Kafka: An End or a Beginning?

Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited children, to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs: Rainer Maria Rilke

Yet I felt no certainty about anything, demanding from every single moment a new confirmation of my existence… in truth, a disinherited man Franz Kafka

NB: Both the above citations come at the opening of Erich Heller: The disinherited mind: essays in modern German literature and thought (1952, 1961) DS

Read Kafka's A Hunger Artist (1922) 
An extract: Many more days went by, however, and that too came to an end. An overseer's eye fell on the cage one day and he asked the attendants why this perfectly good cage should be left standing there unused with dirty straw inside it; nobody knew, until one man, helped out by the notice board, remembered about the hunger artist. They poked into the straw with sticks and found him in it. "Are you still fasting?" asked the overseer, "when on earth do you mean to stop?" "Forgive me, everybody, "whispered the hunger artist, only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. "Of course," said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, "we forgive you." "I always wanted you to admire my fasting," said the hunger artist. "We do admire it," said the overseer, affably. "But you shouldn't admire it," said the hunger artist. "Well then we don't admire it," said the overseer, "but why shouldn't we admire it?" "Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger artist. "What a fellow you are," said the overseer, "and why can't you help it?" "Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, "because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was continuing to fast...


Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt 
By Saul Friedländer

Is That Kafka?  99 Finds 
By Reiner Stach

Konundrum:  Selected Prose of Franz Kafka
Translator Peter Wortsman

Review essay by Morten Høi Jensen 
HOW STRANGE to return to Kafka. It takes just a few pages for all our preconceptions about literature to become unmoored. The old tools — character, plot, style — are useless to us; those solemn tomes of theory might as well be returned to their exile on the lower shelves; the recourse to undergraduate Freudianism had better be checked. None of it will guide us here. Erich Heller once wrote of the “pathetic plight of critics in the face of Kafka’s novels.” How one sympathizes! Kafka’s entire oeuvre is an assault on interpretation, on meaning; it is the most formidable rebuttal in the history of literature to the undying but misguided question: “What does this text mean?”

And yet, ironically, few authors are so burdened with the cargo of meaning as Kafka. In the century or so since his work was first introduced to a reading public, he has been hustled in under a plethora of interpretive awnings: Judaism, Christianity, Psychoanalysis, the Holocaust, Communism, Symbolism, Existentialism — you name it. He is the prophet of 20th-century atrocity; a slapstick vaudevillian in the Buster Keaton mold; the grim reaper of post-religious modernity. He either founded a new genre or dissolved all of them. Kafka himself seemed to intuit this: “I am the end or the beginning,” he wrote.

Erich Heller, who, like Kafka, became a doctor of law at the German University in Prague, makes a strong case for the central paradox of Kafka’s writing in his canonical essay on The Castle(collected in 1952’s The Disinherited Mind). He gives us the basic outline of the novel’s plot: a stranger known only as K. arrives in a village believing he has been appointed land-surveyor by the authorities (the village is ruled by a castle). What little contact K. has with these authorities — the two assistants appointed to him, the letters he receives, the phone call he overhears — appears to confirm his appointment. But K. is never quite convinced, and least of all when he is informed by the mayor, “You’ve been taken on as a land-surveyor, as you say, but, unfortunately, we have no need for a land-surveyor.” And so K. spends much of the novel doggedly trying to receive confirmation of his appointment from the elusive castle authorities themselves. Heller elaborates:

K.’s belief appears, from the very outset, to be based on truth and illusion. It is Kafka’s all but unbelievable achievement to force, indeed to frighten, the reader into unquestioning acceptance of this paradox, presented with ruthless realism and irresistible logic. Truth and illusion are mingled in K.’s central belief in such a way that he is deprived of all order of reality. Truth is permanently on the point of taking off its mask and revealing itself as illusion, illusion in constant danger of being verified as truth. It is the predicament of a man who, endowed, with an insatiable appetite for transcendental certainty, finds himself in a world robbed of all spiritual possessions. Thus he is caught in a vicious circle. He cannot accept the world — the village — without first attaining to absolute certainty, and he cannot be certain without first accepting the world. Yet every contact with the world makes a mockery of his search, and the continuance of his search turns into a mere encumbrance.

Is our predicament as readers of Kafka not analogous to K.’s? Are we not frightened into unquestioning acceptance of a paradox presented to us with ruthless realism and irresistible logic? Consider “A Message from the Emperor.” A dying emperor dispatches from his deathbed a message intended for you and you alone — you, “his miserable subject.” But this message will never reach you. The messenger carrying it must penetrate the countless chambers and anterooms of the inner palace, not to mention stairs and courtyards and even a second and a third palace. Finally, there is the capital city, with its teeming masses, where no one ever breaks through. “You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.”

The remote and absent figure of authority, the endless bureaucratic encumbrances, the futility of hope — “A Message from the Emperor,” like its sister-parable “Before the Law,” compresses into a few pages the most familiar hallmarks of that dreaded and diluted term, the Kafkaesque — promiscuously used these days to describe even the most trivial inconveniences, like dealing with Verizon. Happily, the term has recently been given a new lease on life by Reiner Stach (whose third and final volume of Kafka’s biography was just released by Princeton University Press); he usefully identifies it as a “peculiar form of rhetoric, which obscures the situation with analytical precision.”..Read more: 

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