"More than machinery, we need humanity."
At times historic anniversaries have an amusing resonance with current happenings. In particular there have been two recent birthdays (of individuals long dead) that nevertheless seem rather fitting for the news of late. As if the current revelations flitting across the socio-political spectrum were timed to coincide with these events, as if it is all so some newscaster can announce with a wry smile, “And in other news it’s so-and-sos birthday.”
June 25, 1903 was the anniversary of the birth of Eric Arthur Blair (better known by his nom de plume as George Orwell). In the age of surveillance who can resist doffing their cap at the chap whose name has become integral to referring to creeping authoritarian states? After all, without Orwell who would be able to decry the “Orwellian” nature of the NSA’s program?
And yet, drawing too strong a link between Orwell’s fears and modern occurrences seems perhaps a bit unfair. After all, we’re at least a solid few weeks from living in a truly Orwellian world. While many people may find themselves drawn to re-read (or read) 1984 in light of recent events, it is perhaps not Orwell but another writer who we should be revisiting in these moments. One whose works do not feature the oppressive eye of Big Brother and, perhaps, are all the more terrifying for it.
Today, July 3, is the anniversary of Franz Kafka’s birth (1883).
While Orwell may be best remembered for imagining monstrous dystopias, turning the Russian Revolution into a fable worthy of Aesop, and penning one of the most widely read memoirs of the Spanish Civil War; it is Kafka whose works consistently portrayed the inability of individuals to mount a successful defense of themselves, not necessarily in the face of a totalitarian police state but in the visage of a faceless and all the more impenetrable bureaucracy. If Orwell feared a future of a “boot stomping on a human face” perhaps Kafka feared an age where people had been turned into insects, which after all, are much easier to step on. It is as Erich Fromm wrote (in The Fear of Freedom):
“The theme of the powerlessness of man has found a most precise expression in Franz Kafka’s work…however, this feeling of individual isolation and powerlessness…is nothing the average normal person is aware of. It is too frightening for that. It is covered over by the daily routine of his activities, by the assurance and approval he finds in his private or social relations, by success in business, by any number of distractions, by “having fun”, “making contacts”, “going places”. But whistling in the dark does not bring light.” (Fromm, 114/115)
Reading Kafka is therefore a way to confront that which we might be all to eager to ignore. After all, it is sometimes through fiction that reality comes into sharper relief. Thus, what novel has more apt opening words for our current moment than the first lines from Kafka’s The Trial:
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”
Without wanting to ruin the end of the novel, it should be noted that neither Josef K. nor the reader ever learn what K.’s crime was. Perhaps, in a modern retelling, the NSA spotted an odd match in his online activities and swept him up whilst refusing to tell even him his crime. The Trial succeeds in being (and remaining) so magnificently unnerving because, as Albert Camus wrote (in the appendix to The Myth of Sisyphus):
“Merely to announce to us the uncommon fate is scarcely horrible, because it is improbable. But if necessity is demonstrated to us in the framework of everyday life, society, state, familiar emotion, then the horror is hallowed. In that revolt that shakes man and makes him say: “That is not possible,” there is an element of desperate certainty that “that” can be.” (Camus, 128)
And is not this incredulous sense of “that is not possible” present beneath much of the socio-political surface today? One cannot ignore the watchful gaze of Big Brother, but anybody can be alienated and confused into despair by bureaucracy or by the competing images of friendly telecoms and their unseemly activities. Is the metastasizing of the national security apparatus Orwellian in scope or is this spreading of “top-secret” clearance to over a million individuals more truly Kafkaesque? It is as Walter Benjamin wrote of Kafka (in Illuminations):
“If Napoleon, in his famous conversation with Goethe at Erfurt, substituted politics for fate, Kafka, in a variation of this statement, could have defined organization as destiny.” (Benjamin, 123)
In confronting this faceless organization, we are left with seemingly no recourse and no power. We cannot find out why we were charged, we cannot gain access to the castle, we cannot transform ourselves back from insects into humans, and we are left wondering what has happened to us. It is as Kafka begins another famous work (The Metamorphosis):
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect…what has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream.”
Terror is certainly present in Kafka’s works, as would fit a world at war with terror, and yet it is quieter desperate emotions that Kafka evokes more strongly: fear, frustration, and shame. Of this last Benjamin wrote:
“shame is Kafka’s strongest gesture. It has a dual aspect, however. Shame is an intimate human reaction, but at the same time it has social pretensions. Shame is not only shame in the presence of others, but can also be shame one feels for them.” (Benjamin, 129/130)
This “shame,” this “powerlessness,” this sense of “That is not possible” are the emotions and thoughts that keep us staring in disbelief at the current state of affairs. Fearful that if we step too far out of line that we may find ourselves arrested without ever learning of our crimes. To watch the Supreme Court undermine voting rights while strengthening corporate power, to see a whistle blower trapped absurdly in a Russian airport, to see the maddened venal fumbling of our political establishment, and to see the immorality cloaked in positive imagery of corporate activities is to feel the truth of the Kafka line “it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.”
Finally, we are left with the terrifying question, one worth pondering on the anniversary of Kafka’s birth and every day: is it that we – like Gregor Samsa – awake each morning to find ourselves transformed in our bed into giant insects? Or is it that we awake each morning to find ourselves as human beings who are transformed over the course of the day into insects?
Will we outlive our shame? Or will our societal shames outlive us?
Happy Birthday Franz.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Schocken Books, 2007.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Vintage International, 1991.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics, 2001.