Kafka or the Challenge of Understanding a Bafflingly Complex World

The German (or Czech – depending on how you look at it) author Franz Kafka once wrote that “the True Way goes along a rope which is not stretched at any great height but just above the ground. It seems more designed to make people stumble than to be walked upon.” The quote’s assumption that there is a True Way may seem surprisingly optimistic for Kafka, but the tentative suggestion that it seems designed to make people stumble and the lack of clarity as to what might be achieved by walking along it seem rather more typical. Kafka loved paradoxes because they seemed the least inadequate way of capturing the complexities of reality – any simpler kind of statement inevitably ruled out a mass of other possible meanings and who can say what treasures (and truths) those meanings might have contained? It was a struggle for Kafka to finish a story (or perhaps even a sentence) because there were always so many more things one might say or confusions and misunderstanding it might be worth ruling out.

I have just published a short ebook on Kafka – Why Kafka is not Kafkaesque - that explores four of his best known works (the two most finished novels – The Trial, The Castle – plus an early story – The Metamorphosis – and a late story – The Hunger Artist). The essay suggests that each can be seen as having at least three levels of meaning. So, for example, in The Trial Joseph K can be seen as an innocent man heroically fighting a corrupt and sinister system or he can be seen as a cruel, manipulative narcissist who gets what he deserves or he can be seen as a man wasting his life who is offered the chance to redeem himself but who doesn’t quite manage it. Part of my aim in writing the book was to explore the idea that the right perspective on Joseph K does not involve choosing between these three interpretations but accepting that, despite the contradictions between them, all three have value. You cannot understand Kafka (and perhaps life, or certainly people) unless you are able to hold at least three contradictory views in your head at the same time.

But contradictions are not popular among philosophers (or at least Anglo-Saxon ones), so part of what I was trying to think about was the Freudian concept of over-determination. How can what someone does be simultaneously caused by the best of motives and the worst of motives? Suppose I give my friend a present, thinking to please him but then when he unwraps it, it turns out to be something he hates and I suddenly remember that actually a few years ago he told me that he hated that kind of thing. If I had done this deliberately, my hostile feelings for my “friend” would be clear and my action easy to understand, but as described, what I was conscious of was my desire to please and what I failed to recognise was a rather murkier, more submerged desire to hurt. The simplest way of presenting this in non-paradoxical terms is to treat me as if I consisted of two people, one positively, one negatively inclined. So the positively-inclined me thought of lots of possible presents for my friend and the negatively-inclined me went along with the present-giving idea but only if I choose a specific present, the one my friend would not like.

In this kind of example it is not too hard to see how my action works as a compromise between different inclinations within me. In more complex cases, however, the fusion of the good and the bad is more unsettling. Sylvia Path’s hate poem to her father – Daddy - is also a love poem to him, and the pain of the poem is not just the intensity of the hate, but that her hate and her love are fused together, creating a bond to her father that she cannot severe but which she also cannot bear. Here it is not about thinking contradictions but about living them, and as Kafka knew from his own experience, that is a difficult and dangerous experience.

Most of Kafka’s aphorisms are rather more disconcerting than the one this post starts with. For example, “the animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whip”. Or again: “the more horses you harness to the job, the faster the thing goes – that is to say, not the tearing of the block out of its base, which is impossible, but the tearing of the straps to shreds, and as a result the gay empty ride”. Here the darker side of Kafka comes to the fore, but I don’t think he should be seen as a writer of despair. Rather as I try to make clear in my ebook I think one of the most impressive things about him and about his writing is the refusal to give up. Reality may be bafflingly complex, but Kafka never stops trying to get to grips with it. Life may be painfully complex, but he refuses to abandon the idea that it has a meaning.