from The Invalidity of All Guarantees
Bertolt Brecht: ‘In the battle between the self and the world, support the world.’
Thus spake Franz Kafka.
Walter Benjamin: At least he didn’t think himself a saint. His office writings have such a defeated air about them. As though he no longer believed in what he was doing, and that to his horror made him all the more effective.
BB: The Tiger of Wrath got you into trouble. So he bit his tongue and suffered in silence.
WB: Still in the office writings his defence of Company interests is balance by the occasional ‘within reason’. He presents two sides in some cases. The letter of the law isn’t always reasonable when dealing with human beings. The possibility of rough justice was the best he could offer, as much of it as the Company could take. He gave two sides to some cases, the claim and counter-claim, and showed an impasse wasn’t in anyone’s interest. It would save time and money to concede the claim that threatened to go on and on.
Indeed, one of his tasks was to draft the annual report. He did so as honestly as possible, even showing it to his family and literary friends. I think when Max Brod puts Kafka’s papers in order the ambiguities will be clearer, and we’ll find his working life was a covert attack from within. But maybe I’m reading too much into what amount to the doodlings of a dogsbody. Company policy was his boss.
BB: It’s not possible too read too much into what people do for a living. Max Brod, for instance, is exploiting his job as literary executor by reclaiming for himself and posterity the letters and journals Kafka wanted burned. He is justifying publication by saying Kafka would not have named him as literary executor if he really meant them destroyed. Which is a left-handed way of admitting Kafka didn’t trust him, and with good reason. He was a friend. How right he was. Brod’s an old cod.
WB: And so are you. When it suits your argument you cite the café gossip.
BB: We have to be grateful for crumbs but don’t have to swallow them. I think your reading of Kafka is fogged by wishful thinking, and Brod’s manipulations. You crave the man’s moral redemption. But the evidence of Kafka’s out-tray is not encouraging. He was a functionary in a Company dedicated to denying workers their rights. A suffering soul, no doubt, trying to seep some spirit into the letter of the law. But, who, under pressure from his bosses, didn’t hesitate to propose a biblical solution when he had a one-legged man on the hop, dividing the poor forked creature in two like Solomon’s baby.
It’s fair to say that Kafka was working in the Dark Ages before Weimar’s little renaissance. Accidents were within the law, but occupational diseases were cuckoos in his in-tray’s nest. Industrial law didn’t yet apply to diseases caused by chemicals in mining and factories. Most public health experts put them down to bad nutrition in infancy, rather than working conditions per se. Medicine as usual was running behind what was happening to the workers. Asbestos was a growth industry, like cancer.
Kafka’s in-tray was the assembly line of an ant-colony. His distancing from its dehumanisations was necessary to get on with the job. However, he did not dissociate himself completely. Writing about it in the evening was the escape clause for his conscience. All right, he saw himself as a failed saint, all too human. Like his clients. God rot the thought! But he couldn’t take that into consideration, and at the same time hold onto his job. So the ambiguities took over. In the dark night of the soul, which sweated out his writing, he unambiguously confesses that serving two masters was on his conscious. In order to forgive himself. Benjamin Constant’s dictum speaks to his condition: explaining to excuse, wallowing in the harm done, expecting to be pitied, giving to self-analysis the time which should be given to repentance.
That’s Kafka’s position, and that it didn’t work to appease his conscience is not surprising. You couldn’t keep your humanity happy by night by conjuring up literary paradoxes while making human sacrifices to Moloch by day. The Implications of that are sick-making. He always had a tension headache.
WB: It was an unhealthy world that he inhabited. It rebounded on him.
BB: Not to mention his clients. Tuberculosis must have come up often enough, and the claim refused. It was the workers own fault. Or their parents. ‘Factories attract poor physical specimens.’ It came back to haunt him. Kafka in his late twenties ran an asbestos factory with his brother-in-law. He coveted an alterative source of income, one that disturbed his evenings less. However the venture put him in debt to his hated father, and very possibly lead to his death from consumption a decade later. Asbestos can cause it, even in the well-to-do.
WB: There is no doubt Kafka was aware of the risks. He didn’t expect to live long. You might as well dance with death.
BB: It’s a way of controlling your destiny. The wilfulness in his nature that his friends found exasperating leads the dance. His state of mind and body were beyond medical attention. So he became his own mind doctor, performing conceptual surgery with the knife of irony to divide himself down the middle, Solomon’s Baby-like again. He had accepted that the Big Ideas were not for him. Capitalism, Marxism, Anarchism. And knew the Little Ideas, like leaching some softeners into the letter of the law, could only end in failure. As the Bigger Idea in insurance, the small print, always wins.
WB: He liked to think himself as a Socialist. In a small way. On the side of the little man.
BB: Lending him a benevolent hand in the Annual Report, but no leg up when it came to concluding a case.
WB: Not that it made him happy.
BB: Kafka knew the score. He was playing for the wrong side. That it would always win was his defeat, as a match-fixer manqué. I could warm to him as one of those lowly little clerks in Russian literature, Gogol meets Dostoyevsky. When they decide to enter into a conspiracy arranging times to meet proves impossible with their work commitments. Another failed revolution.
Though I’ve never been a wage-slave myself, I can sympathise with Kafka and his drudgery, though he was more upmarket than the unhappy clerks. The daily grind continued into his nights. He didn’t sleep much. Drawing from case histories in his claims office, he explored contingencies within them, turning the details into stories, which gave the appearance of being parables, but were really riddles. In effect, it was the reduction of human suffering to ‘a clear statement of ambiguity’. A phrase he actually used in one of his reports. So Kafka ended up writing the same story, over and over. Around and about human failure, and carrying on despite. Acceptance and pragmatism. When you fail all you can do is try again and learn to get better at it. It’s bound to end badly, but there is no end to it. A dangling paradox prevails.
WB: Kafka’s writing cannot be put down to a mere gloss on his office duties. According to Max Brod, who has to be respected as the closest witness we’ve got, Kafka recorded his dreams, and they went into his writing, particularly the novels. You’re right about his inherent fatalism and his pragmatic reaction to it. This works itself out with the logic of a dream, most surely in Amerika, sometimes called The Man Who Disappeared. The sense of failure is given a kind of comic relief, releasing the peculiar purity that is the beauty of his work. It’s a nightmare come true. The worst has happened. Exult. You were right. Deep shame. And then you wake up. Ambiguity clears the air…