The Sons – Franz Kafka


The first time I heard about Kafka was in a interview of Kabir Bedi in a Times of India Sunday supplement called Times Life. Kabir told the scribe that one of his former wife quoted Kafka a lot. So, then as you know Google is your friend, I googled Kafka. And I was introduced to one of the authors who is enigmatic and mysterious, with shades of surrealism in in. But it was not until very recently that I bought the works of Kafka, in hard copy. I had them in soft version, tried to read them on screen, but without success. It was not until Strand Book Fair 2009 that I had mint copies of Kafka’s work with me. Apart from The Trial, now I have almost all of his major works. I started with The Sons, which is a collection of three stories, namely, The Judgement, The Stoker and finally The Metamorphosis.

Kafka wanted to publish these three stories in one volume, he said in a letter to his editor there is a secret strand which runs through these three. The novels I think are a window to Kafka’s mindset. The stories reveal a complex personality of Kafka, which was tried to carve an existence of its own in the shadow of the overpowering personality of his father. The feelings of Kafka are made clear in the part of the compilation, A Letter To His Father, where he tries to convey his father, tries to convey him, how strong and suffocating his
personality was for Franz as a child and also as an adult. It relates small incidents, which made a dent on Franz’s egg shelled mind, whose repercussions he felt even as an adult.

Some of the incidents in one’s childhood can have a lasting influence on one’s future. This I guess, most of us can relate to. How many childhood memories, especially non-pleasant ones, are still fresh in your mind, as if, they happened just yesterday? On the other hand the joyful ones, many times, are harder to remember. This where I guess Kafka is just great, he remembers little episodes from his childhood, and relates them to the person he is now. As far as qualities were concerned Franz was a direct opposite of his father. And he makes a point how his forced silence in the childhood made him the person he was. I think this is where Kafka gets his inspiration from. The things which he was not allowed to say, came out in form of the literature that he has produced. This is why I say, that his literature is a window into his complex and sometimes surrealistic persona.

My reading of Kafka is also confirmed by others. In the Fontana dictionary of Modern Thinkers [1], it says,

Himself slim, sensitive, an intellectual, Kafka was dominated by his well built, bullet headed, businesslike father, about whom, he said, all his works were written.

The picture above appears on the front cover of the same book [1].

And in Franz’s own words

My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast.

Now to the three stories themselves:

The Judgement

In this story an obedient son commits suicide

The Stoker

In The Stoker Kafka

You can think whatever you like. But morals change every time you go to a new port.

Oh, that’s just the way things are; it doesn’t always depends on whether a man likes it or not.

I am complaining just for the sake of complaining.

You don’t listen to what I say, and then you give me advice.

Activity without end, restlessness transmitted from restless element to helpless human beings and their works!

All his strength was concentrated in his fists, including the very strength that held him upright.

And all other people here are of no consequence.


The Metamorphosis

This getting up early, he thought, can make an idiot out of anyone.

… since he was well aware his mediations, would come to no sensible conclusion if he remained in bed.

But what’s the use of lying idle in bed?

… if that were possible, and saw no way of bringing any calm and order into this senseless confusion, he told himself again that it was impossible to stay in bed and most sensible course was to risk everything for the smallest hope of getting away from it.

.. he did not forget to remind himself occasionally that cool reflection, the coolest possible, was much better than desperate resolves.

Inspite of his predicament he could not suppress a smile at the very idea of it.

I’m in great difficulties, but I’ll get out of them again.

Don’t make things any worse for me than they already are.

Letter to His Father

Nothin alive can be calculated.

The effect you had on me was the effect you could not help having.

I couldn’t pick and choose, I had to take everything.

You mistake the person for the thing.

But that joke is, in a sense no joke at all.

Between us there was no real struggle; I was so finished off; what remained was flight, embitterment, melancholy and inner struggle.

All this, however, is today only a dream.

Even in other circumstances I should probably have become a shy and nervous person, but it is a long dark road from there to where I have come.

It is not easy to find a middle way.

My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast.

Probably I am constitutionally not lazy at all, but there was nothing for me to do.

To live with such fantasies is not easy for a child.

In reality, however, the marriage plans turned out to be most grandiose and hopeful attempts at escape, and, consequently their failure was correspondingly grandiose.

That so many seem to succeed in this is no evidence to the contrary; first of all, there are not many who succeed, and second these not usually don’t “do” it, it merely happens to them; although this is not that utmost, it is still very great and very honorable.

There were certainly obstacles, as there always are, but then, life consists of confronting such obstacles.

… but they are not decisive; they do, like worms, complete the works on corpse but the decisive blow has come from elsewhere.

It is too much; so much cannot be achieved.

But if he escapes, he cannot rebuild and if he rebuilds he cannot escape.

In my hand I have nothing, in the bush everything.

But I did not ask this question but live it from it from childhood on.

Everything is entered but never balanced.

But you sit at your window when the evening falls and dream it to yourself.

A way of life so natural that is borders on existence.

Just think of how many thoughts a blanket smothers, and how many unhappy dreams it keeps warm.

Do you think I have no memories?

rooted in ordinary life, he experienced or imagined ordinary fear,
distress, frustration, to an extent that we can all empathize with
because it corresponds, if not to our actual experience, then to our
apprehensions, even our nightmares.

Metamorphosis

[0] Franz Kafka, The Sons. Schocken Books, 2000, 0805208860

[1] The Fontana Biographical Companion to Modern Thought: Alan Bullock, R B Woodings (Eds.), Fontana, 1983, 0006369650

[2]

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.


William Blake

This poem is a part of William Blake’s Songs of Experience published in 1794. The above image is the hand illustration of the poem as it appeared in the 1794 edition. Though a little one, this poem like Blake’s other works this poem is loaded with meaning. Just give them as the key words and you will find a lot of entries explaining the meaning of the poem. Wikipedia article also gives multiple meanings to the metaphors used in the poem. Some other commentaries are here and here. As is with other things people see things in their own perspective, with the Experience that they have. No wonder that Blake put this poem of his in the Songs of Experience.

[I first read about Blake in the Rama Series by Arthur C Clarke. Blake’s Tyger is recited there, after seeing the vastness of the alien space ship which is named Rama.]

We as humans try to understand the things that we see and experience as a part of the mental structures that already exist in our minds. Cognitively this is the only way in which can survive in this world. Try to imagine a world in which no new things that you see or experience are not a part of what you have in your mind.

With the comments from others apart, Blake produces two strong metaphorical views about the poem in me. These two views share lines of thoughts and they don’t share some. The interpretation that we can do of these lines depends on the view of the world that we have. Everyone tries to look with the experience that they have at back of their mind. No wonder many people don’t agree to what they perceive in literature.

So what are the interpretations that one can make from these lines?
[One thing is for sure, now it does not matter what Blake had in mind when he wrote this poem. The readers now can make their own interpretations, about what Blake had to say, whether he meant the same thing or not is an entirely different matter.]

O Rose, thou art sick!

In this line the word Rose is a metaphor for woman. If we take a closer look at the Rose in the illustration by Blake, we see a feminine figure metamorphosing from the Rose. So the rest of the line would imply that the woman is sick. But what kind of sickness is this?

The invisible worm That flies in the night,
In the howling storm, Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.

What can be an invisible worm? The invisible worm is the cause of the sickness of the rose. The description that Blake adds is that it flies in the night. One of the interpretations is that the worm is an metaphor for the phallus and the sickness of the Rose that is being referred to is a STD. Another of the interpretation is that the it is the act of losing of the virginity and becoming impregnated. The worm seen in this sense is the phallus. As this happens in the night the worm is seen to be flying in the night. One more interpretation for the invisible worm would be the semen, which “flies” in the night.

The howling storm in the night can very well represent the screams of pleasure or pain. In which the woman is ruined [the life destroyed], as she is now impregnated.

The word crimson is also used metaphorically. It can represent both love and blood. For the color of love is red, and that too a dark one. So is the color of blood. The bed of crimson joy can mean the actual bed where the blood of the virgin has been spilled. The other is the red womb of the woman, which has been impregnated [found] by the invisible worm [sperm].

Another interpretation is that the rose symbolizes love, and the worm but a troubled soul. The worm flying around in the night is a lover long lost but never out of one’s mind. The lines

And his dark secret love,
Does thy life destroy.

May represent lovers who may not have been of actually been together, but a unified by a secret bond. These lines can also be taken to represent a secret lover who has married another. But the love still persists and is taking its toll on the woman, who is now in confusion [howling storm], as the secret lover has now [found] a place deep in her heart [the crimson bed]. Hence the life of the woman due to it [secret lover ] stands to ruin.

These are some of the few interpretations of Blake’s Sick Rose, whether you agree or not it depends on you. Many of the interpretations may seem far fetched, but then Blake is such an author that you need to stretch mentally a bit in order to grasp the depth of his thoughts.

Whatever the interpretations, this is one of the most imagination provoking and concise writing I have come across. Blake makes your imagination run wild and the various scenarios unfold which makes these 8 lines come to life.