- Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner, translated by Eric Patton and Ruth Hein
Princeton, 404 pp, £26.95, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 12680 7
‘It’s certainly an excellent arrangement,’ the official says, ‘always unimaginably excellent, even if in other respects hopeless.’ We can easily picture, or even recall, arrangements that are excellent for some and hopeless for others, and that is what the phrase ‘in other respects’ invites us to do. But the larger rhythm and grammar of the sentence ask us to go beyond this option, to think both contrary thoughts at once, taking excellence and hopelessness as partners in an intricate dance, each calling for and implying the other; as if the arrangement is excellent because it’s hopeless, hopeless because it’s excellent. Can we manage this logical feat? And where are we?
We are in a room at the Herrenhof Inn, in Kafka’s novel The Castle. The time is around 5 a.m.; K, the land surveyor hired by the castle authorities, but not as yet entrusted with any land-surveying, has an appointment with an official. His great goal, we have learned by now, is not necessarily to get on with his work but rather to be directly acknowledged by the higher officials of the castle, to experience something other than the many evasions and obstructions he has met with so far. He stumbles into the wrong room. An official lies in bed, unable to sleep; sits up and wants to talk. His name is Bürgel, and although he seems to be rambling we gradually realise he is talking about K’s case. K realises this too, but it is part of the arrangement we are considering that he feels very tired at this moment, indeed has ‘a great aversion’ for everything to do with his own case. Bürgel keeps going. He explains that in the world of the castle strange opportunities arise when the person he calls ‘the party’ – as in Groucho Marx’s ‘party of the first part’ – manages to surprise in the middle of the night an official who is not the one assigned to his case but nevertheless has some competence in the matter. K is already half-asleep, but able to hear most of this. ‘You think this can never happen,’ Bürgel says. ‘You’re right, it can never happen. But one night – who can vouch for everything? – it does happen.’ It does happen, it has happened, it is happening at this very minute, although it’s not clear that K fully understands this. Bürgel becomes lyrical at the thought of this unimaginable rupture of the castle’s system of distance and disappointment, officialdom’s surrender. ‘Like a robber in the woods, the party forces from us sacrifices that we would never have been capable of otherwise . . . And yet we are happy. How suicidal happiness can be!’ All the party has to do is to make his request, the official can only give in. ‘For the official, it’s the most difficult hour.’ By the time this abject invitation reaches him, K really is asleep, hearing nothing. ‘He slept’, ‘er schlief’ – in context two of the saddest words in literature.
A knock on the wall announces the presence in the next room of the official whom K was supposed to see, and the present interview is over. It is at this point that Bürgel offers the philosophical reflection we have already looked at in part.
No, you needn’t excuse yourself on account of your sleepiness, why should you? One’s physical strength has a certain limit, who can help it that this limit is significant in other ways, too. No, nobody can help it. That is how the world corrects its course and keeps its equilibrium. It’s certainly an excellent arrangement, always unimaginably excellent, even if in other respects hopeless.
Then he adds: ‘Here everything is full of opportunities. Except that some opportunities are, as it were, too great to be acted upon; there are things that fail through nothing other than themselves.’ This is a restatement of a dizzying earlier remark on the same subject:
sometimes opportunities do arise that aren’t altogether in keeping with the situation in general, opportunities through which more can be achieved with a word, with a glance, with a sign of trust, than with a lifetime of gruelling effort. That is undoubtedly so. But then again these opportunities are actually in keeping with the situation in general inasmuch as nobody ever takes advantage of them.
This is a theory not of repressive tolerance but of social inertia, the dream of a conservative order magically preserved from the attacks it cannot in principle prevent. There are chances of change, tiny cracks in the system’s armour; but change never happens, the cracks are only unused opportunities. And the opportunities are unused because . . . Bürgel pretends at first not to know, but his double thought about excellence and hopelessness pulls things together. He is suggesting that there is no rule or necessity which saves the system, but that something always will. This something will be contingent and accidental, like K’s sleepiness; not destined or designed. But it will arrive. At least it has always arrived so far. This is how the world corrects its course, and this is why Bürgel’s voice takes on its musing tone, and offers its logical challenge to us, as if to say how elegant it is that those opportunities are always there but never used – how elegant and how appalling. We might think of Kafka’s response to his friend Max Brod’s question about hope and whether there was any outside the world as we know it. ‘Plenty of hope,’ Kafka said. ‘But not for us.’
Where did Kafka learn to think like this? A case could be made that he found his training not in his intricate psyche or in his horrified commitment to writing – ‘the service of the Devil’, he called it – but in his day job at the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident Insurance. Born in 1883, he trained as a lawyer, worked briefly for an Italian insurance company in Prague, the Assicurazioni Generali, and then in 1908 took a position with the institute, where he remained until he resigned on grounds of ill-health in 1922. He died in 1924. We may not believe, as we are told in the preface to The Office Writings, a selection from his legal and clerical work, that ‘much of Kafka’s greatness . . . is owed to his office job,’ but we can certainly agree that anything we learn about his job will strengthen ‘our sense of the conditions under which Kafka accomplished his nocturnal writing’ – the writing he did, that is, when he got home from the office. The editors of this volume are understandably eager to make literal, referential connections between Kafka’s office work and his fiction, and their texts of choice are ‘In the Penal Colony’, ‘The Great Wall of China’, Amerika and The Castle. But their real point, and the real interest of this book, is rather different, and hinges on the idea of the Kafkaesque.
We follow Kafka through reports and claims and arguments and petitions concerning building trades, wooden toys, quarries, farms, automobiles, trade inspections, risk assessments, accident prevention, the effects of the war on insurance premiums and practices, what to do about the apparitions the war has thrown onto the city streets: ‘men who could move ahead only by taking jerky steps; poor, pale and gaunt, they leaped as though a merciless hand held them by the neck, tossing them back and forth in their tortured movements.’ This is a pretty gripping image, but I can’t pretend the texts as a whole make for lively reading, or that they are full of secret literary treasures. They are dense, detailed, local, and they hold your (or my) attention because they really do give you a sense of consuming office work, a set of tasks where the spectre of boredom and a necessarily intense concentration go hand in hand. This is very much how Kafka, in his letters, talks about his job; but he was also, as the editors insist, often proud of it. He complained about it incessantly, but he took it seriously and he did it well. If he was just coasting, as one of his officials might say, he wouldn’t have complained so much.
And reading these office writings I began to wonder whether the Kafkaesque is not, as the OED tautologically says, the name of a ‘state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka’, but rather a form of strangeness that is more ordinary than we think. We call it strange because we want it to be strange. Kafka didn’t simply describe it, and he didn’t invent it. He blew its cover, and more important still, revealed its alarming frequency. It’s not for nothing that one of his weirdest, most wonderful stories is called ‘A Common Confusion’, literally ‘an everyday confusion’. In an afterword to The Office Writings, Jack Greenberg, a lawyer on the case, recalls the 1954 US Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which instructed school administrators to desegregate with ‘all deliberate speed’, that is, either as quickly as possible or as slowly as possible, take your pick. He also mentions a more recent district court opinion regarding the phrase ‘no longer enemy combatants’, used of people who may never have been enemy combatants at all. The opinion itself in this case uses the word ‘Kafkaesque’. Elsewhere in the volume the editors employ the word to characterise ‘terminological inaccuracy’ and the practice of ‘calculating with dubious figures’. These usages are mildly opposed to each other, or mark out a range from deliberate ambiguity to helpless incoherence, but that is precisely the scope of the word, and we cannot pretend that any place on the spectrum is really unknown to us.
Many of the cases Kafka encounters in his work tell just this story: the large posters listing safety regulations but used only to replace broken windows; the lift that a rooming-house owner (who doesn’t want to pay the premium for the insurance of its operators) first claims is powered by a generator nowhere near the house, then by a generator in the house but so thoroughly isolated that it might as well be elsewhere; an insurance assessment system that scarcely ever has access to ‘actual working conditions’; the proposition that at a certain quarry no undercutting goes on, not just because it doesn’t, but because it couldn’t; and a law that is not only inadequate but ‘inadequately interpreted as well’. These last items sound like one of Kafka’s escalating jokes. ‘To imagine even part of the road makes one tired,’ he writes in a story about distances in China, ‘and more than part one just cannot imagine.’
And to make this connection, a connection on the level of logic or wit, is to see how Kafka’s office work most interestingly informs his fiction. I don’t know whether he found this logic in his insurance world or whether he brought a large part of it with him, but certainly he and this world speak the same language. He doesn’t, in German, quite use the phrase ‘clearly express some ambiguity’, nor does he evoke ‘practical reasons of practicality’; but he does speak of a wavering or hesitation becoming clearly perceptible and of theoretical and practical reasons of a functional kind, literally goal-oriented grounds. And in what the editors call ‘a core document among Kafka’s office writings’, he really does enter a logical realm very much resembling that of his fiction. This is a note of protest to the minister of the interior, written in June 1911, concerning the practices of trade inspectors, who make recommendations regarding premiums – recommendations favourable to the employers rather than the institute – when they are legally supposed only to be describing conditions. Every time the institute raised objections to these practices, Kafka says, ‘it was considered an exceptional case’ – ‘just Kafkaesque’, we might say. The plea for a ruling against the inspectors’ activities was ‘completely successful in principle’, Kafka then says. Such a ruling was obtained from the Royal and Imperial Trade Inspectorate. Completely successful in principle and ‘futile’ in practice, since the inspectors and everyone else forgot about the ruling as soon as it was issued. On the next page Kafka mounts the masterly argument that ‘these unfortunate conditions also have some welcome consequences,’ because they make the problems ‘glaringly clear’ – a hopeless arrangement, we might say, that is in other respects excellent.
We rightly think of Kafka as a sufferer and a victim, the tormented subject of nightmares, the man whose initial identifies, in one novel, a figure caught up in an absurd trial and in another, the land surveyor we have seen sleeping through his possible salvation. But we can also think of him as a master of nightmares, a connoisseur of them, and we can remember that he smiled, as Brod tells us, when he made his remark about the plentitude of hope. Stanley Corngold, in an introductory essay to The Office Writings, says that Kafka’s goal or need – ‘the mandate . . . laid on him’ – was ‘to write well at some unheard of degree of proficiency or be lost’. This is beautifully put, and while we can only guess at what Kafka’s idea of proficiency was, what level of writerly achievement would have made him want to save more than a few pieces from the bonfire he asked Brod to make of his manuscripts, there is a kind of evidence in the consummately managed irony of his logical conundrums. And here he may place himself not in K’s shoes, or not only in K’s shoes, but also those of the speculating but uninvolved Bürgel, who sees the desolation in all the failed approaches to the intractable castle, but also the almost musical grace with which chance steps in and rescues the institution from its own vulnerability.
This structure is everywhere in Kafka, and especially in his most perfectly pitched sentences. ‘The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy heaven. This is beyond doubt, but doesn’t prove anything against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.’ ‘To believe in progress is not to believe that progress has already happened. That would not be a belief.’ ‘There can be a knowledge of the devilish, but no belief in it, because there is nothing more devilish than what already exists.’ ‘If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been allowed.’ ‘In the battle between yourself and the world, support the world.’ ‘Goodness is in a certain sense comfortless.’ The writer here is not the victim but the merciless and stylish analyst; not the land surveyor but the surveyor of the arrangement. In this sense it is surely a mistake, as Corngold suggests it is, to pit Kafka’s bureaucracy against its ‘hapless supplicant’. He is bureaucrat and supplicant, perhaps more bureaucrat than supplicant. What saves him from the Devil’s service, redeems him at the last minute, as if he were Goethe’s Faust swept up by the angels, is neither the system nor a fight against the system but his sheer lucidity about the system’s fragile supremacy.
The word I have just translated rather literally as ‘comfortless’ is trostlos, the same term Bürgel uses about the otherwise excellent arrangement he is discussing. We could also say ‘devoid of consolation’, and we have already seen that Mark Harman, from whose fine version of The Castle I have taken most of the translations in this piece, renders the word as ‘hopeless’. Willa and Edwin Muir have ‘dismal and cheerless’, J.A. Underwood has ‘bleak’. I also rather like ‘desolate’ myself, but all of these words point in the right direction. Trostlos can also be used of a dreary landscape, and in this sense calls up another curious logical riddle in The Castle, one of the most mystifying and satisfying of Kafka’s exercises in double thought. Frieda, the barmaid with whom K has set up house, suggests that they leave the village where they are living and escape the whole world that depends on the castle K is so anxious to enter. They could go to Spain or the South of France, she says. This already sounds a little strange, since it’s hard to imagine how one could reach such real-world locations from the eerily stylised world of the novel, but K’s response is even stranger, representing ‘a contradiction he didn’t bother to explain’. It is also not strange at all, because it is an argument about home. The heart, we might say, is where the home is. He can’t leave, K insists, because he came to stay. Does he just mean he prefers to stay? No, because that doesn’t encompass either the unexplained contradiction or his actual desire. He wants to have arrived somewhere and to have remained in that place, wherever it was. He says: ‘What could have attracted me to this desolate land other than the desire to stay?’ There is something darkly comic about the formulation, as if Groucho Marx were to say he had always wanted to be a member of any club that wouldn’t let him in. Of course, the attraction is not the land but the staying, yet the desolation of the place – öde is the word used here but the sense of trostlos is not far away – is no doubt part of the arrangement too. The desolation purifies the idea of staying; it would be easier to leave a land where one was happier. Are we perhaps beginning to grasp something of the logic Kafka is trying to teach us?