The Power of Analysis and the Impossibility of Understanding: Lessons from Kafka

The XII. Prague Interpretation Colloquium

Samuel Beckett attempted to show what one can do, feel, express and expect in the situation of universal chaos. At the time readers were getting acquainted with his powerful works, they had already known from Franz Kafka what chances of mutual understanding and meaningful action there are in a rigidly organized world – and the outcome was equally disquieting. On the one hand, the structure of Kafka’s world encourages an unprecedented eloquence and talkativeness in Kafka’s characters: it inspires them to detailed descriptions, obsessively pedantic analyses of actual as well as possible courses of events and sophisticated explanations, which – taken together – create an illusion of reliable orientation within the system. At the same time, the more elaborate and detached these analyses are, the more it becomes clear that the system by its very nature resists understanding and does not leave any space for an agent following his/her own aims and priorities. This confronts Kafka‘s interpreters with a series of questions, including:

(1) Are there any specific („Kafkaesque“) patterns of analysis and explanation detectable in the utterances of Kafka’s characters? What does their peculiar strengths and their inability to generate understanding consist in?
(2) What kinds of strategies, tricks and manipulative moves are recognizable in the actions and linguistic utterances of Kafka’s characters? What is the source of the impression that their lengthy monologues fit together and reply one to another, without constituting genuine communication?
(3) Why does the world presented by Kafka create the simultaneous feeling of strangeness and familiarity? Should we approach it as a fictional world construed by the author, which the reader is supposed to enter and look back at the actual world from its specific („Kafkaesque“) perspective? Or, are we invited to imagine (make-believe) about the actual world that it differs from what we (suppose to) know about it in the way suggested by Kafka? Or again, are we simply supposed to recognize the (hidden or manifest) contours of the actual world in Kafka’s texts?
(4) What kind of demands impose the specific features of Kafka’s narrative on the reader and what space do they provide for her immersion in the fiction? What are the possibilities (and limits) of their transmission to other, non-textual media, such as theatre, film or the fine arts?
(5) Is there any optimal relation between interpreting the text and interpreting the author which would be specific for Kafka’s case? And if the author is admitted as one of the referential points of interpretation, should it be Franz Kafka as an inhabitant of the actual world, known to us from his diaries, letters, contemporary testimonies etc.? Or should we construe the author (more or less exclusively) as a part of the interpretation of his literary texts, and hence, perhaps, as an inhabitant of the Kafkaesque world? Analogically: should we approach him as a sensitive human being recording – not necessarily for other readers – his anxieties and obsessive visions? Or rather as an inventive author who follows narrative strategies, resulting in a remarkable literary construct?
(6) Has the term “Kafkaesque”, as used in both ordinary and journalistic language, enriched, or rather trivialized our discourse about oppressive and non-transparent features of our social environment? Are there any yet unnoticed challenges and inspirations to be found in Kafka’s work for contemporary ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of religion etc.?

Colloquium coordinator:
Tomáš Koblížek, PhD., Department of Analytic Philosophy,