Kafka was my gateway drug to Foucault, reading literature is a special form of ethnographic fieldwork, and context is an understatement.
Kafka’s Castle… it was my stepping stone to Foucault (via Disprose). I hadn’t heard of Foucault until then and was blown away by a quote from Disprose: “The true self does not lie outside the ethos constituted by the productive power” (A quote and the idea behind it something I have over-used mercilessly ever since). Point being in ref to Kafka that, although unique as an individual, he was of course a product of his time and society, and therefore what Kafka embodied in his writing can be seen as a product of his own social embodiment (and then our own subsequent frame of refernce in interpreting it).
This harks back to a university essay… it was for a first year anthropology class called ‘anthropology of difference’. We were asked to find a novel to read, fiction, and apply some basic anthropological principles to analyse it. I found Kafka not far away on the shelf from the same library as Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, which I had loved.
The Castle resonated with me because I’d often reflected on the feeling of feeling clunky in life – fitting in, and not fitting in, in any place.
I smiled when I dug out my old essay. The tutor’s comments on the front:
– “The title you have put is not the title that was given for this essay” (I called it ‘Novel Distinctions’… can’t remember what I was supposed to call it)
– “a good, ‘thoughtful’ introduction
– “you develop a very good discussion showing how Kafka’s own life situation is reflected in that of ‘K’ – shows the very powerful ‘experiences’ of difference we can get from the anthropological study of the novel”
– “why do you keep using the word ‘distinction’ rather than difference?” (it was because I felt distinction elevated the status of mere difference)
– “good use of literature”
– “just a personal note: I read ‘The Castle’ while I was living in Japan a few years ago, and had to stop because it rang true too much for my feelings there about hitting a ‘wall’ and not being ‘let in’, so to speak – it was too disturbing, so I didn’t finish the novel!” (I think that speaks volumes… so, not sinister… just powerful at reminding individuals about where and how they personally feel they have difficulty fitting in or not).
If you have ever read The Castle or are reading it now, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did all those years ago. I’ve copied the essay below.
Anthropology of Difference, Carol Webb
One of the key tasks of anthropology is embedded in the analysis and understanding of human life incorporating the important, ‘yet almost impossible’ view of holism; not everything can be seen or thought. To counter this, selections and emphasis must be made by categorisation and making distinctions (Peacock 1986:19,20), and therefore analysing difference. One way of ‘selecting’ is demonstrated in ethnographic fieldwork, where categorising and distinction making occur regularly. In establishing the true nature of ethnographic fieldwork, James Peacock explained that while history and literature resembled it, neither had its ‘distinctive combination of participation and observation’. However, he went on to say that history, in ‘seeking its information from the dead, from documents’, shared features of both ethnography and archaeology, further adding that literature could allow one to delve deeply into the character of culture and community and the experience of individuals’ (Peacock 1986:59-61). These seem to be good enough reasons to warrant analysing a literary work such as a classic novel where history and literature are combined, to carry out a special kind of fieldwork. This would also lead to particularisation (about the characters and groups represented) and generalisation (about what the interpretation of the particularisation could tell us concerning the author and his world); both of which are dual features of anthropology (Peacock 1986:75). And while a character of the novel may be ‘suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’, so is the novelist who ascribed the meaning to his work; we have to interpret the author as well as his writing (Kuper 1997:187), and locate his presence in the world as indicated by his work in space and time. To illustrate, I use Franz Kafka’s novel, ‘The Castle’, first published in Great Britain in 1930.
‘K’ is the main character around who this tale revolves. Our first distinction is made with him. He arrives in a remote village one night as a stranger, supposedly having been commissioned to carry out work as a land surveyor by the Count. In contesting his right to stay in the village overnight without the required permit, K establishes his position as an outsider quite firmly, yet re-evaluates this later in considering which it would be most advantageous to affiliate himself with; the village with its apparent freedoms, or the castle with its accompanying sense of foreboding surveillance, control and bureaucracy. The next distinction is made here, concerning class and power; although the castle represents the controlling authority over the village and is more widely associated with external society (Gesellschaft), K chooses to become part of the village community. However, he isn’t accepted by the local ‘Gemeinschaft’, and while distancing himself from
the villagers by his determination to remain independent, they distance themselves by their ignorance and distrust. He uses a local girl to gain acceptance into the Gemeinschaft, and we can see another distinction here, this time on the basis of gender. This girl, Frieda, is empowered by her sexual relationship with a castle official, Klamm, despite the fact that she is otherwise ‘nothing’ – as are most women in the village. In seeing K as an ‘exotic other’ with an aura of power demonstrated by his independence, almost comparable in her eyes to that of Klamm’s official power, she is seduced into thinking that by transferring her affections she may elevate herself further. K also thinks he may get to Klamm by means of Frieda. In continually seeking out (and never finding) Klamm, K’s attempts to make it to the castle are represented. K’s non-acceptance by the village, his failure to comprehend the relationship between village and castle, his failure to
gain audience with Klamm and most pointedly, his forever waiting to be invited to the castle, all demonstrate that despite his strong personality, wisdom and independence, all prove futile in getting what he wants in the constraints of the society he finds himself in. Had Kafka completed his novel, it is said that K would have died in his obstinate struggle, still fighting, still failing.
The distinctions and categorisations manifested in this novel are most outstandingly those of individuality/group conformity, power roles/class and gender differences. However, these differences seem to migrate into others when taken in context with the author’s life. These differences need further explanation:
Disprose (1994:18) comments on social embodiment and states that characters are to a great extent defined by their habitat and habits. Therefore, the embodiment of a person depends on the ethos of the society to which they belong as to what is expected of them in their definitive role, which in turn seems tautologically bound up in their habitat and habits. In ordinary circumstances an individual could fight to change these circumstances, but in the case of a novel the characters are powerless and positioned in their respective roles at the whim of their creator, the author. By looking at him, we see subtle changes to the distinctions we have already made. Kafka’s ‘frame of reference’ explains some of the underlying themes in the novel: Minerva publishers identified K’s ‘isolation and perplexity, his begging for the approval of elusive and anonymous powers’ as epitomising Kafka’s ‘vision of twentieth century alienation and anxiety’. In direct comparison with Kafka’s own life they comment on ‘The Diaries of Franz Kafka’ (edited by Max Brod – see inlay of ‘The Castle’); ‘he describes his fear, isolation and frustration, his feelings of guilt and his sense of being an outcast. In between come quick glimpses of… the father he worshipped and of the woman he could not bring himself to marry’. This helps us to place the author and the key figure in his plot more closely together, and to realise that a lot of Kafka’s own life and feelings are represented in his novel. Therefore, Kafka’s understanding of the social embodiment of himself, of women, and ensuing power struggles within the constraints of the dominant productive power could be interpreted through the novel and then translated into his ‘world’; the relationships he had with others – his family, women, and society in general, but juxtaposed with his particularities; as a Czech born Jew of the wealthy middle class., having had the benefits of a
German education and living part of his life as what might be termed a ‘Berlin intellectual’ (Minerva – ‘The Castle’, preface).
It becomes easier to understand Kafka’s self-made distinction concerning his isolation when reflecting upon the words of Frankel and Zipperstein, and at this stage a new distinction concerning religious difference is made:
“The concept of ‘community’ existed as a problematic ideal for Jewish intellectuals who stood midway between alienation from traditional Jewish society and comfortable inclusion in a non-Jewish environment (1992:248). There was obviously some difficulty in finding oneself mid-way between two spheres of community, and personal concern grew as a result of not being able to identify with either in full. The classification of Kafka’s location as middle-class within his temporary Jewish social setting is in part determined by his classical, German-styled education in Prague. Being ‘born to ‘middle-class’ Jewish families…could encompass almost any oocupation from artisan to rabbi, from the proprietor of a stall in the flea market to the owner of a factory in one of the suburbs of Prague’, ‘it was during their years at the gymnasium that Jewish students first mastered the high culture that promised an avenue of social mobility,… made the first lasting
friendships with non-Jews and conceived the possibility of entering into common political cause with non-Jewish society’ (Frankel & Zipperstein 1992:248, 252). In Kafka’s case, it is known that his father was a rich merchant. But his German education was a huge influential agent in providing him the status he achieved in studying law, working at an insurance firm and eventually settling in Berlin to write. Again, we could draw further comparison to the novel. The community he settled most easily alongside and the community he sought acceptance in, compare well with his Jewish background and his aspirations among German society. The fact that he could never fully be accepted by the latter is emphasised in the novel by his waiting: waiting until death for acceptance.
This was how Kafka’s life looked as a result of the distinctions we could make concerning the era in which he lived; the early 1900s – born 1883, he died in 1924. The general attitude towards Jews at this time had been influenced by historical events such as their expulsion from Prague in 1745 based on their apparent economic growth and success (Frankel & Zipperstein 1992:163). This concern grew in Eastern Europe throughout the first half of the 20th century and probably climaxed with the Holocaust. Had Kafka been born in another land and time, the distinctions made as a reflection of his life in the novel would not have been possible. Kafka, although unique as an individual, is a product of his time and society. ‘The true self does not lie outside the ethos constituted by the productive power’ (Disprose 1994:18-37); hence, that which Kafka embodied in his writing was a product of his social embodiment.
The Last Word
Kafka’s social embodiment under particularisational analysis could be used to make generalisations concerning the time and place he lived. We could make generalised distinctions about selective community; Jewish life in Prague in the early 1900s. And we could generalise about Jewish interaction with German society. We could then link the two and identify Kafka in the midst of these generalisations and use him as evidence of a particular example to perhaps conclude that although seemingly solid boundaries between Jewish community and German society existed, there were also people, such as Kafka, who bridged a gap between them, almost a grey area, and caused intermediary interaction, and to some extent a certain kind of assimilation, or at least a pushing towards such.
What seemed at first to represent distinctions between the characters of a novel, were then interpreted to explain the subtleties of the novelist’s life and time, chiefly concerning religious difference. The translation of these subtleties into actual meaning stipulated that distinctions made in the novel were not satisfactorily discussed. While this essay has focussed to some extent on the interpretation of religious difference, it has fallen short in its lack of coverage on other issues. Therefore, the issues which could form the basis of another essay are those of gender and class. On the positive side, however, this essay, has achieved what it set about to do in its beginning; it demonstrated the possibilities of categorising and distinction making in a special kind of fieldwork – ethnography in literature.