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17 February 2021

Locking down with Kafka

How the great writer, in his airless, claustrophobic fictions,  provides a guide to living in the pandemic age.

By Sam Earle

In “A Report to an Academy”, a short story published by Franz Kafka in 1919, an ape named Red Peter gives a lecture to a scientific conference, recalling how he was hunted in the jungle and then awoke one day in a cage, unable to return to the old way of life he had loved. 

“For the first time in my life I could see no way out,” the ape says of his captivity. “Hopelessly sobbing, painfully hunting for fleas, apathetically licking a coconut, beating my skull against the locker, sticking out my tongue at anyone who came near me – that was how I filled in time in my new life. But over and above it all only the one feeling: no way out.”

In our time of plague, a quasi-official cast of oracles has emerged: Albert Camus, Daniel Defoe, Susan Sontag, José Saramago – writers whose novels and essays on infectious disease have acquired a new ­pertinence and reached new audiences. ­Kafka is nowhere to be found on such lists, yet in his life and writing we encounter a different kind of relevance: less literal and more ambient. He is a writer who inhabited a similar nest of neuroses to those presented by a pandemic, and who made this nest his home.

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Kafka’s characters are almost always trapped – in a cage, a court case, an insect’s body, a false identity – and they share a feeling that the walls are closing in, and that a door, once there, is disappearing into the distance. This existential claustrophobia, at once vague and intense, resonates today, particularly under lockdown.

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there was a marked uptick in searches for the word “Kafkaesque” as the coronavirus crisis set in. The term is often used to refer to the cruel absurdities of bureaucracy, but the full meaning of the word is broader, and no less of a cliché, describing any situation that takes on an ominous, nightmarish edge and yet remains somehow mundane, becoming all the more unsettling for it.

In Kafka’s dreamlike style of storytelling, wild and disturbing events are presented as completely normal, even inevitable; the world seems to conspire against you and run its natural course at the same time. The reader is left with “the dizzying simultaneity”, as the critic Erich Heller once put it, “of ‘Impossible!’ and ‘Of course’.”

The pandemic subjects us to this same dizzying simultaneity – life feels unbelievable and predictable, extraordinary and boring, static and in flux – and so an eerie, Kafkaesque quality suffuses everything. As our old and familiar world disappeared, suddenly we found ourselves like Red Peter, encaged in a strange situation, forced to adapt to new conditions of life.

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This shared structure of feeling binds Kafka’s imagination to our present moment, showing us, if not a way out of the crisis, then at least a new way in. In Kafka, after all, these often amount to the same thing: there is never a true escape.

***

Comparing coronavirus lockdowns with genuine captivity can seem crass, ­especially when the comparison is made by privileged people. In April 2020, the American TV host Ellen DeGeneres was reproached for ­joking that self-isolating in her $15m mansion was “like being in jail”; soon afterwards, the activist Angela Davis cautioned against framing our situation this way. 

Yet there is a likeness. The term “lockdown” comes from the prison system, when inmates are confined to their cells as punishment for riots or disorder. Like a curfew, a “lockdown” implies wrong- doing and evokes an invisible authority: “Are you obeying lockdown?” At the same time, the constantly shifting guidelines and laws surrounding the virus – how close you can stand to others, who you can and can’t see, how you should justify leaving the house, where you can travel, why you can travel, and so on – add an absurd air to the situation, making the workings of authority seem opaque and capricious. “It remains a vexing thing to be governed by laws one does not know,” Kafka noted in his short parable, “The Problem with Our Laws”.

In this sense, our feeling of imprisonment is about much more than formal ­constraints on our freedom: it is about being in an alien world where, because the terms and conditions are both unclear and ever-changing, we are always liable to be doing something wrong. These two feelings – a claustrophobia that requires no cage and a guilt that requires no crime – are central to the psychology of the pandemic. They also form the foundation of Kafka’s life and work.

***

Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 to an upwardly mobile Jewish family. After studying law, he worked by day as a lawyer at an insurance company. By night, he wrote – compulsively and privately, publishing almost nothing. In the work he left behind, at once sinister and playful, we find a writer forever haunted by the idea that he was standing trial, and tormented by a feeling of being locked up. Everything, including his tall, skinny build, which Kafka resented for its weakness, appeared to hold him hostage.

“Sometimes it seems to me that my brain and lungs came to an agreement without my knowledge,” he wrote to his best friend and fellow Jewish writer Max Brod after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917. “‘Things can’t go on this way,’ said the brain, and after five years the lungs said they were ready to help.” Even his hometown controlled him. “Prague doesn’t let you go,” he wrote, “this little mother has claws.”

Yet of all Kafka’s captors, it was his father Hermann who loomed largest in his imagination. Hermann was, in his son’s telling, an angry, impatient and domineering man, who was not only cruel but also perversely insistent that his sad, neurotic son show him more gratitude for the apparently comfortable life he led.

In one childhood memory, recounted at length in “A Letter to My Father”, an exhaustive, 47-page letter he wrote in 1919 but never sent, Kafka recalls crying out for a glass of water late at night as a young boy. Finally, his father comes to his room, only to pick him up and lock him outside. “For years,” Kafka wrote, “I was tormented by the thought that this giant man, my father, could almost without reason come to me in the night, and lift me out of bed.”

In his diaries, letters and stories, Kafka’s underlying fear almost always takes this form: a dark, omnipotent authority that holds the victim hostage; that refuses to recognise the victim’s true self or individual worth; and that brazenly punishes, because existence alone is crime enough. This vision is fully realised in Kafka’s unfinished novel The Trial, published posthumously in 1925, in which a hapless bank clerk named Josef K wakes up to his own unexpected arrest. Since his crime is never specified, Josef K can’t prove his innocence. “You can’t defend yourself against this court,” he is told, “all you can do is confess.”

All you can do is confess – but even that is not enough. Kafka could never find a way out of his guilt and claustrophobia, though perhaps he never really wanted to. “To end as a prisoner – that could be a life’s ambition,” he suggested in one diary entry, and in a letter to a lover wrote: “The outside world is too small, too clear-cut, too truthful, to contain everything that a person has room for inside.”

The social theorist Theodor Adorno once compared the work of Kafka to “a parable whose key has been stolen”. “Each sentence says ‘interpret me’,” Adorno wrote, “and none will permit it.” The analogy is apt: Kafka’s characters rarely find themselves on the right side of a locked door, and his stories often leave readers with the same impression, desperately hunting down a key.

The title of Kafka’s third, unfinished novel Das Schloss is translated as “The Castle” but can also mean “The Lock”, and early manuscripts show how Kafka combed through the text to make everything, in his words, “ein wenig unheimlich” – a little uncanny. “I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable,” he wrote.

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There are no easy answers in Kafka’s enigmatic fictions, only a maze of unanswerable – maybe even unaskable – questions. “Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the meaning of my own question,” the narrator “K” wonders in The Castle as he desperately seeks recognition from the mysterious authorities of the nameless town to which he has been summoned.

K pursues every possible lead, even taking on temporary work at a local school as a live-in janitor. But he becomes so exhausted by his quest for recognition that when, by sheer coincidence, he finally encounters the right official, at the right time, in the right place, he falls asleep. The moment is lost. 

The novel’s meaning is, as ever, elusive. For Max Brod, The Castle “said more about the situation of Jewry as a whole today than can be read in a hundred learned treatises”. According to the Kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem, there are only three canonical Jewish texts: the Hebrew Bible, the Zohar, and the works of Kafka.

Yet  Kafka makes no overt mention of Judaism in any of his stories. And depending on where you stand, or what you need, Kafka’s stories are said to strike not at the heart of the Jewish experience, but of the modern condition writ large, or even – more grandiosely – the human condition itself. 

Precisely because no single key fits, many readers have a hunch that, if the door to Kafka’s stories could somehow be unlocked, it would reveal all the secrets of the world. This mystical belief fuels the so-called “cult of Kafka” wherein devout readers play the role of exegetes, trying to decipher the meaning of holy scripts. Since his protagonists are often anonymised archetypes – placeless people (or animals) stripped of their past, future and physical appearance, known only by titles such as “the land surveyor”, “the hunger artist”, or “K” – it is natural to interpret them as parables. Meanwhile, his aphorisms and unfinished fragments – a new collection of which, titled The Lost Writings, was recently put together by his biographer Reiner Stach – are pored over as if they were ancient scrolls.

***

Tuberculosis claimed Kafka’s life in 1924, at the age of 40. His dying wish might be the best-known fact of his life. In a letter to Brod, he asked for his unpublished work – the vast majority of his writings – to be burned unread. Brod instead dedicated himself to publishing all of it. Brod, who fled the Nazis to what was then Palestine in 1939 with Kafka’s papers in tow, maintained that this was no betrayal: if his friend had really wanted his parting order carried out, he would have asked someone else to take care of it. Either way, Kafka’s essential powerlessness in the face of Brod’s decision was a fitting note for him to leave on.

Since so many of Kafka’s stories were left unfinished, the endings are often clunky posthumous inventions appended by Brod. The original draft of The Castle, for example, ended mid-sentence. In a way, this is how all Kafka’s stories should end; they are nightmares and, since every dream ends abruptly – is interrupted rather than completed – any neat narrative conclusion feels false.

This absence of closure also resonates today. At the start of the pandemic, it was possible to imagine a happy ending: a moment when normal life would resume, when we would gather in our homes and talk about how hard it had been, and how glad we were that it was over. It was going to be one of those finales satirised by Henry James as a “distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks”.

But now, even amid the roll-out of the ­vaccine, there is no such sense of an ending. The further along we go, the more the doorway we thought would lead us out of the pandemic seems to recede into the distance. There are questions around the efficacy of the vaccines against new variants that continue to emerge, and we are warned that there may be more pandemics to come. As so many of Kafka’s characters experience, it is the endlessness, rather than the content, that is the essence of the struggle. The plague, like Prague, won’t let you go: this little mother has claws.

***

After Kafka’s death in 1924, the horrors of Nazism in Europe imbued his writing with a newly prophetic power, and his stories were banned. As a vast and impenetrable authority declared an entire people guilty, inflicting upon them a punishment that was both surreal and systematic, many felt as if Kafka’s nightmarish visions had come true. “Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated?” Kafka asked in 1920, following anti-Jewish riots in Prague. “The heroism of staying on nevertheless is the heroism of cockroaches that cannot be exterminated even from the bathroom.”

Yet when the war was over, Kafka’s stories had an oddly redemptive force in Germany, and sales soared. Günther Anders, Hannah Arendt’s first husband, was sceptical of this “Kafka epidemic” (“Kafka-Seuche”). Anders believed that Germans found in the aimless, existential guilt of Kafka’s stories – the perpetual punishment without a crime – a means of evading accountability for their own actions. If we are all doomed to be wantonly punished, what difference do our actions make? “The ­idolisation of Kafka dissolved the fact that millions of his kinsmen had been ­murdered,” Anders wrote.

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Kafka’s hopeless visions may carry a different kind of consolation today. Perhaps it is no more than a knowing wink that ­recognises life’s cruelties: the world’s conspiratorial indifference, its unique ability to kick you when you’re down and call it an accident; the darkly comic sense that, however bad it gets, there is always worse to come. “In the struggle between yourself and the world,” Kafka advised, “back the world.”

Yet Kafka also knew how powerful, and perverse, the will to persevere can be. In “A Report to an Academy”, one of the few stories Kafka completed in his lifetime, Red Peter describes how he made his peace with his new world in captivity. “With my hands in my trouser pockets, my bottle of wine on the table, I half lie and half sit in my rocking chair and gaze out the window,” he declares. He is, in many ways, a monument to the Kafkaesque art of resilience and ­resignation. “And so I learned things, gentlemen,” the ape says. “Ah, one learns when one has to; one learns when one needs a way out; one learns at all costs.” 

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth