Master of the Bizarre
By Gabriel Blanchard
The work of Kafka is nonsensical, dark, directionless—and celebrated.
Beyond vague references to a gigantic cockroach, many of us have little notion of what the term Kafkaesque is supposed to mean. Kafka himself would probably take delight in the irony.
The image of the insect comes from his best-known story, The Metamorphosis. Its opening line informs us that the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a large bug (species unspecified). He and his family are horrified, but he is unable to communicate with them, though he still understands them. His aging father is forced to return to work, Gregor having previously been the breadwinner; Gregor himself slowly adjusts to his new life, able only to eat rotting food and crawling on the floor, walls, and ceiling of his room. His family grow to resent him, even his once doting young sister Grete—in fact, it is she who, in an emotional outburst near the end of the story, declares that they have to get rid of “it.” Heartbroken, Gregor crawls back to his bed and starves himself to death; in the morning, the other Samsas are relieved, and begin laying plans for a new life.
Themes like alienation, repression, and cruelty, prominent in The Metamorphosis, are characteristic of all of Kafka’s work. The ludicrous premise of the story stands out, but is by no means alone; a number of his stories contain surreal or fantastic elements. In some stories, they are literal, but in others they appear in the motives of the characters themselves. A superficially different but equally “on brand” short story is The Hunger Artist, named for a circus performer who fasts for weeks at a time so that audiences can spectate at the gruesome transformations of his body. The title character ultimately starves himself to death, like Gregor Samsa, but for quite a different reason: as he explains to the circus’ overseer at the end, “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
In the light of a line like that, it may be easier to understand why both Kafka and his friends, when he read them his stories, would break down laughing.
This is not to say that the darkness and melancholy of Kafka’s work is only there for comedy—far from it. One of the great falsehoods of our age is the idea that laughing at something and taking it seriously are mutually exclusive. The phrase “laugh to keep from crying” has become quite a tired cliché, but it is a cliché for a reason. The absurd has both tragic and comic aspects, and the twentieth century (and, thus far, the twenty-first) was peculiarly rich in absurdity.
Authority and guilt are also recurring themes in Kafka’s stories. His unfinished novel The Trial opens on a character named Josef K. being placed under arrest, but the arresting officers refuse to explain what agency they work for, what crime Josef has supposedly committed, or even whether he is being charged with a crime. He is “under arrest” but not detained, merely told to await further instructions. The whole story revolves around Josef K.’s efforts to find out who is even accusing him, and of what—efforts which ultimately prove futile.
One might not expect such a bizarre body of work to win an audience, but Kafka has had a zealous following for a solid century (he died due to complications from tuberculosis in 1924). Authors of horror, existentialist, and dystopian literature echo many of his themes: H. P. Lovecraft’s monstrous aliens which transcend human comprehension and George Orwell’s sterile and tyrannical bureaucracy in 1984 both suggest influence from Kafka, developed in differing directions. Filmmakers have also drawn on his writing a good deal. Terry Gilliam’s famously bizarre dystopian film Brazil is set in a universe highly reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial, and Martin Scorsese’s little-known black comedy After Hours is in some places an all but direct adaptation of the novel.
There is something in this dark absurdism that speaks to us. In a year like 2020, that is perhaps more immediately comprehensible, even to a relatively uninformed and casual observer. The world seems like a madhouse sometimes; Kafka, with his gift for seeing both the dark and the funny sides of the madhouse, can help us survive it and feel a little less alone within it.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, try one of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this profile of Euripides, this “Great Conversation” piece on the idea of God, or this essay on C. S. Lewis’ advice for reading old books.