Franz Kafka (Austria, 1883), a German-speaking Jew of Prague,
lived through the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the birth
of Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I.
He died in 1924, when Mussolini had just seized power in Italy and Hitler had been arrested after an attempted coup in Germany, a few years after Lenin had created the Soviet Union.
Kafka was born when new intellectual disciplines were shaking the foundations of Western culture, from William James' psychology (1890) to Emile Durkheim's sociology (1895) and to Henri Bergson's anti-rationalist and anti-reductionist philosophy. Kafka grew up when the leading literary masters of the German-speaking world were Haptmann, Fontane, Thomas Mann and Hesse in fiction, Wedekind and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in theater, Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke (born in Prague like Kafka) in poetry, while Zola and Gide' were the main influences in France, Tolstoy and Cechov towered in Russia, Ibsen and Strindberg in Scandinavia. A rebellion against traditional literary forms was brewing in France, as exemplified by Joris Huysmans' novel "A Rebours/ Against the Grain" (1884), Alfred Jarry's drama "Ubu Roi" (1896), and Stephane Mallarme's poem "Un Coup de Des Jamais N'Abolira le Hasard" (1897). Italy followed suit with Luigi Pirandello's novel "Il Fu Mattia Pascal" (1904) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "Manifesto of Futurism" (1909). In the German world Freud published the "Interpretation of Dreams" in 1900 Carl Jung his "Psychology of the Unconscious" in 1912; Max Planck discovered Quantum Mechanics in 1900 and Einstein discovered Relativity in 1905; Gottlob Frege and David Hilbert revolutionized Mathematical Logic; philosophy was leaving behind Kant's idealism with Friedrich Nietzsche's "will to power" and Edmund Husserl's phenomenology; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's manifesto of "Die Bruecke" (1905), Herwath Walden's magazine "Der Sturm" (1910) and the art movement "Der Blaue Reiter" (1911) of Wassily Kandinsky and others launched expressionism; and in 1916 Hugo Ball launched the Dada movement in Switzerland.
Kafka grew up at a time when society was being turned upside down by new technologies: the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the phonograph, cinema, the car, the airplane, and so on. Work was changing too with the appearance of Frederick Winslow Taylor's "scientific management" (1911) and assembly lines (1913).
Kafka, as he was dying of tuberculosis, asked his publisher Max Brod to burn all his unpublished manuscripts. After Kafka's death, Brod instead published one after the other the three unfinished novels: "The Trial", "The Castle" and "Amerika".
"Amerika" (1914), or, better, "Der Verschollene/ The Man who Disappeared", begun in 1912 but abandoned in 1914 and never completed, feels like a Dickens novel (the orphan Therese, the naive protagonist abused by the older tramps) transposed in the New World of America. On one hand Kafka describes the misadventures of a lonely penniless boy abandoned by everybody. On the other hand this boy is an immigrant in the "land of opportunities" and his misadventures become a pilgrimage through the wonders and the magic of this vast land, moving from the busiest city of the country to the vast open territories of the Far West. Karl travels not because he dreams of new horizons but because, wherever he goes, he is expelled. And wherever he goes, his destiny is to be treated like a slave. It is Kafka's weakest novel. Note that Kafka had never been anywhere in America.
The uncle gives Karl a room at the sixth floor of a building whose five lower floors are used for offices of his firm. The uncle is nice. He pays for Karl to study English and buy a piano, knowing that Karl plays the instrument. Karl is introduced to a young man who appears to be from a rich family, Mack. The uncle shows him the busy offices and is proud of what he accomplishes in thirty years. The uncle then meets with his friends Green and Pollunder. Pollunder invites Karl to spend a day at his countryside villa and Karl accepts, upsetting his uncle. Pollunder's villa is a giant building full of empty rooms, swept by the wind because of unfinished construction. Karl meets his daughter Klara, a spoiled girl who annoys him and even wrestles with him. Green arrives and is hostile to Karl, who reciprocates. A servant, who rescues him when Karl gets lost in the dark endless corridors, reveals that Mack is Klara's fiance' and is in charge of the remodeling. Karl is made so uncomfortable that he asks Pollunder to be allowed to return to New York right away. Green, however, asks him to wait till midnight because he has a message for him that he can deliver only after midnight. While Karl waits for midnight, he plays the piano for Klara and discovers that Mack is eavesdropping from the next room. When the clock finally strikes midnight, Green delivers a letter from the uncle [not clear why it could be delivered only after midnight!] The uncle does not forgive Karl for having disobeyed him and doesn't want to see Karl ever again [a rather extreme punishment for such a trivial matter]. Green hands Karl a one-way ticket to San Francisco and then Karl has to walk alone in the dark towards the city, without really knowing which is the right direction, but then decides to take a random direction. He reaches a hotel where he asks for the cheapest room. He is directed to a room where two men are already asleep: the Irishman Robinson and the Frenchman Delamarche. They are both unemployed and plan to walk two days to a town where they are convinced of finding jobs, although Robinson's real dream is to go west to California and look for gold. After forcing him to sell his suit for little money (and keeping most of the money), they invite Karl to follow them and offer to share all the money they will make. Except that it becomes soon obvious that Karl is the only one who has money and he has to pay their bill at the restaurant and then pay for the food they buy at an inn. The manager of the hotel invites Karl to sleep at the hotel. Karl is loyal to his friends and return to them, who are waiting outside. He finds all the stuff of his suitcase spread in the grass: they searched his belongings. Karl realizes that they stole the most precious thing he has: the only photograph of his parents. But they claim they didn't take it. While he is packing his belongings in the suitcase, Robinson and Delamarche eat all the food that he bought without leaving any for Karl. Karl is finally offended and decides to part ways with them and return to the hotel without them. The head cook, Grete, welcomes him back and even offers him a job as an elevator boy. It turns out that Grete is also from Austria like him. Karl meets Therese, about the same age as him, who works as a typist for Grete. Therese is lonely. She tells Karl her tragic story. Her father invited her mother to America and her mother took little Therese with her. But her father later abandoned them. Her mother had no money and no home. It was a very cold winter and they were living in the streets. One day her mother took a construction job but died on the job. Karl also meets Renell, an older elevator boy who has an affair with an older woman who is a hotel guest. The orphaned Therese was eventually taken in by Grete. Karl tells her how Robinson and Delamarche took advantage of him. Karl works long hours and sleeps in the dormitory where it's impossible to rest properly.
One day Renell informs Karl that Delamarche is looking for him. In the middle of the night Robinson shows up at the hotel, drunk, pretending that he has made money but begging Karl to lend him some. Karl is on duty and fears for his job. Robinson even throws up. Karl takes him to the dormitory, hoping that he will sleep through the night, and returns to his elevator. Unfortunately, his boss has noticed that he was missing and is furious. Karl has to report in his office. The boss alerts his mentor Grete that Karl has deserted his post. Grete comes to defend Karl, but at that very moment it is discovered that Karl took a drunk man into the dormitory. The drunk, Robinson, woke up and caused a riot in the dormitory, and is now covered in blood. To make matters worse, the portman hates Karl and testifies (falsely) that Karl goes out every night, when in fact Karl spends every night studying with Therese.
Karl's boss even threatens to have him arrested for these multiple offenses. Grete cannot defend Karl anymore and sends him to the hotel managed by a friend. On the way out Karl is stopped by the evil portman who, suspecting Karl of being also a thief, pretends to search his pockets. Karl runs away from him but outside he is stopped by other boys of the hotel who demand that he takes care of Robinson. Karl has to pay for a taxi to take Robinson to a hospital. Karl has remained at the hotel less than two months and is now homeless and unemployed.
The taxi takes Robinson and Karl to a big building where Delamarche lives with a singer, Brunelda. Karl has no intention of staying with them but a police officer happens to pass by and becomes suspicious of Karl, who has left the jacket at the hotel and doesn't have any document to show his identity. Delamarche and Robinson try to assuade the cop and Karl takes advantage of a moment of confusion to run away. Delamarche chases him and brings him back. Karl has no choice but to accept his "hospitality". He then realizes that Delamarche wants him to become Brunelda's servant. Brunelda, a fat woman divorced from a chocolate tycoon who still loves her, used to live in a big mansion with many servants before she sold everything and moved in with Delamarche, who had seduced her. Now Robinson is her only servant. They make him sleep on the balcony. Karl is forced to do the same. Robinson now admits that he has plotted the whole thing: being tired of being Brunelda's servant, he went to the hotel to pick up Karl so that Karl would replace him. Karl tries in vain to run away: they beat him up and lock him on the balcony with Robinson. While on the balcony, he meets the son of the neighbors, Josef Mendel, who works during the day and studies at night to graduate from university. The student advises him to remain with Delamarche because it's not easy to find jobs.
[Kafka never completed the chapters of Kafka's stay with Delamarche]
One day Karl sees an advertisement for job openings at an itinerant circus called "The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma" [This name was given by Max Brod, not by Kafka]. He walks in and meets an old friend, Fanny (never introduced before in the surviving novel - probably in a lost chapter), who has moved there too. He helps a young couple with a baby and then goes through the job interview. Initially he pretends to be an engineer, but then he has to admit he is only a high-school student from a foreign country. He is sent from office to office until the office for high-school students hire him as... a mechanical worker. Karl gives "Negro" as his name. The circus turns out to be a giant operation that can hire just about anybody in just about any role. On the train to Oklahoma (a two-day trip) he meets again a friend from the hotel, Giacomo, who has been hired as elevator boy.
[One suspects that Karl was going to die in America, possibly hanged like a negro slave].
"Die Verwandlung/ The Metamorphosis" (1912) + feels like a dadaist variation on Zhuangzi's butterfly parable in which a man transforms into a butterfly and wonders whether he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming of being a man: "The man and the butterfly must be different things. Yet, the man and the butterfly must be the same thing."
"In Der Strafkolonie/ In the Penal Colony" (1914)
"Das Urteil/ The Judgement" (1916)
"Der Prozess/ The Trial" (1915) +++ was written in 1914-15 and then abandoned. There are several threads that don't come to a conclusion, and the last chapter feels rushed through. Regardless, Kafka was a master of discontinuity, whose protagonists have to suffer unjustly when their life is suddenly altered by an unexpected event which is unexpected because it seems so impossible. And then the impossible becomes ordinary.
"The Trial" shares with "The Metamorphosis" the beginning with a sudden baffling irreversible inexplicable transformation: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach" (The Metamorphosis) vs "Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong" (The Trial). Gregor never learns why he was transformed into an insect and Josef never learns why he has been arrested. They both die.
Many possible allegorical can be found in Kafka's novels, especially this one. Josef keeps protesting and believing that he is innocent, but everybody around him seems to believe the opposite. He refuses to recognize what everybody sees in him: that he is guilty. His arrest looks like a discontinuity in his tedious ordinary life but it is not a mistake: it is the logical consequence of his accumulated guilt. His guilt transpires from his arrogance, his ignorance, his sense of self-importance. Even protesting his innocence without knowing what the accusation is constitutes an act of arrogance, as if he were so perfect that nobody is entitled to doubt him. He mocks the court's ways and methods, and insults the officers, believing that his rational perfection will prevail over the irrational imperfection of the court. However, the court is playing a cruel game of cat and mouse, and Josef keeps making mistakes in this game that make his situation worse and worse. Josef's intelligence is insufficient to understand the game and from avoiding moves that worsen his situation: after all, the court might simply be a superior form of rationality, unattainable by Josef, irrational for his low level of rationality, a sort of singularity, or a Buddhist-like superior level of existence. The court humiliates him by having him interrogated, judged and executed by low-level echelons.
In Josef's fate one can read references to Jesus, Buddha and Daoism at the same time. Josef's story is similar to Jesus' calvary: arrested because the Jews slandered him, Jesus was taken in front of Pilate who didn't know what Jesus was accused of, and then Jesus was executed like a common criminal. His last words have echoes of Buddhist karma: his shame will outlive him, to return in the next life. Finally, the novel is full of contradictions that culminate in the execution of the innocent, an innocent who is even expected to kill himself. Many sections of the novel have situations in which one and the opposite are both valid options. Kafka owned a collections of German translations of Daoist classics. Gustav Janouch's book "Conversations with Kafka" mentions several discussions with Kafka about Daoism. Janouch's book has this quote: "The truth is always an abyss. One must - as in a swimming pool - dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again - laughing and fighting for breath - to the now doubly illuminated surface of things." And: "There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death." And: "Death is not brought to life by life; life is not killed by dying. Life and death are conditioned; they are contained within a great coherence". A letter to Max Brod reads: "Two possibilities: to make oneself infinitely small or to be [such]. The second one is perfection, therefore non-activity; the first [is] beginning, therefore action." ("Zwei Maeglichkeiten: sich unendlich klein machen oder es sein. Das zweite ist Vollendung, also Untaetigkeit, das erste Beginn, also Tat.") Elias Canetti said that Kafka was "the only Chinese poet that the West has".
Kafka was also a fan of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophical pessimism was a Western interpretation of, and response to, the enlightened pessimism found in Buddhist thought. Schopenhauer wrote " The truth was that this world could not have been the work of an all loving Being, but rather that of a devil, who had brought creatures into existence in order to delight in their sufferings" The god of Kafka is a similar god, who delights in humiliating and torturing his creatures. The philosopher Vilem Flusser, a German-language Czech-born Jew like Kafka who later emigrated to Brazil, wrote in "Waiting for Kafka" (1963) that the god of Kafka is only "a progressive cumulation of human thoughts about nothingness".
On the other hand Kafka wasn't much of a Jew. Despite his publisher Max Brod's attempts at depicting Kafka as a writer in the Jewish traditions, even calling him a "prophet", Kafka rejected Judaism as a barbaric superstition: "Strictly speaking, it was like being among a wild African tribe. Extreme superstition." Brod save Kafka's novels, but he also censored Kafka's works and distorted the meaning of his writings.
"The Trial" and "The Penal Colony" are among Kafka's stories that relate to the relationship with power and punishment. This topic was famously explored by Michel Foucault, who shares with Kafka at least one aspect of his life: he asked his publisher to burn all his unpublished work (the difference is that Foucault started doing it himself). Kafka and Foucault were very different and lived in very different ages, but they both dealt with alienation, power, torture, surveillance and death. If the central theme of Foucault's philosophy is a critique of the Enlightenment's rationality and politics, then Kafka can be seen as a fellow philosopher. Kafka's metaphor of power is an infinite and unpredictable hierarchy.
Where Kafka differs from Foucault is in the sense that the "power" is not political but existential. Existence is guilt. Life is a trial that slowly turns into punishment and then into death.
Josef's adventures are mostly inside buildings but they claustrophobic version of the medieval legend of the endless wanderer (a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Calvary and was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming of Jesus).
The labyrinthine spaces of "The Trial" (staircases, corridors, attics, smelly rooms, dark streets) evoke expressionist atmospheres, best understood by Orson Welles in his cinematic adaptation of the novel (1962). The architectural elements emphasize the alienation and loneliness of the protagonist, the fact that he lives in a world that is impossible to comprehend and to control. He is constantly lost in a space that swallows him, inhabited by people who are witnesses to his being lost. These curious witnesses/spectators inhabit those spaces in a natural way, whereas for Josef the same spaces are hostile, difficult to explore, misleading.
Most of the scenes feel like dreams, have a dream-like quality.
A novel like "The Trial" certainly feels like a dream to be interpreted,
the perfect case for Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" (1900) to discover
the latent meaning.
In his diary Kafka shows that he was very familiar with Freud's psychoanalysis, but he was mostly critical (very critical) of Freud's theories as he was of all of psychology.
Kafka's dream-like atmospheres differ from Freud's study of the subconscious
because of the metaphysical, supernatural, Zen-like setting: the
invisible all-encompassing incomprehensible force that determines the individual fate is real, not just a figment of a traumatized subconscious.
"Das Schloss/ The Castle" (1922) ++
Gli uomini sono schiacciati da una forza mostruosa che li sovrasta. Chiunque abbia a che fare con il castello è automaticamente più potente dei comuni mortali; l’antagonista di K finisce per essere Klamm, uno dei tanti funzionari. Per piegarlo, K viene costretto a subire l’umiliazione del posto di bidello. K trova conforto soltanto a casa di Barnabas, in una famiglia di umiliati come lui.