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Kafka’s Konundrum: Narcissism, Self-Surveillance, and Unreality

Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka
Translation by Peter Wortsman
(Archipelago, 2016)

Even a year after the centennial celebration of Franz Kafka’s signature novella Die Verwandlung, commonly known as The Metamorphosis, Peter Wortsman’s latest English translation—which he simply titles “Transformed,” feels downright fresh. Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka promises to lure a new generation of casual readers, if not jaded scholars—for its streamlined, playful prose (which still manages to stay faithful to Kafka’s German syntax), as well as its contemporary concerns and sensibilities.

Those with shorter attention spans will delight in Wortsman’s decision to intersperse longer stories like “Transformed” with Kafka’s journal entries, letters, lyrical fables, and “flash fiction” that sometimes read no longer than a page. Thematically linked, these shorter works are marked by intense youthful narcissism and identity politics mediated by surveillance and spectacle—resulting not only in social alienation, but an “othering” of the self, that feels overfamiliar in an age of anxiety flooded by nonstop celebrity social media presence and entertainment culture.

Kafka is interested in the self’s relationship to the self, first and foremost. So it’s no surprise when Kafka portrays himself not only as a burgeoning genius, but the ultimate Millennial man-child of prolonged youth in “Clothes Make the Man.” His refusal to change his shabby clothes is a refusal to acknowledge the passage of time. Rather than face the responsibilities and demands of adulthood, or at least the outward trappings thereof, Kafka prefers to lose himself in escapist fantasy. Ignoring his mother’s “gentle pokes in the back” and “far too abstract admonitions” on a Sunday stroll, Kafka confesses: “I simply lacked the capacity to make the slightest accommodations for the actual future [...] for the least little step frightened me, I deemed myself unworthy in my contemptibly childish demeanor or to take serious stock of the great manly future.”

Neither is the self-obsessed vanity of the artist figure spared; Kafka does not obviate from ruthless self-scrutiny, referring to his own creative endeavors in “A Writer’s Quandary” as little more than “a hedonist construct.” In the short story “Josephine, Our Meistersinger, or the Music of Mice,” although the narrator insists that although mouse Josephine cannot actually sing, but emits more of a “a run-of-the-mill whistling,” she is not above “resorting to the most undignified methods of drawing attention to herself.” As a pseudo-celebrity, Josephine deliberately favors difficult performance times in order to make herself less available, and in her mind, to achieve a “unanimous, public, transcendent, more exalted than ever recognition of her art.”

Similarly, the eponymous protagonist of “The Hunger Artist” is his own greatest audience and fan, ironically stuck in a flower-strewn cage as proof of his superiority, for “he could keep hungering like no one else.” Although on constant display from city to city—thanks to the shameless PR packaging of his impresario—the Hunger Artist falls into discontent whenever he lacks total attention from the crowd, or when his round-the-clock watchmen, instead of covering him with their flashlights, prefer to play cards. The Hunger Artist becomes so disconnected from reality that he can only confirm his own existence if someone else is watching and admiring—much akin to the likes and shares that fuel the ego and fame of selfies and viral YouTube bloggers.

Of course, the downside of making oneself the subject of carnivalesque—if not grotesque—spectacle is rejection, or the present-day equivalent of trolling. In an attempt to siphon some of the starving Hunger Artist’s spotlight, two young ladies, or groupies, accompany him in front of a spectator-filled amphitheater to the tune of military brass fanfare. But instead of adulation, they encounter derisive laughter from the fickle, pleasure-seeking audience after “the entire weight of his [the Hunger Artist’s] body, negligible as it was, rested on one of the young women [...] panting and pleading for help—this is not what she imagined her honorary role would entail.” As the Hunger Artist is eventually upstaged by circus animals as the “in-thing to witness,” his maze of vanity mirrors reflect only his self-destruction; for his illusions of grandiosity, he ultimately pays with his life.

The nightmarish unreality of constantly witnessing and judging oneself through other's eyes explodes in “Transformed.” Except this time, protagonist Gregor Samsa's artistic and unconscious impulses are forced into hiding, under the controlling, scrutinizing gaze of his parents. Startlingly, Kafka’s sly rebellion against tradition and an oppressive family dynamic in “Transformed,” although obviously influenced by his own Jewish “outlier” background, reminded me of the Korean-American, if not universal immigrant experience: the same self-sacrificing expectations and duties, stifling conformism and obedience, and repressed individual desires. (Wortsman wisely points out in his afterword that “fear and doubt are surely not the sole province of the Jews, nor is the state of perpetual insecurity rife with neurosis [...]”) The combination of the Samsa family’s poverty and cloistered lifestyle, fraught with crude materialistic ambitions, results in Gregor’s psychic warping as the eldest child—which outwardly manifests itself as his transformation into a “monstrous bug.”

When Gregor is not watching himself, he is painfully self-conscious of being surveilled. The suspicious head clerk does not fail to come knocking at Gregor’s door to inquire into his absence as the “boss’ second set of eyes, a spineless mindless creature.” In fact, it is immediately odd that Gregor’s angst and guilt over the prospect of losing his tedious office job trumps the horror of his physical metamorphosis. Yet Gregor’s train of thought soon reveals the underlying cause: “If I hadn’t held myself back on account of my parents, I’d have handed in my resignation long ago, I’d have gone up to my boss and let it all spill out from the bottom of my heart.” While his “perfectly healthy” parents remain on a kind of permanent vacation, Gregor assumes the burden of their debt as the family’s sole bread winner. After he is no longer able to do so, he is viewed as an object of disgust and mistrust, forced into a spy game where he becomes a voyeur; alternately hiding under a canapé whenever a family member bursts into his room, and overhearing dinner conversations through a door crack.

Konundrum’s prescient vision of identity mediated, controlled, and distorted via the gaze of popular trend and opinion makes it relevant, if not required, reading. Readers will doubtlessly continue to identify with and apply their own multilayered re-contextualizations to Wortsman’s accessible rendition of Kafkaesque individual and collective self-obsession, paranoia, and unreality. More than ever, we live in an automatized surveillance society where one is so used to being observed, that if we are not directly watched by others, we do it to ourselves, so that the hypervigilant spectacle turns inward—like an internalized CCTV camera or wiretap ceaselessly at work. In this sense, we are all “performance artists” and monstrous bugs.

Contributor

Christine Cheon

A graduate of Williams College, CHRISTINE CHEON studied poetry writing with Louise Gluck and Martha Rhodes. In addition to her contributions to The Huffington Post, Salon, Vice, and Elle, she has appeared as a guest arts speaker on Monocle's live podcast. She is concurrently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.

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