A Cage Went in Search of a Bird- Revisiting Kafka

 

I first read Franz Kafka in high school. The Trial made a strong impression on me. A nameless person held accountable for an unknown crime, pursued and persecuted by faceless, soulless judges, lawyers, and investigators. The anonymous horror and relentless anxiety stuck with me. Honestly, it felt a lot like high school.

Since that initial reading Kafka has occupied a small but special place in my heart. Prior to the start of rabbinical school I took a family vacation to Europe. We visited Prague and I broke off to go in search of any Kafka related sights. When I finally found a bookshop dedicated to his writings I was shocked to discover that I was in Prague on what would have been Kafka’s 120th birthday. In Judaism we say, “May you live to 120” (as Moses did). I took this as a sign that it was my duty to make sure that Kafka’s voice inform my emerging rabbinate.

In rabbinical school I gave a sermon on the Kafkaesque and the Torahesque. It triggered an interesting conversation in my homiletics class. The main takeaway was that most congregants probably weren’t interested in wondering what would happen if they awoke one morning to discover they’d been transformed into a giant insect.

For a short time I considered the parable known as “Before the Law” to be an honest depiction of how most people relate to organized religion, spirituality, and their relationship with God. Basically, we seek to enter, the door is sealed, the guard is uncompromising, and, only once life has passed us by and we’ve reached the end, does the guard tell us that we screwed it all up. I even went so far as to inflict this parable on a group of unwitting college kids who stuck around for a Yom Kippur afternoon study session.

Being the parent of a 2 year old, I hadn’t given Kafka much thought recently until I was trying to make room on my bookshelf and discovered I had duplicate copies of The Trial and The Castle. That’s no longer the case.

All of this mundane preamble leads me to the (mundane?) point: Joseph Epstein has convinced me that my love affair with Kafka is part of a broader cultural phenomenon that rests on a very shaky foundation.

In an article entitled “Is Kafka Overrated?” written for The Atlantic Epstein argues convincingly that our ongoing esteem and veneration of Kafka is basically silly. His argument is summed up (fittingly) in the concluding paragraph of his essay:

All of which brings up the question of whether Franz Kafka is truly a major writer. His greatest proponents, insisting that he is, cannot say why, and ask for a permanent moratorium on conventional criticism of his writing. His detractors, a distinct minority, feel that what he left us is the sad story of a lost soul destroyed by modern life. In the end, Henry James wrote in an essay on Turgenev, what we want to know about a writer is, “How does he feel about life?” Kafka found it unbearably complicated, altogether daunting, and for the most part joyless, and so described it in his fiction. This is not, let us agree, the best outlook for a great writer. Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.

 

The idea that great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life rather than crushed by them is one that I embrace. That the majority of Kafka’s works were never completed, that the majority were never intended for publication, that he wrote letters that were never delivered, pursued relationships with women that were left unfulfilled—these and other examples led me to feel a sense of defeat rather than resistance, of hopelessness rather than striving. At this point in my life, when the mysteries and simplicities of life are deeply impressive, when being crushed is in no way an option, I think I’m prepared to dedicate my precious reading time to other authors and new ideas. It’s still a Kafkaesque world out there, but I still plan on finishing this blog (and maybe even my doctorate).

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