Kafka's style
Kafka in the everyday language

Kafka and the Absurdities of Modern Life
Kafka and the Absurdities of Modern Life | © Isi Parente / Unsplash

Individual authors can characterise a style concept. But what exactly does it mean to have a style, and why has the name Kafka entered the vernacular like no other? A look at art and philosophy makes the concept of style transparent.

There are not many literary figures from past centuries that we encounter regularly in our everyday lives. Literature scholars know what they mean when they talk about Döblin's inner monologues, Kleist’s dense prose, or an uncanny character in Hofmann’s work. But away from literature seminars and university (and sometimes there as well), we are quite unexpectedly reminded of an author from the early 20th century, who appears to have looked at us in detail and written about us meticulously: Franz Kafka. The recognition value of his books is without doubt founded in his portrayal of the absurd hopelessness of our modern world, into which he flings his protagonists and in which they generally fail. We are all too familiar with this world and apply this “Kafkaesque” interpretation to the reality of our own lives, surely in the hope of somehow eluding failure as a result. But what defines Kafka’s perspective, with its unwavering focus on our lives from within his allegories?

The view from afar

It’s easier to discern a style in other people than in yourself. If you want to know what you look like, you need a mirror or a camera; without these resources there is no way of seeing yourself as others see you as a matter of course. Literature can be such a mirror, used to recognise who you are – “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” as Kafka believed. Our self comes into being only as a consequence of precise observation from outside, whereby being too close is a hindrance. Likewise in the historical review of German literature we have no problem seeing an era as an expression of specific recognisable characteristics. Baroque, Sturm und Drang, Biedermeier or Neue Sachlichkeit: from a historical distance we can see more connecting features than divisive ones in these delineated periods, and in most instances these ages are logically only recognised as significant points in time once they have come to an end.

Music, painting, cinema — a repertoire of concepts

What exactly is a literary ‘style’ that we intuitively discern or devise when we read, and attribute to the authors? On the one hand, literary criticism in particular is fond of using metaphors from music: a book has a certain “rhythm” and a narrative “tempo”, a sentence has a “melody”, language has a “tone pattern” – all of which allows authors to be recognisable, even though they are all working with the same language as a basis. On the other hand however, the repeated attention to a small circle of subjects makes for instance visual artists distinctive, if they simultaneously develop a unique way of seeing and painting things: van Gogh’s landscapes, Degas’ dancers and Gauguin’s South Pacific scenes are immediately recognisable as works by their creators. With certain film-makers we have precisely this connection between a particular perspective on the world and its portrayal on the movie screen in their own established artistic style: Werner Herzog’s extraordinary yet meaningless nature, especially his metaphysically charged jungle; Sally Potter’s individualistic style, coupled with her ironic interpretation of society; the jarring aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino’s comic-strip violence that tends towards rampant catharsis – it’s not for nothing that French film theory refers to directors like this as ‘auteurs’. These examples are in some ways very stylistically distinct from each other, and yet there is a connection between them: they are all trying to seek a purpose in the face of technological modernity, industrially produced violence, isolation, confrontation with new experiences whilst constantly reviewing traditional life patterns – it’s no different from the goals pursued by Kafka, even though his were often a good deal more ruthless.

Philosophy as beautiful literature

A highly individualised artistic style apparently only develops in conjunction with a personal world view that contributes significantly towards defining the forms and goals of art and literature. Even in a certain traditional meaning of the word philosophy, it is only through a specific linguistic mode of expression that an assured understanding of things and the world can be found. “The limits of language mean the limits of my world” – even if Wittgenstein was the first to draw logical philosophical conclusions from this realisation, there were nevertheless many others before him who recognised that language is the basis of realisation, and its form is crucial – from as far back as Socrates and Plato, through Kant and Hegel, to Nietzsche and Heidegger. For this reason philosophers more than others are compelled to develop their own distinct sense of style and to hone it, in order to be able to contribute anything at all to their discipline. This applies equally to the political philosophy of Hannah Arendts in the 20th century, and Peter Sloterdijk’s current diagnoses of fractured modernity – and Sloterdijk in particular brings us back to Kafka almost automatically.

What is ‘Kafkaesque’?

Like no other, Kafka knew how to shape the absurdity of modern life situations and their impact on the psyche into language, and outline the paradoxes of our modern world with his razor-sharp storytelling. He was good at this because he had a highly unusual, comprehensive approach to contemporary bureaucracy and human fate. His characters are surprising in that they initially attempt to understand the grotesque circumstances in which they find themselves through no fault of their own. Furthermore, in view of the hopelessness they know – at least for the time being – how to cope with the situation, whether as an ignored hunger artist at a funfair, an unsuspecting defendant in court, or a superfluous land surveyor. Kafka does not offer either his protagonists or his readers a clear escape route, it is not just a case of showing good and beautiful things, or even providing relaxing entertainment to soothe the reader. His books aim to deal with the frozen sea within us like an axe, to make us more receptive to a world against which we increasingly isolate ourselves for reasons of self-protection. The fact that Kafka has merited the creation of his own word, “Kafkaesque”, is because he doesn’t allow us to doze off peacefully, he shocks us back to life like a defibrillator.