Good Ol' Kafka
Reflections on the least modern modernist around.
Warning: In this post are spoilers for Kafka’s two major novels, The Trial and The Castle, though they are the kind of books where spoilers don’t matter all that much.
The visual language of dreams is often fascinating not because it’s impenetrable, but because it’s so laughably on the nose. Recently I worked an absurd English teaching job in east Asia, wherein I was brought out for audiences of sullen high schoolers like an aging B-tier rock group before a half-full state fair amphitheater. Now, after two years, my unconscious mind has processed this experience and presented it back to me in this form:
I’m in a cage hung on a metal track set into the school’s ceiling, and this track runs throughout the entire school. The system resembles those seats that help disabled people get in and out of baths and pools. At the start of each day, I step into the cage and wait patiently as my supervisor locks it behind me, enters my schedule into a console like those used by roller coaster operators, and then I begin my tour of the school, never leaving the cage but occasionally passing and receiving papers through the steel lattice. But this was no nightmare, rather it had the vaguely comical atmosphere of a Kafka novel, and I, like a good Kafka protagonist, played the part of a performatively defiant but ultimately doomed hero. I woke up laughing, and muttered to myself, “yeah, that’s about right” before dressing and heading off to said absurd English teaching job, comforted and entertained by the image of myself flying around the school as if on a post-modern Disney dark ride. This caricature of the darkest possible interpretation of my daily rituals was a catharsis, and I guess had the same appeal as those amusement park caricatures couples get in order to laugh at each other’s most prominent features.
This dream, along with David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay, helped me to understand Kafka’s essential appeal, as well as develop some of my own ideas about what his books and stories set out to do.
DFW’s essay focuses on the difficulties of helping undergrads parse a writer who is in every sense an oddity, not being one-tenth as difficult as a Joyce, or as obviously and headily profound as one of the famous Russians. Kafka’s prose is unadorned, and on the surface, his plots often resemble strange hybrids between sci-fi B movies and pretentious indie films. The protagonists, as previously mentioned, are usually vehicles for one overwhelming goal and a very limited set of emotions, almost always appearing in response to frustrated desire. But then, is frustrated desire not the substance of all stories? I’ve read a fair amount of ‘how to write fiction books, and basically, all recommend writers think of stories as cycles of conflict, wherein the resolution is apportioned out across multiple conflicts that culminate in climax and denouement. If a character desires something, and then immediately gets it, that makes for a very short and unsatisfying story. So then what is Kafka doing that every other writer isn’t?
First of all, he’s locking his protagonist in what would be the first act of a ‘normal’ story. In The Castle, our protagonist K comes to a village on a land surveying assignment, but before he can begin the job he must make contact with a certain castle bureaucrat. He goes about trying to get access to the real decision-maker in the castle so he can get started and…there is no and. That’s it. The whole 102,805-word novel is about that, and honestly, K never gets very close to achieving his goal.
The Trial follows a similar pattern. A protagonist usually referred to simply as ‘K’ is arrested for an unspecified crime, but not imprisoned or yet put on trial. K then goes about trying to figure out what his crime was, where the court even is, and of course, prove his own innocence in a case he doesn’t understand. Though the book wasn’t completed at the time of Kafka’s death, there is an ending; two men take him to a quarry and kill him with a butcher’s knife. But that’s hardly a fulfillment of K’s desire, which is to understand the nature of his own case, and to receive a fair, or at the very least comprehensible, trial. The closest this desire, which is fairly representative of the desires Kafka’s protagonists tend to have, comes close to being fulfilled by a parable told to him by a priest. It’s quite short, so I’ll post it here in full:
“Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body.
The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”
Here, I think, is a distillation of the obsession underlying most of Kafka’s work. What matters is not so much the law, or the almost mythic status of those who wield decision-making power over The Castle’s village, but access itself. I’m obviously not the first to notice Kafka’s focus on humanity’s tendency to fetishize ritual and status/authority derived from sources so obscure as to be functionally nonexistent, but I think most critics have missed the dream-like universality of his stories by branding him a thoroughly modern writer, concerned mostly with the alienation and tedium borne of the industrial revolution, the death of god, and the (insert any popular cause of modern misery). But when I read Kafka, I don’t see any quintessentially modern elements. I see stories that could be as easily set in ancient Mesopotamia as early 20th century Europe, and perhaps would seem much more natural there, and even lose their surreality if shifted back in that way. Because complex rituals of initiation, opaque legal systems, and dread at alienation from the tribe, the race, or the species, are far from new.
But if these stories aren’t comments on modern man’s alienation or allegories for specific institutional failures, what are they?
Well, for one, they’re the most private writings (in the case of The Castle and The Trial) of a man whose specific personality disorders have been much debated but who we know contemplated suicide at least once, and who dealt with the kind of rabid self-hatred common among those suffering from clinical depression, borderline personality disorder, and most popularly bandied about in discussions of Kafka, schizoid personality disorder. He ordered his writings burned at the end of his life, but luckily his friend Max Brod published them anyway.
All of this is to say that a deeply tortured mind comes through in these stories, perhaps more obviously than in that of any other popular writer, excluding Lovecraft. But I find Kafka’s preoccupations to be, well, fundamentally sane, and not the grotesque fantasies of a man with only one foot in reality. His obsession with subtly shifting balances of power better matches with descriptions of abused children’s aquired hyper-vigilance; they learn to pick up on the smallest details in other people’s behavior because of the necessity of doing so with parents who have hair-trigger tempers, or even just inconsistent rules with harsh consequences for breaking them.
Such upbringings train people to look at others mostly as authority figures with more or less relative power than themselves, and to adjust their own behavior accordingly in order to exist safely in a system imposed by others, and thus indifferent to one’s own needs and desires. I expect most abused children exist in a headspace much like that of Kafka’s confused and frustrated protagonists. But the patterns of his stories mirror not just the environments and pathologies produced by the actions of abusive or unpredictable authority figures, but also the very worst conclusions one can draw from the findings of modern science, and more specifically, evolutionary psychology: There is no god, and worse, all law and all authority arise arbitrarily from accidents of nature which result in gaps in status, which allow the fickle preferences of the empowered to run roughshod over the world. With this deep pessimism in mind, I can think of no better setting for a Kafkaesque non-adventure than ancient India, seen through the eyes of a member of the untouchable caste, possessed of a small ambition to rise above his station in some trivial way. I imagine the travails as he tries to prove his cleanliness, and learns that a Brahmin must scrub his chest counterclockwise fifty-seven times with fresh soap nuts if he wishes to be clean on a Tuesday that also happens to fall on a full moon and that because the untouchable has scrubbed fifty-eight times, he has proven himself overzealous and too clean and so has no hope of ever improving his position in the eyes of the higher castes, and so on, and so on.
Nietzche, a few decades before Kafka, took interest with what trifles stood as differentiators between those who occupied the upper echelons of status in a primitive society, and those who were denied access, like a Kafka protagonist, to that world where sweeping decisions concerning the lives of other people are made, and personal desires are fulfilled:
From First Essay, Section 6 of The Genealogy of Morals
“…all the concepts of ancient man were rather at first incredibly uncouth, coarse, external, narrow, straightforward, and altogether unsymbolical in meaning to a degreee that we can scarcely concieve. The “pure one” is from the beginning one who washes himself, who forbids himself certain foods that produce skin ailments, who does not sleep with the dirty woman of the lower strata, who has an aversion to blood—no more, hardly more!”
In Kafka’s work, we have modern man as presented as ancient man: obsessed with the petty minutiae of ritual and ceremony, overwhelmingly concerned with that which denotes a man as in group or out-group, and open worship of the obscure and labyrinthine sources of authority—in Kafka’s bureaucrats we see the fickle and persnickety desires and revenge of the hunter-gatherer’s animistic idols, quite as much as we see the impossible to please corporate middle-manager or the 20th-century secret policeman. Because, after all, they are animated by the same thing, the same desires, fears, resentments. And it is this, I think, that Kafka is always pointing at, and with it implying a line of questioning that marks him as a deeply skeptical, but not entirely defeated humanist: just what is to be done about all this nightmarish absurdity? And if it can be lampooned, can it not be overcome?