The Kafka Within, an essay

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This essay was first delivered as a talk for a Phoenix Prague Committe event, and appeared in print in Main Street Rag in 2004.

The Kafka Within

The person who introduced me to Franz Kafka had probably never heard of him. She was my grandmother, born seven years after he was, in 1890, in Vienna; then the centre of the Habsburg Empire to which Kafka’s home city of Prague belonged. Of course, by the time I got to know her there was no emperor any more and Prague, no longer part of Austria, had become the capital of Czechoslovakia. After living through royalty, fascism, and post-World War II liberation, Maria Eder maintained her respect and fear in the face of authority and was always quick to remind me that if I didn’t behave, a policeman would come after me. As a child, I had never read The Trial, but she spoke as if the policeman with my name on his list was one of the pair who marched into Josef K’s apartment one morning and sat down to eat his breakfast. This scene strikes me as the ideal key to understanding Kafka. It isn’t so much an unjustifiable arrest that shocks us, as a stranger taking our place at the table while we have to watch. Not everyone knows what it is like to be arrested, but we all eat breakfast, and this assault on the intimacy of our routines strikes a universal chord.
My little grandmother, hunchbacked, legs bandaged to cover varicose veins, energetic as she strode the four flights of stairs to her top-floor apartment, remains to this day the person I thank for helping me feel the relevance of Kafka. She wasn’t interested in literature. She didn’t need it. Her own diaries, written in antique shorthand that nobody could read, lay in bundles in a drawer where the secrets of her life were recorded for her alone. Even my grandfather’s name was hidden away there and when she died she requested the little notebooks be burned, just as Kafka had requested his own works be burned. A grandfather disappeared in the smoke of the notebooks, in a gesture of anonymity close to the spirit of Kafka.
My relationship with Kafka doesn’t come from reading what the critics have to say. Who are they anyway, to interpret for any of us? I am not alone in wanting Kafka for myself. Vaclav Havel, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1990, said “I sometimes feel that I’m the only one who really understands Kafka, and no one else has any business trying to make his work more accessible to me. . . . I’m even secretly persuaded that, if Kafka did not exist, and if I were a better writer than I am, I would have written his works myself.” It is this natural sense of ownership over him that so many of Kafka’s readers feel which fascinates me and begs a thorough exploration.
Like no other writer, Kafka focused on lives so small and vulnerable that his work seems to be about all of us. The majority of us are not heroes, and our lives owe their beauty in no small part to friendships and routines. Franz Kafka was the antithesis of the modern motivational speaker, knowing as he did that there simply isn’t enough power in the world to be spread beyond a few elite ruling figures. He knew that there is no easy recipe for success or happiness.
As for our chances to claim our rights in the face of political reality, he expressed them beautifully in his story, Before the Law, where the humor in Kafka’s writing that I feel is often overlooked is very much present. The relentless exaggerations found throughout his work strike us as much more accurate than any factual account, and I sometimes find it hard to keep a straight face when reading him, even while his name conjures the specter of a darkness darker than dark. I have even read somewhere that Kafka himself would laugh during a private reading of his work. In the story, a man from the countryside comes to beg entry to the law, only to encounter a gatekeeper who explains he cannot grant entry now:
As the door to the law stands open, as usual, and the gatekeeper steps to one side, the man bends so as to look inside. When the gatekeeper notices him, he laughs and says, “If it attracts you so much, try anyway, despite my forbidding you, to go in. But remember: I am powerful. And I am only the lowliest gatekeeper. From room to room other gatekeepers are standing, each one more powerful than the next. I can’t even manage to look at the third one of them.”
The man waits not days, but years, until he even notices the fleas in the gatekeeper’s fur collar and asks them to help him. By the time he is old and weak and small, just as my grandmother became smaller at each one of my visits to her, the man musters a final question:
“Everyone aspires to reach the law, how is it that for all these years nobody other than me has asked to enter?” The gatekeeper recognizes the man is at an end, and, so as to be heard now that his hearing is so poor, he shouts at him, “Nobody else could be admitted here, because this entrance was only determined for you. I am going now and will lock it.”
If we didn’t manage to smile at such moments, there really would be nothing left for us to do. The satisfaction of knowing that someone has accurately described a situation that parallels one many of us experience at one level or another is comforting, even if the door to the law is locked. My personal relationship with Kafka is founded partly on having been inside that door to the law and having wandered the corridors that run through so many pages of Kafka. They were to be found inside the offices of the Viennese police to whom I had to report annually to renew my visa, like all non-citizens, when I lived in Austria. Taking my place in line along with temporary immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, I was subjected to the scrutiny of a bored Viennese police officer who took delight in the little grain of power he held over us. He could withhold our permission to remain in the country and he relished letting us know it as we stood before him with respectfully bowed heads. I was lucky. I always managed to leave with my papers updated, but I felt bruised as if it had been me rather than the passport that had been stamped.
I cannot say exactly when or how I came to use Kafka’s name to describe such humiliations. I don’t know why I first bought a book of his or when I first heard of him. It seems that he had always been a presence, a stranger who kept showing up at one time or another. There was a film of The Castle, starring Maximilian Schell, that I went to see, and the name Franz Kafka on the spines of books in the stores where I browsed. Little by little, he was becoming an acquaintance. Having encountered him in Vienna, I came to know him much better in Prague. In 1970, on my way by train from Vienna to Prague, I had been enjoying one of those conversations that happen in train compartments with a man whose name was George. Going home from a trip to Florence, George had overstayed his visa by one day and when Czech officials boarded the train to examine our papers, he broke into a gentle sweat. His lively manner changed. He bit his lip and loosened his tie. His passport disappeared for an unconscionable period before it was returned to him with a stern warning. George breathed a sigh of relief, but told me, “I don’t think I’ll be allowed out of the country again.” He wasn’t, until after the Velvet Revolution, nineteen years later.
George said I could stay with him should I visit Prague again. Four years later, I accepted his invitation. Exchanging letters before the trip, I asked George whether there was anything from the West he wanted me to take to him. His only wish was an over-the-counter medication for his ailing father. Over my four days in George’s apartment I never saw the father. “He thanks you for bringing the medicine,” George said as he pointed toward the door to his father’s room. I was never told exactly what ailed the old man, and despite dropping hints that I would be happy to see him, George only said, “He is in there.” I realized that George’s father must have been related to Gregor Samsa of Metamorphosis.
Born on July 3rd, 1883, into a German speaking enclave of Prague, Franz Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. Jews had been granted full equality in the Habsburg Empire in 1867. Franz did well in high school, and received a law degree in 1906. Until 1917 he worked at the Workers’ Accident Insurance institution. Tuberculosis forced him to retire and spend the rest of his short life in sanatoriums and health resorts. Contrary to the isolated character we seem to suspect Kafka to have been, he was a person who enjoyed an active social life which brought him together with other writers, including Franz Werfel and Max Brod, who was charged with the manuscript burning but decided to disobey his friend. Kafka enjoyed hiking, swimming, and rowing. His writing, and this is what I truly envy about him, came in the quiet nocturnal hours when the house was quiet and the creative spirit overwhelmed him. At least that is the impression we get from some of his comments. “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Speaking as one who spends a lot of time alone in a room, writing, I’d like to take this literally; however, once the world is rolling about, the writer has to work hard to turn its ecstasy into literature. Many false starts and abandoned stories testify to Kafka as a severe critic of his own ideas, and the final results by this Czech Jew became arguably the most refined and influential twentieth century writing in the German language.
Happily, in the long term, Kafka has been recognized in his home city. Censored by the Nazis, and again by the Communists, he won a posthumous victory, and his image is now printed on T-shirts for sale to tourists. Now, let’s stop for a moment and compare this acceptance of the dark side with our own contemporary American culture. Optimism is the order of our day. No matter how tragically foreign policy fails, the White House Press Secretary tells us how well everything is progressing. No matter how many people go about a long daily grind in pursuit of a living wage, we talk about the pursuit of happiness. The nightly news that guides millions of people’s thoughts sounds trivial after a few nights spent over The Trial as bedtime reading. Kafka may belong to Prague, but in the best tradition of art he has become an international figure, even if I do still think of him as a personal acquaintance.
Metaphor is the most potent weapon in the writer’s armory. Without metaphors we would never be able to truly understand abstractions. Kafka’s stories are so thorough in their development that their apparent themes transcend nationalities and political eras, and they become transparent the way dreams do. Dreams are like metaphors in that they take on a unique meaning for each person, depending on their own experience. I consider reading Kafka to be akin to entering a dream state, at which point each one of us finds our relationship with him is becoming very personal.
In the internet age, Kafka tributes travel electronically from all over the world. We don’t need literary critics to explain why Kafka is so important. All we have to do is launch an online search to find some revealing comments. One web site dedicated to Kafka features readers’ comments, such as this one from France: “Kafka is still walking in the streets of an ancient city. He is looking at us. I think we like him because we are all doing a boring job and wait until the night comes to finally think and use our brains.” A fellow named Tzak in Germany knows all about the Kafka who comes out at night: “What to say? Every night, when I can’t sleep, I read anything of Kafka. That doesn't make me sleep, but, somehow I feel understood.” And in China, a country where Josef K. seems quite at home, Nancy Zhang has this to offer: “I like him for something I feel we are alike; I love him for his high ability to abstract from concrete inner world in a new way-vivid and engaging; eventually, I admire him, for he walked ahead rather than falling down and compromising to his doomed character, his misery, inner world and dissimilation of the outside, which exists still at some corners of the world today.”
This is widespread recognition for a writer who didn’t even crave publication. Some of his short fiction found its way into print during his lifetime. Meditation came out in 1913, a collection called The Judgment in the same year, and in 1919, The Penal Colony. The story that was published in 1915 became to many a kind of Kafka signature piece: Metamorphosis.
Gregor Samsa transformed into a large insect is in itself a potent metaphor. But where does the story cast its light? First, we should acknowledge the way Samsa’s predicament unfolds from his being late for work. Again, the point of entry is daily life, mundane and predictable. Even when he is aware of his predicament, Gregor becomes concerned about his alarm clock, which should have gone off at four AM. Rocking on his back, he is still thinking about getting to work, and when his boss arrives at the house to enquire after him, his mother describes Gregor’s dedication to the newspaper and the study of timetables. At the end of the story, after Gregor’s death, his parents go out into the sunshine and are preoccupied with their daughter, who has turned out to be pretty and has good prospects in life. So quickly do they turn from the unpalatable to the pleasant aspect of their existence.
Once we have read Metamorphosis, relishing all its minute observations, we are left with a unique story about the simple fact that once one becomes the other, Hell and home are indistinguishable. From a contemporary viewpoint, I have thought of this as a story applied to any number of issues: racism, AIDS, old age, animal rights, the obsession with good looks, any form of hatred. If I had to ask Franz Kafka, just as a friend, what he meant to imply when he wrote this, I suspect he’d just tell me it is a story about Gregor Samsa, who woke up one morning transformed. I doubt that he’d be impressed by much of the secondary literature that seeks to analyze and dissect a work of art. Such treatment is too controlling. The genius of Gregor Samsa’s creator was that he pursued his vision with single-mindedness until the resulting work had such a life of its own, the reader could think so much more clearly and understand many problems more acutely than would otherwise be possible.
Having come to trust in Franz Kafka’s unerring honesty, I consult him often. He is always there for me when religious missionaries knock at my door, and ask me whether I have read the Bible. I ask them in turn whether they have read Kafka. The answer has always been no, and Jehovah’s Witnesses seem not to be inclined to go out and buy The Castle, so they leave me alone rather than strike a deal.
Years ago, Kafka’s spirit was invoked during an incident which had a shattering impact on my family. In 1961, a girl was raped and murdered near Vienna. One of my cousins subsequently confessed to the crime, although he was not responsible for it. Most members of the family cared only about severing their association with my cousin and he may as well have been transformed into a giant insect. That his confession was coerced was of little interest to my grandmother who sided with the authorities rather than with her grandson, having had no intention of confronting state power. Having researched the case intensely, I know that the whole script from my cousin’s confession to his eventual trial and conviction was written by Kafka. Witnesses supportive to my cousin were kept out of court, including one reporter who went on to discover the real killer’s identity and evidence enough to clear the innocent’s name. The Austrian justice system wanted no part of his findings and refused to reopen the case. Kafka told me that such horrors were not unique to countries behind the Iron Curtain; that they happened in the world we were told was free, and that when the state has a victim in its sights, he is helpless.
Every time I write a letter to a senator or representative, I feel my pen pushing hard against the stream. I keep appealing for a peaceful resolution to a conflict, for a more humane social policy, or on behalf of the environment. When it is time to sign, I have to stop myself from signing Franz Kafka’s name. And those letters sent as a member of a writers’ organization to Slobodan Milosevic, President Assad of Syria, or to be sent across the Great Wall of China to Beijing; what were they if not gestures of Kafkaism? Whatever happened to all those letters, writing them was a form of empowerment, if only to help me understand and identify with the victims. To this day, no sooner have I begun with Dear Senator, than I hear a soft voice from behind me, speaking in a distinct German accent.
The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika would have been victims too, but for Kafka’s other friend, Max Brod, who saw them to publication after their author’s death. Those books may as well be printed on the air around us as on paper, so relevant do they remain.
I know Franz Kafka died because I have been to his grave and visited the room in which he drew his last breath. What I suspect is that many Kafkas have taken his place, especially among the citizens of Prague, whose winding streets and mysterious beauty are particularly suited for psychological intrigues. After my last visit to Prague, I saw how widespread his presence has become and how he has become as much a part of Prague as the Tyn Church, Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, or the Jewish Quarter. But wherever we call home, being Kafka is a perfectly natural state for us.
With the shifts in power the Czech people have had to deal with during the past hundred years, Kafka seems to have been endowed with the ability to see into the future. I know for a fact this is not so. He told me himself that he just wrote his stories and when he visualized a machine that could write a man’s crimes on his body, that is exactly what he set down. Being a modest sort, he wouldn’t boast about having described everything with such acuity that it became universal. Going back to the grave, it stands beneath a canopy of trees in a more restful setting than the famous Jewish Cemetery in Prague where the gravestones lean against each other like teeth in an old man’s mouth. I instinctively set a stone alongside those other pilgrims had left.
On another visit, I was taken through Klosterneuburg, a town just outside Vienna. Buildings with historical significance in Austria have red and white flags marking them as monuments. Noticing a set of them on a house, I noticed that this was where Kafka died. In I went to investigate. In retrospect, it is less the significance of the house that has stayed with me than the caretaker. Charged with granting entry to visitors, convinced, like me, that they were on a pilgrimage, he maintained a magnificent indifference worthy of Kafka’s diary entry from the day World War One broke out: Morning, Germany declares war on Russia. Afternoon, Swimming lessons. After I had spent a few minutes in the upstairs apartment thinking of Kafka’s last moments, I came back downstairs to hand in the key. The caretaker took it with a gentle smile and asked if I’d enjoyed the visit. “Which of the rooms did he die in?” I asked. The man just shrugged his shoulders and told me all he did was live in the house. As for Kafka, he said, “He was a writer, you know.”
That he was a writer may be as much as millions of people know about Franz Kafka. The world is full of those who, like my grandmother, have no interest in writers and artists, but that doesn’t mean they are not affected by them. My grandmother deserves thanks for making it possible for me to understand the world from which Kafka emerged. Even if she never had the patience to talk about Hitler or what she remembered of the Habsburgs, Kafka would have understood her silences. Had the two of them ever met, he might even have become the grandfather I never knew. I do know it is better that my grandmother’s diaries were burned rather than the manuscripts Franz Kafka left behind.