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Kafkaesque Lessons for the Left

by RICHARD OXMAN

“Germany has declared war on Russia…Swimming in the afternoon.”

— from Kafka’s diary

“Don’t forget Kropotkin!”

— from Kafka’s diary

“When she brought them in, he understood her apprehensiveness at once. He could see that they were men of tremendous authority. He had never read Kafka, but if he had he would have recognized them. They wore black suits, and did not smile when they greeted him, or offer to shake hands.”

— Alan Paton, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful

Special note: The reader does NOT have to be familiar with the works of Kafka to “get” this piece. (1) FK’s creations make “additional” readings obligatory. By design, I have submitted work which calls for the same. It is highly instructive that progressive readers do not really have the time for a well-considered single reading of very many articles by anyone. Regardless of content. Their sound-biting themselves to death on this count –setting themselves up to only be able to jump in line behind superficial slogans, name events and/or charismatic personalities– is symptomatic of the left’s leftovers today. Other aspects of the dilemma are delineated below …

Most readers, I’m sure, believe that the little Jewish/German Czech citizen, Franz Kafka, died in 1924 on the outskirts of Vienna. The coughing was deceiving. On the 80th anniversary of that delusion, I’m presenting an interview I conducted with FK this year on the 100th anniversary of his beginning the little-known Description of a Struggle. (2)

My purpose is to throw some light on heavy left problems, by hefting up lessons learned in both his highly-lauded and less popular works. Politicized people who feel that they’re spinning their wheels might want to change the worn-out tired tires they’ve been riding in circles on. So…we take a trip down the Danube below…with no answers for oars.

RO: Isn’t it fair to say, from one perspective, that only one character appears in all of your work: the (so Jewish/German) Homo domesticus…obsessively eager to keep/protect his place, however humble and in whatever order…the universe, a ministry, a lunatic asylum, a jail? And that the vast majority of leftists today cling to the same obsession, making efforts at significant political change a relatively low priority, and, consequently, a small likelihood?

FK: Yes.

RO: You never sought to get your work published in the same vein as most writers today. What do you think of those (progressives) whose book sales soar through the stratosphere, whose names are on leftist household lips? Aren’t they helping to advance mutual concerns?

FK: As political estrangement becomes more and more the norm of Western society, and as capitalism becomes the condition of the world and the soul, no. Matters are far too serious now, and unacknowledged as such.

RO: Unacknowledged? Surely, all the ranting and raving hasn’t passed you by unnoticed.

FK: I mean not admitted, conceded…on a daily, mundane basis that deeply affects lives. Most politically-involved people are not straining beyond their known boundaries, that with which they feel comfortable, to embrace alternatives personally.

RO: Said another way?

FK: Little internalization of values fought for is taking place. There IS much ado about peripheral matters…and more, but the vast majority of what you call “progressives” are firmly ensconced in the same position that Czechs were in the Austrian Empire. At my office such people would come to beg regularly for whatever they could get…by way of concessions. But they were very modest men. Storming the institute and smashing it to little bits –or any variation thereof– was out of the question.

RO: Perhaps we can touch upon the question of violence later.

FK: It is not a question of violence. Rather, it is an attitudinal aspect in attempting to change one’s conditions.

RO: Would you say that citizens are too patient with the powers that be?

FK: Impatience is the only major sin, embracing all others. The apothegm “Sleep faster! We need the pillows” is the essence of Jewish impatience, but, yes…in general…people do not acknowledge the fires which are raging.

RO: And their true relationship to the arsonists?

FK: Exactly.

RO: Would you agree that your “heroes” fail to choose and to commit themselves in the face of too many possibilities, none of which appears more legitimate or worthwhile than any other one to them? And that today activists are absolutely plagued by having too many little battles being fought on progressive grounds? That the inability to set priorities for moving in solidarity nationwide keeps gains in the smaller corners of the left…miniscule, with little future? That those contemplating involvement in citizen activism undermine themselves with the attitude that all the progressive options can be given equal weight…in considering where to start?

FK: Yes.

RO: Yes to all those questions?

FK: Yes. (3)

RO: In Metamorphosis, Gregor is transformed into an “ungeheueres Ungeziefer,” a creature who has no place in the family and…no place in God’s order. Yet your protagonist does not express the desire to turn back into his original form.

FK: And his father disclaims all connection with…it.

RO: It resonates with the feeling I have from time to time regarding activism. Doing one’s work means being the ultimate outsider at times.

FK: All the time, perhaps. Neither literature nor anarchism is a popularity contest.

RO: Anarchism?

FK: I’m not a political writer in the way that Bertolt Brecht or Heinrich Mann were, but alienation in my stories is discernibly material and social, the nature and conditions of employment, for one, clearly connected with it. (4) Max Brod, who –as you know– saved so much of my work and saw to its publication…had a very definite religious agenda, which has disproportionately (perhaps) colored readers’ views of my writing. I never liked his hostility to political “misinterpretations” of The Trial by Siegfried Kracauer; he really precluded socially critical interpretations across the board for a long time. (5)

RO: In Investigations of a Dog, the dog finds out that the earth does not merely supply all food by making it grow, but that it also calls down the food “from above.” Concern is not with spiritual or physical food, but with a synthesis of both. Do you see that viewpoint lacking in the left today?

FK: Without advocating belief in a “traditional God,” (6) one can say that the fatal rupture between faith and reason (and religion and science) –that has run through our so-called civilization since Descartes– has been a problem, to say the least. To a large extent, a perverted science, with a fixation on the measurable and statistical, is to be blamed for the frightening success of so many pseudo-philosophies and surrogate religions in our time. By not taking into account man’s need for food from “above,” this notion of science (and technology) has aided the confusion of minds. But one can take Investigations of a Dog on another plane, of course.

RO: You mean not as an allegory of the relation of man to (quote, unquote) “God?”

FK: Yes. I don’t particularly like the use of the term “allegory” in relation to my work, but yes. The dogs can perfectly well see their masters, as they cannot do with “God,” and are dependent on them in a very practical way, but…there is a reluctance of the dogs to admit that they are in servitude to Man — so that they have all entered into a conspiracy to conceal this fact from themselves.

RO: Denial.

FK: And even their boldest thinker cannot allow himself to find out the secret because it would rob him of his own self-respect.

RO: And position?

FK: That’s debateable.

RO: Would you say, then, that “progressives,” for the most part, have “a fixation on the measurable?”

FK: Yes. The social sciences are a runaway train…on tracks that we have canonized.

RO: Are you familiar with Derrick Jensen’s Welcome to the Machine?

FK: Yes, of course.

RO: Of course?

FK: I think his view of science and technology in that work is something…sadly…not discussed. My The Great Wall of China and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov both invoke the Tower of Babel partly for the purpose of criticizing those who embrace a statistical slant on everything.

RO: But your religious beliefs…

FK: …do not have to be considered here. One can say that the political people I know that you’re concerned with…must adopt a new way of viewing Science and Technology, regardless. Too much faith has been invested in those quarters.

RO: Before I forget…I’ve been meaning to ask you this: There have been a lot of filmed versions of Metamorphosis; do you have a preference?

FK: I haven’t watched mainstream TV since the mainstream coverage of the Sabra/Shatilla massacre, but there was an excellent ’87 production of the work by Director Jim Goddard…with Tim Roth as Gregor.

RO: Speaking of the non-human motiff, your “The Burrow” intrigues me on two counts related to all this. One, the notion of withdrawing…and, two, the business of using one’s head as a battering ram.

FK: “All this?”

RO: Denial, writing in lieu of direct action, confrontation that might lead to violence, among other things.

FK: I see.

RO: The animal feels threatened not only by outside enemies, but by enemies in the earth’s entrails. Why do you place the creature…

FK: I think I know where you’re going with this. Look, the “enemy” is in their element below. That’s most fundamental to understanding the hopeless situation created with creature’s construction. His head is put on the chopping block, so to speak.

RO: And unnecessarily.

FK: Just so. It’s one of my few first-person works, and I know very well the many ways in which we move to dispose of ourselves.

RO: I think that in these times of the state becoming more blatant respecting how they take people “out of the loop” of resistence, you have made a solid contribution to a consideration of alternative action here.

FK: (Coughing excessively) Dissent cannot be as “quiet” as the typical writer would have it, protected…and yet premature boldness plays right into the hands of those who can now be blatant with their reactionary measures.

RO: I know you have to see to that TB. So, in closing…let me ask what you consider our main threat today.

FK: I’ve already mentioned the Impatient/Too Patient Syndrome in that light. But I should add that the world today is under constant threat, defined by risk and the damage that can be caused by a single accident. That’s an ongoing condition today magnified way beyond anything that ever crossed my desk at the Workers Accident Insurance Company.

RO: So much for candlelight vigils vis-a-vis the Nuclear Industry, I guess. I thank you…along with many mercis for Gregor’s transformation, Joseph K’s arrest and In the Penal Colony’s uncontrollable machine.

FK: Just so. (Coughing) My pleasure.

RO: Take care of that, please.

(1) It would be helpful if the reader had a sense of why W.H. Auden called the writer “the particular spirit of our times,” but one really does not have to know Franz Kafka (to appreciate my points) anymore than Elizabethan groundlings had to be literate at Shakespeare’s Globe parties.

(2) Conducted jointly in the presence of John Nash, made famous in the recent biopic, “A Beautiful Mind.” The struggle is a “search for, and temporary attainment of the healing center amidst such psychic disintegration,” according to Leslie Trueman of Rutgers University.

(3) Still, Kafka was able to write “There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.” And he wasn’t talking about anything that had anything to do with the Internet.

(4) See Jeremy Adler’s Franz Kafka (Woodstock & New York: Overlook Press, 2001), p. 48 for a delineation of how Kafka “acquired a precise inside knowledge of the ways in which the twentieth-century’s defning trends –modernization, industrialization and mechanization– worked themselves out in practice.” Major issues concerning conflict between workers and capital were on his desk daily, so to speak. And his Prague office wrote policies for almost 47% of all the businesses in Austria (the Empire excluding Hungary).

(5) For an English translation of Kracauer’s review, see W.J. Dodd (ed.), Kafka: The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle (London: Longman, 1995), pp. 88-91.

(6) As per Harold Bloom, it is safe to say that Kafka provides no intimations, let alone representatives of, divinity in any of his stories or novels.

RICHARD OXMAN, a Russian Jew from Newark, New Jersey (just like Jerry Lewis), can be reached at dueleft@yahoo.com. For now, he resides in Los Gatos, California, but he is searching for another burrow.

 

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RICHARD OXMAN can be found these days reading Joe Bageant’s material in Los Gatos, California; contact can be made at dueleft@yahoo.com. The Ox’s never-before-revealed “biography” is available at http://news.modernwriters.org/Some of his recent writing can be found in his Arts & Entertainment section and Features (under Social) there.

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