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Number 12: Summer 2016

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

Werner Prall

Türk (2007) makes the step from Kafka’s illness to his impending death: ‘Kafka is writing about danger and the proliferation of possible threats in the face of his own death […] The ultimate irony is that his text tries to foresee something that it knows surpasses possible recognition’ (p.155).

In a different vein, Kafka’s story has been interpreted as a reflection on the process of writing and, possibly, on the significance his written work had for him. Like the building of the burrow writing is, after all, ‘the work of the forehead’, as Coetzee (1981, p.564) put it. Writing for Kafka had always meant a process of intense self-reflection, a retreat from the often intolerably proximity and the demands of others, and a way out to a possible other life, one promising independence and freedom. But if he experienced his life as a prison, something which he professed he could accept, he also knew, as he noted in his 1920 diary, ‘the prisoner really was free […] the bars were meters apart; he wasn’t even imprisoned’ (1997, p.659, my translation). The restriction is located elsewhere, as he indicates in a subsequent entry: ‘The bone of his own forehead obstructed his way (hitting against his own forehead he bloodies his forehead)’ (ibid, p.660). In a letter to Milena of the same year he referred to himself as a mole.

In the three short fragments about the great swimmer discussed at the start there is a clear precipitation regarding something that is going wrong. The first scene evokes the puzzle of (mis)recognition and gives rise to a sense of alienation, but not necessarily to anxiety. It is only when through subsequent associations the link gets established to an early situation of helplessness that the last scene comes into view which confronts the subject with potential trauma: the tiny being, which momentarily allowed itself to be swept away by pleasure and the lure of the open space, ends up terrified for its life and/or sanity. From a crisis of recognition or identity we have moved on to an underlying catastrophic scenario, the fragmentation of the subject as such. If this is the terror that excessive openness gives rise to, might then the closure, the self-encapsulation of the burrow be an extreme attempt to safeguard against any such possibility? If the vast expanse of the open sea threatens to annihilate the subject the mole’s exclusive preoccupation with securing its own space constitutes a retreat from the world to the point where world ceases to exist. No other actual beings are encountered in the burrow.

In a footnote to his text on narcissism Freud (1914. n p.44) briefly refers to two Mechanismen des Weltunterganges (literally, mechanisms of world going under or sinking), i.e. two kinds of scenarios which are apocalyptic for the ego. On the one hand, there is total investment in the object – the subject throws himself into it, drowns in it, and thus ceases to exist in his separateness. On the other hand, investments in the object are (regressively, defensively) withdrawn back into the ego which becomes omnipotently inflated at the cost of the death of world. It is self-evident, though not spelled out by Freud, that in both cases both the world and the ego die; either extreme leads into a form of madness. Whilst Freud does not discuss these scenarios in relation to anxiety it is clear that they constitute traumatic danger situations for the ego. Ego and object world come into being in tandem, and can only exist in relation to one another. The subject has to find ways to manage the ‘traffic’ with the world that avoid the twin dangers of excessive openness or insulation. Between over-proximity or excessive distance, over-exposure or over-protection the subject has to find an accommodation, a viable place for living. For most of us the calamitous extremes of Weltuntergang are of course not realised, made real, in madness, but are registered and kept at bay in the experience of neurotic anxiety, typically taking on either a more claustrophobic or agoraphobic inflection. As Žižek put it, we appear to be confronted with the options of either ‘the closure of the vicious cycle compulsively circulating around the same point of (libidinal) reference […or…] losing even minimal consistency of one’s own being’ (2005, p.175).