Kafka & the Canon

Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University has written a controversial book called The Western Canon. In general, we have been discussing what makes a work a classic. Why do a handful of books survive while most simply collect dust in library shelves never to be read?

I will give you a tentative definition of greatness:

1. A classic text captures a moment in critical times wherein the author reads the future clearly as a prophet.

2. The classic author, like Shakespeare, defines human nature and the human condition by creating characters who embody complexes of ideas and conflicts that remind us of our mortality yet are so memorable by their heroic or anti-heroic deeds that each generation finds renewal of their cultural heritage and self-identity by re-reading these works.

3. There is a consensus worldwide that a work is lasting. So, time and space are a matter of indifference because a classic text rises above cultural prejudices and norms.

4. The good reader can empathize with the writer and enter into a dialogue with the novelist or author, even if he or she wholeheartedly disagrees.

5. A great writer establishes with the reader a mood reflective of an imminent change in time and history; something momentous is happening whether at the individual level or at a world historical level where great scientific or social scientific hypotheses or unique human experiences are presented that reorganize our worldview or even overthrow it, in the instances of Marx, Darwin, and Freud.

6. The great writer has literary style that is clear. He opens up the human condition to critical insights that are therapeutic for the reader.

7. The great work is read across generations to withstand barrages of criticisms. Survival of the fittest in literature.

8. Great writers beget imitators; they create a standard of excellence against which to be measured. Shakespeare has no peer.

9. Whole schools of thought emerge in universities, like Marxist studies, to celebrate the author. Marx made revolution respectable, Darwin natural history, and Freud brought the taboo subjects of sex and aggression into the medical field and popular consciousness.

10. Writers are unique; their successors can never repeat their successes with the same impact. Schindler is not Marx, Charles Murray is not Darwin, Erma Bombeck is not Freud.

11. The Schools of Resentment have been identified by Harold Bloom.

a) Feminism: They build an ideology around sexual discrimination. They attack major Western writers as male chauvinists without understanding the dynamics of writing a classic. For example, Freud is attacked rather than assimilated into a higher synthesis.

b) Marxism: Works are the result of class struggle; hence, you must have a dialectical materialist viewpoint in which literature is simply a secondary phenomenon with no merit on its own.

c) Lacanians: Works are a fatal function of the Unconscious. Hence, great works of art and literature have deep meanings to be understood by applying psychoanalytical techniques There is a master/slave relationship at work in which the unconscious triumphs over conscious designs of humans even if they are aware of their conflicts, because desire can never be satisfied. History and literature reflect the frustration of the writers and their audience, forever damned to be frustrated in their relentless search for fulfillment.

d) New Historicism: These are the multiculturalists who say that writings must fulfill an ideological and instrumental purpose to further minority statuses; otherwise, you are a tool of the hegemonic class, the high bourgeois, white male mandarin guild of the Ivy League schools.

e) Deconstructionism: These are writers who search for a hidden, true meaning behind the surface meaning of the text to describe and disclose power relationships and inequities in society. Hence, there is not a history, but many competing histories relative to your ethnic culture or reference group. There is not truth, but competing partial truths, reflecting your status in society. They attempt to democratize knowledge by reducing epistemology to public opinion in a marketplace where you buy what is fashionable in your in-group. Literally, you are artificially manufacturing a personal identity by politics. You pick the literature that suits your need to enhance your ego.

f) Semiotics: These scholars analyze symbols and the signs of writing; hence, they lose the wholeness of a work. They look at the grammar of how a work is put together rather than the work in its transcendent glory. So, it is not the message, but how the message is put together. Form replaces substance.

12. In the instance of Kafka, he wrote an epitaph for the Jewish people in which he saw the script of the Holocaust already written in fate a generation before the event. Gift of prophecy.

13. Great works rise above the politics of resentment. A work is not to be ideologically defined; for instance, Marx said he did not wish to be deified. But he was made into an ideology of confrontation where his ideas were perverted for strictly political reasons to the exclusions of a truly historical materialist approach. There never should have been a communist revolution in Russia because you cannot skip stages of history from feudalism over capitalism to communism via a dictatorship of the proletariat in which a vanguard of intellectuals used masses of people as clay to be molded in voluntaristic fashion.


According to Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, Kafka's The Trial is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. What are the criteria for making such a claim justifiable?

Kafka had a "Never again!" psychology!. He also said "Psychology is impatience." His sentiments were very anti-Freud. He, however, was not religious. He said man is god-like in that he imposes meaning on his existence—but a barren one—for there is never character development in his stories and novels. It is very hard to develop sympathy for the protagonists of his novels. Joseph K. is the modern man, who is basically anonymous and remote in his affect. He is certainly sane but does not understand the nature of the bureaucratic machinery in which he has become enmeshed. Basically, he is indicted on a capital charge by an anonymous prosecutor in which he is not informed of the particulars. Hence, he stands for every man in the twentieth century who has fallen to the violence of totalitarian governments.

Kafka enjoyed his marginality as a Jewish writer. He was a very literal and factual man who expected no rescue or hope for a better future. He lived for the here and now rather indifferently and purely intellectually.

The "indestructible" is a key theme in all Kafka's writings. An individual union exists between human beings in which you simply are what you are with just a fundamental belief in one's self. Freud, his adversary, does not know of an "indestructible" in us; the will to live finally falters in him. Kafka is different. Life itself has value, irrespective of personal circumstances. Unlike Nietzsche and Kafka, Freud believed that an innermost self can be enhanced and fortified against the death drive, particularly through psychoanalysis.

Consciousness, for Freud, is as false and wrongly hopeful as it is in Nietzsche and in Kafka. Although Freud declines the mystical concept of being—the "oceanic sense"—he nobly and desperately substitutes for it his own benign authority and tenders a "talking" cure for false consciousness. Through transference, the psychoanalyst creates a secondary neurosis in which in the trerapy room he instructs the client of his conflicts by acting them out in the office. Kafka rejects all authority, including Freud's, and offers himself, and us, no cure whatsoever. You have no right to expect anything in life, that is, no promise of heaven and/or earthly rewards and social justice.

His works are an allegory of Jewish fate in the twentieth century. His characters are always victimized and never overcome adversity but accept it. The situations he presents are very nightmarish and go far beyond being simply neurotic. His characters are never portrayed sympathetically. There is a fixation on all of life's negativities. His characters are basically paralyzed in their exercise of will by anxiety.


What are some of the defining traits of his themes? There are several.

1. An eternally present tense. Nothing really happens or changes.

2. What happens is fatalistic and inevitable.

3. There is a dreamlike, paranoid presentation of reality, which is very unpleasant for the reader to experience. He wants to make us feel uncanny or uncomfortable in the world.

4. In his characters and story lines, there is an upsurge of repressed wishes that are often infantile in nature. But these "monsters" from the unconscious are never given fulfillment in reality.

5. He has no beliefs or ideologies. That is, he is not selling you a bill of goods. Rather, he is presenting a complex of affects that interact to frustrate the individual in the pursuit of his goals.

6. Kafka has a covenant with writing. This is the "indestructible" element to which he is alluding.

7. No afterlife promised.

8. To have redemption, the individual has to work it through in the here and now. He has that possibility, but nothing ever happens. The antagonists are needlessly perverse in their behavior. There is much anxiety and sadomasochism in his stories.

9. What Kafka affirms is a primal human attribute of being godlike but secular; that is, there is a knowing in which the indestructibility of reality is known, however perverted the situation in which an individual finds himself. He must resign himself to it to adjust to reality.

10. For Kafka, there is a dialectical negativity at work in which writing is religion. Writing leaves a permanence beyond the individual. Hence, writing is real and the individual transitory. Again, we have at work the principle of indestructibility.

11. The priority of the unconscious sense of guilt permeates Kafka, causing an arrest in character development. His adults are not really mature but dependent in a childlike way on fate.

12. The "indestructible" is the will to power to overcome adversity—a self-destructive and self-hating force in Kafka based on patience, awaiting a savior/rescuer. His individuals await a new dawn without a plan of action; his patience is based on the hope that things will right themselves in a chaotic universe where the rules of the game are not determinable to reason. In actuality, he creates a situational ethics whose hell is other people who are malicious for their own sake.


His works are the product of a mass society and overdeveloped bureaucracy, anticipating totalitarianism with its random violence and arbitrariness. He is a prescient man but impotent in the face of life's challenges, for instance, in finding a woman. He had one failed relationship in his whole life, which reflects itself in his thought experiments in his stories. There is a lack of courage to overcome obstacles in life which, after all, are man-made and hence can be undone by man, too.

Kafka's The Trial: The Parable of the Doorkeeper

The prison chaplain relates to Joseph K. the story of the doorkeeper and the country man. The country man is trying to obtain the Law. There is no law but only a web of undefined power relationships in bureaucratic machinery that swallows up the individual. No one is responsible. In this matrix of relationships, there is a dialectical tension between the doorkeeper and the country man leading nowhere over the lifetime of the petitioner for justice. An Oedipal relationship develops between the two in which the man becomes increasingly dependent on the arbitrary authority of the doorkeeper who actually is the lowest level functionary in the System.

There is an eternally recurring present in which the country man never develops a plan of action. He asks questions that are theoretical and argumentative rather than practical. In Freudian terms, there is a repetition compulsion at work of stereotypical behaviors that have no purposeful end. A hellish world is presented in which there is a reversal of reality by assuming the guilt rather than the innocence of the supplicant. It is a metaphysical type of guilt since there are not even formal charges against the country man. Apparently, he comes there seeking definitive answers to the Law—which is mythic or nonexistent, much as in totalitarian societies. The Law is the Unconscious, the will to power in conjunction with pure, unadulterated aggression.

The doorkeeper is in a state of delusion, for he too is a victim in that he must wait on the petitioner to be relieved of his duty to guard the door. He has no idea how the hierarchy of authority works; he simply follows orders. Again, this presentation of reality is an allegory for oppressed minority groups and mass man. His job is over when the country man dies; hence, who is dependent on whom? They have an interdependent relationship, but they are not helpful to one another. Both are flat and dull in affect; they use words insincerely in a doublespeak in which there is no attempt to arrive at the truth of the matter.

Both basically are ignorant of the laws, because without a working definition the laws are meaningless and keep people resigned to their fate. Hence, the whole scenario is one of predestination. There is no compulsion or overt violence manifested. Rather, free will operates with necessity (love and death) to cancel each other out. The scene, then, celebrates the nihilism inherent in existence. There is the mood of sadomasochism, once again, pervasive through this master/slave relationship. The country man as the victim/slave sees the "radiance" emanating from behind the door. He at least knows more than the guardian, although both will never know it in an empirical sense. Again, the picture of a "botched" universe comes up.

We have a representation of a representation of a representation in which the Unconscious is the ultimate subjectivity. The first representation is the doorman and the country man; the second is the priest and Joseph K.; the third is Kakfa and the Jews, who are anticipating totalitarian societies with the subject being the unconscious in all its plenitude. A frightening nihilism results leaving existence suspended.

"The Law is beyond human judgment," according to the priest. But laws are man-made, unless he is alluding to a higher law of necessity in which everything decays and dies. The Unconscious turns against the ego, the doorkeeper, and the superego, the country man, to destroy both. You can be too civilized in your conduct, leading to an inability to be proactive in willing your life to affirmative decisions.

"Lying is a universal principle," according to the country man. The unconscious does not lie or tell the truth; it merely wills itself to power and annihilates life. So, the law and lying are only derivative from an existence which has in-built tension and then implodes. But to this existence we cannot give meaning.

The principle of indestructibility resides in the powers of the Unconscious—the Law is Das Es in which human lives transmit the energy of the death instinct. The only traces left are in the script, the Law. Hence, writing is permanence only in a very transcendental sense. Life is futility. The Unconscious and aggression fuse into a Subjectivity in forging a secular god creating hell on earth for humans.