Kafka's Wound; Will Self's digital essay

It’s a peculiar apotheosis: the adjectival. It is widely held that the 20th century was Kafkaesque rather than Joycean, let alone Proustian. Kafkaesque, and latterly Orwellian, another adjective slapped on to practices, institutions, innovations to evoke the alienating dimension of mass, authoritarian, technologically mediated society. My sense of the rise and fall of the Kafkaesque is that it mirrored the solidification then dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Kafka, characterised relentlessly in the three decades after Yalta as the secular prophet of totalitarianism, lent his name to this catchall, which in turn was deployed by the West against itself. When I was young every instance of bureaucratic arbitrariness, vaguely sinister intent, or paradoxical norms – ‘Everything not forbidden is permitted’ read a popular 1980s graffito – was deemed ‘Kafkaesque’. The reasons for this were, I think, akin to those that explain the ideological floundering of the Western left since 1989: the Kafkaesque, like the utopian socialist, required the lowering presence of the Soviet doppelgänger. For the leftist liberals where I grew up in London it was sufficient – since the Stalinist Terror for some, the Hungarian Uprising for others, and the Prague Spring for virtually all – to believe in what they were not, and would never become: which was the perverse mutation of socialism in the East. It was less pressing to present coherent ideological solutions to the intractable problems of nationalism versus internationalism, or parliamentary gradualism versus revolutionary change. In a similar fashion, to label a minor abuse of power, or judicial doublethink ‘Kafkaesque’ was to indulge in a sort of psychic legerdemain: sneaking a little of the East’s oppression for one’s own, and so justifying jejune anomie – or, as Kafka himself might have termed it, ‘the embourgeoisement of nothing’.