The uncanny world of Franz Kafka
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
Franz Kafka’s name has become synonymous with the “absurd.” Dubbed by Time’s Lance Morrow as a “genius of the blackest impulses,” Kafka explored in his novels and stories the sense of the absurd in the human condition and the ways people variously reacted to it. His vision of the world is apocalyptic and gloomy, yet his fictional works may deepen our sensibilities to hitherto unsuspected modes of feeling, or even possibly sharpen our awareness of hitherto unfamiliar dimensions of human reality.
But just what is the absurd? Albert Camus, a French Nobel prizewinning writer, described it as the feeling of unrelatedness to the scheme of things; or of estrangement from a world bereft of metaphysical foundation without being able to escape it. This state of affairs may bring about fits of utter helplessness as well as hopelessness; or it may impel one to defiant rebellion. This weird feeling may be triggered by a realization of this surreal predicament; or it is the uncanny feeling itself that first registers the idea of absurdity. Whichever way it is, the absurd is more a matter of emotional attitude than a philosophic stance.
In fact, as a writer Kafka never consciously engaged in a philosophic exposition of his worldview nor was he specifically thinking of the absurd in Camus’s terms. Yet it may be said that he is Camus’ precursor. In one of Camus’ philosophical essays, Kafka’s stories were used to substantiate absurdist views. I take this as evidence of the affinity of Camus’ artistic temperament with Kafka’s, though they lived and wrote at different times and in different cultural contexts.
Kafka pictures man as a helpless pawn in a universe that he cannot comprehend. His major novels, The Trial and The Castle, not to mention his short works, expose the reader to the harrowing experience, if only vicariously, of being sundered both from within psychologically and from without by forces which he cannot control, much less overcome. Such an experience may be more graphically described by the metaphor of the rim of the wheel that endlessly turns round and round without getting any nearer the hub or center. This conveys the impression of motion that does not, as in a dream, get one any farther thereby resulting in giddiness or exhaustion. Yet one continually renews the effort, hoping against hope that the next turn would bring him somewhere somehow. We have here a retelling in modern trappings of the tragedy of Sisyphus, the mythological symbol of the absurd.
The Trial relates the story of Joseph K. who one morning finds himself arrested for a crime he never committed. Nor is the charge specified. He wears himself out trying to vindicate himself. But the court proceedings are so bungled and muddled that he never really gets in direct contact with the judges. He gets himself entangled in a network of relationships that set him adrift from the court instead of bringing him right to those who would give him justice. In the end, two executioners lead him away and stab him right through the heart.
Thinly characterized, Joseph K.’s traits are not so striking. But his story assumes a wide-ranging significance for contemporary man who lives in an increasingly baffling world. Through Joseph K.’s struggles, we are given an artistic rendering of the sense of futility that gnaws at the heart of man as he wades through the maze of criss-crossing paths, which in the modern setting could assume many forms such as bureaucratic hierarchies that lead astray the very people they profess to serve, or establishments and institutions that dehumanize human beings.
The Trial also delivers the message that for man there could be no permanent security. He is forever on trial—his loves, friendships, freedom or even his very own life. One of the imperatives for his survival is vigilance lest any lapse of attention could spell disaster. How far can he hold out in the strife is the crucial question, for the odds are against him. Right at the beginning, his eventual destruction is a foregone conclusion. Man ab initio is implicated in a crime he could not figure out. What really is his original sin—the crime perhaps of being alive? But where is the judge who will mete out the sentence? He is nowhere around. At best the accused may lay down his defense before the lower functionaries of the Law while his fate is being decided—or has it been already decided?—by the invisible hands of the powers that be. It is a terrifying world in which the accused can have no say nor influence in the forces that shape his destiny. What can he truly accomplish for his own salvation when he has no understanding of the workings of the machinery of justice?
“Like a dog!” was Joseph K.’s death rattle “as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.” Zhivago’s utterance that “man does not die in a ditch like a dog” would be mere cant for Joseph K. who had spent himself out vainly seeking vindication in the eyes of the judge who remained inaccessible. The absence and remoteness of the authority that holds in his hand man’s fate down here is nothing short of a cruel joke. Yet even to say that would not perhaps be right. We are told that it is wrong to say anything at all about the absent judge because his ways are not our ways, his ways being beyond our human measure of good and evil. Thus, there is no chance that the judge and the defendant can ever see eye to eye. So, Joseph K. dies as he must. True, a shadowy figure stretched out his arms by the window as Joseph K. was being executed. But whether in sympathy or to help he could not figure out. All the same he died. That, in Joseph K.’s world as in ours is the only thing certain.
In the Fable of the Law recounted to Joseph K. by the priest, a man, after spending a lifetime seeking entry to the Law whose door, so the guard tells him, was intended only for him, dies without being admitted to it. Is this not also a telling allegory of the tragic futility of man’s struggle to know the mystery of being so he may understand the meaning of his being human? What is the reason and justification of the sentence of death which hangs over the head of every man or woman? And, what of the unjustified sufferings of the innocent, the trumped-up accusations and high-handed persecutions of the underdog? If the lot allotted to man is to be truly vindicated, his conception of what is just must be satisfied on his own terms.
What has been said so far about Joseph K. may also be said of the other K. in The Castle, Kafka’s unfinished novel. Here, the protagonist is a land surveyor who comes to the village to survey an estate owned by a certain Count Westwest. There stands a nearby hill on which perches a castle that houses government offices. K. decides to go right to it for instructions. It turns out that all his efforts to reach it only lead him astray. The villagers, his assistants, or even his mistress are of no help to him either. All of them even prove to be stumbling blocks. At long last, an official tells him to try a different approach to succeed. But K. in his weariness has fallen asleep, not hearing the message. K. goes on pursuing his goal until he dies of exhaustion.
K. fares no better than Joseph K. He, too, goes through endless rounds of futile attempts to contact the authority that would confer meaning to his life and vocation as a surveyor. Unseen powers adversely influence and rebuff his every movement. Even the roads mislead him instead of bringing him right to his destination. “For the street…did not lead up to the Castle hill, it only made towards it, and then as if deliberately, turned aside, and though it did not lead him away from the Castle, it got no nearer to it either….”
The maze he contends with could be endless like the Chinese contraption of the box within the box within the box and so on ad infinitum. K., like his counterpart in The Trial, gets himself locked up in a trammel of relationships that he mistakenly supposes to bring him close to the distant authority. For instance, he sees in Frieda a link to get Klamm, a Castle functionary, by the tail. So, he wins her love to have a hold on her and Klamm, her lover. But Klamm proves to be elusive. The village superintendent cannot help him beyond impressing upon him the uncertainty of his summons, a fact that somehow ensures him the benefit of the doubt, that is, of not being summarily thrown out of the village. The assistants, too, turn out to be mere nuisances.
Before long, K.’s struggle to obtain recognition from the Castle of his status in the village as a surveyor practically becomes a fight for his survival as a human being. “Never yet has K. seen vocation and life so interlaced that sometimes one might think that they have exchanged places.” Even the Castle begins to mean to him something more than the physical structure that it is. “The Castle…lay silent as ever; never yet has K. seen there the slightest sign of life…perhaps it was quite impossible to recognize anything at that distance, and yet the eye demanded it and could not endure that stillness. When K. looks at the Castle, often it seemed to him as if he were observing someone who sat there gazing in front of him, not lost in thought and so oblivious of everything, but free and untroubled, as if he were alone with nobody to observe him, and yet must notice that he was observed, and all the same remained with his calm not even slightly disturbed…and the gaze of the observer could not remain concentrated there, but slid away.” It is these impressions of K. that support a metaphysical reading of his story.
Notwithstanding the transcendent aspect, the element of the absurd permeates the whole atmosphere of the Castle. The dark, menacing surroundings in which K. gropes his way to it accentuate all too well the irrationality of his situation. Though mentioned early in the narrative, the Castle owner never appears for once. The configuration of this condition recalls Camus’ description of “the vast indifference of the sky” or more blatantly Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead.” The hiddenness of God and his silence on the question of man’s irrational sufferings and repetitive but fruitless strivings can drive man to bouts of anxiety and despair. Man really needs a respite if not a reprieve in the Sartrian sense.
In the Castle bureau, there is “the ludicrous bungling…which in certain circumstances may decide the life of a human being.” The arbitrary will, the illogicality, or even downright caprice of whoever holds man’s fate in his hands puzzles him out of his wits. It appears that nothing he may do can alter a whit what has been decreed for him from the foundation of the world. What can possibly close the gulf between the human and the Divine?
For all these, The Castle is tinged with a faint glimmer of promise. For the first time, a Castle functionary deigned to speak to K. about how to get ahead with his bid to reach the Castle which, so he is told, also desired to communicate with him. However, at the moment when the path was being charted to him, he slept off his weariness and missed his chance. The supposed ending of the novel resembles the foregoing scene in that a gesture in K.’s favor was definitely made, though quite ironical and no less absurd. Kafka was said to have told his literary executor that as K. lay dying, the Castle sent him the message authorizing him to live and work in the village at long last. At least K. might have died in that knowledge. On that score, The Castle may be said to represent an advance in Kafka’s tragic view of man, just as The Plague moves beyond The Stranger as expressive of Camus’ vision of the human adventure. Yet, as long as the question is not settled why Kafka failed to write down that ending to his novel, he stands identified with his works as they were written, not as they were supposed to have been written.
What is conspicuous in both novels, as already noted, is the absence of the judge or the lord of the castle. The continued non-appearance of these authority figures and the fact that they are unreachable has alienated no end Joseph K and K. It is the chief cause of their travails, leaving them to their own devices absolutely clueless and bewildered as to what to make sense of their situation. It is the ultimate source of power that confers support and authenticity to existence. Absent that and the loss of direction and significance leaves one with a sense of futility and despair. So, the wielder of authority to whom is paid obeisance provides validation and legitimacy through the act of confirmation that puts a closure to uncertainty. No such reassurance from the governing entity in the temporal order was enjoyed either by Joseph K. or K.
It may be said that the tragic sense conveyed in these novels rests upon a theology that posits the total eclipse of God in a world gone mad, a theological stance that holds a Maker apart from His creatures, one that emphasizes the chasm that separates God and man. The Divine here is completely other, distant, and uncaring about the affairs of mortals. This is fundamentally a Western perspective that has spawned secular humanism, atheism and nihilism. In the atheistic brand of existentialism, defiance of the transcendent order makes for dramatic, if nauseating, story line. The feeling of the absurd springs from too much reliance upon dualistic thinking that is evidently inadequate in plumbing the depths of the multi-dimensional enigma that human reality is.
Kafka was quoted as saying that no people sing with such pure voices as those who live in deepest hell; and what we take for the song of angels is their song. He may well have spoken for himself personally as he himself went through insufferable turmoil in his private relationships—with his father especially. He once remarked that all his fictional works were long letters to his father who could not understand him; and his struggles with him must have been waged in the inferno of his subconscious steeped, according to his biographies, in neurosis and guilt. Just as he sought relief in the light of his literary Muse, so his protagonists battled through their condition by relying on their native intelligence. The rub of it all is that in the main their attempts to withstand the overwhelming pressures that threatened them on all sides amounted to striving after the wind.
The aridity, the dreary bleakness, the irrationality of the human lot projected through the spectrum of Kafka’s tragic vision cannot but bring about in us what in higher criticism is called as the “shock of recognition.” We find ourselves gasping for breath in his fictional landscape in which we witness disturbing scenarios of the spectacle of human beings pitted against forces that put to the test the limits of their endurance. Today, his fiction is regarded as “monuments to the cloven spirit of the 20th century.”