At one point, I labored under the delusion that anyone would want to read an alphabetical guide to Kafka’s life and work, called K is for Kafka. I still labor under this delusion, but I no longer believe anyone would pay me for such a thing at this time, unless I renamed the project L is for Liberals, Enemies of All that is Just–I Bow to Thee, Mr. Ashcroft. Therefore, now and then on this blogetybloo I will feature lengthyish snippets of this project, beginning, of course, with A.
Now, without much further ado:
A IS FOR ALIENATION
alienation n. the state of being withdrawn from the objective world, as though indifference.
Aside from alphabetical convenience, alienation is really the most appropriate starting point in Kafka’s universe. Why? Because without alienation there would be no “Kafkaesque.” The constant feeling of being an outsider (alienated from your school, alienated from your family, from your culture, your religion, your country—even from yourself!) is as important to understanding Kafka’s work as the fine nuances of midriff-toning are to understanding Britney Spears. In Kafka’s work, just about everything happens because the main character is alienated. In fact, the theme of alienation unifies Kafka’s entire emaciated, Tubercular body of work (not to mention his life).
For example, how would you feel if, after a spectacularly obedient and crime-free existence, you woke up on your thirtieth birthday to find two idiots arresting you? And what if, instead of reading you your rights or telling you what you’re accused of, they laughed at you when you asked them what you’d done? That’s exactly what happens in The Trial, one of Kafka’s best-known novels (and thought by many to be one of the greatest works of 20th Century literature). In it, Joseph K., a mild-mannered bank officer, wakes up, rings for his breakfast, and then proceeds to be arrested in his apartment for no fathomable reason. As if this were not baffling enough, however, the real frustration comes when nobody doing the arresting will explain to K. what crime he’s committed. In fact, when K. demands to know the charges against him (as most of us would in his place), the three arresting parties (two bumblers and a snotty inspector) react with outright scorn, condescendingly telling K. they don’t know the charges against him, and what’s more, the fact that he’s had the audacity to ask after them is certainly not helping his case. And they’re right. Soon, K. finds himself embroiled in a confounding battle with a mysterious Court—and every time he acts within reason to help his case, his actions end up hurting him. This universe (the one that K. lives in and thought he knew) actually operates under a different set of rules altogether—and instead of figuring things out, K. spends the rest of The Trial growing more and more likely to fail in his quest. The more he tries to learn about his new/old universe, the more confusing everything becomes, until K. is hopelessly trapped in a monstrous bureaucracy. And this bureaucracy’s governing body (whom we never see face to face) adheres vehemently to the rules of alienation that govern Kafka’s narrative world. They’re simple and yet baffling: there exists a hierarchy of rules; a structure intricate and absolute. And this hierarchy, this structure, these rules—they will always remain a mystery, both to the protagonist (in this case K.) and, more frustratingly, to you and me, the innocent readers who thought a book with that kind of name would be like a very wordy episode of Law & Order. That is, K. (and all of us, on his behalf) is so alienated from his surroundings that he is unable to figure out the rules that define them. And what’s worse, these rules seem to exist for the sole purpose of thwarting K., of keeping him alienated.
Whoa—that is a mouthful. Or a brainful, depending how theatrical your inner monologue is. There they are, the Rules of Kafka’s World, spelled out. And as confounding as this concept may be, chances are you are far more familiar with Kafka’s specific brand of alienation than you think. Chances are, there is a fair amount of Kafkian alienation somewhere within you right this very moment. Yes, there it is, there it is—I see it, right above your belly button.
KAFKA suffered from such a multitude of alienation variations that organizing them is in and of itself a Kafkian task—for, like most of his work, unearthing one sort of problem and foolishly thinking you have any capacity to solve it only unearths more problems that are even more complicated. “Before the Law,” a parable that serves as the reflexive climax of The Trial and is also published on its own, tells the story of a man from the country who travels to the Law (which functions as both an autonomous entity and a location—you can’t help but picture Xanadu) and wishes to “gain admittance.” (Complete Stories 3). Unfortunately there’s a doorkeeper there, and he’s not too keen on letting the guy in. The man from the country is persistent, though, and he keeps asking. The doorkeeper keeps saying no. He bribes the doorkeeper, he grows old, and still after what seems like a million years, the doorkeeper won’t let him in. It turns out that there are an infinite amount of other doorkeepers, and so the man could never make it through them all. That, my friends, is Kafkian alienation—perplexing, confounding, unfair, and infinite, but nevertheless, somewhat possible to divide into categories:
Religious alienation. Although hardly a model Jew for most of his life, Kafka stands now as the quintessential personification of early twentieth-century Jewry. That is, Jews were technically first-class citizens, no longer officially relegated to the ghettos, but still the subject of persecution and racial alienation by most of Western Europe. The last years of Kafka’s life had him privy to the nascent stages of German persecution (and it is certainly a mixed blessing that he did not live to see what became of Prague’s Jews after World War II), but for most of his adulthood he lived amidst the kind of semi-open racism that we do. That is, nobody had to wear a yellow Star of David, but a Jew marrying a Gentile, for example, would scandalize an entire town. A mild version of Kafka’s type of religious alienation in our own society would be something like being one of only a few Jewish families in an ultra-exclusive Connecticut suburb; a starker example would be something like being the only Muslim kid in any American classroom on September 12, 2001.
Another topical example of alienation similar to the kind Kafka’s work evokes would be being one of the scandalized few citing American imperialism as helping to provoke terrorist groups to attack, or one of the equally-scandalized few who prefer not to be forced to invoke the name of God in the Pledge of Allegiance. On the opposite side of this spectrum is the feeling that the “oppressed” members of the Ku Klux Klan must have had in 2000 when a rally they held in New York City was barely-attended. These are all hot-button examples of societal alienation, and Kafka’s life and work was full of it. His began within his own family (see also, L is for Letter to his Father), as his father, Hermann Kafka, a self-made man, thought Franz was a weakling and a failure who didn’t know the meaning of hard work or struggle—and never seemed to want to let his son forget it. Outside the house, Kafka was a German-speaker in a city who, though at the time bilingual, was predominantly Czech (Prague is now, after both the Germans and the Soviets have let it be, an entirely Czech-speaking city). Because Kafka’s socially-aware parents sent him to a German secondary school and he attended the German-speaking half of the Charles University, he wrote and thought entirely in German (though his Czech was fluent). And Kafka was, like many great intellectuals before and after him, prone to all sorts of bizarre and highly-calculated (in his diaries) physical ailments, and very thin and frail for most of his life (though tall, and an exercise-fad fanatic). His health ailments caused him to take up vegetarianism, which, in an area of the world that seems to enjoy using full pig intestines as straws, made for yet another way to alienate him from his surroundings. (Brod)
Societal alienation plays very heavily in all of Kafka’s major stories, but the best (by which I mean “shortest”) example is the classic parable, “Give it Up!”:
- It was early morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the train station. AS I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn’t very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said, “You asking me the way?” “Yes, “ I said, “since I can’t find it myself.” Give it up! Give it up!” said he, and turned with a sudden jerk, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter. (Complete Stories 456)
Anyone who has navigated the perils of taking a cross-country flight, renting an apartment in a big city, applying for a mortgage, or godforbid had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles for any reason, knows exactly the kind of alienation Kafka’s poor narrator feels here.
Such despair, however, is nothing (in our life or Kafka’s) compared to that special form of alienation reserved for lovers. There is little worse than realizing that someone you thought was closer to you than any other doesn’t really know anything about you at all—and doesn’t really care. And yet, this was exactly the case with most of Kafka’s relationships. For more on the gory details of Kafka’s alienated love life, see F is for Felice and M is for Milena, and to get yourself in the mood for it, think about how you would feel as a Feminist attending a keg party full of Roofie-brandishing frat boys, or a garbage-truck driver being stuck at a Junior League singles mixer.
YES, there’s only one thing worse than being alienated from your mate (or potential mate) and that’s being alienated from yourself. After all, if you can’t fit in with you, who will take you? And yet, innumerable writers, artists, musicians, and especially self-obsessed film stars claim to be absolutely crippled by self-loathing. Kafka was no exception—in fact, he was exemplary in this feat! So exemplary, in fact, that it merits its own chapter: S is for Self-Loathing. To bid alienation a temporary adieu, however, I’ll give you another little fable, this one—hey!–called “A Little Fable:”
- “Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.” “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up. (Complete Stories 445)
If you did not enjoy that excursion into the quasi-academic, then please, donate money so that I can stage the adaptation of THE TRIAL I’ve labored on and that will take my attention away from churning out things like the above and you will be spared of them for now. So really, you’re doing it to help you.