Court case over fired New Brunswick janitor prompts debate over meaning of ‘Kafkaesque’

A New Brunswick court case hinged on the meaning of 'Kafkaesque'. File/Global News

A New Brunswick judge has stepped in to answer a question that has puzzled some of the world’s most prominent thinkers: What exactly does Kafkaesque mean?

In a new ruling, Justice Hugh McLellan defines Kafkaesque as the struggle “against rules and forces that cannot be understood.”

The word – arguably one of the most overused adjectives of our time – had become a fundamental issue in a case involving a Fredericton lab janitor fired in 2015 after he didn’t go to work for more than a month.

Paul Lynch had been jailed for his seventh drunk-driving-related conviction, and claimed to be unable to contact his bosses at the Doctor Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton to tell them why he stopped going to work.

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Lynch had pleaded guilty to having care and control of a vehicle while impaired after hitting a sign on a highway off-ramp. Because of his prior convictions, he was immediately remanded pending sentencing, and later sentenced to six months in jail.

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Lynch said he never had a chance to use a phone to contact his employer, and that no one came to his hearing who could have made the call for him.

Labour adjudicator John McEvoy ordered the health authority to give him his job back, in a decision that declared “no one … should face the Kafka-like situation faced by Lynch in respect of his inability to contact his employer.”

The health authority went to Court of Queen’s Bench to have the adjudicator’s ruling quashed, and although there were other legal questions at play, the reference to the Prague-born novelist became a key issue.

The phrase has become the “representative adjective of our times,” writer Frederick Karl said in his 1991 biography of Kafka.

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The New York Times, the Atlantic and HuffPost have all run pieces about the meaning of Kafkaesque. One Guardian headline had it: “Kafkaesque: a word so overused it has lost all meaning?”

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Health authority lawyer Andrea Folster thought the word was an overreach in the Lynch case. She argued the adjudicator’s ruling “lacks justification, transparency and intelligibility,” and the Kafka reference demonstrated McEvoy’s unreasonableness.

“This comparison to Kafka … is not justified or explained in the decision. There was no such evidence,” she said.

Folster quoted from the online Urban Dictionary that Kafkaesque “describes a nightmarish situation … strongly surreal .. with an ethereal ‘evil,’ omnipotent power floating just beyond the senses … marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.”

In his recent ruling in the case, McLellan offered a definition of his own: “A ‘Kafka-like’ situation or ‘Kafkaesque’ refers to stories by Franz Kafka with characters struggling against rules and forces that cannot be understood. Kafkaesque is much worse than a ‘Catch-22’ situation, where circumstances and rules prevent escape or change.”

In the end, the judge suggested simply he thought the word was fine, and upheld the ruling reinstating Lynch.

“I am not persuaded that the adjudicator’s expression ‘Kafka-like’ indicates error in his perspective or unreasonableness in his decision,” he said.

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