2024/06/12 - 20:44

The Man Who Disappeared: Kafka Imagining Amerika

by Douglas Shields Dix

(A reply to this article by Dr Smolin can be read here)


“The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out…”-Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: pour une littérature mineure

 Between 1911 and 1914, Franz Kafka wanted to disappear. More precisely, he desperately sought a way out of the existential predicament of his life as he had been living it then, and towards a life that would yield him the necessary conditions to allow him to follow his chosen path of writing. It was during this period that he came to realize that the only true way out was through writing itself. He imagined other ways out, and even experimented with several, but in the end he closed all the doors he had opened, forcing himself to cross the threshold of the only door he would or could ever open–that of literature. It was during this period that he most despaired of ever becoming a writer, and yet it was during this period that he finally succeeded in becoming one to his own satisfaction (and he was always his most demanding critic). This particular passage in his life is worth dwelling upon because it gives a key to his later work, even if the novel he intended to be his initiation into serious literature during this period was ultimately abandoned, and even held in low esteem by its creator, who referred to it later in his diary as the “lowlands of writing” (in comparison to his having finished, in one sitting, the first piece of writing he felt justified his calling himself a writer-the story Das Urteil/The Judgment).


That uncompleted first novel was entitled, in its early form, Der Verschollene, which might be rendered in Czech as “Zmize” or in English, The Disappeared One, The Man Who Disappeared, or even The One Who Went Missing, although the novel is most often known by the more familiar title given it by Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, when he published it in 1927–Amerika. It is the least read of Kafka’s novels, has received the least amount of critical attention, and is rightly considered by critics important primarily as an indication of the future path Kafka’s writing would take, and not as a work to be considered as being on the same level as Der Prozess/The Trial or Das Schloss/The Castle. While I will not differ terribly much with the general critical consensus surrounding this work, I have two different but related reasons for considering this novel anew: first, to explore how this rather bizarre work fits into the trajectory of Kafka’s development as a writer-especially during a critical period of his development when he might well have given up his efforts in discouragement; the second, to consider the veracity of Kafka’s imaginative projection of life in the United States of America. I believe that despite the fact Kafka never set foot in America, his novel was uncannily prescient about certain aspects of the country that advertised itself, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as “the promised land.” These reasons are related because I would submit that Kafka used the exercise of writing the novel to imagine opening a door to a way out for himself–departing for America, or at least departing for somewhere else, anywhere else (as a character in one of his parables proclaims, “weg von hier, nur weg von hier-”away from here, just away from here”); however, his own honesty brought him to close that door both in his lived reality and in his literary reality.   


This second reason may seem dubious, or even perverse, for Kafka’s writing does not posit itself as a realistic nor naturalistic representation of reality, but rather as something closer to an expressionist “x-ray” or photographic negative of the deeper wellsprings of social and psychological reality, which it accomplishes through a technique that traces and abstracts reality as it attempts to portray the deeper motivations that surge below the surface of daily life.

Following the French theorist Jacques Lacan, I term this technique a form of “anamorphosis”-a distortion of representation which obliquely presents a truth that cannot be represented directly. Kafka’s writings reveal truths about the human condition that are less about the specific psychological reality of a given character or the specific social reality of a given society than a tracing or “blueprint” (as Hannah Arendt termed it) that the reader needs to complete through an application of the blueprint to their own reality. Consequently, it would seem that a reader would do better to turn to writers like Proust or Joyce to view a given reality meticulously represented in a realistic or naturalistic way, and, in regard to the United States, a writer such as John Dos Passos in his novel Manhattan Transfer (1925) or his later U.S.A. Trilogy (1930-36) might be a better place to view a realistic representation of the reality of American society during Kafka’s epoch. Kafka’s portrait of American reality is distorted from the very opening scene of the novel, where the Statue of Liberty slides into view wielding a sword in the air rather than a torch, and such distortion rules the novel all the way to the faulty geography of the last scene which places “high mountains” erroneously somewhere between New York City and Oklahoma. Nonetheless, the strange and often absurd depictions of America in Kafka’s novel do in fact anamorphically point to certain truths about the country on a different level of representation than the realistic–that of the Americanism of America. What I mean by this will become clearer below, but for now it will suffice to cite the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, who saw Kafka’s novels functioning “as a dismantling, an analysis, a prognostics of social forces and currents, of the forces that in his epoch are only beginning to knock on the door.” Among the forces that Kafka’s novels prognosticate, which Deleuze and Guattari elsewhere describe as “diabolical powers,” are cited Fascism, Stalinism, and…Americanism. The first two come as no surprise under the label “diabolical power,” but it has taken a half century longer for the reality of the third to become self-evident: that self-evidence is accelerating apace in the current epoch, although the signs have been there for significantly longer. What I will be suggesting in this essay is that, as is almost always the case in Kafka’s writings, Kafka’s hypersensitivity towards his own singular reality, which tormented him to the point of despair, brought him beyond the particular to a near-universal view of his epoch and the powers of the future knocking at the door; indeed he enacted what Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed as the visionary power of poets–to become the “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” With Amerika Kafka proved to be uncannily prescient in regard to Americanism, tracing the lines of the shadow its particular futurity was just beginning to cast.


Kafka’s Crisis and the Writing of Amerika/Der Verschollene


“Kafka is in ecstasy, writes whole nights through. A novel, set in America.”-Max Brod


Kafka began writing the first, subsequently destroyed draft of Der Verschollene in late 1911, although he had a novel very much like it in mind for much longer: a diary entry from January 19, 1911, states, “Once I projected a novel in which two brothers fought each other, one of whom went to America while the other remained in a European prison. I only now and then began to write a few lines, for it tired me at once.” For Kafka, the “European prison” might be taken as a projection of his own life during this period, which he saw increasingly closing in upon him. The primary issue he faced during this period was how to create for himself the necessary time to write when his family and society expected him to make a living, marry, and raise his own family. This conflict was already on his mind when, in March, 1911, he approached Rudolf Steiner, who was in Prague giving lectures on anthroposophy. Kafka clearly hoped the older man would give him some answer to his plight, and in his description of this visit we can see the basic outline of Kafka’s predicament. He explained to Steiner how his form of writing would not allow him to make a living by writing alone, as his work progressed too slowly, was not marketable, and therefore he worked at an insurance office. He explained how he was torn between his duties to the outer world and his “inner duties,”  and that while he had an interest in anthroposophy, he had strong doubts as to whether he could add a third element to the other two dominant elements of his life, so he asked Steiner’s opinion. Kafka ended his account of this visit with rather a detailed description of how Steiner blew his nose–there is no description of how Steiner answered him. By the fact Kafka showed no further interest in anthroposophy we can assume what the answer (or non-answer) was: it’s likely Steiner realized that Kafka’s life already had a direction (literature), and it needed no further elements taking his attention away from that task. Kafka could not admit this to himself yet, and so he continued fluctuating between various alternatives as a way to avoid the obvious conclusion, which he would only reach after a considerable period of crisis.


For Kafka, the crisis truly began following the purchase, by his father and brother-law, of an asbestos factory in November, 1911. Kafka himself was listed as a partner, but clearly he expected to be a silent partner. His father had different expectations. Already by mid-December he was describing in his diary a serious argument with his father, and by late December, he describes himself as being in “torment” about the factory. The added time the factory would demand from him, beyond his six hours per day at the insurance company, seemed unbearable to him. This crisis would come to a head in 1912, bringing Kafka to a suicidal despair, but also bringing him through the crisis and laying the foundation for some of his most important work. It was at some point in early 1912 that he began the first, later destroyed draft of Der Verschollene (hereafter Amerika). In May, 1912, he wrote in his diary, “How I hold fast to my novel against all restlessness, like a figure on a monument that looks into the distance and holds fast to its pedestal.” We will never know whether this version was more like the earlier novel he projected with dual protagonists, or more like the version of the novel that exists now, but the novel clearly represented for Kafka, consciously and unconsciously, a split between an imaginative projection of a possible way out of his crisis in terms of an escape to America, and an enactment of the actual way out in terms of his establishing himself as a writer. On the level of an imaginative projection of an actual, physical escape, the possibility would not be without precedent in Kafka’s family history, as Kafka did have three paternal cousins who were living in the United States at that time, and two maternal uncles had spent a significant amount of time there. However, there are no indications that Kafka ever seriously took steps to embark upon this adventure, and during his life he never traveled farther than Germany, Austria, France, and northern Italy. On some level Kafka already knew the only way out was writing itself, but he would have to explore several other possibilities of escape before he could fully take on this task.


Of these possibilities, several were various ideologies Kafka explored during this period, including the aforementioned anthroposophy, Zionism (which Kafka began exploring during this period under the influence of Brod), and even nature worship: in July, 1912, he went to Jungborn in the Harz mountains to a natural therapy sanatorium with controlled diet, open-air treatment, and…nudism. The thought of Franz Kafka cavorting about in the nude like a faun confounds the imagination-apparently even for Kafka himself, who wrote to Brod that he was uncomfortable with the nudism, and that he was known at the spa as “the man with the swimming trunks” because of his refusal to strip fully naked. While he did continue his novel while at the spa, the spa and its nature philosophy turned out to be another dead-end for him. Around this time he broke off the first version of the novel for unknown reasons–he merely complained to Brod about the factory and about his writer’s block. However, in August Kafka would be presented with a possibility that would act as a catalyst to his fully embracing his destiny as a writer, while it simultaneously allowed him to act out the very crisis he was facing through its representation in another person: on August 13, Kafka met Felice Bauer for the first time.


Many critics and biographers have discussed the fact that Felice represented for Kafka more than simply a woman he considered marrying. In his diary he described her at one point as a “representative of the world,” and this indeed she was–a representative of precisely the demands of Kafka’s family, class, and society, and therefore an embodiment of his conflict with that society, and his crisis with himself. That Felice was more an imaginative projection for Kafka than a real woman of flesh and blood can be seen quite clearly: having only met her once for a few hours at Max Brod’s domicile, between the time he writes her his first letter on September 20, 1912, and the time he actually meets her again, five months later, on March 23, 1913, Kafka would write her 250 pages of letters. Clearly she acted as a catalyst or muse for Kafka, for the writing of these voluminous letters corresponds precisely with the advent of Kafka’s true fulfillment of his vocation as a writer: two days after writing Felice his first letter to her, Kafka had his most powerful experience of writing yet: over the night of September 22-23, he wrote his story Das Urteil/The Judgment, an experience that he felt verified his vocation. Several critics have noted that the story itself actually posits, in a transformed way, the conflicts Kafka was then facing, as the story creates a symbolical division between two of its characters, one present, one absent-the son who intends to marry, and who is caught in a terrible oedipal struggle with his father, and the bachelor “friend” in Russia, who, while not literally a writer, has been taken by many critics to suggest the possibility of a bachelor’s life as a writer elsewhere. That the son goes willingly to his own death, following his father’s verdict, has multiple meanings, but certainly it echoes the death-in-life Kafka feared he might face if he followed the injunctions of his own father and society. While the story only sets out the choices facing Kafka without working them through (or perhaps working them out in the negative choice of the son’s death), the writing of the story itself functioned to bring Kafka over a threshold to the positive choice of coming to see himself as a real writer. That Kafka did indeed make a choice becomes clear, for as soon as he finished this story, he embarked on a new version of his novel, and could declare the first chapter, “The Stoker,” finished by October 2 of that year. While Kafka’s relationship to Felice would be ruled by self-abnegation, self-disqualification, and dithering over its five year course prior to its final dissolution, during the same period he would embark upon and complete some of his most important work.


Despite this success, it was not to be an easy struggle for him. Kafka was battling forces that would take him away from writing more than ever (perhaps precisely because he knew now that he could write), and this conflict reached a peak on October 7, when Kafka wrote a suicidal letter to Max Brod. He was in despair over the loss of his time that would occur because of the need for him to take over for two weeks at the asbestos factory, and he saw the conflict in the bleakest, most black and white of terms: “…only two possibilities remain open…either to jump out of the window once everyone has gone to sleep, or in the next two weeks to go daily to the factory and to my brother-in-law’s office” (the window Kafka mentions no longer exists, as the elegant apartment building was torn down to make way for the aesthetic monstrosity of the Hotel Intercontinental). The intensity of Kafka’s feeling can be seen in the final lines of the letter: “And yet, now in the morning, I must not conceal this, I hate them all, one after the other, and think that in these fourteen days I shall scarcely be able to summon up the good-mornings and good-evenings…” Brod was so alarmed by the letter that he showed it to Kafka’s mother, hiding these final lines, and his mother intervened enough in the crisis to lessen Kafka’s burden at the factory, and prevent this potential suicide from actually occurring. 


After this crisis passed, his work on Amerika progressed rapidly, so that by the second week of November Kafka had completed the sixth chapter, or roughly 2/3s of the novel. Kafka wrote to Felice, on November 11, “After fifteen years of despairing effort (except for rare moments), this is the first major work in which, for the past six weeks, I have felt confidence.” However, the letter continues by suggesting the inverse relation between Kafka’s ability to write, and his relationship with Felice: “It must be completed, as I feel sure you will agree, and so, with your blessing, I would like to transfer the brief periods I otherwise spend on writing inaccurate, alarmingly incomplete, imprudent, dangerous letters to you, to this task around which, until now at any rate, everything, no matter what and from where it came, has calmed down and taken the right turning. Do you agree?” Kafka did not actually curtail his letters to Felice–the flood of letters continued to be echoed by the flood of writing during this period, although he did break off his novel again to write rapidly, between November 17 and December 5, Die Verwandlung/The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s second key work to be completed. Following the end of this work, Kafka proclaims to Felice that he will go straight back to the novel; however, given he had already finished six chapters, between December, 1912, and August, 1914, Kafka only completed the seventh chapter of the novel, and a few fragments of another chapter that was left incomplete. For whatever reason, Kafka again seems to have largely abandoned his novel in this period of twenty months, and even when he takes it up again, in the summer of 1914, it coincides precisely with the beginning of his writing a new novel, Der Prozess/The Trial. It would seem that he desired to finish the earlier novel to have it over and done with, and, indeed, he finally broke off the writing of Amerika for good in October, 1914, carrying on with The Trial


This fallow, unproductive period between the spring and early summer of 1913, and the late summer of 1914, coincides with Kafka’s coming to face the concrete reality of his epistolary romance in the shape of a living, breathing woman who obviously wanted him to make good his promises, and who, as we have seen, represented for Kafka “the world”-in other words, who represented the non-literary world. He visited Felice twice in Berlin during the spring of 1913, and these visits culminated in his proposal of marriage in June, 1913. Kafka was already warning her by summer that, as his wife, she could only expect to have one hour of his time daily, and, as if to enact this reality, Kafka broke off his usually profuse correspondence with her for an entire month in September, 1913. Felice apparently began to realize the nature of the man she had been corresponding with, as she evidently also cooled the relationship off-enough so that Kafka renewed his marriage proposal in January, 1914, and when he visited Felice at the end of the following February, she had ready for him a solid argument against their getting married. By April these obstacles had been surmounted enough for Kafka to meet Felice in Berlin, and in May, Felice came to Prague to help Kafka look for an apartment, and Kafka traveled to Berlin, and made his engagement official. This engagement lasted all of six weeks before Kafka went to Berlin in mid-July, and the engagement was broken off following a meeting at the Askanische Hof attended by his friend Ernst Weiss, and Felice supported by her friend Grete Bloch (who had revealed to Felice negative passages about her in Kafka’s letters to Grete), and even Felice’s sister, Erna. It seems that while Felice actually broke off the relationship, Kafka’s passivity and inability to defend himself at this meeting were the real cause: from a later account of the meeting it seems Kafka’s self-defense actually supported Felice’s contentions, and Felice merely arrayed against Kafka many of the charges his letters had already raised against himself as a marriage partner. However, coinciding with this break commences the end of a long fallow period in Kafka’s writing life, when his attention had apparently been primarily taken up with his correspondence with Felice, and the beginning of the furious activity of completing the last chapter of Amerika, In der Strafcolonie/In the Penal Colony, and the commencement of Der Prozess/The Trial. Paradoxically, his greatest burst of literary activity that autumn came in October, which coincided with his renewed letters to Felice (and to her friend Grete, with whom Kafka began an epistolary dalliance). Having completed the final chapter of Amerika, and much of Der Prozess, Kafka was again quite fallow until just after the point when he became engaged to Felice for the second time, in July, 1917, after which he wrote Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer/The Great Wall of China, Der Jäger Gracchus/The Hunter Gracchus, and Ein Bericht für eine Akademie/A Report to an Academy. Of course, in the end, their engagement was finally broken off for good.


I go on at length detailing the curious relation between Kafka’s writing life and his amorous life with Felice because I am trying to emphasize the nature of the correlation between the two, as I believe it has an analogy with Kafka’s strategy in writing Amerika. Felice was clearly a muse as long as she was at a certain distance: the periods of copious letters written to her coincides with the periods of great creative ferment; therefore, a woman for Kafka becomes a muse if she is somehow “over-the-horizon,” or “coming-ever-closer-without-arriving” (a bit like death, it would seem…). Once she is in danger of arriving she becomes an embodiment of society (especially Felice with her rather bourgeois outlook, it must be said), and therefore a problem and a trap, and the writing ceases. In this crucial period Kafka ambivalently wavered between two possibilities: the possibility of accepting marriage as a way out from the torments of his self-expectation in regard to his writing, and the possibility of his writing being a way out of the “normal” life his family and society expected him to embrace. Kafka could not stand the normative structure of intimacy on offer in his society, and yet, unlike writers such as D.H. Lawrence or Anaïs Nin, would or could not embark upon the project of “reinventing love” (to borrow a phrase from Rimbaud). This ambivalence is reflected in Amerika.


The novel clearly represents Kafka imaginative projection of a way out: why else would he have imagined the story of a young man who “disappears” to America, and his adventures there? While Kafka may not have been thinking specifically of disappearing to America as an answer to his problems, he certainly was considering, at least abstractly, the possibility of disappearing from Prague–for example, in one of his letters to Felice, he proclaims that if she will not marry him, he will move away from Prague. As Max Brod wrote in his forward to the novel, “…Franz Kafka was fond of reading travel books and memoirs…he had always a longing for free space and distant lands.” Through the benefit of hindsight, we can see that for Kafka, America would have been as impossible a destination as Palestine, but certainly he must have at least considered both destinations at different points in time, just as he also considered anthroposophy, nature worship, and, even, the kind of “tending one’s own garden” that one finds at the end of Candide (Kafka, in the spring of 1913, took to gardening two hours a day in Nusle: gardening appears to have been one possibility available to troubled geniuses in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during its period of dissolution, for Wittgenstein would also become a gardener’s assistant in a monastery). Just as his relationship with Felice was a psychological working through of his problems, his writing of Amerika was also a way to work through his wavering between the possibilities of escape, which may be represented as a choice between what might be nominated an “extensive escape” (through actual physical departure) and “intensive escape” (through an escape within himself, through what the critic Maurice Blanchot has termed the “essential solitude” of writing).


As will be seen from a discussion of the novel itself, Kafka’s projection of such an escape was ambivalent from the start, for from beginning to end what he imagines happening to his protagonist Karl Rossman is a series of absurd and often terrible incidents that function more as a cautionary tell against going to America, rather than a story of the opportunities and successes awaiting someone in the “promised land.” Certainly the words and images that were coming from America in that period revealed a land of hope and opportunity: between 1900 and 1920, 4,500,000 people immigrated to the United States, of which 22% were from the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire–equaled only in number by immigrants from Italy. This means that during the twenty year period coinciding with the time Kafka was writing, upwards of 1,000,000 of his fellow residents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were leaving for the United States. Be that as it may, Kafka’s depiction hardly revealed a welcoming land–rather it revealed a land where the unwary would be taken advantage of at every opportunity, where the wealthy trod upon the poor, where the only way forward was through corruption and sycophancy, where politics, commerce and daily life were deliriously frenzied, where a subterranean degeneracy and perversion threatened to unleash itself on unsuspecting victims at any moment. In short, Kafka’s novel depicted something closer to the wayward reality than the illusory dream.    


I believe there is an analogy between the way Kafka framed his possible marriage to Felice and how he depicted a possible escape to America in this novel: in both cases the ideal was represented first as a possible way to proceed, but having set up the ideal, in both cases Kafka disqualified himself by imagining the worst possibilities. When Kafka wrote to Felice or even her father about his suitability as a marriage partner, he would list all the reasons he was not suitable. In the same way, beginning with a general ideal of America, Kafka’s novel goes through a series of episodes revealing the real behind the ideal, as if he were trying to talk himself out of the possibility of America being an escape route from his existence. In both cases, the actual working through of the conflict occurred via writing, as the only way out for Kafka would be the line of escape represented by literature. Kafka finally did become “the man who disappeared,” but this disappearance was intensive: like one of his late stories, Ein Hungerkünstler/The Hunger Artist, Kafka was to disappear into his writing.


  The Shape of Amerika: Not-So-Great Expectations


David Copperfield. ‘The Stoker’ as sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labor, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself. Dickens’ opulence and great, careless prodigality, but in consequence passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects he has already achieved.”-Franz Kafka, Diary


It may seem rather strange that Kafka took as his model for Amerika the Charles Dickens of David Copperfield and Great Expectations, as Kafka wrote in his diary entry (above) on October 8, 1917. The “careless prodigality” of Dickens was, of course, at least partially due to the fact that most of his novels were serialized for publication in magazines, so Dickens was attempting to draw out the story for as long as he possibly could (a technique practiced by Balzac as well). This in itself speaks to the difference between Dickens and Kafka: Kafka, while he desired publication, acknowledged that his writing would never have a popular audience. Certainly there is some family resemblance between David Copperfield and Amerika in the basic plot outline of the young man who must make his way in the world, and even in some of the sudden turns of plot or grotesqueries that both young men encounter along the way, but Kafka understates the difference between himself and Dickens, and what he speaks of as the “sharper or duller lights” are significant indeed. While both protagonists get themselves into (and out of) quirky or difficult predicaments, in Dickens the protagonist moves ultimately in a definite direction that finally yields him a reward for his virtue, while in Kafka there is no sense of progression or of an ultimate direction: his protagonist, Karl Rossman, drifts from one situation to another in an aimless, passive manner like a leaf blown in the wind–although the wind, in this case, seems to be issuing from the barely-suppressed libido of most of the other characters. It is this last aspect that is most striking about this novel (and Kafka’s later two novels), as the description of the first chapter which now follows indicates.


“The Stoker”–the first chapter of the novel, and the only section published during Kafka’s lifetime–is exemplary of these strange, libidinal intensities that seem to flow in all directions from the very first page. In the first paragraph the reader is immediately given the motivating reason for Karl’s voyage to America in the first description of him as a boy of sixteen “who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him” (that this was not such an absurd event may be seen by the fact that Kafka’s cousin, Dr. Robert Kafka, was said to have been seduced at age 14 by the family cook). This fact sets the blueprint for the majority of relations which follow in the book, which almost all seem to have either a latent or overt libidinal content. Karl’s first encounter with this force occurs immediately. He is ready to disembark from the ship in New York harbor when he realizes he has left his umbrella below deck. He goes down, gets increasingly lost, and begins to “pound unthinkingly” on a little door. The stoker who opens the door immediately sweeps Karl into his cabin, and then into his bunk, getting in beside him. The homoerotic undertones are quite clear, but Karl seems naively innocent of the stoker’s motivations, and only registers his discomfort at the man’s closeness to him in a distracted way: in fact, as the critic Stanley Corngold has observed, distraction is a key facet of Karl’s sensibility throughout the novel–it seems to be caused by a combination of his youthful inexperience, and, on a deeper, darker level, is his own way of repressing what is actually happening to him, and consequently allowing it to happen in certain cases. Karl’s “reading” of his own experience seems to be a model for the reading of the novel itself, for the reader also never quite knows what is happening in any direct way, but is led to suspect that almost all of the characters have ulterior motives, with subliminally libidinal undertones.


The chapter is a series of such distractions for Karl: Karl goes in search of his umbrella, encounters the stoker, and then becomes so distracted that he forgets he has left his trunk on deck. Then, he becomes so distracted by the case of the stoker, who claims to have been bullied by the head engineer, that he goes with him to the captain to plead his case, seemingly forgetting that none of this has anything to do with him, and that his umbrella and now his trunk are still lost. After he has addressed the captain and the stoker begins to tell his story, Karl allows himself to be distracted yet again by the view outside the window, only realizing afterwards that in the moment of distraction he had allowed the stoker to become too impassioned and imprecise in his account, so that no one in the room is sympathetic to his case. Finally, the ultimate distraction comes when a stranger suddenly asks his name, and Karl discovers that he is in the presence of his uncle, now a United States senator, who has come expressly to find him on the ship after receiving a letter from the servant who had seduced Karl, and, to Karl’s embarrassment, proceeds to tell the whole story (embedded within this story, Karl remembers how it actually happened, and the seduction itself seems to have been the result of a distraction and passivity that is very similar to the scene in the stoker’s cabin). The end of the chapter confirms the libidinal tension that has reigned throughout, with a handshake between Karl and the stoker that seems strangely sexual (“Karl drew his fingers backwards and forwards between the stoker’s, while the stoker gazed round him with shining eyes, as if blessed by a great happiness that no one could grudge him”), and, when on the boat taking his uncle and he ashore, Karl looks at his uncle and wonders if he “would ever be able to take the stoker’s place,” as if the stoker had actually acquired a position of intimacy during their brief encounter! It is a grand entrance to Kafka’s bizarre fictional universe.


While the episodic train of events leading to an unexpected resolution has the general structural shape of a Dickens novel, the subterranean sexuality that pervades Kafka’s novel is striking, and continues throughout the book, characterizing Karl’s relations with his uncle (who is jealous when Karl chooses to visit the country house of Pollunder, his uncle’s friend), his relation to Pollunder (who holds Karl’s hands on the way to his uncle’s country house, and who at one point pulls Karl between his knees), his relation to the manageress of the hotel Karl goes to work for as an elevator boy (who makes it clear she likes to be “awakened” early in the morning–and who Karl feels his duty to “see” on his day off), his encounter with a hotel porter (Kafka’ biographer, Frederick Karl, goes so far as to describe this encounter as something close to a rape: “What is occurring without actual sodomy is a form of rape, the seizure of the person and the crushing of him or her into humiliation”), and to the bloated, ex-opera singer Brunhelda, who Karl is forced to attend to as a sort of personal servant–and this list only includes the apparently unwanted liaisons. The shape of the novel is already indicated largely in this list of libidinal encounters, as the novel does not really progress in a specific direction as one would expect from a novel by Dickens, but rather seems to drift as aimlessly as Karl himself, although Kafka’s final chapter, which will be discussed below, does reach a culmination of theme, if not truly a culmination of plot.


Kafka as a Philosopher of Micro-Social Reality


“To dismantle a machinic assemblage is to create and effectively take a line of escape…”

                                         -Gilles Deleuze And Félix Guattari, Kafka: pour une littérature mineure


As pervasive as the covert sexuality is in the novel, Kafka’s purpose seems not to have been the mere portrayal of the primal drives underlying social relations; rather, this perverse element seems to go hand in hand with a precise mapping of the labyrinthine structure of the social landscape on the micro-social levels, which produces a consequent sense of claustrophobic entrapment that ultimately leads to a mounting desire to escape. I would submit that this would place Kafka, in regard to his micro-social mappings, closer to his Berlin contemporary, the sociologist George Simmel (1858-1918), than to the expressionists or the existentialists. The interpreters of Kafka who have dealt most cogently with this aspect of his work are the French postmodern philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Contrary to the interpretations of the metaphysically-oriented critics on the one hand (Kafka as a new Kabbalah), and the existentially-oriented critics on the other (Kafka as an absurdist or proto-existentialist), Deleuze and Guattari interpret Kafka as a writer who intricately and critically maps social space, and who by so doing opens what they term “lines of flight” or escape. Indeed, their monumental work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, composed of two jointly-authored volumes, Anti-Oedipe (Anti-Oedipus, 1972) and Mille Plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980), was bridged by their volume Kafka: pour une littérature mineure (Kafka : Towards a Minor Literature, 1975)-a concrete application of their abstract philosophy. This work, more a philosophical than a literary analysis, embarks upon a compelling exploration of Kafka’s œuvre as a whole, while admittedly not offering very specific interpretations of given works. The philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia consists of a mapping of social space revealing the social forces that consolidate and replicate a given social order, as well as those forces engaged in the transformation and evolution of that social order. What they term, in their earlier volume, the “negative task of schizoanalysis,” entails a critical, social and historical, personal and political mapping of the social space revealing its blocks, traps and ruses: their reading of Kafka explores how Kafka similarly maps social space in this critical manner. The “positive task of schizoanalysis” that their works detail is somewhat more abstract precisely because they eschew any programmatic plan of social or individual transformation in favor of delineating subtle points of departure or escape…or, as they describe Kafka’s similarly positive project (borrowing phrases from one of his stories),  it is a matter “…of intensely going ‘head over heels and away,’ no matter where, even without moving; it isn’t a question of liberty against submission, but only a question of a line of escape or, rather, of a simple way out, ‘right, left or in any direction,’ as long as it is as little signifying as possible.” As all this is quite abstract, perhaps it would be better to explain these terms via the terms of Kafka’s text.


In their mapping of social space, Deleuze and Guattari differentiate between what they term “machinic assemblages” and “collective assemblages of enunciation,” which, together, compose what they refer to as an “abstract machine.” Machinic assemblages are the extensive, material, physical properties of a society-from macro-structures ranging from its transportation and communication networks to the micro-structures of standards of polite behavior, dress codes, or fashion systems. In short, machinic assemblages are anything that can be tangibly observed as a social structure through its presence as an object, or action of an object, or action between objects (i.e. something as simple as how a given culture uses a napkin differently from other cultures constitutes part of a machinic assemblage). In Amerika the machinic assemblages range from the macro to the micro. There are the large, macro blocks, such as the ship Karl arrives upon, the capitalist machine of his uncle’s enterprise, the traffic he observes from his balcony room at his uncle’s New York apartment, the hotel he works in, the political machine of the election campaign he witnesses, and the “Theater of Oklahoma” (the biggest apparatus he encounters, and clearly emblematic, as we shall see, of the whole of America). There are the mid-sized machines: the amazing multi-compartmented desk in his uncle’s house, Pollunder’s country house itself (with its labyrinth of hallways and doors), the dormitory in which Karl stays at the hotel, or the regime existing at Brunhelda’s apartment. Finally there are the micro-machines: the table manners of the people at the restaurant (or lack thereof), the overwhelming obesity of many of the Americans Karl encounters, or the behavior of the elevator boys in their dormitory.


Then there are the collective assemblages of enunciation: the intensive, immaterial, non-physical properties of the inhabitants of a specific social system-ranging from the systems of language, culture and what the French Annales historians termed “mentalitiés,” to emotional, affective, and libidinal structures. Perhaps another way to imagine it is to see the collective assemblages of enunciation as a given society’s interpretation of the machinic assemblages, but, as Deleuze and Guattari stress, these two aspects, while forming the abstract machine which composes a society, do not necessarily coincide logically, except in the near random way that signifiers (words) attach to signifieds (meanings) through usage, habit, and tradition. In other words, what people believe or tell themselves about what is happening within a society does not directly connect to what actually is happening, but rather is an interpretation. A vivid example would be 1989 in the Czech Republic, when the official collective assemblage of enunciation changed (the official Communist Party line), but not necessarily all the machinic assemblages (the social practices that had evolved under communism): of course, it is clear that under communism there was a very wide divergence between the collective assemblage of enunciation and the actual physical facts of existence, but while this is always the case under every social system or political regime, what made it especially obvious under communism was precisely the regime’s insistence that there was no divergence. In most social systems, when the divergence between ideology and reality becomes too wide, the collective assemblage of enunciation shifts-not to necessarily a more real interpretation, but hopefully to a less false one-as such interpretive assemblages are always a matter of approximation. This way of speaking de-naturalizes human society, seeing it not as organic but as something that has an arbitrary, socio-historical origin-and therefore something that can be evaded, if one can penetrate to a space beyond the assemblages through a critical dismantling of them.


To apply this analysis to Amerika, I cite one of the very few analyses of specific Kafka texts in their book, when Deleuze and Guattari analyze the scene discussed above, “The Stoker” chapter of Amerika, into its component assemblages:


Take, for example, the first chapter of Amerika, published separately as ‘The Stoker.’ The chapter considers the boiler room as a machine: K constantly declares his intention to be an engineer or at least a mechanic. But if the boiler room isn’t described in itself (and, anyway, the boat is in port), that is because a machine is never simply technical. Quite the contrary, it is technical only as a social machine, taking men and women into its gears, or, rather, having men and women as part of its gears along with things, structures, metals, materials….That the technical machine is only a piece in a social assemblage that it presupposes and that alone deserves to be called machinic introduces another point: the machinic assemblage of desire is also the collective assemblage of enunciation. This is why the first chapter of Amerika is filled with protestations of the German stoker who complains about his immediate superior, a Rumanian, and about the oppression that Germans undergo on the boat. The statement may be one of submission, or of protestation, or of revolt, and so on; but it is always part of the machine. The statement is always juridical, that is, it always follows rules, since it constitutes the real instructions for the machine….There is no machinic assemblage that is not a social assemblage of desire, no social assemblage of desire that is not a collective assemblage of enunciation (Kafka, 81-82).


While this is quite abstract, anyone reading the first chapter of Amerika must admit that what is being portrayed there is certainly not rational and fixed, and this analysis of what is occurring has the advantage of giving an approximate value to the strangeness of Kafka’s text, which does seem, more or less, to break into a component that is extensive (the space of the ship and the system of social relations that prevails there) and a component that is intensive (the way the inhabitants of the ship discuss their world). Karl is, for a moment, swept up into this world in a manner that is beyond his will, even though he covers over his passivity by posing as someone who will be able to arbitrate between parts of this world rationally; however, this world is not rational, and he finds his efforts of little avail. Then, he is just as assuredly, rapidly and passively swept up into the successive assemblages of his uncle’s world, Pollunder’s, world, the world of the itinerants Robinson and Delamarche, the world of the hotel, and finally the world of the Theater of Oklahoma.


While his passivity makes him largely a victim in the novel as he is swept from scenario to scenario, Karl, as an outsider and observer, has still the advantage of not being fixed in any of these worlds as the other characters clearly are (even the rich and powerful seem more fixed within their worlds than free), and he is able to have momentary visions of what exists outside the world of the abstract social assemblages. When these assemblages are temporarily swept aside, what emerges is a world of flux and fluidity-of what Deleuze and Guattari term “molecular multiplicity.” Karl seems a privileged observer of these moments, which come to him in the moments of distraction mentioned above-for example, during Karl’s moment of distraction at the “trial” of the stoker he observes the restless movement in the harbor, exclaiming, “A  movement without end, a restlessness transmitted from the restless element to helpless human beings and their works!” Or, similarly, when Karl looks from the balcony of his room at his uncle’s apartment in the city, he observes another scene of the multiplicity pervading the existence of the city:


From morning to evening and far into the dreaming night that street was the channel for a constant stream of traffic which seen, from above, looked like an inextricable confusion, for ever newly improvised, of fore-shortened human figures and the roofs of all kinds of vehicles, sending into the upper air another confusion, more riotous and complicated, of noises, dust and smells, all of it enveloped and penetrated by a flood of light which the multitudinous objects in the street scattered, carried off and again busily brought back, with an effect as palpable to the dazzled eye as if a glass roof stretched over the street were being violently smashed into fragments every moment.


As if to indicate the dangerous transgression his distanced observer’s view yields him, his uncle reprimands him for watching, telling him that it would be “sheer ruination” for someone to stare at the streets from a balcony. This warning obscurely indicates the transgressive nature of such distraction, of the sweeping aside of the assemblages. While this “melting” of the assemblages comes passively to Karl during his moments of distraction, for Franz Kafka himself the writing of the work becomes an active dismantling of the assemblages, leading to an intensive line of flight or escape at the same moment his protagonist, Karl, seeks an extensive line of flight. This dismantling does not take place at the level of a social critique, as it would, for example, in a novel by someone like Charles Dickens or, later, John Dos Passos. Karl certainly does notice the inequalities that exist in America, and clearly he has a critical view of them. When visiting the huge country house of Pollunder, Karl criticizes the inequality he has observed in the United States:


…he came to one door after another; he tried to open several of them; they were locked and the rooms obviously unoccupied. It was an incredible squandering of space and Karl thought of the east end of New York which his uncle had promised to show him, where it was said that the home of a whole family consisted of one corner where the children clustered round their parents. And here so many rooms stood empty and seemed to exist merely to make a hollow sound when you knocked on the door.


However Karl does not seem overly disturbed by these inequalities. On the way to the country house the car goes through a suburb where there is a metal workers strike, but Karl is unmoved by it: “…the knowledge that he would soon be a welcome guest in a well-lighted country house surrounded by high walls and guarded by watch-dogs filled him with extravagant well-being….” As Deleuze and Guattari point out, “We noted the deliberate absence of social critique in Kafka. In Amerika, the most terrible work conditions don’t inspire any critique in K but simply make him more afraid of being excluded from the hotel.” They argue that such critique would still function as representation, while the kind of “dismantling” of the assemblages that Kafka’s text undertakes involves a “sweeping up of the content,” which “vacuums up in its movement all politics, all economy, all bureaucracy, all judiciary.” The effect of this operation “consists in prolonging, in accelerating, a whole movement that already is traversing the social field. It sucks them like a vampire in order to make them render still unknown sounds that come from the near future-Fascism, Stalinism, Americanism, diabolical powers that are knocking at the door.” As Kafka himself wrote, his texts function less as a mirror of reality than as a “watch running fast.” He is not interested in realistically representing the present social order, but rather in analyzing its components, stripping them down to their essentials, and then experimentally setting them running at an accelerated rate of speed (and time) to bring them to their point of culmination, when their ultimate contents are revealed. As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “His literature is not a voyage through the past but one through our future.” Only at this point, when the map or blueprint of the future is traced, can escape be attempted. But before I discuss the nature of the escapes plotted by Kafka’s novels, I would like to trace the nature of the future represented in Amerika, connecting it to Americanism as it has been actually manifested.


Imagining Amerika


“‘So then you’re free?’ ‘Yes, I’m free,’ said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.”


This future was already arriving at the time Kafka wrote the novel; however, for decades the particularly “diabolical” nature of Americanism was obfuscated by the more exigent diabolical powers of Stalinism and Fascism–indeed, until recently, that Americanism might possibly represent a power that could be designated “diabolical” was near unthinkable (at least to Americans). Certainly the United States itself, with its various debatable foreign policies over the course of the 20th Century (from its war in Vietnam to its clandestine support of Pinochet in Chile, to its support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua), might easily be seen as diabolical, but Americanism? What Americanism actually appeared to be for a considerable period of time after the Second World War to most of the world was primarily a combination of certain clichéd particulars–fast food, automobile culture, Hollywood films, media spectacles, rock and roll, and so on, linked to rather more vague ideas of “freedom,” “democracy,” the “frontier spirit,” “rugged individualism,” and something entitled the “American dream,” which usually took the form of a rag-to-riches story-an America where “everything is possible” (most recently vaunted by a certain Austrian in his ominously successful bid to become governor of America’s most populous and wealthiest state). For a time, perhaps until just recently in most parts of the world, nothing seemed especially threatening about this view of Americanism, because those aspects that were being exported abroad seemed beneficial at best, superficial at worst-but certainly not malignant. Suddenly this view has changed, and it is in this change that I locate Kafka’s particular prescience.


At first glance, Kafka’s vision of Americanism seems also somewhat benign, and even a bit erroneous. While the libidinal forces pervading the society of his novel seems more universal than specifically American (and in any case, we find the same forces operating in all three of his novels), many of the observations Kafka’s novel makes about America are accurate-for the period in which he was writing, but also for today. For example, Karl observes several times in the novel that there is a disjunction between the great luxury and wealth he finds around him, and its actual enjoyment. This is perhaps best characterized by his experiences at his Uncle Jacob’s house, where Karl finds an extraordinary desk in his room with multiple compartments that shift their positions with the flick of a lever, but which his uncle councils him against actually utilizing. When Karl mentions his musical interests, his uncle arranges immediately for him to have a piano, but then he is not supposed to actually waste his time playing it (at least in the early and mid-20th Century, it became de rigueur to have a piano in the parlor of a middle class household, even if no one in the house actually played the expensive instrument). Karl is advised by his uncle to take up horseback riding as a pleasure, but then in practice it becomes a torture because Karl must awaken at 4:30 in the morning in order to attend the lessons. I do not want to over-generalize, but there certainly is some truth in Kafka’s observation that due to the success of the Protestant work-ethic in American culture, in certain classes and regions pleasure was more idealized than realized-and still is, perhaps now for somewhat different and yet still related reasons (statistically, Americans work longer hours than any other society in the world-and significantly longer hours than Europeans, with far fewer holidays and less vacation time).


The same may be said about the accuracy of his other observations, such as the absence of manners–ranging from table manners (“It seemed a universal custom here to plant your elbow on the counter and rest your head on your hand”), to the general lack of formal greetings or other observations of formality (“…in New York…I was always told I was too profuse in my salutations…”). The list that could be made of these accurate observations (the widespread obesity, the culture of tipping, the huge houses with their terrible waste of space, etc.) is long, and certainly Kafka was exaggerating in some instances, such as his description of a political rally where a mob scene breaks out (“…the candidate still kept on uttering words, but it was no longer clear whether he was outlining his program or shouting for help…”), while in other details he was simply wrong (or was he? the sword held high by the Statue of Liberty might actually be symbolically closer to the truth of the matter, as Klaus Mann suggested in his foreword to the book). Nonetheless, the general thrust of his observations seem presciently accurate, and, while Kafka is hardly the social critic, as Deleuze and Guattari maintain, one scene is worth mentioning due to the emphasis Kafka gives it by placing it in the center of the novel, its relative length in comparison to other scenes, and its poignancy in a novel where the somewhat perverse and absurd usually reigns: it is the story of  Therese’s mother.


Therese, a typist and secretary of the Hotel Manageress (and seemingly a co-victim of her attentions along with Karl), one day tells Karl of her origins, and how at age five she witnessed her mother’s death. Her mother was abandoned by her father, and left to fend for herself and her daughter in the lower east side of Manhattan. Therese tells the story of the night preceding her mother’s apparent suicide–of how the mother dragged her through the streets all night in a snowstorm, hungry and cold, and how the next morning her mother ascended a building site and jumped from the scaffold to her death while her daughter watched from below. It is a devastating story, and seems like a story from Dickens, but recent statistics suggest that on any given night in New York City, 37,000 people are homeless and without beds, and 16,000 of them are children. In the world’s wealthiest nation, 2.3 million people are now homeless, or roughly 1% of the population (another 2 million people are in prison–more than in the Soviet Gulag at any given time, and perhaps the last refuge of the homeless). But as moving as the story of Therese is, Kafka’s most astute and global assessment of the “diabolical power” of Americanism was saved for his last chapter, “The Theater of Oklahoma.”


As noted above, the “Theater of Oklahoma” chapter was written significantly later than the rest of Kafka’s novel, and its writing coincided with the beginning of the writing of Der Prozess/The Trial. It would seem that Kafka hoped to finish his earlier novel rapidly in order to get on with the latter, whose subject matter may have seemed more pressing due to the events of the previous summer, when his own “trial” over his engagement had taken place in Berlin. While Kafka appears to have been quite satisfied with his effort, he seems not to have given it the kind of attention he gave the first chapter, “The Stoker,” which he had published separately. This is rather unfortunate, for the chapter is a tour de force, coming as a reward for the reader who has read this far into the novel. Clearly the chapter is a vast metaphor for the United States itself: as announced on the placard Karl first comes upon, “Everyone is welcome!” to the vast “Theater of Oklahoma.” Karl goes to investigate the theater and discovers a media spectacle that would be worthy of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (which incidentally was “born” the same year as Kafka, in 1883, and actually played in Vienna and Olomouc during Kafka’s youth, although there is no indication he saw the show), or Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth” (also created at this time). It presents itself as a vast theater with “almost no limits,” “is always being enlarged,” and Karl receives “the impression that everyone without exception would be engaged.” It is clear from this description that the theater is a metaphor for the whole of America.


The theater presents itself as if it were a terrestrial paradise–as Karl walks up to the entrance to the admissions office he encounters a surreal scene: “Before the entrance to the race-course a long low platform had been set up, on which hundreds of women dressed as angels in white robes with great wings on their shoulders were blowing on long trumpets that glittered like gold.” These women are perched upon ladders of various sizes (their gowns hiding the ladder underneath), and Karl encounters one young woman he knows named Fanny, who allows him to climb up the ladder and even play her trumpet. She explains that she and the other angels will be relieved later by devils-an ominous turn in the symbolism of events, that is soon followed by Karl’s own first suspicion when he is directed to go to an office where they will gauge his level of occupational skill, to which Karl thinks, “…but it’s a theater.” Karl is directed first to an office of engineers (the profession he was training for prior to leaving Europe), then an office of technicians, then an office of intermediate schools, then, finally, a small office of European intermediate schools. Once there, Karl encounters a clerk who, although he actually closely resembles the teacher at his intermediate school, clearly holds him in contempt: “Obviously the clerk considered a European intermediate pupil to be something so ignominious that anyone who admitted to being one was not worth disbelieving.” 


This is the first indication that there is a difference between the appearance advertised, where each person can act whatever part they may want in the vast theater, and the reality, which suggests that America is a vast pyramid scheme where each new wave of immigrants takes the lowest rung of the employment ladder–until the next wave arrives, pressing up the whole edifice another level–and yet isn’t this aspect of being a pyramid scheme a significant aspect of Americanism? Hasn’t the highest political, economic, and social class of Americans, even until now, been largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant forefathers and their descendants (there has only been one American President not in this category-the Catholic John F. Kennedy). More specifically, the social structure works so efficiently in America to become a pyramidal economic machine through the process of what systems theorists refer to as “functional differentiation,” and what I nominate “hyper-specialization.” As one ascends each rung of the social (and educational) ladder, an American becomes increasingly specialized, to the point of the pure specialist who often knows a great deal about one thing, but not a whole lot about anything else. Only in the United States can one find someone with a Ph.D. in the chemistry of rocket fuels who has never heard of Rilke, or Mahler, or Klee (and who has only the most clichéd “take” on Dostoyevsky, Mozart, or Picasso). To return to Karl and his status of “European intermediate pupil,” whereas in Europe a student who attends Gymnasium is already expected to be generally-cultured (at least until recently), and has already gone through a rather difficult process and is positioned to enter a higher echelon through admission to the university, in the United States a far vaster cohort of students graduate from senior high school, and more than twice the number will go on to university (if they can afford the tuition-expensive even for state-run universities). This means that opportunity is far greater in the United States, but the general level needed to attain some kind of university admission is much lower, and, when one considers the recent trend of “corporate universities” based on the education-for-profit model, the level slides precariously lower. Add to this the focus on specialization over general culture, and, like the “Theater of Oklahoma,” there is a place for everybody, but no place for anybody but such specialists. Within this model of educational and vocational training, the more widely-educated “European intermediate pupil” poised to become a generally-cultured citizen is considered “ignominious” and falls to the bottom of the scale, as Kafka astutely observed. This point is underlined in this chapter when the clerk asks him what he had intended to be when he was living in Europe, but his gesture suggests to Karl “both how remote Europe was and how unimportant were any plans that might have been made there.”


For me, the point of culmination of this chapter, and of the whole novel, is what happens next. Karl is asked to give his name to the clerk, and rather than giving his real name, he responds with his nickname: “So as no other name occurred to him at the moment, he gave the nickname he had had in his last post: ‘Negro.’” At this moment the chief of the section questions him incredulously, but the clerk writes down his name as “Negro.” The chief then shouts, “But surely you haven’t written down Negro?” To which the clerk replies in the affirmative, and the proceedings continue. When the chief then reaches the point where he declares that Karl has been officially taken on, the chief breaks off once more, sits down, and exclaims, “He isn’t called Negro,” but then the clerk himself stands up and continues the proclamation, and Karl is taken on under this absurd appellation. From this point onwards he is processed, without question, as “Negro, a European intermediate pupil,” and “Negro, technical worker.” The first time I read the novel and arrived at this point, I was seized by an uncontrollable fit of laughter–the deeply pained laughter that accompanies a moment of truthful recognition of the ultimately absurd nature of the human condition. That Karl is referred to by the name “Negro” is not a racial slur on African-Americans (as undoubtedly some overly-zealous advocate of political correctness might maintain), but rather a slur on America itself, for, after all, the pyramid scheme that is America had, at its base, the slave-labor brought unwillingly to its shores–-and at the very moment the Declaration of Independence began with the words, “all men are created equal” (words indeed written by some men who owned slaves). The United States has barely come to terms with its past-neither in 1776, nor in 1914, nor now: the sheer enormity that a nation founded on the principles of the Enlightenment could enact for a century a barbaric practice that is usually connected to the pre-Christian periods of ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome is generally side-tracked and buried. The past is made to seem even more obscure by the country’s tendency to race blindly into what F. Scott Fitzgerald designated, in the final lines of his novel, The Great Gatsby, “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Indeed, one evidence of this failure to come to terms with the past might be seen in the fact that while in Washington, D.C., one may find a museum dedicated to the essentially European catastrophe of the Holocaust, there is no museum there dedicated to such American-based catastrophes as slavery, nor to the genocide of Native Americans, nor to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (when in recent years there was an attempt to create an exhibit showing the tragic side of the bombing, patriotic groups in American had the exhibit cancelled). This “orgastic future” has no time to dwell on the past, for the pyramid is forever under construction, never finished, and year after year it has stretched further and further into the sky, the burden of its foundation coming down heavier and heavier on its underclasses, so that its vast industrial-prison complex forms a crucial pillar at the bottom of it all. In 1914 the country was still able to attract immigrants to take up positions in this base as low-paid workers because the chance of their bettering themselves on the material level was still possible at that time, as there were still vast, unsettled tracts of land in the west, out in the “Nature Theater” (as Brod called it) that was the whole of the mid-western United States.


Although Kafka’s choice of Oklahoma as the site of this vast theater may be merely by chance, it is ironic that what Kafka actually describes–this vast enterprise that seems more like a theater than reality–has some bearing on the truth of how the United States of America was actually functioning as a social system. Prior to 1889, all of Oklahoma but the panhandle region had been set aside for displaced Native Americans (Indians) from other parts of the United States. On March 2, 1889, the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Bill, which proclaimed that any unassigned lands in Oklahoma were part of the public domain: this brought about the historical farce that has since been designated the “Oklahoma Land Rush” (and made famous in western films such as Cimarron and The Oklahoma Kid). The only rules were that on April 22, 1889, at noon, settlers gathered at the Texas and Arkansas borders would be allowed to enter the territory and stake their claim for a 250 hectare (640 acre) parcel of the 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of land. Buglers (did Kafka know this when he had his angels playing trumpets?) were placed at intervals around the perimeter to announce the opening of the land. Within twelve hours the land was entirely claimed. The government officials in the territory prior to this time were legally prohibited from filing claims, but in practice many of the best lots were actually seized by Federal Marshals who should have been monitoring other “Sooners” (as they came to be called, as they arrived “sooner” than others) who were breaking the law, and it is estimated that nine out of ten land claims were filed by those who had entered the territory the night before). Truly like a theater stage set going up, the city of Guthrie was constructed in just one afternoon (it was laid out and its prime lots illegally claimed by Federal Marshals), the population of the town growing from a 10 to 10,000 by sunset. The falsely capitalist-utopian spirit motivating many of those who had participated in this land rush may be seen in the comments of a contemporary news correspondent who wrote, “Men with large families settled upon land with less than a dollar in money to keep them from starvation. How they expected to live until they could get a crop from their lands was a mystery which even they could not pretend to explain. Like unreasoning children, they thought that could they but once reach the beautiful green slopes of the promised land, their poverty and trouble would be at an end. They are now awakening to the bitter realization that their real hardships have just begun.” Whether Kafka knew about this particular historical case or not is irrelevant (although he well could have, given it occurred during his lifetime): his novel grasps the basic form and function of the American abstract machine which his biographer Frederick Karl described as “a gigantic maw, to be filled with laboring men, all of whom are replaceable and expendable.”


Kafka’s protagonist soon understands this also, as after he meets his former friend, Giacomo, he thinks ironically to himself, “As Karl could see from his arm-band, he was not engaged as an actor either, but as a lift-boy; the Theatre of Oklahoma really did seem to have a place for everyone!” Nonetheless, Kafka ends the novel with Karl heading west to Oklahoma on the train with Giacomo. Max Brod maintained that this was not meant to be the final ending: he wrote that Kafka had intended to finish the novel in another chapter or two on a note of “reconciliation.” Maybe Kafka did discuss it with Brod, but we need not accept Brod’s word about this: the existing evidence suggests that Brod, while a great friend of Kafka, was limited in his comprehension of Kafka and his work (limits apparently connected to his vanity about his own work). As Deleuze and Guattari have suggested, the assemblage of the theater is one in a “proliferating series of assemblages” that are theoretically never-ending: “Yet already in Amerika, he had seen how proliferating series might be a solution; in The Trial and The Castle, he has a complete grasp of this solution. But from now on, there will be no reason for the novel to end.” Amerika, which is the least complete of the three novels in Kafka’s own estimation, is the novel that has what appears closest to a standard ending, but this ending should not lead us into the false hope of finding a final meaning, or of imagining the final meaning that might have been there if Kafka had actually finished it. However, the fact that these assemblages proliferate does not mean there is no way beyond them–Kafka accelerates their proliferation precisely in order to project imaginatively their logical evolution in the future.


Conclusion: Cession from Society, Accession to Sovereignty


“…we must declare as well that an assemblage…always has a line of escape by which it escapes itself and makes its enunciation or its expressions take flight and disarticulate, no less than its contents that deform or metamorphose; or that the assemblage extends over or penetrates an unlimited field of immanence that makes the segments melt and that liberates desire from all its concretizations and abstractions, or, at the very least, fights actively against them in order to dissolve them…”–Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: pour une littérature mineure


As a person hypersensitive to the point of neurasthenia, Kafka was like a socio-historical antenna: he sensed the social forces of the decadent Austro-Hungarian Empire in its last stages of dissolution, and sensed not only the social assemblages on the future horizon of his times, but he also seems to have sensed their “diabolical power,” intuiting that there was to be no successful collective social escape from the normative structures, but rather an inevitable collective social catastrophe. As mentioned previously, Kafka’s novels do not operate as a social critique, but as a mapping of social assemblages, and therefore a dismantling of them–and, consequently, as a way out. While these social assemblages appear inescapable, there are always interstices from which passages of escape emerge. We tend not to think of Kafka in this way, as his novels and other writings seem so claustrophobic and even paranoid, but the “ways out” he explores are intensive rather than extensive, and consequently they do not represent the form of escape as something occurring in the world. As I have suggested, the writing of Amerika simultaneously works through and rejects the physical, extensive escape of departing for America (or anywhere else), and opens an interior, intensive space of writing where Kafka finds a different, freer reality. In a diary entry from January 29, 1922, Kafka wrote “…those who love me love me because I am ‘forsaken’…because they sense that in happy moments I enjoy on another plane the freedom of movement completely lacking to me here.” I connect these “happy moments” and this “freedom of movement” to the intensive arrival at the “unlimited field of immanence” mentioned in the quotation above, but this hardly answers the question of what this field of immanence actually is, and the kind of freedom to be found there. It is a question that cannot be answered with any finality, but this does not prevent speculation. Those with a religious or spiritual frame of mind might see it from the perspective of mystical experience, or the feeling of oneness with God, though I doubt Kafka would have used these terms (although Gustav Janouch, the young man who recorded his Conversations with Kafka during the last year of Kafka’s life, felt Kafka was a “saint-like” being, and from his own perspective saw Kafka as practicing a deeply spiritual form of existence). For those with a philosophical frame of mind, this immanence might be represented by what Martin Heidegger posits as the “authentic” existence he sees being derived from a “Being-towards-Death” (an awareness of one’s own finitude), or perhaps by the “interior experience” of Georges Bataille, or by the “essential solitude” of Maurice Blanchot. For those with a literary frame of mind, this immanence might be taken as the realm of the angels in Rainer Maria Rilke, or the “other state” of Robert Musil, or the “moments of being” of Virginia Woolf.


What all of these different terms share is a certain combination of withdrawal or cession from the extensive world, and entrance or accession to an intensive world. I use this word “cession” with the American poet Emily Dickinson in mind. Dickinson, at roughly age 32, began a poem with the line, “I’m ceded–I’ve stopped being Theirs,” as if she were a small country declaring her sovereignty, and indeed she was. What Dickinson ceded herself from was primarily her society’s dominant Protestant Christianity, and its marital, sexual and familial expectations. She is the American writer who most reminds me of Kafka–a comparison that might not seem obvious at first glance due to the vast difference between their primary literary forms (short lyrical poems on her part and fragmented quasi-expressionist narratives on his), but I would insist that there are distinct resemblances, ranging from similarities in their modes of living to their attitudes towards truth and its expression. Kafka likewise ceded himself from his society’s marital codes and familial expectations, and he largely ceded himself from the social expectation that he would take an interest in his career–in “getting ahead,” “advancing,” “making his way in the world,” and all the other clichés that pass for life-values in the business-oriented modern world (then and today). Furthermore, as seen above, Kafka also did not believe that an alternative social order would offer a way out through transforming the extensive world, and so, after exploring many alternatives, he also ceded himself from contemporary options such as Zionism, socialism, or even anarchism (at best Kafka knew some of the anarchists: he told Janouch that they were “very nice, jolly people,” but there is no indication Kafka joined with them).


Perhaps another way to characterize this cession is to cite Nietzsche’s famous parable of the “Three Metamorphoses” In the first incarnation of spirit, one is a camel, asking only to take on the burden of values that the society already upholds. In the first metamorphosis one must become a lion, who battles and vanquishes the dragon called “Thou shalt.” Nietzsche characterizes the lion and his task in the following way:


     My brothers, why is the lion needed in the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent, not suffice?

     To create new values–even the lion is incapable of that: but to create itself freedom for new creation–that the might of the lion can do.

     To create freedom for itself and a sacred No even unto duty: the lion is needed for that, my brothers.

     To seize the right to new values–that is the most terrible proceeding for a weight-bearing and reverential spirit. Truly, to this spirit it is a theft and a work for an animal of prey.

     Once it loved this ‘Thou shalt’ as its holiest thing: now is has to find illusion and caprice even in the holiest, that it may steal freedom from its love: the lion is needed for this theft.


This is not the final metamorphosis, for it only represents the movement of cession–the opening up of a space of freedom for itself by the abolition of the standard norms or values through the killing of the dragon whose scales all bear the words “Thou Shalt.” In the final metamorphosis, which I would suggests is equivalent to the movement of accession, the lion must become a child again:


     But tell me, my brothers, what the child can do that even the lion cannot? Why must the preying lion still become a child?

     The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.

     Yes, a sacred Yes is needed, my brothers, for the game of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, the spirit now ceded from the world now wins its own world.


This “sacred yes” is an accession to and affirmation of one’s own intensive sovereignty: a space where meanings and values are not pre-given by the norms of society, but are forged within one’s own singular existence–as the “self-propelling wheel” Nietzsche mentions. Consequently, this intensive space can have no pre-given coordinates: as Deleuze and Guattari describe it in the epigraph above, the “segments melt” and “dissolve,” and desire is “liberated.” They have further suggested, in their book Mille Plateaux, that escape (or rather escaping–as escape is never fully accomplished, once and for all) comes through “imperceptibility, indiscernibility, and impersonality”–strategies which help one elude the power of social assemblages to trap us within socially-sanctioned meanings and subjectivities. Such strategies are necessary, for one does not easily evade the normative structures, and perhaps Nietzsche might have been well-advised to include a fourth metamorphosis of the child into, perhaps, a knight in shining armor–someone armored against aggressive incursions into this sovereign space by society. The reason is obvious: someone who cedes their society and accedes to a personal sovereignty stands as a symbol that the values of society are not eternal verities, but normative standards, built on a foundation of sand that will and does shift over time. If they should write about their escape, this writing becomes a mirror to the society within which the shakiness of this foundation can be perceived–and this is, of course, a provocation. At this point the struggle truly begins in all its various forms, ranging from direct assaults such as exile, imprisonment, or censorship, to indirect assaults such as misinterpretation, neglect, or even canonization (and the power of canonization to draw attention away from a writer cannot be underestimated). It takes considerable courage to endure such struggles, or, as Maurice Blanchot (another writer who ceded his society) has written:    




Courage is, however, to accept flight rather than live quietly and hypocritically in false refuges. Values, moralities, homelands, religions, and those private certitudes that our vanity and our complacence bestow generously upon us are so many deceptive abodes that the world arranges for those who believe they are standing upright and are at rest among stable things. They know nothing of the immense rout where they are driven, ignorant of themselves, in the monotonous buzzing of their ever-quickening steps which carry them impersonally along in a great immobile movement (205, Friendship).


[Le courage est pourtant d’accepter de fuir plutôt que de vivre quiètement et hypocritement en de faux refuges. Les valeurs, les morales, les patries, les religions et ces certitudes privées que notre vanité et notre complaisance à nous-mêmes nous octroient généreusement, sont autant de séjours trompeurs que le monde aménage pour ceux qui pensent se tenir ainsi debout et au repos, parmi les choses stables. Ils ne savent rien de cette immense déroute où ils s’en vont, ignorants d’eux-mêmes, dans le bourdonnement monotone de leurs pas toujours plus rapides qui les portent impersonnellement par un grand mouvement immobile (232, L’Amitié).]


Dr. Douglas Shields Dix is a writer and philosopher. Born in the USA in 1960, he arrived in Kafka's Prague in September, 1989, coming as a professor on a Fulbright exchange program. To Amerika he never returned. In Prague he teaches literature (including seminars on Kafka, Rilke, Musil, and other writers of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire), European philosophy and social theory, and various seminars on film and cultural studies for Charles University, Anglo-American University, and Naropa University. He walks daily the streets where Kafka lived and worked, considering him one of his closest "dead friends."

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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