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Number 12: Summer 2016

Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours

Werner Prall

Reassurance and, to the extent that it succeeds, the ensuing sense of peace paradoxically give rise only to more anxiety – the drop in vigilance increases vulnerability after all.

But the most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness. Of course, that is deceptive. At any moment it may be shattered and then all will be over. For the time being, however, the silence is still with me… I sleep the sweet sleep of tranquility, of satisfied desire, of achieved ambition; for I possess a house (ibid, p.356). The burrow is an object of work, of acute observation (self-consciousness) and, at times, of narcissistic satisfaction. There is no outside to the burrow, or rather, even its outside only exists from an ‘inner’, solipsistic perspective. At one point the animal leaves its abode only to end up at a short distance from it in a prolonged reverie wishing ‘to pass my life watching the entrance, and gloat perpetually upon the reflection – and in that find my happiness – how steadfast a protection my burrow would be if I were inside it’ (ibid, p.363).

Back inside the burrow, waking from deep sleep the narrator becomes aware of an ‘almost inaudible whistling noise’ which now becomes the focus of irritation and anxiety and sets off an obsessive, ultimately futile hunt for its source. But the dawning realisation that he is confronted with something that exceeds his capacity to mentally represent and mediate, something of which no experience even is possible, does not bring to a halt his relentless imaginings. The paradoxical struggle to anticipate what cannot be anticipated can neither be stopped nor brought to a conclusion.

I could not have foreseen such an opponent. … what is happening now is only something which I should really have feared all the time, something against which I should have been constantly prepared: the fact that someone would come. By what chance can everything have flowed on so quietly and happily for such a long time? Who can have diverted my enemies from their path, and forced them to make a wide detour around my property? Why have I been spared for so long, only to be delivered to such terrors now? Compared with this, what are all the petty dangers in brooding over which I have spent my life! Had I hoped, as owner of the burrow, to be in a stronger position than any enemy who might chance to appear? But simply by virtue of being owner of this great vulnerable edifice I am obviously defenseless against any serious attack (ibid, p.381-2). It was Walter Benjamin who first linked the story of the burrow to Kafka’s illness, placing it in the context of a more general reflection on the alienation from the body his writing thematises. ‘For just as K. lives in the village on Castle Hill, modern man lives in his body; the body slips away from him, is hostile toward him. It may happen that a man wakes up one day and finds himself transformed into vermin. Exile [die Fremde]—his exile—has gained control over him’ (1992, p.122). It is primarily the figures of the animal in Kafka that uncannily recall this lost connection, creating disturbance and anxiety, but in doing so, also (one’s only) hope. ‘[…] of all of Kafka’s creatures, the animals have the greatest opportunity for reflection. What corruption is in the law, anxiety is in their thinking. It messes a situation up, yet it is the only hopeful thing about it. However, because the most forgotten alien land is one’s own body, one can understand why Kafka called the cough that erupted from within him ‘the animal’. It was the most advanced outpost of the great herd’ (ibid, p.128).