Franz Kafka was a nice man. As a bureaucrat working for an insurance company he developed safety measures which helped avoid many industrial accidents.
But as a novelist Franz Kafka also discovered some deep possibilities of human existence: he envisioned a world where human privacy is commonly violated by self-deified and opaque power structures. Many have surmised what these power structures ‘mean’ but I think that is beside the point. What is important is that he discovered how people behave when faced with such structures and how society behaves in justifying such structures.
Milan Kundera, in his books “the Art of the Novel” and “Testaments Betrayed”, tells us that there are good historical reasons for misreadings of Kafka’s works. A lot of it goes back to Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod’s lack of understanding of the unpublished and unfinished works that Kafka left behind, but misreading of Kafka’s work is also related to our readiness to see it as “symbolic”. (Man is lost in a forest of symbols, Baudelaire tells us.) In my opinion, his novels describe some of the most concrete realities of human life. Kundera in his essay “Somewhere Behind” gives an example of how Kafka’s works, interpreted in Western Europe as symbols of the metaphysical realities of the human condition, described the concrete realities of life in Russia occupied Czechoslovakia.
It would be a mistake to think of Kafka’s world as something historical and belonging to the past. It is uncanny and weird how Kafka’s world looms up in so many unusual places, and not just in “totalitarian” societies. I once had an uncanny run in with Kafka’s world of the imagination.
It would be a mistake to think of Kafka’s world as something historical and belonging to the past. It is uncanny and weird how Kafka’s world looms up in so many unusual places, and not just in “totalitarian” societies.
I was working for a Christian university where the Dean had adopted a certain policy that pretty much made my existence in that country an impossibility. I wanted to meet with the Dean and talk this over but I never got a chance to catch even a glimpse of his august face. My request for audience was never directly denied but I was referred to other officers of the university, meetings that lead me down an infinite labyrinth of corridors in which I got lost. Since the university yielded considerable power in the city where it was located, I was even referred to people outside the university. At some point I appealed to the Chaplain of the university who used to be the pastor of the church that I used to attend. Although a nice and kind man, he was ultimately unable to help me. In accepting the job of assuaging souls afflicted with moral ills inside the university, he had given up his place to fight the fights of this world. I remembered how in “The Trial” the priest tells Joseph K, “I belong to the courts.” I realized my former friend and pastor belonged to the “courts” and not to the people anymore.
Today we have woken up in a world where distant computers are recording everything that we do online, because there is an outside chance that we may say something incriminating. Once someone becomes a target of this democratic (democratic, since it doesn’t discriminate) and untiring machine it will go back and dig up that person’s guilt. Kafka has thought of similar scenarios, I tell you. In “The Trial”, unable to bear the meaninglessness of the being accused of an unnamed crime, Joseph K. decides to look back into his life to find the source of his guilt. For being guilty of “something” is more bearable than being guilty of something that is never revealed to you. (Milan Kundera call this process “auto-culpabilization”.) What we are seeing today is similar, except now the computer will help him find his guilt. The match in not exact but it is the same territory.
In almost all traditions, human memory is inextricably linked to love, and we tend to think that those who love us will remember us the best. But human memory is fallible and one day even those who love you will forget about you. But the distant, unnamed computer will perfectly recall all your keystrokes (yes, including these ones) and, as in the day of judgement, the computer’s words will have more weight than yours. This is the glorious future into which the West is marching towards. As Milan Kundera once observed, the secret police remembers you much better than your loved ones.
The computer will remember you better than your loved ones.∗