Kafkaesque living.

The word ‘Kafkaesque’ has been coined, Wikipedia informs me, to describe “surrealist situations reminiscent of those in his writing, which has been associated with existentialism, expressionism, socialism and Marxism”. Wiktionary goes even further, defining the term thus: “Marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.”

Well, I am not one to disagree with those sentiments. Kafka wrote about systems and bureaucracy, about nameless and shadowy figures whose authority was always questionable, but not always answerable (to anything or anyone). He wrote about machines that inscribed on and thus the body itself, marked it as guilty or shameful. He wrote about unknown offences, penalties, crimes and punishments, though not necessarily in a Dostoevskyan sense (tinged with religious sentiment and questioning in a secular world). But to go back to bureaucracy, which always strikes me first about his works – people’s futile attempts to understand, or stand against, bureaucracy (itself a vague and unspecific word); their struggles in and against a system; layers and layers of shadowy-but-powerful figures, echelons and echelons of authority, all upon one another. And his perplexed protagonists are more often than not cogs not functioning in the system, but lost in it, thrown about by it. Sometimes they even lose their sense of self as a result (if they had ever really had one).

The band Fleet Foxes summarize this scenario aptly in their song ‘Helplessness Blues’ (from their most recent album):

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see.

Later, they go on to sing about “the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me” — something I think most of us can empathize with, especially in this time of recession (why? who did it? what for?) and economic woe and all that. Things like the Occupy movement seem specifically designed for such men in ‘dimly-lit halls’ and their presumptuous determinings, though I suppose that this is a simplistic – and simplifying – view (as sometimes I think the Occupy rants might be). This song is a hugely interesting one; I’m not the only one who finds it particularly relevant and meaningful for the crises of today (both individual/personal and global/socio-politico-economic!). Its page on songmeanings.net is full of interpretations which read it as being about unemployment and recession and the sheer stultification of life and ambition today. (And lest anyone think I speak hyperbolically – well, perhaps, but unemployment is where I am and this is how I feel; maybe others empathize. I am certainly singing the helplessness blues right now.)

I’ve been thinking about Kafka a little bit recently, which was mostly inspired by my thinking of signing up for the GRE, itself a weak but necessary response to the boredom and insipidity of relentless unemployment. Dreams of Amerrrr’ca to pass the time. At least, I think, it will give me something to do, studying for the GRE! (Well, or at least I can know as I procrastinate that should I ever feel bored/have to lament not having anything to do, I can always study!)  I’m not sure now. But still.

But why the GRE and Kafka? Well, because reading around stuff made me realise that in addition to the GRE administered by ETS international students might need to take the TOEFL or the IELTS and suddenly my head was swimming with undecipherable acronyms being administered by further undecipherable acronyms. And it suddenly occurred to me that there were too many undecipherable acronyms and Kafkaesque (voila!) shadowy powers and organisations around, all of them trying to test and re-test and classify and define and determine one’s abilities/capabilities/aptitude etc etc and so on. At every stage of one’s life (after all, who can forget about the GMATs and the ELATs and the LMATs etc of the world, and, if one needs it, language-education from a TEFL or TESOL or CELTA qualified teacher?).

Things were simpler in the old days, I think, when one wasn’t being constantly  academically or qualificationally (this word now exists) pinched and poked and prodded by the authorities and powers that be of the world (origin/source indeterminate, but definitely aprés-dieu). When people could become something without an endless string of letters attached to the end of one’s name or a million and one subsidiary diplomas to prove why I’ve gone the extra mile! or even the five-page CV “with top institutions listed” — but do it, perhaps, just shockingly enough, on skill or talent alone, sans the bureaucratic proofs and procedures, the QEDs and signatures of names one will never recognise. (If they were simpler, I am also aware, though, that they were uglier and less egalitarian – probably fewer people competed for the same jobs, and fewer people received education at all, probably; I have no numbers).

But still. I suppose I am sad that it is such a rat-race, and so very tiring a one at that (too many hurdles designed to trip you up; too many necessary pit-stops). Kafka would have had a field-day with the world today, with nameless people in nameless glass buildings and all those XYZ tests they set for little laboratory rats like us. And I am wondering what Kafka might have said about it all!

For anybody who wants to mull over this with an appropriate soundtrack, here is the Fleet Foxes song!

  1. mthew said:

    On reading and re-reading FK recently, I was struck by his wild deadpan humor, which is usually elided in tales of the dark hellhole of European history. His is the clerk’s revenge, the bureaucrat’s last laugh.

    • Yeah, I felt the black humour in his stuff when I read him (a while back now) — I am waiting for a shipment of my books to arrive from overseas, mostly so I can read Kafka again! (I haven’t finished his long novels yet, which is a great shame!) The bureaucrats are still laughing :-(

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