franz kafka

In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka

by
Franz Kafka.
Translated by Ian Johnston

img_4363“It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer to the Traveler, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar. It appeared that the Traveler had responded to the invitation of the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been invited to attend the execution of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior. Of course, interest in the execution was not very high, not even in the penal colony itself. At least, here in the small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes, apart from the Officer and the Traveler there were present only the Condemned, a vacant-looking man with a broad mouth and dilapidated hair and face, and the Soldier, who held the heavy chain to which were connected the small chains which bound the Condemned Man by his feet and wrist bones, as well as by his neck, and which were also linked to each other by connecting chains. The Condemned Man had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return. (more…)

Before the Law by Franz Kafka

by
Frank Kafka.
Translated by Ian Johnston

img_4336Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But heimg_4337 recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

You can find more translations by Ian Johnston here.

The Role of Fantasy in Franz Kafka’s Amerika

by
Daulton Dickey.

amerikaIn Amerika by Franz Kafka, the character Karl Rossman is shipped away to America by his parents following a scandal with a servant girl. From hotel employee to bum to servant, young Karl experiences a panoply of adventures and emotions as he tries to find his way through life. Superficially, it’s a straightforward tale, a Huckleberry Finn-esque Bildungsroman. Since Kafka rarely wrote superficial tales, however, it is possible that Karl’s adventures mean something else–for Karl and for Kafka.

Interestingly, the title “Amerika” comes to us from Max Brod, who changed Kafka’s original title. Kafka’s title Der Verschollene, however, translates to “The Missing Person” or “The Man Who Disappeared.” Why would he give the novel a title that expresses the point of view of Karl’s family while the narration itself follows Karl, giving only passing mention to his family? (more…)

The Role of Expectations in Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”

by
Daulton Dickey.

“I was in great perplexity”—or so the narrator of “A Country Doctor” tells us at the start of the story. On the road to visiting a patient, with a gig and without horses, his perplexity is understandable. He is a doctor, after all, and he is in need of transportation to visit a potentially sick patient. 

The story, it is worth noting, is written in the past tense, so the narrator is recounting these events from a vantage point sometime after the events he describes. It is possible that the opening statement—”I was in great perplexity”—is an expression of his state at the time the story begins; however, it’s also possible that the statement is an expression of something we would now call existential angst. 

From where does this “existential angst” spring? The nature of roles and the perception of roles might supply an answer.

As frameworks for viewing the concept and consequences of roles, we can appeal to two thinkers: the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cooley, working in the early decades of the twentieth century, posited what he called “the looking glass self.” Briefly, the looking glass self is a theory suggesting that our personalities are derived from how we perceive others perceive us. As Cooley once remarked, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” (Hood :72)             

In his philosophical treatise Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the Austrian philosopher kafkaLudwig Wittgenstein delineated an ontology that might be useful in viewing the concept of roles objectively. In the Tractacus, Wittgenstein distinguished between things in the universe and the language we used to describe those things, arguing that the language used to describe a thing does not equal the thing itself. To put it simply, the word “matter” is not a component of the thing it is meant to signify; instead, it is a picture of that thing, distinct from it.

We, each of us, play roles. Life is a series of theatrical stages onto which we are thrust, and the roles we play depend on the situation and on the audience, so to speak. Anecdotally, I am different in isolation than I am at work, as I interact with other people. Using “me in isolation” as a baseline, then we can say that I am different at work and different still around friends. Given the situation, given the people with whom I am surrounded, my personality shifts from situation to situation. 

This phenomenon is not unique to me. It occurs to each of us. How we encode and retrieve memories, how we select information, how we spin information to loosen the tension of cognitive dissonance too often blinds us from these situational-personality shifts.

Anticipating Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory, the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once encouraged us to embrace the way the public reproached us because, he claimed, their reproaches came closer to signifying who we really are.

In “A Country Doctor” we find several roles cast, and too often we find expectations met and affirmed, by either the people cast in those roles or the people casting those roles.

Having kicked open an uninhabited pigsty, the country doctor discovers a man inside. The man crawls out on all fours—animal-like—and asks, “Shall I yoke up?” (Kafka: 220) This behavior might be a joke, it might be a gag, but to a man in search of a horse, and to man living in a pigsty, it is an interesting pun on roles.

Expectations of roles play a part in this scenario as well. A few minutes later, when this man is helping to yoke real horses, he lashes out and bites the doctor’s servant girl on the cheek, leaving visible teeth marks. The role he had earlier cast himself in, and the role the doctor might have unconsciously cast, brought about subhuman behavior from a man living like—and joking about being—an animal.

We are who we think other people think we are—if this proposition holds true, then it can help shed light on the man’s behavior, on why he bit the servant girl: he was playing a role, that of a horse, and he was performing as he, or others, might expect him to perform.

Calling on Wittgenstein’s ontology, let us distinguish how things are from the language we use to describe them. For the sake of argument, let us presuppose that this story is true. Now consider the following: seeing a man living in a pigsty, crawling around like an animal, how would you expect A-country-doctor-by-Franz-Kafka-213x300him to behave: like a civilized dandy or like an animal? Assume the latter. Then assume that he picked up on your expectation: now how would you expect him to behave?

Before the man joked about yoking up, before the man bit the woman, he saw the doctor and the doctor’s serving girl. In a class system, a man living in a pigsty undoubtedly underwent social and culture training inculcating subservience to a person of a higher class—even if it is a doctor. It is possible that the man recognized this, and it is possible that it offered another role for him to perform: servant. So, “of his own free will” (Kafka: 220), the man assisted the doctor and the servant girl in yoking the horses.

The language you use to describe people, even if the language you use is nothing more than body language, even if the difference is perceived class differences, can affect how a person behaves.

On biting the servant girl, the man reverts again to his role as animal when it is implied that he is going to possibly rape the servant girl, who runs into the house and locks the door. The man smacks the doctor’s horses, and the horses race away as the man broke down the door to the house and bolted inside.

We are, each of us, a looking glass. The language we use to describe ourselves does not necessarily reflect our personality or behavior. The language other people use, or, specifically, the language we think they use, can and does affect our personality or behavior.

We can find evidence for this, within the context of Kafka’s story, if we jump ahead in the narrative.

Having arrived at his patient’s house, the doctor is rushed inside by the patient’s family. Lying in bed, the patient says, “Doctor, let me die.” (Kafka:221) The patient’s family doesn’t hear his plea; instead, they watch intently, expecting the doctor to heal their son and brother.

The doctor’s role is one in which he cast himself, but his expectations of this role differ from the expectations of those who do not belong to the medical profession. Here, the patient himself has peculiar expectations for the doctor: by pleading with the doctor to let him die, the patient seems to presuppose that the doctor can save his life—which may or may not be the case.

Yet the doctor has cast himself in another role as well, that of master and protector of the servant girl. While he prepares to attend to the patient, his role as master and protector occupies him, and he contemplates fleeing to save his servant from the clutches of the animal-like man.

We each play roles. Roles dominate our lives. In every second of every day, we play roles, we perform. Do these roles, do these performances, lead to existential angst?

To answer this, we can appeal to the philosophical movement known as existentialism, which in its reduced form makes the following claim: “meaning” is a human construct; it is not a thing that exists independently of human beings; and in lieu of latching onto meaning that exists outside of us, we are free to make our own meaning.

To the country doctor, this triggers an interesting question: what does hkafka complete storiesis role mean, a role perceived by himself and others?

The townsfolk view the role of doctor as almost superhuman, or mystical–or magical. Having surrounded the doctor and stripped off his clothes, they sang, “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,/ If he doesn’t, kill him dead!/ Only a doctor, only a doctor.” (Kafka: 224)

The role the townsfolk cast is unrealistic, as unrealistic as the role the patient himself cast when he implored the doctor to let him, the patient, die. It is the case such that a doctor might cure people, or at least ease their suffering. This, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to the doctor as the hinge on which life and death always turns. In some cases, it is possible that a doctor can cure or heal someone. It is not the case, however, that, in all cases, a doctor is able to cure or heal someone. Yet these townsfolk seem to assume the latter. Punish the doctor, say, if he does not give us what we want, if he does not fulfill the role he is expected to play, which is the role of superhuman healer.

This is a role he cannot play, this is a role he does not want to play—the situation created for him has spoiled his role as doctor, and now he wants to finish his business so he can escape. However, he must finish meeting with his patient, who is cast in a role of his own: miser.

To illustrate this, pay attention to how the patient behaves when he finally has the doctor’s attention:

“‘Do you know,’ said a voice in my ear, ‘I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me in my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.’ ‘Right,’ I said, ‘it is a shame. And yet I am a doctor. What am I to do? Believe me, it is not too easy for me, either.’ ‘Am I supposed to be content with this apology? Oh, I must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with things. A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that is my sole endowment.'” (Kafka: 224)

A sense of duty compelled the doctor to visit the patient, duty derived from his role as a doctor. The threats of the townsfolk keeps him by the beside, despite the threats from his patient, despite his patient’s lack of interest in living. The role the doctor plays is as both author of his circumstances and victim of his circumstances, and the expectations he has of himself, and that others thrust onto him, transform his looking glass into a magnifying glass through which rays from the sun pelt and assault him.

His role has thrust him into this circumstance, the expectations others have of him have heightened his circumstance, and he cannot appeal to his role to save him. After all, as he told the patient, “I am a doctor. What am I to do?”

 

Bibliography

Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories (Schocken Books, 1995)

Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)