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Kafka's Obscurity: The Illusion of Logic in Narrative Critic: Ralph Freedman Source: "Kafka's Obscurity: The Illusion of Logic in Narrative," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1962, pp. 61-74. Criticism about: In der Strafkolonie; The Penal Colony; Die Verwandlung; The Metamorphosis; Der Prozess; The Trial; Das Schloss; The Castle; "Ein Hungerkuenstler"; "A Hunger Artist" Author Covered: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) Source Database: DISCovering Authors Table of Contents Essay | Source Citation [Freedman is an American critic and author. In the following excerpt, he contends that it is best to approach Kafka as a writer of realistic rather than symbolic or psychological fiction.]

In unraveling Kafka's obscurity, many critics have emphasized two modes of interpretation which, directly and indirectly, extend the notion of the romantic dream. The visionary's obscurity or the bright illuminations of the hallucinatory mind have become, in the twentieth century, symbolic torture gardens of the unconscious. Recognizing the precision of Kafka's thought, some of these critics have seen in his work exact allegorical correspondences or consistently applied metaphors whose symbolic meanings reveal an inner world. Others have sought to explain his worlds as compulsive dreams seen in orthodox Freudian terms. Yet Kafka is far less internal a writer than he is frequently assumed to be. In fact, neither approach does justice to the manifold nature of his vision. Kafka uses symbolism, but shrinks from its consistent application. If, in "The Metamorphosis," Gregor is hit by the apple thrown at him by his father, the conventional religious significance imparted by the choice of the fruit is no more than an allusion--almost jocular in its obviousness--suggesting one of several possibilities. If, in the story "In the Penal Colony," the officer's martyrdom suggests Christ's sacrifice, one possibility is explored, and if the New Commandant's doctrine of mercy makes the officer's sacrifice necessary, another possibility and another (contrasting) Christ figure is alluded to. To seek consistent symbolic references in Kafka's prose may be interesting and often rewarding, but this course leads only to individual terms of multiple relations which Kafka plays against one another. Symbolism must be taken into account, but it is not the master key to Kafka's work. Similarly, an exclusively psychological explanation leaves vast areas of Kafka's obscurity unexplained. We need not dwell on the obvious psychoanalytic motif which recurs in his fiction: the hero's relationship to an overwhelming authority, as in "The Metamorphosis" or The Trial, which can be diagnosed as an enactment of his relationship with his father and with the authoritarian society he found so intolerable. In fact, such an explanation sheds considerable light on Kafka's motives for choosing his themes and worlds. But to view his worlds as labyrinths of the subconscious would sharply limit the scope and depth of his work. For, as we shall see, the shadowy characters who appear to his heroes are independent entities, through which manifold relations are explored.

The most fruitful approach to Kafka's work would begin with a recreation of his world as he actually presents it to us, a world of concrete, albeit rearranged reality. This view presupposes that Kafka is essentially a realistic writer who does not seek to reduce the world to characteristic states of mind. Experiencing the world as a self-contradictory manifold, Kafka envisions the constant and hopeless struggle of the discerning intelligence to come to terms with the objects by which it has been conditioned. Yet these objects and worlds are real; the demonic writer, seeking to demonstrate the full extent of the mind's entanglement with them, deliberately distorts them to reveal different ways in which a hero (carefully defined) would cope with a significantly rearranged world. Since it leads to a close scrutiny of the moral and spiritual problems involved in human existence, this approach may reflect Kafka's interest in Kierkegaard which he himself has recorded. His methods of execution, however, can also be explained through two literary traditions in which he developed: naturalism and expressionism.... [It] is clear that Kafka was not a naturalistic writer in the ordinary sense. Despite some faithful depictions of squalor in The Trial, The Castle, and elsewhere, his manner is nowhere reminiscent of Zola or Dreiser. His prevarications of reality did not seek to expose social evils or reflect ideals concerned with the improvement of mankind, but to reveal man's involvements in an apparently absurd world. But even such an expansion of the naturalistic premise does not fully explain Kafka's vision. Only in the imposition on his world of an expressionistic grotesque do we find a further clue to the nature of his distortions. The importance of expressionism to Kafka has long been debated. Yet, quite apart from the merits of this debate, it remains clear that Kafka's work developed during that quarter century in which expressionism in literature and art had come into being and into maturity. It was a pervasive modern movement in which many of his friends were engaged. Its chief relevance to Kafka was its use of distortion and stylization to reveal the essential character, rather than the changing appearances, of an object or world. In expressionistic novels like Alfred Doeblin's Berlin-Alexanderplatz or Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf, the writer sought to free his protagonist from the bondage of time, place, and milieu by dissolving the universe and reconstituting it in terms of a particular vision of reality held by the artist. Kafka went his own way. He was neither a "naturalist" nor an "expressionist." No great artist can be caught in the categories set up by literary historians. Nevertheless, these two important ways of looking at reality shed some light on his manner and offer us points of departure for our unending efforts at exegesis. For Kafka does present reality as an external, not a psychological, dimension, and he distorts reality to reveal man's puzzling condition which his agonized and ironic mind envisaged. To cite Erich Heller's striking image: his world resembles that of Plato's cave which a malicious God has paneled with mirrors. The prisoner thirsting for true knowledge now perceives actual shapes, not shades, yet the concave walls of the cave reflect these forms in grotesque distortions in which the mind discerns its true relations. We therefore do not witness dreams and hallucinations as such, as we often view them in expressionistic stories and plays. It is made perfectly clear that Gregor's awakening in "The Metamorphosis" or K's search in The Castle are not dreams; we are soon convinced that the arrest in The Trial is not an internal event.... To allude once more to Kafka's affinity with naturalistic form, this method appears as an intensified version of Zola's prescriptions in Le Roman experimental. The objective author-observer introduces his character into a carefully specified world. Keeping all elements constant, he then observes his character's adjustment to a particular change. Heller's God paneling the walls of the cave with mirrors is the writer himself, seeking to extract a particular meaning from his deliberately reconstructed encounter between protagonist and world. "The Metamorphosis" illustrates this manner most clearly. The significant shift, of course, is Gregor's awakening in the shape of a stag-beetle. The story develops all consequent changes in both the hero and the world. As in Gulliver's Travels, once an initial change is accepted, all else follows with convincing logic. The hero's transformation and the change in his relations to the world involve significant cognitive changes. Kafka's way of exploring the paradoxes Gregor confronts is therefore at first epistemological; that is, it is concerned with different ways of knowing reality, of exploring the shifting relations between self and world. From Gregor's point of view, the tragedy of "The Metamorphosis" consists in the self's gradual reduction to its most vital center--its self- consciousness. In two stages--a more superficial change in spatial relations and a more central change in the consciousness of time--Gregor is finally reduced to a mere speck of self-awareness which is ultimately extinguished. As in Swift's book, the story begins with shifts in cognitive relations and ends in a crucial change in the nature of the hero himself. Immediately following the awakening, only physical appearances and perspectives seem to be changed while Gregor's essential self appears unchanged. With meticulous care and a great deal of fantastic realism, Kafka portrays shifts in spatial relations which suddenly circumscribe Gregor's movements and world. His

bed is an immense obstacle. He can hardly reach the door-handle. His voice gradually transforms itself from a human voice to an animal squeak, while his memory and other mental faculties as a human being seem to remain essentially unimpaired. But more and more the trappings of humanity disappear, helped by the ill- concealed outrages of his employer and his family. Transformations now affect Gregor more substantially; his vision adjusts to his new perspectives. The room seems too big; the furniture oppresses him. He prefers closed windows and dirt. His sister perceives him sitting in an animal-like trance. But these changes are not wholly generated from within Gregor's transformed shell. They are also conditioned by the world's reactions to his condition. The mortal wound inflicted by the father with the unfortunate apple provides a second shift in relations which affects the core of Gregor's self. The wound eats more and more deeply towards the center of his self, his human consciousness and memory. Before this event, appearances in self-perception and in perceptions of him by others undergo important shifts, but time continues to strike the hours with the alarm-clock's exactness. Gregor's sense of time is almost unchanged. But after his last foray into humanity, his fatal wound, his last response to his sister's music, self-consciousness begins to dim and, with it, his sense of time. In the end, the obliteration of time coincides with Gregor's obliteration. Gregor's reduction to a "mere" self, and his consequent destruction, are conditioned by parallel changes in the external world. These changes occur in response to Gregor's mysterious Verwandlung. The father's assumption of "authority" by becoming a uniformed bank- messenger is the most obvious illustration, but equally important are changes which lead to the constriction of the household. The cleaning woman fully transforms Gregor's room into a garbage dump and becomes another mortal enemy. The entire home assumes an atmosphere of degradation as even the mother and sister "adjust" to the new condition. The three "lodgers"--whatever else they may be thought to signify-- typify this oppressive shift in Gregor's former world. An unindividuated "chorus," introduced in a manner reminiscent of romantic and expressionistic fiction, they suggest the intrusion of an entire alien world. They push the family into the kitchen, usurp the dining-room and are treated by Gregor's parents with exaggerated deference. The world has been wrenched out of recognition. For the helplessly observing Gregor, its change has become irrevocable. Shifts in both self and world condition and require one another. Gregor's own transformation had also been a function of his world. He had in fact been a vermin, crushed and circumscribed by authority and routine, before the actual transformation had taken place: Gregor recalls that when the manager had towered above him in the office he had already felt like an insect. Moreover, we noted that the most important changes had been evoked by others' reaction to his condition: his rejection by boss, father, even by his mother and sister. But it is crucial to this revelation of his condition--appearing more and more purely as he nears his end-that it had been an aspired condition. He had been imprisoned in his animal existence which had been implied by his human life, yet freed from intolerable burdens, including the tyranny of time. In his death likewise he is both extinguished and set free. If Gregor's end is marked by a constriction of his physical universe and a paradoxical liberation from the bondage of himself (the true and final transformation of the hero), the family, we infer, had been similarly constricted and set free. In this way, relations constantly shift, unite, and contrast with one another. The self and the various figures representing the world are equally important, and the author focuses on them simultaneously. For this reason, the shift in point of view to the family is a perfectly defensible way of concluding the story. Gregor's extinction has, in the end, become the family's liberation. Since the self has been obliterated by the world, the emphasis must now be placed upon the world, for its figures have gained at last the liberation the hero had sought. Grete's yawn of freedom neatly ties the story to the transformation of the beginning. Yet this very conclusion has pushed us to the point of absurdity--reached by the simultaneous creation and dislocation of a particular world--in which contradictory solutions, like constriction and freedom, obliteration and awareness of existence, equally apply. Gregor's role in the changing pattern of the world around him is deepened by our becoming aware of the significance of the form he assumes. Being reduced to a particularly repulsive specimen of animal life, he is made to enact part of his concealed nature, but he is also transformed into an effective, albeit passive, rebel against a world and values in which beetles have no place. Moreover, the very form of the insect mask deepens the moral implications of the changes in perception and point of view by which the story is ordinarily described. A good deal has been written about Kafka's use of animal figures as human masks and of human figures as animal masks. One reason for this practice is the same rationale which suggested Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to Swift. But for Kafka there is also another reason; the animal widens human perception, because it frees it from moral necessity. Gregor as a human being with an animal mask

therefore experiences peculiar conflicts between liberation from and subjection to moral choice, which are only gradually eliminated in his own obliteration. In this story the vermin carries with it the notion of disgust, but in other stories we encounter a similar effect without this element. In "Report to the Academy," a monkey wears a human mask. In "The Hunger Artist," the human "artist" kept as a caged animal is contrasted with the truly bestial spectators until in the significant inversion he is replaced by the actual beast--the panther. These transformations finally suggest the intricate relations in man between a human and an animal nature.... As an expressionistic device getting at the essence of split humanity, as a point of transformation which reveals several layers of perception to be reflected against one another, and as a satiric mirror of man, the animal form becomes the logical counterpoint, the key to transformations through which a state of mind or awareness can be reflected against its cosmic or social antagonists....

Source Citation: Freedman, Ralph, "Kafka's Obscurity: The Illusion of Logic in Narrative," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1962, pp. 61-74. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. October, 2001. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/DC/ Document Number: CD2101204846

Copyright © 2002 by Gale Group . All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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