How he got out of them
- Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg ‘Fin-de-Siècle’ by Mark Anderson
Oxford, 231 pp, £30.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 19 815162 4
The jacket photo for Kafka’s Clothes shows him without any, sitting tailor-fashion on a beach, smiling above naked shoulders and a thin chest, the prominent ears rhyming with prominent bony knees. His swimming trunks are Obscured in shadow. It’s not at all the stiff-collared, well-buttoned Kafka we’re used to, and the one introduced in the interior of this study is also unfamiliar. But he is convincing. Clothes might seem to be among the least of Kafka’s interests, since he is usually taken as a dedicated visionary, struggling only to purify his mode of expression in order to probe more keenly into the most painful matters of life and death and men’s souls, and he is remembered as someone unworldly enough to break off his engagement in order to give himself only to his work. Mark Anderson has nevertheless shown that clothes mattered hugely to him.
Clothes have always made a very useful literary metaphor (language is the dress of thought, and so on), and they have also offered a useful descriptive device for most novelists, however surreal their vision. Simply finding instances of Kafka’s use of each would not prove that he was unusually alert to costume But Anderson’s larger purpose is to reconnect Kafka with the worldly world from which he came, and to show that he felt himself obliged to deal with it and live in it, to consider his place inside literary and human history instead of instantly vanishing into the thin air of Modern Literature, where many readers have wished to keep him suspended.
Clothes exist to remind the self of the body, and to create a worldly body for each person. Anderson connects them with Kafka’s interest in bodily states and qualities, both his own and those of his characters, as well as with his literary technique, with the skilful cut of his fictional language that created a unified body for his work. Anderson sees dress as a pivotal metaphor in Kafka’s private thought, where it mainly stands for the mobile world of human exchange – at once vain and nourishing, both hampering to spiritual and artistic clarity and vital to continuing life. Clothing is itself entirely malleable, like language and art, infinitely adaptable to alterations in form that change its meaning. Getting free of clothes is impossible; one simply gets into a different costume.
Anderson’s idea about Kafka makes sense in view of two sets of circumstances, one being the cultural ambience in Prague and Vienna during Kafka’s youth, the other being the fact that Kafka’s father ran a wholesale dress-accessories business, buying and selling all sons of useless and captivating fashionable adornments. He knew his father’s shop, but never had to work there, nor engage directly in the fancy-goods trade, like Gregor Samsa. He was free to observe the fashion business from an intellectual distance, but never free of it, nor indeed free to think he should be. He had moreover an excellent eye for fashion, as letters and journals attest. During his young days as a literary aesthete, Kafka dressed with extreme elegance, subscribing to the Wildean theory that one must be a work of art or wear one – by which was meant that one must do both – and thus following the creed that life itself should perpetually be transformed into art. Fin-de-Siècle dandyism was based on the notion that clothes could accomplish this.