Kafka on the Gulf
A New Orleans resident reflects on how the Czech master prepared him for the oil spill
Here in New Orleans, faith and doubt wrestle daily.
This has always been true for our vulnerable city, but in the nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina, the wrestling has gotten more furious. And all this time, I’ve been living with Franz Kafka in my head, writing a book about a man of doubt who lived at the border of faith. More than anyone Kafka brings a strange sense of humor to our search for meaning. In fact, according to Google, Kafka is invoked about 75 times per day. But during and after Katrina, I came to wonder if the haunted, angel-eared prophet had become a permanent New Orleans resident.
Then came the oil spill. And now I am convinced.
Look at the weirdness of former FEMA Director Michael Brown suddenly popping up to give his opinion of our disaster on Fox News. Or of actor Kevin Costner showing up to offer a solution to all our problems. Or at the sudden appearances of 400 beach cleanup workers in white Tyvek and color-coded T-shirts on Grande Isle the morning President Obama arrives for his photo-op. Or at drill-baby-drill Republicans like Senator David Vitter and Governor Bobby Jindal suddenly going all environmental on us. There’s no other word for it but Kafkaesque.
Writing a book on Kafka, I’ve come to lament as much as he would have the untrammeled abuse of the word. I’ve heard Kafkaesque attached to everything from city planning proposals to SUVs. But in this current oil-spill vaudeville, featuring incompetent and malicious officials mouthing blatant lies, Kafka is all too relevant. He himself might have found work in the Bayou state: When he wasn’t musing on the seeming absence of God, he investigated industrial accidents for a workmen’s-compensation insurance company.
It was an ideal day job for a writer whose fantasies often ran to the masochistic. At night, in his diaries, he vividly imagined himself tugged through the roof of his house and disintegrating. By day, he contemplated the long hair of women caught in the cogs of factory machinery and studied drawings of chopped-off fingers. His stories created a strange new 20th-century bible featuring a discoursing ape, a singing mouse, a talking dog, fierce jackals, circus freaks, and futility. Kafka often spoke through dying animals, like Gregor Samsa the insect, or Josephine the singing mouse: He would have felt his connection now for the endangered Ridley sea turtle and the oiled pelican.
He lived every day of his life with a persistent sense of doom—which in New Orleans in hurricane season is called watching the news. So, I think he would have had no trouble feeling his way into this hovering malevolent undersea black cloud of oil and dispersant waiting to strike. Meanwhile BP offers, for our entertainment and distraction, a dog-and-pony sideshow straight out of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” Like the starving man in that famous story, the long-suffering people of Louisiana waste away while the media gawk for a moment, spouting theories and implications and then moving on to another form of entertainment.
So, how would Kafka react to the oil spill? He once imagined a great fist rising from the city seal of Prague to smash its towers into smithereens, but even he never came close to imagining the whirling mass of oil flood and environmental destruction that would follow a hurricane rolling through this mess. He would have loved the MMS (Mineral Management Service), a mysterious agency no one has ever heard of until now, that issues and regulates oil leases at the same time. The oil industry oiled Congress to write this little gem of a law: An environmental review must be completed within 30 days, but because such reviews always take longer than 30 days, all environmental reviews are waived. That’s pure Kafka.
Who will be our savior, then? Not Obama. Descending from the sky, kneeling on the beach, which BP cleaned only the day before, he shines and gleams like a remote official in Kafka’s The Castle and then whirls away in mysterious abstractions. How about BP’s Tony Hayward? According to this heartless pipsqueak, the environmental damage is minimal, workers who got sick cleaning up the oil were suffering from food poisoning, and the toxic plumes scientists are reporting are non-existent.
So, there are no messiahs. Kafka himself told us as much: “When the messiah comes,” he famously quipped, “he will no longer be necessary.”
Is there any hope in the situation? This is where on our darker days, Kafka is a bleak New Orleans prophet. He was often dark, though never a nihilist. He lived, always, at the edge of faith. Once, his friend Max Brod asked him if there was any such thing as hope in the universe. “Yes,” Kafka replied, “of course there’s hope, plenty of hope—for God. Just none for us.”
I know that punch line sounds grim, but right now it hurts so much it’s funny. In the land of disaster, even a bitter laugh is a start.
Rodger Kamenetz, the author of The Jew in the Lotus and The History of Last Night’s Dream, teaches at Louisiana State University. He has just completed Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, which will be published as part of Nextbook Press’ Jewish Encounters series in October.
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