There are certain proper nouns that become adjectives, they so embody their era and perhaps all eras. As in Shakespearean or Homeric -- but who'd have thought one of those names would be Franz Kafka's? For his writings have come to stand for 20th-century man's sense of bereavement and bewilderment as he found himself lost in a world he never made.
But in his day job, Kafka turned out to be the model civil servant, keeping old Austria's social insurance programs in his times -- the equivalent of Social Security and Medicaid in ours -- on an even financial keel. Much as Arkansas' own Mark Story did during his all too short lifetime. In his place, this state's Legislative Council has just approved spending some $680,000 in order to provide the multitude of services Mr. Story once did all by himself. Mark Story, meet Franz Kafka, a kindred spirit. At least at the office.
It doubtless would be too much to hope that some bureaucrat in the labyrinth that is this state's Department of Human Services is keeping a diary, or even writing fiction, that one day will give posterity an artist's interpretation of what's really going on in state government. In place of the bureaucratese that now issues forth from the press releases that are supposed to inform the public but instead only stupefies it. A little sample of such alleged prose goes a long, long way ... until the innocent reader is grateful to turn to the sports section for relief.
For sad example take (please) this slice of mysterious verbiage from the director of Arkansas' Department of Human Services and general mystification, Cindy Gillespie: "To manage the services and programs of DHS efficiently, the Office of Finance must forecast, manage, administer and implement its divisions' budgets and agency budget with extreme care and diligent oversight," which is a reference to a budget that comes in at more than $8 billion this fiscal year. The bigger a government agency's budget, it seems, the bigger the waste, duplication and needless complications.
Franz Kafka, an actuary by trade, did his job without fear or favor. No 25-cent words and other bureaucratic frills. But his inner life was a bubbling cauldron of not conflicting but congruent loyalties out of which he made strangely enduring art. Or as W. H. Auden, poet and chronicler of his time and ours, put it, if he had to "name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of." Welcome to the Age of Kafka, which still goes on -- like a recording set on repeat.
Kafka grew up in a Jewish middle-class minority within a German-speaking minority within a Czech minority within an Austro-Hungarian empire that was already a fading minority within a world full of collapsing empires in the wake of what was then called The Great War, though it would soon enough be followed by a greater one. Minorities within minorities, wheels within wheels, wars followed by greater ones.
And yet Kafka did not seek refuge from all these whirring confusions by withdrawing into his own Jewish identity. "What have I in common with Jews?" he once asked. "I have hardly anything in common with myself."
Herr Kafka proceeded to do his clerical duties with a Teutonic thoroughness that could only impress superiors and subordinates alike. One of only two Jews in the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, he set health-insurance premiums, conducted inspection tours of factory sites to assure they were safe places to work, responded to inquiries from politicians, answered the daily mail and generally did his office job faithfully. Any employer might be glad to have name on the payroll today.
"In the office," Kafka wrote in his diary, "I fulfill my duties satisfactorily, at least outwardly, but not my inner duties, and every unfulfilled inner duty becomes a misfortune that never budges." And to whom did he owe that inner duty? To himself, his art, and to those of us still stranded in his shadow and waiting for a metamorphosis of our own.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.