Franz Kafka and Postmodernity

The uniqueness of Franz Kafka (1883–1924) stems, in large measure, from the intersection of writing and lived experience. Born into a Jewish family in Prague in 1883, Franz Kafka was the son of a prosperous self-made businessman. Although his parents spoke Czech in their native village, they did everything they could to ensure that their son had a good education, and in particular, that he could speak and write good German – like the privileged German-speaking minority in Prague. The father also wanted the son to know and to appreciate the Jewish side of the family history, a factor which tended to bring Kafka and his father into conflict; for Franz had a very different view of Jewishness, a point brought out in his famous letter to his father, written in November 1919.

maxresdefaultLife and Literary Background

From 1893 to 1901, Kafka attended the German gymnasium, after which he studied jurisprudence at the Karl-Ferdinand University. In 1906, he took his doctorate in Law. In 1902, Kafka first met the critic and novelist Max Bred who introduced him to Prague literary circles. In 1907, he began work at an Italian insurance company before leaving in July 1908 to work, until his retirement in 1922 due to ill-health, for the semigovernment Workers Accident Insurance Bureau. The company gave Kafka extended sick-leave, and this allowed him more time to write.

In 1909, Kafka’s first story was accepted by a Prague journal and he read to Brod chapters of his novel, Wedding Preparations in the Country. In 1910, he began to keep his diaries and also became involved with the Yiddish theatre company. In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, to whom he was twice engaged and with whom he conducted a voluminous correspondence. He also wrote letters, since published, to the Czech translator of his stories, Milena Jesenska.  In 1914, Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to Brod, and in 1918, a year after tuberculosis had been diagnosed, he became engaged to Julie Wohryzek. In the winter of 1920–21, while in a sanatorium for his tuberculosis, Kafka told Brod that he wished all his work to be destroyed after his death, a request subsequently confirmed in writing. After living in Berlin with a Polish Hebrew student, Dora Dymant, Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924.


Kafka’s influence has been profound from at least two points of view. In the first place, his writings – in which an enigmatic, skeletal world has apparently been created – have touched a nerve in the life as lived in modern, industrial society. The nihilism of a society without God, the hyper-rationalism of bureaucratic domination, which strangles the innocent in its web, and the end of all idealism – including perhaps, the end of the notion of causality along with all first principles – is sketched out. Here in Kafka’s oeuvre is an allegory of a society without any particular end, but which is assuredly destined to come to an end in a material sense. Thus Joseph K cannot find out for what crime he has been arrested in The Trial, just as K in The Castle cannot enter the castle, but does not know why. At one level, then, Kafka has been taken up as the revealer of the dangers of social and psychological relations that are reduced to nothing but means. And he seems to be all the more successful in creating this world to the extent that he never describes or characterises it, but always only ever suggests or evokes it. Quite possibly, readers looking in Kafka for a message about modernity are able to find it because the suggestion of a message is one of the fundamental traits of Kafka’s writing strategy. To suggest and to evoke – to work by way of enigma – rather than to state, gives things a profoundly kaleidoscopic quality. The strangeness of Kafka’s writing, that few readers prior to the 1980s could have failed to notice, is to be found in this minimalist style of suggestion. The strangeness has meant that each reader can begin to find there something for him or herself, in other words, the lack of definition and specificity in Kafka’s world produces the ‘Kafkaesque’ – the enigma, the darkness and the mystery within which everyone can find a place, however discomforting and depressing this may be.

Writing and Life
Enigma and Obscurity

The role of enigma and obscurity is by no means the unambiguous outcome of a writing strategy, but often seems to be intrinsic to the object being described. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the discussion of the law in The Trial. The law, which is supposed to illuminate the case, at the same time obscures it. The law in fact seems to have a blind spot right at its core. For it is unable to answer definitively the question as to who is inside and who is outside the law. In principle, the law is unable to admit its limits; it pretends to be all-powerful. In fact, however, there are always areas outside the law, such as the areas of enjoyment, horror and death – the very areas with which Kafka’s text is obsessed.

The Writer

In the second place, Kafka and his oeuvre offer an insight into the mode of being a writer in the twentieth century. Kafka’s life in and for writing – a life partially revealed with great force and poignancy in his Diaries – raises the question of what it might really mean for someone to be devoted to art in general, and to writing in particular in the twentieth century. Why is this such a difficult question to answer? Why is it not simply that some people are called to the vocation of ‘writer’, just as some are lawyers or doctors? A response to this question hinges on what it is that the writer qua writer in modern society feels called upon to do. If he or she is content to conform to the existing conventions of writing, there is really no problem; the doors of journalism and writing within well-established genres (e.g. the detective novel) are open to them. Rightly or wrongly, however, the category of literature has, since the middle of the eighteenth century, emerged in modern society. Literature, from one point of view at least, is the ‘canonisation’ of a truly singular writing. In Kafka’s case, this entails the consecration of his most intimate inner-experience. This consecration, or the becoming-literary of writing, sets up a profound tension. For after the writer has made his play, burned his bridges, put his own being on the line, and set the scene of his challenge to the deepest conventions of the art of his day, he may not be recognised; it may all be for nothing. The possibility of the most profound failure has to be entertained. The stakes have thus been raised very high; the temptation to compromise is extremely strong.

From this angle, a writer not only lives for his writing, but more profoundly lives in his writing, and is even formed by it in a physical sense. This is writing as the expenditure of a certain energy without return. Certain traits of Kafka’s biography confirm and illustrate what is at stake. For instance, rather than becoming a fully professional writer who lived from his work, Kafka remained working in the government insurance office during the day, and only wrote at night, or in the late afternoon. Second, as is known, Kafka told his literary executor,Max Brod, that he wanted all his extant works (with a fewexceptions) burned. Just as the origin of the events in Kafka’s fiction is shrouded in the mists of enigma, so, too, is this request. Why would Kafka, who was still correcting the proofs of one of his works on his death bed, have made such a request? As Max Brod refused to go along with his prote´ge´ on this crucial point, and instead set to work producing a fivevolume set of Kafka’s complete works, Kafka has become immortalised; his writing has become literature. He did finally, gain recognition on his own terms, but, tragically, did not live to see it.

The Practice of Writing

Although there are undoubtedly elements in Kafka’s fiction which lend themselves to an allegorical reading, and thus to a political use, the main way in which Kafka’s writing can be seen to have political effects is a more indirect one, achieved through the valorisation of a practice of writing. Kafka’s writing is not engaged, in the manner of Sartre; for the ideal truth necessary for such a political stance is missing from Kafka’s fiction. Indeed, the impossibility of such an engagement is more in keeping with Kafka’s approach. The practice of writing is writing produced despite the despair and obscurity of the world, despite the absence of rational protocols that could be followed with a degree of certainty. In this sense, Kafka’s is a writing of sacrifice. Its enigmas become essential to it; the effort it cost is also essential to it: Kafka exhausts himself in writing. On one now wellknown occasion he wrote his story The Judgement in one sitting on the night of 22–23 September 1912. As he comments in his diary:

I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. . . . At two I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid walked through the ante-room for the first time, I wrote the last sentence. . . . The slight pains around my heart. The weariness that disappeared in the middle of the night. (Kafka 1964: 212)

Minor Writing

Although they, too, do not see the political effect of Kafka’s writing as being committed in the Sartrian sense, Deleuze and Guattari argue that Kafka’s fiction is political in that it constitutes a ‘minor’ writing within a major linguistic formation (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 16–18). Thus as a Czech Jew – that is, a member of a minority group – writing in German, Kafka manages to make his own way in the dominant language by constructing a minor idiom in it. Kafka plays with the tonality of German; refuses metaphors; writes so as to defamiliarise (deterritorialise) the language; refuses genealogical connections and focuses on the very small things around him; produces a flood of letters rather than an overall vision. In short, Kafka changes the nature of German significantly, if imperceptibly, and makes a unique place for himself in it, one that was in no sense anticipated by the current usage of the language at the time when he was writing.

Without analysing this turn of events any further, let it suffice to say that Kafka’s life brought to the fore a new way of understanding the link between writing and life. This may be summarised in the following way: Kafka showed in his writing practice that writing is a way of life, that it demands a concentration of forces (see Kafka 1964: 163); he also made visible the real stakes at play in the constitution of the literary object; finally, through the use of enigma, he set writing free from a sociological, or psychological determinism that would seek to explain writing in terms of material conditions or a writer’s biography. After Kafka, writing (literature) is no longer a product of conditions, but is also constitutive of those conditions.

According to the French critic, Marthe Robert, Kafka makes use of the anonymity of his key characters like K in order to bring out their transcendent quality (Robert 1982: 5). In other words, they are freed from the environment in which they may have originated and can take root in many different environments. This character is thus an exile – like the Jews (although none of Kafka’s fiction ever says this) – capable of transgressing boundaries of all kinds – moral, legal, cultural, psychological. The character is the anonymous, rootless person always in search of a community, much as many displaced persons are today in Europe in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Kafka’s own life, being half Jewish, half German, also embodies this theme of exile and ‘extraterritoriality’.

Absence of Transcendence

Absence of fixed boundaries can be seen as a feature of Kafka’s novels from another angle. This time, the collapse of boundaries evokes an absence of transcendence. The source, or origin, is erased: the origin of the law, the origin of change, of sexuality, the cause in cause and effect all evaporate into an enigma. ‘Why’, in short, finds no answer. In this sense, Kafka becomes Nietzschean and radically anti-idealist. As Georges Bataille put it (Bataille 1979: 272), there is no promised land in Kafka; Moses’s goal is unattainable because it is human life – the physical material world – we are dealing with, and not with any transcendent realm. No doubt Kafka tends to fit into some of the features designated as ‘post-modern’ in his effort to render all boundaries, and thus all identities more fluid.

The spectre of death, together with anguish and despair haunts Kafka’s fiction. Faith may be excluded, but not the search for faith. As Maurice Blanchot has said, there is an uncertainty about meaning because despair and anxiety are literary equivalents of death within life (Blanchot 1981: 66). Despair arises here because existence is an exile; there is no true home where one could avoid the anxiety of modern life. To be modern is to be Jewish in a way. Few have better summarised the uniqueness of Kafka than Blanchot when he argues that Kafka’s work shines forth despite itself, that is, despite its preoccupation with death: ‘This is why we only understand [Kafka’s oeuvre] in betraying it; our reading turns anxiously around a misunderstanding’ (Blanchot 1981: 74).


Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Bataille, Georges (1979), ‘Kafka’ in La Litte´rature et le mal in Oeuvres comple`tes, IX, Paris: Gallimard.
Blanchot, Maurice (1981), De Kafka a` Kafka, Paris: Gallimard/Ide´es.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Fe´lix (1986), Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kafka, Franz (1964), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910–23, ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg, Harmondsworth: Peregrine/ Penguin.
Robert, Marthe (1982), Franz Kafka’s Loneliness, trans. Ralph Manheim, London: Faber & Faber.

Kafka’s Major Writings
(1988 [1948 and 1949]) Diaries (one volume), ed. Max Brod, 1910–13, trans.  Joseph Kresh, 1914–23, trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken Books.
(1978) Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories (also includes: Letter to His Father; Meditation; The Judgement; and A Country Doctor), Harmondsworth: Penguin.
(1976a [1931]) The Great Wall of China and Investigations of a Dog, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, London: Seeker & Warburg/Octopus Books.
(1976b [1919 and 1933]) Metamorphosis and, In the Penal Settlement, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, London: Seeker & Warburg/Octopus Books.
(1974 [1926]) The Castle, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books.
(1973) Letters to Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Ju¨rgen Born, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth, New York: Schocken Books.
(1968 [1925]) The Trial, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books.
(1962) Letters to Milena, ed. Willy Haas, trans. Tania and James Stern, New York: Schocken Books.
(1962 [1927]) America, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books.
(1954) Dearest Father (Letter to His Father), trans. Ernst and Eithne Wilkins, New York: Schocken Books.

Further Reading
Anderson, Mark, ed. (1989), Reading Kafka: Prague, Politics and the Fin de sie`cle, New York, Schocken Books.
Bataille, Georges (1973), ‘Kafka’ in Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton, London: Calder & Boyars.
Benjamin, Walter (1979), ‘Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.
Blanchot, Maurice (1981), De Kafka a` Kafka, Paris: Gallimard/Ide´es. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Fe´lix (1986), Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gray, Richard T., Gross, Ruth V., Goebel, Rolf J. and Koelb, Clayton, eds (2005), A Kafka Encyclopedia, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Reece, Julian, ed. (2002), The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Robertson, Richie (2004), Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Robert, Marthe (1982), Franz Kafka’s Loneliness, trans. Ralph Manheim, London: Faber & Faber.

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3 replies

  1. Yes yes very nice


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