Portraits of Kafka – A Review

WBposter58x58-55To understand Franz Kafka’s world and his art, we need to thoroughly explore his literary universe – an alienated, morally desolate place. This would not only make us appreciate his work, but also make us respect how he grappled with such ultimate issues as the disjunction or disharmony of consciousness and being, individual aspiration, social bondage, man’s innate religious need and his endemic inability to reach that solid assurance of metaphysical truth for which he longs. The term “Kafkaesque” refers to that unique combination of qualities Kafka’s work can have. It has come to mean anything from the dreamlike to the sinister and the absurd. In this article I will compare the political absurdity indicative in Kafka’s major works to the current financial crises in America.

Kafka’s Political Literature

As one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the twentieth-century, Kafka is renowned for prophetic and profoundly enigmatic stories that often portray human degradation and cruelty. In his works, Kafka presents a grotesque vision of a world in which alienated, angst-ridden individuals vainly seek to transcend their condition or pursue some unattainable goal. His characters are always victimized and never overcome adversity; they accept it. The situations he presents can be nightmarish and go far beyond being simply neurotic. There is a fixation on all of life’s negativities. His characters are mostly paralyzed in their exercise of will by anxiety. His fiction derives its power from his use of precise, dispassionate prose and realistic detail to relate bizarre, often absurd events, and from his probing treatment of moral and spiritual problems. In his short story The Penal Colony, for example, the accused is asked to blindly conform to the law. The prisoner fails to stand at attention and salute the captain’s door and is awarded the death penalty for this petty mistake. There is no rational connection between the alleged crime and the punishment, but the system is not concerned with establishing guilt or rendering justice. Kafka’s writings sketch an anti-authoritarian image. In The Trial and The Castle, the Government is a hierarchical, abstract, and an impersonal apparatus. Despite the brutal, petty, and sordid characters the bureaucrats are only cogs in this machine. As Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish critic, acutely observed, “Kafka wrote from the perspective of a modern citizen who realizes that his fate is being determined by an impenetrable bureaucratic apparatus whose operation is controlled by procedures that remain shadowy even to those carrying out its orders and a fortiori to those being manipulated by it”.

Even though Josef K’s false arrest in The Trial seems completely illogical, it should, nevertheless, be kept in mind that Kafka is not describing exceptional states in this story. Kafka is indicating the alienated and oppressive nature of a corrupt state. He writes in The Trial:

“K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who, then, dared seize him in his own dwelling?”

As Josef K pleads with the guards to acquit him, the guards indicate their blind belief in the law: “Do you think you can bring your whole damn trial to a quick conclusion by discussing your identity and arrest warrant with your guards? We’re lowly employees who can barely make our own through such documents, and whose role in your affair is to stand guard over ten hours a day and get paid for it. That’s all we are, but we’re smart enough to realize that before ordering such an arrest the higher authorities who employ us inform themselves in great detail about the person they’re arresting and the grounds for the arrest.”

Kafka’s characters seem so resigned to their circumstances that they start embracing their surroundings. The guard’s faith in the government points to an egregious abuse of power by the law enforcement agencies. Kafka’s two major novels, The Trial and The Castle, are a critique on modern states. He considers them alienated, hypostatized, and autonomous bureaucratic systems, which become ends unto themselves. The Castle contains all of the primal emotions readers interested in existentialism look for: confusion, isolation, immobility, estrangement, and a sense to understand the human condition. The story’s protagonist, K., who by all descriptions is a simple surveyor sent to measure the land, cannot reach the Count of the Castle no matter how much he tries. In one passage that is a masterpiece of black humor, in The Castle, the town mayor describes the official apparatus as a machine that seems to work by itself: “One might say that the administrative organism could no longer put up with the strain and irritation it had to endure for years because of dealing with the same trivial business and that it has begun to pass sentence on itself, bypassing the functionaries.”

The story of K. is the story of a person discovering the tragedy of being trapped in an endless, dreamlike maze. At the start of the novel, K. is primarily occupied with the desire to survey the land and leave, but the more K. works, the more he discovers. For instance, he sees a village where people are scared, overly cautious, and paranoid, as if they are hiding some important truth. They do not know that their Count Westwest is dead (in German, west means “decomposing”) and so continue in a state of mediocrity. One can feel that Kafka’s work is missing a sense of time and place, which is why it can be very easily related to any period in human history. Although his work did neither prophesize about the future nor bash a particular system of government, his stories were somewhat autobiographical and attempted to portray the society he lived in and knew very well

In the End Kafka’s stories and novels may be about a world where things seem the opposite of what they are; but we find that it is much closer to the truth than we might think. Kafka might have written about bleakness in people’s lives, presenting a forlorn world; however, looking at what is happening around us in the world, we find that he was not that far off from reality. Kafka presented the difficulty of the situation, where one simply cannot escape the law. No matter how Kafka’s protagonist tries to escape the court in The Trial, he only finds himself dragged deeper into its web. This situation resembles Capitalism without a conscience. When we consider how we are stuck in the vast web of capitalism without regulation, the more we try to struggle and wriggle our way out of it, the deeper we engulf ourselves into a Kafkaesque neurosis. As the Occupy protestors have experienced firsthand, it is a long and difficult haul to reform the political and financial sector


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