(Illustration: Malte Mueller via Getty Images)
(Illustration: Malte Mueller via Getty Images)

BooksJuly 29, 2021

So Kafkaesque: a search for meaning in story

(Illustration: Malte Mueller via Getty Images)
(Illustration: Malte Mueller via Getty Images)

You wake up and you’re a cockroach. What does it even mean? 

A few weeks ago the legendary biologist, science writer, evangelical atheist and grumpy old man Richard Dawkins tweeted: 

This  tweet – and the responses to it – have been stuck in my mind ever since. I follow a bunch of writers and critics and even some literary academics on social media, and the reaction to the tweet was, uniformly, one of mocking contempt. Partly because contempt is the default tone on Twitter, and partly because Dawkins is very abrasive and sometimes very silly and therefore a frequent target of mockery. 

But I think he’s had a normal reaction to The Metamorphosis (which you can read here, if you’re not familiar with it). Dawkins is more combative than the average reader, but bewilderment is the natural and appropriate reaction to Kafka’s story. What on earth is it about? It does seem like an allegory, but “an allegory of what?” Nobody knows. But there are many, many theories. 

Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, lived there all his life, died of tuberculosis in a sanitorium near Vienna, aged 40. He was almost completely unknown at the time of his death, and is now regarded as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. And his work is famously opaque, famously mysterious, so there’s something a little ridiculous about people snickering at Dawkins, “Look at Mister Thicky. Imagine not knowing what Kafka’s on about,” when none of them know either. 

Three creepy-as covers for The Metamorphosis, all featuring bugs
Kafka’s classic, as interpreted by international book designers  (Images: Supplied)

If nobody knows what The Metamorphosis is about then what’s the point of the story? What makes it SO great? “Where are the Emperor’s clothes?” Dawkins appears to have examined the Wikipedia page for The Metamorphosis and seen the various interpretations from warring literary schools, none of which seem that convincing, and adopted a position of high scepticism. But both Dawkins and the interpreters assume that Kafka’s primary goal is to say something; that the story contains a coherent message he wants to communicate. Isn’t that what stories do? And shouldn’t it be the role of critics and literary theorists to decrypt the story and find the one valid and correct interpretation? 

Take Animal Farm, which Dawkins refers to in his tweet, probably the most well known modern allegory. Orwell’s story is filled with specific details that help us decode it as a fable about the Russian Revolution. Napoleon’s skull is placed on display after his death and this helps us map the character to Lenin, whose body was publicly entombed. And Kafka’s stories are filled with the same kind of odd, specific details that feel like they should point to something in the world and thus reveal the hidden message. Like the picture described in the second paragraph of The Metamorphosis depicting

a lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa who sat upright, raising a heavy fur muff that covered the whole of her lower arm towards the viewer.

The story returns to this picture several times. So it must mean something, otherwise why would it be there? If there’s no reason for it and the story is filled with details that have no significance then isn’t Dawkins correct? Isn’t Kafka a fraud? 

Some interpreters think this picture is a reference to Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs, which contains a character who calls himself Gregor, just like the main character in The Metamorphosis, whose last name is Samsa, which seems to deliberately reference Sascher-Masoch! Venus in Furs is about domination and submission, and the end of Kafka’s story has Gregor happily dying in submission to his family, who forget about him and end the story talking about how attractive Gregor’s sister is, and how she needs a husband. So the story clearly has something to do with sex, and family dynamics, and there are additional passages that strongly support this reading. There’s a scene where Gregor sees his scantily clad mother embracing his father, to Gregor’s distress, which Freudians find highly exciting. 

But different interpreters – Marxist, Foucaultian – notice different, highly specific, highly meaningful details. There’s a lot about Gregor’s job as a salesman, which might support a Marxist interpretation, but some of his story is about institutions – the family, the firm – and what is and isn’t normal, which is intriguing to the disciples of Michele Foucault. Mystically inclined readers argue that Kafka’s work teems with references to the kabbalah, that his message is predominantly spiritual. His biographers point to his letters from around this time, in which Kakfa explains to his friends and lovers that he doesn’t feel human. He feels inferior. Repulsive. Like an insect. Clearly The Metamorphosis is biographical. 

And so all these different readers decode the story into mutually incompatible readings. But few of these interpretations seem to say anything. With Animal Farm Orwell is making a comprehensible argument about the Russian Revolution and the reader can agree or disagree with him. It seems like Kafka is saying something about sex, or capitalism, or institutions, or spirituality, or his own life, or maybe all of these things. But what? The signs and symbols scattered through the story don’t seem to lead anywhere. Meaning is always deferred. It is, to use Borges’ phrase, a labyrinth with no centre. 

Three creepy covers of The Metamorphosis, all featuring giant bugs
A few more Metamorphosis covers from around the world (Images: Supplied)

One of the most disturbing interpretations of Kafka isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article. It comes from the literary theorist Walter Benjamin, in an essay written 10 years after Kafka’s death. Benjamin agrees that most of Kafka’s work has this quality of seeming allegorical – a man transforms into an insect; another is charged with a nameless crime; a surveyor approaches a castle but never reaches it – yet the purpose of the allegory is always elusive. 

And Kafka is also known for his parables: consider Before the Law (you can read it in about a minute). But – and I can imagine Dawkins screaming with frustration at this point – a parable illustrates a moral. What moral is being illustrated here? What is the point of that story? What does any of this mean

Let’s ask a different question. What are stories for? What do storytellers do? What is the purpose of a parable or an allegory? What’s the point of any story? Is it just entertainment, or are stories doing something else? 

For most of human history stories taught lessons about morality or religion, or they attempted to explain the world, almost always in a moral or religious framework. The role of storytellers was to communicate a society’s belief systems to itself. Or, sometimes, to challenge the established order of things and propose new systems. Storytellers took theories, or doctrines or abstract values and turned them into comprehensible tales. The allegories and parables in the New Testament are about subjects familiar to members of an agrarian society: baking bread; planting seeds, tending flocks, going to market. They helped make sense of the faith that everyone was supposed to live by. They answered the questions we all have – why are we here? what happens when we die? how should we live? 

The subjects of Kafka’s tales are lawyers, clerks, salesmen; the stories take place in offices, apartment buildings, government institutions. They are modern allegories and parables. But, Benjamin argued, we don’t have access to the doctrine or the values they’re illustrating. There is no faith for them to decode because they take place in the industrialised world, a world that operates at a scale and complexity that cannot be comprehended by the human mind. We live in a society dominated by technology and bureaucracy and economic markets, systems that defy our attempts to understand them. So we occupy a reality that seems both relentlessly logical and utterly insane simultaneously. 

Dawkins would disagree with all this, I think. He would say that the doctrine that decodes our reality is scientific rationalism, and that this is neither incomprehensible or insane, by definition. To the extent that our society seems irrational, he’d contend, it’s because we don’t adhere to science and reason closely enough. 

But Kafka was suspicious of this line of thought. He’d read the German language popularisers of Darwin; he’d heard Einstein and other leading physicists lecture on relativity and atomic theory. And he’d read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. And what this combination of ideas revealed to him, and to many of the artists and thinkers of pre-war Europe was a universe that seemed incomprehensible, in which humans were just another animal with no privileged status. As insignificant as insects, and just as incapable of understanding our own existence. We were clever enough to delude ourselves that we were special, until we demonstrated that we weren’t. 

Three covers of The Metamorphosis, all featuring giant bugs
(Images: Supplied)

What kind of stories do you tell about such a world? Well, most of us fake it. We find explanations or ideologies or faiths that feel plausible and/or personally advantageous to us, then look for things in the world that might validate them. Then we link them together and build stories around them. Kafka seemed to think this was pointless; that the world in which this could be a useful thing to do no longer existed. So he wrote the only stories he thought storytellers could tell in good faith: stories that seemed meaningful but contained no meaning, revealing the void at the centre of things.

David Foster-Wallace proposed a nerdier variation of Benjamin’s post-religious parable theory. He argued that Kafka’s work depended on what information theorists call exformation, “which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication”, the vital information being objective meaning. And I can imagine Dawkins accepting this more technical description, then protesting, “Why couldn’t Kafka just explain what he was doing, and that it was with the intention of making an argument against reason and science, an argument which is a load of rubbish, by the way? Why not just make the argument? Why waste everyone’s time with these stories that deliberately say nothing?”

We don’t know. It’s possible that Kafka would agree with my hypothetical-Dawkins. He devoted his life to literature but he also felt the stories and fragments he produced were monstrous. He destroyed almost everything he wrote, and when a friend presented him with a bound copy of his published work he protested: “My scribbling is nothing more than my own materialisation of horror. It shouldn’t be printed at all. It should be burnt.” Before he died he left his friend and executor Max Brod instructions to incinerate all of his surviving manuscripts. The Metamorphosis was published in a literary journal in 1915 but most of Kafka’s work was published posthumously by Brod, who refused to carry out his friend’s dying wishes. 

So there’s a theory that Kafka himself didn’t want us reading his stories and getting lost in his labyrinths; that his work was imposed upon the world against his will. If true there’s something nightmarish about the global Kafka industrial complex; thousands of scholars writing endless papers searching for meaning in texts where meaning is deliberately implied but deliberately not there. So Kafkaesque. 

On the other hand, Kafka’s biographers point out that Brod adored Kafka’s work, was the least likely person in the world to burn it, and that Kafka would have known this. So this could have been a way to perpetuate the story that he wanted his own work destroyed without risking the outcome. Kafka managed to posthumously contrive yet another ambiguous and unsolvable mystery. Also Kafkaesque.

Three creepy covers of Metamorphosis, all featuring giant bugs
(Images: Supplied)

Here’s another way to think about what Kafka is doing. In 1817 the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brothers, part of which read: 

… it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

I have my doubts about negative capability as a useful concept in criticism – I suspect it gives permission for poets and other writers to produce deliberately incomprehensible work in the hope it gets mistaken for genius – but maybe it’s a useful approach to Kafka; that what he really wants is to make you feel something. 

Something ridiculous yet monstrous has happened in The Metamorphosis: after a night of uneasy dreams Gregor Samsa has transformed into an insect. And now his family needs to cope with the pragmatic consequences: what to say to his employer, how to rent out rooms in an apartment occupied by a horrible insect, and so on. None of us have turned into insects before, but don’t we feel a little like this in our own lives, from time to time – especially when dealing with, say, our insurance company (Kafka worked at an insurance company) or our local council, or some other form of bureaucracy? That what is happening to us is so nonsensical it can barely be believed, and yet it’s happening anyway, with a logic that we cannot resist, only submit to. 

This mood – a combination of absurdity and terror; hilarity and doom; a rising dread that something ridiculous but horrifying is unfolding, and which we now refer to as Kafkaesque – appears to be something new in the human experience. No writer prior to Kafka captures it (although we get glimpses of it in Dickens and Dostoevsky). It seems to be something novel to modernity. Oscar Wilde claimed that no one noticed the beauty of sunsets during the industrial revolution until Turner started painting them. Kafka noticed something new and profound about the world that science and reason was building, the way it made us feel, and drew our attention to it, and everyone else saw it too.  

A nerdier, more information-theoric way to say this is that a great story has high Kolmogorov complexity. It’s like a great song or a funny joke: you can’t compress it or summarise it or decode it without destroying the function of the message. Kafka found a way to use language to describe a world in which language is incapable of describing the world. And the mute incomprehensibility of things is a problem even Richard Dawkins sometimes contends with: 

Tranquillity and Ruin, by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

McLauchlan will appear at Christchurch’s WORD festival next month, discussing his essay collection Tranquillity and Ruin, and talking with Murdoch Stephens about landlording. 

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox