The Misuse of Kafkaesque

Dictionary.com defines Kafkaesque as,

KAF·KA·ESQUE

[kahf-kuh-esk]

adjective

1. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka: the Kafkaesque terror of the endless interrogations.

2. marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity: Kafkaesque bureaucracies.

Granted, it has been awhile since I’ve heard the misuse of this literary term but it still gets under my skin (don’t even get me started about a former boss who would misuse the term “Catch-22” constantly in the office!). But instead of this post being all curmudgeon-y like I originally intended, I will just qualify this by labeling it another Writerly Musing.
I am a great lover of Kafka and cite him as one of my influences, if not the top influence. From the massive amount of empirical data I have not collected, I conclude that when people misuse this wonderful literary term, they are often describing something that is merely bizarre or weird. Whilst I was thinking about this, I ran upon a course that was offered at the University of Colorado-Boulder that is constructed around the misuse.

The term should be utilized to either describe Kafka’s own work or to describe a situation, art, book, etc. that has a cyclical and never-ending bureaucratic sense about it. Some examples,

The Trial Josef K. is rounded up and arrested. He is never told his crime and he keeps running around in circles trying to find some authority figure to make sense of it all. Orson Welles also made a fantastic film version starring Anthony Perkins. The film is shot in b&w and has spectacular camera angles.
The Castle Throughout the entire novel, K. is trying to gain access to the castle and to the mysterious official named, Klamm. He has documents saying he is the new land surveyor for the village but gets shuffled back and forth from different castle bureaucrats.
OTHER NON-KAFKA KAFKAESQUE EXAMPLES
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov. This is a great novel; when I read it, I kept forgetting that this wasn’t a Kafka novel. Nabokov claims that he had not heard of Kafka at that point but I think he’s just a little liar. Cincinnatus C. is in jail awaiting his death after being sentenced for “gnostical turpitude.”
“The Prisoner” starring Patrick McGoohan. This is a great BBC television show from the 1960s. Number Six is drugged and taken to the Village. Throughout the entire series, Number Six is trying to a) find out who Number One is and b) get out of the Village. This series has a striking resemblance to The Castle. Hmm.

I am not a number! I’m a free man!

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12 comments

    1. It’s such a smart movie. I have to rewatch it because I’m slowly losing memory of it. I just remember the creepiness of Jeff Daniels & Anna Paquin after thinking back to ‘Fly Away Home.’

  1. So what to you think of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener?

    I just re-read it the other day, and it made me think (incorrectly, by your argument) of Kafka. I guess it’s sort of an anti-Kafka, in that Bartleby and the narrator both seem to voluntarily take on the bizarre situation that they are in.

    I’ve never read Invitation to a Beheading. I will have to check it out.

    1. You should definitely read Invitation to a Beheading. It is great. I haven’t read Bartleby in awhile, so I’ll have to glance at it again but I would definitely argue that it’s not Kafkaesque. In Kafka’s novels/stories, the events are happening to the protagonist. I did see a really terrible film version of it a few years ago.

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0230025/

  2. I can understand that. Im a bit of a nag regarding the misuse of words which sometimes results in my shouting at the TV and people. I’m about to finish Shipwrecks and looking for another worthwhile piece of fiction. Your post’s timing is very fortunate. Which book would you recommend as a Kafkaesque (:P) landmark?

  3. Definitely, what I mentioned: Invitation to a Beheading (Nabokov).

    Also, there is a great play called The Garden Party by Vaclav Havel. Wikiepdia writes this,

    The protagonist is Hugo Pludek, who is an average person from a middle-class Czech family. His parents are worried about his future so they arrange an appointment for him with the influential Mr. Kalabis at the garden party of the Liquidation Office.

    Hugo does not find Kalabis but instead a sequence of absurd encounters starts. All of the functionaries of the Liquidation Office speak in a degenerated, ideological, content-free language, as is expected from their role in the bureaucratic system.

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