Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Kafka's Father

On Tales from the Reading Room: Poor Old Kafka: Franz K’s tortured relationship with his father, an affliction Franz was never able to resolve. Only half tongue-in-cheek, I raised a question in comments. A brief exchange followed:

 Were you granted the [powers to go back in time and] to transform Kafka’s father into the compassionate parent he craved… knowing Franz would have a pleasurable self-fulfilled life–as an accountant who never wrote a word anyone would want to read… would you offer him your compassionate magical rescue…. or let him suffer so we would all have those delicious enigmatic stories to enjoy at his expense?:-)

<Comment by jacob Russell — August 17, 2011 @ 5:44 pm | Reply ·  Jacob – ach my friend, what a question you ask! You see, you go right to the heart of it with that. And if Kafka had lived longer… and finished The Trial and The Castle? Would an ending have been as oddly satisfying as the endless prospect of uncertainty that we are left with?

Comment by litlove — August 17, 2011 @ 6:06 pm | Reply ·  Kay Redfield Jamison raises similar questions in her book on artists & Manic-Depression, Touched with Fire.
The Joker in that question, of course, is the unstated assumption that the more visible vicissitudes of being socialized animals are and should be fixable… cured…that there’s a measurable ratio … or some such. I like Lacan here… that there is no cure to the neuroses that dog us all without exception… but psychoanalysis might be one way to live more meaningfully and creatively with our afflictions–by better understanding what they are.
… and questions like that can never be answered by anyone but the one who suffers. To assume otherwise is the source of a great deal of entirely avoidable misery.

(Keep in mind that “Understanding” is not the same as an ‘explanation,’ nor does it erase the symptom that is the source of the suffering.)

This, and a radical revision and rewriting of a novel I’ve been working on for more than ten years, set me thinking from a new angle about ‘realist fiction.’

I’ve been stripping the text of this novel of much of its connective tissue: transitions, developmental passages, much (not all) ‘scene setting’ descriptive detail—those very conventions, which if removed from any contemporary realist novel, would make it something else--the mechanics that define the genre, the I-beams and pylons, lifts, stairwells and hallways which make possible: plot, character development, the flowing narrative voice-over—the stuff that  holds up (though doesn’t constitute) the illusionary schtick of verisimilitude.

Litlove’s thoughts on psychoanalysis, Lacan’s rejection of the conventional idea of a ‘cure,’ what all that textual paraphernalia was really doing for the reader—all came together… something clicked for me..
This is, I thought, precisely what sets Kafka’s work apart from conventional realist fiction. He never found a ‘cure,’ and neither did his stories, exactly what ELF novels do… pretend to ‘cure’ the disease! The whole business of verisimilitude is tied up in this. No matter how unsettled the world-picture may be at the end of the novel, how disturbed or disturbing—it amounts to a kind of explanation: the parts are meaningfully fit together, even if the whole remains an enigma—which shoves the enigma safely outside the contingent & generative action—alien to the parts that make up that whole. Even if we don’t and can never understand the Big Picture, there’s the reassuring meaning of personal love, assertion of individuality in the face of… etc. The basic stuff of almost any ELF novel.  Entertaining and artful as they may be—they are anything but ‘realistic’ – in the sense of what Woolfe, Joyce, Svevo, Musil… and Kafka…were searching for—something that goes a long way toward  defining the Modernist project of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The novelist takes his characters and their world and explains for them, and to us, how things work. A kind of fictive explanation that doesn’t actually explain anything, but gives us a sense of a world grounded in 18th and 19th C. ideaa of efficient and effective cause. Actions have consequences! And here they are! (I would add, that this pseudo-pschologizing of reality becomes infused with the aesthetic structure—inseparable; and explains the importance of foregrounding purely aesthetic structures in ‘experimental’ fiction.)

Where Lacan comes in for me, is in what I see as his relentless opposition to the intrusion of conventional ideas of causation into psychoanalytic practice… as though there could ever be points fixed-in-the-past, affecting reactions across time through memory, when memory itself is continuously generative and part of an on-going multiple set of dynamic relationships involving sensual perception imagination desire… never fixed, ever resistant to conceptualization, whether abstract or conventionally dramatic… exactly what representations of ‘psychological realism’ set out to do, and in doing so, reinforce assumptions of causation that externalize human meaning, leaving us as a substitute, an illusion of coherence that only works on the level of the individual—lending an invisible political force reifying the status quo, and delegitimizing whatever threatens to significantly challenge it.

Perhaps this is closer to what I was working toward above...
that there's a correspondence between the causal chains of association that constitute narrative plot, and the spurious significations which are symptomatically imposed on the tohu v'vohu of present experience. Over against the Romantic quest for meaning, the Modernist project set about unmasking--not so much 'meaning' itself--as the encrustations of its semblance which serve to preserve the current structures of power and propriety. This stripping away differs from the ironic deconstruction of artifice-as-reality we associate with post-modernism--which leave the mechanisms in place, doing their work like machinery we no longer believe in, but are nonetheless helpless to alter.

What is left when reality (the preserve of realist fiction) is stripped away (not deconstructed) -- is the ineffable 0 of the REAL... the endings Kafka could not have written had he lived in any condition of health or malaise. But this 0 may also be a space where we can--if we dare--step into and begin again, and again, and again.

To put it another way--a mathematical analogy--realist fiction produces its effects by overdetermination; the constraining equations favoring existing narrative power structures by virtue of overwhelming the possible degrees of freedom.   

The perfect literature for a society of masters & slaves.


  1. How interesting! Two thoughts - the first, have you read Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? He is dealing with very much the textual area you discuss here and I think you would be interested in his analysis (forgive me if you have read it already). The second concerns Lacan, who for my money, removed the personalising influence of Freud. Lacan's work of abstraction on 'his' or 'her' father to become instead 'the' father indicate the centrality of structure to the psyche, the way that we position people regardless of who and what they actually are. I think that Modernism shares on one level this structural aim, the recognition, as for instance in Kafka, that it doesn't matter who is in authority, what matters is the authority. We balk at abstraction as being removed from life, and yet some of the Modernists were brilliant at showing how abstract concepts are entirely fundamental to it.

  2. Or how much of what we accept as personal is not--but itself a psychological abstraction.

    I kind of lost my train of thought up there... though this sounds like a contradiction, some of what the modernists were doing -- was leaving (or returning) the mystery, the enigma--to the center, in the midst of everyday life (a summer afternoon sail to the lighthouse), not out in the unknowable Universe. Science may go about it's business discovering chains of causation in the universe--of which we are a part--but the 'mystery' remains, not in the supernatural or the majesty of the stars, but here, where we live, and no chains of causation are sufficient to explain it, because nothing we live holds still long enough.

    I very much share Josipovici's idea that the Modernist project was prematurely abandoned.

  3. From Richard accidentally deleted:

    has left a new comment on your post "Kafka's Father":
    I wonder if either of you are familiar with the work of Alice Miller. She has a fascinating book called Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, in which she includes a chapter on Kafka, paying attention to the figure of his mother. I can't summarize what she says here, but I think the book is worth a look.

  4. A letter to his Big Other...

    I recently finished a set of poems, The Book of the Child, that begins "Childhood is a trauma from which no one ever recovers." Alice Miller's book sounds like something I'd I'd like to get my hands on. Thanks for the nod!

  5. Jacob, Why not link to your own tohu v'vohu post? It's not that Josipovici isn't interesting, he is, of course. But your post is gorgeous and your use of Vermeer's milkmaid gets right to the heart of your (and his) master and slave insight.

    By the way, when the Met curators xradiographed the painting, they found traces of a laundry basket that Vermeer had painted over. Clearly, stripping was on his mind too. But he rethought it, too overdetermined for his taste in the final analysis? Just let the milk flow...

  6. In my sister's house is a copy of that painting--quite good--done by my niece for a high school art class.

  7. Just to say I have read some Alice Miller - the book about the gifted child, and her analysis of Hitler. But I did not know she had written on Kafka - thank you! Will seek that one out.