More Kafka! Roberto Calasso Avoids a Critical Shell Game


Perhaps no author’s body of work requires as much circumspection in critical approach as Kafka’s. Its delicacy is indicated by a tendency to topple obligingly into patterns at the first coarse touch of applied theory. In slipping through the traps of meaning, it has left only a carapace of itself behind for analysis—a sign of its indomitable nature and secret strength. Many mistake this shell for Kafka (it has its own word, the Kafkaesque), and the work allows them to do so as an obscure and private punishment for violating the first duty of any traveler through this territory: to respect its refusals. One shouldn’t expect clear guidelines or stable landmarks. As Roberto Calasso says of The Castle, we are at “the last outpost of the manifest, which almost yields to the unmanifest.”

K., Calasso’s admirably nimble study of Kafka, is the fourth part of a work in progress. Previous installments charted the slaughter field of history (The Ruin of Kasch) and the Greek river and Indian ocean of myth (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka, respectively). Motifs from these books resonate here: Kafka’s world both precedes myth, going back to “the origin of the variants” that are the “lifeblood of every mythology,” and postdates it, being the product of a world (ours) “where the unmanifest part—the greater part of what is—was increasingly being ignored or denied.”

Calasso’s career centers around an effort to redress that balance, to locate what vestige of the gods remains in the alien landscape. Traces of divinity turn up in surprising places. Tracking the “inexplicable, irrepressible cheerfulness that runs through the pages of The Missing Person” (a/k/a Amerika), Calasso calls the magnificent vision of the Theater of Oklahoma that concludes the book “the original scene of the [Hollywood] musical”—these films being the “one place in the twentieth century that came to represent mathematical, irresponsible happiness.”