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Kafka: Laughter in the Face of Progress

August 11, 2015

by J. Andrew Zalucky


In an age of scientific advancement and technological achievement, there’s a strange, almost ominous calm we find ourselves in, particularly in the west. The worst of the post-financial crisis era has passed (so long as you don’t live in Greece), and the world continues to see fewer major conflicts. But should we be so confident? Have we not been here before?

It reminds me of that scene from Charlie Wilson’s War when Gust tries to explain to Charlie that, what you perceive as victory today might look very different in the ensuing years:

Clever little trick there with the jet sound.

Anyway, why do I bring this up in the context of Franz Kafka?

Because it’s unsettling.

If Kafka’s work is anything to most readers, it has the unique power to unsettle and confound, leading to an endless string of bewildered questions: Wait, so was Gregor actually a beetle or not? What was K. guilty of in The Trial? What did Kafka mean by The Metamorphosis? Is it a reflection on the outcast in society? If it is, what kind of outcast…is there a certain way we can bring the idea of the class struggle into this? Or is it actually a curious way of bringing Ovid’s Metamorphoses into a modern context?

I studied The Metamorphosis twice while in college, once in a short-story class and later in my German literature course. And though I’d managed to write a decent essay about it for the second course (I basically smuggled in Sartre’s theories of existentialism to frame it to that context), it really could have been based on anything. By being able to mount some theory on top of the story, I actually felt I understood it less than when I’d first encountered it.

This disorienting effect reminds me of a passage I read the other day while reading The German Genius, Peter Watson’s dazzling grand tour of German cultural history. There’s a section where, after describing the destabilizing effect the First World War had on Germany (and Austria), he uncovers Franz Kafka’s crucial literary insight, found especially in his major novels (emphasis is my own):

All three stories show a man not in control of himself, or of his life. In each case he is swept along, caught up in forces on which he cannot impose his will, where those forces—biological, psychological, logical—lead blindly. There is no development, no progress, as conventionally understood, and no optimism. It is bleak and chilling.

What should one take from this idea? In light of a world that has seen quite a bit of progress (depending on your perception of the good), such a stark take on reality seems silly.

“Common, smile bro, life is beautiful! Here, let me send you an invite to this awful game I play on Facebook!”

Perhaps Kafka is mocking us, laughing at us beyond the grave by showing just how helpless we are in the face of forces we can only pretend to understand. In a way, his work forces us to reiterate the things that keep us sane, the random, selfish things we decide are important enough to subdue the horrible urges that lurk beneath the surface. Or are those urges just illusions anyway? Besides, Kafka eventually grew sour on psychoanalysis anyway.

Harold Bloom describes Kafka in The Western Canon as

a highly original crossbreed of an aphorist and a teller of parables, oddly akin to Wittgenstein as well as to Schopenauer and Nietzsche. Behind all of them is Goethe in his role as wisdom writer, with the Aristophanic Heine adding a note of Jewish skepticism, which found its way into Kafka.

Maybe the only way to get a grasp on Kafka’s work is to trace the lineage of his influences, as applying a Marxist, Deconstructionist or identity-centric reading seems to miss the mark. In an earlier passage, Bloom shows how Kafka cleverly evades most attempts at interpretation (I don’t envy anyone tasked with writing the “Spark Notes” for Kafka):

Criticism is defeated by Kafka whenever it falls into the trap he invariably sets for head-on interpretation, the trap of his idiosyncratic evasion of interpretability

There are plenty of demons masking as angels and as gods, and there are enigmatic animals (and animal-like constructs), but God is always somewhere else, a long way off in the abyss, or else sleeping, or perhaps dead.

But Watson goes a little further and elevates Kafka’s writing to the level of a prophecy:

Eerily, he also prefigured the specific worlds that were soon to arrive: Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Reich.

Is this a bit of a stretch? Perhaps, but it fits better than you might expect. When talking about the capricious nature of 20th-century authoritarianism, “Kafkaesque” has entered the same place in the lexicon as “Orwellian,” and there’s a good reason why. Kafka’s works, particularly The Trial and The Castle, interlock quite nicely with Animal Farm and 1984. Just as Orwell was able to expose the underlying brutality and sadism of totalitarianism, Kafka had a unique gift of relating the absurdity encountered by everyday people within an even less draconian system. But of course, Kafka died in 1924, still nearly a decade before the great purges and the rise of National Socialism in Germany. His insight into the everyday nature of totalitarianism is both fascinating and profoundly sad- all three of his sisters would be murdered during the holocaust.

But what, if anything, can be learned from this? Though Europe was still recovering from The First World War, there was still a feeling of optimism and the power of cultural and scientific progress. And besides, after the horror of the trenches and the crushing of empires and dynasties, what could possibly go wrong in the future? How could things turn out even worse? The work of someone like Kafka should serve to prevent hubris in those who benefit from that progress and assume we have everything figured out. It should send a special note of caution to those who would consider any scheme to “perfect” humanity or society. Just as Kafka evades easy interpretation, so does reality refuse to conform to abstract, man-made ideas of progress or liberation.

Postscript: The Mystic

100-level college courses aren’t known for their earth-shattering moments of intellectual enlightenment. Most people think of them as the gen-eds they got out of the way whilst consuming cheap pizza, awful beer and even more awful vodka (I regret nothing!). But I was lucky to have a fantastic college professor for one of my History gen-eds, focused on western civilization since around 1500. Essentially, this meant “The Age of Exploration” up to the present day. When it came time to study the early 20th century and the First World War, our professor played us a number of songs from Gustav Holst’s magisterial series, “The Planets.”

He explained to us that each composition could be interpreted a certain way from its title and the feeling evoked from the music itself. “Mars: The Bringer of War” should be rather obvious, Mars/Ares representing the god of war in Greco-Roman myth. But the song fits this interpretation rather obviously as well, with the sequence of notes in the buildup that would inspire the riff to “Black Sabbath” by the same band, thus vaulting heavy metal into existence (the song’s climax is basically a breakdown anyway). “Venus: The Bringer of Peace” is rather obvious as well, placed directly after Mars as the calm after the storm. Our professor put this into the context of the peace that follows war, and went through short passages of the rest of the planets to show how each figure represented a place in post-war society.

But it was his discussion of “Neptune: The Mystic” which has stayed with me the most. He brought up mankind’s confidence in reason, order and progress reaped by technology and civilization. But it is the mystic who, through his purported knowledge of the spirit realm and use of divination, knows the truth about the future. Is it that he knows humanity’s propensity to superstition, myth-making and self-aggrandizement and seeks to warn us? Or is it the mystic himself who sows these impulses? It is of course left to interpretation, but there’s something both entrancing and terrifying about the song. There’s a calm, but it’s an uneasy, unsettling calm that colors the listener’s thoughts with a feeling of pause, if not outright anxiety. Finally, the professor suggested “The Planets” should be thought of as cyclical, that the Mystic is pointing to a destination we all thought we left at the beginning. Though the song eventually ends in a serene trail of voices, you can almost feel the opening strings of “Mars…” ready to re-emerge from the mists.

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