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Kafka's dis/Enchanted world

2010-11-23  icefired
Kafka's Dis/Enchanted World
From: Columbia University | By: Willi Goetschel

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | kafkaFranz Kafka's writing can be described as otherworldly, dreamlike, bizarre--in a word, Kafkaesque. Through a close reading of three short stories by Kafka (right), professor Willi Goetschel weighs several theoretical approaches to interpreting these enigmatic texts. Yet while Marxist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism and structuralism can all shed light on Kafka's meaning, Goetschel shows that it is the process of analysis that is ultimately most important.

ranz Kafka's writing is extremely enigmatic. It's an elaborate time-coiled structure in whose corridors, tunnels, doorways and underpasses the reader--and also the writer and his characters--are sometimes in danger of being lost. It is a very strange world that on the one hand is cold, repulsive and full of rationalistic assumptions. At the same time, it is a world that is mythological, almost a mystical fantasy. In Kafka, we enter a world that is extremely disenchanting in its enchantment, and at the same time extremely enchanting in the way it is disenchanting.

By leaving his readers to themselves without imposing sense or meaning, Kafka has given modern literature one of its greatest gifts and chances: the opportunity, but also the predicament, to stage the production of meaning and sense in and through reading itself. Kafka does not offer any answers but poses questions and opens trapdoors without stop. Writing and reading become themselves transformative actions. The process of reading, the way, is the goal. All the characters are constantly reminded, or are reminding the reader, of this when they forget it themselves.

But what are we to do with the strange worlds of Kafka that are enchanted, spooky and, at the same time, so sober, rational and disenchanted? A world in which space and time are no longer safe coordinates, reassuringly orienting us along fixed lines, but instead dissolve into the infinity of confusion. A world where monkeys report to academies, dogs philosophize and mice sing arias. A world where clarity and sense seem a scarce commodity, and the reader's mind is pushed into a hermeneutic shuttle that rides back and forth from sense to nonsense and back again, never coming to a halt.

To some degree it is the world of dreams and the world of the subconscious; it is the world free of the constraints of censorship of daily life. It is the submergence of what you dream; it is no coincidence that most of the characters in Kafka seem to be dreaming. A lot of his writing can be addressed as a language of daydreams--personal but also impersonal daydreams.

That unreal reality, which daylight reality suppresses, ignores and denies, encroaches and crawls onto the scene from the cracks and crevices of suppressed imagination. Here in Kafka's world it rears its many-faced head, reminding the reader that meaning and sense always come at a high cost. His writing refuses final closure; instead it keeps the hermeneutic circle running, soon speeding it up, soon slowing it down, soon spinning it in reverse.

Kafka's view of language is itself profoundly critical and full of reservations. Language is essentially flawed, according to Kafka, incapable of reaching beyond our own narrow parameters of knowledge and understanding. Kafka notes in one aphorism in his notebooks, "Language can for everything that is beyond the sensory world only be used elusively but never even approximately comparatively, for language addresses according to the sensory world only property and its relations."

Basically, language is only language about our mind; it's not language about reality. The reality is only the reality of our imagination. Things are not quite as language says they are, as language has its limitations and it only represents things. As a consequence, the strange worlds of Kafka produce a universe of language games that can overwhelm the reader. Kafka's writing is informed by a radical linguistic skepticism that does not allow for straightforward mimetic representation.

"Give It Up!"

Kafka stages the very problem of dialectics of representation at every turn of his writing. This makes him the quintessentially modern writer--his stories are always stories about the problem of storytelling itself. They are stories that force the reader into an active critical exchange, in which reading becomes a laborious effort but also a liberating experience.

"Give It Up!" is one of his shortest stories, and it illustrates in an exemplary fashion the complexity of reading Kafka.

One could talk about this story aimlessly, but let us look at the most crucial elements of Kafka's world. Time and space are modulated, dissolving or in question. It seems to be a dinnertime, an objective time, a subjective time, an internal time, an external time. The question is: What time is real time, is there real time, is there real space? It is a strange world where the narrator loses any point of reference or orientation.

What does the policeman mean? In German, he uses the word for policeman--Schutzmann--which literally means "the man who protects you." But Kafka often replaces or supplements words, so if you take Schutzmann and think about what other words you have in German, you also have Schutzengel, "the angel," your personal protective angel. So it becomes unclear who that policeman is; the authority is not clearly assigned. It's really a metaphorical police.

What I'm driving at are the multiple levels of the story. You can interpret this story along the line of existentialism, or nihilism: There is no meaning in life, and you should just give it up. There's also a religious dimension: a general, universal religious moment of loss of authority, of lost values, the death of God. (Nietzsche sort of hovers in the back of the mind.) There are also the rather specific Jewish traditional elements with which Kafka sometimes plays. This story can also be read in a political way as a critique of ideology: Don't believe anyone; only believe yourself. You can also read "Give It Up!" psychologically, in that the protagonist is a psychologically insecure person.

The point in Kafka is that you cannot reduce his work to any one of those elements. Of course, we also have several literary elements in this story. Kafka takes on a lot of tradition: there is expressionism, surrealism, minimalism and anti-romanticism. Kafka is so great to teach because with Kafka you can rehearse all theoretical approaches to literature.

No single approach satisfies all segments of Kafka's writing. In Kafka there's a strict untranslatability, because you always end up reducing and altering the meaning of whatever you are trying to translate. That's what the story keeps hammering home, that there is a meaning, and you have to reconstruct it in your own readings.

"The Cares of a Family Man"

This second story is called "The Cares of a Family Man." The secondary literature on this story has not been that satisfying up to now, but what is important in this story is that it is written from the perspective of the family man, the house father, or the paterfamilias, if you will.

Who is Odradek; what is it? We can take the cue from where it lives--in those crevices, margins, hallways. As it says cheerfully, it has no real fixed abode, which in German are exactly the words you have on a passport for a homeless person. So it is obviously some kind of homeless creature.

A lot of Kafka research has been busy figuring out what Odradek means. There's a Slavic element in it and other elements as well; it could mean one thing or another. The point is that Kafka does a double erasure here, so Odradek becomes this semantically meaningless thing. There are other meanings, but they never really return to the story; they all refer to things. Kafka often uses names that refuse easy breaking up, so that you are returned to the significance.

Kafka also plays with names, and if I'm not mistaken Odradek contains the word "crow" in Czech, and "Kafka" in Czech means "crow." You can see this wordplay with characters like Josef K. in The Trial and K. in The Castle; Kafka said himself of the character Gregor Samsa that if you replace the consonants in Samsa you get Kafka. So in a way Odradek may also be Kafka.

Some Marxist literary critics have taken the description of Odradek very literally as a critique of commodity. That is, in the age of capitalism, Odradek is what is left of life once everything is reduced to materialism. It's literally those loose ends that return back in their distorted critique; it's refuse that won't go away.

You can also take a Freudian approach, in which Odradek is the psychological return of the repressed. In a way this Odradek is always where you are, where your fear comes out, where the economy of your repression won't work anymore. So, in a way, Odradek is actually an integral part of the family man. In Kafka's dream world, all the figures are parts of yourself--they're objectifications of parts of your inner psychic life. You can read "The Cares of a Family Man" in terms of memory, and it's a very interesting idea that Odradek is just leftover bits that come back to haunt him. The last line is very biblical: it's not just the children but the children's children. I think that's where the fear of the family man comes in: When he's gone, Odradek will still be there. In that way Odradek is almost an objectification of that memory.

I think memory is probably the clue that leads us a little bit further. In an essay published in the journal of Columbia University's Germanic department, The Germanic Review, a colleague of mine has presented a most convincing interpretation that ties in nicely with memory. "The Cares of a Family Man" was originally published in a Jewish journal, and although it has a universal level it plays with some specific elements. The spools of thread are the shape of stars, and if you carry the idea through there's also the idea of how tradition works, that maybe Odradek is actually memory in the form of tradition. It means then that tradition is not a monolithic thing which the family man would want to have--something static he can pass on to his children from one to the next. It's something which has its own life--sometimes it goes away; sometimes it comes back in the house.

The great thing in Kafka, like in all interpretations of good texts, is that in a way whatever you think of is the right start. It is already contained in the text. By tracing other influences you can fine-tune interpretations and gain much richer meanings out of specific passages. Yet at the end of the day, you are left with the passage and have to account for the text itself.

"Before the Law"

That leads us to the last story, which is probably the most prominent one in Kafka's The Trial, "Before the Law." The order in The Trial is not quite clear, because like Kafka's other novels it was given to his friend and editor Max Brod in an incomplete version. The narrative does not have a straightforward plot, and it is not always clear at which point the chapter would be placed.

This is the chapter in which K. ends up in the cathedral of the city, where he finds the chaplain of the prison preaching. K. is arrested at the beginning of the story, but he's never put into prison; he's moving around trying to understand the court system. He wants to sneak out, and he's almost at the door, when the loud voice of the chaplain calls him back. It's always by a hair's breadth that things like this happen in Kafka's work. So K. is called back, and the chaplain says that his cause, the trial, doesn't look that great right now.

In Kafka you only get bits and pieces of what the law or the court is. As with tradition, you can never get the complete picture because there is no complete picture available. The chaplain says that he can only explain the introductory writings to the law, not the law itself. He doesn't know what he's accused of, but in the introductory writings to the law there is a little parable, and this is the parable he tells him.

This story also has all these layers we discussed. It is interesting that during the Cold War, especially in the East, this story was read as the very political experience people went through. Kafka's writing is extremely accurate about bureaucratic experience, because it captures the psychic apparatus that stands behind bureaucracy.

There are also parallels in rabbinic legends; you could read K. as the am ha'aretz, the simple man, the everyman, who comes from the countryside to the gate of the law. The parallels run extremely far, but even though it is interesting, it doesn't resolve the riddle.

The same is true when you look at the story psychologically. Obviously, it becomes a kind of parable of life, of existence itself. Again, it doesn't give answers; it leaves you with the task for translation. It's always specific, it is always particular, but it's part of this scheme. What's so fascinating is the detail, that when you're desperate about contacting bureacracies you start thinking about talking to the fleas in their fur.

Kafka strikes a chord in every one of us because this is exactly how we think, how we argue, how we go back and forth. We misinterpret things, we contort, we conform everything according to our own desires, and then we are astonished when it doesn't work. We reconstruct it, but we never get to the reality; we only get to it at the end of life. That doesn't mean that we should speed up that process, because the end of life only comes at the end. It's really like Lao-tzu: It's the way that is important. In the same way, when reading Kafka it is the process of interpreting and trying to understand that is really important.

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