Tag Archive | Kafka

Why does Freud matter?

freud1938Freud has been highly criticised by both conservatives and liberals either for being too explicit in his discoveries or too critique in his conclusions. Nowadays it is mainly criticised to be ‘politically incorrect’ whatever it may be. Indeed his ‘sexual theories’ to say so are not precisely in agreement with what is today widely accepted: homosexuality, ‘sexual liberation’, and so on. For example, to argue that a promiscuous man is more likely to become a pedophile, or that to be homosexual is to be a narcissistic are two things one cannot openly say in the street. If we look now at the most conservative part of society, it is possible to note how neglected female hysteria is as a consequence of sexual dissatisfaction within marriage. These two ideological visions of Freud’s theories are at least high unfair.

Whatever Freud said and whatever one thinks of, Europe owes a great deal to Freud. His investigations meant a completely new world to both science and humanities, and they show the root of an important number of psychological issues; not to mention that he is the father of psychoanalysis, and of a deeper understanding of sexuality. Freud was a great observer of the human mind and behaviour, and a brave man who was not afraid of his contemporaries. He faced lots of child-abuse cases within a bourgeois society and dared to dive into the human soul.

Literary studies are as well in debt with him. I would like to synthesise how can be Freud’s theories used into the literary field:

1. Aesthetics: Psychoanalysis opened the world of dreams and, particularly, its own logic. 20th century is full of artistic examples of a dream aesthetic (Kafka, Schnitzler, Dalí, Hitchcock, Welles, Brecth, among others). Freud’s influence cannot be mislead for those who approached especially the first part of the century.

2. Characters: Psychoanalysis has enhanced the understanding of literary characters and their relationships beyond the limits of the 20th century. Specially important are the familiar relationships to be approach, in many cases, from a Freudian perspective.

3. Art: The relationship between art and the artist acquires a more existential and sexual perspective; as well as the relations between sexuality, beauty and desire.

4. Sexuality: Explorations in the field of literary representations of sexual issues are facilitate by Freud’s studies on sexual behaviour which were pioneer. A quite complete analysis of all kind of sexual experiences was openly explore by Freud.

5. Unconscious: Terms such as ‘conscious’, ‘unconscious’, ‘sub-conscious’, ‘repression’ are properly born through Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis. These concepts complete the understanding of human behaviour especially in unhealthy cases.

6. Body: Literary representations of the body can be approach metaphorically, that is, as a physical representation of the mind or illness. Freud advances further postmodern theories of the body and its relationship to the illness and the text such as those of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.

7. Childhood: The importance of early experiences in life has result to be a key point in general psychology until now.

I think the seven points above are the most important. Generally speaking, psychoanalysis has brought a deeper understanding of the relationship body-mind, and it is not at all surpassed by any other posterior theory, it is perfectly complementary to a kind of more scientific studies. Freud deserves, as any important thinker, a high consideration.

The Unknown Guilt of Herr K.

j0395954Even if Kafka’s works are rich in interpretations there is a possible “core” to be found in them, especially in The Trial. The main topic of this novel is the guilt and its relation to the Law. Joseph K. bears a guilt, but it is not any guilt, it is an Unknown Guilt, or even better, The Unknown Guilt. Herr K. is accused by the Law which is personified by high hierarchy members of the system. One can be tempted to look for some guilt in K.’s story, some wrong acts but Herr K. is not dealing with material crimes, he is dealing with himself, with the very fact of existing. It is an existential guilt which leads K. to look desperately for help. The whole nonsense of the situations and dialogues expresses the impossibility to deal with the Law; it is an irrational one. Herr K. looks for meaning, that is, sense, reason, but there is no one and with the lack of reason comes the lack of redemption, of solution. He is guilty and he will die guilty. This statement is put clearly in different moments of the novel, how impossible is to make the Court change its opinion. Moreover, K. is not the only one trapped in a nonsensical Law, other men are waiting since ages and ages to be told what they are accused of. But there is no answer. That is exactly the point, there is no answer and there will be no answer.

All the other topics are related to and acquire their meanings depending on their position to the Law. Women are marginal to the Law, as it is explained in the previous Post, and Herr K. is not interested in women, his goal is to achieve the Law. K. has no sexual aim regarding women; all possible sexual encounters have a place in relation to the Law. That is why women become a door, they can open the way to the Law if the accused pays a sexual price (from K’s perspective, which can be wrong). Women are the really ones interested in sex, not Herr K. And that is the way in which women are presented as monstrous.

Therefore, to analyse sexuality in Kafka it is necessary to place it in its correct position and such a position is to be define regarding the Law. Sex is submitted to the Law and thus related to the sense of guilt, as it is for example, in Amerika when Karl Rossmann is expelled by his father because of a sexual encounter with the maid.

Kafka’s Women: In the Borderline

tumblr_m8uulbQX5O1qc5h1co1_1280In The Trial, women configure a particular atmosphere in a mainly masculine world. Joseph K. appears as an isolated male figure, naive and innocent paying punishment for a Law of a very patriarchal structure and hierarchy. There are only men in the judicial system while women stand on marginal positions around the core of the Law. They constitute a sort of borderline between the Law and the accused; they are at the same time inside and outside the system. Thus, they are ambiguous characters, at least unfaithful because of such ambiguity. Unfaithful for both those who are inside the system and those who are outside it. This characteristic is expressed through their promiscuity, that is, through sexuality which is properly what defines them. Indeed, they are highly sexualised beings and their sexuality is always involved in helping the accused. They are mainly prostitutes as their mode of interchange is always physically: they obtain favours from the Court members in exchange of their bodies. Its use is what their master overall.

Women, as a figure bordering the Law, suggest the idea of entrance which is related to the sexual body. The man who wants to go inside the Law -in this case Joseph K.- should penetrate the threshold. In fact, Joseph K. refuses any complete sexual encounter with the nurse or the washerwoman and he loses their respective help. Joseph K. does not pay the price to be helped and his attitude contrasts with the “sexualised woman”; his virility is diminished. Kafka’s male characters are usually confronted with sexualised women and they are unable to master the situation. Men use to be shy or “sexually inferior” than women who are very self-confident. Kafka inverts the classical Western gender roles. It is possible to see how these women cause confusion in the main male characters who find themselves overcame by the situation.

The inability of male characters to engage with sexual matters is present through the whole Kafka’s work. Women are presented as inaccessible or unmastered. They can appear as strongly independent, manipulative, funny and sexualised. However, in some cases, the figure of the mother appears as a sexless and helpful woman even if her good intentions are always cast off by a male authority.

Uncanny Aesthetics in Kafka

MMA_IAP_10310749191Kafka’s America shows the story of Karl Rossmann, a young boy who is forced to leave home due to his affair with the maid. He is send by his parents on a ship to New York with nothing more than a suitcase. The novel describes all Karl’s adventures through the American country, which includes places where he lives and people whom he meets.

A general view to the novel shows that every place is a place of expulsion, in other words, Karl is successively involuntary thrown away from one place to the other. Anderson suggests this idea affirming that Karl has no “sense of place” in New York. The novel, as a whole, presents a sense of “unintentional return” or “repetition” which Freud refers to the Uncanny. Even if Freud uses the term “return” implying a coming back to the same point, in Karl, this return is metaphorical, experimented through the feeling of being again expulsed. Behind it, helplessness accompanies this repetition, as Karl finds himself in animosity with his expellers. The return becomes here an experience of repetition of the unsettlement whose origin is the expulsion of Karl by his parents. It exemplifies what Freud calls “the impulsion to repeat” which is found in the unconscious and proceeds from instinctual impulses. Such compulsion is related to the repression of drives and its common in neuroses. At the end of the explanation, Freud concludes, “anything that can remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny”. Therefore, the reader encounters the Uncanny through the general wandering of Karl and the places which once and again force Karl to such wandering.

It is important to note how the structure of the buildings in general helps to maintain the suspense. As Gellen points out, Kafka presents and “architectural narration”, in other words, the structure of the buildings has a narrative function, they are “a mode of expression”. In fact, they are the “thought” of the “non-thought”; the materialization of what is hidden to the conscious (Rancière). The “architectural narration” is characterized by an over perception of the atmosphere, as Fuchs points out, Karl experiments a hyper-reality of the sensual perception, which leads to an anti-mimetic expression. The buildings represent a sort of aesthetic experience, in this case, an uncanny one. The reader knows Karl’s inner-state through the descriptions of the places as Karl’s self is projected on them. As Freud suggests, through aesthetics an author can achieve the goal of communication provoking in the reader, or public, the same feelings which lead him to make the work of art. He particularly refers to the sculpture due to its speechless form, but the mechanism of arousing feelings in “America” is near to that of speechless arts. The reader just perceives a few literal words appealing Karl’s state, the main information is put into images that create feelings.

In conclusion, the four closed spaces in America bring together an aesthetic concept taken from Psychoanalysis with the narrative of Kafka, particularly, its aesthetic effects. All of them arise the Uncanny through different spatial dispositions and situations, but the feeling is based in all cases on the “impulsion to repeat” the appearance of something threating for the self.

 America is an unfinished novel, however, there is one testimony in Kafka’s diaries of a possible ending. On the 30th of September, 1915, Kafka wrote, “Rossmann and K., the innocent and the guilty, both executed without distinction in the end, the guilty one with a gentler hand, more pushed aside struck down”. This testimony closes the circle of the Uncanny whose latest manifestation is the ultimate accomplishment of a repetitious threat, which is death. It is the death returning once and again, and it seemed to be Karl’s destiny. Exactly as E.T.A Hoffmann does with Nathaniel who finally dies because his threat, the Sandman, always reappears until becoming something inescapable.

The similarity the whole story presents with Charles Dickens’ wandering boys is also something undeniable, as Kafka itself notes in his diary:

Dicken’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel […]

However, a deep analysis of America shows how it results to be a more complicated novel than, at first sight, one can realize. The presence of the Uncanny introduces a self continually threated by the unconscious, and far from David Copperfield, Karl Rossmann, not just descends in the social scale but he also presents a very destabilized self. Indeed, a self which can be analysed upon the light of Psychoanalysis; he is a very modern character.

From German Modernism to Spanish Golden Age

Dickens_DavidCopperfieldI wish just to recall some influences on Kafka’s Amerika. This novel introduces the wanderings of a young boy, Karl who’s thrown out from home due to his “affair” with the maid. Karl arrives to America alone with a small suitcase and nothing else than his wit to survive. He lives one experience after another, each one more curious than the previous, and meets all kind of people who actually decide his new course. Kafka wrote on his diary on October 8, 1918:

“Dicken’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself”.

In fact, the adventures of Karl remain the reader Dicken’s boys in the Victorian England. Karl solitude to face all his misfortunes are similar to those of English 19th C. novels. However, if Copperfield ascends in wealth and social position, Karl actually descends (as far as we know in the novel; it’s unfinished). The figure of the wandering boy is also linked to this of the Spanish “pícaro”. The latter could actually be seen as a predecessor of those of the realistic period. The poor origin and the longing for ascending are common in both groups, but I think the cunning of the “pícaro” is something missed both in Copperfield and Karl. However the three types find themselves submitted to different authorities until achieving autonomy or more freedom.

Karl is settled in New York, which I find quite properly for the beginning of the 20th C. New York is the new alienated place of modernity where both fortune and misfortune are possible and dependent to the subject’s sagacity. In short, I think Kafka has placed himself also in the Western tradition of the young wandering born in Spain.

A Claim for…

girl-in-front-of-the-lion-cage-1901A Hunger Artist is another of Kafka’s short stories which, I guess, leads no one indifferent, at least the reader become angry in front of such an apparent senseless riddle. A Hunger Artist shows the story of a faster artist who lives in a cage and is visited by the public. The main point of the attraction is the fasting of the artist who feels misunderstood by the walkers. Some people are always trying to find the hiding food in the cage because they don’t trust the artist’s capacity for fasting. However he’s very proud of his fasting and wants to go on with it without interruption. I think the hunger artist thinks to be making a work of art of his own body. That’s not explicitly said in the narration however it can be interpreted due to the lack of understanding between the artist and the public: people is unable to appreciate art. They don’t like the aspect of the starving artist, in fact, it’s not a beautiful expression, but Kafka is constructing a metaphor through which express the problem between art and the public. How can such a subjective expression be understood by everybody? The communication between artist and public fails because of the self-expressivity of the work. Coming back to my old comment on Tolstoy’s theory of art, we see here the opposite point. Tolstoy said a good work of art should be understood by everybody, but Kafka could be expressing a completely different perspective: because art is so personal, it’s impossible to be understood. But there’s a meeting point between the extremes. Tolstoy supports his statement arguing that when the artist is being honest expressing his feelings he can’t fail in doing so, and Kafka could be appealing to the same honesty with the opposite result.

Later on in A Hunger Artist, the artist dies in a cage because no one looks at him, and he’s replaced by a panther which attracts all the attention. Why does the panther success? Maybe it represents another kind of art? Of beauty?  Has it something to do with consciousness? The artist is conscious, not the panther. So for what are people attract? Maybe for some kind of hypnotising appearance instead of  for an intellectual presence? Have society killed art by its indifferent attitude towards life?