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Would Kafka Have Kept a Weblog?

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By Robert Nagle, Austin, Texas, May, 2002
Summary: A meditation on how Kafka would be different if he were alive today.

Would Kafka have kept a weblog? His letters to Milena seemed to me a kind of weblog. He used the ritual of writing a letter as an excuse to describe what he was feeling and thinking. Perhaps in these letters he did not feel that Milena understood

Kafka at the beach
    Kafka at the beach
him or indeed that anyone could. Instead, he sent these letters as a way to make him accountable to people who actually dealt with the outside world. My memory of Kafka's letters fade, but I think Kafka regarded Milena as the public audience he would never have. The alternative, of course, was to write for oneself, to keep everything in a desk drawer and to face the fact that his diaries bore little relevance to the modern world. Writing Milena was Kafka's way to give to the outside world the permission to view his insides. If you truly love someone, you want to expose yourself to that person, even if it is only by correspondence. Perhaps the recipient of a letter wouldn't understand, but she at least would appreciate the letters as a (futile) gesture of generosity when the two people would actually meet. The act of writing Milena (and Max and Felice and Dora) grounded Kafka in other people's perspectives and forced him to wonder about the differences between the world he inhabited and the world of his friends.

In this age where letters arrive without delay and where getting published is no longer a problem, how would Kafka have responded?

The 21'st century Kafka would have darted off emails to friends as before. And perhaps written about the same things. But he would have needed to address the problem of audience and the vulnerabilities associated with digital communication. If he wrote and published widely online, he would have had to create barriers between himself and his writing (perhaps through pseudonyms, I don't know). He certainly would have reveled in the Internet's freedoms, and probably searched for soulmates in chat rooms, bulletin board or newsgroups. He would have quickly taken to the practice of writing to several people in other cities or countries whom he'd never meet or talk to. Perhaps he could have searched for information about tuberculosis and found better information about how to take care of himself (I'm speculating wildly here). The invisible people who responded to his messages would have consoled him, but it would also aggravate his attitudes toward the imbeciles he had to deal with everyday. . Perhaps the modern day Kafka would never have bothered to write Milena at all. She lived only a city away, but she was getting bad about responding to emails. Perhaps she was too busy. Chatting online or exchanging emails with Cybergretchen in Argentina might have been easier and not as strenuous or daunting. Kafka today would be living a solitary existence, although certainly not a lonely one.

Milená Jesenská
Milena Jesenska, journalist and girlfriend of Kafka who corresponded with him frequently.

Kafka would have followed intellectual discussions on the web, but he would have tired of them quickly. He would have seen how a thousand online postings on some literary or philosophical matter brought a person no closer to understanding. Instead of viewing his predicament as terrible or absurd or tragic-comic, he would have seen it as little different from the hundreds (no thousands) of people who wrote online diaries or weblogs, or who contributed to mailing lists or discussion groups. He would have asked himself, "What is so special about me?" and concluded "Not much, really." The weblogger's navel-watching would would have exasperated him. Instead of weblogging, he would have taken more strolls past the gardens in the neighborhood, if only to convince himself that the real world still was outside. Not only would writing have seemed pointless (a sentiment expressed by the real Kafka), he would have regarded it as contributing to the digital trashheap of articles, emails, postings, rants, weblogs and chats that flooded the world. He wouldn't need to burn his works (a crazy thought really) because he knew full well that in 5 years, none of the url's would work anymore, and besides, in 10 years or so, technology will have changed to the point where written text would be irrelevant anyway.

And as for Milena, he might have noticed her, maybe sent her an email or two or kept up with her newspaper articles, but that was only a fleeting encounter, a brief episode. How easily he lost touch with her-- did he still have her email address? Was her email address still working? And wasn't the last email returned? In 1920's Vienna, Kafka described Milena as "...the most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life." But the Kafka of today might have understood that relationships pass quickly, that physical presence was a rare and remarkable event, that the accelerating pace of life and technology would distance the individual from any hope of lasting happiness.

Robert Nagle is an available Texas writer who has written essays about Kafka and Eastern Europe. He maintains a technology weblog and an Asian Culture Weblog.

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