The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 44 Knowing You as I Don't: Franz Kafka and the Magnificence of Miscomprehension

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Knowing You as I Don’t: Franz Kafka and the Magnificence of Miscomprehension

There is nothing easier than saying something striking about Franz Kafka, and nothing harder than saying something true. Oh, we have words, and even phrases, like alienation or inscrutability of the law or even that ghastly shrug, Kafkaesque, but brought up against the cold reality of Kafka’s twisting wordscapes, they seem less like explanations and more like confessions of profound and fundamental insufficiency.

So I intend, here, to say twenty-seven things about Kafka, and if I’m providentially lucky, one of them will actually be correct. Which one that is, we never can and never will know.

Kafka is the twentieth century’s indispensable writer, not because he was the first to write unsettling and alienating stories about men confronting the sleepwalking machines of modern bureaucracy, but because he found a way to make us uneasy with each other in a way that, once learned, we could never forget. Every day we talk to other people easily and fluently, engaging and manipulating them as almost extensions of ourselves without a second thought, and the deep wrongness of that ease is Kafka’s enduring lesson.

FranzKafkaHis works are filled with people talking past each other, calculating their words to deliver a certain intention, and utterly failing in that purpose. Kafka’s characters throw phrases at each other only to watch them disappear in the unknowable black hole of the other person’s conscience. Every little seam of miscomprehension is minutely detailed, every crack in mutual understanding horrendously magnified so that there can be no doubt that missed intent is the river of the social world.

We don’t realize this because we have grown so eerily complacent in the conviction that everyday communication is transparent, that what we mean and how we are understood are effectively the same thing. It’s what we have to do to survive a hundred different personal interactions a day, but there is a deep lie there, and Kafka will not let us slip its hold.

I cannot know you, and it is dishonest to try. Our empathy, powerful as it is, is just a remapping of self onto other, and has something of the tyrant about it. Certainly we had inklings of all this before, but to have social coherence shown up for such a profound deception in a literary form made it something we could viscerally understand and grapple with publicly. Through Kafka, we could start to accept what before we only understood. I can’t understand your mind, not really, and therefore cannot speak for you, which means you must speak for yourself, with the terrible knowledge that your words are going to be ground to unrecognizability within the gears of my brain. It’s terrible, and true, and once we started building representation and institutions with that knowledge in mind, the real flowering of modern society’s multiplicity began in earnest. Kafka is the antidote to anybody who thinks that multiculturalism is finished as a human project.

Where Kafka is most confounding, though, is on the subject of the intersection of religion and these humans desperately not aware that they aren’t communicating. Much of our thinking on this has been influenced by his friend Max Brod, who got Kafka’s works posthumously published and who wrote the first significant biography of the writer. Brod was a dedicated Zionist, and his focus was decidedly on Kafka as a Jewish phenomenon—that the isolation and confusion his characters are wrapped in was a representation of the isolation Jews felt in a society that wanted them, but didn’t, needed them, but hated them. He saw his friend as a man who believed firmly in a fundamental truth and a godly way of living, but who was tormented by the knowledge that it was incommunicable and incomprehensible to mortals.

Certainly, you can find Kafka hungering after a grand unity here and there, but overwhelmingly the stuff of his writings, his diaries, and his life pushed him to other conclusions. He lived in frustration, staying with his parents into his thirties, working at an insurance office, spending long agonizing years negotiating a marriage that came to nothing, watching time slip through his fingers that he knew should have been spent writing, and ultimately dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty. Nothing ever quite worked for him and nobody ever quite understood him, and as much as he wanted to belong to something grander than himself, his body, his position, and his need to create made that impossible. Sometimes a life’s parts refuse direction.

And that brings us to Kafka’s second gift—not only can we not say what we mean with the hope of it being understood, but we can’t even really know what we mean because, upon the slightest inspection, it becomes evident that we make no sense to ourselves. A man wakes up and finds himself transformed into a hideous creature, and understands himself neither more nor less as a result (The Metamorphosis). An ape drinks alcohol and finds itself able to give a lecture at a university (“Report to an Academy”). Identity and impulse are so unfathomable that great happenings at the surfaces of our lives can’t penetrate to them, and we are left to live and observe like mechanics marking the temperamental whirrings of a testy machine named I.

We can’t know ourselves, certainly can’t know others, and as for God, forget about it. The truest image of divinity that Kafka gives us comes in The Castle when K. is given a momentary glimpse through a peephole at one of the officials from the Castle who commands his fate. The Castle controls everything, but will only communicate through garbled messages delivered by shabby messengers. Its ways are held to be profound and are utterly without sense, its dictates are taken as inviolable but nobody can say what they are for, and its inhabitants are sacrosanct, too pure to even be talked to by residents of the village below. K’s first sight of one of those inhabitants is also our own, and what we see is an overweight official, one arm on a desk, the other resting on his leg, a mug of beer in front of him, sleeping in a sitting position.

The officials of the Castle, it turns out, sleep a great deal.

The Castle is a shabby edifice run by tired, overworked, flabby men whose spirit of disdain petrifies the lives of the villagers beneath them, seizing upon anything that might have been natural between person and person and inserting something terrified and eternally suspicious there. Talking with each other, living with each other, is hard enough, but it is near impossible with the invisible presence of the Castle’s expectations soaked into every interaction.

If there is happiness and completeness to be had in this existence, Kafka concludes in both his works and life, it’s to be had in communion with other people, a game stacked heavily against us by our own natures, but possible so long as we learn to filter out the inherited, world-weary dread of our ancestors and refuse to stumble after validation from a system so baffled at its own workings that it can’t possibly be moved to pass its eyes meaningfully over us. He was a Romantic who was pulled towards the simplicity of gardens and peasants, but who could also see the hundred invisible hands in the air, snatching viciously at words and intentions to confound us at each gesture of communication.

For Kafka, living in a world that demanded unity, looking back on a tradition that glorified wholeness, the unknowability of others was agony, and he makes that felt in every written word. For us, it need not be. Thanks to what he taught us about our illusions and delusions, we have learned to do without. We discovered the oppressiveness of unity, the danger of assuming mutual comprehension, and used them to build a world where communal mystification is something exciting, not dreadful, and in its voluble overflow of new thoughts and perspectives, the steady drone of the Castle and its tired dicta have been drowned and forgotten. We actively seek alienation, and take comfort in not understanding (even if we conveniently forget all of this from time to time in the name of buying a loaf of bread without an accompanying existential crisis). Kafka’s horrible realization has become our strength, and the space between is the intellectual history of the twentieth century: grotesque, nervous, loud, and magnificent.

Further Reading

Even though you have to take his interpretations with a great deal of salt, Max Brod’s Franz Kafka: A Biography (1937), written thirteen years after his friend’s death, is still an invaluable source of stories about Kafka’s daily existence. We learn about the good times he had, how much fun he was at parties, and how effortlessly he tossed off strange and exciting new ways of encapsulating relationships between people and ideas in words. If you can deal with the frustration of the fact that it is unfinished, The Castle is a mighty summation of all the themes contained in Kafka’s short stories and earlier novels. A Report to an Academy is probably my favorite of his stories, for silly reasons that can’t be trusted.