Literature’s Unifying Force

Mary Kathryn Gough
11/11/05 Project #2

The Unifying Force of Kafka’s Literature:

Drawing a Dual-Hearted World Together in Unity of Spirit

“Could not then art and literature in a very real way

offer succor to the modern world?”

~Aleksandr.Solzhenitzyn

Of all malicious lies, the most sprawling and successful is the one which whispers softly, compellingly, under everything that happens to us: “You are helpless, powerless in the face of it all. You can change nothing, and nothing you do will ever change.” This lie is detrimental to our created beings. It blows fate full of hot air, making it huge and menacing, and weaving other people and circumstances into a gigantic web meant to isolate us, undermine and invalidate us, and finally bring us down, hobbled by our own belief. It blinds us to the Truth: that our tools are organically part of us, and that our effect, or force in the world — each of us — is immense.

One witness to this truth, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is world literature, which has the effect of unifying us in sympathy of spirit across borders of nationality, distance, and disinterest. Franz Kafka’s work makes a good study in the significance of literature in Solzhenitsyn’s sense. At the same time, his life allows a look at the question of whether the value of a writer’s work is affected by the way they live out their personal lives. In Prague, Kafka’s writing has been seen as defining the city, the country, and the times – despite the fact that he wasn’t an overtly political writer, writing exclusively of familial ties and psychological trauma. The identity crises he depicts serve as an arena in which anyone can identify with the experience of Kafka’s country as it was abused by the father-figure of an oppressive regime. And yet in failing to write his way out from under the immense burden of his life, Franz Kafka appears to have delivered himself into the hands of a craftily looming lie – but how, if at all, might that fact affect the force of his contribution to world literature?

A world with two hearts…

The Largest Lie’s best tactic in convincing us of our impotence is to confuse knowledge with causal power. If we do not know what the overarching logical structure looks like, its ominous whisperings say, and if we are really so small as we (truly) are, then we cannot logically engage in the structure and therefore possess no leverage. Thus, our effect in the world is all for naught; our existential force is negated. This lie takes hold of every situation, driving home to us the simple fact that we are not in control. And if we cannot create our own greater logical structure within which to posit our own significance, then our every action must be lost to us and to everyone else. Meaningless. The complex and tragic truth, however, is that neither the deceived nor the more clear-sighted can escape making their immutable mark on the world. We do make difference. And yet the greatest potence of our being lies in sympathetic unity.

Upon his 1970 receipt of the Nobel prize, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke of the many visions of the world being so painfully diverse that, in order “to prevent discomfort, we dismiss all alien [ones] out of hand… confidently judg[ing] the whole world according to our own homegrown scale” (ASCEaDM, 563). He explains that it is because of this tendency to build our life’s vision solely from the basis of our own experience that our world, though “physically compressed,” is “restrained from merging spiritually [as] molecules of knowledge and sympathy are prevented from leaping from one half to the other” (ASCEaDM, 570,emph. add).

Solzhenitsyn saw a “torpid inability to understand someone else’s grief” afflicting the entire world, and stated that when “given six, four or even two scales of values there cannot be a unified world, a united humanity. We shall be torn apart by this difference in rhythm, the divergence in frequency of oscillation. We could not manage to survive on one Earth, just as a man with two hearts is not long for this world” (ASCEaDM, 565).

A man with two hearts. Is this our problem? Not a multiplicity of logics and systems but a multiplicity of hearts, of deceived and isolated world-ego realms? The question and the solution then become ones Solzhenitsyn himself expresses clearly for us, asking who it is with the capability of

…impress[ing] upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far-off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature (ASCEaDM, 565, emph add).

If this is true, then when we look at the writer of literature (in this case Franz Kafka) we ought to be able to trace the unifying force of his work.

Kafka’s Inner Impetus

Beyond literature’s societal impact, what can we make of the personal reasons that drive an artist to express and re-member the meaning in past events? Vaclav Havel defines art as “a distinctive way of seeking truth — … that is, chiefly the truth of the artist’s inner experience,” and based on that definition there is “only one art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth, or perhaps the urgency and profundity of this truth” (LIT, 131). It would seem that authors anywhere in the world who allow those qualities to permeate their works, are either nourished and transformed by their task, or are crushed by the burden it becomes. Take Franz Kafka, native of Havel’s Prague.

Kafka’s life (1883-1924) was largely defined by the Largest Lie– that he was helpless and without impact in the world. He spent his entire life writing about vanquished sonship in a vain and unrecognized fight with his father. All his works “depict the impossibility of becoming an adult,” which was by far the most overarching feature of his life, never changing to the very end (TS, xiii). According to Mark Anderson, Kafka’s literary identity rested on his identity as a son, an identity he never surpassed. When he finally tore himself away from home to live with the woman he wanted to marry, he was forbidden to do so, and within one year had died of tuberculosis (TS, xx). Even in death Kafka is buried as a son: beneath the family tombstone, his name carved directly above his father’s (TS, xx). A single glance at his life raises innumerable questions: is it fair to see Kafka as a vanquished son? Was he too self-absorbed in his writing? Did his trapped, fatalistic lack of vision keep his writing from achieving for Czechoslovakia what, say Dostoevsky’s writing achieved for oppressed Russia? Does the fact that he never broke out of his caged child’s life make a difference to the value of his contribution to world literature?

Kafka’s writing was, perhaps, his one source of self-esteem — in his letters to his first fiance, Felice, he describe his stories as his children, his progeny (TS, xv). He also admits to her that he never would have asked for her hand in marriage if he had not had The Sons published, as if he “needed the social legitimation that only a published work could confer” (TS, xv). It is easy to see that his position as ‘father’ of these ‘lads’ (his stories) gives him a basis for a powerful identity he doesn’t have elsewhere in life. In the opinion of Mark Anderson, it is “in writing down their stories of suicide, grotesque metamorphosis, and banishment to America, [that] Kafka rises above their fate, can control it with the sovereign hand of the author, can dispose of their lives like an almighty father” (TS, xiv). Solzhenitsyn describes this type of authorship as that of an artist who “imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world,” taking “total responsibility for it. But [who] collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as…, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system” (ASCEaDM, 558). Kafka’s method of (bitterly small) triumph led to his being remade in the image of the Patriarch he so despised, and thus his writing couldn’t serve its intended function of giving him free identity.

After “The Judgement,” writing became for Kafka “increasingly… a means of doing battle with his father, and patriarchal authority in general” (TS, xvi). One commentator notes something Kafka wrote “in reference to ‘The Judgement,’ [which] reads: ‘Thoughts about Freud, naturally'” (TS, viii). In fact, he combatively dedicated one work to Hermann Kafka — though his father never cracked the book open to see why, only ordering that it be placed on his bedside table. The luminous clash in the bedroom scene of “The Judgement” is not something one simply imagines, no matter how great a writer one is. It is a symbolic set up, staged precisely in order to express Kafka’s inner experience of his father’s involvement in — and destruction of — his life. The similarly codependent nature of Franz’s tie to his family and Georg’s to his are striking. Franz’s father wanted him to become a man, but would also turn on his every success and opportunity and cut him down to size. In just the same way, Georg’s aging father leaned on him and could barely make it to the bed, so tired and unable to care for himself did he seem. And then, suddenly, turning on his son in a luminous and clear-headed outburst, the father rises from the bed, belittling Georg, castigating him for remaining a child, and betraying his son by revealing that he’s been surreptitiously ruining the boy’s reputation. Rather than bestowing the traditional paternal blessing to go out into the world and wield the influence given him as wisely as he knows how, Georg’s father cuts his son’s legs out from under him, leaving him cowering in a corner of the bedroom in shell-shocked awe: a child again. Finally, Georg’s father ends his tirade by saying, “So now you know there is more in the world than just you. Till now you’ve known only about yourself! An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more you have been a devilish human being! — And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning!” (TS, 15). Georg immediately flees from his father, his ears ringing, and jumps off a bridge, proclaiming his undying love for his family.

Just when the almost-man could have crossed over into adulthood, recognizing the world beyond himself — his father plays at cruel, Judgemental God-hood instead of granting a blessing to his autonomy. Oddly, this seems to be Kafka’s own tactic with his ‘sons’– to play celestial ‘house’ in his works with an Almighty overbearing Judgement that leaves the boys mute, optionless, and submissive unto death… Is Kafka cornered into this tactic only because he knows nothing else? And were his eyes never opened to the presence of another option? The potential, perhaps, for empowering his readers with the blessing of forward-facing vision?

Kafka: Joining Two Hearts

Franz Kafka may have defined his times by giving expression to the life-long repression and imprisonment imposed upon him by both his illness and his family, but even more than the writing itself, his own relationship with his writing seems to ring with the tyrannical tones of those times, reflecting society and unable to look beyond it. Was he able to seek truth in the way Havel describes, despite the unfortunate circumstances which limit his search to an inner experience of lonely self-exile? Is there courage in Kafka’s writing? Power? Is he transformed and nourished? Did he overcome, or succumb to the whisperings of the Largest of all Lies?

Maybe we cannot know whether he was nourished or transformed by the act of writing. But I think it’s safe to say that there is courage shown in the truths and insights painted by Kafka’s candid explorations of his own psychological experience of life. And there is no denying the urgency – or the profound, universal relevance – of his art, political or no. Kafka’s ability to portray psychic crises in a way that exactly parallels political ones without being an overtly political writer is notable (TAoL, 163). His writing was felt by many as a cry against the oppressive systems that ruled both public and private life so strictly in his country. The ‘sons’ he portrays — stripped of their options and their freedom to live as they choose, blocked and manipulated at every turn, suffering in submission and suffering also in their small liberties — are inexplicably symbolic of an oppressed people unable to mature and step into adulthood, freedom, and self knowledge. Kafka’s work is seen by later writers as being definitive of the capital city itself, and it has been said that “if ever a writer almost unintentionally imprinted a fiction onto a geography and a history, it was Kafka in Prague” (TAoL, 164). In 1924 however, when he was dying, Kafka asked a friend to destroy his writing, perhaps because in the interim between the world wars, his country seemed to have achieved an independent democratic identity, and he was impressed with the truth that all is not as hopeless as it seems and battles can be won (TAoL, 164).

The Lie. It whispers to us softly, compellingly, weaving its tall-tale through every one of life’s occurrences: “You are helpless, powerless in the face of it all. You can change nothing, and nothing you do will ever change.” Even if Kafka did submit to this untruth, can we honestly say that this devalues the force, or effect, of his work? Solzhenitsyn, I think, has an answer for this as well. He says that we “confidently deem ourselves [art’s] masters” and often “adapt it toward transient political or limited social needs”— and yet, he says, art always “remains undefiled by our endeavors…: each time and in every usage it bestows upon us a portion of its mysterious inner light” (ASCEaDM, 558). Our inability to fully see the overarching structure doesn’t in any way indicate our entrance into it going unnoticed.

The fact that Kafka himself tried to destroy his work is very interesting. Perhaps when his own country proved an exception to his intense fatalism he realized his mistake. Perhaps then he saw his lack of vision uncovered: rather than breathing spirit into people, like a Czech Dostoevsky might have done, Kafka’s stories wrapped anguished life in a shroud of death. Like obituaries, his stories document the internal landscape of abused people with no hope. But then, perhaps the act of documentation itself was his brave testament to the truth he saw: it is deeply honest to his inner experience, and it is also undeniably one of only a few doors we have by which to enter the hearts of Kafka’s people.

Kafka may have succumbed and been vanquished by the lie; a brief study of his life is rather discouraging in this respect. However the consequent value of his contribution to world literature does not change in the slightest; art remains undefiled, and its mysterious inner light works upon us, no less potent for Kafka’s personal failings. His portraits of the anguished oppressed can still make us cry, binding us to a people we otherwise would not know how to feel for, opening up blocked information pathways and setting them racing with sympathy, unifying our hearts as the human race: together.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Havel, Vaclav.“Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LtDGH)

Havel, Vaclav.“Six Asides About Culture.” Jan Vladislav, ed. Living in Truth. England. Clays Ltd, St Ives plc. 1990. (LIT)

Havel, Vaclav., Paul Wilson, trans. Summer Meditations. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1992. (SM)

Bradbury, Malcom, ed. The Atlas of Literature. New York. Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 1998. (TAoL)

Kafka, Franz. The Sons. New York. Schocken Books Inc. 1989. (TS)

Dunlop, John B., et. al. ed. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York. Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1975. (ASCEaDM)

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