Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ruminations on Kafka's The Office Writings

In the current issue of the London Review of Books is a review of Franz Kafka’s The Office writings. The review is entitled “Double Thought” and written by Michael Wood.

Many many years ago I read all of Kafka, all that was available at the time, one book after the other, and the experience was unforgettable – and not in the pleasant connotation of that word. It was an experience I resolved never to repeat. And yet I have in a mild way re-accumulated a few of Kafka’s books now and again over the years and read a short story here or a chapter or two from a novel there – just enough to get the feel but not enough to reenter his nightmarish world. Back in the day I also read books relating to Kafka. I recall Letters to Milena, and writings by Max Brod, but I confess that reading the above review was a shock to me. Someone has gone to the trouble of accumulating the best of his “office writings,” that is, the writing he did at his job. Good grief!

Well, I thought “Good Grief,” how shameful for a literary historian to go grubbing about in Kafka’s wastebasket (Kafka told Brod to burn all this writings and he didn’t). But if the FBI can do it, why not literary historians? And I wondered why Kafka even brought such writings home. I was a writer for years and years in Aerospace but left all my writings in folders, files, and later on computers at work – at Douglas/McDonnell Douglas/Boeing. Yes I took pride in many of the things I wrote, as the literary historians report that Kafka did, but that was a ditch well dug, a door well hung, an incomprehensible engineering description well analyzed and made sense of. Why would anyone bring any of that home? If any of my novels ever get published and there is a run on my writings (I worked in aerospace almost as long as Kafka lived; so there would be a lot of them), would literary historians be able to find any of my “office writings.” I don’t think so. There would no way, at least there wasn’t any in existence when I retired, to track everything I wrote, assuming it still existed some place, by my name. It’s all gone. Tsk, tsk. But Kafka’s isn’t all gone. Brod saved all of it.

In the London Review article, Wood assumes that one knows what Kafka’s “office writings’ would consist of; which I didn’t, and had to refer to the publishers, Princeton University Press to find out: Wood writes mostly about Kafka’s The Castle, in which K works as a bureaucrat of sorts, perhaps in a similar capacity to Kafka’s for the “Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” Wood quotes from The Castle and asks “where did Kafka learn to think like this?” The answer would seem to be, at least to some extent, from the work he did for the aforementioned Institute.

I can’t relate to what Wood writes. In my own case I don’t think of being influenced, but the reverse. I would be given tasks that others couldn’t do. Sometimes there was risk. I was once given the task to write a procedure for interaction with the Air Force in a certain realm. I was informed that those who had attempted the task in the past had failed and been fired. I wasn’t getting along well with the new boss who handed me the job. The implication was obvious. But I didn’t fail. I succeeded and was a minor celebrity at the office for a few days and my grumpy boss gave me an award, a case for carrying a laptop. In a sense all the years of my employment at that single company were like that. I came out of the Marine Corps not liking crowds, bureaucracies and people who were promoted beyond their competence – the latter describes many of the bosses I had. Fortunately for me. Bosses who were incompetent knew that they needed to rest on the laurels of their competent workers – even if they were arrogant and critical of incompetence.

But maybe I am deceiving myself. Maybe working all those years in aerospace affected me more than I realize. I knew my time in the Marine Corps affected me, and I concede that being in Engineering for decades has influenced my way of thinking-through problems, but is that really an influence. If I am debating someone, I am often reminded of discussions I had with incompetent engineers or administrators and maybe come down harder than I should, but was that truly an influence from aerospace? It seems to me I was already that way by the time I got out of the Marine Corps.

One must credit Wood with making interesting application when he writes, “He [Burgel] is suggesting that there is no rule or necessity which saves the system, but that something always will. This something will be contingent and accidental, like K’s sleepiness; not destined or designed. But it will arrive. At least it has always arrived so far. This is how the world corrects its course, and this is why Burgel’s voice takes on its musing tone, and offers its logical challenge to us, as if to say how elegant it is that those opportunities are always there but never used – how elegant and how appalling. . . .”

I thought of the state of our economy after reading that. In a recent article I ascribed the drop in the Dow to Obama’s election. I wrote, “The media is doing its best to dissociate the fall of the DOW from Obama’s election. According to the New York Times only “die-hard Republicans may be tempted to blame the rout on the election of Barak Obama as president of the United States.”

“The DOW dropped 835 points in the two days following Obama’s election. The people dancing in the street are dancing to some extent because Obama has promised them entitlements. He is going to take money from the rich (the people who invest in the stock market) and give it to the poor (people who don’t have any stocks). I suspect that more people than die-hard Republicans are going suspect there is a connection.”

Someone wrote a response which might be summarized as “no one knows why the Dow goes up or down; therefore you can’t know.” I responded that this wasn’t a complex matter in my opinion. Obama in speech after speech spoke of sharing the wealth, of taking it (through taxation) from the rich, i.e., those who invested in stocks, and giving it to the poor, those who didn’t invest in stocks. Surely those who invest in stocks were alarmed, or perhaps a better word would be “discouraged” at Obama’s election. Kafka’s idea, or perhaps principle, that something will always occur that will work things out in a conservative way, that is, to keep things as they are, seems especially appropriate here. I read in this morning’s paper the “Dow jumps 494 on treasury pick.” It was subtitled, “An hour before the close of trading, the nomination news starts a rally.” Investors were discouraged when Obama was elected but have had time to reflect on the fact that he won’t actually be doing things himself. He will have a cabinet for that. Obama hadn’t done very much and the investors were apprehensive about what he would do, but now he has now done something. He has picked, or possibly picked, Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. That was good enough for the investors. Their confidence rose. Things might not be as bad as they feared. The Conservative Ship of state is righting itself.

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