Kafka the bureaucrat able to ‘keep the keyhole clean’

Friday, April 5, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 14

I met the word “mitteleuropaish” for the first time in a Paul Greenberg column.

Greenberg, winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Pine Bluff Commercial, was discussing a recently released book, Kafka: The Office Writings. “A combination attorney, actuary and all-around bureaucrat,” he wrote. “[Kafka] seems to have carried out his duties with a combination of mitteleuropaisch flair and German efficiency.”

Since first reading Kafka in a college class in 1973, I’ve been a hopeless devotee of all things Kafkaesque. In a short stretch, I read everything written by and most everything written about him.

On reading Greenberg’s piece, I made a note to order the book of which he wrote. And to look up that long word.

At About.com, I found that “In September 1914 … German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg created the ‘September Programme’ which, … set out a grandiose plan for Europe [to] be enacted if Germany was totally successful in the war. A system called ‘Mitteleuropa’ would be created, an economic and customs union of central European lands that would be led by Germany ….

“… Mitteleuropa would include German domination of Luxembourg, Belgium and their Channel Ports, the Baltic and Poland from Russia, and possibly parts of France.”

Per another source, this word “has political, geographic and cultural meaning,” denoting both a location and the concept of German domination.

But back to the gist of the talented Greenberg’s essay. “Franz Kafka,” he wrote, “who prefigured the existential angst of so much of modern literature, also turns out to be Franz Kafka the bureaucrat who wrote ‘Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines’ and ‘Accident Prevention in Quarries.’”

Although educated in law, Kafka did not practice law as such in his employment at the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institute.

“The myth is that Kafka the artist was drained of time and energy by the demands of his day job,” Greenberg writes, inferring Kafka was “a hard-working, realistic reformer, [whose] workaday world would seem the opposite of the nightmarish, surreal, illogical atmosphere he summoned up in his allegories….”

To which, I would reply, “Perhaps.”

I’m currently re-reading “Conversations with Kakfa” by Gustav Janouch, a poet who, in his late teens, supposedly spent a great deal of time in Kafka’s company and, via a fantastic memory, wrote a whole book about what he learned.

I don’t have the space to discuss it in detail, but Janouch describes Kafka’s work surroundings sufficiently to conjure several images in his novels and stories. And the types of cases he dealt with – people seeking remuneration after industrial accidents – involved the confusion and lack of understanding in common folk that pervade Kafka’s oeuvre.

I’ll conclude with this quote that Janouch puts in Kafka’s mouth:

“Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal experience. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.