When reading Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883 – June 3, 1924) I find it useful to abandon notions of ‘why’, or ‘who’, or ‘how’ and to be contented with ‘what’.
Because that is what Kafka does. Awaken to find oneself a giant insect? Move right along. We are a dog among dogs? Of course. Never one to explain such oddities, it thus becomes quite natural that Kafka imagines himself a dog or a bug and continues the narrative from that orientation.1
Throughout his career, this Czech novelist mined the seams of alienation and empathy granted to (or withheld from) the alienated individual. As Metamorphosis presented existential alienation, Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog asks profound questions of social alienation – specifically, how can knowledge connect or separate us?
Despite fond memories of his kin, our narrator admits to being a bit removed from the pack, disconnected by more intimate self-awareness, and thus able to reflect.
When I remember the times when I was still living in the midst of dogs, taking part in everything that concerned them – a dog among dogs – I do find on closer examination that there was always something not quite right about the picture, a little breach or rupture; a mild unease would befall me at the heart of the most respected tribal occasions, yes, sometimes even in intimate settings; no, not just sometimes, but very often, the sight of a dear fellow dog, his mere aspect, somehow seen afresh, could make me embarrassed, shocked, alarmed- yes, even desperate. I tried to calm myself, friends I discussed it with helped me, quieter times came along, times that were not free of such surprises either, only they were accepted in a spirit of greater equanimity, were more casually absorbed into the tissue of life; perhaps they made me sad and tired, but they allowed me to continue to exist as a perhaps somewhat aloof, reserved, frightened, calculating, but all in all regulation dog.
Kafka is nevertheless deeply aware that there is a pack from which to disappear and that this pack concept is as admirable as it is enduring.
One may surely say we live in a pack, all of us, however different we may be in terms of innumerable and profound distinctions that have arisen between us over the ages. All one pack! We are impelled to be together, and nothing can prevent us from satisfying that urge; all our laws and institutions, the few I still know, and the numberless ones I have forgotten, they all go back to the greatest happiness that exists for us, our warm companionableness.
There is a means of connectedness to one’s society. Its absence, what Simone Weil called ‘rootlessness,’ is one of the most devastating things a person can endure. Rootlessness begins and ends with one’s connection to his society and community.
Kafka echoes this need:
For all I cared about were the dogs, nothing else. For what is there apart from dogs? To whom else can one appeal in an otherwise empty world? All science, the totality of all questions and all answers, lies with us dogs. If only one could make this science productive, bring it to the light of day. If only they didn’t know so infinitely more than they admit, even to themselves. The most garrulous dog is laconic by comparison with those places that offer the best food. You slink around your fellow dog, you froth with avidity, you lash yourself with your tail, you ask, you beg, you howl, you bite and finally you achieve well, you achieve what you would have achieved without any exertion: a kindly hearing, friendly touches, respectful snufflings, intimate embraces, my and thy howls commingle – everything tends to make you find oblivion in delight. But the one thing you wanted above all to achieve – confirmation of what you know – that remains denied to you; to that request, whether tacit or voiced, if you have taken wheedling and tempting as far as they will go, you will be treated at best to blank expressions, dull, veiled eyes, looks askance.
In part to reconnect or perhaps to come to terms with his disconnect, our canine narrator seeks to understand his kind through scientific observation and deduction, a process that leaves him wanting. “Science gives us rules,” writes Kafka, “But understanding only from a distance.” 2
Rather than answers, his scientific approach sets him apart. It is the very contemplation of dogs which sets this dog apart in the first place. The knowledge that will not be shared, or understood by his audience.
With my questions I am only chasing myself, driving myself on with the silence that is the only answer I get from all around me. How long do you think you can stand it that dogdom, which through your questions you are gradually bringing to consciousness, is silent and always will be silent? How long can you stand it: beyond all individual questions, that is the question of questions for my life; it’s been put specifically to me, and troubles no one else.
At the end of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the insect-being that had been the man Gregor dies, much to the relief of his family who never reconciled with his horridness. Our narrator in Investigations of a Dog summits on the point of isolation and silence and never really descends. Kafka seems to be saying that knowledge unshared distances us from one another as much as it enlightens.3
I will probably die in silence, surrounded by silence, a peaceful death, and I am almost reconciled to it. An admirably strong heart and lungs not to be worn out ahead of time were given to us dogs almost out of malice, we resist all questions, even our own, being the barricade of silence that we are.
That it is our emotions that connect us, the knowledge gained through feelings is a line of thought that ripples through waters, like writer Marilynne Robinson who opines there is a connection in shared loneliness, Olivia Laing’s loving portraiture of transformative art done in loneliness, Hermann Hesse’s magnificent, generous poem “Do You Know This Too?”, to Jazz singer Billie Holiday who knew when she sang a song she really, truly felt, that her audience would feel it too.
I think of Kafka, a profoundly deep mind exquisitely wrought by suffering, and how this was manifested in his work. His biographer Elias Canetti writes:
The uniqueness of his work, in which emotions hardly appear, though literature otherwise swarms with them, volubly and chaotically. If one thinks about it with a little courage, our world has indeed become one in which fear and indifference predominate. Expressing his own reality without indulgence, Kafka was the first to present the image of this world.
From Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial
American poet David Whyte defined “alone” rather beautifully in a way which unifies my feelings about Kafka: “Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation.”
Rebecca Solnit wrote something similar in her study of being lost and venturing through that portal of the unknown: “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.” I sometimes think Kafka’s writing exists in that portal, looking (sadly) back rather than (excitedly) through.
Answer Kafka’s pulsing quandary on human connection with Amanda Palmer on vulnerability in the face of need, Patti Smith’s rich tale of finding one’s soulmate, Susan Sontag’s limits on empathy and Walt Whitman’s love letter to the human spirit. I sometimes wish I could read Whitman to Kafka.