Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Notes on Kafka:
I wonder if anyone reads Kafka and feels like a child. The first time I was told that Kafka was funny, I was sixteen, and I tilted my head and raised an eyebrow and that was the end of that. The first time I lost it for Kafka, I was seventeen and I liked his eating habits. I was reading his journal entries and saying to myself, well, that's strange, because I've felt that in my blood before, too. On the surface, you might say Kafka is funny because he takes truths that we typically see as metaphorical and makes them literal. While choking on Gregor Samsa, one might visualize what we really mean when we call someone gross or disgusting, or what it means when someone's job is sucking the life out of them. The hunger artist is the tactile manifestation of what it is to be love-starved, or attention-starved, to be isolated, to be on the fringe of a capitalist culture in which everyone else is consuming consuming consuming all of this shit and all you want is a connection, a real communion, for people to understand. Or one might consider the simple yet elucidating fact that the etymological root of anorexia is the Greek word for longing. In reading Kafka's journals, it's easy to write off stories like that as mere creative disclosures of Kafka's own life, and they're funny because they're absurd, and that's all there is to it. But I still remembered, at sixteen, David Foster Wallace, who taught Kafka to college students and then quit, and then wrote, and then died. He said he could not make them understand the humor, and "you can't just to tell them that maybe it's good that they don't get Kafka." At eighteen, I wondered about that, and felt something in Kafka that went beyond our American notions of humor. Our idea is that humor is entertainment, and entertainment is reassurance, but Kafka was uncomfortable. It was grotesque and gorgeous and funny and honestly the saddest fucking thing I'd ever read and he made me feel about ten thousand things, not a single one of which I could have been able to articulate. His ambivalence confused me but made sense, and it was perfect, it was perfect, and all of a sudden I saw Kafka's big joke: that the appalling struggle we all wrestle with to establish a self will always result in a self whose central humanity is hopelessly integrated with that struggle. Or, in other words, our endless and impossible journey towards home is, in fact, our home. You're knocking on a door for years, pounding on it, screaming, trying to get inside, until it finally opens and you realize that you're in the room you were trying to get to all along. And it's funny, it's pretty sick but it's funny, and at the exact same time it is the absolute most devastating thing you have ever known or ever seen or ever heard of, and all you can do is take it. Every day, you take it, wondering, at its core, whether life is a tragedy or a comedy. Isn't it so ambivalent? At every angle it's different- beautiful, disgusting, comical, heartbreaking. It's confusing and no wonder that genius Wallace knew what those college students didn't, because he is, after all, the one who hanged himself because he couldn't stand his own mind. And it's starting to make sense, it's starting to look a little fucked up, because at nineteen, you're suddenly starting to realize that your whole life is a Kafka story that no one finds funny but you. What was literature after Kafka, or before him? It's certainly been comfortable, it's certainly been kind to me, but none of those New Yorker lions ever said anything to me like Kafka did, and at such a pliable time of youth, I wish I didn't know enough to know they never will.