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The Office Series, Day Two: Before Kafka

How the writer found his way to an office

Joshua Cohen
December 02, 2008

Before we arrive at the Office—Franz Kafka’s, or anyone’s—we first have to make a survey of the origins of that institution. We first have to make a working genesis, a hypothetical creation myth for our cubicle. How did we get to Kafka? How was he—Franz Kafka, l’artiste bourgeois—arrived at? What was the process that resulted in Kafka the writer? What was the historical equation that resulted in Kafka the working, and writing, phenomenon? This is the stuff of tens of histories, and hundreds of doctoral dissertations.

His origins lie before industry certainly, before widespread centralization. He began, in fact, when people stopped working for themselves and started working for others; when individual or familial subsistence gave way to earning a living. Work, in the 19th century, became largely an indoor activity, making daily labor—not in the fields and farmlands, but behind four walls in a plant—seem contained, a place where behavior could be scrutinized, and surveilled. Then, with the demise of the aristocracy and church estates as the markets opened to the previously disenfranchised, a middle-class emerged, grown out of the ranks of lowly employees promoted off the factory floor and behind desks.

At this juncture, deskwork had become almost totally detached from the real physical work it controlled. The European bourgeoisie never made much of anything, ultimately: they administered, administrated, directed. The typical officeworker or bureaucrat made nothing, but he made money, whereas his son, who would become an artist, made “something”—an artwork—that was worth “nothing.” The typical generational reaction to the values of the fin de siècle middle-manager was just this—art.

This was Kafka’s reaction, but he would have it both ways. He would be doubly representative, both of his generation, and of the generation earlier. Throughout the 19th century, merchant-managerial fathers groomed their sons to take over their businesses, but Karl Marx’s father was a lawyer; Gustav Mahler’s father managed a distillery; Walter Benjamin’s father was a banker and a dealer in antiques; Gershom Scholem’s father was a printer, and Karl Kraus’ father manufactured the paper on which his son wrote. The redoubtable head of the Wittgenstein dynasty was an industrialist, with interests in iron and steel.

Here then, is Kafka, the last of the line. As Theodor Adorno noted, the last of the Modernists were also the last of the bourgeoisie; Adorno’s father sold, but did not make, wine. Kafka would become another sort of last, too: He became the representative writer of the last generation of continuous Jewish life and art in Europe, almost two centuries after the beginning of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, when Jews first began clawing out of the ghettos. Kafka was an administrator who could not stand up to his parents (he was especially afraid of his father), whose relatives’ reputations—as Benjamin might have put it, their “auras”—intimidated him. He was the petit, clerkish son of a family that had had physical power (Kafka’s paternal people were schochets, Jewish ritual slaughterers from Osek, or Wossek, in provincial Bohemia), and spiritual authority (his mother’s side were rabbis). Hermann Kafka, pater familias, was a small business owner, the supervisor of a dozen employees; his shop on the Zeltnergasse (now Celetná ulice) sold haberdashery, gloves, slippers, and umbrellas. He also founded an asbestos factory, the Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co. His son, however, was devoid of a proprietor’s practicalities. Kafka didn’t just live in his head—he lived two lives in his head.

Into these bifurcations we should cleave two more: not just Kafka’s Judaism but the officially sanctioned anti-Semitism of Austro-Hungary, and then the exigencies of Kafka’s later Prague life, split between German, which he wrote in, and Czech, which he spoke fluently, and which became, after the War, his employer’s primary language. After the Empire’s fall, and Czech independence, Kafka stayed on at his reorganized company, known as The Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for Czechoslovakia. Just like with women—Kafka was engaged three times, to two different women—he was a willing slave, and would serve any master.

As for anti-Semitism, it nearly prevented his career. Kafka thought himself lucky to have made it into Prague’s Charles University despite an unofficial numerus clausus—“the closed number” that imposed a quota on a university’s Jews—and so felt compelled to comport himself with respect and attention to his studies. That sense of election and duty would quickly disappear. Kafka began his study of law with an almost theological seriousness, only to degenerate in his practice into routine prosecutions of corrupt hotel owners in Marienbad. This disconnect between the Law’s authority and the law’s application bred cynicism, as did the bias of a modern social welfare state that supported workers’ equality but not equality for Jews; such contradictions had to be daily resisted for Kafka to function at either one of his desks. The initial idealism, even optimism, that characterized his university study also characterized his first attempts at writing stories; tellingly, Kafka began his writing life in earnest at the same time as he began his coursework in law. Once employed, however, that youthful energy was suffocated, destroyed.

Soon, the utopian, picaresque spirit of his first novel, America (also known as The Man Who Disappeared), was deadened, numbed by the grind. Work constantly obtruded on Kafka’s enthusiasms, as his most private occupation—the writing of stories, the invention of worlds—found itself annulled in the selflessness of legalistic formulations. Such technical prose matured Kafka, which is to say it also leeched from him any plentitude of spirit. While legalisms allowed him to strip his stories, along with his personality, permitting him to present his fictions along with his terrible depressions and psychosomatic illnesses as mere recountings of the “facts,” the law’s recursive, casuistical constructs also served to entangle Kafka more terminally in his loneliness, and his failure. Need anyone be reminded that none of Kafka’s novels were ever finished? Why? Because they could never be proven. They could never be definitively adjudged.

Kafka’s career finally ended in 1922, when he retired early due to illness, on a miserly pension of 10,608 Czech crowns per annum. Toward the end of his tenure, friends had begun calling him František, the Czech version of Franz; he was still one of two Jews allowed to work at the Institute (he did not enjoy the company of the other). Meanwhile, the world had fallen apart. Forty million people had died throughout Europe, millions more had lost limbs in accidents amid the workplace of history, and, above all, literature now had the movies to contend with: Kafka enjoyed The White Slave Girl, The Heartbreaker, The Thirsty Gendarme, and Theodor Körner. We are far from the first fields, and the eclogues of pastoral poets.

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.