Get Out! (Constricted Space) (Kafka Complete Stories)

There’s no reason to “like” Franz Kafka. He didn’t like himself either. It took me forever to get through The Compete Stories by Franz Kafka, and I’m now of the opinion that Kafka was right. Max Brod should have burnt the whole lot. Why did the author want to have them burnt, assuming that to be the case? I’m going to guess that they reminded him of himself, his own body, which he seems to have hated, their immobility, the inability to move through space, confined and constricted into constricted micro-places, the inability to arrive at a destination, unable to connect out into the countryside and a more vivid past, more open networks. I’m beginning to suspect that the reader is supposed to find the stories a hard plod, hard to get through, especially the looooooooooong paragraphs, which really are impossible to get through. That’s why Kafka wrote them like that.

That to me is “the essence” of Kafka’s stories, the space conception, in which reader and writer are caught, through  which they can’t move, and in which they can hardly breathe.

You get this sense in “The Great Wall of China,” with its grasp of the vast stretches of land. (“No northern people can menace us there…the land is too vast and would not let them reach us.”) (p.241) (“So vast is our land that no fable can do justice to its vastness…And besides any tidings that would reach us, would arrive too late…Of these struggles and sufferings the people will never know; like tardy arrivals, like strangers in a city, they stand at the end of some densely thronged side street peacefully munching the food they have brought with them, while far away in front, in the Market Square at the heart of the city, the execution of the ruler is proceeding.” (p.243)(“But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly…But instead how vainly he wears out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained…the stair…the courts…another palace; and so on for thousands of years” (p.244)

Same with “A Country Doctor” (“I could see no way out”) (p.220) (“Never shall I reach home at this rate…My fur coat is hanging from the back of the gig, but I cannot reach it, and none of my limber pack of patients lifs a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! A false alarm on the night bell once answered –it cannot be made good, not  ever.” (p.225).

Same with “The Hunter Gracchus” (“’In a certain sense,’ said the Hunter, ‘I am alive too. My death ship has lost its way..I am forever…on the great stair that leads up to it.’”)  (p.228)

Same with “A Report to an Academy.” (“For the first time in my life I could see no way out…No, freedom is not what I wanted. Only a way out; right or left,  or in any directions…Only not to stay motionless with raised arms, crushed against a wooden wall” (p.252)

The point is always to get out, like at the end of “The Penal Colony,” and to make sure nothing from it  follows you.

About Kafka, I think we should be sharp eyed, as merciless as he himself was. I no longer think it’s right to pretend that this particularity, the particularity that was Kafka in his time and place, constitutes a “universal.” Over and over in the stories, the meaning of renewal or “redemption,” as we call it in Jewish philosophy is the free feeling of open space, the one enjoyed by the family at the end of “The Metamorphosis” after the demise of Gregor Samsa, or the one enjoyed by “the Red Indian,” or in dream expressed by the unhappy jackals in “Jackals and Arabs,” (“We want to be troubled no more by Arabs; room to breathe; a skyline cleansed of them…”) (p.409).

In Kafka, redemption is a spatial index, not a temporal one, as it is in modern Jewish philosophy. His was the hope about which he was certain that there was plenty, an infinite amount, “just not for us.” Or just not for Kafka. In contrast, for liberal subjects and those who enjoy the privilege of liberal subjectivity, even when they reject it in theory, to adopt this worldview, this space-concept as “our own,” as a universal, can only be done in bad faith. Why can’t we read these stories, and then put them under glass or in a curio cabinet? It’s just not my world or space-concept. In my own mind, I’m “a Red Indian,” speeding up and down rt.81 and along rt.80 between New York City and Syracuse, or down the New Jersey Turnpike,  journeys about which one should never assume too much, but about which one can reasonably hope has a more or less safe beginning and end, helped on by the simple acts of remaining awake, alert, mentally engaged, encased in the car and connected to the roads ripping along roads.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Get Out! (Constricted Space) (Kafka Complete Stories)

  1. yudel says:

    You might want to listen to Dan Bern’s song Yellow Star for an interesting variation of your contrast between central European Jewish constriction and the American automobile. You can find it on Internet Archive.

  2. nitzan says:

    It seems to me that adopting this space concpet as “our own” or as “universal” is misreading the stories themselves. Or rather, adopting anything from Kafka is problematic, for the whole purpose of the writing is the impossibility ingrained in every affirmative/positive action, an impossibility that isn’t simply negating it but only weakening it. The wall is there exactly because it is partial, full with gaps, and not leading/blocking anything. It merely promises construction and destruction, but without fulfilling/realizing (verwirklichung) it.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Nitzan! the wall i bump into with Kafka is “modal,” namely having to do with the mode of “impossibility.” my own thinking tends to be more irenic, and its modalities have more to do with “possibilities” and “potential.”

  3. efmooney says:

    There a lot of art I don’t exactly ‘like’ but that I’m happy exists. How many “black on black’ paintings could I take in a row, with no relief? And need I think there’s anything ‘universal’ going on? That sense of “no exit”, “let me outta here” is an apt sense to convey aptly once in a while. Would I want nothing but Kafka on my shelf? Of course not. Do I want to inhabit the jails he offers. Of course not. Am I sometimes cruelly inhabited by suffocating closed-in-edness? Am I happy (on those occasions) to know that it’s possible to have an exquisite rendition of that “being trapped-edness”? Yes. Do I like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground? No. Do I reread it and recognize its genius? Yes. I’m glad it exists, though I don’t seek it out for pleasure.
    Hey, Zak, thanks for the blog!! But don’t read that guy all the way through non-stop? That’s a formula for asphyxiation.! (This is your Uncle speaking . . .)

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