No Man’s Land
Fellow Czech writer Ivan Klima writing on Kafka in The Spirit of Prague says, "'the confinement of introspection, if it is not ventilated by an act', said Kierkegaard, one of Kafka's favourite writers, 'produces only contemptible rancour'. Kafka, incapable of rancour towards anyone around him, turned it against himself." Georg Lukacs in an essay 'Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?', also quotes the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher in relation to Kafka, saying "The impact of Kafka's work derives not only from his passionate sincerity - rare enough in our age - but also from the corresponding simplicity of the world he constructs. Kierkegaard himself said, 'The greater a man's originality, the more he is at the mercy of angst.'" Another Czech, Milan Kundera, says in an essay in The Art of the Novel, "if I hold so ardently to the legacy of Kafka, if I defend it as my personal heritage, it is not because I think it worthwhile to imitate the inimitable (and rediscover the Kafkan) but because it is such a tremendous example of the radical autonomy of the novel..."
Introspection, originality, autonomy: keywords in the Kafka critical lexicon. Yet let us be Kafkan and turn the words against themselves. Self-absorption, obscurity and selfishness. In each instance, we haven't offered antonyms, but we have turned the words around to create a kind of antonymic pessimism. Kafka's genius resides at least partly in his ability to turn words around so that they always move towards deprecation over aggrandizement. The positive can become a negative due to the interior impossibility of confidence, but if this were merely the case Kafka would be of little import - self-criticism cannot in-itself pass for an art form. However, taking into account Kafka's inability to offer criticism against others, and where the originality was contained by that failure of confidence, how could the writer feel anything less than self-contempt? Originality, autonomy and introspection are all very well for the individual who feels superior, who can construct a Nietzchean Ubermensch (an overman) within their own sphere, but Kafka did the opposite, offering up nothing less than an Untermensch (an underman) as vivid and fully realised as Nietzsche's figure. Yet perhaps it is not enough to describe Kafka's self-appraisal as that of an Untermensch since for Nietzsche such a figure was still a common man, a person from the herd. But while Kafka would hardly have deluded himself into thinking he was normal, he would surely have seen his own pathetic character as that of an under-man, a sub-man.
In a fine essay by Jean-Franois Lyotard in Postmodern Fables, the French philosopher talks of a certain no-man's-land of the private sphere that he feels one is entitled to as a dimension of the political, no matter if politics is not concerned with this dimension. Lyotard quotes the writer Nina Berbova, who reckons "from the earliest days of my youth I had had the notion that every person has his own no-man's-land, domain that is his and his alone. The life everyone sees is one thing; the other belongs to the individual." Lyotard believes "the right to this no-man's-land is at the very foundation of human rights."
Now what often happens is that even if one is an Untermensch in one's own public life, downtrodden or oppressed, servile or cowed, insecure or frightened, the private space one creates can at least offer the possibility of countering this: one can be a duke in one's own interior domain, lost in dreams and fantasies that do not pertain to the real world. In his book on Kafka, Erich Heller notes the problem between the internal and the external world, saying that "the authenticity of life rests upon the correspondence between the inner soul and the nature of the external world in which he exists. Where this is lacking, authenticity becomes a chimera, and wavering the only genuine action." He reckons it is "ethically the most delicate persons who tend to blame themselves for this imbalance between mind and circumstance...when in truth every outward sign or gesture...is bound to strike them as a coarsely false designation of the inner state." This wavering between the two worlds, however, can also lead to the collapse of the interior one: one doesn't disappear into private fantasy; the expectations of the outer world create a diminished interior existence.
Thus what is so fascinating about Kafka is that he turned even this inner world of fable and fantasy against himself, stripped even the no-man's-land of its comfort zone as if determined to reveal his weaknesses on every possible level. If "virtually all Kafka's writing, like Nietzsche's, proceeds directly or indirectly out of self-examination", according to Kafka biographer Ronald Hayman, then the self-examination moved towards obliteration not exultation. The sort of private space others would use to keep secret or utilise for self-aggrandisement, Kafka dismissed. In 'Letter to his Father', Kafka says "when I rushed away from you, frightfully busy, it was generally to lie down in my room. My total achievement in work done, both at the office (where admittedly laziness is nothing particularly striking, and mine furthermore, was kept in bounds by timidity, and at home as well, is minute; if you had any real idea of it, you would be aghast." When Kafka's friend and executor Max Brod says he included the 'Letter...' among Kafka's literary works rather than his correspondents, it was because it was the closest to an autobiography that Kafka ever wrote, and a letter that he never did send. It also functions like the stories and the novels as a piece of internal combustion, a ricocheting self-appraisal in keeping with the opening Kierkegaard comment. When Kafka says in the letter, "What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgements, it was as though you had no notion of your power," here Kafka seems to be acknowledging that for Franz there was no longer any no man's land - the outer judgement had impacted on the inner world.
However, it is one thing to say this is true of Kafka's life and to search through his biography for evidence; it is another to say that he took further than anybody before him this inner insecurity that needn't fear especially the outside world, but instead worry over the constant fragility of his inner existence. It is this fragility of an inner existence that the stories so often capture, as if the external terrors become irrelevant next to the dread of being. It would make sense that Kierkegaard was one of his favourite writers, for the Danish philosopher conceptualised the difference in The Concept of Dread between angst and the terror that comes from a wild gunman or an animal. This problem of angst can be neatly analysed looking again at 'Letter to His Father' and the short story 'Bachelor's Ill Luck'. In the former Kafka says, "this manifests itself from the fact that the moment when I make up my mind to marry I can no longer sleep, my head burns day and night, life can no longer be called life, I stagger about in despair." In the latter, the bachelor says "it seems so dreadful to stay a bachelor, to become an old man struggling to keep one's dignity while begging for an invitation...having to admire other people's children and not even being allowed to go on saying: 'I have none myself'." The story ends "that's how it will be, except that in reality, both today and later, one will stand there with a palpable body and a real head, a real forehead that is, for smiting on with one's hand."
In his Journals, Andre Gide comments on The Trial, saying that "the anguish this book gives off is, at moments, almost unbearable, for how can one fail to repeat to oneself constantly: that hunted creature is I". If one merely writes about the encroachment on external space, then the damage done is also to the external, but what happens if the forces of external space impinge on the internal? There is no door to be slammed that will keep the outside world from intruding, and one is left in a constant state of what psychologists would call the sympathetic nervous system as opposed to the parasympathetic. When the nervous system is in a sympathetic state it "produces increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid or irregular breathing, dilated pupils, perspiration, dry mouth, increased blood sugar levels" and numerous other changes. The parasympathetic nervous system influences "activity "related to the protection, nourishment, and growth of the body: digestion is one example." In this sense, Kafka's work is a product of the sympathetic nervous system and consistent with Kierkegaard's dread and Gide's fear of the internally hunted creature. In 'A Fasting Showman', the narrator says that the showman lived "in visible glory, honoured by the world", as he was a master hunger artist. "What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possible wish for? And if some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy was probably caused by fasting, it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that he reacted with a outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal." Near the end of the story the showman says, in answer to why he doesn't do something else with his life: "because I couldn't find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I should have made no bones about it and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."
In Kafka's work it is as though the self is constantly caught in sympathetic states, and that the pleasures of life, from marriage to food, cannot sustain an existence trapped in a nervous condition where life's comforts mean little next to the anxiety of an invaded interior. Indeed often this interior is so invaded that it conjures up fantasies of persecution while no external event needs to take place. In 'A Little Woman', the first person narrator says, "I feel too a certain responsibility laid upon me, if you like to put it that way, for strangers as we are to each other, the little woman and myself, and however true it is that the sole connection between us is the vexation I cause her, or rather the vexation she lets me cause her, I ought not to feel indifferent to the visible suffering which this induces in her." Here the narrator talks of a woman's feelings that he is not at all privy to, but which he chooses to project upon her and that in turn allows him to feel persecuted. "She is too proud to admit openly what a torment my very existence is to her, to make any appeal to others against me she would consider beneath her dignity." It is as if the narrator needs to find in projecting onto another person the justification for a nervous system that is never at peace. "The fact that in the course of years I have all the same become somewhat uneasy has nothing to do with the real significance of this affair; a man simply cannot endure being a continual target for someone's spite, even when he knows well enough that the spite is gratuitous; he grows uneasy, he begins, in a kind of physical way only, to expect final decisions, even when like a sensible man he does not much believe that they are forthcoming." The sympathetic nervous system takes precedence over an actual event: where of course usually it is an event that sets in motion the sympathetic nervous system; reacts to the problems generated by the world around us.
However, what we also find central to Kafka's work is a certain projective empathy. It is this very aspect that J. M. Coetzee writes so well about through the character Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals. During a lecture the central character argues in defence of vegetarianism and against the philosopher Thomas Nagel and his claim that we cannot empathize with a bat. "What I want to know is what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this," Nagel says, "I am restricted by the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task." Yet Costello feels that Kafka was a writer who did not want to share so limited a view as that offered by Nagel, a narrow view that she also sees shared by Descartes and Immanuel Kant: "Even Immanuel Kant, of whom I would have expected better, has a failure of nerve at this point. Even Kant does not pursue, with regard to animals, the implications of his intuition that reason may be not the being of the universe but on the contrary merely the being of the human brain." Later in her lecture she notes: "To be alive is to be a living soul. An animal - and we are all animals - is an embodied soul. This is precisely what Descartes saw, and for his own reasons, chose to deny. An animal lives, said Descartes, as a machine lives. An animal is no more than the mechanism that constitutes it; if it has a soul, it has one in the same way that a machine has a battery..." Nagel joins an illustrious tradition, but one that Costello feels is not that of Kafka. "When Kafka talks about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape..." and what is vital to Kafka is the vitality he gives to all living things: 'Metamorphosis', 'A Report to an Academy', 'Investigations of a Dog', are not allegorical stories but empathic ones and indeed a point Kundera returns again and again to in his essay on the writer. "Kafka's heroes are often seen as allegorical projections of the intellectual, but there's nothing intellectual about Gregor Samsa. When he wakes up metamorphosed into a beetle, he has only one concern: in this new state, how to get to the office on time." "Neither does the Kafkan correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka's novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army." "...Kafka's first commentators explained his novels as religious parable. Such an interpretation seems to me wrong because it sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life..." (The Art of the Novel)
If we disagree with Kundera's last point it is merely to insist that it wasn't only human life that interested Kafka, taking into account Coetzee's remark. Rather than seeing Kafka as a great writer of allegory (and thus of the abstract), better to see him as the great writer of the empathically concrete; as a writer who went further than most into the possible range of existential experience: of concrete situations whether they happen to be those of man or 'beast'. It was in perhaps the very surplus of the sympathetic in both the medical and also in the psychological sense of the term that allowed Kafka to go so much further than the philosophers in comprehending far beyond the parameters of the immediate self. Now where we have the analytical tradition that would include Descartes, Kant and Nagel, entrapped within a narrow notion of being, from Costello's point of view, we might think of another tradition: one that includes not only Kafka's favourite philosopher Kierkegaard, but also Levinas, even Derrida. In an essay on 'Transcendence and Time', Levinas contrasts a notion of phenomenological affectivity centred on the self, and its opposite. "Fear for the other, fear for the death of the other man is my fear, but it is no way a fear for oneself. It thus contrasts strongly with the admirable phenomenological analysis of affectivity...in which emotion is always an emotion of something that is moving, but also an emotion for oneself... in being afraid because of something, glad because of something, sorrowful because of something." In The Politics of Friendship, Derrida talks of the "already of the perhaps acts". What does he mean by this, and how does it relate to Kafka? "It acts within itself - in immanent fashion, we will say - although this immanence consists too in leaving self. Leaving oneself as of oneself, which can only be done by letting the other come." Here Derrida talks of teleiopoetic propulsion, where one's self seems to withdraw to allow the other to advance. In each sense, in Levinas and Derrida, the self doesn't assert, it inserts, it places itself within the other and the other within him.
Kafka is such a significant figure in literature because few writers have so consistently generated projective empathy; co-feeling into others. Obviously many will reply isn't that what writers are supposed to do: put feeling into characters other than themselves? Isn't that what writers do when they create characterization? Yes and no; certainly they create characters, but at the same time they also, if you like, create character invisibility or assassination, neatly exemplified in the former instance by Evelyn Waugh's comments in a Paris Review interview when asked about the lack of working-class characters in his books: "I don't know them, and I'm not interested in them." Then we have writers like Nabokov and Martin Amis: writers who don't so much create characters as often empty emotional vessels who make much noise. "I watched my brother-in-law," the narrator in Amis's The Rachel Papers says, "his fat nose inches from the tap, his eyes eager, expectant. Norman was wearing what he always wore: dowdy blue business suit, boyish shirt open at the neck (the tip of a spangled red tie hung out of his side pocket; his trousers, python-tight from the knee down, came to an end a good two or three inches from some really utterly preposterous black fur shoes." Nabokov in The Gift offers a man viewed by the central character, where both of them are sitting on public transport. "At the second stop a lean man in a short coat with a fox-fur collar, wearing green hat and frayed spats, sat down in front of Fyodor. In settling down he bumped him with his knee and with the corner of a fat briefcase with a leather handle, and this trivial thing turned his irritation into a kind of pure fury, so that, staring fixedly at the sitter, reading his features, he instantly concentrated on him all his sinful hatred (for this poor, pitiful, expiring nation) and knew precisely why he hated him: for that low forehead, for those pale eyes..."
In the writing of Waugh, Amis and Nabokov, there is the literature of disdain; while in Kafka there is something else, a literature of self-disintegration, a sense that the self is never so surely positioned as it happens to be in Waugh, Amis and Nabokov, and consequently permeating and permeable. James Kelman in an essay, 'Artists and Value', talks of Kafka's 'negative apprehension', Kafka's capacity to details things that don't necessarily exist. "What he often does is refer to a space which he then fills with a crowd of things that either don't exist, or maybe don't. He fills the page with absences and possible absences, possible realities." Talking about various artists in various fields, Kelman adds, "...one way I used to have of intuiting a painter from a painter who was also an artist, was how they treated the servants, how they treated the folk who work behind the bar in the Art Club, folk who serve grub down in the refectory..." By this reckoning Waugh wouldn't be much of an artist, and Amis and Nabokov would be limited ones: they are all in different ways writers not of "negative apprehension" but "positive scorn": there seems so often to be in their work a set of assumptions underpinning the prose, a writer knows best attitude to character and behaviour. This gives a confidence to the writing that Kafka's work never accepted, where class status, physical appearance, physical desire, moral behaviour, personal health and professional attitudes are all in too much a state of flux to be grounded in an assertive style.
Yet we are also aware of catching ourselves in a contradiction here. We earlier noticed that Kafka was a great writer of the concrete; yet also we've just observed that he was a brilliant writer of "negative apprehension". How can we affirm these contraries and consequently get still closer to Kafka's empathic brilliance? Surely the concrete and the description of the possible absence of things are mutually incompatible. However, if we think of two types of concreteness - that of feeling and that of form, that of emotion and that of objective description - then should the contradiction not fall away? Central to the negative apprehension in Kafka's work that Kelman so astutely notes is the inter-empathic relationship so missing in Waugh, Amis and Nabokov. It is as though the feeling is assured by the description that is offered. Indeed it is as though Waugh is so sure of his feelings towards the working-classes that he doesn't need to describe them at all - a perfect illustration in Kelman's view of the mediocre artist with Waugh - like Nabokov and Amis - the well-respected stylist focusing on describing wittily what he does know. What we have is a descriptive concreteness but an emotional laziness, as all the precision goes into description but not into the feelings generated out of the being so described. When Kafka concentrates on negative apprehension we might think again of the sympathetic nervous system, and the feeling that is generated out of an apprehensiveness with all that is in the world, so that any description will inevitably be secondary to the feeling that contains what the narrator is describing. Negative apprehension resides in the impossibility of finding fixed coordinates from which to offer descriptive immediacy, the sort of prose style that Amis and Nabokov so admire and try to practice.
In the story 'Resolutions', Kafka's narrator says, "so perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand, to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that." This is in a brief sketch that opens with the narrator saying "to lift yourself out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy." However it isn't easy, and Kafka describes this difficulty with so much attention that there is no space or need to detail the environment of which he is a part. Compare this to a Nabokov passage in The Gift. "He avoided dawdling in Chinese roadhouses, especially overnight, because he disliked them for their 'bustle devoid of feeling' that consisted solely of shouting without the slightest hint of laughter; but strangely enough, in his memory, later the smell of these inns, that special air belonging to any place where Chinese dwell - a rancid mixture of kitchen fumes, smoke from burned manure, opium and the stable - spoke more to him of his beloved hunting than the recollected fragrancy of mountain meadows." Nabokov searches out the sensuous exploration that comes out of a mental state; Kafka emphasises the arid interiority that cannot quite dwell in the sensuous world. It is as though Nabokov tries to find states that are not especially deeply embedded but creates the space for the sensuously exploratory.
Kafka is instead a writer fascinated much more by what we might call empathic elaboration: the idea that there are feelings within feelings, so that the attempted precision of locating that feeling becomes so embedded that it cannot easily be described, nor even easily located within a categorical self. It returns us to Levinas and the problem of locating a feeling so readily in the person when affectivity resides so much beyond the person. If a writer like Nabokov is stylistically brilliant, it rests partly in the assuredness of perspective. In the scene on public transport, Nabokov locates us firmly in Fyodor's irritation and creates a vis vis disdain in relation to the other. The irritation may be private, but the feeling finds a clear outlet in the man sitting across from him. Kafka's figures can rarely make such confident assumptions about self and other. It is the idea on which we predicated this piece: if one cannot turn the rancour against others does it turn against oneself, and in the process of turning it against oneself, is there much of a self residing there? In Waugh, Amis and Nabokov, in many of the statements they make in interviews, and the manner in which they write, the self is not in question. Waugh says "I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed." (Paris Review) Nabokov once insisted "style is matter", while Amis believes, "all writing is a campaign against clich. Not just clichs of the pen but clichs of the mind and of the heart."(The War Against Cliche) In each instance we sense an assumption sitting behind the statement, as if the commonplace hasn't quite been eradicated from head and heart - an assumption of their own significance as writers. This was not the case with Kafka, "How sleepily and without effort I wrote this useless and unfinished thing", he says in a diary entry May 3 1913. "So little physical strength! Even these few words are written under the influence of weakness," and of course "the terrible uncertainty of my inner existence".
If one is so uncertain of one's inner existence, and refuses to shore up this inner fragility with egotistic false assumption, is there a chance that everybody can enter into the self? Kafka thus seemed to go further than most into what we could all the empathic within the fictional. Many writers enter into the fictional, and some do so whilst barely it seems entering into the empathic, evident in Waugh's comment that he thinks the interviewer's "questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing." (Paris Review) Other writers like Hemingway, in another Paris Review interview, can say when asked which of his characters he felt affection for "that would make too long a list." In Waugh's case character is irrelevant next to style, while in Hemingway's it is as he says based on an iceberg principle: "There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows." Here character is deeply felt but lightly sketched. Much remains a sub-textual mystery. However, in Kafka's work one often doesn't so much have sub-text - what sits underneath a character - but what hovers around a character. If Hemingway is a great writer of hidden depths; Kafka is a master of porous personalities.
Again and again we notice not so much the psychological subtlety of Kafka's characters, but their apprehensive fragility. In 'Josephine, the Mouse Singer' the title character is astute to every nuance around her as she sings. "...every trifle, every casual incident, every nuisance, a creaking in the parquet, a grinding of teeth, a failure in the lighting incites her to heighten the effectiveness of her song." "Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows...then Josephine holds that her time has come." It is in this moment, that she sings from the fragility inside herself, and "we, too, are sunk in the feeling of the mass, that, warmly pressed body to body, listens with indrawn breath." In 'Metamorphosis', no matter that Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and realises he has become a huge insect, he still frets over the family's finances: he was the main breadwinner. The capital the family had "...was by no means sufficient to let the family live on the interest of it." "Now his father was still hale enough but an old man, and he had done no work for the last five years and could not be expected to do much." "And Gregor's old mother, how was she to earn a living with her asthma..." "And was his sister to earn her bread, she who was still a child of seventeen...?" 'Reflections for Gentleman Jockeys' opens with, "when you think it over, winning a race is nothing to sigh for," believing, "your best friends laid no bet on your horse, since they feared that they would be angry with you if you lost, and now that your horse has come in first and they have won nothing, they turn away as you pass and prefer to look along the stands." The narrator adds, "for many ladies the victor cuts a ridiculous figure because he is swelling with importance and yet cannot cope with the never-ending hand-shaking..."
What happens in these and many other Kafka stories is that the negative apprehension contains a curious form of empathy, and it might be useful here to open up comments by two philosophers, Nietzsche, whom we have already addressed, and Sartre. In the 'Encounter with the Other', from Being and Nothingness, Sartre talks not of negative apprehension, but "shameful apprehension", and where the former looks towards the indeterminate future, towards an ongoing sense of angst in relation to fears not actually realized, "shameful apprehension" lies in the face of the other. "No matter what results one can obtain in solitude by the religious practise of shame, it is in its primary structure shame before somebody." "Shame is by nature recognition, I recognize that I am as the other sees me." In 'Letter to his Father', the piece is permeated by this shameful apprehension, this sense that the other is watching, yet of course often the father was not watching at all, evident in the passage above where Kafka would go home ostensibly to work and then do nothing. Shame here is an internalised realisation that even in the absence of the other, the other is present within me. We conjure up the other to sit in judgement over oneself. The person might not be present, but it is as though their gaze upon us happens to be so. While negative apprehension concerns the horror of the indeterminate future and is thus temporal; shameful apprehension is spatial. We worry not about the future but about an imaginary present: a person bursting in on us, someone spying; seeing us from the flat across the way.
However, from a Nietzschean perspective these would both be Untermensch states. In The Nietzsche Reader, the first aphorism under the heading Superman goes, "Will a self. - Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum 'know thyself', but as if there hovered before them the commandment: will a self and thou shalt become a self." Are Kafka and Nietzsche the two sides of the interior possibility? One is a figure who could not escape knowing himself, and knowing all the other selves he might be, and all the other selves who might sit in judgment on him in acts of the imaginary that disintegrate the self to its core. The other, no matter the madness that overcame Nietzsche, the loneliness that may have been even greater than Kafka's, tries to create an imaginary self that wanted to eradicate the empathic imaginary at its resentful base, and give it outward manifestation. "All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward", Nietzsche says. "This is what I call man's interiorization; it alone provides the soil for the growth of what is later called man's soul."
However, what sort of soul ought one to have; a soul that becomes trapped inside itself, endangered constantly both spatially and temporally, by shameful and negative apprehension, or one that allows for soul growth; for one's belief in the interior existence that can allow for external action on one's own terms? Kafka's work is a brilliant, perhaps the most brilliant, example of an imagination at work. He is not a writer who gets into his characters' minds, as the clich goes; he is someone for whom his characters get into the minds of others and others into their minds as well, as he goes farther than even Dostoevsky perhaps into this problem of self and other. This is not a fictional imagination as one usually perceives it: fictional in the sense that the writer creates well-rounded characters, distinct and distinctively separate. It is instead where the idea of character dissolves in the face of an empathic register greater than characterisational specifics. For example, in 'Rejection', Kafka could have set up a story that would detail the differing perspectives of a young man and a young woman, with clearly delineated characters interested in their own worlds and not the other person's. Of course this is what Kafka gives us, but in an empathically porous rather than characterisationally specific manner. Hence, the narrator thinks her thoughts for her, and accepts the rejection before it is even offered, and then offers his own reasons why he shouldn't be especially enamoured with her. As he opens this sketch/story with: "When I meet a pretty girl and beg her: be so good as to come with me, and she walks past without a word, this is what she means to say: 'you are no duke with a famous name...so why, pray, should a pretty girl like myself go with you?,'" we are inside a character's head who has also interiorised the thoughts of another.
The narrator replies to his own assumption of what she would say with: "'I see no gentlemen escorting you in a close half-circle...your breasts are well-laced into your bodice, but your thighs and hips make up for that restraint.'" The story concludes with the narrator saying, "yes, we're both in the right, and to keep us from being irrevocably aware of it, hadn't we better go our separate ways home?" Kafka lays out the story so that the narrator is both the central character, and the speculative heroine also. The heroine exists as a figure at one remove on the street, and inside the narrator's head, but not as a fully-rounded character where she would possess a name, dialogue, a psychology and be capable of interactive situations. Indeed, as so often in Kafka's work, it is the very idea of a narrator unconfident, yet empathic, that leads to these types of scenarios: to situations where the narrators don't interact with other characters but instead empathically muse over their own and others' thoughts and feelings.
Thus whether it is second guessing the woman in 'Rejection' or the figure in 'A Little Woman', whether it is musing over his thoughts on his father in 'Letter to his Father', or getting inside the thought and feeling states of an ape or a dog, in 'A Report to an Academy' and 'Investigations of a Dog', or waking up realizing one's turned into a giant bug in 'Metamorphosis', what counts is empathic fragility, not what is commonly called characterization. Now in Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster talks of 'round' characters and flat 'characters' - characters who change through the course of a story and characters who remain basically the same. Yet such terms don't seem to apply to Kafka's creations, as though Kafka is more inclined to create oblique figures that are not round or flat enough to change, or to remain the same. They are too much in a state of empathic flux, too given to fluidity of perception and affectivity to be rounded or flat, too busy entering into the emotional states of others or questioning their own. This is the writer's imagination so fertile that characterization, as it is usually considered, gets obliterated by feeling, just as in reverse we often talk about weak characterization because a writer lacks that very capacity of feeling. Kafka was a writer who didn't so much 'know thyself' as question the very idea of a self to know. Nietzsche may be the great writer of Ubermensch thinking, of trying to create a self constantly affirming their being in the world, constantly growing in protean robustness. Kafka was the radically complex Untermensch offering the reverse: insisting on a protean contraction. Yet taken together they might be the two great figures of a no man's land, of a certain examination of inner consciousness. Freud famously said nobody knew themselves better than Nietzsche, knew better the very edges of themselves and their intricate relationship with the world. However, if anyone could have known themselves equally well it would surely have been Kafka: Untermensch and Ubermensch exploring different sides of no man's land, with finally Kafka of course very far from the ordinary man and Nietzsche inevitably incapable of becoming an Ubermensch himself. Each figure haunts their field, of literature and of philosophy, figures of ineffable inner conscience and wonderfully frightening self-absorption.
© Tony McKibbin