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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

On avoiding a Kafkaesque fate

by David Ray

A full page ad on the back cover of The Writer's Chronicle, the official magazine of the Associated Writing Programs, recently featured an oval portrait of Franz Kafka as a young man in suit and necktie. The picture, bland as one in a yearbook or family album, is welcome to those of us who are not only haunted and inspired by Kafka, but actually fond of him as a continuing presence in our lives. He has helped us see much of the absurdity we witness today for what it is, and though he did not wait to see the full fulmination of events that brought Hitler to power and took the lives of his three sisters in death camps, his loss is part of the tremendous burden left by events that weigh heavily on humanity's collective conscience.

Though Kafka died in 1924, the prescience in his novels can give us the shudders. In Amerika he foresaw the Statue of Liberty holding not a torch but a sword. His depiction of bureaucratic evil, impersonal, unmovable, unseeing and unstoppable, anticipated the Behemoth State and the Holocaust. He'd be right at home as a witness to the schizoid culture we now inhabit.

More a role model for writers who try to penetrate the evils of their own times than an example to avoid, Franz Kafka as a man not to emulate is a new notion to me. My mother always told me not to be like my father, but no one ever advised me to try to avoid the example set by the great writer Kafka. Yet here is the ad copy that does so, offered by no less a collective authority than the Authors Guild.

Here is the text of the large full-page ad:

"KAFKA TOILED IN OBSCURITY & died PENNILESS. IF ONLY HE'D HAD A WEBSITE. No author should have to make do without a full-featured website. So, for a limited time, when you join the Authors Guild, we'll build a website for you with the dot-com address of your choice…we're watching out for writers' interests in a rapidly changing industry. There's no better time to join the Authors Guild…you may well qualify for membership Don't suffer the same fate as Kafka. Call… AUTHORS GUILD THE VOICE of PUBLISHED WRITERS since 1912."

I find the ad intriguing for many reasons, not the least of which is its bald appeal to our lust for fame and fortune, its sponsor's offer of "contract and dispute advice…on the book business…in a rapidly changing industry." The word "industry" seems to say it all and yet, perhaps foolishly, I have never thought of writing as an industry.

How many serious writers do? Do they inhabit space in which avoiding the fate of Kafka, immortality and a legacy of great writing, would be an incentive? The advice to avoid Kafka's fate might make sense if the reference were only to his despair, tuberculosis and troubled life as a lover. But references of that sort would surely be in such bad taste that no that it would only be an invitation to obscene schadenfreude.

Clearly the advice to avoid poverty and obscurity (What obscurity?) by hiring web site space is not meant to fire us into new efforts not to get tuberculosis or to be caught in the maelstrom of 1920s Europe with its events spiraling out of control even more ferociously than those today-at least so far. The advice in the ad would make sense to Horatio Alger. "Go forth, young man, and make money in this industry called writing. Set your cap on fame and fortune, not on getting it right. Your worldview, your creativity, your insights, your literary legacy are secondary concerns or irrelevant. Implied in such advice is "Don't waste your time on distractions."

In sum, the ad does not refer to aspects of Kafka's fate that we could term a grand success, but only to his failure to make money and enjoy the glitter of fame through his impressive website. Should Kafka himself have been busier avoiding his own fate?

Lucky us, though, we CAN avoid Kafka's fate by letting Authors Guild design us a web site. Like a drug ad on TV that promises immediate cure for our headaches or bladder problems, the Authors Guild has come to our rescue. Hereafter, as soon as our web page is in place we will avoid Franz Kafka's fate, and be watched after by the ultimate Caregiver, the Authors Guild. It sounds rather like entering The Castle, but never mind.

Yet I am troubled. Why should we not want to be immortal like Kafka? As for his T.B. and unfortunate fate of living in the wrong time and place (except for the brewing of great literature) there is little we can do other than sign up with the Guild. We may well have to suffer traumas as horrid as Franz's-there may be other 9/11s, and the nuclear missiles are still in the ground and armed. And we pantophobics (who fear everything) could name countless possibilities, even a repeat of the Holocaust, not to mention Malthus's triad of "war, famine, and pestilence" if we don't get our numbers under control by other means.

Frankly, I don't want to avoid the fate of Franz Kafka. What's wrong with making a major contribution to the world with our literary creations and our mockery of bureaucratic evil and other absurdities? Sure, it would be nice to accomplish something comparable to Kafka's achievement without the suffering, but we know that it's not easy to tiptoe around suffering in order to take the good stuff and scorn the rest.

To me "Don't suffer the same fate as Kafka" is a statement as absurd as any Kafka left in the mouths of the ignorant servants of totalitarianism or those unfortunately not merely fictive presences somewhere up to their mischief in The Castle. Do we not call to mind the grand world strategists of our time, those who give us a daily diet of deceit, shock, and awe at their duplicity?

Are we being told not to get T.B.? Are we being advised not to be exist in a time when evil seems bound to win the spins? Are we being told by the organization devoted to advancing the careers of writers not to be great writers, just successes in the "industry"?

But do we really want to avoid the fate of Franz Kafka, which is immortality? As John Stossel of TV fame says, Give me a break!

This ad is as ill-conceived as any I've seen in the media lately. And yet, like other propaganda, it will probably accomplish the goal it is designed for. And perhaps I am too quick to reject such positive thinking as is implied with the suggestion that individuals can exercise more free will in avoiding their fates. By that logic Kafka botched things by not traipsing off to a magic mountain to cure tuberculosis. And had he fled Europe, taking along his sisters, with a real rather than fictive trip to Amerika, they might have avoided what was coming for the Jews.

Kafka, of course, is not the only writer who could benefit retrospectively from the advice that suggests fates are avoidable. I foresee a series of such ads, e.g., "Don't suffer the same fate as William Faulkner," who wrote that "an artist is a creature driven by demons…" "Don't suffer the same fate as Leo Tolstoy, a miserable man who wandered through the snow in a hermit's burlap, so much an image of failure that he was turned away from his own house by his servant who recognized no master at his door." "Don't suffer the same fate as Joseph Conrad, who mucked up his family life." "Don't suffer the same fate as Samuel Taylor Coleridge," who wrote "Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench'd/ With a woeful agony…"

"Don't suffer the same fate as Gustave Flaubert" who concluded that nothing he had written was worth a sou." "Don't suffer the same fate as Milan Kundera," who confessed that he turned to literature only because "our kids don't give a damn" so "we turn to an anonymous world…" "Don't be like Nathaniel Hawthorne" who picked up his pen after deciding that "I don't see there's anything left for me but to be an author." "Don't suffer the same fate as Anton Chekhov" who said writing was like eating sour cabbage soup. You deserve a better fare.

With a little research a copywriter, who may already be avoiding the fate of Franz Kafka, can turn out a marvelous series, suggesting that a contract with the Authors Guild can save one from the fates of these unhappy beings.

By the way, Franz Kafka already has a web page, call it posthumous. On that page are quoted a few words for artists who labor with knowledge that the activity itself is the payoff. After attending a Yiddish theater troupe performance in a café Kafka wrote: 'The sympathy we have for these actors who are so good, who earn nothing and who do not get nearly enough gratitude and fame is really only sympathy for the sad fate of many noble strivings, above all of our own.'"

David Ray is the author of sixteen volumes of poetry including his latest, The Death of Sardanapalus and Other Poems of the Iraq Wars (Howling Dog Press, 2004), 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.

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