Franz Kafka rarely smiles in the photographs. His penetrating eyes gaze out with an inherent sadness. “My life is a hesitation before birth,” he had noted down in his diary. From the early childhood a profound inferiority complex and guilt shaped his inner psyche. Hermann Kafka, his demanding and autocratic father found fault with him for almost everything and had stifled the childhood and youth of his only living son, while the loving but timid mother Julie Löwy usually took the father’s side. "Timidity," Kafka wrote, is “accounted noble and good because they offer little resistance to other people’s aggressive impulses.” Though he equally loved and hated his father “who was so tremendously the measure of all things” and struggled to live up to his father’s expectations, he could never overcome this difficult relationship with his parents and several times felt a deep desire to break away from them. Later in his life, the tormented son spilled out his emotional feelings on this disturbed father-son relationship in A Letter to his Father – a hundred page long epistle which never reached its addressee. Excepting his beloved sister Ottla, he could seldom connect or communicate with his family members though he spent a major part of his life living with them. This dichotomy is intrinsic in Kafka, whether in his personal life or in the characters of his novels and stories who are besieged with feelings of guilt and culpability. He had to be dragged to school because he hated going to, had a nervous breakdown once due to consistent pressures from his studies. Even if he was not a bad student, right through his student life he was always doubtful about his own ability. His only solace was reading and he wanted to be a writer. Kafka once wrote in his diary, “Everything has been subordinated to my desire to portray my inner life.” In an attempt to represent his ‘dreamlike’ inner universe, he had dedicated himself to the art of fiction writing and tried to do something entirely new – even though he could seldom write a single joyful page in his entire literary career. While being a competent and successful lawyer in his later life, literature became his “way of understanding, interpreting and putting order into the world”. Interlacing his creative imaginations with reflections of ineradicable guilt, anxiety, torments and repulsion, his fictions have revealed modern man’s vulnerability from repressive social forces and the constant struggle between individual and the society. His fictional output was not large. Yet, works like The Metamorphosis and The Trial has been universally recognized as modern literary cornerstones and has exerted an indelible influence on modern literature. Though died young and relatively unknown at the age of forty, this Czech author is held in high regards today for his remarkably relevant body of work that has helped to define the madness and the angst of modern age.
“The tremendous world I have inside my head”
In a conversation with Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez had expressed how Kafka has showed him that “it’s possible to write another way.” What Márquez meant by another way was to write breaking the plausibility barrier – not by escaping the real world but by apprehending it better. Kafka’s attentiveness, observation, sensitivity and apprehension of the real world are evident from the manner through which he had captured the spirit of the century he lived. In his art he had pointed out towards some of the most enduring concerns of the age. The enigmatic quality of Kafka’s prose, as Albert Camus had aptly suggested, “offers everything but confirms nothing”. His allegorical narrative never really wanted to spell out the full account or let the reader to arrive to any definite conclusions. But if looked circumspectly by breaking through the surface details, all his works contain some common thematic threads and basic motifs.
His first novel Amerika (1911) traces the struggles of sixteen-year-old Karl Rossmann who was forced to immigrate to America to escape the scandal of his seduction by a housemaid. After many strange encounters and aimless wanderings, Karl finally finds a job in the ‘almost limitless’ Nature Theatre of Oklahoma as a technical worker where the narrative abruptly ends here. In The Trial (1914), Kafka weaves the story of a man Joseph K. who is formally charged and arrested by a mysterious court with some kind of terrible but unnamed crime and never knows his exact offense. Throughout the narrative, Joseph K. struggles through the strange circumstances and a whirlpool of bizarre events to learn his place with regard to the law and the world. He fails miserably to prove his innocence and is finally stabbed to death like a dog. Kafka’s unfinished novel, The Castle (1922) depicts the arrival of a professional land surveyor in a village as a result of a bureaucratic error. The village is governed by ‘The Castle’ which is in fact “a dismal collection of innumerable small buildings packed together” as Kafka has described it. No matter how hard the man attempts to penetrate the Castle or try to communicate and acquire recognition from the Castle authorities – every time he fails to overcome the ‘flawless’ bureaucratic hurdles and remains an outsider.
The Metamorphosis (1912) is the nightmarish story of a young traveling salesman Gregor Samsa who is the only earning member of a family of four – his father, mother, sister and himself. He works to clear his disapproving father’s outstanding debt and to maintain the family. He wakes up one day and finds himself transformed into a gigantic insect. Even after the bizarre beginning, the story moves ahead in a rather equable manner till the end when Gregor dies in his room relieving the family from all the troubles and worries. The relieved parents take a ride into the countryside, discuss about their prospects and notice that their daughter has blossomed into an attractive girl. Then they start thinking that the time was coming to find a nice husband for her. In the Penal Colony (1914) revolves around an explorer who tours a tropical penal colony where he is invited by the officer in charge to witness the execution of a soldier who has broken the law. The convict will be put in a monstrous torture machine that inscribes the text of the law on the body of the convicts. The convict has not been granted any trial because the guiding principle of the colony’s judicial system is “Guilt is never to be doubted”. Neither does he know about the nature of his crime. However, when the explorer asks if the convict knows his sentence, the officer smilingly replies, “He'll learn it on his body”. In a dramatic end of the story, the officer in charge himself is executed by the machine.
The Judgment (1912) is a story about the strange relationship and mortal conflicts between a resentful father who have lost control of the family business and a tender son. The father finally accuses, condemns and punishes the son and sentences him to die by drowning. A Hunger Artist (1924) is the story of a professional fasting artist whose act is to starve himself in front of an audience for the cause of art. But the people have started losing interest about fasting art and hunger artists. To reestablish his lost fame and talent, he performs a marathon spell of fasting and dies in his cage. A young, lively panther now occupies his cage and the delight the spectators. The cage’s previous occupant is completely forgotten. The Burrow (1923-24) depicts the secret life of a mole like creature that spends most of his time modifying and fixing structural faults of the massive burrow it has built. Moving through the burrow’s passageways, the creature dreams or imagines all kind of preoccupations and also constantly worries about its possible destruction from the fearsome outside forces. Kafka’s final work Josephine the Mouse Singer (1924) is set among a mice community. The mouse Josephine has the rare ability to sing and therefore is both adored and loathed by the community that gathers round to listen to her devotedly. Though all mice must work in order to survive, Josephine constantly demanded to be excused from the daily struggle for existence since the very beginning of her artistic career on account of her singing. Does Josephine really sings or pips like any other mouse? This doubt remains unsettled in the story. When she disappears, the narrator tells us that Josephine will eventually be forgotten as the mice community does not have historians to record their lives.
Despite the general morose atmosphere he creates while writing about isolation, solitude, insensitivity and cruelty, Kafka in fact had an immense sense of humor – apparently subtle and claustrophobic but with piercing complexity. Yet associating Kafka’s oeuvre with humor might appear contradictory. Kafka biographers tell us that while he read out the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, he with his listeners both have laughed out loudly. The powerful black humor interwoven in the morbid dimensions of his prose has mostly been thinned down by a section of Kafka exponents by exaggerating the bleakness of Kafka’s world as well as introducing and circulating the cliché of ‘Kafkaesque’ into the contemporary vocabulary. Kafka’s humor comes from the absurd situations, encounters and comic horrors experienced by his characters. The parody of bureaucracy depicted in several episodes of The Castle, the strange tribunals in The Trial, the tragic situation of a man being transformed into an insect in The Metamorphosis and the ludicrous ambiance of his parables – they all are infused with intense black humor and satirical wit. Kafka used it to express the absurdity and paradoxes of the situations and to further exemplify the anguish of his characters. The tragic experiences and absurd encounters that the characters in Kafka’s fiction go through are actually in close proximity to the experiences of modern lives. They are dismal but at the same time their inherent absurdity and silliness give them a funny look.
“A cage went in search of a bird”
Kafka wrote about the contradictions and anxieties of his time but the central theme of his works, indisputably, is the theme of alienation. Alienation is a complex subject which is linked with its vast historicity from the Judeo-Christian beginnings. To understand alienation in Kafka’s works, it is essential to understand its foundation within a socio-economic context of the modern society. In this regard, Karl Marx and his theory of alienation can help steering our way.
The human society, as Marx had stressed in the Grundrisse, “does not consist of individuals; it expresses the sum of connections and relationships in which individuals find themselves”. Human beings therefore cannot exist independently of the society but are shaped by the society they live in. Human lives are dominated by natural and impersonal forces that control society to a great extent. While studying the nature and functioning of the capitalistic form of production Marx had discovered the uniqueness of human labor: “At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer”. This physical and intellectual labor of man has resulted in the collective development of the productive forces and subsequently became capable of producing a surplus. By taking over control of the means of production, a particular minority class of people adroitly set themselves free from the need to produce directly and live on the labor of others. The rise of industrial capitalism witnessed the majority of the people losing control over their labor as well as the process of production since modern science and technology has invented machinery “with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour” and substituted them. Human beings must produce in order to survive. Productive activity is therefore the foundation of human consciousness. For transforming the world, human labour is the highest decisive factor. As a result of losing control over the process of production, man starts getting alienated from the product of their labor. Production activity turns into an alienated activity and further develops into alienation of consciousness. The cycle finally gets completed when men reach the stage of self-alienation from the very nature of human beings and is also alienated from other human beings. Individuals are unable to understand each another – alienation becomes a way of life. Alienation affects individuals of every class but as Marx has noted, experience their alienation in different ways. The propertied class “feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement” while the proletariat class “feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.”
In short, the social relations of production under capitalism have ensured the creation of the modern alienated man. Capitalism has taught mankind to consider “other human beings as competitors, as inferiors or superiors” and see other people “through the lens of profit and loss”. Marx had brilliantly described the capitalist process that leads towards alienation:
It is true that labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It procures beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labour by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labour and turns others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker.
A feeling of suffocation, isolation and solitude, the ‘unconscious condition of mankind’, is therefore a systemic result of the industrial age and capitalism. Thus it is obvious that capitalistic alienation will be reflected in every form of reciprocal human trends and actions – in the practice of religion, philosophy, art, law and politics.
In Kafka’s writings, the source of alienation appears in form of a social state which is dominated by artificial and obdurate laws. Kafka’s paradox and contradictions are actually the inherent paradox and contradictions of capitalism. Alienation, as exemplified by Marx, is not just a mental state but actually has its roots deeply permeated into the society. The reality of the alienated individual’s life is determined by social relations. He had painted a world where “hopes of the morning are buried in the afternoon” and tender relations between family, office, friends, woman are converted into imaginary illusions under the institutions of authoritarian power that mindlessly controls the whole. Kafka uses the character of a salesman, a key envoy of the capitalist economic system, as a metaphor to articulate a similar message of anomie. He puts forward Gregor Samsa as both the voice and victim, a psyche pathetically crushed by the ruthless struggle for survival within the realm of capitalism. Gregor’s anxiety, guilt, desolation, solitude and subjugation to the social forces are the archetypal symbols of the modern man. What remains as the closest truth, Kafka writes, is “beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.” If Kafka’s world seems dark, suffocating, melancholic and bizarre, it is only because the world he so sensitively observed was like that. This is why Kafka smilingly tells Max Broad that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.” In his outstanding study of Kafka, Walter Benjamin has rightly observed the essence of Kafka’s aesthetic complexity: “…modern man lives in his body; the body slips away from him, is hostile towards him. It may happen that the man wakes up one day and find himself transformed into a vermin.” Benjamin has further noted that, “Kafka’s real genius was that he tried something entirely new: he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility”.
An insurance lawyer by profession, Kafka wrote a number of reports for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, where he worked for fourteen years. In one of his reports ‘On Mandatory Insurance in the Construction Industry’, he had categorically written about the need for insurance in protecting construction workers and their families in the occurrence of any accident. While preparing the reports he must have clearly obtained an insight concerning the plight of workers under a pitiless system and came to realize that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” From a genuine concern for the people he represented, he had filed lawsuits against business owners who illegally withhold the workers insurance premiums, appealed for improving their safety conditions and took initiative to implement various safety measures and methods to save their lives and livelihoods. At the same time, the very nature of his job gave him enough exposure on how an unfathomable bureaucracy works to accelerate the engine of the capitalistic system by feeding upon the rights of the people. Industrial capitalism required its bureaucratic apparatus to penetrate deeper into the societal ambiance. To fulfill the appetites of the system, it was compulsory to bureaucratize society in every aspect through a pure force of domination – the rule of law. A stringent critique of bureaucratic power, Kafka’s major achievement was to identify and express the bureaucratic system’s morbid, monotonous, agonizing and neurotic image.
In The Trial, the warder explains to a bemused Joseph K.: “That is the law. How could there be a mistake in that?” Later in the novel, a priest tells him, “One does not have to believe everything is true. One only has to believe it is necessary.” Here Kafka sarcastically pointed out that what really matters regarding the law is its capability to control and shape individuals and their social relations effectively – even if this legality lacks logic and wisdom or dehumanizes the entire society with its absurd form of justice. In Kafka’s world, “an attraction existed between the law and guilt”. The concept of justice and injustice, sin and guilt are intimately related with each other.
“From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another”
Many of the important themes that Kafka's had covered in his entire body of work have appeared in the parable Before the Law. A man from the country waits in front of the gateway of the law pleading admission. Even though the door stands wide open, the man is denied entry by an inflexible doorkeeper. To gain access, the man attempts to convince and change the doorkeeper's mind, tries bribing him but all without success. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes and continues to assure the man about the possibility of his admittance but whenever the man approaches him, he constantly impedes him by saying, “not at the moment”. Instead of forcing his way through the gate, the man decides to sit and wait before the gate. Just before the man was about to die after waiting before the door of law for days and years, he asks the doorkeeper, “How is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” and receives the answer, “this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it”. With this perfectly ludicrous note, the parable ends.
In Before the Law, Kafka had initiated a universal argument involving the concepts of justice vs. injustice, success vs. failure and truth vs. untruth. Is the path to truth always obstructed and hence inaccessible? Is life essentially nothing but a paradox, just an absurd and clueless journey, where there is no real progress? Is the search to discover the meaning of the Law destined to fail? Does the ‘law’ that determines our existence in the world really has any meaning or just a pure abstraction? Is it really possible to understand the workings of the Law? Whether “the world is really darker” or the “eyes are only deceiving” us? Is it virtually impossible to step in or out of the man made laws, to find out what lies prior or beyond its abstract dialectic? Is the Law made to guard high life and kept inaccessible for ordinary people like ‘the man from the country’? Should we agree with the priest that “doubting the doorkeeper’s worthiness would imply doubting the Law itself” or argue like Joseph K. that the doorkeeper has misled the man by denying his lawful rights of entry? Is the tale confirming about the futility of efforts, hopelessness or regress? Kafka held the view that, “To believe in progress is not to believe that progress has already happened. That would not be a belief.” By mocking the logical proclivity, Kafka in his unique way had explored the utter helplessness of mankind under social forces, watched over by powerful social doorkeepers of all kind.
Simplistic interpretations and over-interpretation both will always miss the significant features that sparkle in Kafka’s art. The essential quest of Kafka’s aesthetic journey, as Walter Benjamin had pointed out, was to discover how life and work are organized in human society. In Before the Law, Kafka had woven a stunning metaphor of the modern capitalist array by mixing elements of mythology and Christian themes with Jewish and Chinese fables. The profound sense of pessimism that evokes while reading this tale is the pessimism of life under capitalism, the entrapment of human life paralyzed beneath a supreme but unseen bureaucratic power from which the individual has no escape but to fall as a victim to it. The parable is a mirror that reflects the absurdity, despair and psychological tensions of the perplexing situations created in an unjust world, controlled by a labyrinthine and faceless bureaucratic system.
It is also important to note the agonist in Kafka who was by and large skeptical about religion from his childhood. He was never an orthodox Jew. With the exception of his interest in Yiddish theater, his involvement with the Jewish community was minimal. “What do I have in common with the Jews?” he once wrote in his diary. In no way Kafka’s oeuvre can be perceived as the quintessence of religious impulse. He surely believed that the imperative truths of life cannot be found in religious faith but into the very nature of mankind, their living conditions and relationships. Hence all his characters live in a godless world. Kafka wrote parables, but the writings can neither be measured as religious canons nor can be assessed within the limits of religious discourse. He had borrowed the language of religion while writing the parables, but as Walter Benjamin has noted, “he did not found a religion”. Man’s relation to his world was what Kafka considered important and not what is beyond it.
Why read Kafka?
A lot has been written about Kafka’s famous instruction to his dear friend Max Brod to burn all his unpublished works after his death. A promise, thankfully, Brod refused to comply. Kafka scholars as well as popular feature writers has consistently carried out full volume psychological and clinical analysis about his ambiguous sexuality, about his sexual discontents and frustrated desires, about the crisis he faced to balance his attraction and antipathy about sex. Too much emphasis has been given to relate his morbidity, physical limitation and fretfulness with the pessimism, absurdity and gloominess of his language. There is also a tendency to regard Kafka as a prophetic visionary who had predicted the Nazi holocaust. These trendy methods of appreciation can barely comprehend the inner vitality of Kafka’s art.
Kafka believed that a book must be “the axe for the frozen sea within us”. His own creation works in the minds of his readers in an equal manner. His gripping prose and unforgettable imageries “shake us awake like a blow to the skull” by epitomizing modern man’s alienation, fear and cerebral anguishes in an amazing way. His books certainly do not make us happy but slits open the absurdity of the material existence and values. This is why Kafka has not become stale. We return to his works again and again and soak our minds in his so called ‘morbid’ prose dappled under autobiographical reminiscences. Reading Kafka gives us the indispensable ‘bite and sting’ that illuminates us about the spurious reality surrounding our everyday life.
In one of his diary entries Kafka had superbly expressed the creative struggle of a writer:
Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate – he has little success in this – but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different (and more) things than the others; after all, dead as he is in his own lifetime, he is the real survivor. This assumes that he does not need both hands, or more hands than he has, in his struggle against despair.
Kafka’s illuminating works are largely about the “different (and more) things” he had observed “among the ruins”. He was never an exponent of gloom and doom but a true artist who had keenly observed the society and its systems he lived in. However, it will be a blunder to reduce his works to a political doctrine or ideology of any kind. His objective yet sensitive observations of the impacts of capitalism on the individual and his critique of the totalitarian structure of society are the real facets of his art that will continue to excel from generation to generation.