Kafka – “Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” “A Country Doctor”

Edward R. Shaw: “Insects Playing Poker”

For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny…. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication-theorists sometimes call “exformation,” which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve.

~~ David Foster Wallace, “Laughing with Kafka” from Harper’s, July 1998.

This Kafka trio is also part of the Fiction of Relationship course, although, according to the one-week-to-go-email I got yesterday, “In the Penal Colony” seems to have been removed. But it’s a very cool story, in terms of doing interesting things with words (though I suppose that applies to all of Kafka), so I’m including it here anyway.


Yeah, that one: on my first go-round in eighth grade, the guys went, “Wow, a guy turns into a cockroach, cool!” and the girls went “Ewwwww…” and lots of us gave up on English class (and some gave up on literature in general) because the teacher managed to make it boring, going on for an hour about symbols and asking those stupid leading questions like, “What does the apple represent?” when all we all wanted to do is talk about how it’s like The Fly and then Martin drew a cockroach on Janet’s notebook that creeped her out so she threw it out, and for days a guy went around waving his hands in the air screaming, “Help me, I’m on my back and I can’t roll over” to show how sophisticated he was, now that he’d read French literature. “It’s German,” someone told him, and then we all laughed at him for pretending to be grown up when he was still a kid just like we all were because nobody knew what to do with this stuff.

Maybe it plays differently in 2013.

I wish we’d had DFW as a teacher, in 8th grade, or at any of the multiple points since then at which I’ve encountered Kafka; I’m glad I stumbled over the above-quoted article, taken from a speech given at the PEN American center earlier that year.

I thought about the relationships between Gregor and his family as I read – it’s hard not to – but also about the family itself. Gregor is the POV character, but (remembering what Manuel Gonzales did with the father who turned into a werewolf) what must it be like for a family to discover one of their own has become a bug? I was thinking in terms of severe disability – the grotesque euphemism “vegetative state,” advanced Alzheimer’s, severe psychosis. I once wrote a story draft about a man who loses function – first his sight, then his hearing, then body parts, until finally he’s only a beating heart – to consider how much could be taken away before the main character decided, “This is not my husband.” I couldn’t make the story work; Kafka would’ve.

Kafka did:

… [M]uch of the story centers around the question: what is a person? At what point does alteration alter you out of being human? (The deformed, the chronically ill, and the elderly know something about these matters.)
In Kafka’s most interesting work, human status is precisely what is being taken away. Not by any act of cruelty but rather by a writerly imagination that sees the human as a category you could exit.

~ ~ Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House (Random House, 2003) p. 104

It’s a different story to me each time I read it. Once, it was all about the sister; once it was all about work. I hated my job at the time and wished I’d turn into a bug (a wish I wished I could’ve taken back when a few years later, I did). Andrew David King, in “Black to Green to Gone,” put it much better: “…[W]ithin the first few pages of The Metamorphosis, Samsa worries that his new existence as an arthropod will affect his job….[I]f he’s going to be late for work, it hardly makes a difference whether he’s fallen ill or turned into a bug.” Still later, it was all about the language and symbolism. It’s a story that offers more with each read, that changes as the reader changes, which is why it’s still a good read, forty years after Martin and Janet and all the rest.

“In the Penal Colony”

Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once, like “In the Penal Colony”‘s Lieutenant.

~~ David Foster Wallace, “Laughing with Kafka” from Harper’s, July 1998.

Kafka wrote this story in 1914, before the Beer Hall Putsch, before the Nazi party, when Hitler was just a name for a kid who failed his physical for the Austrian army. Kafka wrote this story about an officer in love with his horrifyingly effective killing machine years before his countrymen would create the horrifyingly efficient killing system that would become known as the Holocaust. That isn’t to say that the seeds of that atrocity weren’t already sprouting, of course; German Nationalism began in the late 19th century, and German Romanticism even earlier.

But the story is not about Germany at all. It’s about communication.

Communication? That threw me. I thought at least it had something to do with capital punishment, or maybe military or dictatorial insanity. But, as Weinstein points out in A Scream Goes Through the House (p.122), the punishment is a little too stark for that: it’s “torture, not justice.” That makes sense; to talk about capital punishment, the idea that there might be at some level to someone a good reason for it would need to be demonstrated, and there’s nothing here that justifies much punishment at all, let alone twelve hours of torture by writing. Though the explanation the Officer gives is technically convoluted and the machine is downright Rube Golbergian, that’s what it boils down to: the prisoner will be written to death:

Kafka is asking us to weigh language as an adequate or inadequate bridge between humans.
Thick-skinned humans are trapped within their bodies, cannot cross the bridge from me to you. This is what the machine is designed to correct. The beak that rends the flesh of prisoners, that writes into their bodies the “sentence” they receive, is a writing machine. Kafka has devised a kind of fleshy semiotics that aims at no less than a miracle: the production of a language that would be one with what it says, that would collapse the classic sign/referent division. Try to imagine a language that is immediate, so that the letters “l-o-v-e” actually become love rather than the word designating love.

~ ~ Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House (Random House, 2003) p. 123

What stood out to me most is the Officer’s seemingly insane devotion to his death machine, the earnestness with which he sought to convince the Traveler of its perfection and value. Kafka must have had a reason for doing that, beyond convincing us that the guy is a nut-job; a few sentences, at most a paragraph or two, would’ve taken care of that, but for page after page the Officer goes on describing the intricate workings of the machine – and, failing to convince the Traveler of its beauty, finally gives up and avails himself of his own device.

Through his explanation, he skips over the bit about digging out flesh and even death, but merely focuses on what the machine does. That, then, is the, forgive the pun, point.

In his Kenyon Review article (the one that in fact pointed me to the DFW piece) “Black to Green to Gone,” Andrew David King links this idea of communication to tattooing as a literary form: the message becoming flesh. I get a little lost between reading and writing somewhere in his argument, but here it’s crystal clear:

Understanding and deciphering: this is what “the script,” which is carved into the skin and thereby learned, works to encourage. The assumption is that what any author undergoes when creating a work is a process of learning that happens through the infliction of wounds.

~~ Andrew David King, “Black to Green to Gone” from Kenyon Review, 9/2/12

There are times when I wish understanding a text was as easy as having it carved into my skin. But it’s right there in the text, as the Officer explains the effects to the Traveler:

You see, it’s not supposed to kill right away, but on average over a period of twelve hours. The turning point is set for the sixth hour. … For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before. He suffers nothing but pain. …He first loses his pleasure in eating around the sixth hour. … But how quiet the man becomes around the sixth hour! The most stupid of them begins to understand. It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down with him under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it is not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds.

~~ Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”

The turning point – I wish I knew the German, does this mean the same thing it does in English? Does it have the same literal plus figurative meaning, a point at which the body is turned or the point at which the overall course of things changes? I’m still not sure exactly how this works, if the Condemned Man is flipped over once at six hours, or if the physical turning is continuous, but in any case, it is at hour six that he starts to get it: understanding occurs, he is listening. Like Helen Keller and “water,” he gets it, and it shows in his eyes: “A look that could tempt one to lie down with him under the Harrow,” says the Officer. Really? But there it is – the leap from physical to figurative. Nobody wants to get written to death, but how many people right now are trying to read something, trying to communicate, to understand, to be understood? Why, I’m doing it myself, at the same moment I read the words, in a kind of collapse of time.

We’ve all heard or said something like, “It’s engraved in my mind forever.” It isn’t the writing the Officer admires, envies: it’s the understanding. That sixth hour is pretty amazing, literarily speaking – and now, don’t I sound like the Officer, reveling in the art of the thing without considering what the Condemned Man is going through.

“The Country Doctor”

I rather hit the jackpot on this one in the form of one Richard T. Gray who, in addition to the usual academic achievements, just happens to be, or at least was in 2011, Editor-at-Large of the Journal of the Kafka Society of America. Which is all well and good – I mean, somebody has to be, right? – but the best part is, he also stores his lecture notes for the classes he teaches online where any fool googling around can stumble upon them.

But let me start with the story.

It reminded me of Ishiguro’s “A Village After Dark,” which was a practice run for the grammar of dreams he used in The Unconsoled. The coincidence of first one thing, then another, going wrong as the doctor prepares to depart, the sudden coincidence of everything being solved, the wound that isn’t there then is, the distortions of time – even the ending, which takes place on transportation! – felt very familiar to me. I’m reminded of what Wallace said about Kafka’s stories being not so much surreal as nightmarish. So I was glad to see it is a dream-form piece.

Dr. Gray’s lecture notes begin with the original German in the opening sentence: ” Ich war in grosser Verlegenheit” is usually translated as “I was in great difficulty” or “I was in great perplexity.” Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about German beyond “Mein Herr Marquis, ein Mann wie Sie” (don’t worry, it’s not important, trust me). This is all well and good – “Verlegenheit” does indeed mean “dilemma” – but it also means “embarrassment,” and look what happens when you feed “verlegen” into Google: to edit, move, lay, shift, adjourn, misplace… But since words don’t always behave the way translation software thinks they do, I’ll rely on Dr. Gray, who points to three specific translations:

1) “dilemma”
2) Verlegen as an adjective means “shame” or “embarrassment….
3) Verlegen as a verb means “to misplace”, to “lose” due to being distracted, etc….
Thus one of the opening words of Kafka’s German text is overdetermined (to use Freud’s terms) by concentrating into one single word these 3 different possible meanings or allusions. Each possibility points in a different direction, but each direction proves to be relevant for a deep-psychological reading of Kafka’s text.
–Reflect on these 3 motifs in the text: Dilemmas (and their solution); Shame (and its consequences); Misplacing (or repressing) important information/things/people, etc.

~~ Richard T. Gray, Lecture Notes

This alone would keep me pretty busy for a while. I’ve always been interested in what goes into translation (it’s incredibly complicated, particularly with something this nuanced), as well as suspicious that translated works can’t possibly produce the same experience as the original, and here it is right in the first line, an implication that is lost – misplaced! – in translation.

And again we encounter doubles. I got a whiff of this when I first read the story; the “rose coloured” description of the worms and wounds can’t be a coincidence. But what Gray sees is that the doubling meets in the middle: at one end, we start with the Doctor, at the other end, with the Groom at the other, working through Rose and the Boy, until they all end up in bed together.

He links this to the conflict between Responsibility (the Doctor’s overt attitude towards the Boy) and Lust (the Groom’s overt attitude towards Rose), and the Freudian sublimation of erotic wishes into ambition – in this case, incomplete sublimation, since he is stripped by the family and placed into bed with the Boy. To borrow and slightly modify Gray’s exquisitely simple yet extremely communicative graphic from his notes:

Doctor     ->     ambition     ->     Boy/Rose     <-     eroticism     <-     Groom

But isn’t there rage at the end? In the last paragraph, we get words like lost, robbed, naked, abandoned, old, betrayed – “once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again – not ever.” Is this the price of sublimation? Or is it rage at the failure of the sublimation?

Gray also discusses the tense shifts in the piece. I’m awfully proud of myself for having noticed them, since I often miss such things, but it seemed pretty overt to me. He relates this to the Doctor standing in suspended time at what for us is the end of the story: the present I reflecting on the historic I. I wonder – is this a kind of reliving the experience – a literary version of the flashbacks of PTSD?

This bloc was terrific reading; I’ve already I have a weakness for weird, and weird is even better when accompanied by insights from people who actually know what they’re talking about.