Kafkaesque

George Segal's Holocaust Memorial in San Francisco

George Segal’s Holocaust Memorial in San Francisco

by cheri block

I’m back at it this morning.

It,” you ask. “What is it?”

It is my evolving definition of the term Kafkaesque. Oh sure, definitions of this adjective abound in all sizes and shapes. As Frederick Karl said [paraphrased] in his interview with Ivana Edwards of the New York Times, ” Kafkaesque is not when you run to the bus station and find that all the buses have left.”

So here is my amalgamation of all I have read on the word Kafkaesque. You grammarians will forgive the stream of consciousness narrative device that I use here.

“Kafkaesque is struggling against a bureaucratic existence which, by its very nature, has been designed (or heavily regulated) to create delay at every corner; that is, to delay action or forward motion or progress which are part of the unrealistic (the surreal if you will) and at times, bizarre (when compared to a reasonable expectation) experience—

The struggle can be manifest in the external mind and life or it can be (more than likely) an internal struggle. In Kafka’s world, often the external struggle exacerbates the internal one or the internal struggle complicates the external one.

In all cases, the person engaged in a struggle with a large indifferent but (at times) sinister force, will lose.”

What do you think? IMG_0782

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Life, On fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Kafkaesque

  1. Christopher says:

    “Kafkaesque” can also be the invasive feeling that you’re thought by all those around you to have done something wrong, but no-one will tell you exactly what.

    All my life I’ve had this feeling!!

    In any case, “Kafkaesque” while, like beauty, difficult to define, you know it when you see it.

  2. Christopher probably has the original meaning (from The Castle) right, but Cheri is going with our modern meaning. The two are related of course.
    “struggle against… bureaucratic … delay… unrealistic … surreal…”
    It think that hits it. It’s the feeling of absurdity-meets-inhumanity. That soul-destroying phenomenon of modernity I’ve heard expressed as “they give you a number and take away your name”. Forms, processes, procedures that take on their own life, with no grounding in human lived experience.
    Which remind me: tax-return season is nigh…

    • Cheri says:

      Yes, ” that soul-destroying phenomenon of modernity”. Kafkaesque needs modernity to actualize. Or does it? Your line “Forms…experience” adds another dimension to the meaning of the word. Significant. Thank you.

  3. T E Stazyk says:

    I agree with your summary and Christopher and Andreas’s additions. I’ve always thought that the focus is absurdity and inhumanity but also that the outside world is at best indifferent or at worst hostile to the individual (as in The Trial and Metamorphosis.)

    And it needed to be pointed out that missing the bus is not Kafkaesque.

    • Cheri says:

      Yes Tom. The naturalists-Jack London, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and others wrote wonderful stories whose characters find a hostile, but more important, indifferent universe.
      Think “To Build a Fire” or “The Open Boat” but in those cases it was Nature, not man, that was indifferent. As you observe, for Kafka, it was Man.

  4. Linda says:

    I have one word for you – HUH? Linda

    Sent from Linda’s iPhone

    • Cheri says:

      Linda,
      If you parse each sentence, you of all people, can figure out what I’m saying. Didn’t they teach you how to do that in law school?

      • Cheri says:

        Linda????? Are you out there? I’m waiting for your retort.

        • Linda says:

          Cheri – what law school taught me was how to think in a rational, logical, categorical and linear way – to separate what is reasonable from what is not and what is true from what is false. Having learned my lessons well, I have less tolerance for ambiguity. So perhaps I am not in a good position to comment in any meaningful way on your journey. But you also know me to be perceptive and more recently as an artist. While I could most certainly do as you suggest, my “Huh?” reaction was more probably my own initial, internal struggle between my right and left brain. So perhaps Richard is right. Am I Kafkaesquing? You seem to have more than enough input from the critical thinkers who count themselves among your followers so I won’t put myself through my own internal struggle to help shape the approach to your thesis. After all I am retired from all that now!

          • Cheri says:

            Thank you for your thoughts, Linda. Good internal struggles about literature are what great literature is all about. What does it mean? Can I relate any part of my life to it? Does it have something to teach me or not. There are rationale, logic, and linear thoughts in literature too! Getting outside of our comfort zone grows brain cells. The neurologists tell us that.

      • Richard says:

        She’s kafkaesqueing. Another lawyer, eh? We’re being taken over.

    • rosebud says:

      lol!!!! Ditto!!!

  5. Richard says:

    Forgive me for speaking out of turn, for the only Kafka I have read is The Trial and that was upon your recommendation, for which I thank you.

    All cruelty, bureaucracy or not, by omission or by commission, is primitive. Oppression and paranoia are distinguishable only in extremes.

    Ideas, whether or not we suppose they are of a separate nature, are not led by words. Words are the servants of our long and trailing struggle to make sense of our experiences. They seek to mimic the patterns we find and we can never say whether those patterns are inside us or outside us: whether there is indeed an outside and an inside. That is the dilemma of the Kafkaesque.

    Kafka presents his resolution in the closing scenes of The Trial. In K’s execution we discover his nightmare is a reality. K surrenders to his limitations. Ultimately, we all have to submit. The question is whether we do so in hope or in despair. Kafka leaves me to struggle with despair and to seek to transform it into the hope of the outstretched arms.

    The movie “Perlasca”, though, which I watched yesterday, is a lesson in the triumph of hope over despair.

    Still, today is the International Day of Happiness. That should make everything right.

    • dafna says:

      hi cheri,

      it’s been a long time since i have read kafka, and then only “the trail” and “metamorphosis”.
      if you are seeking to define kafkaesque, apart from his novels, then i am not sure that “bureaucratic” is a word i would universally associate with “kafkaesque”.

      the term “learned helplessness” might be useful in your definition. it has to do with both the internal and external struggle. you have done a lot of research on kafka, can you tell me if the title of “the trail” was ever “the verdict”?

      i don’t agree that kafkaseque needs “modernity” to actualize. i do agree with your distinction that the definition be confined to the indifference of Man.

      • Cheri says:

        Thank you for your thoughts, dafna. I must think about your second paragraph. I do not think The Trial was ever called the Verdict, but I could be wrong!

  6. Cheri says:

    I’m wondering if all “cruelty is primitive.”

    Hope, the last little entity out of Pandora’s Box is part of the human spirit.

    Remember, I have left Kafka, per se, and am now onto Kafkaesque. This is my way of continuing to write and think about his stories and perhaps use them in my thesis without annoying The Committee at Stanford. I’ll not despair!

    • Richard says:

      Cruelty is complex, maybe, but still primitive, committed by the sophisticated, maybe, but still primitive. It is the mechanism of elemental survival, which reason supersedes.

      I must note carefully, it seems, that faceless bureaucracy has nothing to do with The Trial 🙂

  7. imagenmots says:

    The picture you used says it all. The two figures looking over the wall and the man holding the barbed wire while nothing would prevent him from moving around the open ended barrier.

    • dafna says:

      hi paul,

      if the picture is a cheri original, then she has created a new composition of the memorial exhibit as she has capture two live onlookers! are they indifferent? very nice eye, cheri.

    • Cheri says:

      Paul,
      The two figures in my photograph were visiting the memorial and they seemed to help my shot. The plaster-looking man has nowhere to escape. By the way, if you read about the SF Holocaust Memorial, you will learn that it was controversial. It is right by a beautiful museum and golf course, with a few outside of the Golden Gate Bridge. Neighbors didn’t want to be reminded there.

  8. Christopher says:

    Paul makes an interesting observation about the picture.

    Were the dead people in it alive and standing, the picture would perfectly illustrate that we, most of us, are lifelong prisoners of our own making. To the extent we conform to society’s norms, we imprison ourselves while thinking we’re free.

    Is this “Kafkaesque”? Probably not, but………what the hell!!

  9. dafna says:

    i know that your dissertation is serious stuff, my own nerdy dream would have been to be an actual student at university for life, really.

    so with no disrespect and laughing out loud for the first time in years thanks to cortisone shots for pain, i thought of two funny titles today for a self-help guide; “coping with kafkaesque” or “how to be content with the kafkaesque”. well it made me smile, hope it does you too!

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Dafna,
      I haven’t had time today to comment on your very helpful comments above but this one I can do with ease. I am so pleased to learn that you are feeling better!!! And with your graphic designer talents, both of those self-help guides (with illustrations!) would sell out.
      They DO make me smile.

  10. Kurt says:

    I’m not quite sure what I think, but based on your stream of consciousness catalog, I don’t think I will use term as a synonym for “surreal.” It seems more of an antonym. If “surreal” is “beyond the real,” “Kafkaesque” seems more “under the real” or the or the inherent unreality of reality. Kind of like melting clocks vs. a clock with one hand. Just my initial musings. I’m open to critique.

    • Cheri says:

      I really like the “inherent unreality of reality.” Bingo. I think I will include that in my working definition. You’ve always been open to critique. That’s what I love about you. Thanks for your contribution, Kurt. As Andreas Kluth said to me in an email, (a Buddhist maxim), “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

    • Richard says:

      The light begins to dawn. Thank you, Kurt.
      An awareness of your own consciousness (or lack of it) would you say? A neurological response to mortal danger – shock? Ennui? Is there no act of will that can effect an escape? Or is it more like texting when driving – a wilful death-wish?
      Do I get closer?

  11. Richard says:

    Kafkaesque. Noun or adjective? It looks like an adjective but is it noun? A hybrid, like a gerund or gerundive? Both? It doesn’t sit comfortably as a noun, but that seems to be how we’re using it.

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