Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Office Series, Day Five: Conclusion

What it all means for us

Joshua Cohen
December 05, 2008

In 1924, an ailing, depressed Kafka asked his friend the author Max Brod to burn his notebooks after his death, and, if Brod had complied, the world—already lacking in eloquence—would have had to have found other and probably lesser ways to artistically express its dissolution amid technology, and mass organization.

Asking a fan to burn your work is a request that we might now, after Freud, characterize as passive-aggressive,” and might seem to us to be a mark of extreme egoism—a good friend like Brod will always refuse what is bad in you, and Kafka had to have known that, yet still made his wishes known. He made his wishes known possibly knowing that those wishes, too, would eventually be made known along with the novels and stories.

If Kafka didn’t want his manuscript fiction read, we can be sure that he never once hoped that his salaried memoranda might one day find an audience. And yet here we are, having just spent the last four days reading Kafka, and reading the worst of him—the most tedious, the most straight-faced, the facts.” Almost a century after Kafka’s death, we read him and he does not know that we read him, and we read what we want of him, and he has no say which page we flip to—whether to the first page of The Metamorphosis, or to his many love letters, to Felice, to Milena, or to his diary entries, or his report to the Second International Congress on Accident Prevention and First Aid in Vienna. Wherever we read him, however, the language is familiar. It is a language that derives from the personalities, many and varied, which we ourselves assume for the purposes of public functioning, and it is this common deceit—a conceit?—that compels us to read Kafka today. That in the future we will still read more of his fiction, of his Home Writings,” than of his Office Writings, is only because the fiction has managed to retain a spark of individual life, burning in defiance against, while also illuminating, any stricture imposed from above.

Finally, about that imposition: what does it ultimately mean that the essential fiction of modernity—actually, the first great fiction of modernity, the fiction of the airplane, and the submachine gun, of the Battle of the Somme and the sisters, three of them, Elli, Valli, and Ottla, who perished in the Łódź Ghetto and at Auschwitz; the fiction of the first mass-produced automobile and telephone and film, and of the first typewriter and computer”—what does it mean that such suggestive work had its genesis not just in the language of business, but in the very diction or grammar of bureaucracy?

Here, where we live, in Postmodernity, which is just the name for final market ascension over individual expression, Office-influence means that art has become work, and work has become art. In literature especially—an art that, more than any other, takes an investment of time and thought for its appreciation—the effects of this merger have been devastating. With the rise of MFA and other professional writing programs, people—young people who should be thinking and doing on their own—diligently apply themselves instead to learning how to write, and learning how to write well, as if that standard existed, and was the purview of the Academy, or the market. Literature is not life, though, or not all of life, which has itself been assailed by work’s prepotency.

Life has become work, too—”a lifestyle.” Today, every aspect of our existence has been overtaken by ideas of achievement, of productivity. We talk to each other, even to ourselves, of fulfillment, of goals. It was inevitable that our personal language would become that of managerial motivation, that we would administer seminars to the self. The home has become an office—”the home office.” People have begun bringing their computers into their beds. It is regarded as not just good practice but salutary to be “always connected.” Kafka the insurance scribe knew this was coming. He knew this, too: That the only way out was to get sick and die.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.