Precarity and Struggle: Kafka, Roth, Kraus

In their writings, Kafka, Roth, and Kraus rejected the ideology of rootedness that was rapidly encroaching upon early 20th-century European consciousness.

We know that things in our world have gone awry when Franz Kafka resonates: “The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it cannot do otherwise, it will writhe in front of you in ecstasies.” As we all anxiously await a less metaphysical unmasking, such a sentiment speaks to a current mood of tenuous anticipation, as it likely would have in the early 20th century had the text in which it appears been published along with Kafka’s more famous works. Instead, it is included now in a slim volume titled The Lost Writings, composed primarily of short stories and fragments that have been “lost to sight for decades.” Curated by the Kafka scholar and preeminent biographer Reiner Stach and sifted from the Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente,1 these texts have been newly translated into English by Michael Hofmann, two of them for the first time. To give a sense of Hofmann’s literary instincts: “exposed” or “disclosed” would have worked for “Entlarvung” in the aphorism above, but “unmasking” was clearly the right choice.

Scholars have frequently alighted on notions of negativity or absence as the paradoxically defining feature of Kafka’s work. Most recently, Paul Buchholz has written on Kafka’s literary “self-nullification,” which nonetheless contains a quasi-redemptive moment: “a lonely protagonist may erase the world around him, fall into an abyss that he has created for himself, and finally find there the conditions for affirmative community.”2

Yet, while these readings certainly locate something indispensable in Kafka’s work, it was to notions of precarity and struggle that I kept returning in perusing this collection, along with new translations of Joseph Roth and Karl Kraus. Roth’s engagement with precarity and struggle was more explicit than Kafka’s, as he despairingly but fearlessly documented Europe’s rapid decline into barbarism in his journalism from the 1930s, a selection of which has been recently reprinted in a volume titled On the End of the World. And in the first unabridged English translation of Kraus’s satirical polemic The Third Walpurgis Night—no small task, undertaken by Fred Bridgham and the late Edward Timms—we encounter the final testament of old-world European humanism in its fading luminescence.

If we can, furthermore, identify a shared concern among Kafka, Roth, and Kraus—one related, if not reducible, to their identity as Jews in the (erstwhile) multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire—it is in their rejection of the ideology of rootedness, which was rapidly encroaching on early 20th-century European consciousness. The verbal culmination of that rootedness was the Nazis’ mantra “blood and soil,” though it also took shape in other, less explicit expressions of nationalism. All three against rootedness, these writers explore in very different ways the shared experience of precarity, as well.


Who Gets to Be a Jewish Writer?

By Clémence Boulouque

In The Lost Writings, Kafka offers us sketches and scenes that quickly come undone, that make us question what we just read or understood moments prior. Those who mumble, whisper, and occasionally speak in these fragments and alternative beginnings (some of which will be recognizable to seasoned Kafka readers) are often unsure of their own existence. And even when they seem to be sure—as in the case of the “old collapsed figure of a man” (emphasis added) found on the side of a road who claims to be a “great general”—they are defeated by the prospect of having “nowhere to go.” Like other precarious figures in Kafka, had this man a place to go, he still “wouldn’t know where” to go. Such figures (not quite “protagonists”) neither possess nor even presume to possess the wisdom to know where they’re going.

Precarity renders visible the threat of dispossession and disposability, and thus the harrowing possibility of absence: the things that are may no longer be. Nothing holds merely on its own, including, as we’ve recently been reminded, our social institutions. Anything in our world (and this we share with Kafka’s) can be taken away from us at any moment; authority figures reveal themselves to be woefully inadequate, or far worse. This provides context for interpreting a fragment containing one of Kafka’s famously weak but overbearing fathers, who tries—and fails—to cut into a loaf of bread. After several unsuccessful attempts, and clearly irritated by his children’s disbelief, he responds, “Why should you be surprised? Isn’t it more surprising when something succeeds than when it fails?” The image of the father cleaving to patriarchy is comically pathetic, but he is not wrong. Why should we expect the bread to break under pressure when we know nothing about the bread itself (“of course it’s allowed to resist”), the sharpness of the blade, or the magnitude of the father’s strength? Many things have to align, the father implies, for expectation and desire to correspond to reality, and more often they will not. It is thus unsurprising that not only is the father unable to execute the task; his children, too, can’t even lift the blade. No progress is made, and the bread shrivels up in the end.

In another piece, the very foundations of narrative or perspectival coherence are undermined:

You never draw water from the depths of this well

“What water? What well?”


“What silence?”

There, the precarity of authority; here, of communicable speech itself.3 Layers of reality constantly recede in these fragments, until no one is quite certain what remains. And yet we discover that if the mundane is, for Kafka, the domain of improbability and impossibility—wherein even the simplest of gestures cannot be guaranteed—the extraordinary is evoked with an air of sheer certitude. One piece begins: “Twenty little gravediggers, none any bigger than an average pinecone, form a separate group.” What this fragment goes on to foreground is not the cartoonish smallness of these gravediggers, but the fact that they, unlike many of us, have “freely chosen their line of work” and “freely perform it.” Perhaps they are digging the grave of capitalist civilization and doing so with great aplomb; regardless, they offer a fantastical glimpse into emancipation that laughs at our benighted condition. I’ll leave it to others to elaborate on Kafka’s modernism or his Marxism; it should suffice here to merely hint at the depths of critical insight that are plumbed in the most fragmentary of fragments.

Yet, we cannot perceive precarity in Kafka without also considering the underlying struggle. For just as struggles with loaves of bread and the demands of the social fill the pages of this collection, so do struggles with the parameters of a fictional reality, for mutual recognition, and against damning (if also absurdly humorous) misconceptions. “Let me say it unambiguously,” begins a more confessional piece, “everything that is said about me is false that has as its starting point the canard that I was the first human being to befriend a horse.”

Struggles abound for these hapless characters, and, viewed from this perspective, Kafka—one of whose earliest stories is titled “Description of a Struggle” (1912)—can claim a place among a trajectory of German writers, thinkers, and demagogues who placed the notion of struggle (Kampf or Bekämpfung) at the forefront of their writings. Hegel described the “struggle over life and death” between two warring moments within burgeoning self-consciousness; Marx spoke of “class struggle” as the fundamental dynamic of all hitherto existing societies; and Hitler notoriously personalized his struggle against the prevailing forces of modernity, most conspicuously embodied in the Jews.4 Kafka’s was by far the most subtle.

All three against rootedness, these writers explore in very different ways the shared experience of precarity, as well.

Apropos Hitler: propagating the image of perpetrator qua victim is by now a familiar move in the playbook of demagoguery; far worthier of attention are the struggles against such harmful delusions. These we find in Joseph Roth’s On the End of the World, which contains journalistic dispatches and feuilletons produced when the Austrian Jewish writer had carved out a precarious existence in Parisian exile. Roth’s struggles with European (more accurately, German) barbarism were less muted than Kafka’s, and more obviously collective, but he felt them no less personally. Marjorie Perloff has recently suggested that the profound loss of decency (Anständigkeit) in public life was among Roth’s central concerns, at least in his fictional work.5 This knowledge makes his nostalgia for the monarchical form of life more sympathetic: at least there was an authenticity to aristocratic manners that shielded this class from utter vulgarity.

Nothing was more vulgar to Roth’s sensibility than the rise of Nazism as the dominant force in German cultural life, along with the platforms the Nazis were given to spread their indecency: “Since [Joseph Goebbels] began peddling his lies,” he writes, “never has a liar had so many loudspeakers at his disposition.” For Roth, the bald-faced mendacity was the first crime; the amplitude and repetition thereof, the second. (Sound familiar?) Roth’s indignation at such pervasive criminality is righteous, but it is a righteousness chastened by wit: “Since Germany drowned out the cry of spilt blood with its loudspeakers, it is only heard high in the heavens, while on earth they just disseminate it through the usual newsprint.” Roth’s chief insight is that the historical transformation that created a world informed by mass media has also precipitated a substantive loss in the capacity of humanity to perceive suffering on a mass scale.


The Correctionists

By Jan Mieszkowski

Roth shared this critique with Vienna’s keenest satirist, Karl Kraus, whose literary energies were devoted largely to the process of unmasking the pretensions of the Austrian bourgeoisie, but later, to the papered-over brutalities of National Socialism, as well. In The Third Walpurgis Night, it is clear that Kraus knew his words would no longer be heeded. Paralyzed by the increasingly popular call for a German “awakening” upon Hitler’s seizure of power, he thus writes: “So I am no longer needed, and my mind goes blank. For the brain does not awaken as the nation does, it feels slighted by nature, and if it envies, say, plants for their vitality—nature not having abolished springtime even in this most godforsaken year—its only thought is of fellow human beings compelled by this awakening to spend their days in torture chambers.” Thankfully (for his own sake), Kraus died in 1936 and has not, to my knowledge, been awoken from the grave by more recent events.

It was time—contemporaneity and posterity—more than space that occupied the imagination of all three writers. “In spite of all appearances, it’s the moment of birth, not its location, which bears the true mark of fate,” Roth writes in a gloss in which he also declares that “our epoch is our homeland.” Yet despite being born a decade after Kafka and two after Kraus, Roth shared with his elders the fate of being Jewish in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in the aftermath of its implosion. Traces of this identity often need to be excavated in Kafka’s and Kraus’s writings; in Roth’s, they appear frequently on the surface. Hence these authors’ shared struggle with and against conventional notions of rootedness. Kafka’s skepticism toward this encroaching ideology is, predictably, the most obtuse:

If you keep on walking, paddling through the balmy air, your hands by your sides like fins, glimpsing in haste’s half-sleep everything you pass by on your way, you will one day let the wagon pass you. Whereas if you stop still, allowing your gaze to put down deep and broad roots, so that nothing can remove you (and they are not real roots but only the strength of your purposeful gaze), then you will also see the unchanging dark horizon from which nothing can come. (Emphasis added)

Nothing, that is, except that same wagon, which engulfs the sedentary figure and reduces them to a small child. The passerby in this allegory (if we can call it that) might be the more conventional exile, but the figure who “stops still” has confused objective with subjective experience: their rootedness is illusory, as they, too, may be whisked away at any moment. Writing a couple of decades later and facing a more urgent existential threat, Kraus excoriated the violent discourse of Nazism at every turn. Roth was blunter than both in his retort: “If the Germans are obsessed with a ‘return to the soil,’ it is precisely because they are nowhere near it.” For all three figures, the response to the reality of precarity was decidedly not the chimera of rootedness.

Evident in this collection, Roth’s nostalgia was for a cosmopolitanism that probably never existed. And yet isn’t this how nostalgia functions if it is not to reek of atavism? Not the desire for the complete restoration of the past, but rather an idealized image of that which never was, but one day could be? For Roth, “patriotism is particularism” and is thus against the spirit of “solidarity,” the only form that struggle can assume if we wish to stave off precarity.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

  1. Franz Kafka, Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente, edited by Jost Schillemeit (Fischer, 1992).
  2. Paul Buchholz, Private Anarchy: Impossible Community and the Outsider’s Monologue in German Experimental Fiction (Northwestern University Press, 2018), p. 103.
  3. Doreen Densky’s recently published monograph on Kafka treats the phenomenon of “speaking-for” (Fürsprache)—speaking on behalf of another being, human or animal—in Kafka’s work with great care. See Literarische Fürsprache bei Franz Kafka: Rhetorik und Poetik [Literary advocacy in Franz Kafka: The rhetoric and poetics of speaking-for] (De Gruyter, 2020).
  4. Explicitly engaging with Hitler, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle (Archipelago, 2012–18), could also be enlisted into this tradition.
  5. Marjorie Perloff, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 53.
Featured-image photograph by Zach Lezniewicz / Unsplash