M. 3. Kafkaesque: The reason for enduring discomfort
Food poisoning. For hours I could feel my gut squeezing into itself even as it appeared distended. Occasionally sharp pinches would rise up, rebukes for introducing foul food. And just as I had caved in the tremors and promised it a diet of La Croix and Saltines, this morning it quieted and my headspace feels far more clear than it has in a while.
I wasn’t a good patient — I took the day off from work, but then found my way to my nearby café, ordered coffee and a cookie and read on about agony, angst, and futility. And I became increasingly infuriated by the way we tell ourselves we must wade through “tyrannical systems with no tyrant.” We presuppose divinity in the choices we are handed, ignoring that many have been delivered by machines trained to expel a dusty idea or worse a scheme to extract a sum by tapping into generalized fears.
We march on towards goals which we foster rather than own, buy rather than create, flirt with rather than commit to. And this parade has become a normalized, sweeping show of masochism. We are all in this together, we say, just keep busy to keep your cool. Don’t stop, won’t stop. Live in fear rather than pause. And life becomes piled with events which we have set our bodies at, but rarely brought our minds to.
Island fever was how I described it to a dear friend who had recently came back from roaming the world for 6 months. I feel enclosed in a safe bubble where all my physical needs are met, but the hollowness of each day arrives when I wake up and my consciousness hits my living life and the resounding space echoes “you are welcome to retrace the same steps as yesterday.” And I lay there, Kafkaesque, raging at the banality and my own credulity. The question pounds away, shaking me. I fall apart until precisely 20 minutes after my alarm has torn into the morning and then I regroup into routine and trust it to take me through the day.
I have idealized these hovels of unease and discomfort, I have longed after them, seeking them out as I would a Muse. For I know that these are places where creativity not only saps, but crystalizes as well. Silence and darkness carry the wisdom which, should I be ready to labor, can give form to answers. But it isn’t a pleasant process, it is agonizing to endure the churning and chafing of sand against my mind, and it comes harder and harder, but I know that soon I will have the pearly resolve to leave everything behind so I can reach after more.
I send myself to these caves so I can curate and collect essence. When I leave, I hope to look up and know myself to belong to to the sky: untethered, I take flight.
And so I clench in the darkness working through the pain until I finally find a steady grip on substance and finally lightness arrives.
Kafka’s parable of metamorphosis challenges us to believe in limbo. He welcomes back the knowledge that between one life and the next is a hibernation period. And that it culminates in a transformative end to the familiar, a radical reconfiguration which changes the way we move through the world. Instead of scurrying on top of dozens of spindly legs, one day we may push off in way that would have ended us before. This time, instead of giving ourselves over to falling, we will confidently caress the air with new our new pair of wings and the wind, enchanted, will hold us steady.
Literature should the axe that breaks the frozen ice, Kafka said. He saw that there were ways of being that were escaping our attention. And he knew that without resuscitating them in the miniature stories we crafted in their honor, we may dispense with the need to examine them at all. What would have happened had he not taken the time to show us all that the agony we feel when we realized that we are a gear in a larger, indefinite and immense and unthinking whole?
Without this realization, we may never gain the signal to hibernate. And without this rest, so close to death, we would never know the what it is to shed ourselves so we begin anew.
He frames the ugliness of feeling unworthy, the subject of a greater madness, of sensing we have no control over our existence and, when he is feeling generous, he also captures the absurdity of catering to this kind of existence. There is a life which is our own, an authentic swing as Bagger Vance would say. Turning our belonging over to this industrial complex will no doubt leave us feeling perennially confused — for beneath all the reasons we have collected to behave is a challenge: look past the illusion.
I had a substantial dream of walking into the kitchen of a fancy restaurant so I could use the bathroom in the back. I got distracted among all the ingredients and tools and found my way up to a second floor balcony where I ended up somehow breaking the rafters. I hurried back down, went to the toilet, and then walked back through to the main area of the kitchen. The head chef, noticing the length of my visit, beckoned me over. Did you happen to touch anything?, he inflected, and I knew it more as a threat than a question. No, I lied. And he went on to explain why it would matter if I had: people aren’t supposed to touch things that aren’t theirs. I wondered whether he would find the security tape and know that it was me that had messed with the rafters. Or held up the bowl of Caesar dressing to get a greater look at its depths. And I would have been honest had it been required, but it didn’t seem necessary. I had given him the ill-hidden deceit he requested and I knew I had earned my freedom. Pareto efficiency.
This harkens back to Kafka’s Before the Law, which I had read shortly before sleeping. A severe-looking, fur clad doorkeeper guards a man from walking through to the other room, and even though the door never closes, he continues to tell him that he isn’t going to allow him through. In conversation with the man he observes that, even should he get past this first frame, there will be other sentries who inspired much greater unease. Even I could not bear to confront the man who stands guard three doors down, he admits. As the very end of the man’s life, when he had no more strength to pass through the door, he asks why no one else has ever tried going through the door, for certainly they have wanted to stand before the law. And the guard, seeing that time has exhausted this man’s potential, admits that the door was only ever for man himself and now that he is going to die, the guard is going to shut the door forever.
This could be read as a parable about the dull austerity of the justice system which appears to stall progress by only reluctantly disclosing open passages, admonishing men against taking these avenues all along. Men must choose between subjecting themselves to a force which looms with imposition or preserve themselves until some moment just beyond when the timing will be right. Inevitably, they grow accustomed to the stillness of their own circumstance and few dare to continue on, defaulting instead to enclosing themselves in box that has been handed to them, neatly folded as a napkin at a chain restaurant.
And yet the truth could not be more clear: though they were guarded by menacing forces, there are doors which are only ours to walk through. And it is only through sheer will that we may throw away the mediocre measure of mere survival so we may prove to the muses that we truly understand that we are not our own.
Perhaps this is my reading given my island fever, but this parable and his larger work uncovers the insanity buried into mankind’s consciousness, the toxins that paralyze mass psychology. Larger institutions need no chains to control men when they themselves will regulate their limbs and hold them neatly so as to avoid the risk of stepping into the unfamiliar. The mind is malleable enough to, over time, allow us to believe in the limitations we have set for ourselves. So we stay uncomfortably seated before the guard, unwilling to throw our lot over for the unknown.
And then there are others who catch the lie and walk easily through each door as if the guards weren’t present at all.
I belong to those who sit seething, raking in all of the pain of being lied to and eventually, finding the moment, throw it into the eyes of the presiding guard so they can sprint into the next chamber. And so on they continue to make they way. They fling themselves to the edge so they may come to know the next world. And then, standing at the edge, they leap — for they know that, should they try to return to where they have been before, death will take over.
The legal/judicial system was the inflection point for much of Kafka’s work perhaps because the endlessness and tediousness of its drama are explicit across a numerous population. But the very same could be applied to any other system — which although conceived to be of and for men — no longer serves them. These tyrannies automatically and disinterestedly perpetuate their own right to overwhelm all other considerations, that is, to survive.