- Colour and Light, Illness and Death: A New Interpretation of Kafka’s Der Proceß by Barbara McKenzie
Since its publication in 1925, Franz Kafka’s Der Proceß has enjoyed a variety of interpretive approaches that has kept pace with the novel’s multiple layers of meaning: for instance, as an autobiographical representation of the author’s (inner) life, as an expression of his personal or metaphysical guilt and desire for punishment, as a critique of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucratic system, or as a prophetic view of National Socialism.
McKenzie’s careful and overall fascinating study adds a new and unexpected dimension to existing analyses. Against a more traditional approach to the text as a series of dreamlike scenes, the author maintains that Der Proceß consists of a series of anxiety dreams. Second, she differs from the established reading that Der Proceß is about a trial, locating the text instead in a medical setting. Thus Joseph K. is not summoned before a court but has to deal with hospital stays and the progression of a serious disease, namely tuberculosis. Lastly, McKenzie examines how art, color, and myth illuminate the manifestations of illness in K.’s dreams without excluding well-known parallel themes such as guilt, sexuality, or family issues (311).
Kafka’s own use of Sigmund Freud’s “Die Traumdeutung as a textbook” (21) or as a foil for the novel substantiates McKenzie’s claim and explains how she arrives at such assumptions. Here she goes much further than other scholars who in her opinion “fall short of applying this conclusion in a methodical fashion” (21). Through her systematic inquiry of Kafka and Freud [End Page 160] she underscores the irrational thoughts and behavior of the novel’s characters, the incoherence of images, the shifts in narrative—all of which make sense only within a dream framework that naturalizes deficiencies in the plot and the ambiguous and startling use of vocabulary that is so characteristic of Der Proceß.
McKenzie demonstrates repeatedly that K. is definitely battling tuberculosis. According to her, the text refers to K.’s illness by alluding continually to symptoms of tuberculosis (tiredness, headaches, chills). Furthermore, the author identifies various diseased or deformed characters that populate Der Proceß and surround K. McKenzie even goes so far as to diagnose Leni (chapter 6, “Der Onkel”) as having Cri du chat syndrome (100). For Leni, who is also a nurse, has a very round face (acrocephaly) and webbed fingers (syndactyly). Claims such as these, which might otherwise strike readers as a bit exaggerated, read instead as cogent explications of the text as a whole. For instance, as a perceptive observer, McKenzie points to Kafka’s uncommon use of certain objects in the text. Thus the unexpected yet dominant role of beds and bedside tables, nightgowns and shirts, aprons and pinafores (the customary uniform of nurses at the time) all point to a universe of illness and not to the legal system. What renders the author’s investigation even more engaging is her fairly risky, but no less compelling, attempt to explain other textual details as references to illness. Again drawing on Freud’s Traumdeutung, McKenzie studies a fairly large group of words in the text that could point to “a web of underlying meaning through different kinds of word-plays” (192) and ciphers to illness. In studying the context of those words and looking at unanticipated repetitions or accumulations, the author solidifies her argument.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of McKenzie’s study is her attempt to uncover Kafka’s use of art in the text and to make it an inherent part of her analysis. Through painstaking and meticulous analysis of Kafka’s complex use of symbolism—colors, myth, and characters—she gathers information about painters and their paintings, including several Italian Renaissance artists (Tintoretti, Titian, Crivelli) who serve as models for Kafka’s court painter Titorelli. While most painters can be situated in sixteenth-century Venetian Renaissance, one artist that figures prominently in McKenzie’s interpretation was Kafka’s contemporary Edvard Munch. McKenzie...