Commentary Magazine

The Great Wall of China, by Franz Kafka; and The Kafka Problem, edited by Angel Flores

The Great Wall of Criticism

The Great Wall of China.
by Franz Kafka.
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York, Schocken Books, 1946. 315 pp.3.00.

The Kafka Problem. Edited
by Angel Flores.
New York, New Directions, 1946. 468 pp. $5.00.


The estrangement of Kafka seems to persist in the fate of his writings. For no modern figure of comparable genius—not even Joyce—has had so many barriers erected between himself and his readers. No doubt this is partly due to the strange and compressed sensibility of Kafka’s writing, which has dispensed with those routines of common experience that provide the structure of the traditional novel. But even more important is the abysmally low level of Kafka criticism, most of which is obscurantist, pretentious, and misinformed, turned out by people who are just not up to the subject. At best it has been (with but a few exceptions) a tortured analysis of the obvious; at worst—perhaps we had better not describe it at this point.



What appears to have puzzled many of Kafka’s commentators and sent them scurrying to find the ideological clue to his work is the deceptive simplicity of his surface. For while it is continuously resonant with larger meanings, Kafka’s fiction is at the same time self-sufficient in the sense that it always seems to contain, on the face of it, the whole story. And the fact is that this combination of tone and overtone is rather unusual in modern literature, though it does suggest an extreme form of the symbolist tradition. In the case of Kafka, however, what we have is not a symbolist approach, but precisely the opposite, an attempt to present directly the actual quality of his experience. Perhaps the closest analogue in modern writing is Dostoevski’s Notes From Underground; but where Dostoevski felt the need to objectify and to be self-conscious, Kafka simply projects his own being.

At bottom, of course, this can be understood as a neurotic phenomenon, and it does account for the fact that Kafka’s psychic drives are worked into all his writing. But, insofar as Kafka’s self-projection has taken a literary form, it has encompassed and fused all the strains of his thinking. Hence most of Kafka’s stories will be found to contain at once the Kierkegaardian theme of coping with the spiritual vacuum with one’s own moral resources (which is merely a generalization of Kafka’s private feelings), the alienation of the Jew, the oppressiveness of the social hierarchy, and the forebodings of guilt and persecution. All of these themes, however, are conveyed on the level of sheer existence, on the level, that is, of Kafka’s state of mind. As a result, Kafka’s fictional world has the contingency and lack of apparent motivation that we face in immediate experience. One need not ask why Gregor Samsa, for instance, became a monstrous bug, or why K. was never informed of the charges against him in The Trial: one simply recognizes such situations as hidden fatalities that may or may not come to the surface but are nevertheless part of the texture of our lives.

In The Great Wall of China (just made available again in a new American edition) one finds most of the characteristic Kafkan themes. But in each case they are contained within some obsessive situation that opens the wounds of one’s existence. All creative fiction reaches its extreme and critical instants when some character relives his entire life or the feeling of all existence is momentarily communicated. What Kafka does, however, is to maintain a kind of permanent crisis, which loads each particular experience with the sum of all experience. Thus the subconscious dog in Investigations of a Dog, whose life is a parable of man’s plight and his relation to the forces of the unknowable, actually reveals himself to us through the sensations of estrangement and slow death. Similarly, The Burrow lays bare the tensions of all human effort through the primitive and immediate feeling of anxiety that expresses the condition of the hunter and the hunted. And The Great Wall of China is a generalization of those moments when Kafka must have felt humbled by the inscrutability of human tradition, moral law, and, above all, the ways of God. It is this rendering of one’s total experience at all times—in the same way that the total experience of an individual wells up in him at any given time—that accounts for the constant ambiguity, the play of symbolism, and the ironic oppositions in all of Kafka’s writing.



The failure, I believe, to grasp this essential character of Kafka’s work is responsible for the prevailing misconceptions, most of which can be found in the anthology of essays on Kafka under the title The Kafka Problem. In this respect the volume is a masterpiece of editing, for surely it must have required considerable talent to represent every variety of critical nonsense and banality. Apparently such was the purpose of the volume, for I can find no other reason for leaving out several important studies of Kafka by Hannah Arendt, Philip Rahv, and others—especially since some of the pieces included make no sense by themselves, being polemics against critics who have not been represented. In all fairness, however, I should add that the unity of the collection has been somewhat marred by some excellent essays, notably by Albert Camus and Claude-Edmonde Magny, a young French critic.

Most of the other pieces ride some personal notion or some half-baked thesis. Thus there are some brief reminiscences of Kafka by several European writers, whose own egos somehow manage to loom larger than the personality of Kafka. On the other hand, the theoreticians present us with a variety of “interpretations,” ali plugging some extreme view of Kafka’s work and all canceling each other out. Perhaps the oldest distortion is Max Brod’s attempt—in a kind of Zionist Emersonianism—to squeeze a Jewish oversoul out of Kafka. Less sectarian and more fashionable, however, is the Protestant non-denominational view taken by a number of critics who have transferred Kafka into a pure theologian. On the secular side, there are a number of “social” approaches, some of which argue that Kafka’s fiction was basically a protest against the injustices of modern society, while others berate Kafka for his reactionary and “escapist” attitudes. And over the entire volume hovers the specter of Freud, making most of the critics uneasy and fearful of either overestimating or underestimating the neurotic strain in Kafka’s writing—as though unable to decide whether it was a liability or an asset.

In addition, the collection contains some foolish essays that are difficult to classify. One of these by an English anarchist writer, for example, tries to prove, in a remarkably self-assured way, that Kafka is an inferior version of Rex Warner, an English imitator of Kafka, who has pinned down the meandering social meanings of his master. Another, by an Argentinian writer, finds Kafka an expression of the age of intuition and the breakdown of reason, the features of this new age having been defined by Quantum Physics and the Theory of Relativity—which in some unexplained way are taken to have enthroned the principle of intuition.

But the two highlights of this anthology are the pieces by Edwin Berry Burgum and Charles Neider, one being an application of the current Stalinist position to Kafka, the other a freelance form of absurdity. Burgum’s line, concocted by jumbling the known facts of Kafka’s life and by ignoring the ambiguities and subtleties that make up his art, is that Kafka was a “diseased personality” who failed to unmask the role of capitalism, whose attitude “anticipates the psychology of fascism,” and whose fictional hero, “like Mr. Hoover and Mr. Westbrook Pegler, fears the combined aggression of the working class. . . .” In short, Kafka was not cast in the heroic proletarian image of Michael Gold. It should be noted, however, that Bur-gum’s attack is rather restrained as compared with that of his Stalinist compatriots in France, who recently raised the question whether, in the interest of the revolution, Kafka’s works should not be destroyed.

Neider’s tack is just the reverse, for what he tries to do is to save Kafka for rationalism. So far as I can make him out, Neider’s point seems to be that there has been some kind of super-naturalist plot to steal Kafka from the naturalists, with the apparent implication that there are two organized bodies of critical opinion—the naturalists and the supernaturalists—fighting for the spirit of Kafka. And Neider’s appointed task is to win Kafka back to the camp of social progressivism, psychological health, and the life of reason. As a result, Neider has converted the great tragic underground man of the modern period into an apostle of good will and uplift—into a kind of liberal missionary with the most up-to-date opinions on what is best for man and society.

Poor Kafka, to be thus thrown to the Philistines. But the question is even larger than the fate of Kafka. For what we are witnessing is a general relaxation of critical standards, with the result that almost anything can be palmed off these days as serious criticism. The reasons for this are of course tied in with the entire cultural situation. And in so far as a creative optimism may be said to be the occupational disease of the writer, one likes to think of the present state as a temporary slump. If not—I just hope Joyce is not the next victim.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.