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Sartre, Kafka and the Universality of the Literary Work

Jo Bogaerts

French existentialism is commonly regarded as the main impetus for the universal significance that Kafka gained in postwar France. A leading critic, Marthe Robert, has contended that this entailed an outright rejection of interest in the biographical, linguistic and historical dimension of Kafka's writing in order to interpret it as a general expression of the human condition. This article will consider this claim in the light of Sartre's original conceptualization of a dialectic of the universal and the particular in the intercultural mediation of the work of art. The notion of a 'true universality' proposed by Sartre as a defence of Kafka during the 1962 Moscow Peace Conference will allow for a reassessment of Robert's criticism in a paradoxical reversal of terms: it is precisely the inevitable loss of context and the appropriation within one's own particular situation which allow the literary work to elucidate a foreign historical context and thereby gain a wider significance. Rather than a universal meaning of the work, Sartre's concept points to literature's potential to continually release specific meanings in new contexts.