On Reading Kafka

To get back into the habit of writing, I promised myself that I will write something about every book I read. Not a review exactly, but something.

**

In my imagination Kafka was a pallid-faced monster sitting in a lonely moonlit garret, gnashing his teeth and with a hand driven by madness steadily moving across a page, his eyes staring into a blank wall, seeing horrors only the cursed can see.

That was before I actually read any Kafka. He is one of those writers whose reputations had constructed a monstrous entity in my mind that I had convinced myself I did not want to become acquainted with. Work-related reading brought “The Hunger Artist” and “Into the Penal Colony” to my attention, and in curiosity I soon read “The Judgement”, “The Country Doctor”, “Letter to an Academy”, and of course, “The Metamorphosis” in quick succession. I haven’t read “The Trial” yet, or any of his longer works, but I am inclined to take a breather before returning.

What caught me by surprise was the sadness of it all. Not grand tragedy no, the sadness of a man who has looked into the casual cruelty of our psyches and has been bewildered by it. Frightened and scrambling to find a way out on his worst days. But not angry, no. And never surprised. The stories seemed to come from a place where someone who has looked into the deepest evil in our hearts shrugs with a wry smile, as though to say, “What else can one do?” It is a smile that invites concord, and we cannot stop ourselves from guiltily chuckling along. (Guiltily, perhaps not because we feel truly horrible, but more in part because Kafka’s reputation has me somewhat convinced that he is “serious” writer and therefore I should not laugh.) But perhaps what is most striking about his humour is that it does not come from wordplay but like his sadness from simple and direct observation — how does one not laugh when one reads of the giant bug covered with a blanket rocking back and forth contemplating the best way to get out of bed without hurting its head?

We could all pretend to nobility within the walls of our minds, but in truth, we have only to drop our heads and accept in shame. We would have done no different. If Gregor Samsa had been my son I too would have driven him back with a broom no matter how much I had loved him in his human form, and when faced with a bizarre torture device I too would have hmm-ed and haaww-ed politely while formulating a plan to complain to a higher authority. All of Kafka’s people are ordinary people caught in bizarre circumstances. Perhaps the genius of Kafka lies not in his ability to create the bizarre circumstances (which he is most famous for), but in his ability to place everyday working class people in those situations and being able to dissect how they will react. 

I admit I did not pay too much attention when reading. My eyes raced across the page, gobbling up the words, strange images forming in my mind, and quickly dissolving into something else. Like watching a painting morph before my eyes, watching time slow down or speed up (“The Country Doctor”), while exclaiming “But of course!” while turning the pages, “How else was someone supposed to react?” The details only contributed to the larger picture which melded and dissolved seemingly with no reason — and I never stopped to analyse the symbols or breakdown the metaphors. But I’m left with one very clear impression: the elements that saddened me the mist were not the metamorphosis into a vermin or the man who emerges from the kennel and leaves bite marks on the maid, but it is us. The fear and sadness does not come from the bizarre world that Kafka creates, but from the way the ordinary people in those circumstances react to it. None rise to glory and even kindness wears away to tiredness.

Sometimes when I read something heart-breaking, I imagine doing something to make the author feel better — perhaps offering a hug or making them a cake or sending them a postcard or just having a conversation. But now, I believe such actions come from a certain place — the belief that “Things are not so bad, you’ll see, things get better.” A need to prove the other person wrong and your own (more optimistic) worldview right. To believe — and the need to prove — that there is hope or love or beauty or truth and something worth living for. Because without that, what do we have left? With Kafka though, there are no words. There is nothing that can be said or done to refute him because he is irrevocably right about human nature. Would we have known how wretched we are if Kafka had not told us? But once he has told us, can we forget? He needed the stuff of nightmares and visions to tell us who we truly are. Perhaps that is the only way he could have communicated with us — this labyrinth of nightmares — to let us know what truly frightened him — those jagged edges within our human souls.

Kafka was not a monster nor was he mad, he was only cursed to see what the rest of us are blessed to be blind to. What he saw he could not contain within himself and so he spilled onto the page. Yet, there is something about Kafka that is undeniably frightening. To acknowledge him is to acknowledge that there is something wrong with us: to accept that the monster is not the giant bug, but the young lady, virtuous and beautiful in every way, who places food for it every day and yet refuses to see it. And yet, she too did not become a monster by choice. She too, like Gregor Samsa, meant only well. She too tried her best. And yet, and yet… there is the inevitable.

To speak to a man who lives in such a world is to risk being drawn into it. I am comfortable yet with my world of hope or love or beauty – but perhaps not truth – not yet.

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