Monday, June 16, 2008

Passages of escape: new Kafka

In the post below, I began writing about Sir Richard Burton in order to point toward a collection of Kafka's writings that has never before been translated. Franz Kafka: The Office Writings is a 440-page book made up of "articles on workmen's compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit." They were composed, Princeton UP says, during Kafka's years as a lawyer with the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute.

Kafka might not seem to have much in common with Burton except, perhaps, a rage to write. However, as Douglas Shields Dix reveals in his brilliant essay The Man Who Disappeared: Kafka Imagining Amerika, Kafka was enthralled by travel books and memoirs and, as Max Brod reported, "he had always a longing for free space and distant lands". Shields Dix explains why:
Between 1911 and 1914, Franz Kafka wanted to disappear. More precisely, he desperately sought a way out of the existential predicament of his life as he had been living it then, and towards a life that would yield him the necessary conditions to allow him to follow his chosen path of writing. It was during this period that he came to realize that the only true way out was through writing itself.
As his first novel Der Verschollene (translated by Michael Hofmann as The Man Who Disappeared) features distorted descriptions of American reality, we might read it as the lonely fantasy of a compulsive writer who never left Europe. However, remaining at home might not be the straightforward result of Kafka's "hesitation before birth". Shields Dix quotes a contemporary report of immigrants seeking the freedom of these fertile lands who turned up without any means of support before crops could be grown let alone yielded: "Like unreasoning children, they thought that could they but once reach the beautiful green slopes of the promised land, their poverty and trouble would be at an end." They remind me of the critics such as those quoted in yesterday's post who believe that if only writers would write about "the world at large" then somehow all would be well in both fiction and the world; as if fiction is a just branch of investigative journalism. It's no coincidence that Diana Sheets thinks the cardboard cut-out confections of Tom Wolfe is "our world"! Shields Dix essay explains why writers like Kafka are more likely to set us free (as readers and writers if nothing else):
Kafka's novels do not operate as a social critique, but as a mapping of social assemblages, and therefore a dismantling of them - and, consequently, as a way out. While these social assemblages appear inescapable, there are always interstices from which passages of escape emerge. We tend not to think of Kafka in this way, as his novels and other writings seem so claustrophobic and even paranoid, but the "ways out" he explores are intensive rather than extensive, and consequently they do not represent the form of escape as something occurring in the world. As I have suggested, the writing of Amerika simultaneously works through and rejects the physical, extensive escape of departing for America (or anywhere else), and opens an interior, intensive space of writing where Kafka finds a different, freer reality.


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