Redefining the Kafkaesque

A copy of ‘Metamorphosis and other stories’ sits on the Dungeon Master’s shelf. Used to sit, rather. I have it here with me now in my living room. Try as I might, I cannot tell you which warms the room more—the space heater chugging on the carpet, or the book that sits on the sofa beside me. I wonder if it is any coincidence that the book is lent to me by this friend, with an imagination so deep as to hold whole worlds—being dungeon master is no easy task. No writer is more apt than Kafka to paint the strangeness of an escape into the mind offering concrete therapeutic benefits in this world, and in a way that is so very real. D&D is one of those games you have to play if you’re to ever appreciate it. I kind of get why Sheldon Cooper liked the game so much. Here, you can try again. You get second chances. And infinitely more chances each time you gather at the table with friends. Each game is another take on life. An adventure as real as you are willing to let it be.

Kafka’s Contemplation(1913) offers a collection of short stories that guide the reader through a bohemian exploration of the ordinary. Many are intensely short yet deeply memorable. Below, a favorite: 

Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere, whoever, according to changes in the time of day, the weather, the state of his business, and the like, suddenly wishes to see any arm at all to which he might cling – he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his windowsill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.

The Street Window by Franz Kafka

What is the Kafkaesque here? In the conventional sense, nothing. The Kafkaesque is defined as being “characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.” Yet Contemplation is full of the mundane. Full of solitude and silence. Concerned with the aesthetics and strangeness of the human mind while it finds itself alone. It is anything but nightmarish. If anything, it is almost the worst of things—ordinary. Yet this is a reading only one who is unfamiliar with Kafka would accept. The nightmare Kafka speaks of here is the sheer force with which humanity draws the solitary character into the chaos of the world, “into their trains of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.” (sounds a lot like FOMO!)

               We find this ordinariness everywhere in Kafka’s writing. A Hunger Artist (1924) follows the story of an artist alienated from their art. The allegory of the artist—too skilled at his act that he is to starve to death if they let him yet also too skilled for the crowd to believe he does not cheat—is reminiscent of the existentialist sensibility to “parable[] the absurdity of man’s condition” (Kauffman in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Satre, 49). As the artist dies ignored, he confesses that he is only so good at his craft because he has never found a food to his liking. It is the plausible implausibility of the artist’s plight that is striking—many have felt such a thing when confronted with existential angst, that their chosen way of making meaning might not stand up to the strains of subjectivity. We all are hunger artists in our own ways, constantly engaging in the rote-ness of life as the world unfolds around us, concerned with us yes, but also not enough to stop unfolding if we did. This is our own alienation as we hunger after life. Kafka would indeed be the type of man to play Dungeons and Dragons, the weird-ity that it is. Almost too perfect that the thing that would heal a mind would be using it. Imagining. Journeying through itself. 

Kafka would appreciate the claim that a book can warm up a room. Because the Kafkaesque is only nightmarish in its possession of infinite allegory. Considering the many meaningless rituals we come to imbue with meaning—religion, art, food—we begin to understand that the Kafkaesque accurately too describes the continuous search for meaning humans burden themselves with. To what end? We cannot know.

This infinite bureaucracy that is a lived life also mirrors Kafka’s Poseidon. Just like Poseidon rules over the sea but is too bogged down with paperwork to ever experience it, we too are bogged down with the rituals we choose to give meaning, while ruling over our own lives free as a bird. TV, hikes and runs, a night out drinking. I would laugh if you told me these made the meaning of life. Yet they do. This is the Kafkaesque. If it sounds nightmarish, then life itself is that. I don’t think it is though. What it is most is ordinary! The ordinary become extraordinary. When little nothings become everything. A winter night spent by a fire.