The Shame of Franz Kafka – 15 July 2015

Kafka was painfully earnest, in all moods, but never as intensely as in defense of himself. Not his looks, his sense of masculinity, but the defense against his right to existence, and each time one of his stand-ins dies, he’s letting these personalities, so vividly abstracted allegories, become a way of accepting judgment of himself. Kafka wasn’t unsuccessful, not by modern terms. He held a series of jobs in law offices, but was as naturally talented as Schiller and Goethe, and more intensely naked. He exposes himself and allows, beckons the jeering of the crowd, as he does in his final story A Hunger Artist. It is the most kafkaesque thing Kafka ever created.

It is not his most popular story, but in it, a performer fasts for a record number of days, and this is much to the enjoyment of fans. A hunger artist went days without eating, showing their strength. A drop of water daily, not a bit of food, and his features become emaciated and rigid as stone, as a corpse, and it is his greatest thrill for those watching to be entertained by his self-mutilation and starvation. It is an allegory of his fans.

While he wrote this story, Kafka was unable to eat anything without great pain from what eventually killed him, laryngeal tuberculosis. He died 4 days after his hunger artist reveals the truth about his performance, his public performance of his acceptance of death and nothing and the long intensity of silence, he admits that had he only found something to eat, he would have been more admirable. He simply didn’t have an appetite, and was not to be admired. Indeed, he is replaced by an animal, a panther, that is voraciously hungry and full of rigor and vitality. The hunger artist died while a crowd cheered for his dumb replacement, the blood and devouring of flesh over simple, existing without need for approval or admiration, it is, in the face of death, saying, death cannot bring this much pain to me. Take me, you Coward of a god, take me if you dare. He said this to everyone, the judges, his father, though he deeply wanted his approval, or at least his sympathetic understanding. I have no father figure as degrading and imposing as Herman Kafka. No, mine was a Noble man. Herman, sharing a name with Kafka’s abusive father. My father Herman is in no sense the obvlious, insensitive father Franz had to endure, but there are specifics that are uncanny. Kafkaesque.

He is that rarely genuinely gifted writer of great drama amidst a period of utterfluff in Europe (with few exceptions) and he was worthy of recognition, every bit as much as Goethe’s tiresome, Romantic Sorrows of Young Werhter whose titular young Werther, a stand-in for Goethe, (Gerh-deh, is one way to say it) and Werther, (pronounced Ver-tah), a mary sue if you will. He devotes his life to a vain, arbitrary opportunist who hangs on while he devotes himself utterly and flatters the object of romantic obsession. When the relationship turns sour, he simply understood and Goethe, unlike Werther who killed himself over the woman who had spurned him, he grew up; he was accepted, his work was the first true international best-seller, praised by commoners and royalty, even Napoleon, bragging of how many times he read it. Had the conquerors after Napoleon (long dead by the time Kafka was writing) read the works of Kafka, the greatest Czech writer in history, perhaps their romantic notions of war and themselves as great powers and conquerors would have been deflated, showing them as tiresome, arbitrary statues incapable of understanding the suffering of another, seemingly meek man.

There is a nagging need in all writers, I think, to be a type of performer, to hear applause and to read praise, and it is that nagging need of validation that Kafka has for his fathers approval, or just to hear him say, “It’s okay you’re you, that is more common than you would think, and not just with fathers, with anyone worthy of your love, unlike Franz’s. One of the turning points of his life was a rather common one: one night the young Franz cried out for water. His father exploded. He pulled him from his bed in nothing but his night shirt and took him onto the patio and left him there all night in nothing but his night-shirt, alone, afraid, and freezing. After this, he wrote, “I was quite obedient.”

This episode works its way into his work, too, with remarkable emotional poignancy and depth. Over and over in his work are figures of arbitrary power, judges and trials, and the family who decided he should just go off and die in The Metamorphosis — after they see him as perhaps saw himself, a bug, akin to a bedbug, meek and powerless, but always obliging. He had this persistent fear that some great power, under which he was significant to the point of less than mattering, less than being of consequence, but arbitrarily existing in its sphere of influence and authority. Kafka always relented under these figures, in The Judgment when the narrator’s father is sickly, his son is praised and adored as a great caretaker. But upon his recovery, he realizes, he didn’t need his son after all. He commands him to commit suicide, and Kafka, ever obedient, duly obliges.

My relationship with my father has no such moment of arbitrary cruelty, but there is a moment that stands out. Well, a few, and these symbols creep into my fiction over and over. It is a type of reverse allegory, projecting your life in a distorted mirror to tell an essentially, emotionally true story as confession disguised as fiction. I have avoided the moment, as you would’ve seen from reading that last paragraph, because I’m trying to go through a series of moments, to see which one is comparable to that of Herman Kafka leaving Franz on the patio in his nightshirt. There are three candidates for this moment of arbitrary horror, but the following has been the most long lasting and traumatic.

When I was 13, my brother and I would sometimes sneak a cigarette from a pack lying around the house and hang out the back door and smoke during the night, my brother standing lookout while I leaned out of the back door blowing smoke into the wind. If our father got out of bed, my brother would tap twice on the kitchen door and I’d drop the cigarette in a cop of water (we’d been found out by a flickering ember from a tossed cigarette that by chance landed on a bag of trash), slide the door against the sock in place, lock it, and move as quickly back into the bedroom as possible. He just as good as caught us that night, as he was on the threshold of our bedroom (the kitchen and backporch just beyond), and claimed to smell smoke in the air. That night we decided we wouldn’t sneak and smoke out the back door anymore: we would cut a hole in the mesh of our bedroom windows so we’d be able to fling the cigarette and be back in bed before he, with his limp and emphysema, could make it to our room and catch us.

Two days later, after using a boxcutter to cut out the mesh just beyond the raised window – we’d found out it was more than just a mesh screen, as we had thought, as the air came rolling in when we opened the window, quietly as to not wake our sleeping father on the other side of the house. It went well. We both got to smoke in relative peace, finished, dropped it in a bottle of water, and then dumped the water and cigarette into the toilet, flushing it away. We left the window up, hoping the smell of smoke would be out by the time he got up the next morning. We fell asleep with the window up, and in the summer in the South it is often chilly in the morning, or at least cold enough that it wasn’t uncommon to see young boys and girls with jackets on in the morning and tank-tops and t-shirts by the end of the day. I was awake when my father passed the window the first time. I closed my eyes as he passed, doing that “pretend to sleep” face all children must learn, and waited on the sound of the percolator and his breakfast. Shortly after sitting down, he stood, I could hear the chair being slid back ever so slightly against the polished linoleum floor. The feet drew closer – he was at the window, I could sense his presence there in the room, and – strangely, I realized then what I should have the before: the tell-tale window was confessing our crimes for us, as we lay just a few feet away. The sound of his labored walking trailed off toward the living room, ah, I remember sighing with relief. He had gone back to bed. I was tired, and suddenly less anxious, and I closed my eyes to go to sleep. For real. My brother asleep beside me, I got comfortable and closed my eyes.

Just as I relaxed, the covers were pulled from me, and then my father got me by the leg and swinging a leather belt beat me over the back for a couple of minutes until my little brother woke up. He started whipping Kyle while he was still asleep, waking him up to a confusing ogre of a man beating him, and unaware of what crime could bring this about. What had he done, the younger Nobles with the cigarette at the window, to wake to the sound of leather cutting the air and only slowly recognizing the brutality of the blows as they fell upon him? He would develop insomnia and anxiety after that, as did I. It persists, the anxiety and the insomnia. I sometimes imagine closing my eyes and relaxing my guard only for, at that moment, a beast of a man to appear above me just to beat me for my crime.

It’s easy to say this is common, the disciplining of children, but this gave me this almost unconscious fear of allowing myself to be seen exhausted for the very reason that sleep is something I put off, for when I dream I wake to the blows of an elderly man, a good man by all accounts, beating two sleeping children with the strength natural to an army officer. My father was a Private first class and sent to boot camp at Ft. Jackson; he was not unique among army men for their trust in spanking, disciplining, or otherwise intentionally inflicting harm in children for their misdeeds. My father believed in this very passionately, often, but more rare than his father had beaten him. My mother’s father committed suicide on his patio near the bus-stop where my mom and her sister Virgnia (my aunt Jenny) got off the bus to walk the alley-way through the apartments to their trailer behind the mill, where they found him dead, still holding the gun but feebly. My mother has this terrible sort of face whenever she sees a schoolbus, and I think that when she does she remembers walking up those steps to find her father — what had been her father — with a gaping wound in his head and one half-opened eye, peering at her in death. To see a schoolbus and have that sort of Proustian memory of a father’s suicide must, at least, be considered somewhat Kafkaesque in its arbitrary horror.

I am not comparing myself to Kafka as a writer: I have no comparable talent, wit, imagination, or even the pride of Kafka, but I share his sense of unworthiness, shame, and lack of pride; his style of allegorical confessional is a great and cathartic way of excising personal demons (as I have tried to do here) and surviving judgments one might not otherwise survive. Kafka is a monument in world literature, but during his lifetime he struggled to sell his stories, publishing one collection of short stories before his death. The rest? He tore them apart because he was so displeased with them. Now, not all people deeply unsatisfied with their work are secret Kafkas, but statistically speaking, there may be a living Kafka now, so ashamed of his own material he’d never show the world. Perhaps he’s failed to have some books published, or he never really got on with his father. Perhaps forced to live a life of unsteady jobs utterly beneath him. Perhaps, but it is not me.

Kafka is one of humanity’s great cultural heroes, and the Kafkaesque not just a byword for weird; it is the great eye of alienation that one recoils from in all bouts of true, existential crisis, when one finds themselves in an emasculating, alienating, deeply paranoiac, deeply confusing, judgmental world, with eyes and verdicts and pointing fingers in every mirror and window; everywhere a judge waiting to render a verdict on whether or not you deserve to exist. You do; you don’t need your father’s approval (or mother’s, or your friends’) anymore than Kafka did. It is a great tragedy that in his brief life on this Earth very few realized his genius, his talent, and above all, his generosity: he gave the world some of the best stories in centuries, including short stories such as The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and The Hunger Artist and his novels The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle. He is a monument to anyone who ever felt slight in regards to a terrifyingly large and arbitrarily cruel world, for anyone every utterly embarrassed of their writing and deeply unforgiving of their own failures, imagined or not. For that we must be grateful of his many gifts and be sure to take the time to read his work.

“A book must be the ax for the frozen seas within us, ” – Franz Kafka, 3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924 (aged 40).