Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Impenetrable Depths

Sadly I must subject you poor JOHNSPACE readers to another Kafka post, because there's a huge part of Kafka's psyche I totally ignored in the last article.

There are, ultimately, two meanings to any piece of Kafka's writing - one is about society and the dilemma of the modern man, as I explained before, and the other one is about death. Kafka, being the paranoid and intensely self-aware, was not only wary of his place in society but his place in life and the role of his life in the world around him. For him, life was not simply an endless journey, but a clear beginning-middle-end with which to spend your time wisely - if at all possible.

A few years ago I was looking up quotes for a blog post and I absent-mindedly came across a quote of Kafka's, before I had read The Metamorphosis, which was this: "The point of life is that it ends". And it's amazing that Kafka, who we often disregard as being overly pessimistic or just downright depressing, here makes his most starkly meaningful statement. The point of life is that it ends. Life leads up to death; is defined by death. Ever since seeing that quote, I've had an interest in how death should sit in life and what its purpose or meaning is, if any. Kafka was obsessed with that thought, much more than my vague interest which never failed to pop up every month or so of my 365 project last year. Because it's so intriguing, that everything we do in life is ultimately irrelevant in the face of the greatest barrier known to man: death. No man, however clever, however inventive, however healthy, can overcome death. It's a ticking body clock that starts at birth and winds down to death, and for most of our lives we ignore it. Most people simply don't think about it, out of pure ignorance of lack of deep thought. It's complicated and worrying and should therefore not be thought about.

But Kafka was plagued with death. So much so that he was overcome with paranoia, intense sensitivity and anxiety that made the later years of his life almost unbearable for him. It's no wonder his worries weakened his health and he caught TB and died at the young age of 41 in 1925, luckily before all the pain and strife he would have experienced if he had lived through World War 2. Nowadays people live for twice that age, imagine what new wonders we would have to interpret had Franz Kafka lived for twice as long. It would surely be brilliant for him to turn out something better than The Metamorphosis or The Trial, but in a way Kafka's early death is an important part of his character. In a way, a man who thought so deeply about death and respected it so honourably has no better destiny than to accept it early in his life. It's sooner or later.

On a side note, it's interesting to read that Kafka was decided on his role in life rather than being helplessly aimless. He writes in his diary in June 1913: "The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is clear to me." How peculiar of Kafka to be so determined of something so life-defining, but that can be explored in further posts (most likely in my head).

But, back on the topic of death, one brilliant short story of Kafka's stands out to me as being a complete, perfectly formed, clear analogy to what Kafka perceived death to be. The story is called A Dream, and explains the dream of Josef K. (an obvious pseudonym for Kafka, and obviously so), probably a dream that Kafka had himself or based on a dream he had and augmented to be more meaningful. Either way, I really love A Dream, and have read it three times now (more than I have The Metamorphosis, which to be honest takes so dedication to read).

The story goes like this: Josef K. is dreaming, and is walking along when he almost immediately comes to a cemetery. The paths are long and winding but he finds himself attracted to a grave in the distance, which "exerted fascination over him" and he "felt he could not reach it fast enough". If that's not a clear analogy for life and how Kafka sees life as a winding journey to a finite location, I don't know what is. For Kafka, he couldn't reach death fast enough - he was so amazed by the concept that it seemed almost like a state of judgement for him, judgement for the complicated life he led with complicated interactions and complicated people. Death is a singularity, a grave, an ending.

But an ironic thing for Kafka is that "his view [of the grave] was obscured by banners which veered and flapped against each other with great force; one could not see the standard-bearers but there seemed to be a very joyous celebration going on." It is only Franc Kafka who could describe the pursuits and distractions of life as banners flapping in front of his view of death. Perhaps these banners are other people, distracting him from that one definite occurrence, his death, which he can often see at the end of his life? It's brilliant how much you can interpret Kafka's stories.

I will jump to the end of the story, for though it is short it is also full of possible analogies that I have neither the time nor the patience to go through and analyse now. Suffice to say; Josef K. meets a artist at the graveside and the painter is writing the dead person's name on the grave. But before he can inscribe the name, he cannot go on. An awkward silence ensues between the two in which K. feels "deeply embarrassed and yet unable to explain himself". Finally, K. starts to cry with the horrific misunderstanding between him and the artist, so the artist reluctantly starts to write the name on the grave - "J" he starts, and finally Josef K. realises and digs away the thin layer of soil above the grave and sinks into the hole below. He wafts down the infinite hole, and "while he was already being received into impenetrable depths, his head still straining upwards on his neck, his own name raced across the stone above him in great flourishes". There really is so much to extract from this, I'll leave most of the interpretation to you but I'll leave you with this: Kafka in fact does not fear death like most people do, he in fact feels he is not complete and honourable if he has not died. Society expects him to die and it prevents pain on his and its part for him to succumb to death. And Kafka explains death as "being wafted onto [one's] back by a gentle current", into "impenetrable depths". Despite all the turmoil and anxiety in Kafka's life, it seems death is a final time to relax, to look up and see your life fading away from you, knowing your chores and your tasks and your purposes are gone and completed, your life finished and your name written on your gravestone. No more needs to be done, no more needs to be said, to be written. Kafka sees death as the ultimate ending, freeing him of all the responsibilities of the modern man - and of any man - that make life for him so unbearable.

tl;dr - Kafka loves death and thinks life is a chore. Also, he has brilliant dreams.

~John

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