Franz Kafka is regarded as one of the greatest literary figures in recent history.
He is known for his uniquely dark, disorienting, and surreal writing style
A style and quality still particular to him that anything that resembles
it has come to be known and referred to as Kafkaesque. To understand his writing in the qualities of Kafkaesque
it is helpful to understand his early life.
Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 to a man named Hermann and a woman named Julie. His father was a highly successful well-to-do
business man who, through sheer force of will and a brash aggressive personality, managed to rise from the working-class, build a successful business,
marry a well-educated woman and become a member of higher middle society. As parents tend to do,
Hermann hoped for a child that would measure up to his ideal stature of a person.
Franz Kafka was not that. Franz was born a small,
anxious, and sickly boy and he mostly remained that way. As a result through no fault of his own
Franz would become a great source of disappointment for his father and a sort of psychological
punching bag for him as he attempted to mold Franz into who he wished he was but could never be.
Throughout his adolescence Franz developed an urge to write as a means of dealing with his increasing sense of anxiety, guilt, and self-hatred.
his father did not allow him to pursue writing and ultimately defined the borders around Kafka's life, forcing him to pursue law as a profession.
During his time studying law in college, Kafka continued writing and met one of his only real friends, Max Brod. Another writer who would eventually
convince Kafka to publish his first 3 collections of work. These pieces sold very poorly however and essentially went unnoticed.
After college Kafka would go on to work in a law office and then for an insurance company.
Here, Kafka would become subject to long hours, unpaid overtime,
massive amounts of paperwork, and absurd, complex bureaucratic systems.
Kafka was understandably miserable.
While working at the insurance company, Kafka continued writing on the side,
producing some of his most notable pieces including "The Trial, The Castle," and "America."
He did not attempt to publish any of these at the time, however,
and even left much of his work unfinished believing it to be unworthy.
Kafka continued working at the insurance company for the majority of his remaining short life while continuing to write around his work schedule.
In 1924, he died of tuberculosis at age 41.
Kafka never went on to publish any more of his writing, nor did he ever personally receive any success or
recognition for the small amount he did. He died believing that his work wasn't any good. On his deathbed,
he even instructed Max Brod to burn all of his unpublished manuscripts following his death.
Obviously, Brod did not follow Kafka's instructions, because here we are 100 years later talking about him.
After Kafka died, Brod spent the following year or so working to organize and publish his notes and manuscripts. Over the decade following,
Kafka would become one of the most prominent literary and philosophical figures of the 20th century.
In other words,
one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the century lived his life with his work buried in some drawer,
aware, unaware or indifferent to the fact that he was sitting on some of the most significant works in recent history.
He lived his life in the eyes of his father: an inadequate disappointment. And yet in the eyes of history,
he's an immensely important individual. One can only wonder how many individuals like Kafka have and continue to walk this earth,
completely disconnected or restricted from ever seeing who they really are or could be. How many Kafkas have lived and died without ever sharing their voice
with the world whose voice would have changed it forever? How many people never know who they'll be after they're gone?
Fortunately for everyone other than Kafka, his work was saved and an entirely new genre of thinking and writing developed in his name:
Generally, the term Kafkaesque tends to refer to the bureaucratic nature of capitalistic, judiciary, and government systems. The sort of complex,
unclear processes in which no one individual ever really has a comprehensive grasp on what is going on,
and the system doesn't really care. But the quality of Kafkaesque also seems to extend much further than this.
It is not necessarily exemplified merely by what these systems are,
but rather the reaction of the individuals subjected to them and what it might represent.
And one of his most famous novels, "The Trial,"
the protagonist, Joseph K., is suddenly arrested at his home one morning. The officers do not inform K why is being arrested, though.
And he's then forced through a long absurd trial in which nothing is ever really explained or makes much sense.
The trial is riddled with corruption and disorderliness, and by the end of the novel after having meandered the entire thing
K. is never told why he was arrested, and yet he remains guilty of his final conviction.
In another one of his more popular stories, "Metamorphosis,"
the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, awakes into having suddenly been turned into an insect with no clear explanation.
The first and recurring issues Gregor faces throughout the novel, are the problems of getting to work, dealing with his boss and
providing financially for his inconsiderately needy family. Gregor, of course, cannot do this.
He is a bug, and so he experiences increased dread trying to deal with his situation while becoming a useless nuisance to his family.
In both stories, the protagonists are faced with sudden absurd circumstances.
There are no explanations and in the end there's no real chance of overcoming them. They're outmatched by the arbitrary senseless obstacles...
They face. In part, because they can't understand or control any of what is happening.
The crux of Kafka's style and work seems to be carried by this confrontation with the absurd.
A conflict in which a character's efforts, reasoning, and sense of the world are met with inescapable parameters of senselessness.
Wherein success is both impossible and in the end ultimately pointless.
And yet, they try anyway.
It's fair to argue that one interpretation is that these circumstances are emblematic of Kafka's take on the human condition.
Specifically, the unyielding desire for answers and conquest over the existential problems of anxiety, guilt...
Absurdity, and suffering. Paired with an inability to ever really understand or control the source of the problems and effectively overcome them.
But the kicker, and perhaps most important part is, even in the face of absurd despairing circumstances, Kafka's characters don't give up.
At least initially, they continue on and fight against their situations trying to reason...
Understand or work their way out of the senselessness. But in the end it is ultimately to no avail.
Perhaps in this, Kafka is suggesting that the struggle to find solace and understanding is both inescapable and impossible.
As conscious rational beings, we fight against the absurdity, trying to resolve the discrepancy between us and the universe.
But ironically we only serve to self perpetuate the very struggle...
We are trying to resolve by trying to resolve the unresolvable. And in this sense on some level we almost want the struggle.
Of course, this is just one interpretation.
Ultimately, because of its vague, surreal, and inexplicable quality, Kafka's work lends itself to nearly as many interpretations as readers.
Perhaps the idea is that we should accept our absurd condition.
And not take it so seriously.
Perhaps the ideas that we should and must struggle against it. Or perhaps the idea is that we can't know what the idea is.
In truth, only Kafka will ever have known exactly what his work meant, and it's fair to speculate that in some sense.
Perhaps not even him. What is undeniable though is that Kafka's work has left a lasting impact on literature, philosophy, and humanity at large.
It has helped readers around the world feel less alone in their own hunches of truth and moments of Kafkaesque experiences.
Kafka's own story is not necessarily unusual: his father, although cruel.
His life, although sad, neither were nor are all that uncommon.
To be born into a faulty family, bad place in the world or a weak body or brain.
To live and die having never recognized one's full potential; to have been stuck in a bureaucratic cog of a business organization or government system.
To have felt that guilt and anxiety of existence for no clear reason: we've all at least at times.
Experienced the Kafkaesque. Kafka's work is not considered great because it describes something profoundly unique.
But because it describes something mundanely common in a profound way.
An encapsulation of an often indescribable experience, a part of life that touches us all.
When referring to Kafka, writer Anne Rice once said that his work helped her realize the following approach in her own work.
"Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly."
Kafka's works ought not to alleviate the soul through remedies of false hope or delusion but rather through the direct confrontation with the darker aspects of self.
By distorting reality to map more accurately onto his own sense of human experience.
He revealed a certain remedy of unhindered self-examination...
And carved out a place in the world for others to do the same.
"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books."
wrote Kafka in a letter to a friend.
Although you might not have shared this explicitly.
Kafka's work embodies and reminds us not that we wish to give up but that despite all the absurdities and problems...
We wish to continue. We wish to struggle against the universe and forge our own way.
We wish to find and connect over honesty, however hard it may be.