Reading Kafka

To Read Franz Kafka

(1883-1924)

To read Kafka is to be immersed in a world of psychologic rather than in a world of logic, reasonableness and cause and effect. The word Kafkaesque, which has become common parlance, depicts humanity in an alternate reality in which a person is gripped by a labyrinth of repressive, incomprehensible and inescapable spiders web of consequences – simply by living their lives. Except this wasn’t the matrix. This was the real world Franz was writing about, a world he lived in in a Jewish ghetto in Prague, a world we all know only too well, which is why Kafka, unknown in his time, became celebrated as one of the greats.

For instance, in The Trial, a brilliant and very re-readable novel, our protagonist finds he has been arrested on unknown charges which cause him to be subject to endless bureaucratic and legal consequences that he cannot escape. Worse our protagonist, by reasonably following the law, both in letter and spirit, cannot escape the byzantine bureaucracy and surveillance and questioning that follows him until his death.

In The Metamorphosis, perhaps the first story one either hears about or comes across by Kafka, our protagonist, a dutiful civil servant, wakes up in his family home to find he has turned into something akin to a monstrous cockroach. He is now an embarrassment to his family who hides him from the neighbors, and an annoyance to his boss in work, who turns up to inquire why he hasn’t turned up on time despite the fact he might be somewhat compromised by his new insect status. Again our protagonist, tortured by his sense of difference and feeling misunderstood, is once again killed by his own family by having an apple thrown against a vulnerable part of his exoskeleton, which causes his flesh to rot away.

The Castle, a novel written at breakneck speed, is (personally) the most fascinating of his many works and represents the high point of an ordinary individuals, in this case a land surveyor named K’s many futile endlessly confusing attempts to gain access to the castle, a structure that dominates the village that K arrives at in order to do the job he was commissioned to do. K’s attempts to reach the inner sanctums of the Castle always fail.

It has been argued by his many interpreters is that Kafka is a religious writer pursuing a new secular god, a god of laws and customs that are so unknowable and infinite in their complexity to mere mortals that one ultimately is consumed by this need to know, and in itself the need to know the truth behind these laws and customs is what causes the demise of the individual in an infinitely unknowable and confusing universe. Our curiosity determines our fall with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The other side of this argument is that to seek to know the face of the atheistic secular god of modernity is the calling and the destiny of humanity. It is indeed written into the very fabric of our being to know what it means to live in the world, and this is our undoing. Kafka’s solution to this terrible Gordian knot is the calling and the destiny of the artist, and his solution is not pretty. And this leads me to my final reading recommendation: The Hunger Artist.

In this story the artist sits and starves himself for set periods. People come and watch him. Some complain he is faking it. That he is really not starving himself. This infuriates him, especially as he has pictures for sale showing just how close he came to death last time he starved himself. He reaches the heights of fame, but people get bored watching him spend himself away in starvation, and finally the once huge crowds dissipate. He is alone. People just find something else to amuse themselves with. Eventually The Hunger Artist loses count of the right number of days to not eat. One day he seems to be missing from his cage. They find him close to death amidst the straw of his cage. Close to the end he apologizes, explaining he wasn’t doing it for art, that he never really found food he liked. He dies. His cage is re used. They put a panther in instead.

Kafka was close to death from tuberculosis when he wrote this story. Its meaning is complex and contradictory, like all his work. The destiny of the artist is to depict the human condition in a world of secular control, of surveillance, of societal and legal and bureaucratic repression, of human selfishness and indifference, of a meaningless existence without the empowerment of free expression and creativity. Such, things he write: freedom and self-determination and right relations with others, are not things that come easily. They to be struggled for and treasured when acquired. The starving artist becomes the living metaphor for a world without love and truth and freedom.

Kafka’s works of dark unforgettable beauty transformed western consciousness and predicted the terrible repressions of totalitarianism and Nazism. Many of his family perished in the camps.

Franz Kafka’s works stand as one of the great artistic warnings that our freedoms should never be squandered or taken for granted. His work, brilliant, beautiful and complex, is a must-read for all inquiring minds.

Reading Kafka one is reminded of the human condition, the importance of freedom, and how authoritarianism must always be resisted.
Page from Kafka’s manuscript

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