Milan Kundera on Kafka’s Prophecies

Again, from the essential The Art of the Novel.

Mystifications and legends aside, there is no significant trace anywhere of Franz Kafka’s political interests; in that sense, he is different from all his Prague friends, from Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch, and from all the avant-gardes that, claiming to know the direction of History, indulged in conjuring up the face of the future.

So how is it that not their works but those of their solitary, introverted companion, immersed in his own life and his art, are recognized today as a sociopolitical prophecy, and are for that very reason banned in a large part of the world?

The famous letter Kafka write and never sent to his father demonstrates that it was from the family, from the relationship between the child and the deified power of the parents, that Kafka drew his knowledge of the technique of culpabilization, which became a major theme of his fiction. In “The Judgement,” a short story intimately bound up with the author’s family experience, the father accuses the son and commands him to drown himself. The son accepts his fictitious guilt and throws himself into the river as docilely as, in a later work, his successor Joseph K., indicted by a mysterious organization, goes to be slaughtered. The similarity between the two accusations, the two culpabilizations, and the two executions reveals the link, in Kafka’s work, between the family’s private “totalitarianism” and that in his great social visions.

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to be entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State, just as a child has no right to keep a secret from his father or his mother. In their propaganda, totalitarian societies project an idyllic smile; they want to be seen as “one big family.”

It’s often said that Kafka’s novels express a passionate desire for community and human contact, that the rootless being who is K. has only one goal: to overcome the curse of solitude. Now, this is not only a clichĂ©, a reductive interpretation, it is a misinterpretation.

The Land-Surveyor K. is not in the least pursuing people and their warmth, he is not trying to become “a man among men: like Sartre’s Orestes; he wants acceptance not from a community but from an institution. To have it, he must pay dearly: he must renounce his solitude. And this is his hell: he is never alone, the two assistants sent by the Castle follow him always. When he first makes love with Frieda, the two men are there, sitting on the cafĂ© counter over the lovers, and from then on they are never absent from their bed.

Not the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude is Kafka’s obsession!

Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and the transparency of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing. The starting point of totalitarianism resembles the beginning of The Trial: you’ll be taken unawares in your bed. They’ll come just as your father and mother used to.

People often wonder whether Kafka’s novels are projections of the author’s most personal and private conflicts or descriptions of an objective “social machine.”

The Kafkan is not restricted to either the private or the public domain; it encompasses both. The public is the mirror of the private; the private reflects the public.

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