Thursday, March 26, 2009


Okay, so I'm going to talk nerdy to you. They told me to write a blog about books . . . they didn't tell me to make it appeal to a general audience: I guess that will change if they ever read this.

Have you ever said to yourself, "Kafka is just SO strange?" I'll bet you have . . . if you've ever read Kafka. Franz Joseph Kafka seems surreal and alien, yet his life was as bizarre and bleak as his writing. In fact, The Trial is an autobiographical recounting of his own experiences in an unpredictable regime, as a criminal in thought. Needless to say, Kafka is not the lightest or most coherent author with whom you might dally, but he has an odd way of reflecting the cognitive dissonance of actual experience in bizarre scenes which at once draw in and alienate the reader.

Kafka is not alone in this flavor of expression, yet most people see him as the sole example of his artistic style. Let's set aside, for the moment, Beckett, and those of his ilk who had surreality as their goal.

If you'd like to draw a comparison from authors in English, pick up Johnathan Swift; his humor is less obscure, yet his images fit the same surreal mold. Even in his non fiction, Swift advances his ideas by means of bizarre and surreal imagery; in A Modest Proposal, Swift suggests that the problems of food shortage and over-population might both be addressed by selling the children of the poor as food for the wealthy. This stunning essay not only brings light to the social inequities, but also to the modes of discourse used to justify unethical actions.

So you have Swift down, how about Rabalais . . . wait, chances are you've never read him . . . you may never have even heard of him, though he is generally considered a classic author. Rabalais is a French writer (in the development of the French language he is almost as influential as Shakespeare) who uses scatological categories in his fictional world to reveal the content of his experience and insight into modern culture. He is in fact so far outside the boundaries of what most Anglophone authors of his time considered good taste that, as far as I have been able to tell, no accurate and complete translation exists, probably because no one really wants to translate so much crude imagery.

Rabalais, however was the topic of what is perhaps the masterwork of the great Russian literary critic, Bakhtin. Ironically, or perhaps as a matter of causation, Bakhtin's own life was very surreal. In Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, a short sketch of Bakhtin's examination for doctorate, a topsy-turvey affair where the brash, underqualified, and unskilled puppets of the regime were able to deny his achievement in the face of the reasonable, erudite, and proven body of scholars in their midst. In short, his experience mirrors that of Joseph K. in The Trial.

So, now that I've taken you full-circle, I still can't seem to decide how I feel about the word kafkaesque, but I am pretty sure that it is not a set made of a single class.



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