Wallace gives his thoughts on why American students have difficulty understanding the humor in works by Kafka. As he explains, it is not that Kafka is too hard for students to understand, rather it is the fact that American students are taught to analyze and hence, "drain," the humor of the Kafka text.
The example Wallace gives of a Kafka joke that his students often didn't find funny was:
- "Alas," said the mouse, "the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up."
Part of the missed delivery of a Kafka joke to modern audiences, as Wallace notes, is that Kafka’s works have to be explained due to their dated context – and any time a joke needs to be explained, all the fun is drained out of it.
Wallace posits that "the particular kind of funniness Kafka deploys is deeply alien to students whose neural resonances are American" (62). The problem is that Kafka's humor has none of the similarity to the humor that American students are used to. American children have been "trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance" (64). But, Kafka's humor encompasses none of this. Instead, Kafka's funniness is always intrinsically wrapped up in his despair. "Kafka's comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy" (63). Such joy arises when one is in such utter despair that there is nothing to do but create humor out of the situation. Thus, the humor and the tragedy are inextricably linked. Not to mention that the central Kafka joke is "that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle" (64). So, the struggle that comes from being human and from attempting to get away from tragedy is in fact the only state there ever is or will be. We are and will always be stuck in the place we are trying to leave. The despair of such a situation can only be dealt with with humor and funniness--and that is exactly what Kafka does.
Wallace voices a certain discontent he has with the way Kafka is read today because there seems to be a lack of understanding of Kafka's work.
Originally, this essay was published in Harper's.
Not necessarily a controversial essay, though it is worth noting the controversy surrounding Kafka:
The famous anecdote about Kafka is that he requested that all his work be burned upon his death. Though the man he put in charge of his estate, Max Brod, ignored him and kept the works which would later be published and become the what's discussed in Wallace’s essay.