- Of Cinema, Food, and Desire:Franz Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog"
While Franz Kafka's writing career coincides with the era of silent cinema, he was clearly ambivalent about this mass-cultural phenomenon and was apparently at pains to keep his prose free from any references to cinema or the many of the films he saw. This is for the most part also true of his letters and diaries; nonetheless, his vividly visual and gestural prose shows a close kinship to forms and techniques silent cinema, which he dismissed late in his life as a "marvelous toy." This paper explores how aspects of his late, overtly autobiographical and retrospective story, Investigations of a Dog (1922) evinces the subliminal impact of cinematic experience upon the formative period of writing that preceded his creative breakthrough in 1912. the story also marks the culmination of one of Kafka's major thematic concerns-food and hunger-which the canine narrator, who is a nutritional scientist, links to his pubescent encounter with a troupe of dancing dogs whose silent apparitional nature, I content, allude to the vestigial presence of cinematic experience in Kafka's fiction.
I. Food, Film, and a Desire to Nothing but Literature
'Office life is a dog's life.' 'Yes, Kafka agreed, 'yet I don't . . . bark at anyone and I don't bite either. As you know–I'm a vegetarian. We only live on our own flesh."1
Shortly after his early retirement in 1922 Franz Kafka went to live with his sister Ottla who was renting a summer cottage in the rural community of Planá outside of Prague. There he worked in her vegetable garden, took long walks in the woods with the landlady's dog (Binder 1975, 358)2 and wrote one of his most accomplished and intricately reflexive short stories, "Investigations of a Dog." Completed a few months after A Hunger Artist, Forschungen eines Hundes represents both the final installment and culmination of Kafka's literary exploration of the spiritual and socio-cultural significance of [End Page 92] eating and food. Keying in on this largely underappreciated but abiding concern in this paper, I will read this overtly autobiographical tale as an ironic "Bildungsnovella" in which Kafka views the trajectory of his creative development through the prism of his own "alimentary aesthetics."3 I will explore, more specifically, how the strikingly cinematic quality of the central event around which he spins this alimentary parable—about a canine nutritional scientist—is subtly informed by his ambivalence about the emerging cultural phenomenon of early film. Narrated from the perspective of the dog, who traces the vagaries of his obsessive dedication to this arcane field of inquiry back to the crucial but inscrutable–and remarkably "cinematic"–experience that determined the course of his life, the canine protagonist offers a suggestive reflection on his creator's aesthetic breakthrough and subsequent writing in which eating, food, and the largely subliminal "vestigial" effects of cinema are inextricably intertwined.
Kafka's prodigious literary accomplishments in the final years of his life are a testament to the power of imagination under the sign of not-eating. As if nourished by his advancing tuberculosis, which ravaged his body as it gradually starved him to death, Kafka wrote in the last two years of his life some of his most acclaimed stories, his third novel, The Castle, as well as his genial pair of hunger parables. It is prophetically ironic that Kafka had actually considered in 1923—while living in Berlin with his young lover, Dora Diamant—immigrating to the land of milk and honey where the two would open a restaurant and begin a new life, far away, as it was, from the dire material conditions and chronic food shortages of the inflation-wracked German capital (Diamant 2003, 49). In devoting himself to the real business of food in this imagined eatery in the promised land, Kafka fantasized achieving with Dora the domestic happiness that always had been denied by the ascetic demands of his literary pursuits, his desire to be "nothing but literature." His literary ambitions, Kafka told Hermann Bauer, his prospective father-in-law, are simply at odds with...