On Arendt, Kafka, and the Uses of Misreading

This post is part of a symposium on Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

“Literature is put to all kinds of political uses, public and private,” Philip Roth once observed, “but one oughtn’t confuse those uses with the hard-won reality that an author has succeeded in realizing in a work of art.” After reading Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees (2018), I wonder if Lyndsey Stonebridge would disagree. Works of literature that deal with human rights issues are too often judged and critiqued based on the “reality” of their representations. Or, alternatively, they are mechanically celebrated as narrative engines of desirable qualities like empathy, resilience, or resistance. But Stonebridge’s main interlocutor in Placeless People is Hannah Arendt. And what mattered much more for Arendt, according to Stonebridge, is “the politics that follows from such storytelling” (58). Sometimes even misreadings have their uses.

As one of the most beautifully crafted and thought-provoking works yet written at the intersection of literary studies and refugee history, Placeless People offers a great opportunity to reflect on some of the uses of literature in the wider human rights field. Placeless People can be categorized as a work of literary history—but not in any conventional sense. Stonebridge does register “the impact of modern refugee history on the novel form itself,” telling an entirely new story about the relationship between literature and human rights in the middle of the twentieth century (34). But her primary object of study is not the development of twentieth-century refugee literature. For Stonebridge, works of literature are, above all, most useful as historically-situated “forms of thinking and imagining” about the past, present, and future of “placelessness.”

Appropriately, she opens the book with a chapter on Arendt’s uses of Franz Kafka. This is a brilliant move on several levels. First of all, Kafka is a writer perfectly suited to some of the book’s most revelatory arguments. Stonebridge points out that a typical Kafka protagonist is far from the “self-developing, rights-bearing person” that we now associate with both the Bildungsroman tradition and legal discourses of human rights, thanks to the work of Joseph Slaughter (40). Riffing on Slaughter, she argues that The Trial, as a modernist anti-Bildungsroman, is “human rights law’s preeminent disabling fiction” (36). Here, I might quibble with Stonebridge just a bit. Already in Arendt’s time, Kafka was a very uncomfortable fit within the emerging canon of modernism in which his work was almost universally included. But I think that odd fit actually works in Stonebridge’s favor. Throughout the book, she argues that while modernism made a fetish out of the cosmopolitan figure of the exile, the literary movement has almost entirely ignored the full social and political costs of statelessness. In Kafka, however, Stonebridge has identified a writer nearly as unassimilable as the figure of the modern refugee.

Kafka was also important to many of Stonebridge’s favored writers and thinkers in Placeless People, including W. H. Auden, Giorgio Agamben, Susan Sontag, and, of course, Arendt. As Stonebridge tells us, Arendt turned to Kafka’s fictions in 1944, not long after arriving in New York City as a stateless refugee, “in order to think through the imaginative terms of the new statelessness” (5). In fact, she wrote her essay “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation” for Partisan Review at roughly the same time that she was also developing her influential critique of human rights, later published in the “Decline of the Nation State, and the End of the Rights of Man” chapter of Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). According to Stonebridge, Arendt used Kafka as a “thought experiment” to test out her ideas about the limits of human rights in an age of nationalism (30). But Arendt’s engagement with Kafka went well beyond critique. Stonebridge also shows how Arendt used Kafka’s fictions to help her begin imagining new forms of political and ethical community more hospitable to the placeless. By 1944, Arendt had already written about Kafka once before, in “The Jew as Pariah,” but her new reading in Partisan Review focused less on Kafka as a Jewish archetype than on the political revelations of his fiction. Still, it’s worth noting that Arendt preserved one key line from her earlier essay. Referring to Kafka’s main lesson for the villagers in The Castle, she writes, “His story, his behavior, had taught them both that human rights are worth fighting for and that the rule of the castle is not divine law and, consequently, can be attacked.”[1] Human rights and the law could also be rebuilt. For Arendt, Kafka’s fictions weren’t just prophecies of a spreading totalitarianism—a reading sometimes mistakenly attributed to Arendt—they were “blueprints” for the reconstruction of a post-totalitarian world.

But what if Arendt’s surprising optimism was based on a misreading? Even if we accept the shaky proposition that Kafka’s protagonists are all men of “good will,” there is still the problem of her utopian interpretation of Kafka’s novel Amerika. At the end of his unfinished novel, the immigrant protagonist Karl Rossmann arrives at the mysterious “Nature Theater of Oklahama” [sic], where he is offered a place in the theater’s limitless troupe. For Arendt, Kafka had “tentatively” imagined a new kind of community at the “happy end” of Amerika, where even pariahs like Rossmann are welcome. But our reading of the novel’s ending has shifted quite a bit since Arendt’s time. The available evidence—including an image of a public lynching, subtitled “Idyll aus Oklahama,” in one of Kafka’s source texts—now suggests that the Theater of Oklahama is at best a terrifying purgatory. As Stonebridge writes in an endnote, “‘The Nature Theater of Oklahama’ may take in all newcomers, but in a text suffused with images of loss and racial violence, caprice and poverty, its world is not far from that of The Castle” (194). In Arendt’s defense, her misreading of Amerika was quite widespread in the forties, influenced by Max Brod’s afterword to the novel. In any event, we don’t read Arendt to better understand Kafka. Instead, as Stonebridge’s entire book demonstrates, Arendt’s “willed” misreadings have other valuable uses.

While we’re on the topic of misreading Kafka, I’ll hazard a few other odd connections that came to mind as I read Placeless People. The same year that Arendt published Origins of Totalitarianism, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a brief essay called “Kafka’s Precursors,” in which the Argentine writer suggests that literary history may depend on our creative misreadings of the past. Interestingly—at least for thinking about the relationship between literary history and human rights—the intellectual historian Samuel Moyn opens his revisionist account The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) with a quote from this Borges essay: “Each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, just as it will modify the future.” Moyn objects to this as a model for the history of human rights on the grounds that “if the past is read as preparation for a surprising recent event, both are distorted” (11). This is certainly a good maxim for conventional historiography, but I wonder if it should apply to an unorthodox work like Placeless People? Perhaps the literary history of human rights should be conceived as a Borgesian search for precursors.

As it turns out, Roth was also thinking of Kafka as a precursor when he commented on the political uses of literature. More specifically, he was referring to the uses Kafka was put to by a cohort of banned Czech writers in the 1970s—including Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera, and Václav Havel—who, he claims, “were well aware that they were willfully violating the integrity of Kafka’s implacable imagination.” (Although Roth doesn’t elaborate on these uses of Kafka, it’s worth noting that many of the same writers participated in the “antipolitical” turn of the human rights movement that Moyn laments in The Last Utopia.) But there was also another, more familiar context for Roth’s complaint. He was also making a point about how his own 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, had been misread as an allegory about the political descent of the United States under George W. Bush. Roth, of course, insisted otherwise. However, fifteen years later—and a year after Roth’s death—his great counter-realist novel about a previous “America First” movement has never been more useful.

It strikes me that what all these misreadings of Kafka have in common is their willed confusion between the alternate realities of art, history, and politics. And Placeless People is that rare book that realizes the value in that confusion. Not that this should reassure us. If anything, her chapter on Arendt and Kafka makes us realize just how far we are from that midcentury moment, when complex forms of literary knowledge had a very different level of public prestige and influence. Meanwhile, Kafka and Roth’s disturbing fictions of America continue to converge with reality. Is it time to start searching for a new blueprint?


[1] Hannah Arendt, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” Jewish Social Studies 6, no. 4 (April 1944), 120.

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