A recent discussion in my Western Culture course has caused me to re-visit the world-view of surrealist author Franz Kafka. The professor was discussing how the government finds a way to subjugate and submit the individual under its command against his own will. She later went on to elaborate how she herself has been the victim of this process. The situation which was presented in the class resembled that of a Kafka story, particularly that of The Trial.
When one continues to closely inspect this story about a young CFO by the name of Josef K. getting accused of crime he did not commit without a single indication as to what the crime itself was, and his attempts to fight this injustice against the very vague and pseudo-totalitarian court, it is very easy to lose sight of the underlying message Kafka was trying to convey through his unfinished novel.
Beneath the surface of what appears to be a crime novel lies a philosophical message dealing with the despair and absurdity of modern existence. Kafka extensively discussed how he viewed his (and the worlds) condition during the early part of the 20th Century. He viewed existence as a burden and a menace to the harmony of reality. The world was a cold and shallow place to be in. Almost everyone he surrounded himself with had no interest in who he was as a person nor his talents as a writer. A bureaucrat for most of his life, he rarely discussed literature and philosophy with work people. He considered his job displeasing and tiresome, and it is evident that much such predicaments came to affect his physical and emotional health towards the end of his short life.
Much of the tone of how he viewed life was vividly expressed through his fiction. An indifferent and lifeless environment consumes his passages. Descriptions of buildings, cars, and apartments give the impression of order and strictness, with dim lights and consuming darkness covering most of the area. This might strike a casual reader as a lack of creative talent, but upon further inspection we are left to see that the descriptions have come to represent a certain aura of angst made to act as another obstacle in the character’s way. We see time and time again how Josef K. expresses these same sentiments through many passages of the book.
Kafka presents a gritty and menacing environment to represent his true sentiments for his reality. The story of The Trial serves as an allegory to symbolize the modern human condition. I have previously discussed how Kafka represents and embodies the essence of a millennial, and one of the ways this hypothesis can be tested is by also observing the profound nihilism in his fiction.
No matter how much K. attempted to prove his innocence, his efforts were met with little results and constant roadblocks by the power above. The law was always one step ahead. There was no escaping its clutches. They controll the individual and suppress him against his will.
A fair question about just what the law is suppose to represent in The Trial is worth exploring. The law in The Trial had a certain God-like presence throughout the novel. When K. was beginning to mount his defense, he observed how its powers uphold his crime without fairness or clarity. Kafka does not indicate that the law represents God, but he made more of an inclined effort to use it as a mysterious force that has little sympathy for those it affects nor interested in truth. By ignoring truth and using its own judgement to judge, it is fair to interpret this quality as the cruel reality of existence.
A much better example on the essence of Kafka’s philosophy can be found in his most famous story, Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). The story begins with the legendary opening “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”. The reason for Gregor’s change is never given. It is accepted as an event without explanation. Gregor was presented as a man whose life was taken away by an act of total absurdity.
Many scholars continue to debate what such transformation meant. A certain cruelty and nihilistic sensibility drives the narrative forward. Gregor is submitted to a series of physical and emotional abuses from his family, who begin to see him more as a burden than a part of it. As the situation continues to decay, Gregor is left in a state of lonesomeness, succumbing to his condition after facing total rejection from the ones he loved.
Kafka himself wrote in his journal and letters how the story greatly unsettled him. When one begins to see the implications of the story, its themes about the despairing conditions of Gregor can be extrapolated to implicate Kafka’s philosophy on human suffering. By treating Gregor’s transformation as a natural phenomenon, he dissects the individual under the predicaments and his surroundings as a means to prove that one is a prisoner of his circumstances.
The Trial and The Metamorphosis have both come to express two philosophical dissertations on Kafka’s interpretations on the conditions of modernity. The Trial uses concepts such as the law and truth as a means to explore how an individual is bound to them as a prisoner for the rest of his life, and The Metamorphosis is an exploration into how circumstances turn an individual into a prisoner without his consent. Pessimism and an uncomfortable reality is what best characterizes Kafka’s stories. His philosophy on the purpose of human existence is faithful to the ideas of existentialism. Man is a fragile entity of insignificant possibilities. In the face of such truth, Kafka fails to provide a solution other than to accept the conditions presented. What else is left in the face of nothing?
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