I approached Kafka with some trepidation, having been amused, but largely confounded by The Metamorphosis many years ago. I am naturally an empirical (some would say concrete) thinker. I like knowable truths and tend to approach books (and film, and art, and music…) with an assumption that there is a particular meaning intended by the work’s creator. At times I have felt a little anxious when encountering a work whose meaning is unclear, or appears intentionally ambiguous. If it doesn’t make sense to me - if I can’t crack the puzzle - then I’ve missed the point and it’s obviously above my head. (I’m looking at you Murakami, David Lynch and the bloke who wrote that book about Zen and motorcycles).
These three stories by Kafka were potentially examples of this, but maybe I’ve matured as a reader, because at some point I relaxed and just let myself respond to them, without worrying about whether I was getting it right.
This is the bizarre tale of Gregor Samsa, a young salesman, and sole provider for his parents and sister, who wakes one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a giant insect! No longer able to work, or even leave his room, he finds himself alienated, unable to communicate, and completely dependent on those he had previously provided for. Initially supportive, Gregor’s family members soon undergo metamorphoses of their own, becoming increasingly neglectful, intolerant, and ultimately quite disgusted in Gregor’s appearance and behaviour.
The story can be interpreted as a very pessimistic perspective on family loyalty and dynamics, and whether a provider in a family really has value and that is not transactional. Gregor’s fantastical metamorphosis, and that of his family in response, may be a warning that life circumstances can change rapidly, for example through sudden loss of employment, addiction or illness. The response of those close to you might not be as you would hope and expect, being guided more by shame and selfishness, than by loyalty and love.
In the Penal Colony
While visiting a penal colony, a respected Traveller has been asked by the commandant to witness a prisoner’s execution. As the Condemned Man stands accompanied by the Soldier, the parts and workings of the machinery to be used are described to the Traveller in affectionate detail by the Officer. It becomes apparent that the method of execution is obscenely brutal, and also that it has fallen out of favour with the current commandant. The Officer is a true believer in its merits, including that the executed men experience a sort of mystical transformation before they die. He is also a loyal disciple of the previous commandant who designed the grotesque machine.
I found this to be a dark, cautionary tale about the ways in which cruelty can be sanitised and justified. How obsession with the details of process and bureaucracy can distract from hideous outcomes, as can worship of a despotic leader. It is easy to see mirrors of this in today’s world, from the callous injustice of the “prison-industrial complex” in the USA, to the more banal cruelty of top-down decision-making in large organisations eg. if blind adoption of a shiny new technology or process can actually be to the detriment of performance and staff sanity. The many injustices carried out in the name of charismatic leaders throughout history also come to mind.
The story opens with a young man, Georg Bendemenn, sitting to write a letter to a friend who had emigrated to Russia several years prior. Georg wonders how much to disclose to this now distant friend, especially as he has fallen on hard times in Russia, while Georg has enjoyed relative success, with a flourishing business and recent engagement. Georg interrupts his writing to check on his unwell father. Disclosing to him that he is writing the letter provokes negative, aggressive and inconsistent reactions. He initially questions the existence of the friend, then questions Georg's loyalty, both to the friend and to himself. This culminates in an accusation of selfishness and a dire punishment which Georg proceeds to inflict upon himself.
Hmmm. This one was a bit of a struggle. The most interesting part for me was Georg’s reverie about corresponding with his distant friend, which made me contemplate what happens internally over time, when intimate relationships are lost and fade into memory. Memories evolve as the relationship is continually revised from new perspectives with more life experience. At the same time, the other party is undergoing growth of their own, and over time, the person you were once close to, and have an ongoing internal relationship with, no longer really exists. In that sense, Georg was writing to a ghost of his own projection, and his father’s observation that he is fictitious was actually true.
The reasons that Georg’s father reacted quite so negatively to the correspondence, or why Georg was compelled to comply with his father’s disproportionate punishment are unclear to me. Taken with the family dynamics in The Metamorphosis, it does make me wonder about Kafka’s own relationships. How valued or vulnerable he felt as a son and sibling, and how little agency he might have felt at times, in both his personal and professional life.
Despite these stories being written over 100 years ago, there are many themes and observations here that are readily applicable today. They are all undeniably dark, and I found each of them quite disturbing in its own way. But they also contain important, cautionary observations on many aspects of modern life, especially the fragility of health, success, and human relationships, and the risks of elevating process and bureaucracy above human welfare.
The darkness and pessimism are pervasive though, and while I have enjoyed these stories, and being stimulated to spend time pondering some my own melancholy thoughts and anxieties, it definitely feels like enough for now, and I think it will be a long time before I’m ready re-immerse myself in the "Kafka-esque".
Ben Delaney (Eltham Chapter)