Kafkaesque

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It's been a while since I wrote a blog post, due mainly to the fact that from September 22 through October 2 I was traveling in Europe with my mom. We spent most of the time in Prague, but we also took a train to Vienna and spent a few days there. Both cities were beautiful, with stunning architecture, fascinating history, and rich cuisine (every meal we ate included either meat, pastry, or both). In many places, ordering beer was cheaper than ordering water—seriously. But one of my favorite parts of the trip was seeking out literary destinations.

In Prague, we visited three bookstores, as well as the Kafka Museum. I had read The Metamorphosis back in high school, but I remembered only a vague sketch of the plot: A man wakes up one day and finds that he has turned into a giant bug. I hadn't read anything else of his, and I didn't know much about Kafka as a person, so the museum filled in a lot of holes. Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, and though he died in Austria in 1924, he is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague. The museum explores Kafka's personal and work life, and also paints a picture of Prague through Kafka's eyes.

The museum is dimly lit, and there is creepy music playing. Black-and-white images of late nineteenthcentury and early twentiethcentury Prague flash on screens with some kind of ripple effect added to create a distorted, dreamy/nightmarish perspective. We learn that Kafka was born into a German-speaking Jewish family, but at the time most residents of Prague spoke Czech, so right off the bat you've got the theme of alienation. We also see a letter from Kafka to his father that begins, "You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you..." So the guy had daddy issues.

Kafka trained as a lawyer and then got a job at an insurance company, which he hated. The museum contains numerous letters to friends and lovers in which he complains about the drudgery, bureacracy, and draining effects of a regular job. He wrote stories in his spare time and wished he could quit and devote all of his time to what he considered his true calling: writing. (Although briefly he thought that maybe his true calling was drawing; the museum contains some of his sketches, one of which shows a guy at a desk looking like he wants to shoot himself.)

My mom's reaction to all of this was that Kafka was a big whiner and she wanted to smack him, and part of me felt the same way. He complained non-stop in his letters, and was basically the quintessential "tortured artist." Here's part of a diary entry dated February 19, 1911:

"When I wanted to get out of bed this morning I simply folded up. This has a very simple cause, I am completely overworked. Not by the office but my other work. The office has an innocent share in it only to the extent that, if I did not have to go there, I could live calmly for my own work and should not have to waste these six hours a day which have tormented me to a degree that you cannot imagine... it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity."

To which part of me responded: Come on, Franz. Most of us work eight hours a day, so six sounds pretty sweet. Maybe you just need to work on your time management.

But I felt empathetic at the same time. After all, I'm a writer who has had day jobs that felt a little bit like prison (or what I imagine prison feels like), and I spent most of the time wishing I could break out so I could do my "real" work. The guy made some good points. Bureacracy is infuriating, and spending your whole life doing a job you hate is actually pretty tragic. But Kafka's worst suffering was yet to come. He got TB and basically starved to death at age 40 because it was too painful to eat.

One of the placards toward the end of the exhibit said this:

"Kafkaesque is an adjective that the contemporary world has chosen to represent itself. It is quick to apply the term to itself in intolerable or desperate situations. Yet Kafkaesque is also something more. The moment always comes when creation is no longer conceived as tragic; it is merely taken seriously. And this is where we see a small light in the dark."

To be taken seriously. That is the writer's dream, isn't it? We're all just bumbling around in the dark, searching for that light.


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