- Reading Gestures: Body Schema Disorder and Schizophrenia in Kafka’s Modernist Prose
Kafka could understand things only in the form of a gestus, and this gestus which he did not understand constitutes the cloudy part of the parables. Kafka’s writings emanate from it.—Walter Benjamin1
Many prose narratives by Franz Kafka animate and illuminate psychopathological models of the subject. This can sometimes conceal their equally consistent preoccupation with very physical, corporeal processes. Bodies communicate crucial information in Kafka, particularly when they slip over the line from human to insect or animal corporeality. A master at rendering bodily movements, Kafka often depicted human and animal figures, complete or in parts, as well as the actions and gestures they perform—or fail to perform. In Kafka’s diaries, literary sketches of distorted bodies do similar representational work as his drawings: both convey a fragmented sense of self through physical gesture.2 Likewise, his prose works draw much of their liveliness from slapstick humor that is based on dysfunctional bodies.3 Who can resist smiling at Gregor Samsa’s first clumsy attempt at lifting his vermin body out of bed: “he lunged forward with all his force, without caring, he had picked the wrong direction [End Page 829] and slammed himself violently against the lower bedpost.”4 And who has not, like the character himself, “laugh[ed] loudly” at Karl Rossmann’s “unsuccessful attempt to swing himself onto” the stoker’s bed?5
Kafka’s prose gives literary substance to the emergent knowledge about postural, tactile, kinesthetic, and vestibular dysfunctions explored by neuroscientists of his era. This scientific knowledge is present in works ranging from Kafka’s early fragment “Description of a Struggle” to a few representative stories (“The Metamorphosis,” “Researches of a Dog,” “A Report to an Academy,” “Josefine, The Singer or the Mouse People,” “A Starving-Artist”), to the novels The Man Who Disappeared and The Trial.6The present article will not attribute clinical conditions to Kafka’s literary characters or engage the actual plight of non-neurotypical individuals. Neither does it suggest that the author’s artistic use of medical symptoms means he experienced them himself.7 The goal is rather to show that the somatic manifestations in Kafka’s fictional characters can be plausibly explained through the lens of several neuroscientific discoveries of his time. Such an undertaking does not run counter to Walter Benjamin’s seminal insight, cited in the epigraph of this article, that the gestures and bodily movements in Kafka’s prose are ultimately illegible and unidentifiable even for the author himself. It is indeed tempting to read the meaning of Kafka’s opaque gestures, as when Karl Rossmann, the protagonist of The Man Who Disappeared, “lower[s] his face before the stoker and slap[s] his trouser-seams as a sign that all hope was gone” (Man, 16). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari thus interpret the bent head as an “index of submission, the gesture of one who is judged.”8 Yet the succeeding gesture is not as readily legible. A Duden entry defines the act of laying one’s hands on the trouser seam (die Hände an die Hosennaht legen) as a part of a military drill or salute involving the precise positioning of the middle finger parallel to the outseam of the trouser leg.9 But clearly this interpretation is at odds with the decidedly nonmilitary context of the gesture (the chapter is set on a passenger steamship in the harbor of New York City), and the suggestion that it signifies Karl’s hopelessness—as if a single, elusive gesture could contain the full essence of Karl’s involuntary immigration to “America” and his failed attempt to escape a scandal resulting from his seduction by a maid.
How, then, to interpret Kafka’s gestures, given that they oftentimes subvert conventional modes of representation and refuse symbolic meaning? The following reading will emphasize their neuroscientific dimension in order to open a new pathway to understanding Kafka’s bodies as bodies that can be mapped and made predictable through their failing sensory-motor processes, even if the latter are inflected by the symptoms of schizophrenia, which...