Sunday, November 13, 2016


Roberto Calasso, K

"If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall only be going away from a country in which I no longer have any place and in which I have never found happiness. If I go away, I shall be going from a country in which the towns stink and the inhabitants of the towns have become coarsened. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself in the iron chair, in which the only model of behaviour is set by the so-called wild animals."  --Thomas Bernhard, Concrete

This past week, I would imagine, has seen record sales for books like Concrete and The Castle. There are plenty of fine books that take politics as their subject, but there aren't many serious books that are as funny as Kafka's, and no one writes witty monologues like Bernhard. Books, in other words, that provide not so much distraction as direction. 

In a lovely essay published as part of his collection Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace writes about Kafka's strange wit: 

"What Kafka's stories have, rather, is a grotesque, gorgeous, and thoroughly modern complexity, an ambivalence that becomes the multivalent Both/And logic of the, quote, 'unconscious,' which I personally think is just a fancy word for 'soul.' Kafka's humor--not only not neurotic but anti-neurotic, heroically sane--is, finally, a religious humor, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilk and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality against which even Ms. [Flannery] O'Connor's bloody grace seems a little bit easy, the souls at stake pre-made."

This isn't an easy reading of Kafka, but I think I understand what Wallace meant. There is a laughter of mockery and of mere wit, but the laughter of recognition is the most profound, and the most difficult to provoke. What can you do when you see the bare, unvarnished truth but laugh? And this isn't the chuckle of pleasure or the belly laugh of a tickled funny bone, but the uneasy "oh, yeah, right" that comes to us by surprise, and, at times, painfully, when clarity illuminates some dark corner of life.  Like: K. won't set foot in the Castle and everything he has believed about himself, his calling, has been false, or misunderstood. 

This past week I heard the word "gobsmacked" a few times. As in smacking one's hand against one's mouth in surprise. K., however, seems forever phlegmatic, and appears to take surprise in stride, which is, in itself, funny:

"You should know by now that the question of your being called here is too difficult for us to answer for you in the course of one little conversation," the Superintendent tells K. when the latter inquires about his (mythic) "position" as surveyor at the Castle.

Calasso notes that "All of life is no more than 'a little conversation.' And so the principle of the irrepressible uncertainty of election is once again affirmed." 

Perfect. Kafka makes us laugh, uneasily, because his stories remind us again and again of the continual, confounding, irrepressibility of uncertainty in our lives. What we think we know we don't know, and while we are trying to find out what we do know we pass our time in the Inn, waiting. Callasso reminds us that, in Kafka's world, "Nothing is more dangerous--we must understand--than everyday life. There, even when performing the most casual, inconsequential acts, we must remember we are constantly under surveillance. We must watch our every step, looking in all directions, as if under siege." Like Joseph K., we are "building our case," that is proving we are innocent of charges that are unclear to us and to our accusers as well. 

This is, I think, what Wallace means when he speaks of the religious nature of Kafka's wit. What is harrowing is not knowing what to do, or what we have done, facing the dangers of everyday life without any notion of what happens next. This is metaphysical uncertainty because we are powerless and must trust, therefore, in something, or in someone else. If not God--and definitely not God--then in history, or reason, or humanity. "Not a comforting prospect these days," I laughed, uneasily, sitting in my desk chair.

 George Ovitt (11/13/16)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, as always, for your recommendations and your thoughtful reading.