Milan Kundera and David Foster Wallace both believed that Franz Kafka was funny. Not personally but that his work was intended to be read as humorous, laugh out loud, satire.
Even if one grants the premise, there is it seems, something not quite accurate about the idea. Kafka as a satirist yes, but hardly in the same camp as Swift or Boccaccio, Heller or Twain or…feel free to make your own list but it seems to us that there is something of the foreigner in Kundera and Wallace trying to peek through the wall of the stranger in order to repurpose Kafka. The result is a kind of not quite accurate translation. The words are correct but the meaning is obscured.
For Kundera, Kafka as a humorist, becomes a cugel with which one beats, and beats again, the Soviet thugs.
For Wallace, Kafka as humorist, becomes the whoopie cushion on which a mordbidly obese, flatulent postmodern America sits while watching corporations mate with the government.
Kundera, having escaped the Soviet orbit and left Czechoslovakia for France (or rather for Paris as Paris though obviously in France is of course a universe unto itself) has the better claim to making the case than Wallace. One may grant Wallace the privilege of defining Kafka by virtue of being a writer, lauded by some, and thus of the country of letters and so able to make the case but there is, it seems to us, something about him like a naif ordering pastrami with mayo. You could but somehow it’s just not right.
Kundera like Kafka is also Mitteleuropa and a chronicler of the upside down backwards universe of heavy handed bureaucratic tyrannies, and so he seems to have a certain affinity based on shared experiences.
Kundera rests his case mostly on reports that when Kafka read his stories aloud to his friends, they laughed uproariously and often because, well, it was all clearly (we are told) so funny.
This seems rather pat, and perversely, deliberately unsophisticated. In other words, to borrow a phrase, it is what Hannah Arendt, in a different context, meant when she said, to believe it would require an almost criminal lack of imagination.
The first question would obviously be that the laughter was canned – a kind of nervous tic designed to deflect from the ugly brutal truth. After all Kafka existed as a sign of both antibody, intended to combat the crippling conformity of the zeitgeist that was the sclerotic Austro-hungarian Empire, but also a sign of ill health. To play the obvious metaphor one could say there was something tubercular in the air and Kafka was both cure and symptom.
In such an environment nervous laughter by both author and audience seems likely.
But then the second question centers on what laughter qua laughter means. It’s funny says Raymond Chandler in, The Simple Art of Murder, not that a man should die, but that he should die for so little and that his death should be what we call the coin of civilization.
In other words, Kafka and his friends may have thought it was all hilarious because it was either laughter, or a bullet to the head. Not that such a gesture would not be seen by both the one pulling the trigger and those who remained as, essentially, no different than slipping on a banana peal.
Frederick Morton in his social histories of Vienna* mentions that the Viennese had one of the largest suicide rates of any European country and that picnics in cemeteries were standard.
The Archduke and his mistress committed suicide together at his hunting lodge, and three of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brothers killed themselves as well, and one images Kafka finding it all quite funny which is not to say he did not find it (or himself) macabre, or that he did find it and himself macabre and thus hilarious. In this wider context, Kafka as a humorist becomes a complex suggestion.
For example, consider one of the more famous and perplexing if not enigmatic of his gnomic utterances from his diary.
Germany and Russia, he wrote, have declared war. Swimming in the afternoon.
This was in 1914.
The juxtaposition suggests either a kind of zen wisdom, or a bifurcated soul or perhaps both.
Within that there is room for laughter. After all the entire contraption of society was hilarious. Trench warfare, kings, kaisers, czars, gas warfare, plumes and cavalry charges all have about them a perversity that induces laughter but it is the laughter that arrives with a bouquet of bones.
In his post apocalyptic novel, On The Beach, Nevil Shute imagines an Australia, after America and Russia have launched their atomic arsenals at each other, full of people waiting for the radioactive clouds to reach them.
They are living on a kind of razor’s edge – detached from normal concerns about morality or the future, which no longer exists and has been erased – they have a precise sense of exactly when they will die.
It is of course a depressing book if also a very good one. The film is also, as we recall, just as good with an against type performance by Fred Astaire, as a man racing cars around a track without any concern for safety.
After all, it doesn’t matter.
Kafka of course had tuberculosis. In theory there might be a cure but in truth, it was a death sentence.
He could, if he desired, drive around the track as fast and as recklessly as he wanted to. What difference would it make.
He did not do anything reckless, (choosing to obey his ogre of a father) except of course, turn literature on its head and write a handful of masterpieces.
The humor, such as it might be, is that, The Metamorphosis rests on the idea that in the end, Gregor Samsa’s family adjust themselves to the fact that he is now, a bug. But while that’s funny, it’s the humor of the absurd and the absurd is drawn forth in a kind of ritual that is itself solem and slow, and is meant to be a kind of day of the dead ceremony.
What use are titles and rules and regulations when in the end everyone becomes worm food and thus, in a sense, a worm.
Why waste time and wait for the coffin. You might as well embrace the futility and absurdity now. As Camus has it, in The Myth of Sisyphus:
“What must be remembered in any case is that secret complicity that joins the logical and the everyday to the tragic. This is why Samsa, the hero of Metamorphosis, is a traveling salesman. This is why the only thing that disturbs him in the strange adventure that makes a vermin of him is that his boss will be angry at his absence. Legs and feelers grow out on him, his spine arches up, white spots appear on his belly and—I shall not say that this does not astonish him, for the effect would be spoiled—but it causes him a “slight annoyance.”
In the same sense, you could find yourself unable to ever reach the castle and spend your life going in circles.
Or, you may find that one moring someone has traduced you and the pigs are at your door to tell you, you’ve been arrested.
The charges aren’t specified, and the magistrate is either not available or is, but the jury is made up of jeering clowns and no one has any idea what’s going on, but they are adamant about following the rules.
It’s like being in a kingdom of shadows. But the shadows are insistent about observing etiquette.
But it’s not funny like Mel Brooks is funny or Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python or The Marx Brothers or Robin Williams.
Again, feel free to make your own list.
Freud, Kafka’s near contemporary, had humor down as kind of inverse expression of anxiety. Your emotions, having been bottled up and repressed (like a proper Viennese bourgeois) found an outlet somehow and some way – no doubt involving cigars, young girls and several thick lines of bolivian optimism.
It’s not an unreasonable idea even if in the end Freud will come to be seen as the most important of the minor 19th century authors – somewhere ahead of Flaubert and well behind Baudelaire.
Kafka of course is a man of the 20th century. In fact he is, in a sense the 20th century man. There is something similar in Samuel Beckett. The minimalism and almost monk like simplicity, in which the complexity of existence is rendered as a handful of words, describing the impossible.
Godot, who never arrives, is not so very different from the accusation that is never explained, or the permission to go to the castle that is never delivered but never explicitly refused.
Godot is the castle and the crime and the crime and the castle are Godot.
But the humor, as such, is a kind of razor blade.
It’s hilarious that millions of people willingly went off to their own mechanized slaughter in trenches, and allowed themselves to be herded into barbed wire or to be target practice for machine guns.
The nomenclature is fascinating somehow: machine gun. The gun that operates as a piston – a kind of industrial or assembly line function or administrator of death.
Wounded while serving at the front during The Great War, Fernand Leger turned to the machine and began to paint men and objects as if they were reflections of each other. Cylindrical, cubes; gears, human but not only alive but also objects that with their curves, were echos of souls that had vanished in the torrent of bullets.
History, said Mark Twain, may not repeat but it sure does rhyme.
Watching the news one could be forgiven for falling on the floor and laughing.
You have woken to find the world has been turned into a kind of bug – a dung beetle perhaps. It’s not really clear.
The cops are at the door. There’s something about an accusation. It’s not really clear what’s going on, and there’s no one who seems to have any answers, but they are certain about observing the rules.
You’re waiting for someone, or something but the hours are slipping away and it seems unlikely that they are going to appear.
In old Warner Brothers cartoons, it was a common surrealistic trick to have Bugs or some other character escape by the sudden intrusion of the hand of the creator appearing with a pencil and an eraser – and voila! Mountains, or a door would materialize and reality would be bent to suit some other demand or requirement.
There is a kind of erasure that occurs with Kafka and Beckett. The less they say, or express, the more is said and expressed. Beckett they say, ran from his mentor Joyce because Joyce was an ocean that contained every word, and Beckett was a black hole from which words that had entered would never escape.
But it’s not as if Beckett wouldn’t have been who he was if Joyce had never appeared in his life.
His course was set.
Kafka wrote stories that have a strange atonal matter of fact quality to them that cuts like a razor, precisely because the tone, that insurance salesman or bureaucratic matter of factness, is in the service of the impossible; the phantasm. These are fairy tales but the flourishes have been stripped away and in their place there is the dry patois of the court or the insurance settlement.
There has been an accusation, but what is the crime?
Donald Trump elected president.
Swimming in the afternoon.
* A Nervous Splendor:Vienna 1888-1889, and, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914