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  • Raphaël Duhamel

Unhuman Habitats: The Works and Worlds of Franz Kafka

There are few writers who are as infamously cruel to their characters as Franz Kafka - from Gregor Samsa to Josef K., his creations are squeezed into inhumane spaces and non-human bodies. Raphaël Duhamel explores the overarching similarities that appear across the most notable of Kafka’s literary achievements.

Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa Josef K
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

“[I]n no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength.” This quote, from W. H. Auden’s 1962 essay The I Without a Self, figures as a poet’s attempt to describe the uncapturable essence of Franz Kafka’s oeuvre. At the time of Auden’s writing – the apex of Kafka’s popularity – rarely had an author been so scrutinized for their uncanny merging of the realistic and fantastical, a literal take on the most seemingly surrealistic situations. From a “sort of monstrous insect” who worries more about being late to work than his newfound carapace (The Metamorphosis), to a bank employee prosecuted for an unspoken – and probably unfounded – crime (The Trial) and a land-surveyor prevented from working by the very fortress-state which summoned him in the first place (The Castle), Kafka’s weary protagonists inhabit tiresome worlds where the concept of a home, both literal and abstract, emerges as an unattainable luxury. Gregor Samsa and Josef K., amongst others, are eternal strangers in hostile environments, enduring long-lasting bouts of discomfort which often only resolve in death. The hardships they go through are as physical as they are metaphysical; their bodies are marked, wrung, starved and tortured, animalized and desacralized, the result of a lengthy process of dehumanization, mirroring the Prague-born author’s self-alienation. Uncomfortable in his own skin, barely a Jew in his own eyes, and even less of a Kafka – hard to imagine a son so distinct from his father – Franz’s displaced identity bears witness to the blurred boundaries of his fictional worlds, filled with cramped spaces and polymorphous characters.

The opening lines of The Metamorphosis, probably Kafka’s most famous work, encapsulate his darkly ironic tone. Gregor, having just awoken and noticed his novel form, labels his bedroom as a “proper human room, if admittedly rather too small.” This dry-witted statement, apparently unexceptional, in reality contains the truth of the novella: were it a proper human room, Gregor would not feel the need to specify it, an implication which he unwittingly confirms by acknowledging that it is, actually, too small for a grown man. Furthermore, since the Samsas have been living there at least since Gregor was in elementary school, the quote hints at the fact that Gregor, really, was living in bug-like conditions long before he actually became one. If, like many scholars such as Günther Anders have argued, The Metamorphosis presents a literalization of the metaphor – Gregor is not like an insect, he is an insect – then it is a process which started long ago, when the self-sacrificing anti-hero became a traveling salesman to pay off his family’s debt.

The Castle and The Trial provide innumerable other examples of architecturally unfit spaces, which give the novels their nightmarish quality. In the former, the land-surveyor K. stalks the corridors of the Herrenhof Inn and discerns how “the walls did not go all the way up to the ceiling,” already barely high enough for a grown man; in the latter, Josef K. seeks the painter Titorelli’s help with his case and, at his studio, notes that one “couldn’t take much more than two long steps either up and down or across it,” with “narrow gaps visible between the planks” and an unbearably stuffy air, not helped by a lone window which cannot be opened. Both cramped and porous, these ambiguous territories rarely enable the characters to rest, speak, or conduct any business uninterrupted, often disturbed by noises of all kinds – and even little girls’ arms and legs, as in Titorelli’s office – swarming through.

Yet the permeable boundaries which populate Kafka’s worlds are, at times, scarcely recognizable as such. The 1926 novel’s eponymous and despotic Castle, for instance, rules over the village and its fearful inhabitants, although K. is told that there is “no distinction between the local people and the castle,” a community both separate from and conjoined with the fortress. And when the protagonist, in conversation with Castle messenger Barnabas’ sister, enquires about the labyrinthine administration, he learns that the barriers inside the Castle aren’t actually “distinct dividing-lines,” that Barnabas has passed through some although “they look no different from those that he has never crossed.” The Castle is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. (Michael Haneke’s 1997 adaptation skilfully replicates this disorientating impression by showing K.’s peregrinations only in profile, in extensive tracking shots. The ungraspable Castle is never represented and the audience only gets to see, like a two-dimensional picture, the purposefully cardboard-like backdrop of K.’s travels).

Kafka’s 1915 parable, “Before the Law,” already recounted the story of a man from the country who asked to be allowed into the Law. The doorkeeper refuses to let him through – the time will come, he says, although there are many more doors and doorkeepers waiting behind this gate. The man from the country thus waits, for years on end, until he nears death and the doorkeeper finally reveals that “this entrance was intended for [him] alone.” Beyond the multiple possible interpretations of this parable, we find here again the crux of Kafka’s art: his closed doors, narrow corridors and impossible staircases surely could not have been designed for humans – and yet they have. One can see where the existentialist interpretations of Kafka originate, his characters being cases in point for existence preceding essence, wandering in search of absurd answers. His spaces, too, lack any logical core: for Deleuze and Guattari, the law’s impenetrability in The Trial is a matter of spatial contiguity, its offices always somewhere else, “in the office next door, or behind the door on to infinity,” like the court bureaus oddly situated behind Titorelli’s attic. The barriers are there and yet they aren’t; Barnabas works for the Castle, although he isn’t an official employee, and Titorelli reminds Josef K. that “unrecognized positions ([…].) are often more influential than publicly recognized ones.”

David Spurr already identified, in The Castle, a “general erasure of boundaries” which provides the framework for a “narrative of multiple transgressions” – an observation which very much applies to Kafka’s whole oeuvre. One recurrent and notable transgression, aided by his worlds’ porous frontiers, is that of the public and private: the characters’ homelessness and discomfort, by extension, implies a strongly felt lack of intimacy and privacy. This sentiment led many post-war scholars to see in Kafka the foretellings of 20th century totalitarianism and, in Theodor Adorno’s case, the consequences of late-stage capitalism. Secretary Bürgel, in The Castle, lays it out by confessing to K. that they, civil servants, “see no difference between ordinary time and time spent working.” The annihilation of private and public distinctions, unsurprisingly, results in total alienation.

The bed, more than any other household object or motif, symbolizes this eradication of intimacy. Our first points of contact with Gregor Samsa and Josef K., for instance, happen in the early morning, as the protagonists are roused from sleep to find themselves in the most troublesome predicaments, ones which will never let them rest peacefully again. Little sleep is to be found in Kafka’s works, only temporary respite, just enough to keep going until the next impasse – a plight which Gregor failed to avoid, he who locked his door at night and, initially, thought of simply going back to sleep to “forget all this foolishness.” (Significantly, whereas his mother’s first reaction is to get a doctor, his father calls for a locksmith). Fittingly, beds themselves are almost never used for sleep or sex: in The Castle, which features one of the rare explicit sex scenes in Kafka’s works, K. and Frieda embrace amongst puddles of beer on the stained floor of the Herrenhof Inn; Gregor’s father, in The Metamorphosis, prefers to sleep in his chair, keeping his sullied uniform on; the judge in The Trial receives Josef and his uncle in a bed, made into a desk, much like Titorelli, who welcomes the accused in an improperly buttoned nightshirt, his bed filling up the space in the studio; and in the ghastly short story A Country Doctor, the titular physician is stripped of his clothes and shoved into bed with his patient, a sickly boy with worms eating up his right side. Kafka’s characters, often described as lost souls in purgatory, are also sleepwalkers who are never really where they should be, never fully awake nor unconscious, never wholly working nor resting.

The Castle perhaps contains the most significant episode in that regard, when K. mistakenly enters secretary Bürgel’s room at the Herrenhof Inn, inadvertently rousing him from sleep. Close to exhaustion, K. sits on the edge of the loquacious secretary’s wide bed and gets roped into an interminable conversation, which could have been fruitful had he not been so tired. The land-surveyor inevitably falls asleep for a short moment, on the edge of the mattress, a brief nap which K. celebrates like a “great victory”: this is, undoubtedly, as good as it gets for a Kafkan character. One can only hope to adapt, like secretary Bürgel, “so used to the coming and going of members of the public” that he sleeps better with company.

Still, the erasure of boundaries mentioned by Spurr is perhaps most visible in Kafka’s animalized characters. Once Gregor’s transformation has been acknowledged by the Samsas, it is said that “[t]here was no sound of the door closing again; no doubt they had left it standing open, as one sees with apartments in which a great calamity has occurred”: the protagonist’s novel form has disturbed the usual frontiers of their world, more permeable than ever. Deleuze and Guattari saw in these metamorphoses a line of escape, a beast-like answer to the dehumanizing rule of law: “to become a beetle, to become a dog, to become an ape […] rather than lowering one’s head and remaining a bureaucrat, inspector, judge, or judged.” In that sense, Gregor’s insect-state is a visceral, bodily reaction to his enslavement by his family and occupation as a traveling salesman. Josef K., similarly, exclaims, “Like a dog!” as a knife is plunged into his heart, and the narrator specifies that it “seemed as if his shame would live on after him.” Their escape towards the animal, whether literal or figurative, whether willed or suffered, is more of a detour than a liberation: the humiliation is such that, ultimately, death presents itself as the only acceptable – and perhaps desirable – exit.

The feeling of perennial displacement which distinguishes Kafka’s characters, unsurprisingly, exemplifies the Prague-born author’s own enduring discomfort. A sickly man for most of his life, Kafka considered himself too weak to be a worthy son or husband, his body an inadequate cage for his troubled mind. This perceived ineptitude is palpable in his prose, typically unrelenting yet fluid, restless and tense, most notably in the opening pages of The Metamorphosis which contain long sentences, interspersed with commas, with almost no deletions in the original manuscript until the first chapter’s end. But as a man of paradoxes, Kafka is also known for his fragmented compositions, morcellated and unfinished pieces – The Metamorphosis is one of the rare works which he completed and published in his lifetime – revealing his own dissatisfaction with conventional literary forms. Deleuze and Guattari, who considered Kafka’s literature a “minor” one – as in a minority’s take (i.e., a Prague Jew) on a major language (German) – cited the author’s self-defined threefold quandary thus: “the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise.” Kafka, indeed, was self-avowedly “made of literature,” although the oppressive German language which he wrote in was always both inappropriate and inescapable, the ghost of Czechia haunting him despite the “irreducible distance” from his family’s primitive territory. “What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself,” he asked in his diary at the dawn of World War I. At home nowhere, not in his country, language, family, body or religion, Kafka seemed to have felt like a minor man, soul and writer. When Kafka died, in June 1924, of laryngeal tuberculosis, he was not able to feed himself, and the story goes that he was editing, on his deathbed, A Hunger Artist, a short story about a man who makes an art out of starving himself. The tale famously ends with the protagonist, breathing his last, confessing that he had made a show out of his hunger only because he “couldn’t find a food which [he] enjoyed.” One could say, in a cruel case of life imitating art, that Franz Kafka never found a life to his taste. ▲

Raphaël Duhamel is a Paris-born, London-based screenwriter and an Oxford graduate in Film Aesthetics.

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