Franz Kafka: Should we have never known him?
Franz Kafka told his friend to burn his work. His friend did not follow Kafka's instructions, but should he have?
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The drama of authorial intent is most tangibly played out in posthumous publication debates, but it is also a broader issue, one that has governed various literary movements: Should a work be subjected to interpretations that rely on theories of which its writer was never aware?Skip to next paragraph
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Should literature be deployed in the service of ideas that its writer rejects?
Does the author matter?
Well, in US courts, no – at least not very much.
Few posthumous publishing cases ever arrive in court, since to make it there another heir to the documents would need to have enough of a gripe about the executors’ intents to hire a lawyer (no one brought Brod to court over Kafka). And when courts do see those rare cases, there is no general rule for how to legally handle them.
“We’re in an area where the law is pretty murky and sparse,” said Lior Strahilevitz, professor of law at the University of Chicago.
One considered factor is whether or not publishing the posthumous work will be a financial boon to the inheritors or if it will be just the opposite, sullying the reputation of the deceased artist and devaluing their existing work. Another is a visceral one: how much of a public loss the destruction would seem to be – are we looking at someone of Kafka’s fame? And another is how good the deceased’s reasons for burning are deemed to be – while courts may allow very private diaries to be destroyed, that’s not the usually the case with novels, said Strahilevitz.
“Were Kafka’s case litigated in the US, the court likely have said ‘Brod, you’re right: This has literary and economic value, and no living person would benefit from its destruction,’” said Strahilevitz.
But that might not be the result if the fictional case happened in a French court. In France – which has what are known as moral rights, or rules protected artistic integrity – courts tend to be more concerned with artistic integrity: “in France, rulings in which an artist is unwillingly exposed to the public in a way they didn’t intend don’t tend to arise as frequently,” said Strahilevitz.
So France would probably, but not definitely, have obliged dead Kafka and had his work burned. Which country would be best balancing an obligation to Kafka against one to the executor and the public is unclear. And, in the particular and peculiar case of Kafka, so too is it unclear which country would be best representing the author’s actual intent.
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In 2011, Judith Butler argued that perhaps Kafka – who rather than burn his own writings handed them to his friend to do it, like a guilt-riddled test of fealty – might have known that his work would not be burned. Perhaps he knew, like most his characters come to know, that in the end it was hopeless to stop his writings from getting away from him, from being pulled up into the broader human designs, the horrible absurdity of which was always patently clear to his paralyzed protagonists but, terrifyingly, not to the other characters.
After all, Butler notes, this was a man who wrote, in addition to that much agonized over letter, this: “How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter!”