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.
It is my hope that Griffith’s theory might give us a new oversight of the human condition that allows us to shed more light on the situation. Griffith says that all humans undergo a paradigm shift in the journey from a selfless state of childhood to an adulthood of egocentricity. He describes this transition as an act of “resignation.” Resignation, he says, has to occur because by adolescence the individual’s intellect has become developed enough to become aware of the distance between his or her own “corrupted” behaviour (corrupted through exposure to hurt during childhood), and ideal behaviour. Without an explanation for this corruption (a corruption that Griffith says has been tragically unavoidable), the resulting insecurity means that humans have had to completely resign themselves to a life of egocentricity. They have to constantly seek reinforcement to compensate for the insecurity, without being able to even acknowledge that they are insecure.
With that admittedly hurried summary I can now attempt to employ Griffith’s theory to understand how Kafka’s unhappy relationship with his father perhaps led to a “perverse” vision of egocentricity. If we accept Griffith’s theory and assume that like all of us Kafka was corrupted by the compromised nurturing he received as a child, then the resulting insecurity meant that he had to resign when he hit adolescence; but because of Kafka’s resistance to his father and the whole world that he represented, Kafka was in effect condemned to a dilemma. One horn of the dilemma was that he was insecure and needed to resign; the other horn was that he was unable to accept the resigned world because that was his father’s world.
So Kafka was stranded, but it appears that in being stranded he was at least afforded a degree of honesty about the human condition that wasn’t available to normal resigned adults, and this became the subject of his literature. Kafka eked out his reinforcement from between the horns.