With its echo of “grotesque,” the ubiquitous term “Kafkaesque” has long been frozen into permanence, both in the dictionary and in the most commonplace vernacular. Comparative and allusive, it has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke. To say that such-and-such a circumstance is “Kafkaesque” is to admit to the denigration of an imagination that has burned a hole in what we take to be modernism – even in what we take to be the ordinary fabric and intent of language. Nothing is like “The Hunger Artist.” Nothing is like “The Metamorphosis.”
Whoever utters “Kafkaesque” has neither fathomed nor intuited nor felt the impress of Kafka’s devisings. If there is one imperative that ought to accompany any biographical or critical approach, it is that Kafka is not to be mistaken for the Kafkaesque. The Kafkaesque is what Kafka presumably “stands for” – an unearned, even a usurping, explication. And from the very start, serious criticism has been overrun by the Kafkaesque, the lock that portends the key: homoeroticism for one maven, the father-son entanglement for another, the theological uncanny for yet another. Or else it is the slippery commotion of time; or of messianism; or of Thanatos as deliverance. The Kafkaesque, finally, is reductiveness posing as revelation.’
Update from a reader:
Can I please just say: POSEUR ALERT.
Ozick’s charges could be just as fairly leveled at pretty much any eponym: Orwellian, Shakespearean, Dickensian, Hobbesian, Darwinian, Marxist – even Calvinist or Lutheran. Encapsulating someone’s life’s work in a word is not meant to be all-encompassing; it’s a shorthand to refer to the main elements that made their work revolutionary.
I think it’s a straw man to presume that the term “Kafkaesque” subsumes the work of Kafka in any way. The word refers to a quality of modern society that Kafka captured so powerfully; it does not confine Kafka only to the word Kafkaesque. It seems almost reductive of her to impute that kind of intentional misunderstanding to anyone using the word.
Sitting in a deportation hearing without access to two-way translation while other people are deliberating incomprehensibly about your future? Absolutely Kafkaesque. Being told you don’t have standing to challenge government spying because the secrecy of the program makes it impossible to prove that you were indeed spied on? How is that not Kafkaesque?
Importantly, what term does Ozick propose to replace it? If it’s important enough to warrant a word, the word is important enough to need a good synonym if it’s put out of circulation.