Franz Kafka is one of the key figures in modern fiction – a status he earned through just a handful of unfinished novels and a series of enigmatic short stories. His influence can be found in all sorts of places in the work of contemporary writers, wherever they venture to grapple with themes of dystopian society; tyrannical bureaucracy; existentialism and man’s search for meaning; the ineffability of life (to offer just a selection). In this article I intend, not to examine the impact of this great spokesman and prophet of all these particularly modern (and post-modern) problems, but to look at how he mythologised his own, deeply personal struggle for meaning, and to highlight the spiritual, metaphysical ideas that lie behind his stories.
In fact, in framing Kafka as this mouthpiece for modernity and its anxieties I may, aside from parroting other critics, be doing him a disservice, by boxing him into a certain time frame and field of influence. It could be argued that his works are, or aspire to be, timeless, offering an eternal perspective on the human condition. This dimension of his writing would stand alone, even had it not also served to predict a century of totalitarianism and repression. Yet it is precisely these existential problems that helped produce all that evil. It is therefore the existential questions he raises that I wish to consider in this article, as well as how he constructs myths as a means of articulating and responding to them.
Kafka’s fascination with myth – his desire to reconstruct the old and build entirely new myths – is essential to understanding his art. What is myth, after all? Something both more and less than a world-view or a philosophy. They frame precisely the kind of eternal questions that we’ve been talking about, in organic ways – not reducing them to ‘problems’ to be solved abstractly, but mysteries that form the very nature of life. They can both shed light, by drawing clear definitions and links of cause and effect, or evoke darkness and obscurity, by refusing to ‘give away’ clear answers. In some cases they are the only way to represent truths that defy rational explanations. How can the fatalism of the Ancient Greeks be understood without reference to characters, time and place? Story, in other words. Even more so, how could the God of the Hebrews reveal Himself except through metaphor and symbol?
With Kafka’s stories, it is easier for a reader to perceive the darknesses and obscurity than to see the light, at least on first acquaintance. We are struck by their manifold absurdities and irrationality. Some critics have been inclined to read this absurdity (as they have with Camus) as an expression of nihilism akin to the works of say, Sartre. Yet this is an extreme interpretation. If all this work were simply a statement of nihilism (that ‘there is no meaning’ – a contradictory statement in itself) then why bother to laboriously construct such long, dense narratives to articulate it? Kafka’s writing must stem from some conviction that the effort itself (at least) is meaningful. This dogged determination to persevere in the search for meaning, via writing, testifies to a genuine faith. But a faith in what, exactly? That is the question I believe all of Kafka’s mythologising sought to explore.
First, we need to understand the type of faith I am talking about. This faith of Kafka’s can hardly be distinguished from doubt – it articulates itself in questions (Kafka described writing as a form of prayer). It is extremely apophatic, meaning that it dares not define its object positively; even to talk of ‘objects’ is to say too much. If we consider faith a way to God, we must also admit that He is ineffable.1
A man whose whole existence was pervaded by fear and anxiety, Kafka’s profession of faith comes in response to this threat of being overwhelmed: ‘It is true,’ he writes to Milena Jesenská (his Czech translator with whom he was in a relationship at the time), that ‘this fear is perhaps not only fear but also a longing for something which is more than all the things which produce fear.’ Kafka demonstrates this tentative, even awestruck approach by not naming this ‘something’
The darker side to his nature comes to the fore in these very fears, which manifest in his writing as the obstacles and opposition to any form of progress or goal-seeking. Indeed, in his notes he is led to frame his faith negatively:
‘There is a goal but no way. What we call a way is hesitation.’
In his letters to Milena, Kafka expresses his fear of lifting a glass of milk to his mouth ‘because it could easily explode in my face, not by chance but by design, and throw the splinters into my face.’ Supposing there is a God who orders life, might He not be malevolent after all?
These are the kinds of doubts that shape The Castle, his final novel. Its protagonist, Joseph K., spends the entire course of the book attempting to reach the eponymous castle, to sort out his legal status and the basis of his employment in the surrounding village; all, apparently, without success. The government there are shrouded in mystery and utterly inaccessible – as remote and forbidding as the summit of Mount Sinai, and wreathed in almost as much darkness. What emerges out of this impossible, deeply frustrating situation? No less than a hero. Joseph K. demonstrates heroic patience and dispassion in pursuit of his goal – no obstacle is able to shatter his resolve; nothing dispels his faith in the justice he feels is due him. This is Kafka’s vision of man, and it is one we can all relate to and positively admire.
So is that the “point” of The Castle? A humanistic celebration of man’s struggle in the face of unmeaning? Let’s look a bit further. We can see a great deal of disorder in the castle, and some really objectionable behaviour from its officials in the village. The establishment is rigidly hierarchical to the extreme; ruthlessly exploitative of the lower classes and peasantry; its petty officials indulge in vices and the mistreatment of women; it is aloof and utterly pitiless when it comes to the claims of those who have been wronged. K. would be mad to place his hopes in this organisation. Therefore the justice he seeks, and the faith he bestows on it, must rest in a power beyond the castle.
In this sense, might we read this as an espousal of Gnosticism? The castle and its ruler being a kind of Demiurge who commands the material world, whilst our salvation lies outside this sphere. It would certainly tally with Kafka’s fears, even his expectation that events are designed malevolently. Still, he goes on hoping, straining after the transcendent; Justice, Mercy, Truth. He expresses this hopefulness in one of his diaries, in a typically enigmatic way:
‘It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendour forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by the right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create, but summons.’
There can be no direct route to this splendour; only magic tricks, an oblique approach, can bypass reason and materialism, slipping through the gap into the beyond. Aside from Gnosticism, are we now faced with the Kabbalah?
Rather than answering that question, I’m going to complicate this picture still more by drawing in yet another spiritual aspect in Kafka (in the hope that we form a more comprehensive view of his work). His novel Amerika brings so-called “Far-Eastern” metaphysics into the equation. The function of the setting itself, the “New World”, is explicitly used to facilitate a ‘rebirth’ for European protagonist Karl Rossman. What is more, there is a recurring image or theme of man as a mere emanation of nature; an idea that individuality and distinction rise out of uniformity, and that we will all sink back into nature just as we once emerged from it. Talking of the ceaseless activity going on around the docks in New York, Kafka describes ‘a movement without end, a restlessness transmitted from the restless element [i.e. the sea] to helpless human beings and their works.’ The sea is a typical image used in Hindu philosophy to communicate this sense of non-existence out of which the illusion of individual being emanates.2 Likewise, Kafka writes: ‘here and there curious objects bobbed independently out of the restless water, were immediately submerged again and sank before [Karl’s] astonished eyes;’. Is man no more than a ‘curious object’, whose whole identity is only to sink back down into non-being? The notion of man’s constant industry recurs elsewhere, emphasising how impersonal, and even futile, it is.
In my view, given the subject of the novel, this comes across more as a critique of the ideology of the New World: of Babel-building and the amassing of immense personal wealth. We encounter a world of roaming vagrants, in which the ultra-rich live in vast mansions, while poor immigrants fall to their deaths on building sites, and others willingly submit to wage-slavery and exploitation. Yet in spite of these themes, which come across as a strong social critique, Kafka is able to write:
‘My novel is progressing, though slowly; the only thing is that it looks terrifyingly like me’.
Once again we are redirected towards the personal, not the social, content of the novel. If the novel ‘looks like’ Kafka, is that the same as to say it expresses his feelings about the world? And why should it be ‘terrifying’? I would suggest that is the faith-filled side of Kafka’s nature that is being repulsed by his darker side; the side which regards all life as futile. There are other reasons to regard these works (as all his stories were) as deeply personal reflections of Kafka’s nature. The psychological dimension, for instance, plays a major role. Amerika, in particular, has many elements of Oedipal drama between its hero, Karl Rossman, and his friends and associates, but that is not the focus of this essay. My intention, in which I hope I have to some extent succeeded, is to shine a light into some of the spiritual aspects of his work, especially to highlight Kafka’s faith, for all of its hesitance and reluctance to reveal itself.
That is where I will end my article, on a typically Kafkaesque note of unresolved mystery; I leave you to continue unravelling the threads he has left us in his stories, finding more and more threads in the process. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I have (and continue to do).
A note of acknowledgement:
I am indebted to the Kafka scholar Idris Parry, from whose introduction to The Castle I have lifted most, if not all, of my quotations from Kafka’s notes, letters and diaries.
1 Hence the Jews, after the fall of Solomon’s Temple, would typically not refer to God by name, but indirectly: as Adonai (‘the LORD’), or would reference his name as ‘the Tetragrammaton’ (i.e. the four letters YHWH).
2 Cf. Genesis, ‘the Spirit of God hovered over the waters’ prior to Creation. Of course, for Jews and Christians creation is not illusory.