narrative devices that invite critics to unearth the works’ hidden secrets (and if they stick to this, such critics’ work can even be useful to the reader). The second are writers whose works are marked by ambiguity. The reader is never on sure ground with them. The narrative treatment of their typical topics seem to imply hidden meaning, they lack, however, definite statements and refrain from ever resolving their ambiguity – thus attracting interpreters with their ever-growing number of contradictory claims about what the writer really wanted to say. The interpreter community of such writers tend to evolve into esoteric circles and a fresh, unbiased reader with a personal view and judgment of the respective writer must, in view of this, fear to seem uninformed or plain stupid.
The 20th century’s most important example of an ambiguous writer who became such a favorite pet (and often victim) of critics is probably Franz Kafka.
No, I will not deny Kafka the rank of one of the most important writers of the 20th century. I will not deny that The Trial and The Castle are landmarks of the modern novel that as no others depict the individual’s impotence against anonymous powers and institutions. And I agree that there are perfectly written gems among his short stories and prose pieces. I dare to claim, however, that there are failures and tendencies in his work that make his prose sometimes hard to endure and set severe limits to the depth and maturity of his world view. When reading his complete tales and especially puzzling over some incoherent and clumsily written pieces among his posthumously published works – e.g. “Description of a Fight” and “Wedding Preparations in the Country” – I wondered how critics in their eagerness to uncover inexistent meaning could overlook so obvious flaws as in Kafka’s case. His language, of lucid precision in its best, of tedious pedantry in its weaker moments, occasionally deteriorates to stilted prose of an amateurish vagueness. No contemporary writer would find mercy for the way Kafka sometimes stretches the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. In the fragment “The Stoker” the narrator wants to make as believe that Karl has any plausible reason to take part of the stoker he barely knows anything about. In “At the Penal Colony” the traveler attending the execution is imposed with attributes that are verified nowhere else in the tale (and the boring excursions about the old commander, by the way, almost completely spoil the startling central metaphor of the tale). But what I especially dislike is an annoying tone of boot-licking, petty-minded servitude that you find in Kafka’s work whenever his characters are confronted with authorities (as they often are). Take, for example, “The Village Schoolteacher”: as the man in Kafka’s famous parable who wants to gain entry to the law, the humble hero of this story wants to gain entry to science. His spokesman’s line of reasoning, however, is reverent and defensive. Take the elderly bachelor Blumfeld and his forlorn attempts to gain any recognition for his work and position. There is little heroic in Kafka’s characters (and thus they probably reflect the personality of their creator). They accept themselves in terms of the institutions they confront. This is why I can read even his greatest works only with reservations. But it’s probably exactly the same quality that lend his work such a lasting impact on modern literature.
Even a reader like me, who will never be his fan or admirer, cannot read Kafka without being influenced by his work. If I were asked to put his significance in a short formula, I would say that his work depicts the 20th century’s experience of displacement. The 19th century was the great era of the exploration of character and society in literature. Social structures and institutions were composed of human beings with their values and conflicts. With Kafka, however, the institutions – be it law, science, bureaucracy, family relations – attain a sinister existence of their own. The individual is marginalized and reduced to a tool or servant. His wants and dignity are ridiculed by processes he cannot comprehend. Even in the rare case that he is appreciated by a power far outside his scope – as in the short, perfectly written parable “An Imperial Message” – the nightmarish complexity of this power denies him any recognition. In the extreme, Kafka’s heroes are pushed out of humanity completely, as in maybe his greatest tale “The Metamorphosis”, where Gregor’s transformation and loss of usefulness is met by his family with the blunt acceptance typical for Kafka’s characters (Josef K.’s deviant speech in the courtroom scene in The Trial is one of the very few exceptions and only seemingly so). In several tales strange hybrids of the living and the non-living intrude into the lives of Kafka’s heroes, the strangest probably Odradek in “The Concern of the House Father”, also the two annoying celluloid balls in “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor” that correspond in a strange way with the two defiant trainees working for Blumfeld. Another kind of hybridizations that Kafka explores repeatedly, is the displacement of human behavior and institutions into the realm of animals – e.g. art in “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”, science in “Investigations of a Dog” and, especially effective, the concept of security and its inherent paranoia in “The Burrow” -, not for the purpose of satire, I think, but to express an estrangement that is so uniquely Kafka’s. As a man who must have felt marginalized himself, oppressed by powers beyond his control, who was unable to establish lasting relationship, who practiced literature as a ominous nighttime business, he created a vision of man no longer in control of himself. He was not without predecessors in this regard – some masterpieces of 19th century’s short fiction, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Gogol’s “The Overcoat”, Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” or Cechov’s “The Man in a Case”, with their passive featureless characters already point into a similar direction. I personally find Kafka’s vision blunt and depressing. It offers no hope. It accepts the oppressiveness of the modern world as given and hopeless. I prefer writers such as Philip K. Dick who, while clearly working in the long shadow of Kafka’s work, still defend a moral vision of human values and dignity.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Michael K. Iwoleit