Repercussions of isolation, both forced and willed (5/5)
I know of Kafka by reputation alone—a German author from the early 20th century, whose prose has confounded many readers with short attention spans... pity them. I’ve read what has been referred to as “Kafkaesque” literature and found it stimulating, though lengthy: Carter Scholz’s Radiance (2002) and Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1991) come to mind. My analyses of the stories in this collection are entirely based on my own opinion, undiluted by popular belief, contextual extrapolation, or academic exposition.
The stories resonate with four type of repressive isolation:
(1) The hermitage in “Metamorphosis” is enforced while the other stories exhibit a willingness for seclusion—notably, the anthropomorphic “The Burrow”;
(2) Monomaniacal fixations also penetrate the isolation, as in “The Investigations of a Dog” and “The Burrow”;
(3) This sense of isolation also extends to separation from the State in “The Great Wall of China”; and
(4) Lack of self-esteem or self-confidence can trigger fatal isolation, as in “Metamorphosis” and “The Penal Colony”.
Metamorphosis (novella, 1915/1947) – 5/5 – Gregor Samsa supports his parents and untalented sister with his mediocre job which he loathes, but he gets along grudgingly until one morning when he wakes to find himself abruptly transformed in an insectoid figure, hideous and loathsome. His family quarantine him to his room and feed him orts and leftovers, a duty his sister fulfills aside from supplanting income lost, as do the parents, by finding their own jobs; but it’s Grete who takes to French, shorthand, and the violin. Soon, Gregor sees himself supplanted. 55 pages
A familiar story where a man hates his job yet still performs it flawlessly for the pay and hope for advancement; the one time he fails to show up for work on time, due to the unfortunate circumstance in which he finds himself being a big disgusting insect, results in a cascade of bridled accusations from his employer and even his own family. Already suffering in this transmogrification, Gregor is dealt repeated blows to his ego when his mother refuses to see him, when they remove furniture from his room, and when the careless susurrus of their loathing reach his chamber. His inability to eat makes him weak yet he is still drawn to the embrace of his family and, overall, to the music his sister produces. When he creeps from his solitude to the room where she plays for guests, his appearance shocks the guests and his fate is soon sealed.
Perhaps remaining in solitude, maintaining the hermitage of his loathsome appearance, he would eventually be happy in his new guise. He seems to be an honest man who’s had an accident—an abrupt change from man to beast—and is being vilified for this. Though not his fault, he feels persecuted for the turn of events, during which his family undergoes their own metamorphosis. Is this reflective of Kafka’s running theme of lonesomeness, of personal helplessness or self-hate?
The Great Wall of China (shortstory, 1931/1952) – 4/5 – The successive empires of the constantly shifting Chinese dynasties have charted epic plans to build a Great Wall of China, though the construction of the extensive project seems odd to one worker from the southeast: Why build random 500-meter segments along the Wall’s entire length? What daft emperor would ever suggest such a ridiculous plan? What fundamental cultural defect could undermine the remarkable scheme against the unseen northern barbarians? 15 pages
The word “government” is an abstract noun and an abstract concept; one is unable to touch government let alone actually see governance. Just as in 1931, the gap between the common man and the federal government is a massive chasm filled with bickering, scheming, and mysterious motives. Like the man contemplating the planning of the Great Wall, the common man only see the output, the physical structures of the planning. When this planning and construction run smoothly, we hardly notice; when is goes awry or is counter-intuitive, only then do we begin to question the authority (in this case, the Empire). Kafka offers a morsel of insight into this human nature, an impetus which can rattle our human condition only because it’s one of our human faults: “Human nature, essentially changeable, unstable as the dust, can endure no restraint; if it binds itself it soon begins to tear madly at its bonds, until it rends everything asunder, the wall, the bonds and its very self” (71-72).
This separation between “the empowered” and “the power”, or in the Chinese man’s case between “the employee” and “the Empire”, can be belittling knowing that everyone in the world is doing something without you, knowing that schemes are being employed which affect you yet no one bothers to ask you for your opinion. Kafka points to a culture origin for this chasm, perhaps a uniquely Chinese phenomena: “[T]his very weakness should seem to be one of the greatest unifying influences among our people” (80). We tend to all loathe the working of our government, a shared interest in which we form ideas, policies, and parties, thence becoming the thing we loathe. This is another manifestation of loneliness; rather than focusing this hate inwards, Kafka has turned the mirror toward a common, ever present yet nebulous concept—governance.
Investigations of a Dog (novelette, 1931/1946) – 4/5 – A mewling yet scientifically-minded pup considers the general realm of dogdom and inquires into the unspoken law of dogs where making “no reply to the greetings of other dogs” is “guilty of an offence against good manners” (90); furthermore, this young naïve pup, as reflective and precocious as a sage, aims to tackle the loftiest of questions, however subjective the impetus is: “Whence does the earth procure this food?” (95)—music may point the way. 42 pages
Isolated by intellectualism, this scholarly dog mulls over inane questions which other dogs seem oblivious to or well beyond caring to answer. Monomaniacal yet scientifically trained, the essence of the investigative dog spears questions to his own kind’s temperament yet battles overcoming the subjective dilemma which permeates the nature of his question: self observing self. This metaphorical hall of mirrors limits the scope of the investigation to the obvious while the observer infinitely regresses: the self observes self observing self observing self, etc.
Furthermore, his investigations are clouded by early childhood experience, which he continually refers to as a sort of root cause to his investigations; this memory taints his subjectiveness into his supposedly scholarly probing and, ultimately, drives him into unproductive monomania: “[M]any things that are disposed of in the minds of grown-ups are not yet settled in the minds of the young” (93).
The Burrow (shortstory [unfinished], 1946/1952) – 5/5 – Having concocted a maze of underground tunnels to the point of perfection, a solitary mole stands back to appreciate his work with the labyrinth of dirt, cubbyholes of sleepy serenity, and the Castle Keep of grandeur and security; yet, the hermit realizes the unsteady state of his own construction and that of his own life, both of which must be watch vigilantly, listened to earnestly, and reassessed at all times and in all manners. 38 pages
Ingenious yet monomaniacal, the mole had set out to dig the most brilliant of all burrows and, as a result of his success, has become obsessed with its sanctity; cubbyholes are continually investigated, all sounds and resulting intrusions are quickly dealt with, and the division of his food store is constantly reassessed and redistributed. Occasionally sated with its perfection, the mole sleeps “the sweet sleep of tranquility” (131) but jerks awake with inklings of improvement or doubts of flawlessness, thus rabidly running about his labyrinth with a sense of meticulous duty; this doubtfulness also urges him to spy on both the real hidden entrance and the fake entrance, a period of vigilance which he feels must stretch to infinity to ensure his construction’s perfection. His monomania reaches extreme distress when he is unable to locate a ubiquitous scratching that penetrates the entire tunnel system.
The mole’s inevitable undoing from the omnipresent rasping is the one infiltration into his subterranean fortress, an enemy which has no physical manifestation other than the torment it inflicts on the mole’s mind. Satisfied with the physical perfection and allocation of stores, the one constant the mole is unable to control is the ever-nagging aural bombardment—possibly, the source of the sound is actually a hallucination due to the mole’s schizophrenia, torn between perfection and adjustment.
In the Penal Settlement (novelette, 1919/1968) – 5/5 – Next to an empty, earthen grave stands “a remarkable piece of apparatus” (169) which executes its victim only after six hours of needled tattooing—the torturing tattoo a fitting message repeated all upon the body before being dumped into the grave. Invented by the Commandant but now cared for by a single officer, the workings of the apparatus are generally known to the officer and are being explained to an explorer, whose mere presence at the camp makes men reconsider their morals and allegiance. 31 pages
The explorer in the story is simply an agent of change or, in this instance, a change of thought. The officer is staunch in his support for the contraption of execution, yet without the reassuring word of the apparatus’ creator, the Commandant. Relating the machine’s intricacies to the explorer, the officer’s confidence begins to show when asked whence the spare parts come, to which he confesses of the inferiority of the necessary replacements.
His armor of confidence cracked, the officer parries off further damage by insisting that the explorer support his ideals, yet a fatal blow is dealt to the officer when his strategic offense goes awry. Having been the sole supporter of the contraption and its devilish tattooing, the officer’s armor of confidence is weak and any opposition to his delusions is provably fatal.
The Giant Mole (shortstory [unfinished], 1931/1949) – 4/5 – A small village is visited by a giant mole and, while only a few people witnessed the odd event, an “old village teacher” (203) penned a pamphlet about the oddity but received very little attention aside from amusement and a scholarly cold shoulder. In defense and in support of the old village teacher, another man aims to produce his own pamphlet which correlates eyewitness accounts, hence lending credibility to the whole incident; the pamphlet backfires when the teacher feels challenged and tried. 16 pages
Author/philosopher Albert Camus once said, “[G]ood intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding”. Clearly is such the case of the man’s pamphlet, where he simply wanted to add another level of authenticity to the village teacher’s and refresh the memory of the local phenomena; however, the school teacher misunderstood the man’s intentions and rather than collude and collectively deduce, the teacher chose to exclude and writher in obscurity.
Upon rejection from the university scholar, the teacher felt dejected and closed off the matter to all but himself. His resultant isolation steeped him in a silent rage of self-conviction which was sensitive to the slightest pressure, resulting in a fierce lashing out toward opposition or support—in this instance, the support was seen as opposition. Regardless of good intentions from others, the village teacher became a island of scholarly dejection.