The many misuses of Kafka and insider knowledge

10.8.09 | | 7 comments

I threw a minor fit on Twitter the other evening over the  New York Times article How Nonsense Sharpens the Mind, which reports on a study that claims that experiencing the uncanny, the weird, the absurd, the freaky “may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss.” What provoked the outburst on my part was the revelation that the researchers rewrote a Kafka short story for use in their study. Here’s how the reporter Benedict Carey describes it:

In the most recent paper, published last month, Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

“The Country Doctor” is my favorite Kafka short story and is the piece of literature I have spent the most time with as a critic. I read it and wrote about it in one of the most formative classes during my undergraduate career. I wrote my best paper as a graduate student about it and Eminescu‘s poem Luceafarul and the concept of stasis. And in 2004 I produced a English translation of it that corrects a few problems with most of the current translations and engages in an experiment in making Kafka less “Kafkaesque” and more authentically what he is and how he should be read by locating it in the American West/Southwest.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing about teeth (missing or otherwise) in the original story.

Of course, once I settled down, I realized that the issue for me was that I read “based on” as “slightly adapted from” whereas the reporter meant “loosely based on” so it was quite the surprise for me once I got to the changes made to the text. But once I got to that realization, I didn’t find the situation any less problematic. In fact, it deepened in to major concerns over discipline boundaries, publicizing research, literary criticism and popular reductions of work.

On the one hand, it’s no big deal, right? A couple of social scientists are just using elements from a Kafka story in their research. On the other hand, once you do violence to the original story, can you still claim that it’s Kafka? That may seem a minor question, but think of this: what makes a better hook for the media — the researchers made up an absurd story OR they based a key part of their experiment on a story by Kafka? To invoke Kafka is a powerful thing. A powerful and, of course, woefully shorthand thing.

It gets even better. I wrote a note to Mr. Carey. He was gracious enough to reply and noted that:

The researchers changed some things, making the main character a dentist, and the ‘emergency’ a toothache. They did this for an arcane but good reason, which is that reminding people of death (as Kafka’s original surely does) can confound the effect they’re trying to measure.

Wow. That just raises all sorts of fascinating, additional issues — doctors vs. dentists, the collision of literary discourse and criticism with social sciences, infantilism in modern society (disappearing or falling out teeth is a fear carried over from the human experience of losing one’s baby teeth — most people still have scary, uncanny dreams about it), literary criticism (in the original story there is a wound — a wound that invokes all sorts of religious and psycho-sexual meanings), and metrics and measurement and artistic discourse.

I’m not going to tease all those issues out, especially since I haven’t read the study (the NY Times link to the study doesn’t work for me — not to mention I don’t have the grounding in Psychology to really parse it in a meaningful way). Nor am I going to subject you all to an in-depth reading of “A Country Doctor.” And you are also probably wondering why I’m going off on this tangent on a blog devoted to Mormon arts and culture.

This is why: Kafkaesque ~~ Mormon.

Reading the quoted paragraph above and my response struck me as a rather rare but familiar experience. A very familiar experience — that of the misuses of Mormonism, especially in fiction, reviews and cultural criticism. It was so jarring (albeit semi-understandable given the overall context) and caused a rise because it related to a work and author that I possess major insider knowledge of and that are deeply entwined with my history and self. It reminded me of all the other clumsy invocations of Kafka.  The abuses and misuses of Kafka as cultural shorthand to mean something reductive — having a shell of the thing, but denying the power thereof. Something that Mormonism is no stranger to. And that made it an all-too familiar experience.

And, of course, it goes both ways. I’ve cautioned before in several places online of the Mormon use of the novels of Chaim Potok. Potok, O’Connor (Shakespeare, Milton) –  these avatars of aspiration, of ever elusive legitimacy. There is no substitute for insider knowledge. There is no substitute for direct experience with literary (or scriptural or scientific or etc.) texts (and contexts). There will always be misuses. One can play with such things (satire and such). Or engage in earnest explanation. One may even have some fun and do some good and if not convince at least create some understanding. But all that, while often worthwhile, is no subsitute for the intense joy, the hard work, the endless unfolding of an energetic, charitable approach to original texts that are provocative enough to demand interpretation and complex enough to support rich, multiple readings and reward life-long obsession. For me, Kafka and Mormonism both supply just such an experience.

7 comments: “The many misuses of Kafka and insider knowledge

  1. Luisa Perkins

    Well, now I feel an urgent need to re-read “The Country Doctor.”

    Excellent posts like this keep me coming back to AMV every day.

  2. David J. West

    William
    Can you send me a copy of your transaltion? I would really like to read it in the southwest connotation.
    ramevorn at hot mail dot com

  3. Wm Morris

    I’ll think about it. I’m kinda thinking I should submit it somewhere. Not that that means I couldn’t e-mail it to a couple of people.

    —–

    And: thanks Luisa. We like having you here.

  4. Dallas Robbins

    I’d love to read your translation of The Country Doctor…maybe post it?

    Your comments reminded me of Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed, which touches on the gross mistranslation, therefore misrepresenting, of Kafka. I share in your indination. I’m tired of the oversimplification of Kafka – i.e. calling anything uncanny and nonsensical Kafkaesque.

    These social scientists wouldn’t know good, well reasoned literary criticism of Kafka if it bit them on the arse.

  5. Stumpf

    I had not read the story before reading about it in the NY Times article…after reading it and reading nothing about teeth I was puzzled until I reRead the Times article and saw “based on”. as you did. I think it would have been better if they had just read the original story instead of something ‘based’ on it…I’ve now read the story three times and consider it along side “Meta…”…

    Stumpf

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