Franz Kafka – in search of a key



Considerations about Kafka and his work

Where is the key? Perhaps here, in this anguished reflection on his relations with his father, in the form of a letter, never sent: “…I could not ignore them for the sole reason that you, who were so enormously decisive for me, did not observe the commandments that imposed on me. Therefore, the world was divided for me into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws invented just for me[I] and which, in fact, without knowing why, I have never been able to fully obey[ii]; Then, in a second world, infinitely distant from mine, you lived, busy in government, dictating laws and getting angry when they were broken.[iii]; finally, a third world, where the rest of the people lived happily and free from orders and obedience.”[iv] (which is not reflected in any of his works). He was convinced that the more he achieved, the worse it would be.

It's the same idea that, as a child, he was defeated by his father, over and over again, without, out of pride, being able to leave the battlefield.[v]

It seems interesting, perhaps inevitable, to approach Franz Kafka's work from the perspective of the problems posed by his relationship with his father, although, certainly, others suggest different approaches. He himself proposed this path in the long letter he wrote to him in 1919, but which he never sent. He had five years left to live, until June 3, 1924, a stormy relationship with Milena Jesenka and another, more pleasant one, with Dora Dymant, and also the writing of what seems to me his most ambitious work, The castleIn 1922.

Max Brod, the close friend who broke his commitment to destroy Kafka's works and became his posthumous editor, points out that The castle e The process They represent the two forms of divinity – grace and justice –, according to Jewish Kabbalah, a system of interpretation of the Old Testament. Although he never stated it, Franz Kafka wanted his work to live up to his religious concerns, Max Brod would assure.[vi]

It seems to me to be a very religious point of view, difficult to support with Franz Kafka's texts in hand; however, it is also defended by others. Leopoldo Azancot, in the prologue of The castle,[vii] makes reference to this religious interpretation of Kafka's work proposed by Brod, but which, he admits, was immediately rejected “violently” by the majority.[viii] In his opinion, the work of [ix]Kafka can only be understood through a search for renewal of Jewish religious thought, which the writer attempts, and regrets that critics have refused to see Judaism as the key to his understanding.

Leopoldo Azancot himself, in the aforementioned prologue, makes reference to another type of interpretation of Franz Kafka's work: that of Rosemarie Ferenczi, a historicist, who emphasizes the master-slave relationship to explain it.

Certainly, many other perspectives are possible in a work as complex as that of Franz Kafka. There is no way to fully elucidate the debate, but the daily provides some ideas, as well as letter to father. It seems to me, in any case, that the richest vein for exploring Kafka's work, which alludes to different paths, far from both religion and historicism, is the author's relationship with his father.

The father

Fear is Franz Kafka's first sensation, a feeling of nothingness that often prevailed in the face of the domineering and tyrannical figure of his father.[X] Wherever he lived, he was a despicable being, who carried with him, defeated, this feeling of nothingness. His world, he confesses, was made up of two people: him and his father. With the father, purity ended, and with him, dirt began. Only an old guilt, it was said, as justification for an incomprehensible situation, could explain why his father condemned him in such a way, why he despised him so deeply. And so he was, once again, trapped in the depths of himself.

This relationship had a devastating effect on the relationships he was able to establish with others. It was enough for him to be interested in a person, he stated in his letter, for his father to intervene with insults, slander and humiliation.[xi] “I lost my self-confidence in front of you, replacing it with an infinite feeling of guilt.”[xii], he lamented, only to discover later that the feeling of helplessness was common. It's the same feeling of helplessness that would characterize all of his work.

His father's aggression devastated everything, including his activity as a writer, which gave him some independence. A figure emerges here that cannot be dissociated from the one presented in Metamorphosis, published four years before the letter, in 1915, as Franz Kafka envisioned this unhealthy form of independence as that of a worm crushed on the back by one foot, while trying to save itself, with the other, dragging itself on its side. This sensation ended up completely devastating him until it finally turned into physical insecurity, making his own body something insecure. This is the idea presented in Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning transformed into a huge insect; the first sentence summarizes the entire novel (as also happens in The process and The castle, as we will see later).

in the tale Before the law, the image of the father, this atrabiliary order, is incarnated in a specific law that is mercilessly applied only to him. After years of waiting before the door of the law, on the eve of his death, the guardian explains to him that no one had been authorized to enter through that door “because the entrance was intended exclusively for you”.[xiii] Now that it is dying, close it; puts an end to the waiting.

The story is resumed in The process, as we will see, in the parable of the priest,[xiv] at the end of the book. “You must understand who I am,” says the priest. “I belong to justice, but justice doesn’t want anything from you. It takes you when you arrive and leaves you when you leave.”[xv] It is the penultimate scene, before death, when K. wonders where the Supreme Judge was, where the Superior Court was, which he had never reached. And they stick the knife in his heart.

Likewise, this atrabiliary relationship appears in The castle: the village lives under the protection of the lords; the castle is concerned with the exercise of laws and it is difficult not to perceive, in the relationship between agronomist K. and the castle, that of Kafka with his father.

“My writings were about you; in them I complained about what I couldn’t, leaning against their chest”,[xvi] says Franz Kafka, in a tone of lamentation and explanation. Faced with such a pathetic sentence, little more can be added, except to highlight some clues that will help us get closer to his work and his characters.


What gives us a feeling of desolation when we read Franz Kafka?

The first response could come from despair, from the meaninglessness of the circumstances, from the aridity of the landscape. But the question, asked again and again, can lead to a more precise answer, which we would like to suggest: the feeling of desolation produced by Kafka's work derives from the absolute absence of that form of human relationship that can be summarized as friendship. His characters have no friends, and from this loneliness derives the desolate effect of his work on the reader. Man is what his position, his function, attributes to him and his relationship with other men derives from this function. That's why it's shocking when the lawyer introduces him to the chief of staff and warns him that he came as a friend, not in an official capacity.[xvii]

The theme is treated specifically in the story the verdict, despite the brevity of the story. Of course there is the dramatic figure of the father, when he shouts to him: “Is there really this friend in St. Petersburg? You don’t have any friends in St. Petersburg!”

Maybe there is this friend, distant, inaccessible, but the friend was not your friend, it was his father's friend, a terrible figure who challenges and harasses him, who warns him: “Make no mistake, I am still the strongest! The strongest, by far, I can crush you... you can't even imagine how! I can even shout at you: you were a diabolical being and, therefore, I condemn you to drown. And while the words still echo and the water drags him out into the street, he exclaims in a low voice: dear parents, I have always loved you.”[xviii]

The castle e The process relate in this solitude. There are those who try to differentiate one work from another by pointing out that, in the first, authority is inaccessible, which would not occur in the second. It seems difficult to defend the proposition; they are closer in the senselessness of formalities; however, once again, where both works meet is in the desert of solitude.

Marriage, like writing, was a way of freeing herself from this particular and unfortunate relationship with her father. Here, the proposal becomes subtle, but it is still brutal. Marriage frees him, but makes him equal to his father. By becoming equal, he would free himself from all humiliation. Overcoming this dependence seems irrational to him: marriage seems prohibited precisely because it is his father's domain. The effort leads to nothing other than “rebuilding the prison into a luxurious castle”.[xx] This is possibly the key to the work he had yet to write and which he will write in 1922.

One of the effects of this feeling of nothingness, of this inability to relate, was the impossibility of getting married, of having a family. Marriage, I would say, became the most hopeful attempt at salvation, but he succumbed to each of these attempts, without ever being able to consummate it. In his life, he would write to his father, there was nothing as significant “as the failure of my attempts at marriage was for me”.

Is Klamm, the highest-ranking character in the castle, the father? The possibility arises in a scene with Frieda, in one of the long passages about K.'s stormy relationship with this woman. “Should I humiliate myself doubly,” asks K., “by telling you about the futile attempts, which in reality have already humiliated me so much, to speak to Klamm and contact the castle?”[xx]

The relationship with Frieda breaks down perhaps in a similar way to the two times his relationship with Felice Bauer dissolved, as did his planned marriage to Julie Wohryzek, in 1919, which became his most hopeful attempt at salvation, at liberation. from your father. “In my entire life,” I would tell him, “nothing as significant as this attempt at marriage has occurred.”[xxx]. A liberation project, a guarantee of independence and equality in relation to his father, which, if successful, would make the old humiliations a mere memory, pure history. In this freedom, says Franz Kafka, lies the problem; It is the project of a prisoner who, as we have already pointed out, aspires to escape just to rebuild his prison elsewhere.

“I neglected Frieda,” admits K., “and I would be happy if she came back, but then I would neglect her again.”[xxiii]. So why be surprised when Frieda tells you: “There will be no wedding. You, and only you, broke our happiness”, highlighting this feeling of guilt that haunts the author?[xxiii].

Max Brod also referred to Kafka's always difficult relationships with his women and drew attention to aspects of The castle quality The process that reflect these crises. The topic is covered extensively in The castle, to the point of damaging the rhythm of the novel,[xxv] when the endless search for contact with the castle is replaced by disquisitions about relations with Frieda. But it's also no stranger to The process, although this topic does not have, it seems to me, the same importance and depth of treatment that it receives in The castle.

One sentence

Summarizing the content of Franz Kafka's works is simple, as is finding some of the keys in them, such as those we have highlighted. As for the summary, he somehow made it for us in the first sentence of each of his books, an extraordinary capacity for precision and synthesis, difficult to find, and which would deserve a longer and more careful analysis. Let's look at the examples.

“When, after some peaceful dreams, Gregor Samsa woke up that morning, he found himself transformed into a huge insect.”[xxiv]. Everything else derives from there, in this long tale whose setting is the family. The character's rebellion, his discomfort in the face of the feeling of guilt and contempt for himself, is summed up in the question he asks himself, as he moves forward with his head glued to the ground, to meet his sister's gaze, who he played the piano: “I happen to be an animal; Can music make such an impression on an animal?”[xxv]. In the denial of the answer, implicit in the question, is the desperate intention of rescuing his lost humanity.

Naturally, the scenario of family life in Metamorphosis it is that of Kafka agonizing over the wound inflicted on him by his father.

America is certainly Kafka's most unique novel. The happy meeting with his uncle, Senator Edward Jakob, upon arriving in America, is unexpectedly undone when he throws young Karl into the street, where the rest of his odyssey will take place. The heartbreaking and distressing result here is the dependent relationship he establishes with the two friends he meets on the street, when he is disinherited by his rich and powerful uncle.

It is true that the announcement of his dismissal is surprising and disconcerting. In a way, the novel begins when Karl Rossmann, a 16-year-old young man who has just arrived from Germany, finds himself, helpless, with those who will be his two companions in misfortune, the Irishman Robinson and the Frenchman Delamarche. The encounter leads to a mind-bending chapter in which the three are joined by Delamarche's lover, Brunelda, to whom Karl becomes servant.

The unfinished nature of the play leaves the question open, since the last chapter, “The great integral theater of Oklahoma”, does not articulate with the rest of the text. Also in this aspect America It stands out from other works because, although they are not finished either (none of them were published during Kafka's lifetime), they have endings that are more related to the rest of the novel. That's not the case here.

Although Rossmann's interlocutors are present in America (which does not happen in The process nor in The castle, where the interlocutors are inaccessible, contributing to the absurd tone), Karl's dependent relationship with his friends is heartbreaking and distressing. America shows us that it is this solitude, more than the inaccessibility of his interlocutors, that contributes to creating the atmosphere of Kafka's works.

1922. Between January and September, Kafka writes The castle and records on the first page of his diary that, at the beginning of January, he had a “total breakdown”. Insomnia on the one hand, self-persecution on the other. Solitude, says Kafka, which was always imposed on him, but which he also sought and which now becomes unequivocal and total. Where does this leave him?, he asks himself. To the madness, to the persecution that crosses and tears him apart.[xxviii]

There are many possible explanations for the origin of the work; at least one, which I would like to highlight, derives from its structure: the idea of ​​an endless perplexity, on which his anguish is built. In Brod's reference, Kafka intended to finally give some satisfaction to the surveyor K. In life, K. does not take a single step back; he dies of exhaustion. It was only at the time of his death that he would receive recognition, because, although the castle does not recognize his right to citizenship in the village, it authorizes him to live and work there.[xxviii]

“I have been an immigrant for 40 years, I look back as a foreigner, I belong to this other world, which I brought with me as a paternal inheritance, but I am the most fearsome and insignificant of its inhabitants”, Kafka assures us. It is then that, on the following day, January 29th, he creates in his diary the image of the abandoned road, along which he slides in the snow, a meaningless path, without an earthly objective, the setting for the first chapter of The castle.

“I've been in the desert for a long time,” he adds, “and I only have visions of despair, unable to relate to anyone, unable to bear anyone I know.” “We are simple people, we respect the rules; you can’t like us”, says the peasant to K., as he throws him out of his house, in the village at the foot of the castle. A village so long that it never reached its end, its little houses with cold glass and snow and the absence of human beings...[xxix]

Max Brod says that the work was unfinished, that Franz Kafka was very tired, without the strength to finish it.

For my part, I would like to suggest an inverse relationship: it is the incompressible relationship with the castle that exhausts it; It's this endless exercise that kills him. It seems more suggestive to me, even though it is true that, physically, in “real life”, the disease already consumed him. He has just over a year left to finish writing The castle, which had begun like this: “When K. arrived, it was already late. Thick snow covered the village. The fog and night hid the hill and not a ray of light revealed the great castle. K. stood for a long time on the wooden bridge that gave access to the village’s main road, with his eyes fixed on those empty-looking heights.”[xxx]. Everything else comes from there.

“Possibly some unknown person had slandered Joseph K., because, without him having done anything punishable, he was arrested one morning”, he says at the beginning of The process.

Franz Kafka considered it an unfinished work, says Brod; he wanted to add something more to The process, before the final chapter[xxxii]; suggests that the novel was “unfinishable”. You're right: the absurd nature of the process feeds the suggestion of something without end. But I have difficulty agreeing with Brod's addendum in the sense that, if it weren't for knowing Kafka's intention to add other chapters to the work, one wouldn't notice any gaps. It seems so to me.

Em The process, K. shares the same relationship with power presented in The castle, impersonal and inaccessible and, in a way, indifferent to the development of your life. “I see you don't understand me,” says the inspector to K. “It's true that he's under arrest, but that doesn't mean he can't carry out his duties. You must not disturb your normal life.”[xxxi]. The process runs parallel to this “normal” life.

The loneliness

Once again, the absurdity is built on the impossibility of establishing human relationships with others. Behind the absurdity of the procedures is the impossibility of relating to others. What mattered for being acquitted at trial were the lawyer's personal relationships with the judicial apparatus. Maybe that's why no one was acquitted, but not convicted either. On the other hand, the importance of employees was minimal; the procedures developed almost automatically.[xxxii]

“I doubt you can help me,” he says to the woman who helpfully approaches him at a court session. You should have relationships with senior officials and you probably only know a few subordinates,” he tells you.

The father also appears in the figure of the employees, always irritated and confused, despite generally appearing very serene; the smallest thing seriously offended them. The relationship with them could be very difficult or, on the contrary, very easy. The important thing is that they could not be regulated by any system[xxxv].

Relations with the guardian of the law were also incomprehensible. “Everyone wants access to the law”, he tells the guardian, feeling like he is dying, when he announces that he is leaving and closes the door.

Thus, the search for the keys to the tormented and lucid work of this man, born in Prague in 1883 and who would die of tuberculosis 41 years later, also comes to an end. A contemporary, Thomas Mann, described the atmosphere of this disease, terrible at that time, in a work completed in 1924, precisely the year of Kafka's death. It was the time of the rise and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the independence of Czechoslovakia after the First World War, a formidable period of greatness in German culture, Schiele's expressionism, the food of European surrealism.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, with a PhD in Society and Culture Studies from the University of Costa Rica (UCR). Author, among other books, of Political crisis of the modern world (uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


[I] See “Ante la ley”, in Conversation with the prayer. Notebooks of Aqueronte, Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires, 1990, p. 71-75.

[ii] The process. EDAF, 2001.

[iii] Castle. EDAF, 1996.

[iv] Letter to father. Panamericana Editorial, Colombia, 3rd ed., February 2000, p. 32ff.

[v] Diaries (1910 – 1923). Tusquets, May 1995, p. 350. (From now on, the initials of the title of each book will be used to identify them).

[vi] EP, P. 306.

[vii] See the prologue by Leopoldo Azancot a Castle, in the mentioned edition, p. 10.

[viii] EC, P. 14.

[ix] See the prologue by Leopoldo Azancot a Castle, in the mentioned edition, p. 10.

[X] CP, P. 19.

[xi] CP, P. 30.

[xii] CP, P. 59.

[xiii] CO, P. 75. Report “Before the law".

[xiv] EP, P. 262 ff.

[xv] EP, P. 273.

[xvi] CP, P. 68.

[xvii] EP, P. 133ff.

[xviii] CO, P. 41-67. Report “Sentence".

[xx] CP, P. 84.

[xx] EC, P. 247.

[xxx] CP, P. 75.

[xxiii] EC, P. 439.

[xxiii] EC, P. 364.

[xxv] It seems to me that this is felt, for example, in chapter XIII.

[xxiv] So it begins”Metamorphosis".

[xxv] M, P. 83.

[xxviii] D, P. 353.

[xxviii] EC, P. 520.

[xxix] EC, P. 42.

[xxx] EC, P. 29.

[xxxii] EP, P. 312.

[xxxi] EP, P. 27.

[xxxii] EP, P. 147-149.

[xxxv] EP, P. 153.

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