“of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings”
May 19, 2016 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Kafkaesque: A Word So Overused It Has Lost All Meaning? by Alison Flood [The Guardian] On Monday night, Han Kang’s strange, disturbing, brilliant novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize. Shortly afterwards, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster announced that searches for the word “Kafkaesque” had “spiked dramatically” in the wake of her win, because the novel “has been described by its British publishers (and by a number of reviewers) as Kafkaesque”.
posted by Fizz (37 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
It seems to be very often used to describe bureaucratic or totalitarian situations that don't really seem very Kafka-like
posted by thelonius at 11:36 AM on May 19, 2016




Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport might be a good point of reference for what it means in the popular imagination.
posted by little onion at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


sounds like the market is ripe for me to try and sell my latest novel The Bureaucracy That Sucks And Look, That Guy's A Bug
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2016 [13 favorites]


The only correct use of "Kafkaesque":

Pam: Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience.
Alvy Singer: Oh. Thank you.
Pam: I mean that as a compliment.

(Annie Hall, 1977)
posted by the sobsister at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


In the same vein of "Orwellian," not everything is also "Big Brother."

"Did you have to fill out the long or short form of the census for StatsCan?"

"The long one! Everything they wanted to know, I was like, 'What's up, Big Brother?'"*

(*actual conversation had in the office next to me)
posted by Kitteh at 11:42 AM on May 19, 2016


There was a completely incomprehensible use of the phrase (or a variation of it) in John Dies At The End I still want an explanation for.
posted by griphus at 11:42 AM on May 19, 2016


Kafka himself wanted all his work burned to ash, and Max Brod acted to preserve it, counter to Kafka's wishes. So I guess any employment of the word Kafkaesque after he took his last breath was itself Kafkaesque.
posted by blucevalo at 11:42 AM on May 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


From the first link:

The dictionary defines the adjective, incidentally, as “of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality”. Nightmarish and illogical is also what I’d have taken from a description of something as Kafkaesque, with an insectile undercurrent beneath it all (I don’t think that last bit is right, incidentally, but it’s what the word makes me think of).

so yeah, I'm on board with the first half -- the notion that as institutions grow larger (and deeper) and more concerned with sustaining themselves than they are with doing what they were originally supposed to do, well, absurdity is inevitable.
posted by philip-random at 11:45 AM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is a word that will forever be associated with The Squid And The Whale, where the main character is talking to his girlfriend and calls the end of The Metamorphosis "very Kafkaesque." "That's because it's written by Franz Kafka," she replies.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:00 PM on May 19, 2016 [6 favorites]


I dunno, I've definitely had experiences at the airport that could fairly be described as Kafkaesque. Like that time I was taken into the special room for extra screening at customs, and there were these giant isopods in evening wear combing through my checked baggage while periodically consulting leatherbound volumes of Hustler magazine.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:03 PM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


I would guess the reason for the overuse of Kafkaesque and Orwellian, as opposed to say Dickensian or Byronic, is that the authors' subject matters and points of view became popularly if inexactly understood memes. Because "the nightmarishly bizarre" and "Big Brother" have stayed high in the popular imagination, these adjectives get slung around more than Dickensian's "poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters" or Byronic's "(of a man) alluringly dark, mysterious, or moody."
posted by little onion at 12:04 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


as opposed to say Dickensian

I read lots of historical fiction set in the nineteenth century, and good Lord, is Dickensian ever overused (usually to describe something very Dark, which most certainly describes some facets of Dickens, and also entirely humorless, which most certainly does not).
posted by thomas j wise at 12:19 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


I would guess the reason for the overuse of Kafkaesque and Orwellian, as opposed to say Dickensian or Byronic, is that the authors' subject matters and points of view became popularly if inexactly understood memes

I feel like it's also that for many people life actually has become significantly more Kafkaesque and Orwellian, though.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:22 PM on May 19, 2016 [11 favorites]


"Orwellian" can also relate to talking animals. Babe - Pig in the City is an Orwellian dystopia. This stuff is easy.
posted by Cookiebastard at 12:58 PM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


One must adopt an ironic Byrony.
posted by y2karl at 12:58 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]




I've come to take it as a word used to describe human bureaucracy and although I'll agree that a complex bureaucracy so divorced from reality and obsessed with maintaining it's own framework can be nightmarish, illogical, bizarre, and absurd, Kafka's works hardly focus on just that element if at all. I always took most of his work to be a commentary on the absurdity of seemingly spiritual creatures with a medley of emotions and passions that express that spirituality placed in a fallen physical world that seems to be abandoned of any true spiritual presence, and yet subject to both the laws of nature and the laws of a distant God.

I remember introducing the Trial to an ex-girlfriend and she simply could not get beyond not being given the reason for K's arrest and I suspect depending on the type of conceptual mindset one has, this is true of many others and this morphs into associating Kafka with senslessness and sensless bureaucracy. That point of view is fine as I concede that we all have a pretty strong framework of perception that we work with and that can be and often is clearly very different from person to person. I told her the point was, among other points of course, not knowing the reason and the reason itself is not important nor is it about justice in the human procedural sense but more in the existential sense and when I said that I pretty much understood why the word Kafkaesque has become what it has.

as opposed to say Dickensian

Whenever I see that word, and it is indeed not often, I think of The Dickensian Aspect.
posted by juiceCake at 1:08 PM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Paging Kafkaesque, paging Kafkaesque. Absurd, inscrutable courtesy telephone.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:16 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


If then Kafka like is horrendous, and Dickensian is filled with life, details, oddities, then finally we can say about greatness that it is Shakespearian.
posted by Postroad at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2016


I'm just happy she won! Not very Kafkaesque at all, that.
posted by allthinky at 1:23 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hm. I have encountered Dickensian much more often than Kafkaesque.

More to the point, is The Guardian trying to join Slate in the business of publishing strident articles using dubious premises to try and stir people up?
posted by aught at 1:24 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


well, according to Betteridge's law
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:28 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Kafka is my favorite writer. But I remain totally unable to explain what I love about him or what he is saying. It was good to run across this David Foster Wallace article years ago in Harper's. (PDF at the top of the page.) I thought I was the only one who found Kafka funny.

Plus, Kafka is the only author to imbue a letter in the alphabet with an ominous subtext.

By the way, I'd suggest reading his diaries if you're interested in the guy. They dispel the image of a tortured artist--well, of only a tortured artist. He liked hanging out with friends in Prague, going out to the theater, etc. So Kafka's actual life was not terribly Kafkaesque. Although his job working in the insurance industry didn't sound like a barrel of laughs.
posted by kozad at 2:03 PM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Not to derail your conversation about Kafka, whom I love and admire, but I picked up The Vegetarian at a bookstore some months ago, and couldn't bring myself to read past the first section of the book. The characters were all (mostly the husband) so hateful that I couldn't force myself to continue reading about their pathetic lives. Have I made a terrible error? Am I missing out on some profound truth or experience or flash of insight into the human condition or whatever?
posted by nikoniko at 2:12 PM on May 19, 2016


(*actual conversation had in the office next to me

Next to you in the office or in the next office which you were spying on from room 102???

Don't think you can just do it to Julia in here, Big B.
posted by howfar at 2:31 PM on May 19, 2016


I guess I always include 'bureaucratic' and 'illogical' as two of the defining qualities of 'Kafkaesque', and there's definitely nothing really bureaucratic in The Vegetarian, and it has its own kind of weird internal logic.
posted by tofu_crouton at 3:10 PM on May 19, 2016


Am I missing out on some profound truth or experience or flash of insight into the human condition or whatever?

Nope.
posted by tofu_crouton at 3:10 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you rearrange the letters of Kafkaesque they make "fake squeak". Or "fake quakes". I have nothing else to add.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:36 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


I guess I always include 'bureaucratic' and 'illogical' as two of the defining qualities of 'Kafkaesque', and there's definitely nothing really bureaucratic in The Vegetarian, and it has its own kind of weird internal logic.

Agreed, 'bureaucratic', 'illogical', & 'obtuse' are words that are immediately conjured whenever I see the word Kafkaesque. I do think that a major part of its overuse is that its a a word that people often uses to describe something that is difficult to comprehend. It's also the kind of word that feels very intellectual and so lots of people tend to throw it around in an attempt to sound smarter.
posted by Fizz at 3:45 PM on May 19, 2016


'bureaucratic', 'illogical', & 'obtuse' are words that are immediately conjured whenever I see the word Kafkaesque.

Even this, I think, is missing the fundamental unfairness, totalitarianism and sadism implied by "Kafkaesque" in a political context. It's not just the the system is confusing and baroque, but that it is designed to reshape the individual through inflicting violence (either physical or structural) upon them. In the Penal Colony and The Trial are being evoked here, primarily. Orwell plays on this theme heavily in 1984, of course, and it forms the basis for much of Foucault's worldview, largely because the Kafkaesque, in this sense, is both very specific and laden with complex and far-reaching implications.
posted by howfar at 3:57 PM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


It seems a bit pedantic to lament a word's departure from its True Meaning. Language inevitably evolves, and at least in my experience, "kafkaesque" and "dickensian" are useful shorthand in a wide variety of situations. The toothpaste's out of the tube on that one.
posted by delight at 4:15 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Everyone has a thread. I guess this one was mine.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:44 PM on May 19, 2016 [11 favorites]


I prefer to use unnecessarily obscure or complicated terms when referring to absurd beuracracies. That way I can avoid all you Kafka gatekeepers. Here's a quick list for anyone else who wants to play along:

1. Odiously Byzantine
2. Antitopianistic
3. Gilliamesque
4. Borgesian Nightmare Kindling
5. Quasi Departmentalism
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:14 PM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


What do you suppose antitopianistic means? "Topian" is a bit obscure, but I think it means painted landscapes characteristic of a particular place. That doesn't work here, though. Perhaps you meant to pattern it on dystopian and "utopian"? So it's a place which is somehow the inverse or opposite of what one would expect?
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:44 PM on May 19, 2016


"When something seems like a total nightmare, and you can't believe it's really happening; only, it is."

I feel like the public highschool setting of MSCL really underlines the bureaucratic, illogical, obtuse, fundamentally unfair, totalitarian, and sadistic aspects of the term as explored above.
posted by kickingthecrap at 6:43 AM on May 20, 2016


It seems a bit pedantic to lament a word's departure from its True Meaning.

I think the thing that really annoys me about this one is that it's departed from any meaning. 'Girl' once meant a child of either sex (from this thread), now it means specifically a female child. Fine, we can still use it to communicate. But if a word becomes useless, communicating nothing, then that's a maladaptation.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:08 AM on May 20, 2016


« Older "You find out they made mistakes, thus proving...   |   Xavier's is Totally Rad! Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments