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The Office Series, Day Three: Kafka

How the writer’s work directly inspired his art

Joshua Cohen
December 03, 2008

Kafka began his career with an Italian company, Assicurazioni Generali, with offices in Prague. That company, formally known as Imperial Regia Privilegiata Compagnia di Assicurazioni Generali Austro-Italiche (the name should give an indication of its operation), was closely associated with the port of Trieste, in Italy, the largest, busiest port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1908, after two years of employment, Kafka left that firm to take up a more prestigious position with The Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague, a semigovernmental institution responsible for administering insurance in the province of Bohemia, but answerable to Vienna k.u.k.—kaiserlich und königlich, imperial and royal,” its autocratic description—crownseat of the Crownlands. Bohemia was just one of 18 provinces of an Empire that stretched from the German Reich to the Russian wilds, and Prague, Bohemia’s capital, Kafka’s home and birthplace, was only the third city of that Empire, after Vienna, capital of Cisleithania, and Budapest, capital of Transleithania, or the Kingdom of Hungary—dealings between provinces were complicated; the Empire’s fetish for organization led only to chaos.

Prague, then, was half-metropolis, half-provincial, a dark, Gothic city where German-speakers lived alongside ethnic Czechs, while political allegiance was split between German-language fealty to Empire and Czech desires for self-determination, finally realized by T.G. Masaryk in 1918 with the founding of the first Czechoslovak Republic. These two factions were united by an envying mistrust of the Reich, and also by the mediating presence of Socialists and Jews—two minority designations that often applied to the same set of people. They could be found at solidarity meetings one day, then on the next night at the Altneu synagogue, in whose attic lives the Golem. Across the Vltava River, known in German as the Moldau, loomed The Castle”—Das Schloß, also known as the Hrad.

Workers’ Accident Insurance was first established in Europe due to a multitude of factors, not least this rise of socialism. The Germanic Socialist workers’ movements of the late 19th century—practical embodiments of Marxist thought, infused with French esprit as perfected in the insubordination of the 1871 Paris Commune—arose in response to the growth of industry, which demanded practical and fair relief from its efforts to effectuate Modernity. A balm had to be found in this newly technological Gilead to heal workers’ injuries incurred in the service of the Industrial Revolution. The Empire’s comprehensive workers’ accident insurance plan was based on that of the German Reich, which unified in the same year as the Commune appeared, 1871. Marx began his work in the 1840s in the Reich’s strongest territory: Prussia.

Unlike the multinational Empire, however, Germany was a nation-state: It was both a state responsible for practical administration, and a nation interested in preserving national character—a character defined by perceived mental and physical fitness, and even superiority, suffused with folk vestiges of the Romantic movement. Accordingly, the welfare of Germany’s workers was intimately bound up in ideas of commonweal, and common origins. The Empire, by contrast, was a multinational hodgepodge that had to create a social welfare state if not out of concern for its disparate workforce, then to maintain its fractious coalitions—to placate its competing nationalisms and political platforms, and to counteract the agitation of anarchist and secessionist groups (such as the one that spawned the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand early in the next century). It might follow, then, that workers’ insurance helped keep the Empire together at a time of divergent allegiances. It might follow, also, that Marx’s Socialist doctrine can be read as a pretext—truly, a pre-text —to legislation that provided insurance to workers helping to bring about a revolutionarily capitalist, consumer society.

In 1887, four years after Kafka’s birth, the Empire implemented its policy of workers’ accident insurance, and founded its Institutes. Unlike in the Reich, the Empire’s insurance was organized according to geographic territories, and not by types of trades. Whereas Germany established a Metalworkers’ Trade Association and a Textileworkers’ Trade Association, the Empire established Prague’s Bohemia branch, which covered all trades throughout Bohemia, and which accepted Kafka for employment after he was finished insuring the best boats, and wealthiest companies, of Trieste (Assicurazioni Generali’s was the oldest type of insurance: Modern commercial insurance was founded two centuries earlier in London to indemnify the first private firms interested in international maritime shipping).

Now, however, Kafka worked not for the mutual benefit of large industry and the Crown, but as a mediator between the concerns of the working class and its management, between that management class and the Institute, and, lastly, between the Institute and Kaiser Franz Joseph in Vienna. Initially, Kafka’s Institute job was as a deputy clerk, or assistant secretary, but he was eventually promoted to become Senior Legal Secretary—an Obersekretär —the indispensable righthand man, a sort of Court Jew, to the organization’s Director, Doctor Robert Marschner (a note about titles: in the office he was always addressed as “Herr Doktor Kafka”). As Obersekretär, Kafka’s responsibilities included risk classification (which involved evaluating the degree of danger of a certain job, and so setting the level of premium to be paid by business owners), and improving the Institute’s efforts at accident prevention. The latter duty required Kafka to dabble in public relations, writing informative bulletins and even popular newspaper articles—his chief outlet was the proletarisch, large-circulation Tetschen-Bodenbacher Zeitung—hoping to educate management, labor, and the general public in advances in workplace safety.

‘The blades of the square shaft are screwed directly to the shaft, and their exposed cutting edges spin at 3800-4000 revolutions per minute.’
“The blades of the square shaft are screwed directly to the shaft, and their exposed cutting edges spin at 3800–4000 revolutions per minute.”
While at night Kafka was writing stories about the infinite and eternal construction of The Great Wall of China, and about a Flying Dutchman set adrift on a deathship, floating forever amid ports of call, during the day he was writing interminable pages about the perils of wood-planing machines (“the introduction of the cylindrical safety shafts in wood-planing machines is finally progressing well”), the perils of chimney-sweeping, and brandy consumption in quarries, problems with automobile insurance (as the majority of cars were then driven by chauffeurs, the vehicles themselves had to be classified as businesses), and the risk classification quandaries posed by the recently electrified elevator (Where is the electrical generator stored? Who, exactly, has access to the elevator’s switches?).

To read these 18 examples of office writing without the context of Kafka’s other work, without knowing who, in fact, Kafka ever was, is essentially to go to work. Here is a sampling of their titles, some provided by the book’s three editors, and others by Kafka himself, or by his newspaper editors: “Fixed-Rate Insurance Premiums for Small Farms Using Machinery”; “On the Examination of Firms by Trade Inspectors”; “Petition of the Toy Producers’ Association in Katharinaberg, Erzgebirge”; and “Help Disabled Veterans! An Urgent Appeal to the Public.” Their style, even more so than the style of Kafka’s stories and novels, is neutral. Their subject matter is expectedly worse: specialist, abstruse, culled from the most humdrum and desiccated of corporate genizahs.

Then again, we should remember that nobody asked us to read them. Sigmund Freud’s laundry lists probably aren’t any better (though they might prove equally as revealing). Indeed, to read the office writings as one is supposed to, like a good student of the Kafkaesque, or a diligent K.-like worker, is instructive: it is to understand Kafka’s art anew, and to be reminded of the discreet, double-life of modern working man, whose true, pleasure-giving interests lie almost entirely outside of the workplace. The Office Writings are the Ur texts to Kafka’s extracurricular fiction, Kafka’s precursors as much as Talmud (which he did not know well), and Hasidic wonder stories, Hamsun and Kierkegaard and von Kleist and Flaubert, Dostoyevsky’s psychological murderers, and Dickens’ urban grotesquerie and grit.

‘The blades of these shafts are completely protected between the flap or between a wedge and the solid frame of the shaft.’
“The blades of these shafts are completely protected between the flap or between a wedge and the solid frame of the shaft.”
The examples of this connectivity are simple—of how the work-work influences the artwork—but the interpretations, and the ramifications, are not. In the aforementioned “Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines” of 1910, Kafka argued that the square shafts that supported the blades used to plane wood were responsible for a regrettable number of accidents and maimings, including the loss of parts of fingers, or, rarer, the severance of entire appendages. Because these shafts were square, gaps would appear between the blades screwed to a turning shaft and the lip of a worktable. A worker’s finger would become stuck in these gaps—four gaps for each single revolution of a square shaft, revolving 3800 to 4000 times per minute—resulting in debilitating injuries. Kafka’s solution was innovative, but seems elementary: He proposed to introduce a newly patented model of cylindrical shaft—a round shaft (with its blades hidden under flaps or between wedges) that obviously lacked sharp quadrilateral corners, and so lacked the gaps that would trap, and — in the days before plastic surgery—irreparably harm. Kafka describes how his solution would benefit workers and management (workers would be healthier, and so more productive; the cylinders were even more “cost-effective”), while emphasizing the carnage of such accidents with what, at the time, was a novelty: images, illustrative plates showing both injured hands, and multiple views of the cylindrical shaft. This commissioning was one of the first uses of illustrations in a business report—Franz Kafka, father of multimedia.
‘Even if fingers are caught in the slot, the resulting injuries are slight, consisting merely of lacerations that need not even interrupt work.’
“Even if fingers are caught in the slot, the resulting injuries are slight, consisting merely of lacerations that need not even interrupt work.”

This report can be convincingly linked to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” In that story of inscription as incision, a convicted felon is punished by torture, and death. The vast, unwieldy apparatus that accomplishes this punishment inscribes on the body of this convict the exact nature of his transgression; the sin becomes internalized through the medium of the flesh, in a mark of Cain for the Machine Age. While no introduction of “cylindrical shafts” could overturn such a metaphysical damnation, there is no doubt that the image of a body inscribed by technology springs from Kafka’s arbitrating experience with traumatized workers. Kafka’s deskbound milieux of inscription and accountancy is also where we first hear about the first primitive computer, a variety of calculator known as the Hollerith machine, used for the processing of statistical data using the technology of the “punch card” (the machine’s process was inspired by the practice of punching a railway ticket, and so encoding it with information; the Hollerith’s best success was with the Nazis, in their use of it to schedule the train deportations of European Jewry). In Kafka’s fiction the human body is the Punch Card of Modernity. In modern life, the body has become the storage, “the muscle memory,” and so the casualty, of the workplace—both physiologically, and psychologically.

Another example of Kafka’s appropriation of insurance work is more direct. Often the attractions of philosophical influence, the wisps and correspondences of ideas, and complex technologies, obscure mundane inspirations and models. In 1914, the same year as he wrote “In the Penal Colony,” Kafka wrote a report editorially entitled “Accident Prevention in Quarries.” In it, he faulted quarry owners for paying wages in alcohol, and for allowing workers to work when drunk, and without the proper safety equipment such as goggles (“It is true that safety goggles are frequently issued to the workers, but the men find them impossible to use, or they are prejudiced against using them, so that the goggles are usually found in the workers’ pockets during the workday. Such a situation can exist because supervision of the operation is either inadequate or altogether lacking.”)

Kafka condemned the entire quarrying industry as under-regulated, and accused the sector’s inspectors of not reporting problems, and not recognizing the fundamental nature of the dangers that quarrying posed: “Quarries call for a kind of inspection that differs from that required by other operations. In this work, it is not a matter of safety devices that, once acquired, will last and be useful for long periods of time; what matters is efficient excavation, which has to be planned over and over so as to fit with the ever-changing soil conditions.” These inspectors comprised an inspectorate class emplaced in response to the legal prohibition against the Institute inspecting the premises of any business it insured, in order to protect the businesses’ trade secrets. These inspectorates would prove “independent” in other ways, too, often settling upon widely divergent meanings for workplace safety ratings of “satisfactory,” and “normal”—to Kafka’s displeasure, and the Institute’s incomplete evaluation. Here, in this report, Kafka also introduced photographs, now of delinquent quarries, noting depictions of unsafe conditions such as teetering boulders, and precarious piles of rock.

He writes, about Fig. IV:
“At the very top to the right in the debris, marked with ‘B,’ a loose stone block, 1 cubic meter in size, lies almost suspended above a projecting rock wall. At the center of the picture, marked ‘S,’ a man can be seen working at a dangerous spot, 4 meters above ground, without being attached to a rope. Debris is not removed, and quarrying work has been pushed forward almost to the edge of the walkways shown through the railing.”

With “a loose stone block, 1 cubic meter in size,” we are reminded, palpably, of the chilling last scene in “The Trial”—the execution of Joseph K. This is his sacrifice by two unknown men, his diabolical akeidah.

“Not to leave K. standing motionless, exposed to the night breeze, which was rather chilly, he took him by the arm and walked him up and down a little, while his partner investigated the quarry to find a suitable spot. When he had found it he beckoned, and K.’s companion led him over there. It was a spot near the cliffside where a loose boulder was lying. The two of them laid K. down on the ground, propped him against the boulder, and settled his head upon it.”

This quarry is the site of martyrdom, character’s and author’s—a wounding for the working cause.

This is where one held K.’s throat, “while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice.”

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.