- Irony’s Antics: Walser, Kafka, Roth, and the German Comic Tradition by Erica Weitzman
Erica Weitzman’s book Irony’s Antics is subtitled Walser, Kafka, Roth and the German Comic Tradition. A few comments on this title are in order. As mentions of the Swiss writer Robert Walser and the Austrians Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth indicate, the phrase “German comic tradition” here does not limit this study to the literary and philosophical heritage of Germany. Attention to these writers, as well as to theories of Austrians Hofmannsthal and Freud, reflects a broad scholarly scope in which “German” signifies language more than nation. Considerable discussion is provided on pertinent theories of the German luminaries Schiller, Schlegel, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Kant. (Some use is also made of non-German theorists such as Bergson, Foucault, Lacan, and Hobbes.) Also worth mentioning is that the chapters on the three writers named do not discuss their entire oeuvre but concentrate primarily on Walser’s first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (and to a lesser extent his later cycle Aus dem Bleistift gebiet), Kafka’s novel Der Verschollene (Amerika), and Roth’s journalistic writings (rather than his fiction). To be sure, these analyses are informed by the author’s considerable knowledge of the writings of the three authors and their interpretations. The book aims at defining and providing examples of “irony” and “the comic.” However, rather than providing simple definitions of the terms and applying them to the texts analyzed, an intricate history of their varied definitions is unrolled, emphasizing the contrasting [End Page 136] traditions of Romantic irony and twentieth-century developments but also taking a range of philosophical theories into account.
Weitzman begins her analysis of Walser’s humor and comedy by questioning the common “pathological” and “happy-go-lucky” interpretations of his texts as well as the view of him as “the simple inheritor of the romantic ironic tradition” (59). She states that “another name for a romantic irony that has outlived the romanticism that created it may well be the comic” (60). Walser’s first novel undermines common notions of both education and language through a collection of fictional school essays by Fritz Kocher, “a mediocre but dutiful pupil” who dies right after leaving school. His death robs the book of “any notion of cause and effect, continuation, or aftermath, indeed of temporality whatsoever, that would [. . .] grant Fritz’s education meaning” (61). According to Weitzman, “[T]he figure Fritz Kocher does not constitute a critique of Bildung so much as its ad absurdum inflation: the pure pupil with neither past nor future, eternally sitting at his desk [. . .] he is all Bildung, Bildung for its own sake” (62). The language of the pupil’s essays adds to the comedy: “Fritz’s language is characterized by an awkward mix of naive observation, forced metaphors, non sequiturs, and badly managed quotations from society’s storehouse of clichés.” Walser’s strategy in this regard “is to bring language and its forming within the sphere of the comic. First forced to reveal its artificiality, arbitrariness, and plasticity [. . .] it is then compelled nonetheless to go through the farce of trying to mean something” (62).
Weitzman’s chapter on Kafka and the comic builds on substantial previous commentary, pioneered by Max Brod and Walter Benjamin. She observes that Kafka’s humor is rooted in his lack of mimetic or didactic goals, his focus not only on theatricality and presentation but the backstage processes. His representation of mechanical process and comical calamity explain why he is often likened to comedians like Charlie Chaplin. Kafka’s slapstick elicits laughter by people turning into pseudo-objects and objects taking on a life of their own, as well as the choreography of accident and paradoxical gracefulness of clumsiness. Kafka’s own work in a government insurance office lends irony to his literature, showing paradox and humor in institutional protocol, probability calculations, and challenges of determining borders between accident and intention, automatism and will. Kafka also highlights human costs of modern technology and American models of assembly-line efficiency...