What Does ‘Kafkaesque’ Really Mean? Like Seriously Really! October 12, 2017 – Posted in: Blog, Inspiration, Winter – Tags: , , ,

A recent news item in New York Times quoted Caitlan Coleman, a hostage released by the Taliban in Afghanistan, who described her time with the militants as “Kafkaesque”. I was were really happy by the news of her release, but my mind wandered off somewhere else when I read “Kafkaesque“.

Many may not know what it means. For those who think they know what it means, you are probably mistaken!

A recent, viral TED-Ed video made by Noah Tavlin lays all of it out, explaining how we cavalierly misuse the adjective and what it actually means. “Beyond the word’s casual use,” he asks, “what makes something Kafkaesque?” (The video is below).

Sure, you may be shouting at your phone or laptop, I know what “Kafkaesque” is. Clearly, it means reminiscent of the events and themes found within the work of Franz Kafka, the writer from Prague whose famous stories (for e.g. The Metamorphosis and The Trial) drew upon the soul-crushing bureaucratic machinery of the ageing Austro-Hungarian empire.

I’ll even get more specific, though. “Kafkaesque” describes, as Merriam-Webster would put it, “having a nightmarishly advanced, weird, or illogical high quality,” or as the Oxford Dictionaries suggests, “oppressive or nightmarish qualities.”

But here’s the thing: Any time an author’s oeuvre turns into the basis for its own descriptor (Dickensian, Proustian, Orwellian), the meaning of that adjective relies completely on the interpretations of the unique work. It doesn’t matter what the big dictionaries says about “Kafkaesque,” the true denotation has nothing to do with the dictionary entries and every thing to do with what literary critics have to say about Kafka himself.

Tavlin’s own definition of “Kafkaesque” derives from studying A Hunger Artist, The Trial, The Metamorphosis and different Kafka works more closely, and he draws out a number of trademarks of his fiction beyond the concept of a baffling, illogical bureaucracy.

“It’s not the absurdity of bureaucracy alone, but the irony of the characters’ circular reasoning in reaction to it, that’s emblematic of Kafka’s writing,” he argues in the video.

 This TED-Ed video is one of the more recent entrant in a long-running battle to define “Kafkaesque,” and, in a roundabout approach, outline Kafka’s artistic legacy. In 1991, Kafka biographer Frederick Karl offered a more limited but fairly straightforward definition to The New York Times:

“What I’m against is someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that’s Kafkaesque,” he stated. “What’s Kafkaesque […] is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces […] What you do is struggle against this with all of your tools, with whatever you have. But of course you do not stand a chance. That is Kafkaesque.”

In a 2014 column in the Atlantic, “By Heart” author Ben Marcus, about Kafka’s “A Message From the Emperor,” claims that Marcus’s “discussion of the piece ultimately included a concise and brilliant argument for what constitutes the Kafkaesque, though he never used that word.” Instead, Marcus made arguments about what Kafka’s “quintessential qualities” were, including “affecting use of language, a setting that straddles fantasy and reality, and a sense of striving even in the face of bleakness — hopelessly and full of hope.” (If “affecting use of language” turns into one of the qualifiers for appropriately deploying “Kafkaesque,” the term will be almost impractically circumscribed.)

As Tavlin argues, “Kafkaesque has entered the vernacular to explain unnecessarily difficult and irritating experiences, particularly with forms. However does standing in an extended line to fill out complicated paperwork actually capture the richness of Kafka’s imaginative and prescient?”

Most likely not. What does, other than Kafka’s personal good and rightfully well studied fiction? By this customary, maybe we should solely call Kafka himself Kafkaesque.

Prescriptivists who wish to restrict how we use phrases like “Kafkaesque” are virtually definitely combating a losing battle, however there are some aspect advantages. For instance, an unusual, deep video exploring the themes of Kafka’s fiction — that’s a worthy end in itself.

[Title image credit: TED-Ed / Youtube. This article has been submitted by James Archie, a guest writer. If you want your writings to appear on our website, you can send in your work at our email address, with the title ‘Guest Post’. If it’s related to books/literature, we’ll definitely consider it]