Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Today I will attempt to talk about a man who has eluded and confused the world ever since his death. And eluded and confused his friends before his death. If you didn't understand Inception, don't bother reading his work. If you didn't understand Synecdoche, New York, have a go but you'll be fruitless. This man's name is Franz Kafka, and he was an Austrian writer and general pessimist. When asked 'is the glass half full or half empty?', he'd answer 'what's the point in a glass anyway? Every sip takes us closer to death'. He was that kind of guy.

Kafka's work is mysterious, highly symbolic and pretty much define the term 'more than meets the eye'. I often read his shorter stories - only a page or two long, but so much can possibly be taken from them that they may as well be a whole novel. Even greater than the meanings of single stories, it seems to me that Kafka's work is all related fundamentally to his mentality and the struggles he found in his life related to fitting in to society and being a modern man. Forever he is creating social stereotypes, picking out every unnecessary detail of a chance encounter with a stranger, wondering who is thinking what, who is thinking what about him, and what others' opinions of things are. He is a man constantly plagued by the existence of so many others, so many others he doesn't know, around him in such a bustling society as 1910s Prague. And yet this predicament of the modern man has changed little since then! I sometimes find myself thing Kafkaesque thoughts, the world being full of foreign souls, that can never be understood and are therefore a menace.

One story of Kafka's that shows this the most is The Bridge. In it, Kafka tells a story of a bridge spanning a small river in first person. The bridge has its feet on one side and its hands holding the other side of the river and is strong and proud of itself. It is not on any map as of yet but is happy enough waiting for its use by some unknown user. Then, the bridge encounters a man, a hiker, who tentatively taps the bridge with his stick then jumps right into the middle of it, causing the bridge to be shocked and attempted to "turn around to see him" - which in fact causes the bridge to break and fall onto the jagged rocks which had beforehand seemed so safe from when the bridge was firm.

God knows how many interpretations that story could present, but I'm going to continue the line of investigation into Kafka's fear of the modern society. The bridge is like a person, strong of itself and not fearful of another person's interference into what people would nowadays call their 'private bubble', or their personal lives. The bridge's entire purpose is that of interaction with a person, it's what it lies in wait for for so many years. It's not labelled on any map - not known, but out there to be discovered. However, when it encounters what we can assume is its first user, or first user in many years, it is immediately hurt and is affected by the appearance of someone so close to itself. Suddenly, not expecting someone to actually come along and use it, it turns in horror and is destroyed as a result of the one thing it exists for. Perhaps this is how Kafka saw himself - a man, an island, happy to be on its own but forever waiting for someone to come and interact with it, maybe romantically. The moment someone does, that hope is turned into fear and the person wants nothing to do with other people; in fact their life is ruined by having those foreign elements in it. Conclusion: your life is fine unless you interact with anyone other than yourself.

Such morals are found everywhere in Kafka's stories. For example, The Confidence Trickster, a study of a particular character you would not want to be deceived by, and The Sudden Walk - in which the protagonist suddenly walks out of his cosy home to encounter the cold, faceless streets and is distracted from himself as a result. It's a recurring theme, and also key to Kafka's masterpiece and - I believe - his best work, The Metamorphosis.

The Metamorphosis is the most accessible of Kafka's stories because it is so unusually formally structured and begins with such a simple and understandable idea - that you wake up from sleeping in your bed to find yourself transformed into something horrific. Right at the start we have the concept of deceit from something you trusted - your simple humble bed, your home, your family, your shelter. And, due to no fault of your own, you become something that sets you out from society in the worst way possible - being a giant insect. Suddenly your family is turned against you, the entire city is against you because you are different. A totally respectable man - Gregor Samsa, I believe - is a public humiliation and object of hatred the moment he wakes up. Social embarrassment is another theme Kafka loves experimenting with. Then, poor Mr. Samsa, confined in his room and listening to his distraught family discussing him outside the door (specifically, how he should get to work on time), also struggling to come to terms with his many new limbs, finds a friend of sorts in the cleaner sent to clean out his room. She and him are brought together by being two social outsiders. Then, naturally, Samsa is hit by an apple and dies a slow and painful death, still inside his bedroom.

Suffice to say, Franz Kafka was a very pessimistic guy but also a very clever guy. On the back of my Kafka short story book it says 'Kafka's predicament is that of the modern man', and I think if we're going to take anything from this post, it's got to be that. Kafka experienced social life as an outsider, fearful of anything that wasn't him and fearful of the community itself. It's not a bad thing most of his stories are about him; he's not conceited - rather, afraid of having any sort of self-confidence taken from him by the dangerous free radicals that are other people. Because he knows that, someday, one of those free radicals will get too close and he'll come crashing down - and that peaceful stream he felt so safe from beforehand turns out to be his greatest foe.

And in every one of Kafka's stories, whether society-related or not, based on characters from dozens of cultures and settings, we see a little more of the frightened, sensitive man behind the pessimism. It's like Kafka's mind is a plateau and each story offers a hole punched through to reveal the true personality beneath. The Metamorphosis offers a large, very accessible hole, so if you're going to attempt to understand Kafka I recommend you read that. Or even if you don't care for the man himself, I recommend you read The Metamorphosis. There is a lot to be interpreted from such a short read, and since it's a bit more to-the-point than FK's other work, it's a damn good start on a whole range of Kafkaesque wonders.



Stickman said...

Very interesting... one of the mysteries with the Metamorphosis is whether Kafka really meant that Gregor changed into an insect, or whether the whole thing was just a metaphor... Kafka was excluded from society because of his Jewishness but also struggled to fit into the Jewish community.

John said...

Yeah, he definitely felt like an outsider wherever he went (I think he lived in Prague, Berlin and Munich at various times), and his mentality didn't help!