All Commentary
Wednesday, April 1, 1992

Kafka’s Bureaucratic Nightmares

Jack Matthews’ new play, An Interview With the Sphinx, published by The Dramatic Publishing Company, will also come out this spring in a special signed limited edition with The Logan Elm Press in Columbus, Ohio. His story “The Branch Office in Prague” (Dirty Tricks, Johns Hopkins) is based on Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”

During telephone conversations my abstracted vision sometimes idles over a very small, signed Marc Chagall print on our wall. This print is the familiar one which shows a bride and groom drifting eerily off the ground, with one side of them cast in relief against a vast white chicken, the size of a bed with clean sheets. But that’s not the extent of Chagall’s dream inventory, for it includes such bizarre objects as the head of a goat, the top part of a cello, elusively designed angels, and the head of a man wearing the billed cap of a 1920s streetcar conductor as he reads from a book.

These pleasantly colorful and expressive images of Chagall’s Jewish mysticism naturally bring to mind the darker, less colorful (if deeper, in the way of textual dimensions) images evoked by Franz Kafka, a writer who helped define the modernist obsession with deconstruction and angst. Indeed, Kafka’s nightmarish stories and novels occupy so unique a place in our sensibility that the word “Kafkaesque” is used and understood by people everywhere, even if they have never actually read anything he wrote.

But the truth is that many people have read his work. His story “The Metamorphosis” and his novel, The Trial, remain standard assignments in college literature courses. The former is especially memorable for its opening sentence, which informs us that one morning a man named Gregor Samsa awoke to discover that he had been transformed into a gigantic cockroach. What follows this nightmarish transformation is quite logical, in its way—a fact which renders everything as unsettlingly terrible as it is ridiculous.

It is not surprising that “The Metamorphosis” has become a classic of surrealism, giving a powerfully symbolic expression to an individual despair and uncertainty we have come to think of as uniquely ours—something poor Chaucer or Shakespeare or Dickens could not have understood. Kafka’s unforgettable images of dislocation seem to epitomize both the madness of the modern world and his own desperate neurosis—conditions hardly unrelated. The critic Philip Rahv wrote: “That Kafka is among the most neurotic of literary artists goes without saying. It accounts, mainly, for the felt menace of his fantastic symbolism and for his drastic departure from the well-defined norms of the literary imagination.”[1]

But Rahv goes on to say that such a formulation is not conclusive, for “Kafka is something more than a neurotic artist, be is also an artist of neurosis, that is to say, he succeeds in objectifying through imaginative means the states of mind typical of neurosis and hence in incorporating his private world into the public world we all live in.” Farther down the same page, he adds, “Neurosis may be the occasion, but literature is the consequence.”[2]

This is all true, and it is all worth saying. But what it neglects to say, and what is often ignored in critical commentaries upon the work of a writer whose visions have come to typify the darkest sort of existential despair, is the focus of so much irrationality and terror—for the “felt menace of his fantastic symbolism,” that Rahv saw in Kafka’s work, is typically focused upon some aspect of modern bureaucracy and its proliferation, along with its teratological outgrowth, the bureaucratic mind.

The Bureaucratic Mind

Monstrous in its hold upon us, the bureaucratic mind is sustained by the self-perpetuating mechanics of government and the claptrap of its own rhetoric. Marxist critics, in all their exotic colorations, have always taken, and will naturally continue to take, great care to avoid such an uncomfortable truth, for Marxists of all sorts (like the social insects generally) possess the bureaucratic mind and need political structure to provide them with security and self-definition. If Marxism is a substitute for religion, bureaucracy is its theology.

Obviously Kafka’s woeful parables are not about Marxism, as such; if they were, his work would be no more than the narrowest sort of propaganda and it would be hard to explain its continuing relevance today among readers of various ideological faiths. The object of his chronic dismay is something far more prevalent and insidious: at the heart of his obsessive and horrifying narratives is an unfathomable bureaucracy, one that has emerged through a combination of inertia, default, and the institution of political power, perpetuating itself by feeding upon the rights of the people it was ostensibly designed to serve.

Consider one of his most famous short stories, “In the Penal Colony.” It begins with an Officer proudly showing an Explorer (neither is given a name) a vast and intricate machine built for the administration of justice—specifically, the punishment of malefactors. Operating somewhat like a gigantic tattooing device, the machine is about to be used on a soldier convicted of insolence and sleeping on duty. This prisoner is so stupid, however, he seems hardly aware of the nature and significance of his crimes.

“Does he understand his sentence?” the Explorer asks.

“No,” the Officer answers. “He’ll learn it on his body.”[3]

And, indeed, that is how it works: The machine will imprint the “sentence” on his body, and justice will be served. This fantastic device was invented by The Old Commandant, now dead; indeed, we are told that the organization of the whole penal colony is his work.[4] No wonder his memory is held in such reverence and awe.

But it is the Officer who occupies the center of Kafka’s odd parable. He identifies the machine as the very principle of order in the world as he knows it, a world limited to the Penal Colony itself. Here is a man who craves some version of moral certainty in his actions; but for him, this must be a certainty that is conferred from without—which means it is programmed, and therefore not moral at all.

He is, in short, a perfect bureaucrat, and longs for the good old days. “When the Old Commandant was alive,” he tells the Explorer in a nostalgic moment, “the colony was filled with his adherents: In some measure I still possess his strength of conviction, but nothing of his power.” Then, pointing to the machine, he asks rhetorically, “Are we to allow such a creation as this—the work of a lifetime—to perish?”[5] Finally, in an extreme of dramatic irony that verges upon comic melodrama, the Officer himself is killed by the machine as it brutally continues to edify his corpse.

The Ordeal of Joseph K.

This theme of bureaucratic madness permeates most of what Kafka wrote, but its presence is nowhere more obvious than in his novel, The Trial. The title has two levels of meaning, referring literally to some ominous legal action to which the protagonist, Joseph K., is told he will soon be subjected, and figuratively to the “trial” of chronic anxiety he is forced to endure while he awaits his trial—an anxiety that begins the instant he learns that he is accused of some unspecified crime—a crime that is terrifying and destructive precisely to the extent it is left undefined. This could well represent a tyrannical conscience or superego,[6] of course; but it is also an image of the dehumanizing atmosphere created by the moral irresponsibility of bureaucracies.

Condemned to meander in a state of dreamlike vagueness from place to place, never able to forget that he has been charged with some sort of terrible though unnamed crime, Joseph K. suffers in ways that strike us as distinctly modern. In the ancient world, exile was often viewed as worse than death, for it meant much more than the loss of what we today would term “civil rights”; it meant an existential alienation so terrible that death was to be preferred.

While Joseph K. is not exiled from the world he knows, something even stranger and more horrible happens: Exile is brought to him, as it were, magically transforming all that was known and familiar. Joseph K.’s exile has been dropped upon him like some great net from which he will never escape, sensing only that behind that net there looms a great and shadowy bureaucracy—an entity as remote and powerful and incomprehensible as the “Castle” of Kafka’s second most famous novel. In his diary Kafka wrote, “A cage went in search of a bird.”

The central action of The Trial is Joseph K.’s painful struggle in trying to learn exactly where he stands with regard to the law, specifically, and the world, generally. In a way, his behavior, like that of Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” is itself quite normal; it is the circumstance of his sudden fate that is abnormal. Near the novel’s end, Joseph K. consults a painter named Titorelli, who tells him there are three possible outcomes to his struggle: definitive acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement. Hearing this, Joseph K. buys three paintings from Titorelli, one for each outcome, one might think, completing a pattern of symmetry that seems as oddly significant as most of what happens to him . . . but it turns out that it is finally as meaningless, for this transaction has nothing to do with the ramble-scramble evidence of some mysterious bureaucracy controlling every aspect of his life, functioning in some vast, ominous, shadowy realm just beyond the reach of his imagination.

Eventually, Joseph K. is killed, ending the trial of his existence before that other ghostly trial for an unnamed crime can take place—assuming that it ever would. Like most of Kafka’s narratives, this novel is dotted with strangely comic episodes; but the comedy does not provide release from the oppressive atmosphere of an irrational but omnipotent bureaucracy. In this, Kafka’s nightmare world is far different from that wonderfully crazy print by Marc Chagall I gaze upon when I talk over the phone . . . for in Chagall’s world, there is not only confusion, there is also joy; there is not only the threat of nightmare in the surrealistic superimposition of a bridal couple upon the flank of a vast white chicken, there is the grace of flight, freedom . . . . and color.

This is a far different realm from that reflected in Kafka’s black and white parables, where instead of buoyancy, there is only the heavy slogging of nightmarish struggle; and instead of joy, there is only the chugging of political machinery, mindlessly controlling everything—signifying a bureaucracy that has severed all connection with human need. Itself devoid of selfhood, this bureaucracy nevertheless creates scenarios in which selves become increasingly irrelevant—hardly more than feckless dreams flickering on and off in the crepuscular shadow of machines that mean nothing in themselves, but paradoxically in meaning that nothing, intend that nothing and no one else should ever mean anything, or have meaning . . . or deviate in any way from the absolute meaninglessness of their tyrannical power. []

1. Introduction to the Modern Library edition of Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka (New York, 1952), p, ix.

2. Op. cit.

3. Op. cit., p. 96.

4. Ibid., p. 92.

5. Ibid., p. 108.

6. For interesting though obvious reasons, Kafka’s work is rich in Freudian motifs.