Unlike many readers who take much of Franz Kafka’s fiction as tragic or dark (think, for instance, of “The Metamorphosis,” “The Penal Colony,” or The Trial), Philip Roth thought of Kafka as a “sit down comic.” From Max Brod we learn that Kafka used to laugh when he read his work publically, and, of course, the laughter was infectious. But when one goes to Kafka’s work, where, one wonders does one find the comical. There are a few locations that I have found in his stories and in his novels (like Amerika) that are comical. But one also finds comical moments in his journals and diaries.
I recently came across a moment of sit-down comedy in his January 24, 1921 diary entry which, to my mind, is a great example of the self-deprecation one will find in Jewish stand-up comedy. Here are a few lines which caught my eye. Most of the jokes try to make light out of his difficult situation and his awareness that, to his mind, he really hasn’t advanced or developed beyond a certain stage of his life:
Hesitation before birth. If there is a transmigration of souls then I am not yet on the bottom rung. My life is hesitation before birth.
Kafka goes on to joke about his lack of development or progress. He can’t seem to move or be satisfied with anything he does:
My development was a simple one. While I was still contented I wanted to be discontented, and with all the means that my time and tradition gave me, plunged into discontent – and then wanted to turn back again. Thus I have always been discontented, even with my contentment.
Kafka then goes on to blame his tendency to do and enjoy “childish” things as a reason for his inability to grow or change intellectually:
Childish games (though I was well aware that they were so) marked the beginning of my intellectual decline. I deliberately cultivated a facial tic, for instance, or would walk across the Graben with arms crossed behind my head. A repulsively childish but successful game. (My writing began in the same way; only later on its development came to a halt, unfortunately.)
And the punch line is that he can’t quite figure out where this “misfortune” – the “beginnings of his unhappiness” (which really make him happy, that is, like a child) – came from:
If it is possible to force misfortune upon oneself, it is possible to force anything upon oneself. Much as my development seems to contradict me, and much as it contradicts my nature to thinking it, I cannot grant that the first beginnings of my unhappiness were inwardly necessitated…but not an inward one – they swarmed down on me like flies and could have been as easily driven off.
But when Kafka contemplates what life would be like “on the other shore” of development, he admits that merely thinking about it makes him unhappy. He seems to be trapped.
Kafka sees this thought – which he jokes about – as “approaching a boundary.” And while others would “turn back; I cannot.” Like a good stand-up comedian, he goes to the end of the bitter joke which is…himself:
It seems as if I had not come by myself but had been pushed here as a child and then chained to this spot; the consciousness of my misfortune only gradually dawned upon me, my misfortune itself was already complete.
Like Larry David or Louis CK, Kafka can’t seem to escape his misfortunate predicament which seems to be associated with some kind of stunted development. But this sit down comedian can’t stand up. Kafka knew, intuitively, that he was going to die. And that he may not be able to get out of his bed or up from his desk. He just didn’t know when. Meanwhile, he wanted to make light of this predicament through self-deprecation. But that light, as one can see, is pretty dark.
4 thoughts on “On Kafka’s Sit Down Comedy”
This actually reminds me of the sadly not well remembered film Kafka by Steven Soderbergh. I think that the humor in that film (which is of course a work of fiction, by the way) has a different tone from what you present here. Nevertheless, I do think that the film (which is actually quite good) well captured much of the absurd comedy in Kafka’s work. So I thought it worth a brief mention. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. (Indeed I heard some while ago that a new cut of it might eventually be released onto home video, but I don’t think that has taken place yet: I still have the laserdisc myself.)
Thanks for the tip. I would love to see the film. I haven’t seen it yet.
Beware those who pose as innocent shlemiehls! It is a handy posture for someone who wants to victimize others and then escape the consequences. “How could I have molested you? I’m just a poor shlemiehl!”
A person who poses as a schlemiel …in order to victimize someone is horrible. And when that happens it’s a tragedy.