8.14.2008

Why Kafka (and Dickinson) Become Slaves to Biographers

Earlier today, I read an interesting article. I highly recommend it. The author says about Kafka part of what I tried to say about Dickinson, here. Only, it makes sense when he says it.

From 3quarksdaily
The process of reading a text, line by line, is hard work. Not quite as hard work as writing it, perhaps, but almost. Biographical interpretations are an excuse for lazy reading. Using an author’s life to crack the code of his texts is just too easy. There are no shortcuts to interpretation. That was why I spent three hours reading ten pages of Kafka with my students.

I would only add two things:
1) I think the realization has as much to do with spiritual safety as it does with analytical laziness. It feels good to read Emily Dickinson and tsk-tsk over the poor neurotic woman who wrote such pretty poems. There is something satisfying about reading Kafka as an explanation as some other guy's life transformed into a clever metaphor. But the power of these works is that they can latch onto and reflect us, the readers. If you want to read a poem that admits the things you won't admit to yourself, read Dickinson. If you want to read literature that talks about how fascinating the author is, try Nabokov (j/k).
2) I do not think this eliminates the value of a biography of someone like Dickinson. I think biography, like psychotherapy, is an art form, something very pretty, that can be beautiful in certain circumstances, useful in certain others, neither in many circumstances, both in a select few.