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The Art of Projective Thinking: Franz Kafka and the Paranoid Vision

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 1985
pp. 217-232 | 10.1353/mfs.0.0042

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The Basic Task of Kafka Criticism is not to explicate his work but to account for it. How does he bring off time and again, often in just a fragmentary paragraph in his journals, the nearly impossible effects that he achieves? What is the source of the power that his writing exerts over our imaginations, the persuasiveness, even fittingness of the bizarre events that he describes? Why do we enter his world with something like an unsettling sense of recognition? Why do his stories so often seem to point to some broader mythic or allegorical meaning and then refuse to yield it?1 And why does that refusal make them even more tantalizing and profound?

What Kafka has done is to take an intuition of the world, a sense of experience, which is peripheral to the vision of most of us most of the time, and make it central to his fiction. He has replaced the world as we "know" it to be with the world as we fear it might be. Kafka's fiction appeals to us on a subrational basis; he heads unfailingly to certain kinds of response that other writers have only limited access to or restrict to the level of individual character. He short-circuits everyday defenses that we are not usually even aware we are employing.

"The tremendous world I have in my head," Kafka wrote in his diary on 21 June 1913. "But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces" (288). Kafka did indeed have imaginative access to a peculiar, distorted vision of the world and made that vision the basis of his art. Moreover, that same world, which is sometimes described as "Kafkaesque," is embodied in much of his personal writing, not only in the fanciful journal entries that were sometimes the raw material of his fiction but also in his private reflections in his diaries and his anguished self-explanations in letters. In the nearly endless letter that Kafka at the age of thirty-six wrote to his father (and apparently never delivered), he attempted to describe explicitly the world that he experienced as a young man:

the world was for me divided into three parts: into one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then into a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally into a third world where everybody lived free from orders and from having to obey.

We have to be careful here, for the letter, by Kafka's own admission, was full of self-justifying designs: "in reading try to understand all the lawyer's tricks, it's a lawyer's letter," he advised Melina when entrusting her with a copy (Letters 79). However, Kafka did embody something like this three-part world in much of his fiction. The Trial provides the clearest example. There is the sphere in which Joseph K. lives as the Court's victim, completely under its jurisdiction. He may complain that he is unjustly persecuted, that the Court is shabby, absurd, and without legitimate authority, but at the same time he feels compelled to obey its orders, appears when summoned (and even when not), and cooperates in his own execution. Above him is the "infinitely remote" sphere of the Court itself, with its unknown rules with which it seems impossible to comply, its arrogant judges, advocates, painters, and priests. Finally, there is a third sphere of those not directly implicated in Joseph K.'s case but aware that he is under the scrutiny of the court and apparently not surprised. The role of the third sphere, "where everybody lived free from orders and from having to obey," is diminished in The Trial in comparison to Amerika, and still further diminished in The Castle, where everyone in the village is more or less subject to the irrational authority of the Count's officials. Still, the basic pattern of a three-part...

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