Friday, December 18, 2009

Mockingbird on Kafka, great stuff

For much of my life my favorite authors have been Kafka and Dostoevsky. The two would surely have gotten along terribly since Kafka was a Czech Jew and Dostoevsky was, well, Dostoevsky. No one could make a particularly compelling defense that Dostoevsky was not profoundly suspicious of the ethics and character of Jews and Poles alike (I have friends of Polish descent and no matter how much I love Dostoevsky's novels I note his way of handling Poles is exceptionally not cool as is also the case with his characterization of Jews).

When I was in my teens I connected to Kafka's ability to convey a sense of dread and a sense that society as a whole had no use for you and no real interest in you beyond your usefulness. Someone would probably tell me that the reason I don't have a very cheery disposition is that my idea of fun one summer was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and Franz Kafka over a summer. That would be an unfair supposition because I was listening to scads of Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin during that period.

Yet I admit to being a gloomy sort. I don't believe in the power of positive thinking of the greatness and triumph of the human spirit. I am unimpressed by people who prattle on about how free we are because most of those people do not realize that they will spend their lives paying the prices for freedoms they think they have that are generally the drives they do not discipline in themselves. Careerists look down on anyone who does not worship the same idol they do. Intellectuals look down on those who find meaning in things besides intellectual pursuits. The things we define ourselves by inevitably devour us as we devour them. Cheery, I know ... you wouldn't be surprised to learn that I have been a fan of Kafka, eh?

It is possible for great authors and artists ... even mediocre or poor artists or authors ... to accurately diagnose the problems in a culture. If the artist accurately assesses a problem in society and the self and happens to be a genius (as I believe Kafka was) then they are able to tap into a problem or quality of life and articulate it at a level that goes beneath rational articulation. Kafka showed how a person can live in an ostensibly free society and have no freedoms and yet abuse those few freedoms he thinks he has while not making use of the freedoms he actually does have. Where other authors might see the radically individual experience and action as liberating and wonderful Kafka sees it as the foundation of terror because he sees how powerless the individual is in the face of the social and internal impulses within.

I suppose I can connect to Kafka because Kafka (no doubt in part by having had an often miserable childhood and being a Jew where he was) manages to articulate a life characterized by dread even in the calmest moments. Kafka articulates for us what it is like to live a life full of fear. He didn't need to live in an age where people said terrified emails about what the evil creeps in Congress are plotting to take away your life and liberty. He already lived in a setting where he was not even allowed by the society he lived in to use his birth name. We in the modern United States tell ourselves we know what dread is like and we don't. Some of us do, I guess, and the Cold War left us with no small amount of unease about nuclear war but we have not lived in a time that for Americans warrants the sort of fear that a Cezch Jew living in a German-speaking culture full of anti-semitism would understandably have. Kafka understood, it seems, what it feels like when other people use their freedoms that they are proud to have to fence you in.

Without being able to articulate precisely why I have always related to that since the first time I read Kafka's The Trial and moved on to his other works. He presents to us a world that is as bewildering as it is and his writing serves as a rebuke to all the authors who speak as though they have unlocked the secrets, they have discerned how to make sense of things, they know the password and have the greatness that allows one to pass through the cordoned area into the place for very important people who get things done and do things that matter. Kafka delves into the price of that to the self and to the others who end up on the receiving end of that exchange.

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