In Which We Face Up To The Tragic Sense of Life

We last allowed you to appreciate the man, the myth, the legend Whittaker Chambers when he took apart Ayn Rand. I don’t really agree with much of what he writes in that review; it strikes me that convicting Rand of lacking nuance isn’t a solid point. But since it does not pay to take Rand literally, I suppose “Big Sister Is Watching You” was necessary.

Chambers knew everything, and this essay he may have worked on with James Agee about Franz Kafka is proof. Sure, Kafka was a popular guy by 1947, but this is ultimate tribute to his genius. To think that this kind of essay was in Time magazine is telling in itself. For theists, Kafka is all about God. For atheists, Kafka is all about the absence of God. Here now the classic Time essay that established Franz’s unique genius once and for all. Although I would have titled it, “If He Only Had a Blog,” Chambers’ title is good, too.

The Tragic Sense of Life

by Whittaker Chambers

published Monday, Apr. 28, 1947

The rouge applied by an undertaker to the lips of a 20th Century corpse is one measure of 20th Century civilization. But modern man’s effort to deny or minimize death is part of a much more important necessity—the need to deny or minimize God.

Hence the paradox that the more civilization calls itself civilized, the more imperturbably it shrugs at the death of men by millions. Hence, too, the surprising fact that the name of one of the century’s three or four most remarkable writers is still practically unknown in the U.S. For Franz Kafka’s unrelenting theme, told and retold in some of the greatest horror stories ever written (The Castle, The Trial, Metamorphosis, the stories in The Great Wall of China), was the nature of God and man’s relationship to God.

The moonlight chilliness of his mood, his refusal to soften the deepening ambiguities of truth (as he saw it), the pitiless obsession of his God-seeking, and the scary symbolism in which he embodied his God-seeking, have kept Kafka from becoming a popular writer.

download The Trial here

Yet readers with the requisite staying power will find that in the scope of the problem to which he dedicated himself, in the depth and integrity of his discernments and in the variety of means by which he dramatized his vision in terms of everyday life (thereby giving to everyday life new implications and new dimensions), Franz Kafka is a major artist.

max brod, keeping it realer than even we thought possible


This is exemplified in The Castle. The Castle is an inverted Pilgrim’s Progress. Its subject is a man’s obsessive struggle to achieve God (the Castle)—who does not recognize man’s vocation—while trying to integrate himself in the community of men (the village at the foot of the Castle)—who do not want him. K., a land surveyor, believes that he has been ordered to take a job at the Castle. But when he arrives, at night, in winter, he is rudely ordered off the premises. The Castle authorities (a vast, apparently shiftless bureaucracy) first deny that K. has a job there at all, then grudgingly concede that he may have one.

K. tries desperately to reach the Castle by telephone.

The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance—blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound which vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.” K. asks when he can come to the Castle. ” ‘Never,’ was the answer.

flailing at shadows in the NYRB

The rest of The Castle describes K.’s efforts to force himself upon God by frontal attack, by subterfuge, by lies. His intrusions are always repulsed. His subterfuges are loftily analyzed for him with merciless logic. His lies are always found out. He is humiliated daily, degraded from his post as land surveyor to school janitor. He submits, so that he may stay on in the village. But the villagers, if less urbane than the Castle, are just as hostile. They have achieved grace through simple living and because they do not try to force themselves upon God.

K. never does reach the Castle. But in the end he is permitted to stay on in the village, not because he has any right to, not because he is a good or devout man, but because he happens to be there and might as well remain—who cares? The Castle is unfinished, perhaps because there is no possible conclusion.


The practically unknown author of this practically unread book is the subject of a recently published biography, the first (it was translated from German) in English. The biographer was Kafka’s close friend and literary executor, German novelist Max Brod (The Redemption of Tycho Brake, The Kingdom of Love, etc.). Readers will find in it a muster of biographical facts, possessed by no one else but Brod, arranged with discerning intelligence and affectionate understanding. The biography also includes one of the soundest and most moderate critical appraisals of Kafka’s intellectual purpose and achievement.

Franz Kafka was born (in Prague) of a Czechish Jewish family. He was born at the moment (1883) when, like a somber, accelerating drumbeat, the theme of Europe’s downfall was insistently prefigured, and at the spot (the old Austro-Hungarian empire) at which the collapse of the part was to be most premonitory for the whole.

soderbergh’s movie about the guy

His father was a prosperous dry-goods wholesaler, whom Kafka respected and feared, but who, like the world, found his son baffling and enigmatic. At Prague University, Kafka studied law. He never practiced. But his legal training is implicit in the tortuous dialectics of his writings. The most abiding result of his university career was his friendship with Biographer Brod.

As long as his health permitted, Kafka worked as a minor official in Prague’s Arbeiter-Unfall-Versicherungs-Anstalt (workmen’s accident insurance company), where his reports of dingy claims, written in some of the century’s most lucid prose, won the discreet approval of his superiors, “or several years, Kafka suffered an off-again-on-again engagement with a German girl, the manager of a Berlin firm, in part from reasons of health, in part, perhaps, from a morbid sense of a; sexual inadequacy, Franz Kafka could never bring himself to marry her. Toward the end of his life, Kafka enjoyed a brief, happy love affair with Dora Dymant, a Polish Jewish girl who was a Hebrew scholar.

I had the same hairstyle until recently

In 1917, Kafka began to cough blood. He bore for years his premature death within him. In 1924, tuberculosis killed him. Three years before he died, Kafka requested Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished manuscripts, including the two novels, The Trial and The Castle, and most of the stories in The Great Wall of China. That he did not destroy them himself betrays an ambiguity characteristic of Kafka. In any case, Brod disobeyed.

By ordinary standards, Kafka’s was a life in which practically nothing happened, a life as short and simple as a single day—and as terrible, not because its vicissitudes were overwhelming, but because, as in most life, they were endurable.

k’s three sisters, all of whom were named beyonce


All the great creators are lonely travelers. For their vocation and their plight, one of the loneliest frontiers of modern science—jet propulsion—has found an accurate metaphor.

They are commissioned (but at their own risk) to cross the supersonic thresholds of the mind—the point at which the familiar sound-lengths of human life dissolve into inhuman silence. If they pass the barrier of dissolution, they may investigate in uncompetitive privacy the mysteries inaudible to the other minds. If they can recross the sonic sill, alive and sane, they may report what they have experienced to men who, never having known the experience, will never quite understand the report. F

Franz Kafka ventured across the barrier, reported with an apparent lucidity the cryptographs of silence, and was little understood. “Franz Kafka,” wrote Franz Werfel, “was a messenger from above, a great chosen one. . . .”

kafka as representative man

For the area of silence which Kafka sought to decode, and which he succeeded at least in marvelously dramatizing, was that bleak void in which man, like a rat in a laboratory maze, strives frantically (and often ludicrously) to approach God, while God (with the detachment of the scientific mind) observes the data of the frenzy and the fun. Milton, in his blindness, sought “to justify the ways of God to men.” The sum of Kafka’s report was that the ways of God and man are irreconcilable.

kafka’s diaries online

Thus Grace (for no reason discoverable by human standards) may be conferred on a man who hardly cares, and may be denied to another who strives most desperately for it. Guilt may overthrow a man who (by human standards) is unconscious that he has incurred any guilt.

Chance, the irrational number by which man confesses the failure of his intellectual algebra, may throw a man off course for a whole lifetime, and even beyond the grave. “When you have once been misled by bells tolling in the night,” wrote Kafka, “you can never find the right path again.”

where k. grew up

Nor is there any bypassing God. For, while men may try to forget or deny God, they cannot forget what Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the God-ache.” Implicit or explicit in all Kafka’s work, the source of his religious rage, his drama, irony, despair and compassion, is this incompatibility, this eternal misunderstanding of God by man—the inability of man to grasp, by limited human standards, the standards of divine Justice or divine Grace.

Says Biographer Brod: “Of all believers [Kafka] was the freest from illusions, and among all those who see the world as it is, without illusions, he was the most unshakable believer.”

k. @ 3


The mood in which Kafka energizes his perception of the incompatibility of God and man is unequivocal, masculine and as glitteringly clear as winter air. He is the least sentimental or feminine of modern writers. But truth and derangement are galley-mates, since the horror that tugs at the same oar is the perception that man and his fate by human standards are monstrous. Kafka retains his sanity by his realization that man’s fate is also divine comedy. This is the hinge of his unearthly irony.

Kafka has been called a gloomy writer, a follower of bleak Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. He was, in fact, one of the rarest types in literature—a religious humorist.

Max Brod recalls that when Kafka read to friends the opening chapters of The Trial (the story of a man crucified by inches), they laughed till the tears ran down their cheeks, and Kafka himself laughed so hard he could not go on reading. It is, says novelist Thomas Mann solemnly, “very deep-rooted and involved” humor. Kafka’s cosmic comedy of man’s foredoomed failure in his quest for God is brought down to earth and up to the minute by the use (in The Trial and The Castle) of all the adventitious paraphernalia of 20th Century living —telephones, railroad trains, banks, boardinghouses, taxicabs.

the kafka project

Kafka has also been called a theological writer, a philosophical writer, a Zionist, a Freudian, a bitter social critic, a Kafkaist. Plain readers may brush aside the tags.

For them two facts are important:

1) to express the manifold, intangible anguish of life, Kafka told his greatest stories in the condition of dreams (he understood that dreams, despite their infinite fluidity of merging forms, have great narrative economy);

2) as a symbolist (Kafka’s long books are called novels chiefly by reason of their length), he found for his two greatest stories, The Trial and The Castle, two of the most dramatically powerful images in literature.

(For his minor nightmares, too, Kafka invented a variety of dramatic images. Sometimes (Investigations of a Dog), the victim of murder by mortality is a dog. Sometimes (Metamorphosis), he is a man who has been bestialized into a gigantic beetle. Sometimes (The Burrow), he is a little, nameless, furred animal, burrowing or scuttling in terror under the earth.)

Set Yourself on Fire” – Stars (mp3)

“Soft Revolution” – Stars (mp3)

“He Lied About Death” – Stars (mp3)


If The Castle is a modern Pilgrim’s Progress, The Trial is a 20th Century Book of Job. Like Job, Joseph K. is a good and upright man, one who fears God and eschews evil. The Trial reports his oncreeping sense of guilt as a human being and the slow progress of that divine, intangible, but inexorable Justice to which he therefore feels that he must submit (“You may object that it is not a trial at all; you are quite right, for it is only a trial if I recognize it as such”).

manuscript of The Trial

The story begins with a sentence as direct as a news lead: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

Divine Justice is as preposterous (to human understanding) as divine Grace. The divine detectives who arrest Joseph K. are brassy louts who eat his breakfast, try to get a rake-off by sending out for his food, try to make off with his shirt and underwear:

Much better give these things to us than hand them over to the depot … for in the depot there’s lots of thieving, and besides they sell everything there after a certain length of time, no matter whether your case is settled or not. And you never know how long these cases will last, especially these days. Of course you would get the money out of the depot in the long run, but in the first place the prices they pay you are always wretched, for they sell your things to the best briber, not the best bidder, and anyhow it’s well known that money dwindles a lot if it passes from hand to hand from one year to another.

n+1’s Marco Roth on Kafka


Though Joseph K. is “arrested,” he is permitted to go on working in the bank where he is a minor official. Sometimes he is summoned to the “Court.” It is held in a filthy room in a tenement in a slum district. The spectators are all petty police agents of the Court. The attorneys, judges and law students misbehave in public with the wives of the Court attendants. The law “books, when Joseph K. finally peeps into them, are filled with obscene pictures. He never can find out the nature of the charge against him. He never can find out what Justice is, except that it is utterly inhuman.

He never finds the High Court or sees the Supreme Judge except as a vague figure waving its arms from a window. He never comes to trial. His reputation is ruined. His work at the bank falls off. His health fails. When his executioners arrive at last, without any sentence’s ever having been passed on K., he is relieved to go along with them.

The night before K.’s 31st birthday, two big men in frock coats come for him.

They kept their shoulders close behind his and instead of crooking their elbows, wound their arms around his at full length, holding his hands in a methodical, practised, irresistible grip. K. walked rigidly between them. . . . ‘Perhaps they are tenors,’ he thought, as he studied their fat, double chins.

Thus they walked beyond the town.

A small stone quarry, deserted and bleak, lay quite near to a still completely urban house. . . . Now they loosened their hold of K., who stood waiting dumbly, took oft their top hats and wiped the sweat from their brows with pocket handkerchiefs, meanwhile surveying the quarry. The moon shone down with that simplicity and serenity which no other light possesses.

kafka at camp: the lost diaries

They made K. lie down against a rock. Then one of them drew out

a long, thin, double-edged butcher’s knife, held it up and tested the cutting edge in the moonlight. . . . With a flicker as of a light going up, the casements of a window [in the house] suddenly flew open; a human figure, faint and insubstantial, at that distance and at that height, leaned abruptly far forward and stretched both arms still farther. Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? . . . Was help at hand? . . . Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.

But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them, cheek leaning against cheek, immediately before his face, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said. . . .

Beside that scene, against the cumulative background of that terrible story, most that has been written in our time about man’s lot seems rather childlike. And beside Kafka’s insatiable posing of the infinite question, most of his contemporaries’ answers seem rather childish.

Whittaker Chambers is my brother by another mother.

“The Big Fight” – Stars (mp3)


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