The Autopoietic World of Franz Kafka

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Author: Antony W. Dnes
Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,798 words
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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This essay is about the implications of Franz Kafka's work for those of us interested in classical liberalism in relation to politics, law, and economics; it is not an exercise in literary criticism in any conventional sense. The quest aims to unpick these implications from Kafka's principal literary canon, the major novels The Trial and The Castle, the best-known novella, The Metamorphosis, and his first novel, Amerika. (1) Your guide on this quest is accustomed to applying measurement and methods to understanding a complex and difficult world and understands that it is all too easy to be a harsh critic of those who operate by nuances of language, intuition, insights, hints, and impressions. Kafka would no doubt have turned the tables, finding in any kind of professional life many of the same depths of experience, the "lived experience" encountered by Joseph K, the recurring protagonist in the principal novels.

I first read The Metamorphosis, some of the short stories, The Trial, and The Castle as an impressionable sixteen-year old living in the shadows of the World War II exodus from central Europe to freer lands. The Trial is the most compelling of the novels, all of which are unfinished. It is imbued with the powerful aura of the central Europe that one can still just sense in parts of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. Today's world is very different because it is influenced increasingly by the meritocratic Anglosphere, and more and more by practical, impersonal America at that, rather than by Kafka's hierarchical Mitteleuropa. Impressionability seemingly characterizes many who are affected by Kafka mania. Nonetheless, Kafka also earned the praise of sophisticated readers, including that of the literary titan W. H. Auden. (2) Kafka's talent is for the keen observation of the powerlessness of the individual faced with increasingly powerful social forces that unfold in a dreamlike manner; later writers would add that this powerlessness would only get worse.

The novels, which intertwine themes and sometimes reuse expressive material from the short stories as mise en abyme, the literary technique of embedding a tale within a tale, have been seen as expressionist, existentialist, religious, allegorical, modernist, absurdist, satirical, and, possibly by those with no clue about the term, ironic. (3) It is possible that Joseph K's mounting anxiety in the face of carefully contrived and highly restricted social interactions stems from Kafka's limited understanding of spontaneously developed social structures; he was trained in law but not steeped in Enlightenment thinking leading to economics and other social sciences. All novels are of course contrivances, and much realism is typically missing in Kafka's works; it is rare, for example, that characters eat or answer calls of nature. (4) Kafka's fiction takes contrived absence of true realism very far indeed. Nobody in his fiction really trades or earns a living, at best occupying sinecures such as K's roles as bank official or land surveyor, and there is no institution visible for such trade. There is no evidence of a polity, and nobody exhibits competence...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364016