It’s fascinating to note that Franz Kafka only wrote three novels in his lifetime — “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika,” all of them unfinished — and a sizeable collection of short stories, his diaries and letters to others — and yet the word that sums up his body of work, “Kafkaesque,” continues to resonate today.
The word also resonates well beyond literary circles. Sometime, do a simple Google search on the word “Kafka,” and chances are you’ll get daily updates. In newspapers, magazines and online sites all across the globe, Kafka and his Kafkaesque world is frequently cited.
Often times, the modern commentary is political in nature. A Kafkaesque world is one where a cold, unfeeling bureaucracy thrives, hardly responsive to the needs of the citizens it represents, almost maddening in its inefficiency. This is particularly true of Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” where Josef K. is arrested one morning, but is never told what the crime is, and is allowed to go about his life as he awaits his court hearings.
Kafka, a German-language writer who is regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, was born in July 1883 in Prague, and died on June 3, 1924 of tuberculosis. And yet modern commentators feel his writings offer great insight into the times we live in now.
Historians believe Kafka’s works like “The Trial” and “In the Penal Colony” (about a soldier preparing to torture a criminal suspect) predicted Hitler’s rise and the Holocaust (Kafka’s sisters all died in the concentration camps).
More recently, political conservatives have cited Kafka’s vision to criticize the Obama administration, and to suggest a Kafkaesque world where an inefficient and suffocating government takes over more and more of our lives.
Was Kafka’s vision truly a commentary on the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Or the ruthless bureaucracy imposed by the Soviets after the communist revolution? Was he truly creating a prophetic vision of a totalitarian state?
Or, to put it another way, ask this question … what if Kafka’s writings were not intended to be political or social commentaries at all?
It’s known that Kafka was Jewish, become a Zionist, and also a socialist. He had long courtships with several women, but never married. He had a turbulent relationship with his parents, particularly his father. He had a close friendship with the publisher and editor Max Brod, who saved all of his work after Kafka’s death to preserve it and get it published. But was it really Kafka’s aim to use works like “The Trial” and “The Castle” to attack the rise of an inhuman bureaucracy?
In 1973, Southern Illinois University Press published a book called “Moment of Torment: An Interpretation of Franz Kafka’s Short Stories” by Ruth Tiefenbrun. Her book examines several of Kafka’s short stories, including “Investigations of a Dog,” “The Judgment,” and his most famous piece, “The Metamorphosis,” to unlock the hidden mysteries behind his sometime densely coded wording. Her conclusion was that social commentary, politics, and a caustic view of world events was not what the writer was after. He was doing something much more basic, Tiefenbrun noted: using his enigmatic writings to explore the fear, anxiety and terror of being the ultimate outsider, a homosexual in a world that viewed it as a parasitic monstrosity.
Tiefenbrun cites one of Kafka’s aphorisms, which reads, “Confession and the lie are one and the same. In order to be able to confess, one tell lies,” and she raises the question: was Kafka a gay man whose stories explored the notion of homosexuality being such a horrendous moral crime in the 1910s and 1920s in Europe, that one would live in virtually a paranoid state for fear of being discovered?
In “The Trial,” Josef K., the stand in for Kafka himself, is arrested for a “crime,” although he is never told what the charges are. What if the crime was that his neighbors suspected he was a homosexual? Was “The Trial” actually Kafka’s way of commenting on society’s revulsion toward homosexual behavior?
Likewise, in “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka writes about Gregor Samsa, another stand-in for the author himself, and opens the book with the famous first line: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into his bed into a monstrous vermin.” When his parents and sister discover him, they are shocked, horrified, and deeply ashamed of him, and hide Gregor in his room, eventually allowing him to starve to death so he won’t bring any more social disgrace to the family.
It’s worth noting that many English interpreters have noted that Kafka did not say Gregor became a bug, insect or beetle — but a vermin. Was this Kafka’s way of suggesting that if his family had ever discovered his homosexuality, they would have considered him something grotesque, someone who had changed into a “monstrous vermin” too disgusting to mention; and was the story an exploration of Kafka’s intuitive sense of how his family — and society — would have reacted if they had discovered he was attracted to other men?
As Tiefenbrun noted, early in the story a clerk from Gregor’s office shows up at the house to find out why Gregor hasn’t shown up for work. When he sees Gregor (Kafka) has become a hideous vermin (a homosexual), his reaction is swift.
“No sooner did the chief clerk realize that Gregor was a homosexual, then he rushed to leave the apartment as if ‘driven by some invisible steady pressure.’ There was no reason why he should have remained: homosexuals were patently unemployable,” she wrote.
She concludes, “We do not believe that Kafka’s stories are treatises on religious, metaphysical or economic problems.” Instead, his writings were the terrified cries of a gay man hiding in the closet.
“In symbolic language he made it clear that he considered his homosexual orientation the best part of himself and the ‘indestructible element’ in himself,” Tiefenbrun wrote.
The Czech Republic decriminalized homosexual behavior in 1962, and banned discrimination against gay people in 1999. In Kafka’s time, though, it was criminal behavior, plain and simple. Acknowledging that you were gay posed the risk of being rejected by your family and friends, fired from your job, even put in prison if you were caught being sexually active with another adult man. As Tiefenbun concluded, Kafka explored what it was like to be a gay man hiding his sexual orientation through works like “The Trial” (the government and the legal system’s reaction) and “The Metamorphosis” (the reaction of the family).
No one knows for sure if this is accurate, although Tiefenbrun is hardly the only critic to have interpreted Kafka’s writings as a metaphor for homosexuality. Historian Saul Friedlander wrote “Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt” in 2013, a book that explores Kafka’s private letters and diaries to find indications of his love for other men, including his passion for the Prague novelist Franz Werfel, of whom Kafka wrote in April 1914: ““Today in the coffee-house with Werfel. How he looked from the distance, seated at the coffee table. Stooped, half reclining even in the wooden chair, the beautiful profile of his face pressed against his chest … His dangling glasses make it easier to trace the delicate outlines of his face.”
It’s interesting that Tiefenbrun wrote her book in the early seventies — a few years after the Stonewall riots that launched the modern gay rights movement in 1969, but decades before the growing social acceptance of gay rights that would lead, this past June, to the legalization nationwide of gay marriage. Today, Kafka’s Czech Republic is considered one of the most gay-friendly countries in Eastern Europe, and Prague is known to have a large and active gay community.
But as Kafka clearly must have understood in his day, homosexuality was then one of the most reviled forms of human behaviors, and homosexuals were sent to the concentration camps during World War II along with Jews, communists and political prisoners.
Times have changed — in the United States and parts of Europe, certainly, though less so in other regions of the world, where advocacy of homosexuality is criminalized (Russia), or where gays are executed (Iran). Among the most horrific recent examples is ISIS throwing men suspected of being homosexuals off the tops of roofs to their deaths below, often to mobs that then throw rocks at the dying men to further condemn them. That terror facing homosexuals today in places like Syria, Iraq and Iran is likely what Kafka felt in the 1910s in Europe.
Other writers inspired by Kafka have also tapped into that sense of society’s condemnation of men who fail to measure up to social standards of virility and masculinity. In his novel “The Tenant,” published in 1964, author Roland Topor writes about Trelkovsky, a shy office clerk who is desperately in need of an apartment in Paris, and finds a small one available after the woman living there committed suicide by throwing herself out the window. Trelkovsky moves in, and finds himself hounded and persecuted by his neighbors, allegedly for making too much noise. After living for a while in the apartment, he slowly begins to take on the characteristics of the former tenant. In one chapter, Trelkovsky reacts negatively when he notices three men on the street laughing after speaking to a woman.
“Virility was something that disgusted him. He had never understood this business of vulgar pride in one’s body and one’s sex. They grunted and wallowed like hogs in their men’s trousers, but they were still hogs ….”
Trelkovsky then asks himself, “‘I wonder what someone who could read my mind would think if he were walking besides me now,” and concludes, “He would probably think that I’m homosexual.”
It’s likely that most critics will continue to view Kafka’s writing through the prism of political and social commentary, of the dangers of a growing bureaucracy becoming a totalitarian system.
It’s also worth going back to stories like “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgment” and exploring whether they represent not a political or faith-based critique, but the harrowing cry of a gay man in a world where he has no opportunities to live openly and freely.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..