Samuel Liu on Kafka and Biography as a Crime Against the Spirit
Every writer has an inner picture, an intuition or a sense of some constellation that they are trying to map onto the writing itself. There is some complex of movement, like a mobile scaffolding, that hovers in the back of the mind which the writer wants to externalize. If he could draw this thing, he would become a visual artist. But because the complex of movement can not be drawn, the writer sets out to write this thing out with the odor of an idea about it. The “philosophical novel,” for example Kafka’s The Trial, expresses some kind of sense that Kafka has about something. The Trial never directly asserts its philosophy. But it has the strong odor of ideas.
For this reason, The Trial is like a puzzle that one can keep trying to solve, and which rewards one constantly with a new picture, a new castle shape merging out of the disconnected black and white puzzle pieces, a sense of the holiness of snow falling upon the person trying to solve the book. But whereas a work of philosophy, or of science, like Newtonian mechanics or Kant’s critiques, can be taught to anyone, and its essence said to be contained, something that contains the odor of the idea (on the other hand) will never be fully stated, its theses never fully summed up, shattering instead into a thousand colors, a dozen new ways of being read.
A work of philosophy or science is like a crystal that, at first opaque, eventually becomes pellucid; you can see through it and say you understand it. But a work with philosophical odor is more like a prism, which can be seen at every angle, and which changes as you step around it, or turn the shining prism in your hand; how you read the work of philosophical color changes depending on where you stand in Time, what hour of the day it is, who you are, what kind of person you feel you are becoming.
If one were to take a guess, and to look at Kafka through one arbitrary angle, one would have to call what we see “the sense of the interrelational.”
Consider what happens when you have become familiar with a small store near your apartment. You go every day, you make small-talk with the cashiers, you buy the same item so that the cashiers know just what you want; they begin to change their stock to prepare for you; they slowly gather you into their daily life. You gain a reputation. You are “the guy who always comes in with flip-flops and socks;” you become a by-word and your name is remembered. Now here is the Kafka plot:
Imagine that you get a new job, and for one reason or another, discover a different store that you prefer; it’s cheaper. Now, every time you pass by the old store, a sense of guilt momentarily steps through you. Here is “the sense of the interrelational.” Imagine that one day a person who knows you goes into the store and says a bad word about you. Already your reputation was on the decline, perhaps they were a little offended about your not coming anymore. They had seen you walking by, and were discussing you less and less, you were less and less familiar to them; but now one person goes in and says something that besmirches your character just a little. Almost immediately, whatever good feeling about you resided in that store disintegrates and crumbles into atoms. One person went in with one word, and the scaffolding of that area, already rotting against you, was glad to be swayed against you and now decides against you. The next time you go in, completely unconscious of why this is, something about the scene feels like you are getting the cold shoulder. This is the heart of Kafka’s surrealism.
We may also call it, his dream-likeness, for surrealism is simply the refuge of the writer who feels that his dreams are more incredible than any stories of the real world. Just as how, in a dream, vast systems spin and click (like a city in a snow-globe), and things change without telling you, so also does this uncanny feeling of no longer being welcome occur because the relationships between the people in the store have changed; they have had a talk about you and their goodwill has dissolved. In short, something about you has changed, but you don’t know what; your dismantling was handled in the hands of a set of other people, a group, a class, a clique. For Kafka, this is the court of law.
Something is always being decided in the interrelations between people against K. that goes unsaid, which he thinks he has slight control over, which gives him the agony of action because K. hears that an appeal may be possible—it turns out that this rumor was given by an ugly official held in low repute, he was just saying this to try to get K. to like him—and no appeal is possible because his reputation has floated away from him and is constructed and taken apart by people whose opinions he has no control over. This strikes deep into the very depths of human psychology. Any reader of ancient Chinese court histories will know that to be ostracized is the sign of death.
When Kafka’s “father” sentences Kafka to die in water in “The Judgment,” this occurs because Kafka really believes that a person can command another to die; the person from whom the son receives all his approval, the father, has a special access point into the son and can command him to go kill himself. The son (a stand-in for Kafka) drowns himself. Likewise, when the feeling of the court moved against the Chinese court official, he would become depressed and eventually kill himself, or this was demanded of him with the present of a white noose. To lose the favor of the court, of the social circle, to be the outcast and the ostracized, this primordial fear is the source of the awful feeling of being one of Kafka’s protagonists, who are somehow, as in dreams, being secretly ostracized or accused without knowing in what form this occurs.
Kafka’s “The Judgment,” a very short story, is undoubtedly one of his greatest, by his own estimation especially. What most readers may not know is that after writing “The Judgment,” Kafka wrote out in his diary all the interrelations between the characters, between the son and the father, and the son’s friend. This summation reads like the text of an Austen novel in between the plot points. Kafka only felt that he had got out (of himself) the story when the story had established what was between each person; the interpersonal disarray, this strange logic of irony and misrelation, was at the heart of his inspiration and what he wanted to represent.
“The self is a relation that relates itself to itself,” writes Kierkegaard, one of Kafka’s idols. What this means is that, for Kafka’s characters, their relation to themselves, the firm establishment and the possibility of that self’s happiness, can only come through the relation to another person—for Kierkegaard this has to be God. For the son of “The Judgment,” on the other hand, the person who would establish his self-esteem as happy, his relationship to himself as happy, would be the father. Or, more precisely, that which would make him happy with himself would not be the father exactly, but the happy relationship between himself and his father. When this relationship fails, his relationship to himself is destroyed, too, ultimately leading to sui-cide, the self killing the self. This sickness is actually unto death.
A very startling thing occurs when one reads Max Brod’s excellent Kafka biography. It turns out that The Trial—that hymn of sourceless guilt—was written shortly after Kafka’s failed engagement to a woman; he felt that he had harmed her greatly and had led her on, in as tortured a fashion as Kierkegaard’s relationship to Regine Olson. In both cases, the author’s mental illness prevented him from understanding himself and thus ruined his ability to feel that another person could understand him. The presence of the non-sick other only increased his loneliness, his hatred and separation from himself, and hence his Despair. Now, let us imagine biography as a crime against spirit.
Once the “key” to The Trial is revealed, is it the case that we can now say “the whole time The Trial was just about his guilt that he couldn’t get over”—and, what, be bored by it? There is nothing that quite kills a writer like a biography of facts. These biographies recount the many details of his life in such a way that the writer whose works are power and prophecy becomes so mundane that the biography itself is the antidote to the writer’s power; he is dissolved in a biography of facts, analyzed and put on display like the bones of a whale, no Leviathan but museum curio. These biographies cripple the spirit of the author. We learn, for example, what Proust was like in so-called real life. The sage within the unspeakable realm of language departs when written about as a banal human of the factual world that is shared by everyone.
The way to understand this “key” to The Trial—the source of the nameless guilt and accusation, the important motivation of Kafka’s writing—is not a reductive biography. The key can be seen in a twofold manner: on one hand, the failed engagement is like a thorn in the reality of Kafka’s world, and this one is solved, amazingly, by a proper relationship in the human world, outside of art, in the form of another person. Kafka, Brod informs us, had a son he never knew of, who died at age seven. Brod thinks that should Kafka have known of the son—Kafka always wanted a son—he would have had the strength to fight his tuberculosis. In this way the problem of the failed interrelation is solved by a healthy human relationship.
Kafka’s failed relationship to his father would have been solved by the right relationship to his own son. Kafka, whose father killed him, would be saved not by his son, but by his daily holding of his son’s hand. Kafka, whose father killed how Kafka was to Kafka, would see in a little Kafka, bearing his own hated features, who he could not help but love—looking upon this little version—moved by ancient instincts of what he knows not, and to himself would be regained and resolved, for he would not be able to loathe himself through the child of himself. He would be forced to like himself. He would be confronted with the sudden liking of himself. For where Kafka’s father gave him death, his son would sentence him to a happy life. Where Kafka’s father inspired countless writing, his son would take him away from his writing, and give history less of Kafka. The father magnifies Kafka in history; Kafka’s son diminishes him and wraps him away into the tent of himself. Saving his father from death by water, Kafka’s son goes about with a spring in his step.
But while the solution to The Trial, the way to be freed from the tremendous accusation, would be something so simple that any normal person who is not Kafka is capable of it, namely, to find someone who loves you and to whom you are allowed to have the duty of love, to find someone who needs you and needs you to continue to exist—“you exist so your son does not go hungry”—this does not reduce The Trial to something that should just have been solved in life.
Though the problem was earthly, Kafka’s attempts to solve and diagnose this problem were made in pure logic. The beginning is the failed marital engagement; but the reply in the imagination operates in universal logic, free of the earthly. The disturbance of Kafka comes from a rock causing this horrible wave above itself that keeps sending out waves in the flow as of Time’s creek.
Kafka, floating upon those horrible ripples, spends every second analyzing the inconstant trial and builds up whole systems of imagination to predict it. He knows the ripples of the wave as well as the peasant knows the lice of the powerful gatekeeper. And the stone beneath him, because of the ripples that magnify it and exaggerate it, appears to him as torn-apart and diseased as a beast’s snout, as infinite, impossible, as rippled and mysterious, as God.
But while Kafka’s stone can be taken away by Kafka’s son, the edifice of pure logic that was built in The Trial stands and remains. Kafka uses the “higher than, higher than” logical operator, which plays a central role in Kant’s God antinomy, in that the logical principle of God comes about when a thinking person tries to take “higher than, higher than” to its final completion—an impossible attempt—and this is the source of the principle of God, the highest end and the conclusion of the series of questions. Likewise with the gatekeeper who says that the gatekeeper behind him is infinitely stronger, and the gatekeeper behind that one is even stronger; the Kafka parable uses the same logical recursion that apophatically approaches God without ever arriving at the entity which may or may not exist, but which certainly cannot be described, or approached, or be broken out of.
In sum, the interrelational in Kafka is twofold; the solution to The Trial resides in life, in finding a good human relationship; but Kafka’s attempts to solve that stone in the flow creates a work of pure logic that stands forever. Kafka’s inner movement—complex, secret, and hidden—finds its analogy in an external artwork. He tries to scratch that mystical itch by way of an imaginative story that would resemble the shape of what was hidden inside him, though it can never be exactly the inner picture. Not even in an isometric relationship to Kafka’s inner shape, it simply is the cast-off and run-off of Kafka’s failed attempt to be true to what he is inside.
An original writer and a derivative writer are differentiated like so: the original writer has the scaffolding of some inner world that is unlike anything ever seen in the world, and the failures of his art are the failed arrivals of that world in constant analogies to it, in shapes he finds that seem to harmonize with the shape in him that is not just invisible but can never be visualized. Just so, Kafka analogizes his powerful inner picture of the interrelational with The Trial’s system, with the meshing of circumstances and people-relationships that leads to K. failing in Court, to his being ostracized from himself. Destroying his self-relation, the Court decides against K. and K. slowly finds a way to die. He finds the Court officials and they lead him along and kill him for him. The guilt of his trial has so rotted his spirit that, before he is killed, the self has already killed the self. The sickness is cured only by death.
The biography is a crime against spirit, always. But the sage’s attempts to solve the biographical problem operate in logic that is not mundane. And Kafka’s relationship to himself was established by his father, who held up the baby to the mirror and showed him where he was and where he was not. Kafka’s relationship to himself was destroyed by the father’s disapproval. But Kafka’s way of “finding himself” is not in the father, but in his relationship to his father. It is not in the father but in the double-arrowed line connecting Kafka to his father. Thus, Kafka wrote “Letter to My Father,” in the attempt to reach the father. Kafka is not saved by the father, though he is condemned by him; rather, he is saved by the relationship between him and his father when it is restored to its natural circulation of water. If we think of this as a crude Taoist solution to the Jewish family drama, this would be boring; however, the metaphors seem to be in their proper places and suggest this of their own right.
Kafka had a son! How this would have changed the perfect systems of his works! …the very works that seemed inevitable, as if brought about from the nature of logic itself. But the story that Kafka would have written if, in the day, he had his son bouncing on his knee, would be no less a work of pure logic, because, even though the work of Kafka’s son would be written in the major musical key of having a son, it would still come about as an attempt to match the sense of the interrelational in him, to correspond correctly to the shape of the divine mystery in him. And the divine mystery seems to make sense. It always seems to be, in itself, simple and logical.
So, too the divine mystery has the clarity of the child, who professes a word upon a story that the rabbi, oft-laboring over, could not be freed from no matter how he tried to think it over, going over to the most learned for help and even praying to the god who was suddenly silent. The divine mystery has the simplicity of manner of a child who is very sure he is right about what he has seen. A rabbi may spend years poring over the parable of the Law, but the right child will see how obvious the story is.
Kafka may be stunned by the problems of his life, but this is because he cannot step outside of himself and look at the back of his head. Just as Kafka believed he was ugly even as women continuously found him attractive, so the child standing to the side solves Kafka’s problem simply by making the very obvious diagnosis. In this way a problem labored over for a century can be solved in an hour. For what cannot be figured out now is handed on to what comes after.
And there comes a time, when enough time has passed, that someone who is totally free of the beginnings of the questions finds the problem lying on a scrap-heap on the side of the road, picks up the book and, enumerating to himself what is wrong with it, thinks nothing of it and walks on, until many years later he comes to the debates of the rabbis and finds them puzzling over the thing that had taken him no effort. Bringing his solution before the Pharisees, he is stunned suddenly to discover that the powerful elders in fact are not at all powerful but simply stand, looming in the sun, far taller than him. Then the child must wonder what all the fuss has been about, for to him the ancient questions are nothing more than an afternoon of delight.
Samuel Liu is the Assistant Editor of Culture at Marginalia and a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His personal website is overnightamillionnooses.net