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Challenging the Absurd?

Sartre’s Article on Kafka and the Fantastic

Jo Bogaerts

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published several important articles of literary criticism on Blanchot, Camus and Bataille. In addition to propounding his own literary views, these articles functioned as a means of marking out his own version of existentialism, which risked being conflated with the Camusian absurd. Whereas Camus, according to Sartre, advocated a detached attitude in the face of the meaninglessness of existence, Sartre maintained that the subject cannot withdraw from the (historical) situation and that existence is ultimately meaningful. One author in particular, Franz Kafka, acts as the figurative ‘prism’ through which Sartre challenges rival versions of existential thinking. He does so by introducing the concept of le fantastique (the fantastic) on account of Kafka’s work. In so doing, Sartre not only rebutted the dominant interpretation, according to which Kafka was an absurd author, but also uncovered a historical critique implicit in the Prague author’s work.

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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.