Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died at the age of 40 (1924) by starvation (he had tuberculosis which made it painful to eat). He came from a middle class Jewish family in Prague.
According to Joachim Neugroschel, in the nineteenth century, traditional absolutes were being replaced with scientific and technological absolutes. With this shift, the concept of “nature” and “natural” shifted.
Neugroschel writes, “For Christianity and European civilization, “nature” has always been something to overcome, conquered, tamed, domesticated – subdued and subjugated for human use. The West draws an artificial line between “nature” and “human” or “man-made” – as if a beaver’s “natural dam” and an engineer’s technological dam were not subject to the same physical laws, the same “natural” laws.” But “natural” was also used to uphold the ethical. Some forms of behavior were attacked for being natural while others are upheld, like men’s dominion over women, Europe’s domination over the rest of the world, the nuclear family, family values, etc. To make things more confusing, “unnatural” is considered to be a put down. Fascism saw itself as lending mother nature a helping hand by killing anyone that the fascist state declared unnatural.
Kafka uses “nature” in an almost sort of divine sense. His protaganists very often have to pay a terrible price when they go against “nature” (like Gregor Samsa turning into a bug). The punishment is as severe as the punishment meted out by a vengeful deity in a Greek tragedy.
So the question becomes, how natural are these systems that have been deemed natural? Kafka wants to expose the destructive basis of systems but at the same time wants to restore things back to their “natural” order in some way.
My favorite stories in The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) are: “The Judgment”, “The Metamorphosis”, “In the Penal Colony”, and “A Report for an Academy”.
Kafka wrote “The Judgment” when he was 29. I think the story has to do with the changing times. The father held the punitive patriarchal role of the family, but the mother has died which has subdued him somewhat and the son has stepped in and assumed increasing responsibility of the family business. It seems to him the natural progression. But as the son has become more powerful, the father has become less powerful and sees this as a threat. The father is hugely judgmental, critical, says his mother’s death was harder on him than on the son and ultimately condemns his son to death. The minute the father starts lashing out at his son in this way, the son immediately cowers and reverts back to the original father-son relationship with father as all-powerful and son at his mercy. The son obeys his father and throws himself over a bridge.
Psychologically speaking (which would only be a very shallow interpretation) it is extremely difficult in households with controlling, judgmental parents for children to establish their own power and control. The individual is subjected to the judgment of the parent which declares the individual non-existent until he judges him as existent. Even as an adult, it is very difficult to establish a sense of self-mastery when the value of individual existence is left up to an authority figure.
In “The Metamorphosis”, the father has lost a lot of money which has depleted his strength and so the son has stepped in to become the sole income earner of the family and does a good job. This increases the power of the son and decreases the power of the father. When the son becomes a bug, the father’s power slowly increases and rapidly increases when he lodges the apple in Gregor’s back that leads to Gregor’s death.
“In the Penal Colony” has a slightly different theme, but I think it’s in the same ballpark. An officer has been maintaining an inhumane, elaborate execution system that his previous Commander built. People are judged as guilty without being able to defend themselves and without even being told that they have been judged. The apparatus works by writing the nature of the crime into the skin of the judged over and over again. By the 6th hour the judge finally realizes that he has been judged (enlightenment comes) and likewise recognizes the judgment. The officer explains the observance of the judge at this point as an almost spiritual experience. But a new commander is now in place and he is not in favor of this execution system. So the officer is trying to talk the traveler into telling the Commander that it is a beautiful system. The traveler says he can’t do this so the officer tells the condemned man to get off of the apparatus and places himself there instead. The apparatus malfunctions and stabs the officer through the forehead. There is no spiritual experience that takes place – no look of enlightenment. The expression the officer had before he was on the apparatus is the same as in death.
I think this story could be understood on many different levels. But what I keep seeing in Kafka’s stories is this idea of judgment. In a patriarchal system, the father who is head of the household and a Commander of a penal colony hold similar positions. They both function very much like the traditional abstract punitive God. In all of these stories, there is the sense that a new understanding is taking hold but this new understanding cannot be understood by those who still exist within the patriarchal system. (Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” can’t make himself understood, Georg in “The Judgment” realizes his father is senile and so cannot understand Georg.)
In “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis”, a shift is taking place that is disallowed by the power structure currently in place. In both stories, the father figure is waning (God is dying), but in a last burst of energy, manages to denounce the son and the son accepts this denouncement and dies. The old system remains in place, however tentatively. But clearly, this system is nihilistic rather than life giving.
“In the Penal Colony”, a new system is likewise taking the place of the old. A more humane view is replacing the previous, inhumane view.
God, in a patriarchal system, represented a deity who could give or take on whim. Disobedience was punished and very often, the punished didn’t know what it was he was being punished for. The same is true in the family structure. A child is affected for life by the punitive judgments of the father in a patriarchal household. It’s as though this judgment is being written over and over again into the child so that it is always with the child through adulthood and until death. The child must walk a slippery slope into adulthood because what he perceives to be the natural progression is perceived by the father as disobedience. This is true of patriarchal societies as well.
But in “In the Penal Colony”, the commander is dead. (God is dead) and has been replaced. There is a young officer fanatically trying to uphold the system that his Commander put in place, but he knows the system is no longer powerful. His apparatus is in disrepair and he suspects that it is scheduled to be destroyed altogether. But he is still a part of the system and cannot go on without it. As though the Commander (a potential father figure to the young officer) is judging him from his death bed, the officer intends to place himself on the apparatus and his judgment is simply “Be Just”. But rather than have this written on his body and having enlightenment come to him at the 6th hour, the apparatus malfunctions and he is killed immediately.
What does it mean to “be just”? Especially if God (the patriarchal system) has died or is dying and the system that had been based on this God is now malfunctioning?
In “A Report to an Academy”, and ape has become human and is making a report to a scientific academy. He was caged and pinned down and realized there was no way out. His only choice was to be stuck in a zoo or to become human. He decided it would be better to become human so he learned to imitate humans (which he found to be quite easy) and became so successful at it that he was able to perform on the Vaudeville stage. His only freedom existed in becoming something he wasn’t. The ape says, “I repeat: there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason.” At night he comes home to a half-trained female ape. But during the day, he doesn’t want to see her because her gaze has the madness of a bewildered trained animal that only he can see. He can’t stand to look at that gaze because it pains him too much.
This is another story that can be understood on many levels. But I think it still has to do with the idea of judgment. In a patriarchal society, it isn’t enough that we exist, we have to justify our existence in some way. And if we can’t justify it, then we die, either figuratively or physically. At the end of the story, the ape says, “In any case, I don’t want any man’s judgment. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Academy, I have only made a report.”
So another question: Does modern man truly live? Or does he simply report? Is he just more data to add to the formula Dostoevsky talks about in Notes from Underground? We’ve gotten rid of the punitive God, but are we now caged by our reason?