One fears a number of things—that one's body could vanish, that human beings may really be what they appear to be at twilight, that one might not be allowed to walk without a stick, that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one's voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body
-Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" pg. 44
Reading Kafka was not the easiest. His writing was often difficult to parse and understand. I got lost sometimes; trying to maintain a grip on the details while also trying to understand the meaning of the story. Meaning is a tricky concept, in literature and in life. The search for meaning is a ubiquitous aspect of our humanity, yet it is also unique to each individual. Because of this, its hard to compare and share meaning with others. I believe that meaning has a deep relationship with pain and suffering, in one sense they could be seen as contrasting forces that guide us through life. However, I think they are really borne out of one another. Having something to live for begets the possibility it can be taken away—it also forces one to accept the challenge of living, and enduring, for what is meaningful to them.
Over the past few months I've been reading Kafka's The Complete Stories which, as its name implies, is the entire collection of his short stories. I finished reading "the longer stories" but I'm going to stop there and save "the shorter stories" for another day. In this post, instead of just reviewing a book, I'm going to explore the broader theme of meaning in life. Right after reading Kafka, I read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, an important story about life in the concentration camps in WWII, by a man who survived them. Frankl was also a psychiatrist, and is known as the inventor of a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which is a means of therapy rooted in finding meaning in one's life. This concept was conceived by Frankl before he was imprisoned in the concentration camps, but his experiences there re-enforced his beliefs that an individual always has a meaning to live, and by understanding one's meaning it is possible to endure anything. As he explains himself,
Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.
-Victor Frankl, "Man's Search for Meaning" pg. 142
Frankl believed that it is vital to understand our purpose so that we may endure the hardships of life. It was easy to see this by reading Frankl's account of his time in the camps—everything was taken from him and he was left with nothing but himself, in the face of unimaginable hardship. But, does a will to meaning have any benefit in ordinary life? Say, in the case of Kafka writings? Kafka's protagonists experience immense hardship in ordinary circumstances. Walking down the street, getting out of bed, saying goodbye to someone...exposing the infinite ability of the human mind to construct obstacles and complications around oneself. To contrast that with the reality of life as a prisoner in a concentration camp, where existence is the only goal and every obstacle is horrific cruelty and suffering. What can be said about these two states of mind and how can they have anything in common? Would empathizing with Kafka's protagonists in their inextricable quests be an affront to those who face real, external hardship? When compared to real physical suffering, how can feelings of isolation and disappointment be seriously considered actual problems? I don't actually believe there is much difference, but it's a question worth having a good answer to.
The ironic thing about the stories found in The Complete Stories is that many of them are incomplete or fragmentary; it was common to see these placeholders like this in the text: ". . .[Two pages missing]. . ." which signified the missing parts. Taken together with the fact that even the "completed" stories were usually devoid of any sort of conventional plot, such that even they could be considered fragments, it made me curious why Kafka's writing is regarded so highly that such effort would be taken to publish it in these forms. The writing itself was interesting, and I am no expert but I could definitely appreciate Kafka's talent for prose. I found that he had an ability to describe mundane events as fantastic, and seemingly alien to the narrator. Descriptions of the world in his writing felt different, as if the narrator's perspective was orthogonal to our conventional observations. Writing in this way emphasizes the idea that the protagonist is somehow different than the people around him - they are isolated and forlorn, unable to fully grasp the necessary reality of the world around them.
As an example, the second story in the collection is called Wedding Preparations in the Country. Not only are there several missing fragments from the story (as much as FOUR pages missing in some parts), there is also a second manuscript included right after the first manuscript ends. This second manuscript is a much shorter version which begins under the same premise—a man named Eduard Raban is walking along a street on his way to a wedding in the countryside, but aside from the first couple paragraphs it is completely different than the first version, and also considerably shorter So, to recap, Wedding Preparations in the Country is really a collection of two vaguely similar manuscripts, each with significant portions missing...to me this begs the question, how great was this story, and in a broader sense all of Kafka's writing, that it would merit being published in this form? As I read Wedding Preparations, I sought to find a meaningful message within the words written. For the most part, meaning alluded me; perhaps directly looking for a hidden message is not the best strategy when reading Kafka.
In the second version of this short story, while Eduard Raban is waiting for the rain to stop under the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, he is joined by an elderly man. They begin to converse, starting with small talk about the weather. The conversation begins to drag quickly, and the elderly man seems bored with Raban. Despite the boring start to the conversation, it evolves into a discussion of literature at some point (it is unclear how they arrived at this topic as this part of the story is missing) and it leads to a passage I found quite profound. Raban, in describing the usefulness of books, explains their significance to one's own life,
"I was only going to say books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that's how I should like to put it"
-Kafka, pg. 75
I'd like to think that Kafka was, in some sense, providing commentary on his own writing. Although these fictitious scenarios are utterly foreign to us, we read to be reminded of our own lives. And as Kafka puts it, by reading something unrelated to one's personal life, it is still possible to think and be stimulated by "all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise". But what exactly is one's "enterprise"? I believe Kafka is referring to the same thing that Victor Frankl is. Someone's enterprise is the reason they get out of bed for everyday—their raison d'être. Kafka is saying that there is not one, specific meaning to his work—it is how we interpret his writing in relation to our own reality that we find meaning in it. Kafka understood that literature is meant to open our minds to new ideas and perspectives, and he was exceptional at conveying ideas in veiled form. Beyond the "hissing arc lamps" and the "zephyr shirts", underneath the "wet cobblestone"...Kafka was describing the elements of our human experience, and most literary critics agree that these experiences were largely inspired by his own life.
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century. Kafka apparently struggled with anxiety and depression his entire life. He considered himself an outcast in some respects, and it is speculated he may have suffered from some type of personality disorder. Kafka also had a strained and complicated relationship with his father, whom he felt a need to appease due to his father's demanding and authoritarian demeanor. All of these fears and feelings of isolation are represented in Kafka's writing. Most of the stories I read consisted of a male protagonist facing some inexplicable troubles while navigating through a seemingly ordinary situation. The protagonist would struggle against some unseen or unexplained force that disrupts their perception of reality. In the end, their struggles are never vindicated, the "hero" simply succumbs to the fate they fought to avoid the whole story. This struggle, painted in a depressing way by Kafka, feels familiar to us because we all have to work against the forces in life that try to bring us down, be they social, economic, environmental, or bureaucratic. 30 years and 300 kilometres away from Prague, Victor Frankl wrote about how we can face these forces and answer the challenges in life,
Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
-Frankl, pg. 115
Victor Frankl was a prominent Austrian Psychiatrist, born in Vienna in 1905 and laid to rest in Vienna in 1997. Frankl practically lived through the entire 20th century, seeing both World Wars and unfortunately, as an Austrian Jew, having to experience the concentration camps of the second World War. Over the course of 3 years, Frankl was imprisoned in several different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He was separated from his wife, who at some point died in another concentration camp. Both of Frankl's parents, and his brother, died in concentration camps as well. Frankl did not know the fate of his loved ones until after the war, which I'm not sure made his experience in the camps any better; I imagine the anguish of not knowing was just as terrible as knowing they were gone. Regardless, the reality of camp life that Frankl describes in Man's Search for Meaning is so incredibly horrifying that it doesn't even seem possible to compare levels of suffering at that point. The first part of the book is a vivid description of what life was like in these camps. Upon arrival to the camp there was an immediate selection process—any persons who did not seem physically fit for hard labour we're immediately sent to be killed, either by gas chamber or some other torturous method. For the remaining prisoners, the camps were designed to quickly dehumanize them; they were treated simply as working animals, being fed the bare minimum amount of calories to survive and with no regard for their well-being whatsoever. Hard labour was performed, day in and day out, in any weather conditions and in any state of health. Frankl takes time to describe the afflictions that most prisoners dealt with in the camps:
Like nearly all the camp inmates I was suffering from edema. My legs were so swollen and the skin on them so tightly stretched that I could scarcely bend my knees. I had to leave my shoes unlaced in order to make them fit my swollen feet. There would not have been space for socks even if I had had any. So my partly bare feet were always wet and my shoes always full of snow. This, of course, caused frostbite and chilblains. Every single step became real torture.
-Frankl, pg. 45
No matter how terrible the pain, you worked every day, because if you were not able to work, you were not able to live. In addition to the immense physical suffering that was afforded to the prisoners, the psychological cruelty made it even harder. The guards ensured that no prisoner ever stepped out of line, or even showed any sign of displeasure, even for tasks like cleaning the toilets:
Between the huts in the camp lay pure filth, and the more one worked to clear it away, the more one had to come in contact with it. It was a favorite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage. If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo. And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.
-Frankl, pg. 37
This "mortification of normal reactions" was Frankl's way of explaining how, in the face of constant, routine suffering of unimaginable depths, the human psyche would eventually refuse to process the emotional reaction expected for these conditions. It is a survival instinct to retreat into this state of emotional unconcern:
Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.
-Frankl, pg. 40
It is hard to imagine what a state of existence like this would be like—being numb to physical beatings. Reading Frankl's account of life in the camps was emotional for me, as I'm sure it would be for anyone, for two reasons. Firstly, it is shocking to learn the levels of cruelty we as humans are capable of. We are capable of systematically and mercilessly constructing these camps of torture, and that thousands of individuals would willingly operate them. Secondly, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned, was that humans are capable of enduring these levels of depravity. Our ability to adapt to such circumstances speaks to more than just our survival instincts, because there is more to survival than just physical resilience. Human consciousness is special in that we can reflect on our own consciousness. This simple fact enables us to understand any circumstance we find ourselves in, and by holding on to our meaning, we can endure no matter what. This is our greatest survival instinct.
Both Frankl and Kafka wanted to explore suffering and hardship in their own way. Frankl used the most extreme example of physical suffering as a way of proving his theory's applicability. Kafka explored the depths of our consciousness and how we can find suffering within our selves. In both cases, although they may diverge in details, I think understanding one's will to meaning can provide a path out of each. We all experience hardship, this is universal, but each individual has the opportunity to achieve a better future. No one can ever prevent you from seeing the beauty in that.
We build useless war machines, towers, walls, curtains of silk, and we could marvel at all this a great deal if we had the time. We tremble in the balance, we don't fall, we flutter, even though we may be uglier than bats. And on a beautiful day hardly anyone can prevent us from saying 'Oh God, today is a beautiful day'
-Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" pg. 45