An Empire of Vicissitude

‘For a good part of his work consists of tentative steps towards perpetually changing possibilities of future. He does not acknowledge a single future, there are many: this multiplicity of futures paralyses him and burdens his step.’

Elias Canetti, Kafka’s Other Trial

I’ve been thinking about Kafka and digital technology. I’ve been thinking about fingers sliding, panels soundlessly moving over and under one another, fingers scrabbling on slick surfaces: all the furniture of Kafka’s fictional realms. It at once possesses the specificity of imagery glimpsed and gazed upon in virtual spaces – be here, now – and its odd sense of non-locatable ubiquity: they are legion, all these family snaps and teeming egos, not to mention the bibliographies compiled by academic self-advertisers. I’ve been considering Kafka the technophobe: ‘I find that even in ordinary telephone conversations I can say nothing owing to my total lack of quick-wittedness.’ The telephone bamboozled him: ‘this invention which is new to me and which I hardly know how to deal with.’

The ‘hardly know’ strikes me as willed – to some extent. As always with Brother K you can’t help but feel like giving him a brisk slap round the chops and telling him to pull himself together. A correspondent suggests that the wound in ‘A Country Doctor’ is of the sort Kafka would’ve witnessed when he visited the industrial regions to the north of Prague as an insurance assessor. Maybe, but everywhere in K’s diary entries, letters and stories are wounds, blows, incisions and more abstract – but for all that undoubtedly somatic – ‘punishments’. It seems to me that Kafka, a swaddled soul – swaddled in class, cloaked in a minority community within a minority community within a minority community – feels the outside world always as a sharp instrument auguring its way towards him.

I’ve been wondering whether it is in fact this empire of vicissitude, at once null and instantiated, that his fictions finger towards, just as they operate as a sort of perpetual-secondary-text generating machine. Or is it only that every generation manufactures the Kafka they want, and while in the middle of the last century, the Kafka whose minatory tales foreshadowed the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism was, in contemporary governmental-business jargon, fit for purpose, now we require another kind of Kafka altogether? The constant here, surely, is irony.

I certainly was thinking about this last week, with the sky over the Thames low enough, grey enough and phantasmal enough to gladden a Monet on Mogadon. In some suite tucked up on top of the Royal Festival Hall a posse of heavyweight arts functionaries were gathered to launch the Space website. There were speeches – I may have said a few words. There were certainly those miniature Danish pastries without which no serious breakfast-time convocation can function. They grabbed me, the Danish pastries, and I thought of those Scandinavian high-concept cop shows – The Killing, The Bridge – that radiate such chilly and parochial bleakness with their washed-out palates of blues and greys. I’m always inveighing against the screen when I watch these shows: ‘This can’t possibly be happening, all these murders – because there’re only five people in Copenhagen!’ Yet at gatherings such as these London strikes me as a parochial city – you stick around long enough and you know everyone, or at least think you know everyone – which is worse.

I’ve been talking about building a Kafka’s Wound realm inside Brunel University’s Second Life cantonment (probably not the technical term, but Kafka would get it). I like the idea of people logging on and getting assigned Kafka avatars – Max Brod, Felice Bauer, Hermann and Julie Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Canetti, naturlisch – and then wandering in to one room where they see poor Franz having his first tubercular haemorrhage, then into another where the boy lies calmly with his gaping wound, then entering that wound, only to re-emerge on the sixth floor of the Festival Hall, where they’re offered a miniature Danish pastry.

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