It’s a Nightmare! Kafka Show Scary But Missing Nuance

There was a time when it could rightly have been said of the Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) what W.H. Auden wrote in his elegy, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”: “if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, / to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion.” This was certainly true when I began reading Kafka as an undergraduate in the late 1940’s, and it remained so well into the 1950’s.

It was in the late 40’s that Kafka began to be assigned reading in certain college classes, and by the 50’s the term “Kafkaesque” was commonplace among people who had never read a line by Kafka himself; they had just picked up on what people were saying about Kafka and his work. There had developed a kind of Kafka cult that looked upon his vision of the modern world-or what was said to be his vision: an Existentialist vision-as a key to life itself. If you went to a party in Greenwich Village in those days, you were certain to hear some argument about the latest article on Kafka in Partisan Review or the book pages of the liberal weeklies.

Kafka is still read, of course. It’s even likely that more people read Kafka today than ever before. But the Kafka cult is long gone. Kafka is now too respectable-an established modern classic-to be the object of a cult. In any case, the kind of people who used to argue about Kafka at parties are now more likely to be heard talking about movies, television or something that caught their attention on the Internet. Something that can be looked at, sat through or listened to, not just read in a book in a room by oneself.

This being the case, it was probably inevitable that someone, somewhere, would sooner or later undertake to update Kafka by making him the subject of-what else?-a multimedia “environment.” This is what has now come to the Jewish Museum, in a show called The City of K.: Franz Kafka and Prague , a sort of nightmare entertainment that aspires to take us inside the mind of the writer and backward in time to the Prague of his day-or rather the Prague of his nights. The City of K. is, with one exception, a very nocturnal environment: The walls of the first-floor galleries at the Jewish Museum are painted dark green, and the light levels are minimal; the single exception is a bright white space in which we are treated to the creations of what is called “a mirage-making machine,” which consists of blurry film images accompanied by spooky sound effects.

In fact, The City of K. isn’t a single environment, but a succession of thematic environments designed to retrace the sorrows and suffering-both real and imagined-that marked the course of Kafka’s life in Prague and determined the style and content of his writings. These environments are crammed with things to look at: photographs, film clips, documents and manuscripts. They’re also studded with things to read, mainly quotations from Kafka’s writings translated into English. These are accompanied by a whole repertory of freaky, ominous sounds, and staged with special props that are lurid and abundant enough to furnish a couple of big-time Broadway thrillers.

There is even an elaborate maze for us to walk through so that we may have some inkling of the kind of penal colony that is the subject of a Kafka short story. Did Kafka also have a phobia about bureaucratic office work? Threatening, overscale metal filing cabinets illustrate this fear-only here the open file drawers feature illuminated passages from his writings.

This succession of gloomy environments is divided into two parts, opening with “Kafka in Prague: Existential Space,” and closing with “Prague in Kafka: Imaginary Topography,” which is nothing if not imaginative. Each of these is divided into sub-subsections, with titles like “The Primal Scene” and “The Constantly Postponed Marriages” in the first part, and “The Endless Office” and “In the Penal Colony” in the second. The elaborate catalog accompanying the show explores many of these themes in greater detail, with essays on “Prague as a Literary City,” “Prague, Kafka, and Judaism” and “Space and Time in Kafkaesque Architecture,” among others. The catalog, too, is illustrated with abundant photographs and quotations.

Oddly enough, The City of K. comes to us not from Prague itself, but from Barcelona, Spain. It was organized and designed by Juan Insua for the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona as part of a cycle of exhibitions called Cities and Their Writers . It’s all brilliantly conceived and effectively produced. And yet, for all of its brilliance and its undeniable devotion to its subject, I think The City of K. is a terrible thing to do to a great writer: The show inevitably vulgarizes and simplifies the literary achievement it has been designed to celebrate. It crushes every nuance in the writings under the weight of a highly melodramatic audiovisual fiction. Everything that’s left unsaid in Kafka’s writings, everything that’s implied but not spelled out, is transformed into a multimedia stunt. And all the humor, too-for there’s plenty of macabre humor in Kafka-is gone.

As a result, this well-intended effort at exploring the mind of Franz Kafka is likely to be of more interest to people who haven’t read his work than to those who have. The real horror of it all-call it Kafkaesque, if you like-is that many innocent visitors to this exhibition will leave with the impression that they know everything there is to know about this spooky character and his strange writings.

The City of K.: Franz Kafka and Prague remains on view at the Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through Jan. 5, 2003.