NOVEMBER 3, 2003
Kafka is the novel’s bad conscience. His work demonstrates a purity of intention, a precision of language, and a level of metaphysical commitment that the novel partially comprehends but is unable to replicate without, in the process, ceasing to be a novel at all. Consequently, Kafka makes novelists nervous. He doesn’t seem to write like the rest of us. Either he is too good for the novel or the novel is not quite good enough for him—whichever it is, his imitators are very few.
Now, why is that? Where are Kafka’s descendants? Only a handful—Borges, W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard—have successfully “channeled” the Kafkaesque in any meaningful way. The result has been queer. His influence seems to cause a mutation in the recipient, metamorphosing the novel into something closer to a meditation, a fantastical historiography, an essay, a parable. What is it about Kafka’s lessons for the novel that cannot be contained within the novel in the form as we have come to know it? How does Kafka lead novelists away from the novel?
Clearly, the intentions of most novels are not Kafka’s intentions. The American writer Wallace Stegner tells us that “if fiction isn’t people it is nothing,” and this is a usefully succinct version of the novel’s story about itself, as a form. By this account, the novel’s achievement is to offer us so many “splinters” of consciousness, so many intimate portraits of people. The complexity and the psychological depth of these portraits—Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, Madame Bovary, Herzog, Holden Caulfield, and on and on—perform a service of variousness. Singularly, they are that interior communication with human otherness that Aristotle thought essential to our ethical development. Collectively, as “Literature,” they are the description of a struggle against those more dogmatic and therefore deceitful versions of self generated by church, by state, by ourselves at our weakest, and now by our rapacious televisions.
At its most metaphysical, the novel might go as far as to investigate how selves are made, their superficial unity and hidden fragmentation, as Virginia Woolf did; or it might investigate the extreme porousness of certain borders between self and world, as James Joyce did. But when it comes to a discussion of—as Kafka put it—”the impossibility of being alive,” well, the novelist cannot go quite as far as this. Novelists as a breed are broadly Hegelian: they assume at least some kind of rational relationship between the individual and the world. Then they proceed accordingly, unpacking their intimate vision of that relationship, assonant or dissonant depending on their temperaments. Kafka is the exception. He has no interest in psychology, not as something that individuates our tastes, desires, needs, opinions. Only the first half of that fetishistic modern word “lifestyle” could mean anything to Kafka. The novelist’s question “What does he do with his life?” is made strange in Kafka’s parabolic world, where “life” is not a fact but a transitive state; not something one could do things with but rather a process (Der Prozess is the title of The Trial in the original) to which we submit. Kafka’s question is harder to listen to and harder to answer: ”Is it possible to be alive?”
Most novelists are just not up for these kinds of ontological shenanigans. As a rule they are—as surely everyone has noticed by now—intuitive people rather than truly intellectual. It would be comforting, then, for novelists to call Kafka a philosopher, or a theologian, and thus strip him of any further power to trouble our consciences. But Kafka was no philosopher, no theologian. Literature was, or so he believed, his entire existence and his life’s work. In a letter to his first fiancée, Felice Bauer, whom he would leave for this very reason (he was in the habit of leaving chicks for books), he explained: ”I am literature.” If this were true, of course, we could not pick out five practitioners of literature in the past five hundred years. But Kafka seems to mean something very different by “literature” than the rest of us mean.
I am literature! Bloody hell. Fearing the truth of this statement, novelists shrink from Kafka. Like the cast of a gaudy musical, they hide in the wings, looking on nervously at this solitary man who, with less to work with than even his beloved Yiddish actors—no props, no costume, not a scrap of makeup—steps onto the floodlit stage. Confronted with this purity, the humbled novelist cannot help but think of Mary McCarthy’s famous put-down of Lillian Hellman (“Everything she writes is a lie, including `and’ and `the’“) and reflect that here, in Kafka’s crystalline prose, we discover its exact inversion. It is prose unlike any other. It rejects so many of the “things of the novel”: its tools, tricks, machinery. It is as if he is at war with the novel itself.
When we turn to Kafka’s own real life, as everything he wrote induces us to do, there is still no respite. The comparison between Kafka and the rest of us is pretty damn harsh. Here Milena Jesenská, the second woman he left for literature, offers us a precis of the essential differences between a man such as Kafka and people such as you and me:
Obviously, we are capable of living because at some time or other we took refuge in lies, in blindness, in enthusiasm, in optimism, in some conviction or others, in pessimism or something of the sort. But he has never escaped to any such sheltering refuge, none at all. He is absolutely incapable of lying, just as he is incapable of getting drunk. He possesses not the slightest refuge. . . . He is like a naked man among a multitude who are dressed. And his asceticism is altogether unheroic ... he is compelled to asceticism by his terrible clarity of vision, purity and incapacity for compromise. . . . I know he does not resist life, but only this kind of life: that is what he resists.
All novelists who are worth anything at all resist a version of life as it has been presented to them. What Flaubert meant by bourgeois life is not what his age meant by bourgeois life, and what Austen meant by the word “woman” was subtly at odds with the usage of that word in her time. But it is a rare and scary man who takes it upon himself to resist what the entire Western world since the birth of Jesus has meant by “life.” Novelists simply do not resist life in this fashion. Life, in its shared social form, is, for lack of a less vulgar term, their material. They cannot say, as Kafka did, “Never again psychology!” Psychology is where they begin their work of the novel. And consciousness is the portal through which they explore the validity or otherwise of this shared social “life” that we speak of every day.
Make no mistake: Kafka fully understood the isolation of his position; he lived it. As a the son of a Czech Jew he was isolated in a Germanic culture, but as a German speaker, without any Yiddish, he felt isolated from many of his fellow Jews. As a Prague resident he was on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; as an intellectual, an antisocial vegetarian, he distanced himself from his own petit-bourgeois family; and as a novelist he knew his work existed at a remove from those novelists whose public readings he attended every week. Here he attempts to delineate this sense of extreme alterity: ”I completely dwell in every idea, but also fill every idea.... I not only feel myself at my boundary, but at the boundary of the human in general.”
Of course one must take into account Kafka’s solipsism, which in his diaries makes singular that which in the fiction is more clearly the condition of all our lives. (Kafka wrote not only because it was impossible for him to live but also because it is impossible for all of us to live, though his point was that most of us do not grasp this.) But it is certainly the case that Kafka alone brought us to the very boundary of the novel, rejecting any interest in a writer’s “subject”—a place, a culture, a community, a group of people—and replacing it with a dismantling of the very idea of subjects and subjecthood. In this regard both the overtly Freudian and the overtly religious interpretations of Kafka are misguided, insofar as they identify a definitive “subject,” a final point or a “bottom line,” of a prose that has no final destination, only a journey. They miss what David Foster Wallace has described as “the central Kafka joke—that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey towards home is in fact our home.”
I suppose such an awfully rigorous joke loses much of its humor in the telling (though we should keep in mind the lovely autobiographical fact that Kafka could not contain his own laughter when reading The Trial out loud to his uncomprehending family). The laughs get even thinner when we try to employ “Kafka’s joke” for our own aesthetic practice or as a way to comprehend our daily lives. This is black humor indeed, and the punch line is not that Kafka hated his father or that God does not exist. These are not the center of Kafka, because Kafka has no center. Kafka avoided every telos, all termini, purposes, meaningful endings, and resting spots the way most of us avoid the dentist, as Max Brod reminds us:
He rejected anything that was planned for effect, intellectually or artificially thought up.... As an example of what he himself liked Kafka quoted a passage from Hofmannsthal, “the smell of damp flagstones in a hall.” And he kept silent for a long while, said no more, as if this hidden, improbable thing must speak for itself.
What freaks out the novelists among us is that Kafka’s rejection of the central in favor of the resonant particular on the periphery also happens to exclude that rather central matter of “other people.” For it is, of course, not flagstones but people who are not in earnest, people who perform public versions of themselves, people who are frequently “planned for effect” and artificial. This aspect of our humanity may be vulgar, and it may be untrue in relation to some absolute idea of “being-as-truth”; but this “self-making,” as we see it done every day, is precisely the novelist’s fascination. Kafka, by contrast, had a horror of it. In his life and in his work, the artificial human relationship made Kafka despair: ”In me, by myself, without human relationship, there are no visible lies. The limited circle is pure.” And again: ”Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me feel almost as though I were maliciously being attacked. A marriage could not change me, just as my job cannot change me.”
What is this literature of Kafka’s that is so absolute that it exists as the opposite of life and other people? It is a limited circle, to be sure, and it is pure—but can it contain a novel? On the evidence of what Brod saved from the fire, the answer is no, not quite. In fact it is here that we find partial consolation for the envious novelist and the true subject of this essay, namely, Kafka’s failure. ”To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and peculiar beauty,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure.”
At its simplest, this refers to Kafka’s output. Although he completed hundreds of letters and fragments and stories, he never finished a novel. Writing a complete novel proved impossible, intellectually and practically. The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika are all unfinished; the versions we have were cobbled together by Brod after the fact and against the author’s wishes. They are fragmented internally, too, the order of chapters rarely more significant than the order of parables in a collection of Hasidic stories. If part of what it is to be a novel (rather than a collection of short stories) is to have significant sequence in a narrative, then Kafka’s miraculous novels fail to fulfill one of the novel’s defining criteria.
But Benjamin’s diagnosis is also of a more profound failure. The peculiar beauty of Kafka lies in the very impossibility of his project, which was, I think, to express concretely—in the most precise language available—those things in life that fall outside of the concretely explicable or expressible. It is this project of Kafka’s that we approach with rightful awe, and which induced Brod to identify his friend’s work as “religious.” But Kafka’s work is analogous to religion only in its process, not in its content. It does ask you to put your faith in absolute contradiction, as God asked of Job when he punished him, and it does ask you to locate your ethics outside of the social world as you know it, as God asked of Abraham when he commanded Isaac’s sacrifice; but these requests are not religious in themselves. They are part of our modern moment exactly because they commit themselves to a new transcendency, as yet undefined: ”I was not led into life by the sinking hand of Christianity, like Kierkegaard, nor did I catch the last tip of the Jewish prayer-shawl before it flew away, like the Zionists. I am the end or the beginning.”
If Kafka ended the possibility of the novel, the death throes have been strangely long and loud. Nabokov came after Kafka. Graham Greene came after Kafka. The reassertion of the Great American Novel came after Kafka. It seems more likely that he began something, that he helped to trigger a radical doubt in the form which then rippled throughout his century and continues to ripple rather more banally through ours, making its weekly appearances in the literary pages of newspapers and in sophomore essays on campuses. Whenever we ask whether the novel is dead, we prove ourselves the inheritors of Kafka’s doubt.
In the end, however, Kafka’s doubt affected nobody as much as himself. The high metaphysical seriousness of his project is what drew him to the form of the Jewish parable—that focused jolt of spiritual attention—and away from the form of the novel. In his diary, while writing the most “novelistic” of his novels, Amerika, a book that betrays the improbable influence of Dickens, he questioned the suitability of the novel for the work that he needed to do, describing the form as “the shameful lowlands of writing.”
Kafka—the poet laureate of shame in all its delineations—felt sure that the shame of the novel would outlive him. Most novelists ask you to pay sustained attention to something outside of yourself, something in the world on which they have placed value. Frequently this is “other people,” in all their shameful, worldly vulgarity. But Kafka directs your attention inward, momentarily and with great force—as Emerson did, as Kierkegaard did, as some poets frequently do—in search of a kind of pure being for which the world has no precise name. And this, too, this inexpressible thing, is also a part of our experience on this planet. We all know this; most good novelists know this, too; I believe they begin to write for this very reason. They know that some portion of this life is not adequately expressed in our newspapers, in our daily conversations, in our most intimate relationships, not even in our truth-seeking fairy-tales.
Novelists have some hint of the inexpressible—otherwise they wouldn’t even try. But at a certain point in their development, consumed with a great delight at their ability to express almost everything about life, they forget this other thing, the inexpressible, which is the thing that Kafka meant by “life.” “I am always trying to convey something that can’t be conveyed,” he writes to Milena, “to explain something which is inexplicable, to tell something I have in my bones, something which can be experienced only in these bones.” The novel as a form revels in the shared world, exploring how individuals partake of that sharedness or rebel against it. Kafka concentrates on what is not shared, what is profoundly unshareable. As a result, the novel did not quite fit him. He extracted from it those things that he couldn’t use, and made them strange. Two of those things were time and ethics.
Our favored idea of the Kafkaesque is of a “labyrinthine bureaucracy.” We think of thin corridors that lead only to doors that in turn lead to other doors. In fact, Kafka wrote very few scenes of this kind. What is bureaucratic and labyrinthine in The Trial is not the rooms in which Josef K. finds himself, nor even the people who obstruct him, but rather the infinite time it takes to get anywhere at all. What is labyrinthine, in Kafka, is time itself.
Before the law a door is meant only for one man, but “not at the moment.” Consequently he will die waiting. How long is this moment? In an office supply closet, a man prepares to whip two people, and Josef K. looks in. The next day he returns to the door, opens it once more, and finds that “everything was unchanged.... The printed forms and inkpots just over the threshold, the whipper with his cane, the warders still fully dressed, the candle on the shelf....” Meanwhile an imperial messenger in a parable tries to get a message out of a palace, but “how vainly does he wear out his strength ...and once more stairs and courts; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years....” And then there is the world-famous hunger artist, whose handlers neglect to continue the tally of days written on the front of the cage. No matter how long he starves, no time will appear to have passed in the world.
This is not the time of most novels. But neither is it, as some have claimed, a dream-time, a nightmare-time, although it is true that in dreams, when we are deprived of our timepieces and our calendars, we are closer to understanding it. Kafka’s time is bureaucratic—or, rather, bureaucracies reveal to Kafka something of the impossibility of time and living in it. I discovered this temporality for myself with a marvelous concreteness when I went recently to the American Embassy in London to obtain a visa. I had been given an appointment for 8:15 a.m. There were four hundred people in a line outside the building: they also had an appointment for 8:15. Many years appeared to pass; at last we were allowed inside to be given a slip with a number on it. Mine was 169. But the numbers on the screen came up at random—502, 164, 80, 670, 378—and with no discernible connection to the number of people in the room. ”Would it be all right if I popped out?” I asked the guard. ”Oh, yes,” said the guard, cheerily. ”You can always go out. You’re free to go out. But then of course you’ll miss your number.” I sat down again. In the hall there were two celebrities, a pop singer and an actor. Both considered themselves to be special cases before the law. I watched them plead their special case, and I watched the men at the desk allowing these two to waste their own time, out of a kind of pity, if only to keep them from thinking that they had neglected to try everything.
This is the time of bureaucracy—time with no end, no demarcations, and no benign purpose. In the rather comically demarcated number 39b of Kafka’s Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way, he explains how bureaucratic time differs from time as we are trained to think of it: ”The way is infinitely long, nothing of it can be subtracted, nothing can be added, and yet everyone applies his own childish yardstick to it. `Certainly, this yard of the way you still have to go, too, and it will be accounted unto you.’“ The speaker’s voice here expresses time as we understand it, with our childish yardsticks, our clocks, our calendars, attempting to take an accurate measurement of the infinite mystery.
But bureaucratic time— absurd, infinite, and without revealed meaning—is for Kafka the true glimpse of reality. Benjamin called these glimpses of the infinite in Kafka “the rumor of true things ... a kind of theological whispered intelligence,” and it is because it is emet, the truth—though it be awful—that Kafka submits to it. This has confused many readers. Since they read Kafka as an indictment of the “Modern” and bureaucracy as the “Kafkaesque nightmare,” they are surprised to find Kafka’s characters submitting to the bureaucratic with an almost ecstatic swoon, as if submitting to the law was the ultimate fulfillment. To resolve this perplexity, they call Kafka “ironic.” This is a mistake. In Kafka’s world it is always better to submit to a terrible truth than to live a comforting lie. For this reason, people in Kafka mean exactly what they say, and no irony is involved. When Josef K. argues that the doorkeeper in the parable has been deceitful by preventing the man from entering, the priest corrects him.
“You have insufficient respect for the narrative,” said the priest. “The narrative contains two important statements from the doorkeeper about admission into the law, one at the beginning and one at the end. The first is that he `cannot grant him entry now’ and the other is `this entrance was made only for you.’ If there was a contradiction between these statements, then you would be right and the doorkeeper would have deceived the man. But there is no contradiction.”
We, too, have insufficient respect for Kafka’s narrative. His writing attempts to hold within it contradictory ideas, and when we read him we should, like Job, resist the temptation to resolve what is irresolvable. The impossible journey home is in fact your home. This door is meant only for you: I cannot grant you entry now. In that now Kafka unpacks the human horror of what time really is, how powerless we are before it. He once remarked that “our task is commensurate with our life.” When most of us think of time in our lives, we like to imagine it broken into many tasks, plural—children, decades, houses, careers. Novels are made of this stuff. But Kafka rejects these illusory ways of “filling” our time, and he does so with the vehemence of a teenager. Here he is on October 21, 1921, at the age of thirty-eight: ”All is imaginary—family, office, friends, the street, all imaginary, far away or close at hand, the woman; the truth that lies closest, however, is only this: that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.”
For Kafka, the time of our social life is untrue. To this accusation, the priest in The Trial retorts: ”One does not have to believe everything is true, one only has to believe that it is necessary.” And Josef K. replies: ”Depressing thought. It makes the lie fundamental to world order.” If the world lies about time, then the novel as a form is an artistic compression of this lie. From its epistolary beginnings (dates carefully written atop each letter), the novel has prided itself on a beginning, a middle, and an end, produced in convincing sequence. Yet Kafka radically doubted the novel’s ability to convey our true experience of time, of how time actually feels.
The following is from the long short story “Description of a Struggle,” a title as pertinent to Kafka’s troubles with the form of the novel as to any tensions among the two curious characters:
I could go home alone and no one could stop me. Then, secretly, I could watch my acquaintance pass the entrance to my street. Goodbye, dear acquaintance! On reaching my room I’ll feel warm, I’ll light the lamp in its iron stand on my table, and when I’ve done that I’ll lie back in my armchair which stands on the torn Oriental carpet. Pleasant prospects! Why not? But then? No then.
Something has gone wrong in this imagined, sequential narrative—a failure of faith, maybe, or an inability to lie when necessary. The novel asks, hopefully, and always with one eye on a happy ending: But then? And Kafka answers: No then.
Kafka found “Description of a Struggle” so difficult to write that when he finished it he told Brod the only thing that he liked about it was getting rid of it. Amerika was similarly a battle of “and then . . . and then.” There is surely something of Christianity’s messianic enthusiasm for the future in this “and then ... and then,” which characterizes the novel’s narrative method. But is it possible to identify in Kafka’s “But then? No then” something distinctly Jewish? It is certainly a narrative attitude that turns away from soon-to-come happy endings and finality and admits instead an incomprehensible, infinite “now” that we—with our limited human consciousness—cannot comprehend. Is this Jewish time?
In certain Hasidic parables time is not a benign force marching toward our redemption, but an abject tautology that resolves itself only in God’s mind. In these tales men fool themselves when they attempt to manipulate what God has revealed only in partial form. Here is one of Kafka’s favorite Hasidic parables:
A group of Jews sit together in an inn on the Sabbath, all local people except one stranger, a beggar. They make wishes around the table, imagining what they would be if they had their time again. One wishes for money, the other for a new carpenter’s bench, another for a pleasant son-in-law to replace the one he has. When it comes to the beggar he says, “I wish I were a great king living in a magnificent castle. But one day the castle is attacked by rebels and I am forced from my bed with only a nightshirt on, leaving all of my possessions. I dash over hill and dale on foot, and run for days until I reach the inn I am sitting in now.” “What the hell’s the point of that?” asks one of men. “I’d have a shirt,” says the beggar.
So much and no more is the beggar’s (and our own) ability to manipulate the time of life. In parables of this kind, Kafka found a model, a compressed space to suit his aphoristic intensity. And it was when he was brief, as in the story “The Judgment,” that he professed himself most satisfied. He wrote that remarkable story in a single physically demanding nocturnal burst, and compared it to an ejaculation. ”Only in this way,” he said, “can writing be done.”
Kafka had come to believe that only brief work quickly done came close to the truth of organic artistic creation. These short pieces are his greatest work, some of them only a few lines long, and in themselves pure parables of time and its deadly operations. In “The Next Village,” time is so foreshortened that the narrator cannot see how the whole of a human life is long enough to ride to the next village. In “The Hunter Gracchus,” a man’s death ship loses its way; now he cannot die, and yet he is not alive. ”I am here,” he says, “more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go. My ship has no rudder....” This is what time feels like. Life is like this. We are imperial messengers, too, and will find out that just because we have a message and plenty of time does not mean that we will ever succeed in delivering it. As Nabokov coolly tells us in the first line of his own time-defying autobiography, our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
So who are we to speak of time? ”Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man,” Kafka writes in the final lines of the “Imperial Message” parable. ”But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.” That is us, at the window, dreaming, reading a novel. In novels there is time to live. Novels are our necessary lies, our journeys that lead somewhere.
In my dictionary, “Kafkaesque” is defined as a “vision of man’s isolated existence in a dehumanized world,” as if Kafka feared the rise of the typewriter or an epidemic of those threshing machines that he came across in his insurance work, the ones that so regularly removed human digits. But no. Not dehumanized; human, rather, all too human. It was people in their insatiable fullness, not in their mechanized emptiness, that Kafka feared. If he was a prophet of the coming danger, it was by predicting not the rise of the machines but the rise of a people whose sense of their own human potentiality was dangerously overflowing. He was proved correct. The Nazis did not go about their business like machines or automatons; they went about it with a lust and a passion.
Life, when it considers itself triumphant, is itself a kind of tyranny. It is triumphant life that replaces the poor hunger artist once the public has tired of him:
Into the cage they put a young panther. Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been left dreary. The panther was all right ... he seemed not to even miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it.
The very fullness and variety of life that novels admire—especially contemporary novels—is obscene in Kafka. One person’s expansiveness will only result in another person’s confinement.
Kafka had personal experience of this, living cheek by jowl with his own oppressively lively father, whom he describes in his magnificent “Letter to His Father” as possessing “the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have, whose rights are based on their person and not on reason.” What would Kafka make of present-day England, where pure personality itself— otherwise known as “celebrity”—is the only defense plea that anybody need make? Those chilling final lines of The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor’s sister takes on an “increasing vitality,” finally becoming herself—springing to her feet in the train carriage, stretching her young body to her parents’ appreciation—these are ominous portents of a world of unreason, where just to be full of your own life is enough.
The novel has, historically, been in love with this vibrant individual; but Kafka dreads her. All forms of individuation are to him an echo of the original division: in his blue octavo notebook he claimed to understand the fall of Adam and Eve better than any man on earth. It is separation from the eternal oneness that hurt Kafka. Even mountains and objects and skies can wound this hypersensitive sensibility, just by asserting their own separate thingness. Here he addresses the landscape: ”But it is not only the mountain that is so vain, so obtrusive and vindictive—everything else is too. So I must go on repeating with wide-open eyes—oh, how they hurt!”
Yet Kafka would not be so compelling a writer if he were not himself compelled by what he most feared. As Klaus Wagenbach reminds us in his penetrating biography, Kafka was deeply affected by Kierkegaard’s definition of dread:”Though dread is afraid, yet it maintains a sly intercourse with its object, cannot look away from it.” Dread is a masochistic pleasure in Kafka; the circus audience dreads the life of the panther, but still “they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want to ever move away.” Kafka is both disgusted and fascinated by other people’s confident assertion of their own existence. His characters are frequently watching other people, not, as in a novel, in the hope of forming a meaningful relation with them, but as if by observing them one might discover how indeed it is possible to live. ”And I hope to learn from you how things really are,” says the supplicant in “Description of a Struggle,” “why it is that around me things sink away like fallen snow, whereas for other people even a little liqueur glass stands on the table steady as a statue.”
Why is life, for some people, a simple fact, obvious as a statue, while for others it remains an impossible feat? Kafka, as well as being the poet of shame, was the poet of awe. That people managed to locate and to identify themselves was amazing to him. ”It is as if,” comments Benjamin, “he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering that there are such things as mirrors.” Here is Kafka in a letter to Brod, expressing this wonder:
I opened my eyes after a short afternoon sleep, still not quite certain I was alive, and I heard my mother calling down from the balcony in a natural tone: “What are you up to?” A woman answered from the garden, “I’m having my teatime in the garden.” I was amazed at the stalwart technique for living some people have.
Kafka had no such talent for living. The question “What are you up to?” could induce paralysis. Next door the woman answers it as if it were the simplest question in the world, which in a way it is, except that Kafka has no access to simple things. The everyday ability to self-fictionalize, to make of oneself a narrative, to say, “I am here, doing this,” was miraculous and strange to him. He could allow himself to enjoy those self-creations only when they were deliberate and not simultaneously a self-deception. This is surely why he so enjoyed the Yiddish theater and grew fascinated with its actors, actors being the one group of people whose vulgar self-making is never disguised. It is the same fondness that Hamlet has for those traveling players. One welcomes the stage players—who are honest about their artificiality—when one lives in a world where artificiality wears the garments of the truth.
Like no other writer, Kafka is debilitated by the idea that when people say, “I am in the garden,” they seem able to place their whole being into that “I.” Actors, by contrast, only play with “I,” it is a provisional “I”—an “I” that is never required to make a real choice and therefore, in an Aristotelian formulation, never truly reveals character. Character itself is finitude in Kafka; to say “I” is not to be, but to not be.
This dread of individuating one’s existence—of saying I am here, doing this, this is my home, my lover—strikes the English ear as similar to Philip Larkin’s dread of “Places, Loved Ones.” For Larkin, choosing a place and a person would be to close down one’s infinite choice; paralysis is preferable. And for Kafka, as for Larkin, it is women in particular who shut down possibility. ”Women are traps,” Kafka is reported to have said, “traps which lie in wait for men everywhere, in order to drag them down into the Finite.” Larkin’s deeply sarcastic poem “To My Wife” catches some of this bleak madness.Kafka did not wish to—as Larkin puts it—”shut up that peacock-fan the future,” but rather to hold on to the “unlimited/Only so long as I elected nothing.” Likewise Kafka’s nasty little parable “Rejection,” in which two young people spot each other in the street, imagine choosing each other, imagine the entire relationship, imagine the pain that would result, and decide not to bother—and all this in a handful of sentences—is strongly Larkinesque. At its most comic this attitude can be reduced to: Why bother? We’re all going to die anyway. (“Give it up! Give it up!” yells Kafka’s policeman to the man who asks for directions.)
This was pretty much Larkin’s attitude. He, too, couldn’t see the point of individuation, seeing as how we are all hurtling toward the unindividuated abyss. He also thought his capacity for getting depressed about all this was far greater than Kafka’s. In the poem “The Literary World,” he responds to a diary entry in which Kafka complained he hadn’t written anything for five months:
My dear Kafka,
When you’ve had five years of it, not five months,
Five years of an irresistible force meeting an
Immoveable object right in your belly,
Then you’ll know about depression.
Working out who was the more miserable between these two is rather a mug’s game. But Kafka’s ethical prose was certainly a more substantial thing than Larkin’s exquisite English pessimism. For Kafka, the rejection of individuation has a serious worldly consequence. It unbalances ethics as a set of ideas situated in the world. The individual in Kafka can no longer look to a social universal for its ethical ideas, because there is no social universal and there is no convincing individual.
This is where his split from the novel truly occurs. A consummate novelist, such as Austen, tests her individuals against situations and other people in the world, locating her ethics always within the social. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle compared Austen’s procedure to that of a vintner or wine taster. She studies ethical qualities in individuals not by developing the quality in a single character but rather by “matching it against the same quality in different degrees, against simulations of that quality, against deficiencies of it,” in other people and in varied social situations. We get to know Elizabeth Bennet and she gets to know herself by way of a series of comparative refinements. She is tested against the world in many different ways, and as an ethical individual and therefore a social one; her moral performance is judged within the totality of a social life.
Simply put, there is nothing that is good for Elizabeth Bennet that is simultaneously bad for the world and the people she lives in and among. This is Hegel’s “ethical universal.” But Kafka’s characters have no such relationship with the world.His refinements are sketched in absurdist circles that direct themselves inward. There is no attempt at shared meaning.”Is that what you mean?” asks a character. ”That or something else” is the reply. And here is another perfect Kafka sentence: ”Two possibilities: making oneself infinitely small or being so. The second is perfection, that is to say, inactivity, the first is beginning, that is to say, action.”
Where the good is located in this sentence it is impossible to say—in being small, in being inactive, in action, in beginning? Its punctuation frustrates us at every turn, and the things that are compared are not of a likeness; with respect to ethics, they are apples and oranges. This reminds one of Gertrude Stein at her most extreme—forcing one to think alternately, to think in unlikely, nonsensical ways, as if just doing this was an ethical ideal in itself.
The ethical individual in Kafka cannot rely on the world for his morality. Here Kierkegaard was essential to Kafka. Kafka recognized that both personally and philosophically, as he put it, “his case is very similar to mine, despite essential differences.” Both Kierkegaard and Kafka left women for books, and both became fixated on the story of Abraham, who in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac introduces a concept that the Hegelian universe does not contain: faith. ”The state,” argued Hegel, “is in and by itself the ethical whole.” The state has faith in itself—and the novel thinks of itself this way also, as a place with an internal ethical structure. The novel judges its individuals in the context of the novel’s social world. But Abraham brought Isaac to the altar with no hope of recourse to the social. He could not kill Isaac because it was good for him as an individual, good for Isaac, good for the world, or even good for God. He could kill him because he had suspended the very idea of the ethical and placed his faith in something that he could neither express nor properly conceive.
This Kierkegaardian interpretation of Abraham has been called the beginning of existential thought, but Kafka is not really an existentialist novelist and his characters are not quite successful existentialists. It is true that his characters dismantle any hope of locating the ethical in the social—not without turning into a bug of a man. But after this (and here is the “essential difference” of which he spoke) they do not ascend to the kind of “self-defining freedom” that Kierkegaard recommends. Instead they struggle terribly, like Kafka did himself. They are unable to create their own ethical sphere or to create themselves, in the absence of other people and of God. It is not easy being one’s own judge and jury. As Emerson warned, “If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.”
Divorcing oneself from the shared human world is a torturous process. From the very beginning Kafka wanted a prose as torturous as the process that it attempted to describe. As a twenty-year-old, he writes that “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books . . . we need the books that affect us like a disaster.” So, no, Kafka does not make us happy like your average best-seller, but he did not make himself happy, just as Kierkegaard did not make himself happy. Judging yourself—being the whole courtroom in your own person—is no easier than being put on trial by your society or by your God. It incurs terrible wounds.
Yet still we do it, we still request judgment unprompted by higher powers: this is the great Kafka joke, the great Kafka terror, the great Kafka mystery. The king’s messengers keep on delivering after all the kings are dead. Prometheus hangs against the rock so long that both he and his judges forget what he is doing there. And the officer in the penal colony will put his own body into that terrible machine long after the public has lost interest in such brutal punishments. In the absence of God or moral certainty, how we call down judgment upon ourselves is simultaneously the most horrific and the most beautiful thing about us.
Everybody is in need of judgment in Kafka, especially Kafka himself. This need in Kafka was more than a ploy or a style, it was a condition of the man. In that sense his work is indeed about psychology—but the psychology of only one man. It was the literature of one man’s consciousness; the aggadah and the halakhah of Mr. Franz Kafka. Nobody else was ever remotely involved. His concretization of metaphor is symptomatic of this. He does not show you how much a man hates his work by describing his job and his colleagues, but by making these feelings concrete, material. I felt abject as a bug today. I ate shit at work. I was sick as a dog. I am insignificant as a mouse. Kafka makes the word flesh.
This is not to everybody’s taste, and there is an obvious harsh judgment of Kafka that he graciously lends to one of his female characters: ”You don’t impress me at all. Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible, but that alone doesn’t make it true. What I really think, sir, is that you can’t be bothered with the truth because it’s too tiring.” We may accuse Kafka of this, and he will be delighted. ”God, how good that makes me feel!” says the “I” character in response.”To find oneself so well understood!”
Kafka knew that life is not like that. It is not impossible to live. We do live, obviously. Here we all are. But he was in the business of postulating the opposite truth, a divine negative of the truth, which he expresses in his most difficult parable:
“It cannot be said that we are lacking in faith. Even the simple fact of our life is of a faith-value that can never be exhausted.” “You suggest there is some faith-value in this? One cannot not-live, after all.” “It is precisely in this ‘Cannot, after all’ that the mad strength of faith lies; it is in this negation that it takes on form.”
When we are “before Kafka,” we sit waiting before an entrance that the novel will never enter—certainly not without losing its very shape—and yet must continue to strive to enter, even if it is only to wait insistently, passing the time by describing the face of the guard, or making a note of the flies on his collar. I mean that the novelist does well to keep Kafka’s absolute contradictory truth somewhere in mind, because we will tell fewer lies that way. And yet “telling the truth like Kafka” also means forgetting many other significant parts of our life and our work. The ideas with which Kafka engaged—infinity, absolute paradox, inexpressibility, utter abjection in the very face of existence—are so awesome that they can sometimes hide from us Kafka’s limits and failures.
Nothing can make of Kafka a bad writer, but there were things that lay outside his ken. The communal, the shared, the necessary social lie. And, most significantly, other people. That Kafka fully comprehended this lack in himself, that he measured the shape and depth of his own wound—this is finally what made him a genius.
This article appeared in the November 3, 2003 issue of the magazine.