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A New Look At Kafka

Franz Kafka. Shame, guilt and absurd injustice –and why we’re still haunted by the Kafkaesque.

Franz Kafka (Wikimedia Commons)

Franz Kafka (Wikimedia Commons)

Your memories of Kafka from a high school reading list may be a bit dim.  Something about a man who wakes up as a bug on its back.  Helpless and absurd and ashamed in a bewildering, uncaring world.  Well now, that doesn’t sound so dated, does it?  Franz Kafka wrote the book.

“Kafkasesque” is still the word for so much that is alienating, dehumanizing, disorienting in modern life.  Call an automated phone answering service, and you’re there in a hurry.  We still know Kafkaesque.

This hour, On Point:  looking back on the man who saw it all coming – Franz Kafka.

- Tom Ashbrook


Saul Friedländer, author of “Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt.” Pulitzer-prize winning historian of the Holocaust. Professor of history at UCLA.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Republic: Kafka’s Inner Life — “In Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, the Pulitzer-winning Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer reassesses those letters and diaries, emphasizing ‘the personal anguish’ that informed Kafka’s singular canon. Friedländer’s concise new book, born of both sorrow and affection, is an ideal place to begin among the hulking alps of Kafka studies. In a touching introduction Friedländer outlines the parallels between Kafka’s life and his own, ‘all these hidden links’ that give his delving into Kafka’s work a visceral pitch absent from much of the Kafka industry.”

The Atlantic: Is Franz Kafka Overrated? – “Edmund Wilson claimed that the only book he could not read while eating his breakfast was by the Marquis de Sade. I, for different reasons, have been having a difficult time reading Franz Kafka with my morning tea and toast. So much torture, description of wounds, disorientation, sadomasochism, unexplained cruelty, appearance of rodents, beetles, vultures, and other grotesque creatures—all set out against a background of utter hopelessness. Distinctly not a jolly way to start the day. Kafka doesn’t make for very comforting reading at bedtime, either.”

The New Yorker: Kafka for Kids — “Kafka’s œuvre is, on the surface, no more frightening than Lewis Carroll’s, Roald Dahl’s, or Neil Gaiman’s; what happens in his universe is not all that different from what occurs in traditional fairy tales. (Kafka himself was a great fan of fairy tales; his lover and onetime fiancée Dora Diamant said he used to read the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen to her.) In fact, most of Kafka’s work is in many ways superficially less gruesome than fairy tales, and the supernatural plays a more limited role, if it enters the narrative at all.”

Excerpt: ‘Franz Kafka’ by Saul Friedländer

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  • 2Gary2


    • JobExperience

      Probably too close to home, depending on your bread-job.

      • Phillip Hanberry

        It is kinda meh.  Certainly not morning material. 

        Tom, do some alien stories.  Thats morning material.

        • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

          Kafka is all about alienation. Bah-dum-ching?

          • JobExperience

             This American Life is all about Alienation, Duh! So you think the Miller Light commercials are the best skit on SNL?

        • JobExperience

          So you’re suggesting Tom move to the graveyard shift to fill the void left by Mike Hagan when RadiOrbit ended? Yes, that would expand Tom’s consciousness radically.

          By Alien (stories) I suppose you mean drunk Mexicans without insurance running you off I-10?

  • Expanded_Consciousness


    • JobExperience

      Inappropriate unless you are a contractor for NSA.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        talk about Kafkaesque. man informs his countrymen they are being spied on and having their rights violated, ends up stuck in the airport forever

  • Unterthurn

    Like his poetry!

    • JobExperience

      A bureaucrat from Prague
      Amused himself keeping a log
      His bosses at work
      Thought, “That dangerous clerk!”
      So they offed him while out for a jog.

  • brettearle

     Whom do you see him influencing?

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Kafka is the author who best captured our postmodern age. He not only influenced other artists, he informed and influence the age we live in. The 20th century’s most important author of fiction.

      • JobExperience

        So you see him as openly expressing an important hidden strand of the historical dialectic? Mebbe so. His struggle with Patriarchy (authoritarianism) parallels that of contemporary American (and Islamist) culture. The commonality with intelligence spook Roald Dahl gave me a chill. (New Yorker outtake above). Look at Ophelia Dahl’s work at Partners In Health (They got some Kafka goin’ on.) to understand how good intentions are subverted by corporate authority. (Dr. Kim as World Bank president is the ultimate co-optation.) It opens the mind to possibilities like weaponized AIDS and mind-culling by vaccination. “James and the Giant Peach” indeed!!!! MARS brands lives up to its Willy Wonka heritage. Sweeter than Minnie Mouse.

        • Expanded_Consciousness

          When Kafka wrote about bureaucratic society, he aimed to expose the irrational roots of the allegedly rational society.

          • JobExperience

            Agreed, but the wholesale construction of an alien and circumscribed false ecology is in itself structurally violent and negates much potential. There is the possible outcome of a totalitarian rationality: Excessive positivism focused on abstract measures like money and aggregate growth; big numberism.

            Sheldon Wolin describes it well as inverted totalitarianism. The people are psychologically wing-clipped so that they police their own thought. Kafka is a more comprehensive thinker than one might first assume. Josef K. (The Trial/The Process) can’t handle the truth, except in small increments. Examine that symptom.

      • brettearle

        Back it up.


        I would argue that Joyce and Bellow are more influential.

        • JobExperience

          I think you’d have to be Irish to see Finnegan’s Wake as unapocryphal .
          Joyce burlesques and wordgames with the best, but he’s no Kafka.
          Bellow is a different flavored Jew than Kafka, kind of a stand-in for Arthur Miller. People like these include a seed of hope (exuberant salvation) Kafka has denied. Kafka gives himself a more difficult assignment, and succeeds. A deep atheist denies not only God(s), but the possibility of God-like traits in himself. If by more influential you suggest mainstream, OK.

          • brettearle


            You mean, to the rest of us, the “Wake” is genuine?

            I think Joyce has a universal resonance.

            I think you’re being too glib–unless it’s a satire on your part–when you describe Bellow in the way that you do.

            I like your use of `exuberant salvation’.  Give me more.

            And, yes, I do mean, Mainstream.

            Insofar as Kafka is concerned, I don’t think the hopeless cynicism of literary visionaries is without hope:

            I have always viewed THE TRIAL and THE STRANGER not purely as vanguards of Bleakness–but rather, as Forces ultimately, designed to compel the reader to respond with positive action, lest they wind up in a cesspool of despair, themselves.

            I doubt that Camus–a man who had a great deal of compassion–gave us Meursault (sp?), for example, simply to get us to even give up on Prozac.

          • JobExperience

             We’ll always have Paris. (Modern literature is a prank.)

    • skelly74

      Who do I see Kafka influence? “Job Experience” for one. He surely has many fantastic stories to tell…the power of Kafka..

  • JobExperience

    Reading “Amerika” helped formulate my critique of my native land. In this account the Statue of Liberty holds a sword and a lantern. The lantern “lights the way to easy conquest.” Kafka had prophetic ambitions and they were realized.

    My late wife worked in the insurance industry as a claims examiner, as did Franz Kafka. She read all of Kafka and that helped her endure her cruel job. We enjoyed the truth of the Soderbergh film where crude means are employed to examine the human essence in an horrific and degrading manner. She always reminded me how accurate the film was in revealing institutional murders as protective of an inner elite circle who could admit no mistakes. Even when errors become obvious they pay a token fine and admit no liability. Kafka was insinuating that our entire culture has been reduced to the machinations of an insurance scam. Either you deny it and keep your subconscious asleep or you admit it and rebel. (or maybe you admit it and then let it eat at you from the inside. My wife and I tried to rebel and it still ate us because we lacked comrades.) I feel Kafka helps me comprehend my own tragedy.

  • JobExperience

    Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller read Kafka’s short stories for sadistic inspiration when they ran low on material in Las Vegas (says Teller). The “Incredible Burt Wonderstone” explores some related themes in Jim Carrey’s character.  Thomas Mann’s 1929 short story “Mario and the Magician” explores the same mystique of overwhelming sadistic power and crowd manipulation as fascinates Kafka. They were contemporaries in the same proto-Nazi era and Mann admits reading Kafka in magazines. Ursula Krober Le Guin, the science fiction author, admits liking Kafka. Most modern dystopia involves aspects of Kafka, so how can one miss it.

    brett- I know you were calling on skelly74 to be more specific. There are so many airhead comments these days.

    *Intended as reply to brettearle below concerning skelly74

    • brettearle

      But what about post-Kafka writers–as far as direct influence is concerned?

      By example, I mean something like the following:

      William Styron, a near-great writer (or at least a very, very good writer), was influenced–deliriously, I think– by Thomas Wolfe.

      • JobExperience

         Internal self-destruction in Styron parallels Kafka.
        Styron engaged bloody chaotic violence in the same mechanic as Kafka engaged structural violence. Structural violence Styron implied is explicit (though nascent) in Kafka. The emotionality that relishes violence in Styron is not present in Kafka. It is emotional nihilism among familiars that is used in place of raw violence in Kafka.
        So sadly, Kafka is more relevant to the anomie we suffer today than Styron. Styron is closer to heroic fantasy, as in many graphic novels. Still I’d like to see Kafka illustrated by Robert Crumb, or hasn’t that already been done (American Splendor). Yes, the quotidian life is the most futile of all.
        Going to that meaningless bread-job so you can survive in a subterranean warren of free thought   … that’s the underbed terror.

        • brettearle

          All you said, above, is quite intriguing.

          I’d have to give it some thought and also do some re-reading.


          My instincts are to say that the issue of influence is overused–at least, sometimes.

          An artist can travel to places on his own and make similar interpretations, to those made in the past–without being influenced.

          I have heard it said that Swift influenced  modern satire.

          But I don’t always see it.

          • JobExperience

            I’m not being a know-it-all. Kafka has been a part of my Anthropological studies for 45 years.
            I even studied German to access Kafka, Marx and others in the originals. The humor someone mentioned in Kafka is subtle and a knowledge of his times helps with the laughs, but they’re not guffaws, just knowing groans. My wife instructed me about contractual language originating in the German. They had social services while we were still shooting Indians. That’s why Hitler was a Jack-In -The-Box.

          • JobExperience

            You could say Hitler influenced Reagan and Bush, but that wouldn’t be fair.
            Reagan was a protege of Walter Annenberg,, and the Bushes/Walkers were bankrolling Hitler before he was Hitler. You’re right, we’re too taken with genealogy.

          • brettearle

            You’re raising some significant points–ones that are almost symbolically Narcotic.

            You should be punished for not contacting me before–in such a direct and `confrontational’ manner.

            Gimme some time to think–even about Shatner’s daughter.

            Lord save us all….

          • JobExperience

            Teachers have a special rapport even when ideologies conflict.

  • JobExperience

    Camus, Sartre … Foucault, and so on.

    *supplementary answer to brettearle’s question, displaced by Disqus

  • JobExperience

     Intricate devices of interrogation, torture and execution in Kafka may owe something to Edgar Allan Poe, and may inspire modern intelligence agencies and prison operators.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Rather twisted how you take the staunchest and most devastating critic of bureaucratic society, and try to make him its leader.

      • JobExperience

         Do you understand what “default setting” means?
        And it is ironic you could suggest one could be excessively twisted in Kafka discussion.
        Kafka’s personal dynamic made him politically threatening to institutional power…. by default.
        My name is Job, and I’ve had the Job Experience, so I know…
        Let’s look at a similar political character of the same period: Antonio Gramsci. He was trying to be a good communist in Italy and because of his personal nature and curiousity ended up dying in prison.
        But you could be an apparachnik.
        If so you’d despise Manning, Assange and Snowden…. feeling they’d twisted the truth about your role models. (Not an attack, just hypothesizing, as you do about me.) I hope someone is learning something. By someone I don’t mean data miners.

  • JobExperience

    (See portrait at topic opening)
    How did his photographer anticipate Spock ears?
    I bet Tom knows, or can discuss it anyway.

    • brettearle

      Leonard Nimoy spent years in Prague just so that he could pass as a Vulcan.

      • JobExperience

         Now that’s devotion to “the Method.”
        Shattner spent countless hours in women’s foundations (Macy’s) seeking just the right corset.

        • brettearle

          Ha. Ha.

          Very good….

          But what did he have to do, in order to prepare for those TravelVelocity ads–especially the one where he dropped off his daughter? at a castle, while driving an MG convertible, or something or other?

          • JobExperience

            Too easy! (MG convertible)
            He had to buy toupee glue at Target. (Was that his daughter ?)
            Is Denny Crane Fraser Crane’s other brother? One says to the other,”Take my wife, please!” Maybe they say it together.
            (Sorry,, Henny Youngman.)
            Today, Kafka would be working at TraVelocity. He’d awake metamorphed into the GEICO gekko. Now that would humiliate his father!

  • AC

    the trial was hte most frustrating book i ever read…i should read it again, i think i was 15 or 16 the first time. maybe i’d understand it better now…

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      You will. You learn how absurd bureaucracy is over time. What seemed confusing at 15 will make perfect sense to you now.

      • JobExperience

        I don’t want to insult AC but your whole schtick on this blog has seemed to me clueless anti-intellectualism. Why waste time reading in our visual culture? You can watch the movie suggested (above) on YouTube or you can get jiggy with your job experience, the causes and effects of it, and wonder if you’re just following orders; rat pushing a bar to get pills? Not that pills are always bad, even in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kafka might have lived to 51 given some Prozac and Xanax, well-managed. It worked for Tony Soprano.

        • AC

          that’s interesting. but how did i give the impression i’m anti-intellectualism? i’m not at all. at least, i don’t think so….

          • JobExperience

             I hope not, but I had to say it.
            Maybe you’re not “leaning in.”
            Maybe you’re mediating and exercising a feminine reserve. Maybe you just want to be liked. Take it from a grandpa, you want get much unless you struggle. If some guy buys your lunch thinking he has bought a piece of you, it won’t taste that good. Kafka was the type of oppressed man who loved women, because men couldn’t understand him, or couldn’t admit they got his message. It bothers me when your comment is “I don’t know…”
            What’s up with that. Are you really a young lady or some unemployed hairy cross-dresser. State your case, my dear. Inhabit your Mary Janes. What I’m saying maybe is that I’m detecting a subliminal channel in your comments.

          • AC

            well, i’m an engineer, so i tend to be conservative. if i don’t feel i have enough information for a confident response to something, i don’t leap to conclusions or ‘bluster’.
            on that note, can you provide another example of how you made this analysis of me? it’s strangely presumptuous yet awfully confident. before you became a ‘grandpa’, did you have some skill to analyze people based on their online disqus comments or is it a recent talent?

          • JobExperience

            What a rush when discourse develops on a blog! My calling of your hand was initiated by the contradiction that you keep posting but remain non-commital. I am an anthropologist who screwed up and lost jobs several times. I’ve done interviews for 42 years and been a documentary consultant. I’ve interacted with grad students as a thesis adviser. Maybe old sociologists mistakenly believe their experience has made them clairvoyant. You could test that hypothesis. But maybe you’re not that kind of engineer. You could email beretco.op@hotmail.com to compare notes further. I’m retired and  time flexible.

    • JobExperience

      Like Harry Shearer (le show) has observed, “It’s a Process.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=790152626 Kaveh Moghadam
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=790152626 Kaveh Moghadam

    Franz Kafka – Rock Opera:


    • JobExperience

       C’mon, “A warrior of words taking a stand”?
      This crummy cartoon fetishizes and demeans the brand.

  • WLWood

    Is Kafka irrelevant in the present world?
    In his personal life, he reacted against his father’s authority, in social life against the moral and legal authorities that held sway. Today’s world is much looser. Does Kafka have anything to say to us?

    • JobExperience

       So you feel really free because Big Brother has replaced Daddy?

      • WLWood

         Of course. Daddy tells you what to do. Big Brother just watches.

        • brettearle

          Why wasn’t Joseph K. a kind of a victim of a Big Brother?

          • JobExperience


        • JobExperience

           …and touches Himself.

          • JobExperience

             I wish Ray Bradbury were here.

          • WLWood

             Has someone been surveiling the surveilor?
            But the point is that Kafka is the product of a more authoritarian, a more hierarchical world than ours.
            In a permissive world, he doesn’t get much traction.
            Big Brother he could probably sink his teeth into. Big target.

  • Coastghost

    How well represented is Kafka’s humor in available translations for his non-German readers?

    • WLWood

       Generally, his fiction has been well translated, and translated many times. His letters and diaries have only appeared in one translation—Schocken holds the rights—and the translations vary widely in quality.

      • JobExperience

         Ah, the inequities of intellectual property.

  • Potter

    Excellent program– thank you!

  • Roberto1194

      I propose that Kafka just made the most of his personal confusion and suffering in sharing it with dark compelling creativity at a time when most people were confused by change in social/political/economic order and their own insignificant parts in it.  All were ‘driving’ into a time of emotional regression, nationalism, and cultural narcissism. 
    -all forms of insecurity and FEAR.-sound familiar?  The most disturbing thing is the lack of compassion in his work, and how that ‘device’ fascinates.  The same way that we slow down to observe the carnage of the highway accident…
      In the end, he was just a smart, confused, ‘unrealized’ coward who eschewed any significant search for wisdom and equanimity.

    • JobExperience

       Walk a mile in his shoes.

  • TJPhoto40

    There are moments of lucid explication in this rather frustrating discussion of Kafka, with too much about the guest’s life intruding for the first few minutes.  Tom seems to have some understanding and appreciation, yet he starts by first calling Kafka a neurotic, which is reductionist to the extreme, and more than once using the term “loser” in describing him.  What’s missing is any recognition of the dark humor and the spiritual dimension in his work.  Missing, too, is his place in the development of existentialism, which has to be considered a key to artistic and intellectual strains in the 20th century and to the present. Camus, Sartre, Beckett and others built on this legacy. Harold Pinter’s best work has a lot of Kafka in it.

    In terms of his literary work, he was a master of the short story, and his novels lack middle or ending largely because of his ambivalence about his own work and the impossibility of resolution within the situations he creates for his characters.

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