Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann? David Foster Wallace or John Updike? Or Knausgard?

In his essay Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann marxist literary critic and historian György Lukács puts different contemporary authors of his time, such as James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, up against each other to exemplify some significant differences between modernism and realism in the european epic literature of the twentieth century. In Lukács view Kafka is a nihilistic modernist whoms stories lack of meaning reveals nothing but a world of empty bureaucratics. There’s no need for supernatural ghosts in Kafka’s stories, Lukács writes: »his ghosts belong to everyday life; and, since this life itself is unreal, there is no need of supernatural ghosts«. The uniqeness of Kafka and his world impact of his idiosyncratic style, which has turned into an adjective, kafkasque, is in its representation a world of echos from the other modernists who has jumped into the abyss and write about theire experience on their way down to nothing, even: »though Kafka’s artistic method differs from that of other modernist writers, the principle of presentation is the same: the world is an allegory of transcendent Nothingness.« I think this statements could’ve been very modificated, i.e. is Metamorphosis and The Castle arguably about the transcendental being and it’s relation to the other and to God’s grace, but maybe more on that some other time. Anyway his statements will do for now.

On the other hand Lukács argues that Thomas Mann’s novels representate a world where meaning has not lost its conection to a historical realistic view where classbackground plays an important role in the characters life and developement. As an example he puts up James Joyce’s representation of time in his works against Mann’s treatment of time:

»To take the problem of time: Thomas Mann’s critical detachment is such that he is not in doubt about the subjective character of the modern experience if time. Yet he knows that this experience is typical only of a certain social class, which can best be portrayed by making use of this experience. The uncritical approach of modernist writers-and of some modern philosophers-reveals itself in their conviction that this subjective experience constitutes reality as such. That is why this treatment of time can be used by the realistic writer to characterize certain figures in his novels, although in a modernist work it may be used to describe reality itself.«

Joyce meme

One can find similar examples from literature written up to our days too. If we read let’s say David Foster Wallace’s works we will se that his characters tries to cope with things in very skilled ways, i.e. through intelligent approches towards the psychological. Their only result is emptiness. The ghosts are not supernatural here neither, they are locked inside a complex language whith a high account of realistic detail where the subjective’s disorted view of reality constitutes reality itself. John Updike is more of a late 20th and early 21th century’s representant of the realistic approach of writing as exemplified by Thomas Mann before. When Rabit in Rabit Redux sits on the bus on his way home from work, his sense of time while reading the advertisings and billboards besides the road, is a typical example for someone from Rabit’s class. It’s a certain class of people who works during the day and in boredom on the routinely bus trip home can read advertisings or the newspaper, considering what one can afford, and then go to the movies in the evening for a high cultural movie by Stanley Kubrick without worrying that he spends money on something he doesn’t understand. One can get a glimps of the differences between Foster Wallace an Updike only by looking at these interviews blank on blank has published.

Or let’s say Karl Ove Knausgard, who has just been translated into english and published in the US. His treatment of life and death belongs to those of the modernist era. It’s like his subjective experience of death and his abstract reflections on it constitutes everybody else’s view on the same matter. At first he critizise the discourses of his contemporaries for not talking about death enough and in the right ways, but only giving it superficial coverage and representations with distance, i.e. in crime fictions and news headlines about wars and murders. It seems like Knausgard longs for a representation of the human condition as it were in the romantic era of art, where people were painted very small in a grandious landscape there threes and mountains representated the divine, the wholly other non human being, the godly reality. But this was gone with modernism, and it started with Edvard Munch, Knausgard states. He placed man in the center of his paintings, and the human inner life dominated and colored nature, there was no more place for the divine. How could this than be solved, one might ask. Knausgard’s solution seems to be that he writes about himself and his father’s death in a similar way as the one he critizises Munch for: the humans and their inner life dominates totally in the description of reality. They constitutes it. The uncritical modernist has little understanding of the class background of people who experience his surroundings in this way. For John Updike it’s not enough to look at death, i.e. in the wake of terrorism, with a white middle class american’s eyes, he writes himself into a young muslim while trying to get a grasp on what death means for someone with a totally different approach to such things as life, death, God and religion. The uncritical modernist has no sense for this, that’s way he comes into a crizis when the secular 20th century western world no longer makes sense as an allegory of transcendent Nothingness.



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