what kafka knew
There is hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us. –Franz Kafka
Lately I have found myself drawn to reading Franz Kafka again. Kafka, almost unrecognized in his own short lifetime, has obtained iconic status by now, at least among writers – so I don’t know how much anybody really reads him any more. It’s a difficult and discomforting task; there’s very little actual enjoyment involved, and I say this as someone who has appreciated darker visions in everything from punk music to Expressionist art. For me there is no one who so completely creates the atmosphere of nightmare in his or her work, or really the lived experience of nightmare, without garish excess of any kind, without sensationalism. You can have your Stephen King, you can even have your Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker. The only writer whose stories really horrify me is Franz Kafka. And perhaps this is because the horror he describes most vividly is the banal horror of every day life in the modern world.
Writing at the very beginning of the 20th century, Kafka had already seen beyond its end. Even the form of his narratives: fragmentary, shapeless, some as short as a couple of paragraphs, most of his few novels unfinished, was somehow indicative of the times to come. It was Kafka who gave the modern Western world, so enamored with the idea of eternal progress, a parallel symbolic world in which no progress was possible, through which humans moved with the languid or frenzied illogic of a dream, where no one was innocent, all were complicit, where time effectively ground to a halt and yet constant, ambiguous activity continued. It was Kafka whose most well-known character was a man sent catapulting back down the evolutionary ladder, transformed overnight into an insect. It was Kafka who first voiced the deepest anxieties and discontents of modern “civilization” in his stories, with a remarkable eye for the tiniest details that actually dominate the lives of those who, thanks to that civilization, struggle daily for meaning and purpose, rather than immediate physical survival: that is, people like you and me.
Kafka was not in any sense a political person or a political writer. But the political implications of his work are everywhere, and for me at least, he offers a way of understanding why things in the political realm tend to play out as they do. “Kafkaesque” has entered the language as the way to describe an ordinary person’s experience of bizarre and malevolent power structures. Kafka repeatedly depicted the operation of dominance and submission in human relations, with an emphasis on the highly personal and even intimate ways power operates, how it unerringly finds out individual weaknesses and exploits them. And how it is fed by a self-absorption that has become ever more extreme in contemporary societies, although Kafka never connected this self-absorption (as I do) with the same material comforts that society has produced. It came to me chillingly while I was reading Kafka’s stories that if my personal agonies and frustrations could be displayed using a sort of meter that measured their emotional intensity, the graph thus plotted would show bigger spikes when some vacant-eyed woman on a cellphone stood indifferently in my way as I tried to get off a bus, or when someone at my workplace (the site of many of Kafka’s most dismal human situations is the office) undercut me in some unchallengeable way, than when I read about the distant carnage in Iraq or Syria, or even closer to home saw images of the bodies of the poor floating in the filthy storm waters of Katrina.
That’s a horrible confession for a supposedly conscientious person to make, but it’s a dirty secret I’ll bet I share with anyone who isn’t directly affected by the worst consequences of the system in which they live, except perhaps the most saintly, or the most self-righteous. How does power function? Kafka knew, better than a host of political commentators, better even than Marx: then as now, it functions because we are isolated and self-involved, because we are afraid, and because we are complicit.
Rather than building towards a sense of climax or apocalypse, and/or a heroic resistance, like the epic tales that the Left tells itself about the deadly operations of capitalist power structures, Kafka’s stories never end with redemptive conflict or overarching catastrophe. In fact they hardly seem to end at all. It’s not cataclysm, but a sense of paralysis you are left with, as characters like Josef K. in The Trial merely vanish with their fates unresolved. Except for poor Gregor Samsa, the cockroach-man of “The Metamorphosis,” whose story is at least in part an allegory of terminal illness, Kafka’s narrators or central characters do not usually die, heroically or pathetically. On the contrary, they often escape some situation of inexplicable menace or threat, like the doctor in the blandly titled “A Country Doctor” or the anthropologist in “In the Penal Colony”—but it is a spurious escape, one that does nothing to diminish the evils they have encountered. In fact, by escaping they merely reinforce their complicity in the suffering of those they have been unable to help. I think about all the holocaust narratives we have canonized, in which any discussion of the complicity of survivors is the ultimate taboo—instead, we idealize their individual survival at any cost. Only a few holocaust writers, like Art Spiegelman in Maus or Primo Levi in his sensitive memoirs, dared to raise the question of whether individual survival is ever thoroughly admirable, when it comes at such a price. In some way, Kafka is always posing the question: why should we live?
Still, even though much of Kafka’s work points to deep and substantive wrongs, the devil is definitely in the details. There is a Big Picture, but it is highly inscrutable, it is always beyond understanding, and seems if not hostile, at least utterly indifferent to the attempts his characters make to understand it. Kafka’s world, as stylized and as symbolic as it sometimes appears, is to my mind really the world of most people in the US outside the sound-proof room of Left-wing Analysis (but still of course, locked inside modern society-as-a-whole), where little scrutiny is made of the operation of things at the largest level, and people mostly rely on bland and comforting platitudes to guide them through reality. Such commonplaces are revealed as truly unsettling when Kafka isolates them and employs them in his context, as in this signature dialogue from a minor character in one of his stories: “Good morning—the sky is overcast—I’m selling a lot of kerchiefs—yes, the war…” Instead of trying to analyze the distant operations of Power, most of Kafka’s central characters are depicted as beset and distracted by irritating and unexceptional details, often having to do with another character’s aggressive body movements or tone of voice, some nasty gossip, a troublesome relative or a misplaced intimacy. Lack of money and personal influence, and frustrated or inadequate sexual connections are other constant fears.
Of course, Kafka’s major works: The Trial, The Castle, and stories like “In the Penal Colony” all have to do with power and authority in the most direct sense. The atmosphere of nightmare is generated in these works by the sense that power acts for its own sake and according to its own rules, and that it is capable of picking individuals seemingly at random (Kafka’s nameless namesakes Josef K. and K. become these everymen) and embroiling them its operations so thoroughly that all sense of the “normal” world in which they had used to live, or thought they lived, finally disappears.
Guilt is automatic, as in Orwell’s 1984; you are already potentially guilty because you are alive, and the system chooses to punish you not for the specifics of your individual actions, but merely as an example to others that its authority is absolute. The a priori guilt of the powerless is collective and inherent. This is not a fictional exaggeration or a phenomenon of a particular society in the historical past. We see it playing out in military invasions and occupations, in racial profiling and ethnic cleansing, and in the punishment of dissenters. It is a pretty accurate description of how power continues to operate all around us, right now.
George Bernard Shaw said: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” He should have added: “or themselves.” Kafka may have believed something like this; there’s evidence that he admired and wanted to imitate Charles Dickens, whose darkest novels are always tempered with sometimes clownish humor. I don’t read German, the language in which Kafka wrote, and I know that humor, like poetry, is one of the most difficult things to translate. Still, while I can find examples of what I imagine I are attempts to be funny on Kafka’s part, the overall content is so bleak that his little jokes tend to fall flat. Instead, when I think of “Kafkaesque” humor, I think of the grimmest, most cynical jokes that have ever made me laugh.
For example, there’s sci-fi parodist Douglas Adams’s take on the beginning of economic activity on earth. Somewhere in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe novels, he tells how primitive humans first decided to use tree leaves for currency, then realized they were so common that an individual leaf was almost worthless. So they set about burning down the forests to raise the value of the leaf…
Or there’s the old joke about the man who leaps out the top story window of a 100-story building, and, as he passes each floor, can be heard muttering: “so far, so good…so far, so good…” That joke has always seemed to me to be one of the best analogies for the past century of industrial capitalism.
But does Kafka really speak to the world I live in, the suburbia über alles, imperial fast-food-nation America of the 21st century? While Kafka’s settings and attitudes might seem hopelessly bound to a peculiarly European and even eastern European milieu, to the continent and culture and epoch that gave us the concepts of alienation and existential dread, it’s arguable that the United States of America, Europe’s child, has just taken a few more decades to arrive at a similar conceptual cul de sac. Several of Kafka’s fables of cruelty and violence have a medieval village setting, which at first seems quintessentially European. But the US population, for all its surface infatuation with whiz-bang ultramodern gadgetry unimagined in Kafka’s time, has ideologically entered a very medieval period—with the mass of people barricaded in their homes, terminally suspicious and fearful of strangers, alien marauders, and supernatural forces, bending either grudgingly or complacently to the will of rich, powerful and bellicose elites who rally them from time to time with patriotic slogans or enemy threats but patently have nothing but their own power and profit at heart. Kafka’s European context is only apparently different, because the skeleton underneath the flesh of the shop-and-bop-till-you-drop diversions and unfettered personal ambition of US life is, and has always been, the sterile gray grid which Europe set down upon these lands, to keep both land and people in line.
In US society, more successfully than in Europe, any vision of collective, social transformation has been expunged from mass consciousness, by relentlessly promoting the far-more marketable mythology of personal transformation. Ironically, what the narrative of personal transformation conceals is that true maturity only results from realizing, á la Kafka, that there is actually no hope for some fundamental elements of your personal situation, no total remedy for or final purging of the past. Our commercial media instruct us unceasingly in the opposite; we are kept eternally immature because that’s how to get peak levels of consumption out of us. And that’s why Kafka, who chronicled the absurdity of our social relations and the complementary hopelessness of our personal situations, was and remains wiser than we.
But if one of Kafka’s main concerns is the workings of power, then what about protest, organized resistance, solidarity? Those elements are always part of the equation, always present when power manifests itself as abuse, as oppression, even if they do not triumph over it. At some point in many consciousnesses, the revelation comes: only in our connections to other beings do we humans actually matter at all. But Kafka doesn’t go there. The individual is utterly alone in his world, surrounded by menacing forces, most of them embodied by other individuals: a parent, a co-worker, a petty authority figure or chance acquaintance. This is an unintended cautionary tale: if you succumb to isolation as profound as that which Kafka projects, your hell, as Sartre said, really is other people.
Kafka’s parables are too slippery to point to a sadistic god or any metaphysics as responsible for this horror, but he’s nothing like a dialectical materialist either. His situations strongly suggest that history has stopped, that it no longer moves forward, if it ever did. It’s this grim idea that often seems to resonate with me when I think of the political trends that have dominated this country, and much of the world, for at least the last thirty-five years. And if the climate itself is now in retrograde? Even Kafka never imagined that.
The neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book Awakenings, quoted the reply that a prominent doctor gave when asked why he believed his catatonic patients were not conscious: “Because the alternative would be unthinkable.” In other words, because a conscious life under such conditions would be too horrible to imagine. In a similar way, most Americans who are still able to distance themselves from its worst consequences resist dwelling on the horrors that our system has produced, because of the unthinkable burden of responsibility, particularly for other people’s suffering, that real understanding would force upon them. But it was only because he was able to imagine the unimaginable horror of a conscious catatonic’s imprisoned existence that Sacks was driven to free those patients from it.
Unfortunately, the analogy is not perfect. One visionary doctor’s revelation can help a handful of people. But since civilization began, no society has been able to free itself from the ills that were there at its beginning: organized violence, the endemic violation of the powerless by the powerful. Efforts have been made, and will continue as long, I think, as what we call civilization exists. The repeated failure of these efforts seems to demonstrate that countless millions would have to be able to think the currently unthinkable, for a shift as great as the one some of us perceive as necessary to become possible at all. Otherwise, the people who do manage in the face of all odds to free themselves from self-absorption, complicity and fear become isolated martyrs, voices in the wind. The main trick, in the face of the failure to date of all formulas supposed to deliver that massive and general revolution in consciousness, is in continuing to believe that it is possible.
Kafka’s ability to imagine and portray the unimaginable horror of conscious human life, imprisoned in power structures that function on the psyche as catatonia does on the body, may not seem to be generative of engagement for social transformation; certainly it was not in his personal case. What Kafka knew was a depth of despair that most Americans, and most particularly those of us on the political Left, find shameful to acknowledge or to speak of at all, except couched in recurrent warnings of potential catastrophe. Kafka knew that the smallest human twitch in the present moment could be more truly horrifying than any potential future cataclysm. He believed that “we are only a bad day of God’s”—his vision of humanity’s destiny was uncompromisingly hopeless, something which is totally proscribed to anyone who still lays claim to the term “progressive.”
And yet, as I think of hundreds of millions of Americans continuing to gape distractedly at, or frenetically scramble to board, the party boats of power and profit while multiple tsunamis appear to be rising over their collective heads, it is just such a despair that I sometimes deeply feel. Kafka is the man to articulate that despair for me, but also, surprisingly, to teach me how to live past it. If there are days when I feel that life on earth will be reduced to two idiots battling to the death on a charred cinder (yes, I do have those days occasionally), I read Kafka. I feel the suffocation of nightmare, but I feel the possibility of awakening from nightmare as well.