..... ...................................commentary




As we grow-up and develop our interpretations of the world, slowly building experience, weighing-up each new and unique event so that it gives us the best possible understanding of the world - and therefore the soundest possible footings for handling what is to come - we are, in effect, constructing a great edifice. We aspire to what we perceive as the most desirable outcome, and what we achieve is dependent upon our surroundings and our skill in reacting appropriately to events. We assess, categorise and file everything. In other words, we create and continually update a kind of contingent picture that represents our provisional interpretation of the world; and this is our raw, our only material.

Empirical psychology tells us that if we are brought up where we experience kindness and consistency above all, then we stand a good chance of building a solid and unbreakable structure, a foundation impervious to the knocks and bruises of life. This is imperative for lifelong contentment and stability. If, conversely, our foundations are littered with inconsistencies, hostility and confusion, then we will have nothing solid to build on, we will distrust much of what we learn, and will be inclined to construct an unstable, disorderly structure, or perhaps a very simple or feeble one based on any consistencies we can sift from this muddled experience.

Few people's foundations are entirely solid or entirely unstable. And there are all kinds of strategies that people develop to deal with the inevitable anomalies.

Franz Kafka is probably one of the most enigmatic and most analysed of all great figures of literature. When I've read some of the biographical details of his early years, I've had the impression that Kafka reached a point where, unlike most of us, he no longer felt able to build upwards and move forward. The flaws in his experience were beyond repair, and could not be reconciled. This seems to shows through in the mysterious fable: 'BEFORE THE LAW'.

This brief parable seems to demonstrate the immense frustration from feeling utterly and inexplicably trapped, of being blocked, almost before stepping out, yet at the same time retaining or being given false hopes (surely one of the cruellest tortures?) as you look forward to your great journey through life - a prospect that tends to wane with age. And this obstruction, this barrier, set up by what appears as some huge whimsical power-structure that reveals nothing of its unfathomable demands, still less of its function or purpose, apparently expecting its victim to somehow assess these and thereby earn admittance (as though to some esoteric ancient order), is utterly impervious. All the while this repulsive entity (the ‘door-keeper’), observing its victims' predicament with complete indifference, no hints of what he might do to gain favour, no pity or compassion for his failure, not even sympathy for his wasted inconsequential life of waiting, dreaming and hoping, all in vain - then suddenly, without warning, when one is too old, too incapacitated, too ill, shuts the door... the chance to 'live' is gone forever and fulfilment on any scale is permanently denied.

One could dwell on this for hours or even years. Unable, so it seems, to interpret the world as most people do, even those with shaky foundations, Kafka turned instead to examine his inner edifice. And what he found was so fascinating that he could not rest until he had scrutinised every corner. The essence of the predicament he unearthed lies, I think, in the parable: 'AN IMPERIAL MESSAGE'.

Almost all Kafka's stories portray a vision of life that verges on the nightmare, of being imprisoned in a labyrinthine world of incomprehensibility. Every effort to penetrate or escape this endless network of mazes, to fathom its true nature, its true purpose, is frustrated and then augmented by even greater entrapment and confusion.

In many ways, human life, like Kafka's novels and stories, is riddled not only with mystery but with impenetrable hierarchy and bureaucracy, and we - or most of us, so it appears - are pawns to be shuttled about, unwittingly exploited and diverted from all attempts to infiltrate or understand what is actually going on. Indeed, so powerful is the propaganda on which we are nurtured from virtually the day we’re born, that we scarcely ever awaken to our true circumstances.

Curiously, this same convoluted intricacy also reflects various aspects of the natural world if viewed from an appropriate perspective. It can be seen to represent the nature of our own minds too, the nature of life in its primitive state, and the nature of human societies and, as just mentioned, the structures within them.

Perhaps, like chaos theory, this phenomenon applies also to the nature of matter and the universe in general - as though Kafka somehow uniquely perceived it, a condition of the universe, in the same way that Einstein noticed relativity (which can be easily demonstrated). Both concepts are childishly fundamental, yet signify profound concepts with immensely complex and wide-ranging consequences. For the physical reality of this, one has only to look at the body (human, insect, whatever), to see that essentially these comprise little more than an elaborate multiplicity of interconnected pipes, fibres, wires and junctions.

A few years ago I wrote my interpretation of Kafka's predicament as a portrayal of social hierarchy - which is how it most literally appears in 'The Castle' and, using the law as its symbol, in 'The Trial' - both of which also show clear elements of paranoia in the protagonist, as though the warren of bewilderment is actually, or chiefly, within his mind (and the reader is invited to share this paranoia).

In contrast to such mature nightmarish renditions, Kafka's (unfinished) first novel 'Amerika' - originally called 'Lost Without Trace' - ends with its protagonist optimistically embarking on a great and promising enterprise: by joining 'The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma' in which all are welcome to participate. Unlike his subsequent works this novel shows the labyrinth (ie, 'the theatre'), together with its multifarious participants and officials, to be entirely friendly and accommodating. Although mysterious and all-engulfing, it is profoundly optimistic; the future may be unknown but it is unquestionably glorious, full of wonder and expectation. Its only menacing aspect being in its apparent mesmerizing of seemingly gullible clients and the implication that those who fail to surrender are somehow inhuman, odd, unsociable loners or misfits; they are blind to what they will miss, unbelieving of the great future they reject through a vague cynicism that Kafka could only distantly sense at this time.

Probably, Kafka wrote 'Amerika' at that point in his life from which he could no longer advance but was not yet convinced of the permanency of his condition, not yet entirely aware of the cynical aspect - hence, it was only subsequently that the glitter and joy of the theatre (of life) became instead the threat of an overbearing structure in which we are all inescapably snared: within our own isolated selves, essentially forever alone in a bleak and inexplicable universe, within too a world consisting chiefly of bodily needs and drives, social obligations, the law, family demands etc; though from these latter, unlike the other entrapments, it is possible to take practical steps to flee.

The inevitable conclusion from this kind of preoccupation, the ultimate consequences for the individual who arrives tired and old like the protagonist in the above parable 'Before The Law', is clearly illustrated in the following extract from Pirandello's 'Henry V'.

To avoid absurd responsibilities Henry has feigned madness (after secretly recovering from actual madness caused by bumping his head), dressing up, acting strangely, etc, until he is at last exposed, upon which, with animated sarcasm, he announces:

Henry: Ah - then, away, away with this masquerade, this incubus! Let's open the windows, breathe life once again! Away! Away! Let's run out!.... (then quietly, slowly) But where? And to do what? To show myself to all, secretly, as Henry IV, not like this, but arm in arm with you, among my dear friends?

Belcredi: What are you saying?

Donna Matilda: Who could think it? It's not to be imagined. It was an accident.

Henry: They all said I was mad before. (to Belcredi) And you know it! You were more ferocious than anyone against those who tried to defend me.

Belcredi: Oh, that was only a joke!

Henry: Look at my hair.

Belcredi: But mine is grey too!

Henry: Yes, with this difference: that mine went grey here, as Henry IV, do you understand? And I never knew it! I perceived it all of a sudden, one day, when I opened my eyes; and I was terrified because I understood at once that not only had my hair gone grey, but that I was all grey, inside; that everything had fallen to pieces, that everything was finished; and I was going to arrive, hungry as a wolf, at a banquet which had already been cleared away...

Significant lines that arrest the attention are those disturbing perennial conundrums: 'To go where? and 'To do what?' And the end of the extract presents the most poignant observation of all (inseparable from those questions): ie, How easy to become so immersed in some 'distraction' that one day, after years of blindly 'playing the game', you wake up and wonder where your life has gone, and that 'the banquet' is over.

When he was near to death from TB Kafka requested his best friend, Max Brod, to burn all his unpublished work - which was most of it.

From all accounts it was a serious request, and I can only imagine that his reason was to spare people the anguish of perceiving the world as he did: analogous to being born in, and destined to remain in, an infinite catacomb. It's a dismal outlook, because without diminishing the importance of this outlook, other angles of perception tell us that there is an outside, that beyond our catacomb there is a true free open universe for us to partake in, but in Kafka's context it is eternally inaccessible - just as the outer world is inaccessible to a fish in the ocean (both physically and psychologically).

Few people, it seems, are aware of this curious aspect of the world that Kafka articulated so clearly. But for those who do see it (consciously - probably we all see it subconsciously), or at least glimpse it, the task is to then locate that outer universe which surrounds us, is in us, and to attempt to enter it, to explore it, to experience it  - perhaps, apart from a few exceptions, for the first time in history. Perhaps this is what the schools of transcendental meditation would claim can be achieved from years of meditation, or from years of unrestrained humility and compassion.

Or perhaps it will only be universally accomplished when children are finally reared for the first time in genuine freedom, at least for their first year or so of life. It should be realized that genuine freedom is probably as hard to achieve as genuine blankness of mind; and its practice, socially, is made virtually impossible due to an overwhelming prejudicial opposition to freedom from those who use the word most (especially right-wing politicians - who make irrational laws of restraint that have nothing to do with protecting the weak from the strong… rather, the opposite).

Fortunately, due to the foresight of Max Brod, Kafka's work survives. Kafka may not have been able to see beyond his immediate scenario of stagnated desolation and futility, but for some of us, with our more liberating foundations, he has highlighted an altogether new perspective from which we can proceed. Thanks to Kafka, we now have a broader vision and can view the world more completely. Without his perspective we might not have noticed this crucial aspect of our predicament so clearly, if at all, and our ability to move forward would certainly have been diminished. But now that we have been shown, we see it clearly and bearing it in mind can evolve in ways that would otherwise have been impossible.


As I see it, on a universal reckoning, no-one can be owned by another: no child belongs to their parents or the government of the country they are born in; no-one can ever be owned. We belong only to ourselves - or to the universe (consider the difference!). It's what we create that belongs to others, to humanity. Kafka had the power to destroy his work, and might have had he seen fit to do so while he was able; but did he have the right? What would he have gained from such destruction? What would we have lost?

After taking eight years to write his masterpiece, 'Dead Souls', Gogol wrote a sequel which he considered much superior, but then he succumbed to religious fanatics who drove him mad and persuaded him to burn it. A small portion was rescued and appears somewhat unpromising. But what we have lost we shall never know. Equally, one might ask, how much work of any artistic genre remains in dusty attics until eventually, unexamined, it gets piled onto a bonfire and is lost forever? Undoubtedly, vast quantities of dross inevitably and mercifully goes this way. And in the process perhaps some works of genius go too. If so, how much does this matter? The masterful sand paintings of the Dalai Lama and his followers are destroyed upon completion, and huge painstakingly created ice-sculptures melt in the spring sunshine. The whole process of life involves continual creation and destruction. One should, I believe, always consider the following, taken from the frontpiece by Swami Vivekananda of Henry Miller's 'The Air-conditioned Nightmare':

"The greatest men in the world have passed away unknown. The Buddhas and the Christs that we know are but second rate heroes in comparison with the greatest men of whom the world knows nothing. Hundreds of these unknown heroes have lived in every country working silently. Silently they live and silently they pass away; and in time their thoughts find expression in Buddhas or Christs; and it is these latter that become known to us. The highest men do not seek to get any name or fame from their knowledge. They leave their ideas to the world; they put forth no claims for themselves and establish no schools or systems in their name. Their whole nature shrinks from such a thing. They are the pure Sattvikas, who can never make any stir but only melt down in love…"

As for Kafka, in all his unquestionable humility and compassion, we must be grateful for his legacy and give some time to examining where it might lead us.