Franz Kafka was one of the most intriguing writers of the 20th century. An anecdote might be the best way to illustrate some of the questions that surround him: 1929 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann lent Albert Einstein a copy of one of Kafka’s novels. Einstein tried to read it but ended up giving it back saying, "Couldn’t read it for its perversity. The human mind isn’t complicated enough."
The anecdote contains some of the main elements that surround Kafka: Mann obviously thought him noteworthy; Einstein didn’t like the book at all; and, according to Einstein, Kafka depicted a perverse world. On this last point there is general agreement: Kafka’s books depict life as a bizarre and maddening maze of bureaucracy where people are accused of crimes but are never told what they have done wrong. The term "Kafkaesque" has become part of the English language, meaning that something is overly complex in a seemingly pointless, and often disturbing way.
I want to try and see if I can make sense of what confounded Einstein, in particular: why didn’t Kafka just "make the best of life" like others do and accept our ego and egocentric lives? To attempt this I am going to use two tools: the first is Kafka’s own 41-page "Letter to his Father"; and the second is an interesting theory on the biological roots of the human condition that I have recently stumbled upon. It is by the Australian biologist and author Jeremy Griffith.
First, the "Letter to His Father": a few choice quotes will give a quick idea of the tone of the letter. The first line is as follows: “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you.” It goes on, “the next external result of this whole method of upbringing was that I fled everything that even remotely reminded me of you. First the business…etc.” And one final quote: “between us there was no real struggle: I was soon finished off; what remained was flight, embitterment, melancholy, and inner struggle.”
It is an extraordinary document on so many levels. That Kafka could be so articulate about his father’s egocentricity and his own co-dependence with him is not the least of them. However it does not answer the question of why Kafka’s vision resonates with us to such an extent.