Thursday, May 9, 2013

Free Kafka

It was final exam day for my Introductory Statistics Course.  It is 7 am.  The exam was to begin at 8 am.  I was going early to answer any questions the students might have.  I entered Carlson Tower and saw a table with a few books on it and a sign that simply said “Free.”

I like books.  I like free.  This was what they call a win-win for me.  The choices were scant.  I picked up a thin paperback, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.  At first, I thought it was a Cliff Notes or equivalent for the book.  For some reason, I expected a weighty tome from Kafka.  It was not.  It was either a long short story of 52 pages or a short novel.  Having never read any Kafka and always meaning to, I took this book.  I was happy to be able to sample Kafka for free.

As the students were taking the exam, I read the first line of the story:  “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams he himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”   Alrighty then.  This might explain why I have never read any Kafka before.  

It made be think that this might be a more modern version of what the great ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsu noted after waking from a dream in which he was a butterfly.  “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”  This I like and understood.  Relativity.  Frame of reference.  etc.  Was Kafka resurrecting this notion albeit in a more absurd or existential framework.

Before reading another sentence, I it seemed appropriate to read a little about my man of the hour Franz Kafka.  He was born in Prague in 1884 and died in Austria, at the age of 40, in 1924.  Kafka’s father was overbearing and demanding both in his business and running his family.  Apparently Kafka was not very fond of this treatment.  He complied in terms of education in which he became an attorney and in his profession as an officer in an insurance company.  He rebelled in his writing and turning his back on his Jewish faith which was important to his father. He spoke and wrote in German.  Kafka preferred that he could write full time instead toiling at his day job.  He became a socialist but was still fascinated with Yiddish literature and the spiritually in and around it.  A few of his works were published while he was alive but the bulk published posthumously by his friend Max Brod who ignored Kafka’s request that his writing all be burned.  Fame came to Kafka with the Brod publications.  The term Kafkaesque came to generalize his style which influenced both Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and others.  He contracted tuberculosis in 1917 which put him in and out of sanitariums until the disease finally ended his life in 1924.

I read the story and it is very well written, even in translation.  It is a vehicle for Kafka to express his own discomfort with his business and family life.  He expresses his own despair through Gregor dealing with his metamorphosis.   He definitely writes in a most Kafkaesque manner.  It is easy to see to the roots of existentialism in his writing.

Now, I can say I have read some Kafa and I am glad I did.  I can also say that I probably will not be reading anymore Kafka anytime soon.  

Next up Nietzsche!

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