Real Hell Is There in the Office

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I have found the source of the Kafkaesque: statistics. Forget all the other theories about Kafka’s inspiration for the twisted worlds he created—that he had an overbearing father, he was continually disappointed in love, he suffered mightily from guilt, or that he lived in a crumbling empire and intuited that the world was going to hell. Kafka’s livelihood was sitting at a desk, day after torturous day, pouring over industrial accident statistics. It was Kafka’s job to make sense of these tabulations of small, randomly dispersed events and to find ways to mitigate the risks and compensate the victims. According to Benno Wagner, who contributed one of the introductory essays to Franz Kafka: The Office Writings, Kafka was rather good at his job. Among other resume-building accomplishments, he helped develop safety measures that prevented countless accidents. And while Kafka once exclaimed, “real hell is there in the office,” he also admitted that he had his own inner “deep-seated bureaucrat.”

A bureaucrat in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to process his body weight in paperwork every day. Sifting through the endless stream of paperwork inspired Kafka to produce gems of bureaucratese like “Measures for Preventing Accidents From Wood-Planing Machines.” His reports for the Austrian Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute were at once eminently practical and doomed to be forgotten as soon as they were read, Kafka learned from his office writings that in order to do something good, or at least effective, one had to suffer crippling alienation. In his fiction, he simply reversed this formula: to be oneself is to be at odds in countless weird ways with a bureaucratized, standardized society. And yet lurking within the free, creative self is a desk-bound drudge tallying up quarry accidents and realizing that one day he will fall into the chasm himself.

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