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The meaning of life—it can sometimes be a tricky thing, yes. But according to Joseph Epstein’s piece on Franz Kafka: you had better not make it too tricky, as did Kafka, or you just won’t be worth anybody’s time. Of course, Epstein doesn’t say anything quite so blunt or basic, but he’s rather convinced that Kafka’s work is “overrated”—and because it does no good to drop some names and just laugh away the very thought, I suppose I had better make an argument. In Part I, I argue against two of Epstein’s reasons for rejecting Kafka (his dependence on Freud and his lack of literary merit), but I imagine many of you will find this section boring and unnecessary if you don’t currently have strong views on Kafka, and thus have made it easy for you to skip to the more important claim of the essay that begins in Part II: A modern worldview that is not informed by Kafka’s work is severely lacking.


As far as I can tell, Epstein offers three main reasons to demonstrate that Franz Kafka’s reputation has been, to say the least, inflated. One reason, elaborated near the end of the essay, is the “parallel” between the writing of Kafka’s works and the rise of Freudianism, both having occurred during early 20th  century Germany. Without any supporting argument, Epstein claims that “Freud’s reputation is now quite properly in radical decline” and “Without belief in Freud, Kafka’s stories lose their weight and authority.” And he is, on both counts, in error.

Because while it’s true that Freudian theory maintains a discredited if not somewhat scandalous reputation in certain schools of clinical psychology, it still holds a prominent place in certain subfields of philosophy, namely, critical and gender theory. The former fact has certainly contributed to the idea in the American popular consciousness that ‘Freud is Out,’ and undoubtedly allowed Epstein to dismiss his corpus without argument. Yet, contemporary gender theory—which sustains a significant influence (though, not as much as it would like) over the way our culture conceives of gender identity and sexual orientation—still traces its lineage to Freud.

Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality mark a paradigm shift in the way modern society considers sexuality—and one we have not fully abandoned—such that it might even be accurate to say that his watershed-making work made possible the mini-watersheds that succeeded it, such as de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Butler’s Gender Trouble, which, though rejecting the Freudian apparatus at many points, found within it several resources required to develop their own arguments on gender and sexuality. For example, de Beauvoir’s reinterpretation of penis-envy: “the girl’s envy, when it appears, is the result of a prior valorization of virility: Freud takes this for granted when instead he should account for it,” and Butler on relation of the strange to the normal: “as Freud suggests in [The Three Essays], it is the exception, the strange, that gives us the clue to how the mundane and taken-for-granted world of sexual meanings is constituted.”

Now, that’s all probably a little too dull and cerebral to keep interest for very long, but lucky for us: its besides the point anyway, because Epstein offers no argument as to why Kafka’s success would be at all conditioned upon that of Freud. Sure, he mentions the Oedipus complex as well as Kafka’s overbearing father, but those are a far cry from any sort of linchpin to the Kafkan corpus (not to mention that such parental problems have not vacated the popular (or even clinical) consciousness in the same manner as Freud; cf., for example, the common and relatively recent term: “daddy issues”). Kafka’s stories, as we shall see—like “In the Penal Colony,” “Before the Law,” or “A Country Doctor,” to name a few—can stand quite well without the fortification of Freudian theory, thank you very much.

A second point Epstein makes against Kafka is the supposed inability of any literary critic to offer an acceptably clear explanation of his work’s merit: “[Walter] Benjamin, Begley, Heller, Friedländer, and other critics who take Kafka’s greatness as self-evident agree that Kafka cannot be either explained or judged in the same way as other literary artists.” Or: “Kafka, in other words, is given a pass on criticism. The argument is that he cannot finally be explained, but merely read, appreciated, and reread until his meaning, somehow, washes over you.” Now, I have no doubt that Epstein has done his research on Kafka and his life; he’s obviously quite familiar with much of the primary and secondary literature on these topics. But that no one has been able to offer an explanation for Kafka’s greatness or a summary of the themes of his work—this is simply false.

Consider Benjamin’s famous The Arcades Project, in which Kafka shows up a number of times, credited with making a point concerning the essential sameness of modernity: “Definition of the ‘modern’ as the new in the context of what has always already been there. The always new, always identical ‘heathscape’ in Kafka [cf. The Trial] is not a bad expression of this state of affairs.” Or back to Gender Trouble, where Butler employs an analogy between the instrument of torture in “The Penal Colony” and the historical creation of values, which both “destroy the body on which it writes.” Does Epstein really think that there is no meaning to be taken from any of these stories? Or that apart from Freud, no interpretations can be considered authoritative? Recall “The Metamorphosis” or “Before the Law”—is Epstein arguing that no meaning can be derived from them, and that they are therefore completely aesthetically unappealing?

Perhaps this leads nicely to the third point I was able to discern in Epstein’s article, which I suspect might actually underlie the previous two. The search for meaning in Kafka is called by Epstein “the unending critical Easter-egg hunt for the secret meaning in Franz Kafka’s fiction,” which, however kitschy and itself aesthetically unappealing, reveals something about how Epstein conceives of the task of reading Kafka, maybe even reading literature in general. Namely, that there is something singular and/or definite to be found at the end. Its as if he believes there’s some sort of key—he claims Freidlander thought it was Kafka’s latent homosexuality—that can unlock all of Kafka’s hidden mysteries, or that if it (the key) is not found, its because it cannot be found, because it is not there. And because we are lacking a “precise” or “exact” explanation of the interpretation of Kafka, we are asked to agree that he is overrated.


I would like to offer another possibility to Epstein (and any other Kafka-detractors in his camp); one that it appears he has not considered. What if the meaninglessness, the hopelessness, the pessimism, the absurdity, etc. of Kafka’s universe are not obscuring Kafka’s meaning–or, to evoke Epstein’s lovely metaphor, hiding the Easter egg of secret meaning–but rather are themselves the Easter egg, that ‘secret meaning?’ In other words, if there is something that could pass for a key to understanding Kafka—which there probably isn’t, and that might be the point—it’s something close to the promise that we’ll never be able to understand the world in a way that offers relief from the perils of modern existence, or with any sort of epistemic security. That is to say: the key to Kafka might be that there is no key to reality—not quite a Kafkesque paradox, which would be, I suppose, more like “the key to Kafka is there is no key to Kafka.”

Of course, if you recognize these qualities in the world, I would imagine that you’ll have a much easier time appreciating them in Kafka and thereby, seeing them in his design and overall structures, find him a more tolerable if not enjoyable interlocutor. But if you reject that the world is like this—impossible to get to the bottom of, oppressive and absurd in some of the most important ways, etc.—then it makes sense that you would, like Epstein, expect Kafka’s meaning, provided it has any value, to be explained to you “exactly” or “precisely”—which, I suggest, is completely missing the point.

Franz Kafka wrote about the predicaments of modern humanity: he struggled with and against nihilism before Sartre or Camus (who both listed him as a major influence); and he lamented over the mysterious structures of power and law, and this several decades before Foucault or Derrida. So if your qualifications for “whether Franz Kafka is truly a major writer” have anything to do with influence, I’m going to go ahead and say Kafka makes the cut here: he’s up there in the ranks of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and (ahem) Freud. But this “truly a major writer” category remains, ironically, unexplained by Epstein, making his whole criticism a bit convoluted: it’s not clear what Epstein actually expects from Kafka, other than that he expects it to be delivered in a clear and precise manner.

Let us make one last attempt, though, to understand where Epstein might be coming from. His concluding sentences:


“In the end, Henry James wrote in an essay on Turgenev, what we want to know about a writer is, “How does he feel about life?” Kafka found it unbearably complicated, altogether daunting, and for the most part joyless, and so described it in his fiction. This is not, let us agree, the best outlook for a great writer. Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”


Yes, I agree with Henry James: thus, when it comes to Kafka, we want to know how he feels about life (note that Epstein does not quote James offering any criteria for good or “major” writing)—and even if those feelings remain difficult to decipher, we can at least agree that Kafka had a rough time with it, life. But please, Mr. Epstein, do not ask us to agree that this is not “the best outlook for a great writer,” because you haven’t offered what you’re actually looking for in a “great writer.” And if you’re trying to say that a great writer can’t find life unbearable, complicated, joyless, etc., then you’re going to have to get rid of a lot of great writing, not to mention: great art.

Even if we just stick to the last fifty years in the English-speaking world, we’d lose David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and probably most Pynchon and Gaddis (we could keep going here). And if these aesthetic standards are at all transferrable, then we can also say goodbye to the films of David Lynch and several of Woody Allen.

But Kafka’s influence has already been quite thoroughly covered by scholars; and so at the moment I find it much less interesting to think about why Kafka felt the world was absurd and often hopeless than I do to think about why anyone would be so thoroughly convinced that its not.

That is, among so much suffering, pain, and death—provided we care about such things—why is it so easy to live happily in the world, all the while seeing ourselves as the ones who know the truth, see the real meaning, get life right? And what might this—the ease with which we live, find meaning, etc.—indicate about our socio-economic position in relation to those who don’t, live easily and find lasting meaning?

What does it mean to be in the group of people whose happiness is just another one of life’s constants, where meaning and value and pleasure accompany our morning toast as reliably as that toast itself? And is this not one of the very absurdities to which Kafka and those after him would point: the struggle with which many face life while their neighbors nonetheless proceed joyfully through it? If some Kafka with our breakfast is the most unbearable intervention of suffering into our otherwise pleasurable routine, it seems unlikely that we will actually make efforts to respond to the real suffering of real people. He reminds us of the oppression in the world but also more importantly, of our complicity in that oppression; and, I suggest, one of the worst responses to this would be remove him from our collections and curriculums.

Because as Kafka relentlessly uncovers, the sources of people’s suffering and pain are often (if not always) the same structures that provide other people with truth, value, and meaning. That is, things like Patriarchy or First-World Capitalism or Racial Privilege provide happiness and meaning to those whose purposes they serve, making them, the served, almost incapable of recognizing their complicity in the undeserved suffering of others. Epstein recalls Kafka’s minority status, but rather than considering his work from this viewpoint, he basically counts it as a fault against him: yet another reason for his supposed obscurity. But this very fact—that the same thing can cause one person much pleasure and another much harm—is, again, one of the very absurdities to which Kafka’s work attests.

These radical conflicts of meaning are the very thing toward which we should direct our attention if we want to do anything about them—not only do they indicate that we might be inadvertently causing harm, but also that some of the things we find most valuable and meaningful might not be—at least not as universally as we have enjoyed believing they are. In response to the former, there are many ways to reduce our participation in structures of oppression, and because the internet has plenty of feminists and communists and anarchists already, I won’t take any more of your time with such suggestions here; I trust you will find them on your own. And to the latter, we could lament and cry out for more definitive structures of meaning and certainty—or, with Camus, we can proclaim: “If the world were clear, there would be no art.”

I wonder where he got that idea.

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Jonathan Romas Povilonis

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