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Kafkaesque by Harry Denniston

‘Kafkaesque’ is a piece of creative-criticism, written by Harry Denniston and illustrated by Rosie Bell.

Harry Denniston
illustrations by Rosie Bell
Walking by the river, I was approached by Kafka.

‘There’s a heron up there’, Kafka said, his knees bent and his arms extended outwards, palms up. ‘We passed within feet of it and it didn’t do a thing’. The man he was with nodded, smiling, overwhelmed. Kafka’s eyes were bright. I continued onward and, when I did indeed come across the heron, straggly and balding, I was not completely sure whether it wasn’t still Kafka, who’d doubled back and squatted on the riverbank, to show me what he’d meant.
‘[A] story did not have to tell a story.’ This is what Kafka learnt from the Swiss writer Robert Walser. A story does not have to tell a story to be a story. ‘That is why one loves dragonflies.’ We can’t always read ourselves: the story we tell ourselves risks becoming a gesture of self-knowing. Kafka’s stories are recordings of the failures of the readings of them. They start at the end, where the emphasis would be on someone else to start thinking: they record past the end of a thought, the needle run over the lip of its final groove and hissing. There are some of Kafka’s conversation slips left from his time in hospital, when he couldn’t talk because of his tuberculosis. There’s the lure to speculate what questions or conversations these slips might’ve been responding to, to draw what, given the context, should be a solid line between life and writing, but sleuthing slips into self-imposition, and then you’re stuck at the bedside: ‘[d]o you have a moment? Then please lightly spray the peonies.’ Theodor Adorno wrote of Kafka’s writing that ‘[n]o tourist trade was to blossom where it had gone; yet anyone who imitated its gestures without having been there would be guilty of pure effrontery in attempting to pocket the excitement and power of alienation without the risk.’ Part of the risk in reading is experiencing something without having been there: of knowing something without knowing it. ‘I don’t like that, too much work; takes too much knowledge. Cut flowers should be treated quite differently.’
I counted sheep to help myself fall asleep. The sheep that I counted were less like sheep and more like negatives of sheep, like falling meteors arcing parabolas across the heaven on the inside of my eyelids. The trouble I had was with wolves. If the sheep ever became less like falling meteors arcing parabolas and more like sheep then a wolf would slink into the line and watch me as it jumped the fence, licking its lips. As I’ve grown, I’ve worked to induce sleep in different ways – deep-breathing, emptying myself of myself, reading, annihilation – anything that involves an infinity, that is, something that could or could not be cyclic, like the sheep – something where the constituent parts appear new each time as they land, but could easily be recycled, older versions of themselves – dead versions, like stars.
In his diary of 1910 you can see Kafka working something up. You have him writing that ‘those things which occur to me, occur to me not from the root up but rather only from somewhere about their middle.’ He then laments ‘three pieces of insolence’ he believes he’s acted out that day and records the fallout:
Why don’t I stay within myself? To be sure, I now say to myself: Look, the world submits to your blows […] But that means nothing. You can achieve nothing if you forsake yourself; but what do you miss, aside from this, in your circle? To this appeal I answer only: I too would rather submit to blows within the circle than myself deal the blows outside it – but where the devil is this circle? For a time, indeed, I did see it lying on the earth, as if sprayed in lime, but now it just sort of hovers about me, indeed, does not even hover.
Kafka’s circle appears clear at first, coming out of nowhere – or taken for granted – being in your own circle is something everyone will know. After beating himself up about not learning, about being insolent again, Kafka creates this circle around himself in order to delineate the space between him and everything else, so as better to begin working out where he went wrong. Where he becomes Kafka is where he loses track of the first thought – the circle – by returning upon it immediately, loosening that which should have stayed stable to start a story of relation, between inside and out, writer finishing their work and reader, ready to start. He circles back on this circle of self only to see it disappear – he records the disappearance. It’s funny in the same way as someone accidentally leaving the camera on after they’ve gone to stop filming. The circle demarcating relation and propped for comfortable analogy is already itself becoming analogized – ‘sprayed in lime’ – and in the space of a sentence Kafka tracks its disappearance: the more words he finds for what the circle is or what it does, the less the circle is, the less it does, and the more vicious it becomes.
I stopped counting sheep to help me fall asleep because I often had issues with wolves, who would ingratiate themselves within the queue of sheep and then flounce and make light of the jumping of the fence by looking me in the eyes as they jumped, licking the scroll of their tongues around their snouts. I had an interim period whereby I worked to induce sleep in different ways – deep-breathing, emptying myself of myself, reading, annihilation – but none became so successful as the final method, which is to count and try to exhaust myself with all the possible different interpretations of various Franz Kafka stories. Throughout the day my mind is sent ahead of itself to set up tableaux of methodologies, schools of thought, sketches of different types of reader, to scatter these throughout the desert terrain of my internal scenery, and at night I – in full possession of all faculties I might muster at any moment – pass over this landscape like a silent, magisterial stormcloud, illumining various scenes as I go, proceeding to leave them in the darkness, knowing they’ve been found out.
— AFT —
A month or so after the circle entry, Kafka begins work on something in his diary. Not entirely an entry – because the neurotic, seasick ‘I’ sounds like all the ‘I’s in Kafka’s short stories written at that time (collected as Betrachtung, meaning Meditation or Contemplation) – though not entirely a story, because it rubs shoulders with diary entries like Sunday, July 19, ‘slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life’. This thought occurs from somewhere about the middle, and he traces it as the middle keeps expanding. There are six drafts of this piece that grow out of each other: here’s how the first line changes –
When I think about it, I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects.
Often I think it over and I always have to say that my education has done me great harm in some ways.
Often I think it over and give my thoughts free rein, without interfering, and always, no matter how I turn or twist it, I come to the conclusion that in some respects my education has done me terrible harm.
Often I think it over and give my thoughts free rein, without interfering, but I always come to the conclusion that my education has spoiled me more than I can understand.
I often think it over and give my thoughts free rein without interfering, but I always come to the same conclusion: that my education has spoiled me more than all the people I know and more than I can conceive.
The thought keeps modifying itself. In the first draft, you have the discrepancy between ‘great harm’ and ‘in some respects’ that leaves you where you started. By the second, the thought has multiplied and generalized itself across time, from ‘When I think’ to ‘Often I think’ – then, in the third, the introduction of an affirmation of freedom, ‘without interfering’, has come out of precise interference and re-drafting, followed by the gesturing to account for free thought which inevitably gives way to inevitability and hopelessness with ‘no matter how I twist and turn it’. This dyes into implicitness in the next draft by becoming the melancholy temporality of ‘always’, the giving over to which produces the belief in, and creation of, an excess of understanding (‘more than I can understand’). Again: a circle tracing out a limit, the ineffable just beyond it which the educated ‘I’ gestures at recouping even as it denounces. This demarcating circle expands, in the final draft, to encompass ‘all the people I know’, becoming ‘more than I can conceive’ – the circle of doubt, the explicitly attempted play between internal and external, now not even hovering or possessed of properties, having been so smoothed out into the structure of knowing, encompassing and defining all the terms for freedom and constraint, knowing and not-knowing, pre-limiting the possibilities of what there is for it to learn. Kafka achieves this through re-drafting, teaching himself each time how to tip himself more securely into oblivion. The figure of education here becomes the ability to leave progressively efficient notes reminding yourself that you’ll never be able to know anything before you’ve even started to try.
— ING —
16th April 2017 – Three dug dog holes in the sand on the beach today, on a diagonal and equally spaced, paws being pressed down on top of each other so expertly that the fine-tuned burrows appeared to leave the trace of exercises in prayer –
‘Truth always has the last word before, and we run out of breath at its heels. […] We want to throw ourselves ahead and we go backwards. Do you see these footprints? We are advancing backwards.’
In a story from Meditation, ‘Die Vorüberlaufenden’ – ‘The Runners’ or ‘Passers-by’ – the stage seems pre-set for an apparent thought-experiment: ‘When you go walking by night up a street and a man, visible a long way off – for the street mounts uphill and there is a full moon – comes running towards you, well, you don’t catch hold of him…’ The story continues with a set of theoretical reasons as to why you shouldn’t intervene as a second person then runs after the first: it gives a series of ‘perhaps’ – ‘perhaps these two have put on this chase for fun, […] perhaps they are night birds, perhaps the first man is armed.’ By the time the thought arrives that these two people might not even be chasing each other, might not be not linked at all, it’s too late: it remains just as much of a passing ‘perhaps’, each sentence of thought here linked via the overspill from the one before. The vor of vorüberlaufenden is a preposition that can mean ‘before’ and ‘ahead of’ as well as ‘in the eyes of’, while über can mean ‘over’ as well as ‘via’, (leaving laufen as ‘to run’): the title demonstrates how, from the off, the runners can’t pass without you running it by yourself or getting ahead – the second-person ‘you’ becoming not a gesture of goodwill to engage an audience but the trace of an ‘I’ that’s wanted to separate itself already from any responsibility. The thinking in Kafka’s style of Contemplation is both alienated by and responsible for what it reads by dint of already thinking itself a reader, at a (apparent) remove from the world. The story speculates as a mode of resistance, tripping over itself to gesture at its own self-containment, everything both held in and energised by the ‘I’. The runners are already anticipated in its double sense: as both active and passive verb – anticipating by doing something to prepare and negate, as well as waiting for something without a guaranteed arrival. So often, when reading, we stumble straight upon the end and dummy a story – our own story – so that we might end up back where we started, having secretly known everything along the way. Kafka’s stories tell the story of this story – they dramatize the story of how stories get reverse-engineered – they tell the story of a criticism that believes it can only be coming along after the event. David Vichnar writes that theoria were originally of a plural number, denoting the procession of officially chosen witnesses that bore their testimonies to whether or not such or such event had happened’. We can watch the Greek theōros, meaning ‘spectator’, run into theōria, ‘contemplation, speculation’ and on to theory as we know it. Kafka’s Betrachtung draw the line between the process of thought as a systematic or semi-mechanized series of deductions and thought as procession, designed to show off, gesturing at systematicity to pull off a pre-arranged drama for the spectator which, here, implicates the ‘I’ itself. What cannot be rounded up or off are these conflicting testimonies, these discontinuous moments of spectating, each one more vivid and living and official than the other, constantly taking away what was previously sure by trying to add to it. To write more about Kafka, more truthfully, more faithfully, would be a matter of further subtraction.
You must let parts of your day, or week or month, be annihilated, not useful or useable, un-memorable. Try to not check yourself: if you get locked in the bathroom, don’t think about it: don’t run to tell anyone afterward, especially not yourself, preparing and embellishing the anecdote: I got locked in the bathroom in the middle of the night and I never told anyone, I ran a gamut of emotions, etc. For plenty of your life you ought not to be there, otherwise you put far too much pressure on both yourself and the world. You shouldn’t even measure when you are or aren’t there, but also you don’t want to be letting yourself off the hook which, for example, can occur when you anticipate the potential in any event throughout the day, thinking ‘here comes something’. What I’m saying is, effectively, don’t think about it but just try to be good. Do your best not to think, but in a manner that’s not overly serious nor an outright joke. Otherwise you’ll end up with nothing, nothing to have or do and only getting locked in the bathroom to account for. You’ll look back over your life and getting locked in the bathroom will be the only thing there, and will become the greatest mystery, one that nobody necessarily wants to solve for you.
One of the pleasures of reading is recognition – seeing someone put in to words what you thought was incommunicable. Kafka administrates this pleasure – a force somewhere between managerial and graceful – which, whilst it pleasures, separates the apparent ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the story, the thing that’s been gestured at as incommunicable, that you’ve then managed to trick into communicability. In one of his notebooks, Kafka asks ‘[i]s it possible to think […] something unconsoling without the breath of consolation? A way out would seem to lie in the fact that recognition as such is consolation. […] You must put yourself aside; and yet one might maintain oneself, without falsifying this recognition, by the consciousness of having recognized it.’ The thinking subject is split – between recognition of lack-of-subjectivity, recognition of subject itself (as the object ‘subject’ or the terms for subjectivity) and recognition of the play between these positions in time: ‘the consciousness of having recognised’ – a temporality apparently played out after the event that nevertheless actualizes all three states at the time or tense of writing. This is the movement of recognition – the condition of criticism – and is what Adorno recognizes in Kafka as déjà vu: ‘Each sentence says ‘interpret me’ and none will permit it. Each compels the reaction, ‘that’s the way it is’, and with it the question, ‘where have I seen that before?’; the déjà vu is declared permanent. Through the power with which Kafka commands interpretation, he collapses aesthetic distance.’
In Kafka’s short story ‘The Way Home’ the narrating ‘I’ recognises itself in – or thanks to – the reader. Recognition clears the air right at the start of the story for us to see the force of it in passing – ‘Just see how persuasive the air is after the thunderstorm!’ The persuasion of the seeing subject – the persuasion in the belief in a change of state or atmosphere – is a rhetorical force that cancels or universalises recognition even as it registers it, and the story runs off with it – ‘I march along, and my tempo is the tempo of this side of the street, […] of this quarter of town. I am responsible, and rightly so, for all the knocking on doors, the thumping on tables […] for all the loving couples in their beds […].’ The possibility of reading this ‘rightly so’ both as belonging to an arrogant, self-bolstering possessiveness on behalf of the ‘I’ and as the possibility of self-knowing – a kind of mournful reprehension, (responsibility as recognition, always seeming to appear in the moment and after the fact) – dramatizes the force of reading Kafka – of reading yourself reading, reading the terms and conditions for subjectivity. You record a thought just before it does so itself, recognising the feeling of a split subjectivity feeling itself out in reading into the world.
April 14th – Just seen K’s story-note on 3 dogs – ‘I have three dogs: Hold-him, Seize-him, and Nevermore. […] Nevermore is of the opinion that it cannot go on like this and that some way out must be found.’ First the holes on the beach – now these dogs of K to come and dig them. ‘It is enough that the arrows fit exactly the wounds they have made.’ The paranoia of meaning-making with Kafka: I don’t want this to become a sign. Reading him, you’re dealing with a dramatic lack of desire that becomes funny when it shows the truth in relief – when you see the hole you’ve been digging yourself out of. Recognition as seeing yourself still in the middle, as the temporality of seeing or reading yourself through to the end even when you’ve got further still to go, even when you’ve just started.
Kafka’s people often end up stunned by what they’ve seen coming from a mile off, like the one sentence entry from his diary that says ‘The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past’ or like Kafka himself in the first sentence of a letter to Elsa and Max Brod in 1913 that states ‘I have no need for a nightwatchman, being one myself in respect to sleepiness, walks in the dark, and being chilled to the bone.’ The onlookers, being called so before anything has happened, will always already be both separate from and forced to witness, rigidifying in the wake of what they’re set out to do, while Kafka simultaneously creates and solves the problem or need of a nightwatchman, accidentally asks a question by answering it, invents the need for an external guide by taking it upon himself. In both cases, the gesture of anointing oneself or others with ignorance or with grace reveals a decision that seems to have been set in some place before there was writing, and also a space within the writing where you might be able to bust or scuff this smooth, pre-recorded melancholy thanks to its staginess. There’s both striving and futility in Kafka’s gesturing, which privileges neither and preserves both: it produces the possibility of ‘an action performed for show in the knowledge that it will have no effect’ – a kind of set-up or ready-to-blow or combustible script, always already thinking itself doomed.
On a hot day in the city, after both professional meetings and meetings with friends had been cancelled, I was afforded time to walk to the local cemetery which has plenty of green space for sunbathers, all of whom had beaten me to it, already snuck into their positions, lying on their backs with one knee bent up, magpies rattling like boxes of matches overhead. I never get to see the bathers assume their positions and I’m sure there must be a stage in which they wallow on their stomachs and elbows on their way downward. Wallowers, I sang to myself under my breath as I walked through them around the cemetery. On the way back I became elated – no more work for the day – free to think about Kafka! – and, seeing an overhanging stop sign coming up and feeling like it’d be nice to engage with things off the usual track, I was going to jump and touch it but at the last minute backed out, so that the impulse in dying resulted in a large jaunty trudging swing of the body, one arm flung up at the elbow. There was nobody on the street to see it and all the windows above me were empty. It looked like I’d been greeting someone, if anyone had been there.
Eternalized gestures in Kafka are the momentaneous brought to a standstill. […] [P]erhaps everything was originally supposed to become a tableau and only an excess of intention prevented this, through long dialogues. Anything that balances on the pinnacle of the moment like a horse on its hindlegs is snapped, as though the pose ought to be preserved forever.
Adorno’s reading of the lumber-room scene in The Trial intimates that the art of gesturing in Kafka might be bound up with the drama of recognition. Recognising something – seeing the pattern, spotting the repeat, as both K. and the reader do when faced with an identical act of violence playing out in the lumber room two days in a row – can perpetuate a lack of action thanks to the fact that what was designated as impossible and singular has impossibly repeated itself. Ridiculous when isolated, humorous and nauseating, readerly recognition becomes an impersonal and faceless force called up for a moment to have its photo taken with fans. We catch the monogamous force of desire that had singled us out, we believed, as individuals, (and the investment of belief is part of this religious monogamy) in bed with everyone we’ve ever known. The snapping or breaking movement of the ‘anything that balances on the pinnacle of the moment’ in the above quotation implies some violence done to the thing, an active violent engagement with it that alters the picture, is perhaps the taking of the picture in the double sense of preserving it and stealing or altering it to profit personally. Adorno’s ‘as though’ positions a subjectivity in the scenario, implying some moral interpolation that sounds both affirmatively freeing because affirmatively speculative, and, also, pejorative, a morose attempt at empathy that can’t help becoming a judgement in hindsight, after you can see what’s been ruined. We usually love (miss, eulogise) the moment for its being lodged and lost in time – in Kafka, we’re confronted with what we thought we’d lost. Thought itself often rides upon the desire to move on, to have the permission to play out the same mistakes, re-discover oneself in the same frozen tableau. In this sense, criticism on Kafka – writing that is apparently only Kafkaesque – becomes fractal in its quality, resplendent with the story of diverted and suffocating thought. You might find Kafka more exactly in Adorno’s criticism after experiencing the desire for recognition and consolidation that occurs after the end, when the source text is no longer in sight, like the ‘latecomers’, in ‘The Great Wall of China’, ‘strangers in a city, [standing] at the far end of some densely packed side-street peacefully consuming provisions […] while far out in front of them, in the middle of the city, the execution of their ruler is proceeding’. Kafkaesque means you don’t have to have read Kafka himself to be reading Kafka.
The children are all good at reading Kafka but they have no understanding of this. Now, I cannot pass their readings off as my own, because that would be an extremely adult thing to do, and I’d be immediately going against, in the first instance, the thing that made their essays good. So I must teach them. It is all not impossible. Love is compulsory for the job. Imagine what it will be like when I have finished teaching, even teaching myself, and I can walk to the cinema with my family on my birthday, unencumbered by the pressures retained within myself, though these pressures most likely derive their origins from my family’s regular mockery of my becoming a teacher. I will feel completely present there, not worried about teaching anymore, and my family are coming to visit for my next birthday so it is really not impossible. Showing the children a picture of Kafka on the projector screen, I ask them to write down any descriptions they have to offer: reading their slips of paper, they’ve got things like ‘his clothes look dirty as an old man’s shoes which themselves are like dirt stuck back into the ground’ and ‘his body looks as congealed as a book that was put in a box and abandoned underground and then a boy finds it and dies like a piece of firewood.’ Slow down, too much, wait for me, I tell them, waggling the papers about at the front of the classroom, and they beam back at me.
‘Tell me, do you understand the feeling one must have when one’s task is to pull a yellow mail coach full of sleeping people through an interminable night? […] Damn it all, how one would like to wake up those wretches in the coach, if only one had a post horn.’ Kafka often seems pathetic in his diaries and letters, like his thinking is a burden all the way up until writing, his whole life trailing behind it. But, as Sarah Wood writes, ‘[w]hy assume that the materiality of writing is actually its letters?’: when Kafka writes ‘if only one had a post horn’, the limit within the analogy is still reliant upon the analogy itself, the post horn lost from and created by – dependent upon – the mail coach. Kafka manages to get his thinking and his writing incredibly close to each other, and such proximity always offers potential for humour, like being forced to stand nose to nose with someone on the train: riding it out and writing it out might come to justify it. Writing becomes a way of actively waiting, of trying to be ‘a true attendant upon grace. Perhaps this quiet yet unquiet waiting is the harbinger of grace, or perhaps it is grace itself.’ The proper failure in Kafka’s fiction is that of the failure to read, interpret or recognise oneself, a failure that you really have to live through in writing. Perhaps the correct condition for any Kafka criticism is that of being ready to be burnt: the recording or story of what happened to make the writing un-publishable to its writer.
The Kafkaesque is not an idea, nor is it definitive, abstract or universalisable: whatever we are all trapped in is not too large or incomprehensible to be reconciled, and none of us are doomed – doom would not be a genuine struggle because it would be already weighted beforehand. It is the struggle of someone recognising the enormity of their life’s limit and thrashing toward it, like the messenger in the parable, trying to cut through the crowds ‘with a message from a dead man to a shadow’, only at the end of the tale to be reminded that what makes it impossible is written within your own imagining of the struggle: the limits to our thinking are inbuilt in the way we think about our limits.
I tell Kafka to jump in but regret my choice of words: he climbs into the car bending his neck at a difficult angle and then closes his door on his coat, resulting in a rushing of air from the unsealed aperture underscoring our conversation. He doesn’t like the idea of opening the door again to pull his coat in: he’s worried about damaging the vehicle, the coat fabric and any pedestrians. He pulls a CD from his pocket saying that he made it for the drive. We talk at length about which songs he has chosen and what order he has put them in, but the CD doesn’t work when he inserts it as it has been scratched to death whilst nestling unprotected in his case. ‘I will hang it in the garden to keep the birds from stealing the fruit’ he says. ‘They can never get their heads around the dazzling of the plastic in the light. It chases around the circle, pestering you whatever angle you arrange yourself at’.
Theodor Adorno, ‘Notes on Kafka’s Society’, trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber Nicholsen, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? An Adorno Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford UP, 2003)
Helene Cixous, ‘Without end, no, State of drawingness, no, rather: The Executioner’s taking off’, in Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide, ed. Stephen Benson and Clare Connors (Edinburgh UP, 2014)
Franz Kafka, Wedding Preparations in the Country, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Williams (Secker and Walburg London, 1973)
Franz Kafka, Meditations, trans. Joyce Crick (Oxford World Classics, 2009)
Franz Kafka, The Great Wall of China, trans. Malcom Pasley (Penguin, 1973)
Franz Kafka, Letters to Family, Friends, Editors, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (John Calder London, 1978)
Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh (Secker and Walburg, 1948)
Adam Thirlwell, ‘Introduction’, in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (Vintage, 2005)
Sarah Wood, Without Mastery (Edinburgh UP, 2014)
David Vichnar, Joyce Against Theory (Litteraria Pragensia, 2010)
Adam Thirlwell, Introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories, xvii
Franz Kafka, Conversation Slips in Letters to Friends, Family, Editors, 421
Kafka, Conversation Slips in Letters, 417
Theodor Adorno, ‘Notes on Kafka’s Society’, 54
Kafka, Conversation Slips in Letters, 420
Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, 12
Kafka, Diaries, 13
Kafka, Diaries, 13
Kafka, Diaries, 14
Kafka, Diaries, 14-22
Helene Cixous, ‘Without End…’, 114
Franz Kafka, Meditations, 34
Franz Kafka, Meditations, 34
David Vichnar, Joyce Against Theory, 7
Kafka, Wedding Preparations In The Country, 72
Adorno, Notes, 246
Kafka, Meditations, 11
Kafka, Meditations, 11
Kafka, Wedding Preparations, 132
Kafka, Diaries, 112
Kafka, Diaries, 9
Kafka, Letters, 93-4
OED, definition of gesture
Adorno, ‘Notes’, 252-3
Adorno, ‘Notes’, 253-4
Kafka, The Great Wall of China, 66
Kafka, Letters, 8
Sarah Wood, Without Mastery, 65
Kafka, Letters, 4
Kafka, The Great Wall of China, 67