Originally published here.
“I walked through a long row of houses at the level of the first or second floor, just as one walks through a tunnel from one carriage to another. I walked quickly, perhaps also because the house was so rickety that for that reason alone one hurried. The doors between the houses I did not notice at all, it was just a gigantic row of rooms, and yet not only the differences between the individual apartments but also between the houses was recognizable…[At the end of the row] I stepped up to a group of men who seemed to be waiting against the wall near the opening of a stairway, on which there was a small amount of traffic. They were waiting in the way men in the country stand together in the marketplace on Sunday morning. Therefore it was Sunday too.”
On October 9th, 1911, Franz Kafka scribbled the above dream into his diary. Kafka started keeping a diary when he was 27 in an attempt to recharge his stalled creativity. The entries are a mix of freeform creative writing, a record of his daily life, including friends and love interests and a more sparing mention of his parents and sisters (whom he lived with) and, when he could remember them, an account of his dreams. The friend who appears most in his diaries by far is his best friend Max Brod who, somewhat ironically, would eventually be responsible for editing and publishing the diaries after Kafka’s death. Definitely some passages must have made for awkward reading for him.
Kafka wrote three novels (one of them unfinished) and countless short stories. All of his works contain their own special gleam of his brilliance. But the easiest way to observe his talent and understand what made him so unique is to just read one of his dreams.
This isn’t because his dreams were evidence of a superhuman psyche or something—most of them are pretty ordinary, actually. But the thing about dreams, and what makes it so difficult for most of us to recount our dreams later in real life, is that dreams usually involve a suspension of normal logic. There’s almost always a shade of the absurd or inexplicable—events end and begin, your surroundings evaporate and transform in this hard-to-describe “dream logic” way. But that undercurrent of absurdism that runs through all of our dreams was never a problem for Kafka. Kafka can describe the absurd in a way so natural and matter-of-fact that you don’t even question how illogical it is.
Take the conclusion of the dream above: “[The men] were waiting in a way men in the country stand together in the marketplace on Sunday morning. Therefore it was Sunday too.” If any of the rest of us had this dream and tried to explain how, while standing at the end of a tunnel-like row of apartments we suddenly realized it was Sunday, it would probably take a rambling paragraph-worth of explanation, and even then our point wouldn’t be understood as well as Kafka puts it in two sentences.
And herein lies Kafka’s superpower— the reason he’s beloved and remembered 100 years after his death: Kafka has the uncanny ability—unmatched by any other author in history—to present the absurd as totally acceptable fact.
But let’s back up a bit and get better acquainted with this superhuman.
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883 in the beautiful Eastern European city of Prague, in the Jewish quarters. Kafka’s Jewishness is the reason his first language (and the language he wrote in) was German, not Czech. He had a regular 9-5 stint at an insurance company all of his adult life. After work, after dinner with friends and maybe catching a show of the Yiddish players he was so fond of, he would write feverishly, late into the night.
When he died of tuberculosis exactly one month before his 41st birthday he was thoroughly, painfully disappointed with everything he had written in his lifetime, none of which had received much recognition, and most of which hadn’t even been published. He made Max Brod swear on his deathbed that he would burn all of his manuscripts upon his demise. And though it seems a bit unethical to renege on a promise with a dying man, the rest of humanity sure is glad that Brod totally defied this request. Instead, Brod (a writer himself) devoted his life to editing, publishing, and promoting all of Kafka’s works, ensuring that his friend took his rightful place in literary history.
When Kafka’s writing finally received its long-delayed recognition in the 1940s, it hit the literary world like whiplash. No one had ever seen this kind of writing before, and the public struggled to make sense of the fantastical realities that emerged from Kafka’s stories. His style was so new that it even spawned a new word: Kafkaesque.
One of Kafka’s biographers, Frederick Karl, gives a good explanation of this oft-misused word:
“What’s Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces—when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance. That is Kafkaesque.”
Take the plot of Kafka’s first-published novel, The Trial. Josef K wakes up in his apartment one day to find two policemen waiting outside his door to arrest him—though he is never told what for.
When presented with such an absurd predicament, Josef K doesn’t just accept this bizarre state of affairs without question, but nor does he rail against it in fury and frustration with all of the rational conviction that tells us a person can’t be on trial without knowing what he’s on trial for. Instead, Kafka creates a protagonist who has just enough skepticism that we the reader can see ourselves in him—we fall into sympathy with him because his is the most rational voice in the world we’ve entered. For everyone else in this world, they participate in the absurdism without seeing it as absurd, presenting it as total matter-of-fact.
You can see this is the scene that follows K.’s arrest, where he meets the policemen’s supervisor (a sensible-looking man) and lays out his concerns and questions:
“I’ve been indicted, but can’t think of the slightest offence for which I could be indicted. But even that is all beside the point, the main question is: Who is issuing the indictment? What office is conducting this affair? Are you officials? None of you is wearing a uniform… I require a clear answer to all these questions, and I’m quite sure that once things have been made clear we can take our leave of each other on the best of terms.”
K.’s speech is clear and reasonable, demanding yet deferential, and for a moment it seems like rational sense reigns again. Surely he’ll get a direct answer to all of this now?
But the supervisor replies:
“You’re under arrest, you’re quite right about that, but I don’t know any more than that. I can’t give you an answer to your questions, but I can give you a bit of advice: You’d better think less about us and what’s going to happen to you, and think a bit more about yourself. And stop making all this fuss about your sense of innocence; you don’t make such a bad impression, but with all this fuss you’re damaging it. And you ought to do a bit less talking, too.”
Not only is K.’s demand for answers met with a sharp refusal, but he’s given this unexpected warning. He’s told that his questioning and his fruitless attempts to apply sensible logic to what is so appallingly illogical, is not only going to get him nowhere, it’s actually hurting him. K.—and the reader—see the cause and effect of his actions in this world and we both begin to question our own rationality… Maybe the supervisor is right? Maybe he shouldn’t be talking like this if he’s making a bad impression? Maybe he shouldn’t make such a fuss…whatever that means?
The more K. succumbs to Kafka’s absurdism, the more the reader succumbs along with him. Eventually, K. starts taking his “trial” more seriously and, to that end, he starts compiling some “documents” to submit to the enigmatic courts:
“K. now had no more thoughts of shame, the documents had to be prepared and submitted. If, as was very likely, he could find no time to do it in the office he would have to do it at home at night. If the nights weren’t enough he would have to take a holiday. Needless to say, the documents would mean an almost endless amount of work. It was easy to come to the belief that it was impossible ever to finish it. This was not because of laziness or deceit but because he did not know what the charge was or even what consequences it might bring, so that he had to remember every tiny action and event from the whole of his life, looking at them from all sides and checking and reconsidering them.”
This dark, irrational world has finally enveloped K. along with the reader he’s been guiding. We no longer question the absurdity of the fact that K.’s preparing a defense against a charge he knows nothing about. Kafka has drawn the absurd so convincingly and irresistibly that we’ve started to accept it and relinquish our own logic.
Only the greatest authors can reach out and bend the minds of their readers like this. But Kafka didn’t write in order to wield this power. He wrote because he had to write (as many writers will say)—out of a compulsion to give shape to something inside of himself, painstakingly dragging it outwards. And though he died thinking he hadn’t accomplished this (or anything really), eventually his stamp would be felt. Even if there comes a day when all highschool students aren’t required to read his Metamorphosis, his influence will always be felt. Because from Kafka we gained a new picture of reality: a world governed by mysterious and inscrutable rules—a world that defies logic so naturally and absolutely that we realize there is no such thing as “logic” at all. What we thought was “logic” was just a system of beliefs that worked in our normal reality—but there can exist a new reality where they simply don’t work at all.