Friday, 17 June 2016

"Laughter is the Best Medicine (2)": On Humour in Kafka's Three Great Novels (written between 1911-1922)

You can read the first Laughter Is the Best Medicine post here.

‘The average reader does not think of [Franz Kafka] at first as noteworthy for his humor’[1]: this sentiment may strike a chord with readers of Kafka, whose works loom large in the popular consciousness as presenting gloomy, oppressive landscapes, lost and hopeless anti-heroes, and a pervading sense of futility and despair. We would not generally use the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ to describe a humorous situation; the most Kafkaesque of comic situations are almost certainly covered by the word ‘Catch-22’. But let us seize on this little flicker of recognition here, then, this indication that Kafka and a writer as enthralled with comic paradox as Joseph Heller may share something in common, and that may prove our way in to a reading of Kafka’s work that accounts for his use of comedy.
The key words in Kafka’s humour of paradox are logic, system and rules. Rules are essential to any comic understanding; without rules there can be no transgression, and transgression is a significant element of comedy. If we did not live in a society in which it is unusual for two wardens to wake you up by announcing your arrest and then proceeding to let you go to work as though nothing had happened, such a scene would not be funny. But we do, and it is; the fact that Kafka can bend the rules, as it were, of our shared reality gives us the required distance to laugh at it. Everything is more comfortably laughed at if it is placed slightly at a remove; hence audiences are excused for not feeling sorry for Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, because he is such an exaggeration as to render his humiliation comic rather than poignant/tragic (the best performances may achieve both outcomes; we shall return to the overlap between the two). As Delpech-Ramey puts it, ‘what clowns offer, minimally, is relief from the comforts of shame. Comedy substitutes for shame a kind of astonishment at the hilarious ways we insist on existence, or existence insists on us’[2]: we pardon ourselves for laughing at the misfortunes of fictional characters, at their woes and tribulations, precisely because of this exaggerated, heightened comic effect. Do we find amusement in Josef K., K., Karl Roßmann, Gregor Samsa? Not intrinsically; we would not find them figures of fun if we met them in the street in the same way that we would Malvolio. The humour stems from the absurd premises which surround them, whether that’s an arrest that doesn’t feel much like an arrest, sudden transformation into a giant insect, or arriving in a village where one isn’t expected, all of which appear in the opening chapters – and in two instances the opening lines – of the work in question. They are ordinary; the events that enclose them are not.

In order to function as a device, paradox relies on being a closed system, on characters being trapped by contradictory rules; Combs and Nimmo suggest that ‘Catch-22’ has only become as popular a phrase as it has because a growing number of people find themselves trapped by bureaucratic logic[3] of a kind Kafka would have been very familiar with. The targets of Kafka’s humour are very rarely people, or, put more properly, they are very rarely individuals with particular follies or idiosyncratic quirks; that is the domain of a Dickens or a Trollope, in which the reason to laugh at different characters is extremely specific to each character. In and of themselves, there is nothing particularly funny about Mizzi and the Dorfvorsteher (the latter is, for instance, an invalid), were it not for the fact that they have a seemingly endless pile of executive decrees in the cupboard which all roll out when the door to the cupboard is opened. There is nothing especially funny about the endless parade of secretaries, clerks, officials, castellans and dignitaries per se; they are funny because they are so endless, because they seem so occupied and yet their tasks often have little purpose. Collignon suggests that Kafka’s humour is ‘without an object’[4]. Thus Kafka makes comedy out of situations, out of systems and rules, out of paradoxes that are the lives lived out by his characters rather than individual actions.
This first variety – the humour of closed systems, hyperbolic satire of bureaucratic absurdity – we may call Kafka’s humour of paradox. Organisations, powers, and authority figures are satirised as inefficient and incompetent even at the same time as they menace the little individual and loom, large and sinister, in the liminal spaces of the narrative. The idea of a faceless ‘humour without object’, humour of situation within humour of paradox, is also discussed by Erica Weitzman with regard to Kafka’s fascination with accident; within this closed system, ‘situation comedy forms a kind of parodic exaggeration of causal logic, in which accident and chance set off a series of rigidly determined actions until a second coincidence comes in to put an end to the chain of events’[5]. Drawing the reader’s attention to Kafka’s work in the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in Prague, Weitzman suggests that Kafka was fascinated by the responsibility of accident – who was responsible for these closed-system events, and why? Verantwortung and verantwortlich are both oft-repeated words in Josef K. and K.’s investigations of the systems which entrap them. But accidents are intrinsically events for which nobody bears any responsibility; that is precisely what makes them potentially bleak as well as potentially funny. Max Brod’s description of Kafka’s planned end to Das Schloß is a perfect case-in-point – K. is granted permission to stay in the village, but the news only reaches him on his death-bed – as is the Mann vom Lande in Vor dem Gesetz, whose waiting (it emerges) has been all in vain. Looked at one way, this is amusing; looked at another way, it is so pathetic as to move its readers significantly.
The second variety may be titled Kafka’s humour of disproportion, which is less concerned with paradoxical situations or systems and far more to do with the gap, the space, between tiny anti-heroes and huge Supreme Powers. Collignon refers to ‘the discrepancy, almost the incommensurability, between what should be and what is’[6], and this recurs extraordinarily often in Kafka’s writing. The midgets – the tiny, insignificant protagonists – feel the oppressive presence of the giants – the powers that lurk unseen – but so rarely see them; judges are mentioned all the time in Der Proceß but we never really meet any or indeed meet anyone who knows any. Graf Westwest in Das Schloß is mentioned then forgotten about; the workers in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer never see the emperor. But Kafka lingers on the increasingly frustrating struggle of his heroes to gain access to these invisible giants. It is this, again, which can be seen as a source of humour: ‘any kind of disproportion contains an element of grotesqueness. For instance, a clown in a circus tries to climb over a fifty-foot wall by standing on a tiny chair: we may be sure that he can bring the house down. But let us suppose that, under the same conditions, this is a prisoner trying to escape: the disproportion becomes tragic’[7]. It is this quasi-tragic, quasi-hilarious framework of Sisyphean tasks which dominates Kafka’s novels, and which perfectly illustrates Gerhild Scholz Williams’ dictum that ‘to paraphrase Karl Marx, failure is maintained either as tragedy or farce’[8]. We can either find the continued frustrations that prevent our heroes from reaching what they seek immensely troubling or immensely funny, or both at the same time.
The same gulf of disproportion can also be found in Kafka’s use of bathos and crescendo: events or feelings that seem almost cosmically vast have tiny, or minimal, consequences, whereas those events or feelings that are infinitesimally trivial have vast, far-reaching consequences. It is nothing more than Klamm’s specific wish not to have his waitresses changed which causes Frieda to leave K.; and yet the wardens’ dramatic morning arrest of Josef K. appears to have no consequence at all, since unlike any other arrest he is allowed to move freely. K. spends his entire time waiting for a figure of seemingly enormous import to emerge behind the shadow of Klamm’s deeply silly name, a name ‘rich in manifold comic potential’[9] with its connotations of ‘cold wetness and narrowness of space…the steaminess of interpersonal entanglements and misplaced desire…illusion, lie and deception’[10] in both German and Czech. The sheer size of the gap between event (with expected consequence) and the inevitably unexpected consequence which follows is what forms the backbone of the humour of disproportion.
Lastly we may turn to Kafka’s humour of juxtaposition. This is a far more visual form than his other two, which are more abstract, more purely notional. But the humour of juxtaposition revolves around oddity of sight, of (for instance) our perception being challenged by an object appearing in a place that it should not. This might work itself out in the form of a large, lumbering beetle-creature trying to throw a blanket covering off its cumbersome body and topple out of bed, or in a mere apple lodged in the back of said creature turning out to be a fatal blow (Die Verwandlung). It might be spotted in any number of Kafka’s grotesquely rendered love scenes, in which sexuality is both luridly attractive and repellently disgusting: both Josef K. exclaiming ‘eine hübsche Kralle’ to describe Leni’s claw, and the love scene between K. and Frieda in which they roll around in the puddles of beer behind the tavern counter, come under this same category, as does the corpulent Brunelda in Der Verschollene – Meyers lists all these as instances of Kafka’s ‘dark laughter’[11]. The sadomasochistic flogging sequence behind the door of a perfectly ordinary cupboard in Der Proceß is yet another case in point. In all these instances, the visual is part of a heightened reality, because that which we might expect has been juxtaposed with that which we would not.
Though less surreal, the presence of Artur and Jeremias as ‘clown’ figures in Das Schloß performs much the same function – as K. is increasingly frustrated, both the Gehilfe are increasingly jovial and amused. Together they form the classic image of the ‘clown-assistant’; the cunning servant who is able to achieve what his less comic master cannot. Stott has suggested this is because clowns and tricksters are ‘not confined by boundaries, conceptual, social or physical, and can cross lines that are impermeable to normal individuals’[12], a view that would certainly seem to be borne out by Das Schloß in that Artur and Jeremias are free to come and go into and out of the castle, but their far more solemn master K. is not. Kafka’s diary entries show both an interest in Hofnarren but also that his initial opening to Das Schloß was far more sobering and despairing until, some time after writing it in first-person at Spindlermühle, he added the comic figures of the Gehilfe and the newer opening gained its shape. West Nutting sees this in a large part as undermining the ‘seriousness’ of K.’s quest to gain entrance to the castle, with Artur and Jeremias as mocking fool-type figures one might find in King Lear: the only figures with the ability to stand up to the powerful.
Here we hit on another key note in Kafka’s use of humour, one which may arguably be present in all three varieties already discussed, and one we can trace all the way back to the familiar staples of the Volksfest: ‘carnivalesque laughter...[that which] is directed toward something higher – toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders. Laughter embraces both poles of change, it deals with the very process of change, with crisis itself’[13]. Laughter as social impetus, as crucible for change, as instigator of what Bakhtin triumphantly calls the victory of laughter over fear’[14]. Others, too, have taken this slightly more optimistic conclusion regarding Kafka’s humour and run with it: ‘between the accused and his judge there is room, so to speak, for a smile or two, a precarious safety zone is found in which man, instead of being a haunted and besieged animal, can become what he should be and wishes to be, namely a laughing animal’[15]. We are left ‘unsure how to react’[16] when faced with the disorientating humour of juxtaposition, the giddy humour of paradox, the absurd humour of disproportion, and of course the ways in which these three overlap. Do we want the characters to submit to the patently absurd logic of their situations, or do we in our heart of hearts yearn for them to be defiant? We might wish Gregor can become human again; but we know and fear that he can’t[17]. Freud noted in his late essay on humour that humour does not resign itself to the status quo but rather aims to be defiant (“trotzig”), ‘expressing the triumph of the I over unfavorable events’[18] and undercutting authority. Kafka’s subversive clowning mocks the powerful, the distant, as much as (if not more so than) it does the futile protagonists trying to reach them. If ironic, mocking laughter is ‘dark’, perhaps the sheer fact that we are still able to recognise these scenarios as comic and laugh about them bodes well. Kierkegaard called humour the ‘incognito of religion’[19], as an aim to help us see the religious in life. Kafka’s aim may be more secular, but his prescription of laughter as the best medicine is no less serious.

Bibliography.

Kafka, Franz, Der Proceß and Fragmente, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993.
Kafka, Franz, Der Verschollene and Fragmente, Reclam, 1997.
Kafka, Franz, Das Schloß, Insel Taschenbuch, 2010.

Secondary literature:
  1. Collignon, Jean, ‘Kafka’s Humor’, in Yale French Studies, Vol 16 (Foray Through Existentialism), 1955.
  2. Dentan, Michel, Humour et création littéraire dans l’œuvre de Kafka, Minard, 1961.
  3. Duttlinger, Carolin, The Cambridge Introduction to Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  4. Eichner, Hans, Review of Humour et création littéraire dans l’œuvre de Kafka (Michel Dentan), in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol 65 No 1, 1966.
  5. Heller, Erich, Kafka, Fontana Modern Masters, 1974.
  6. La Farge, Benjamin, ‘Comic Anxiety and Kafka’s Black Comedy’, in Philosophy and Literature, Vol 35 No 2, 2011.
  7. Meyers, Jeffrey, ‘Kafka’s Dark Laughter,’ in Antioch Review, Vol 70 No 4, 2012.
  8. Nutting, Peter West, ‘Kafka’s ‘Strahlende Heiterkeit’: Discursive Humour and Comic Narration in Das Schloss’, in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Vol 57 No 4, 1983.
  9. Preece, Julian (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  10. Reiss, H.S., ‘Franz Kafka’s Conception of Humour’, in The Modern Language Review, Vol 44 No 4, 1949.
  11. Robertson, Ritchie, Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  12. Weitzman, Erica, ‘Almost Necessary: Kafka’s Kantian Situation Comedy’, in MLN, Vol 126 No 3, 2011.





[1]Collignon, Jean, ‘Kafka’s Humor’, in Yale French Studies, Vol 16 (Foray Through Existentialism), 1955.
[2]Delpech-Ramey, Joshua, “Sublime Comedy: On the Inhuman Rights of Clowns”, in SubStance, Vol 39 No 2, 2010.
[3]Combs, James E. & Nimmo, Dan D., The Comedy of Democracy, Praeger (Greenwood Publishing Group), 1996.
[4]Collignon, Jean, ‘Kafka’s Humor’, in Yale French Studies, Vol 16 (Foray Through Existentialism), 1955.
[5]Weitzman, Erica, ‘Almost Necessary: Kafka’s Kantian Situation Comedy’, in MLN, Vol 126 No 3, 2011.
[6]Collignon, Jean, ‘Kafka’s Humor’, in Yale French Studies, Vol 16 (Foray Through Existentialism), 1955.
[7]Ibid.
[8]Williams, Gerhild Scholz, ‘License to Laugh: Making Fun of Chivalry in Some Medieval Texts’, in Monatshefte Vol 78 No 1, 1986.
[9]Nutting, Peter West, ‘Kafka’s ‘Strahlende Heiterkeit’: Discursive Humour and Comic Narration in Das Schloss’, in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Vol 57 No 4, 1983.
[10]Ibid.
[11]Meyers, Jeffrey, ‘Kafka’s Dark Laughter,’ in Antioch Review, Vol 70 No 4, 2012.
[12]Stott, Andrew, Comedy: The New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 2005.
[13]Bakhtin, Mikhail, “Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoyevsky’s Works”, in Interpretations: Crime and Punishment (ed. Harold Bloom), Infobase, 2009.
[14]Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, John Wiley & Sons, 1984.
[15]Collignon, Jean, ‘Kafka’s Humor’, in Yale French Studies, Vol 16 (Foray Through Existentialism), 1955.
[16]Eichner, Hans, Review of Humour et création littéraire dans l’œuvre de Kafka (Michel Dentan), in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol 65 No 1, 1966.
[17]La Farge, Benjamin, ‘Comic Anxiety and Kafka’s Black Comedy’, in Philosophy and Literature, Vol 35 No 2, 2011.
[18]Nutting, Peter West, ‘Kafka’s ‘Strahlende Heiterkeit’: Discursive Humour and Comic Narration in Das Schloss’, in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, Vol 57 No 4, 1983.
[19]Reiss, H.S., ‘Franz Kafka’s Conception of Humour’, in The Modern Language Review, Vol 44 No 4, 1949.

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