The Terror of Art: Kafka and Modern Literature
Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Castle
Kafka’s drawings, said to be newly discovered and now published for the first time, are witty, disturbing, and rather like Rorschach ink-blots. This is not surprising, since the writings themselves are like ink-blots, and the manifold interpretations (a sample of which can be found in the collection of essays edited by Peter Neumeyer) perhaps tell more about the interpreters than they do about Kafka. The drawings are not all easy to place in relation to the chapters of The Trial: one is obviously Joseph K. before the Court: his stance is defiant, the hands behind his back are anguished, the out-of-perspective railings suggest claustrophobia and vertigo. Others show him collapsed over his desk at the Bank, and tottering feebly with a stick. In the fourth he is either throwing this stick or thrusting with it rapierwise against the invisible antagonist, with gay defiance, but the weapon like his body is going limp. Fifth, he stands before a mirror or an easel, narcissistic in either case. The last I think would be just as suitable for The Castle: he sits on the ground overcome by the awful fatigue that affects everyone in that story, holding a giant pair of compasses, appropriate to the Landsurveyor, indeed his body itself forms a disintegrating set-square.
Apart from the drawings, this paperback has the old Muir translation, revised and with additional material translated by E. M. Butler, and excerpts from Kafka’s Diaries. It can’t be, as it claims, “definitive,” since the order of the chapters of The Trial is not yet certain. Kafka is now in the hands of the scholars, and there will be, I imagine, many surprising discoveries when all of Max Brod’s papers become available. At the moment any review of Kafka and his critics must be backward-looking or speculative.
There Goes Kafka must be counted among the works of scholarship. Johannes Urzidil, who belonged to Kafka’s literary circle in Prague, offers a mixed bag of biographical and topographical information. This does not however add up to much, even when helped out by half-a-dozen poignant photographs of the Old Town. Anything that relates Kafka to the physical background of Prague and the Jewish-Talmudic tradition is potentially useful, but I couldn’t take more than a few things from this scrappy work, perhaps because the translation is in such awkward English. Most memorable is Kafka’s remark just after the publication of Metamorphosis in 1916: “What have you to say about the dreadful things going on in our house?” Although the tone in which he said that and his physical presence are not clearly evoked, it at least tells one how to start reading the story of Gregor Samsa.
In a sense any interpretation of Kafka must be speculative. The writings seem to contain a built-in mechanism which insures that no single reading can be authoritative. Kafka would not perhaps have shrunk from the possibility that almost all intelligent readings may be partly correct. I have noticed that the manners of all critics (except Edmund Wilson) improve somewhat in the sainted presence of Kafka. It is just not done for them to attack each other too violently or even to poke fun at obviously idiotic interpretations.
If it were permitted, one would like to have a go at the psychoanalytical exegetes, in particular Paul Goodman (the knife that is used on Joseph K. is “surely the satisfying penis that will transmute the persecutions into love” and is “also a weapon of castration”—no comment) and Charles Neider, whose 1948 chapter is reprinted in Neumeyer’s collection: “When K. embarks on his first village walk he pauses near the church (Ø), a chapel (Ø), with barnlike (Ø) additions. He flings a snowball at a window (Ø); a door (Ø) opens, a plank (→) is shoved out…” Neider misses the snowball (manifestly both sperm and egg) but gets in, on my count, 27 female and 22 male symbols in his four pages, numbers themselves doubtless as significant as “Three (→).” It’s not that Neider is dead wrong, but it is absurd to reduce the rich structure of The Castle to a collection of concave and convex objects, like the phallic museum of Bouvard and Pécuchet. As Martin Greenberg makes clear in his masterly analysis of “The Judgement” (“Das Urteil“) there is just as much Freud in Kafka as Kafka intended to put there, and no more. We know that he studied Freud carefully and then wrote in his diary, Zum letzenmal Psychologie, the hell with psychology. Greenberg interprets “The Judgment,” Kafka’s first completely successful story, as an Oedipal conflict between son and tribal Urvater, noting that Freud was writing his poetic masterpiece, Totem and Taboo simultaneously.
Greenberg is an eminently sensible critic, lucid, unpretentious, observant; this ought to remain the best introductory book for many years. His chosen field is the ethical and this is indeed a central one. He comments admirably, for example, on the aphorism, “Nobody can remain content with just the knowledge of good and evil alone, he must also strive to act in accordance with it,” and relates this to a central theme of The Trial: “Modern man, Kafka is saying, deliberately confuses knowledge of his responsibility for his actions, which he possesses from the first, with knowledge of the reasons for his actions, which he can never fully possess…By means of this confusion he tries to ‘find peace for the moment,’ from his responsibility for himself—for by making responsibility wait upon scientific knowledge, which can never become complete, he guarantees eternal innocence for himself.” This admirably clear kind of paraphrase is expanded into an excellent commentary on the major works.
In one respect, however, I find Greenberg’s account less than satisfactory, and that is theology, or rather the special branch of theology known as theodicy, the question of God’s justice. Kafka was deeply concerned with the miseries of the world and with the urgency of reconciling these miseries with a higher justice. God moves in a mysterious way, we are told, His wonders to perform, sending or permitting earthquakes, Hitlers, student riots, plagues in an apparently arbitrary manner; He notoriously lets the rain fall upon the just and unjust fellow, but more upon the just because the unjust hath the just’s umbrella. He who wishes to vindicate the ways of God to man has a difficult task ahead of him. I have read that Kafka’s favorite reading was the Book of Job, and from his Prometheus parable one can guess that he also read Aeschylus; these are the two most ancient and still most moving attempts at a theodicy.
Kafka endlessly tried to restate the problem posed in them according to his dream vision. Theodicy involves an opinion on the nature of God, to be chosen from the following. First (and this is my personal view), there is no problem: we cannot say anything about God or gods, the world is as we have observed it to be and as we have made it, in the present state of the arts of observing and making the world. It is therefore absurd to talk of the universe being unjust or absurd, and to feel anguish at the absence of a metaphysical purpose behind phenomena is as absurd as for a child to feel anguish at the discovery that there isn’t any Santa Claus. In this view the problem of evil resolves itself into a question of statistical probability on the one hand and human folly on the other.
Secondly, God is mysterious, we cannot understand his intentions but we must accept that they are all for our good (Job, orthodox Christianity, Pope’s Essay on Man). Thirdly, God is bad, or some gods are bad, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport” (Manicheism). Greenberg seems to think that Kafka took this view: “God,” the supreme bureaucrat, “hates life and denies it to man.” So does Erich Heller in his great chapter (in Neumeyer). Fourthly, God is not dead but sleepeth: He is indifferent or at most mildly upset at the miseries of his children but there’s nothing He can do about it. This Lucretian view is beautifully expressed in many of Kafka’s fragments, especially the Chinese ones: how can the messengers from the dying Emperor ever get outside the walls of the palace, let alone reach us where we sit in the furthest province?
Kafka could not make up his mind among these opinions. Having ceased to be an orthodox Jew and having been convinced by Darwin and Freud, he would naturally have chosen the first. But since he possessed a deeply religious temperament he could not leave the others alone and explores them in turn or simultaneously. Hence the obscurity of his fictions: if the universe could be read off unambiguously, as Dante or John Bunyan could or thought they could read it off, there would be no difficulty about the meaning of the stories. As things were to Kafka, their impenetrability mirrors the impenetrability of the cosmos.
The stories are therefore not allegories, as some critics have tried to make out, but parables, dark sayings; and the test is not the coherence of their symbolism but their applicability. The greatness of Kafka’s parables lies in the fact that in spite of their apparently private nature they have turned out to be surprisingly applicable to all kinds of situations, psychological and even political.
Take for example the law, which is presented so bizarrely in The Trial. The workings of the American law, as they appear to an outsider, seem to be clearly adumbrated by Kafka: the fact that so many people are out on bail, the immense length of time between arrest and trial, between sentence and punishment, the lack of respect shown to judges, the weird technicalities by which the legal process can be frustrated. So is the apparent existence of two kinds of law in America: one is the normal law of the Special Court which “exists in every garret,” i.e. trial and punishment by newspapers and public opinion, character assassination, telephone calls and the like. Adrian Jaffe in The Process of Kafka’s Trial draws some interesting analogies with the McCarthy era, when merely to be subpoenaed before the Senator’s committee meant ruin to some, and to plead not guilty meant a further presumption of guilt. For a more recent example, see The New York Review for July 13, 1967: Leslie Fiedler, “My Case” or “On Being Busted at Fifty.”
Kafka was a trained lawyer (working for the branch of the bureaucracy that dealt with workmen’s compensation—he was amazed that the poor and patient applicants for pensions didn’t burn the place down), and dry legal language pervades his writing; I suspect that the ideal Kafka critic would have to be trained in civil and criminal law, as well as learned in the Law, that is, the Torah and the Talmud. The Trial, if it is applicable to America, can be so only because Kafka saw the strange realities behind the legal fictions that govern human life everywhere.
It is surprising that the critics seldom mention Lewis Carroll, although he is always being quoted in discussions of the law and philosophy. Perhaps this is because they consider Alice to be a book about childhood experience, however ingenious its expression, and Kafka to be solely the tragic poet of twentieth-century frustration. If that is the reason, they are wrong: Alice is absolutely non-trivial in content, and Kafka is a great and ingenious humorist. Substitute legal logic for mathematical logic and add the theology, and the similarity is clear. It is especially marked in the device of time reversal which is the basis of The Trial as it is of Through the Looking-Glass.
Time reversal has been noted briefly by Jaffe and by Greenberg, who writes of The Trial that if it “has a climax, it occurs, like that of The Metamorphosis, in the very first sentence; everything after that discloses only what is contained in the first sentence.” It should however be possible to carry this interpretation further. Joseph K. figuratively dies in the first few paragraphs and thereafter his story is like a movie run backwards. If people come to your apartment early one morning, eat up your untouched breakfast, and talk about disposing of your clothes and effects, then either you have started a terminal stretch in a penal colony, or, man, you’re dead. And these people, note, are not cops or detectives but “warders,” prison officials, hangmen. From then on the story can be read as a biography in reverse, back through career (in the Bank), sexual sophistication to first experience, education (by the priest in the cathedral), and even to birth. The execution scene can also be read as Joseph K.’s emergence from primeval darkness, “just like a dog”—we are all born like dogs, without choice, into an indifferent universe.
The device of reversal and of symmetrically opposed meaning works in a rather different way in The Castle. The old view, which goes back to Max Brod and Edwin Muir, is that The Castle depicts a man, Everyman, in quest of salvation, striving to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. This is now generally thought to be naive and simplistic and it has been considerably refined by Greenberg and others: that does not mean that it is wholly wrong. But I think that one can put it the other way round: the story is also being told from the viewpoint of Salvation itself, that is, of the Messiah, who is trying to gain admittance to the world.
Kafka’s Messiah is not quite the Jewish one nor the Christian one, though it owes something to both; it is a concept he spent much effort working out: “The Messiah will come only when there is no longer any need for him, he will come only the day after he comes, he won’t come on the last day, but on the last day of all.” He won’t come because the world that needs him so badly doesn’t want him to come. K. is told that neither the Castle nor the Village really needs a land-surveyor at all, since the boundaries of this little state have all been drawn up and fixed long ago. That is obviously false: to judge from the other workings of that administration, the boundaries must be hopelessly confused, the maps certainly drawn wrong and anyhow lost. Of course they need K., although, as two critics in Neumeyer’s collection, Steinberg and Sokel, discovered simultaneously, the authorities did not send for him (Brod reports Kafka as calling him “the ostensible land-surveyor”). But even if his credentials are false he is the only one in the book who could possibly start putting that dreadful system to rights; he is the only one with any appearance of technical training and managerial efficiency, he could even start to clear up the amazing filing system.
K. also offers some possibility of changing the political and personal relationships in a system where all the women are forced to prostitute themselves to the Castle officials and servants (Frieda, Olga) or like Amalia persecuted—punished by public opinion again—for refusing to do so. It is not of course clear to K. himself that he is the hope of the world, but he is dimly recognized and accepted as such by the Barnabas family and a few others. The most Messianic note is struck in the interview with Bürgel, who explains to K. the miracle of the successful application: if an applicant takes a secretary by surprise in the middle of the night, then the Castle must yield: “You believe it cannot happen? You are right, it cannot happen. But one night—who can vouch for everything—it does happen after all.”
This interpretation is not of course a new one: it is sketched out in the last two pages of Heller’s essay and in Martin Greenberg’s chapter on The Castle, but they have avoided spelling it out as fully as Kafka’s logic demands. Greenberg quotes a deleted passage which gives the official Castle report on K.: “He’s always prowling around the Herrenhof, like the foxes around the hen-house, only in reality the secretaries are the foxes and he is the hen” (reversal and symmetry again), and Greenberg makes exactly the right comment and Biblical allusion: “the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but landsurveyor K. has nowhere to lay his head.” And Messiah K. will never come again to judge the world: he will be defeated by that terrible and infectious fatigue that affects every official of the Castle from Klamm downwards, a weariness that comes from trying to stand upright in a universe where even the gravitational field is bent, that spreads to everyone in the story and to Kafka himself, that will spread to the critic if he is properly sympathetic, from the critic to the critic’s reviewers and ultimately to the reviewer’s readers.