I recently read a blog about the overuse of the term ‘Kafkaesque’. Before I go into what I believe the pros and cons are of the potential for haphazardly throwing this word around, I’ll offer up the definition;
Some things to note:
- Dictionary.com also lists the meaning for ‘fortuitous‘ to mean ‘fortunate’- so no confidence there, given that ‘fortuitous’ only implies chance and NOT luck. Merriam Webster also defines this word by ‘luck’ (side note: I almost lost a bet as to the meaning for ‘fortuitous’ due to these definitions- thus, the apparent rage)
- There is no definition offered for Kafkaesque (or Orwellian, for that matter) in either the Macquarie or in the Oxford English Dictionary (both of which correctly define ‘fortuitous’, by the way)
Therefore, I believe we have touched on the first con: just because a word is defined on an internet dictionary, doesn’t make it a reliable source.
Merriam Webster also shows that there was a spike in the search for this term in 2016 and 2013. The latter being for Kafka’s 130th birthday and the former due to the reviews of the recent Man Booker prize winning The Vegetarian being frequently described as ‘Kafkaesque’.
Although usage of the word doesn’t generally seem to come from a place of understanding of Kafka (how can it when there’s no reliable definition anyway?) I do believe it gives Kafka a relevance he might not otherwise have had to modern readers. Just as the Stella Prize prompts reviewers and readers to lend greater acknowledgement to female authors, the more a reader likens a popular book to Kafka via review, the more likely they are to turn to him.
Now, full disclosure: I am, to put it lightly, partial to Kafka (my featured photo is my own framed picture of him). So perhaps I simply want him to have the credit he is due? But I also believe that he holds relevance for readers.
Consider A Hunger Artist, the story of a man who’s profession is starving himself, ostensibly for entertainment. Revellers seem to believe that he is secretly seeking food and watch him intently. He ultimately makes his home in a cage in the circus and his former admirers loose interest and choose instead to view the spectacle of the stables nearby. Eventually he is forgotten entirely, starves in his cage and is (spoiler alert) consumed by a panther. At this point, in his final act, spectators finally take notice.
This strikes me as a prevailing theme in popular entertainment. Judy Garland was forced to steal candy bars as a result of being starved so that she could be an acceptable spectacle in the 1930s and 40s, only to eventually be consumed by the same spectacle that had made her famous (most viewers had lost interest as she grew older). Now, in a similar fashion, reality television is a dominant mode of entertainment. Those involved are spectacles of humiliation until they are no longer of interest and, in a final act of humiliation, are discarded for the next star vehicle. This is not to mention that fact that his theme of the alienation of the artist from society has been a recurring theme in literature and film that continues today.
Whatever Kafkaesque might actually be, Kafka is an author who continues to hold relevance today because his metaphors can be carried to the present. I’ve mentioned his relevance without taking into account the spectacle of Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis or the bureaucratic hell that Josef K finds himself in The Trial (which, when it was written was already starkly before its time in the similarities to fascist Germany).