Kafka and the kafkaesque

Kaj Bernhard Genell, Recito  (2017)



THE uniqueness of the works of Franz Kafka and the perplexing historical accuracy of the concept of the Kafkaesque are both phenomena that over the years have been noticed by many readers and scholars. This book sets out to unravel the enigma of this very concept, by reference to the process of creation, and to Kafka´s implicit use of two unconscious levels within the universe of discourse of his most important works. Always a fruitful explanation of the uniqueness of these works has been missing. Scholars have ever since the 1930s been noticing the extraordinary qualities of the Kafka text. Strange - Kafkaesque - features have been attributed to the short stories and the novels of Kafka. The Kafka hero has - rightly - been seen as a mere figure, and the " dream-like " landscape-universe has been seen as characteristic, and one has frequently been looking upon these entities, together with a few stylistic features, as technical dominants in the shaping of the concept of the Kafkaesque.

This book displays a model, together with a biographical survey and a historical perspective on possible influences, that, quite reversely, forms a hermeneutic explanation to these features, as well as to what is denoted by the concept. This is achieved from the perspective of a dynamic contextual center, explained in a model containing three levels, levels steadily forming the discourse, typical of Kafka.

The veil of mystery may never be lifted when it comes to Kafka´s classics of Modernity. It might be essential to know about the technique behind the Kafkaesque to be able to reflect upon the Self-consciousness of Modern Man of the 20th century, a century so intensely marked by a dialogue between society and the works and ideas of Sigmund Freud.

Self-consciousness of Man, as it appeared with St. Augustine, the great Italian Renaissance writers, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, the German secular Romantics and Hegel, swiftly developed into something even much more complex with the appearance of Freud and the publication of his Traumdeutung in the year of 1900, and, more so, with the creation of the Kafkaesque, with the works of Kafka, around 1912.

The work of mine displays a distinct answer to the question regarding the uniqueness of Kafka and regarding the concept of the kafkaesque and how Kafka managed to achieve this very effect of the Kafkaeasque through his special technique. My work is an attempt to look for the meaning of the use of the kafkaic style. The uniqueness of the kafkaesque is noticed by many others but here it is explained by reference to the process of creation of the kafkaesque. Through the years this explanation has been missing. Kafka´s uses two unconscious levels in his major works. Sholars like W. Benjamin, Th. Adorno, M. Walser and H. Hiebel have noticed the extraordinary experienced qualities of the kafka text, the strange features owned by the hero, the hero as a mere figure and the “dream-like” universe. But I am displaying a model that can bring these features into a dynamic scheme, explained from an author´s ( albeit unconscious ) view.

It is in fact essential for Modern Man - FOR US - to be aware of this technique, to be able to reflect on the picture of Modern Man. Kafka was part of the creation of THE Self-conscience in the 20ieth century, marked by a constant dialogue with Freud and his works. Self-conscience as Man knew it since St. Augustine, the Italian renaissance writers, Erasmus, Shakespeare and Montaigne and later with the secular Romantics and Hegel, swiftly in Modrnism developed into something much more complex with the appearance of Freud and the publication of the Traumdeautung in the year of 1900. And Kafka fulfilled it all. The works of Kafka appeared as a reaction to 1.) Modern times, to 2.) his own personal alienation and to 3.) Freud.

Kafka´s answer to Modernity – to the modern condition – was an astonishingly complex one, but it turned out to be very accurate and accomplished right from the very beginning. When other reactions to the modern condition, like Dada, displayed a picture of a chaotic and a rebel attitude to reason and morals, Kafka, like Rimbaud, showed a far more complex ability to encompass the soul of humans in relation to the Modern society in a universal form.
Kafka´s relation to Freud was somewhat like that of a relation of a son to the father. Thus Kafka did not acknowledge Freud´s discoveries, interpretations, methods and notions as truths. But he saw them – ironically – as facts. And in a sense they were. Freud´s views were historical facts in their deep influence on mind and society of the century. Hence Kafka used Freud as part of the Modern Myth.

Kafka did not “believe in” Freud, but he was fascinated by him. He did not study Freud at great extent, but he had – like many others – acquired a sort of immediate understanding of his ideas, through a kind of everyday osmosis.

Kafka started out as a writer of lyrical prose, short prose poems. But his dream was to write a novel, and it should be a novel like the one Flaubert ( Kafka´s literary idol ) wanted to write: a very beautiful book about nothing at all. It also seems as he wanted to develop the style of Tieck and the Romantics. So it turned out that Kafka now developed a technique for writing novels where he was extending a sole situation into a perfectly static ( i.e. nothing ) drama displaying a struggle between conscious and unconscious. Using his extraordinary ( perhaps autistic ) sensibility his technique, the kafkaic, miraculously was born in 1912 with the writing of the short story of The Verdict. He asked his fiancée Felice for the meaning of it.

Later, with the writing of the unfinished The Trial, his technique of displaying the Kafkaesque was already full-fledged. Here he – almost FORCE by his own personal and social catastrophe - introduced a pseudo plot in a kind of pseudo novel displaying a story of a split, a struggle of a conscious instance of a person, shown as a hero-figure battling this person´s OWN unconscious. As it turned out, this battle originated – caused - a second unconscious part to appear in the universe of this fiction. It seems that the hero-figure, devoid of his unconscious, HAD TO develop such an unconscious to be able to handle his surrounding world, which was his original unconscious. Here we thus are having a triadic structure and a strange meeting of two unconscious instances.

This fictional condition primarily results in a double exposure of the unconscious and secondly in a strange transcendence of the Ego, which cannot easily be reflected upon, since it has no equivalent in reality.

As a result of this kafkaic technique, which probably was unconscious (!) to Kafka himself, we are also – apart from the nausea of double unconscious, a kind of the self-consciousness of the unconscious - experiencing a very intense poetry displaying utter loneliness and in a framwork : a sad pseudo-protest against the super power of civil organization and law in general as well as a melancholy beauty of existence. The like of which never again has been created.


Quite early in life - I was born in 1944 in Gothenburg, Sweden - I got interested in reading books of high literary value. I later discovered Kafka, and the literature of ambiguity. It was around 1968 when I already had studied at the University in Gothenburg for some time, History of Arts, Philosophy and General Literature. I lived in a small cold flat in the centre of the town and my eyes had fallen upon a small torn used volume by Kafka in German, the novel Amerika . I earlier was damiliar with The Metamorphosis , and then in Swedish. Anyway, since I had read German in school, I started out with my small pocket version of Amerika , and I was immediately struck by the immense and very odd beauty of the first sentences in this book, in its original shape, in the language it was written in. I read the whole book through, without even once consulting any lexicon. I guess I must have missed a detail or two, since my German was far from exquisite. I was hooked up by Kafka. I read all he had written, and in the University I wrote small essays and subject papers on Kafka ( The Metamorphosis ). There was one major problem that soon became central to me. How did Kafka do, to acquire this formidable effect,the Kafkaesque , an effect that scarcely ever anybody, but some of the German Romantics of the early 19th century, had managed to create anything even remotely similar to? I think I did find the answer to that question.

The result is: Kafka and the kafkaesque.

I sincerely hope you do enjoy!

Kaj Bernhard Genell.