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The Office Series, Day Four: After Kafka

Nazis in the workplace, what Kafka’s writings presaged

Joshua Cohen
December 04, 2008

Throughout the 1960s, when Kafka’s work was circulating in Czech in samizdat editions, Prague’s dissident writers would call the Prague castle, throne of the immemorial Czech kings, Das Schloß—”The Castle”—in reference to the circuitous delays, follies, and bureaucratic oppressions, of the communist period. While The Trial found its ending in officework, The Castle began in an interlude of recovery from work: In 1922, Kafka went to convalesce at the mountain resort of Spindlermühle, on the Czech-Polish border, arriving in a sleigh in the midst of a snowstorm, just as the novel’s hero K. does to take up his work as a surveyor. The first chapters of that book, Kafka’s last novel, were written in that town, in the first person, and later adapted to third person. Tellingly, the true Castle of The Castle might not actually be Prague’s. Some claim its model can be found in ancient ruins near Spindlermühle itself, while others insist on inspirations from Kafka’s business trips, including the castles and châteaux of a host of Moravian cities, Sudetenland outposts, and even the village of Zürau, where Kafka’s favorite sister lived, and where the largest building was a granary, which controlled the village economically, and which locals referred to, jokingly, as the Castle.”

Wherever the Castle was, though—if anywhere—Kafka worked for it. He made the language and protocols of its bureaucracy his own. More than for the Institute, more than for his own sense of self, Kafka worked for this ideal ministry, this ideal apparatus of oppression. The writing he did during the day at his workdesk would be transcribed into the margins of the writing he would do at his other desk at home and at night, constraining even his most fanciful imaginings with appropriate Castle form, and Castle diction. Kafka’s business writing became, in effect, Kafka’s writing business, and Kafka Inc. became Kafkan ink as his best stories found themselves straightened into assumed styles and genres. The essay, the speech, the Report to an Academy, the travelogue parody—Kafka’s fiction is anything but fiction. It was subsidiary work, always, of a “limited liability.”

What should be investigated, then, is Kafka’s embrace of the Castle—of his employer’s language, and rhetorical techniques. Such adoptions have almost always been accomplished in a spirit of subversion, and examples are copious, and brilliant: Andrei Platonov, who incorporated Stalinist slogans into his novels; mid-century American poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg, who co-opted advertising language into verse practice; one also thinks of Lenny Bruce, who composed entire comedy routines reading from transcripts derived from his trials on obscenity charges. Kafka’s example is more ambivalent, however. It is not subversion so much as an author himself being subverted.

But this phenomenon of speaking in the voice of one’s superior, of eventually surrendering oneself to the voice of one’s superior, is best examined in extremis —through Nazism. It has become a commonplace to say that Kafka’s work prefigured, in image, or predicted, in word, the horrors of Nazism. That argument is most often advanced by a litany of external congruencies between Kafka’s fictional world and the Third Reich: bureaucracy (though the Nazis were always more efficient than the authorial imagination), the infringement of technology on daily life, random violence, unappealable official destinies, fates based on birth, etc. Kafka’s intuition of Nazism was far more personal, however, far more inwardly directed. It can be found in his characters’ desires to join something, to become part of something, whether a style or form of being, or even a Volk (which, in Kafka’s case, would have, perversely, been Judaism). Kafka’s people want to become one with another, but especially with a mass, or a power. They long to find a voice, a place, or station, to join an office, a ministry, a selfless Gemeinschaft or selfish Gesellschaft, a family, a religion. Their question at the door of the Law is Rainer Maria Rilke’s: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” For natives of Austro-Hungarian Prague, like Kafka, like Rilke (they were born eight years, and ten blocks, apart), angels come in hierarchies—Ordnungen in German, “orders”; the celestials have rungs and levels, too.

Kafka was desperate to link his art and life to each other, and to link his destiny in both to a respectable institution. This desperation derived from a desire to please his parents, perhaps, as if to satisfy a God he did not believe in. For a time, at the advent of the First World War, he even attempted to enlist in the army, but was refused as an essential worker in the service of State. The decisiveness with which the nervous, suffering Kafka attempted military service, and then the energy and application with which he campaigned for veteran’s rights and benefits after the War, seems obsessive, even pathological (he advocated to establish a sanatorium for veterans’ recovery in a resort called, of all things, Frankenstein).

This desire to lose himself in another’s approval was almost animal, instinctual, as if a remnant of the impulse to herd, to disappear into the flock. It should be remembered that old Jewish cities such as Prague are still organized not by congregation but by communities. In Prague one could not, and still cannot, “belong” to a synagogue, but, instead, to the Prague Obec, the Jewish Community of Prague, which has a board of directors and president answerable only to the Chief Rabbinate of Bohemia and Moravia. To this day Prague’s Jews carry blue identification cards, though registration has been made wholly voluntary. There is safety in numbers, but danger in being counted, and there is absolution in both. One has only to think of the demonic heir to Kafka’s officialdom—the Desk Murderer of Nazism, the unaware, or half-aware, Schreibtischmörder. He is competent. He is useful. He and thousands of archons exactly like him decimated almost the entirety of Prague Jewry. People want to “belong.” People want to be hated and abused.

A person who works as a Nazi is just that, a Nazi, and everything he does is infused with the spirit of Nazism. Like that historical unfortunate, we, too, have learned the lessons of work, and incorporated them into our lives. The public has long penetrated the private, and the two spheres are now virtually indistinguishable. It is as if we repeat the words of Shakespeare’s Shylock: “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” Lately, though, we “execute” this instruction directly on ourselves.

This is only a poetic version of Marx’s thought, that bureaucracy manages to translate all social relations into a grammar of formal relationships between offices and ranks. Marx’s assertion can be transposed onto the community, or family. In our time, all relations, even the most intimate—those between lovers, those between a writer and a piece of paper—have been invaded with foreign language. This invading, adulterating force is today characterized as “the Media,” though its particular expression has historically been called many things: technical jargon, Amtsstil (the official Empire term for “officialese”), Orwellian Newspeak. Today, the individual has access to an unprecedented array of linguistic and identificational guises and feints—ways in which one might, through the Word, disappear into the mass. In The Metamorphosis the bugman Samsa goes from being a “he” to an “it.” His sister Grete says: “‘I won’t utter my brother’s name in the presence of this creature, and so all I say is: we must get rid of it. We’ve tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as is humanly possible, and I don’t think anyone could reproach us in the slightest.’”

At the time he was writing The Metamorphosis, Kafka jotted in his diary: “In the next room they are talking about vermin.” Yes, they were, but in a new language. In translation, they were talking about Samsa. In translation, they were talking about him.

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.