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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

The omnipresence of Franz Kafka

by David Ray

In a restless night I get out of bed and reach for an anthology.†I had forgotten that Kafkaís in it, or his work is in it, his spirit entombed.†Iím soon propped up on a pillow, daring to risk a few pages, get into his misery anew, as if thatís a way to escape my own.†

Yet I know that immersing one’s self in his world has its dangers. I begin to feel as if I’m reading something forbidden, that I may be in a cell like those described by torture victims.

Actually there’s little need to remind ourselves of the specifics, as if we are locked in the same cell with him. Once his work has invaded our brains it’s there for keeps. Even without reminders we think of him as we see fresh horrors that make us see him as some sort of visionary afflicted with too heavy a burden of open-eyed awareness. I see it in his photograph too -- his awareness that history cannot cure itself or protect itself or us, its inheritors, from human evil goes on spinning its entangling webs.

Less dangerous, and full of insights and sharp observations, are his fragmentary journal entries which reverberate, free of prolonged torture.  They remind me of hummingbirds, evasive because they are small and non-confrontational, quick to dart in, yet escape at the slightest danger. And Kafka always seems present to produce some more jottings. Survival is almost implied. These pieces of a never completed mosaic are not so terminal as his novels.

The Holocaust was on the boards when Franz Kafka died, and many in his family perished in it, and the Atomic Age was inevitable. Or was it? There were men who could have stopped this crossing into time where the ever escalating threat would hold not only humanity but all earth’s species hostage so long as there is anything left to be destroyed.

Is it even statistically possible for anyone to use those weapons without destroying themselves? A fireworks factory needs only a mischievous child to set off a conflagration. As for the nuclear weapons primed and ready to be fired, we are not speaking of just a few -- there are hundreds of thousands, indescribably horrific. Is it true that even one weapon can surpass all the fire power expended in both World Wars or perhaps in all earth’s previous ones?

Why is it that I visualize the faces of cynic souls like Franz Kafka looking upon this insanity? I know he never meant his dark view of the world to match its horrors and the despair so apparent in his gaze.  He wrote to banish grim visions, not confirm their inevitability. As I swat a cockroach, a flustered escapee through a bathtub drain, I realize that after the bombs go off its species may well replace ours. In truth we are barely worthy of survival, so indifferent have we been to the fate of nature and the planet’s other citizens.

We evade dread realities with illusion, religion, and the same bluff vanity that keeps gamblers heading back to casinos, unsure whether their mission is to win or lose. Spin the wheel yet again, as if one can do so forever without catastrophe. Though we know very well that our nation has given would-be terrorists ample reasons to hate us and be willing to depart from a world they never made or have found sufferable we go on pretending that we are saints and crusaders willing to wade up to the knees of our horses in blood.  So are they, as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 proved. Kafka would have loved for his fables and fictions never to be validated by horrors, but as prophet his accuracy certainly surpassed that of Nostradamus.

D. H. Lawrence wrote in a 1916 letter to J. M. Murry, that an epoch of the human mind may have come to the end in Dostoyevsky and that a “state of mindlessness – curse it” has set in. “When you draw somewhere near the ‘brink of the revelation’ you dig your head in the sand like the disgusting ostrich, and see the revelation there. Meanwhile, with their head in the sand of pleasing visions and secrets and revelations, they kick and squirm with their behinds, most disgustingly. I don’t blame humanity for having no mind, I blame it for putting its mind in a box and using it as a nice little self-gratifying instrument. You’ve got to know, and know everything, before you ‘transcend’ into the unknown.” Lawrence thought that Dostoyevsky drew back from that ‘unknown’ and buried his head at the feet of Christ as a bluff for the cowards to hide their eyes against.” But who indeed can look at reality and not be blinded? Here I sit a few miles from the prime targets of a nuclear bomber base and a major weapons factory, waiting for some madman to ignite World War III. Of course I prefer to bury my head in the sand.

Some speak of “Kafkaesque” realities and those of other futurists like Capek, as if bragging of engineering marvels of torture machines and battlefields in the sky. In any case, there are more horrible weapons created by runaway I.Q. cases awaiting their launchings today than yesterday. Tomorrow there will be more than today. Most people have long since managed to suppress the belief they might one day go off.  At a Raytheon factory a few miles from our home in Tucson the weapons are being turned out to much acclaim by the citizens of our city, and the company is often awarded multi-million dollar contracts. Instead of finding a way to abolish these perils to life on earth, governments clamor and connive and conspire to make even more unimaginably powerful “improvements.” Does it occur to any these so-called scientists that they too will perish in the fires they trigger? No more, I suspect, than Detroit carmakers have worried about being choked on their own smog.

Kafka’s life was tragic enough, and yet his suffering preceded this threat that is ever expanding, exfoliating, looming ever closer everywhere. And I have noticed that no one any longer seems to consider it naive to refer to our time as the end time or Armageddon or cite Mayan predictions. Just as George Orwell’s dark visions of 1984 were fulfilled and surpassed and tolerated without complaint by most people, Kafka’s stories of torture and human dilemma read more and more like synopses of newspaper accounts of daily events.

It is as if those who decide the destinies of nations and even of our species have, far from being the bumbling fools we might have taken them for, carefully studied the great books for inspiration. They probably started in country churches with a Sunday School lesson on The Book of Revelations before moving on in college for a peek at wonders like the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Orwell, and Solzhenitsyn. For each there is an eponymous adjective that instantly evokes a vision of hell. Did the human race somewhere along the line decide that swapping heaven for hell on earth was a good choice, and worth working and fighting for day and night, red war ever redder.

Franz, I wish I could share this day with you. Come along on our doggie walk and we’ll discuss a few things. The world’s still a wonderful place, and perhaps we could convince each other not to despair. Would it be a pleasure or hollow triumph for you to learn that many of the dark visions in your stories have been fulfilled in reality, some of them exactly as you described them?  For example, your description in “The Burrow” could have been an account of Saddam Hussein’s capture after he hid in a deep hole, and your torture machine may not have been water boarding, but it certainly conveyed the horror of a place like Guantanamo, a penal colony indeed.

I hesitate to mention such items, because you might jump to the conclusion that I am blaming you for all that’s gone wrong as if even to describe a horror is to make it happen. I assure you I don’t think so.

David Ray is the author of nineteen volumes of poetry including his latest, After Tagore: Poems inspired by Rabindranath Tagore (Nirala Series, New Delhi, 2008) and When (Howling Dog Press, 2007), and is the founding editor of New Letters magazine and New Letters On The Air. He is a two-time winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and has taught at a number of colleges in the U.S.A., including Cornell University, Reed College, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His essay, "On Avoiding a Kafkaesque Fate," appeared in irreal (re)views in August, 2006, and his story "Seven Pieces of Meat" appeared in Issue 20 of The Cafe Irreal.

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