Back to contents
Number 12: Summer 2016

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

Werner Prall

‘I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful’ (1971, p.354). This is how Kafka’s penultimate story begins. It was written in Berlin in the last year of his life under conditions of dire poverty and relentlessly advancing tuberculosis. This was a time also when he had managed, finally, to move away from Prague and the overbearing proximity of his family and, for six months, shared his life with a woman, Dora Dymant. Left unfinished at the time of his death in 1924 Max Brod published the story under the title ‘The Burrow’ (‘Der Bau’). Like many of Kafka’s stories it is written from an animal perspective, in a manner that makes the reader forget this is not a human being speaking. The unidentified animal, which we might take to be a mole, finds itself caught up in an endless series of cogitations and ruminations about the construction of his burrow and the degree of safety it provides. Although there are moments of distinct satisfaction as well as peace these are always short-lived, and a sense of imminent danger, though never specified, prevails throughout.

[…] you do not know me if you think I am afraid, or that I built my burrow simply out of fear […] yet […] even now, at the zenith of my life, I can scarcely pass an hour in complete tranquility; at that one point in the dark moss I am vulnerable, and in my dreams I often see a greedy muzzle sniffing around it persistently […] I must have a way of leaving at a moment’s notice, for, despite all my vigilance, may I not be attacked from some quite unexpected quarter? I live in peace in the inmost chamber of my house, and meanwhile the enemy may be burrowing his way slowly and stealthily straight toward me (ibid, p.354-5).

Any attempt made to tame anxiety by means of identifying an object of fear against which a defence might be organised comes to nothing (no thing); potential danger threatens from all directions.

And it is not only by external enemies that I am threatened. There are also enemies in the bowels of the earth. I have never seen them, but legend tells of them and I firmly believe in them. They are creatures of the inner earth; not even legend can describe them. Their very victims can scarcely have seen them; they come, you hear the scratching of their claws just under you in the ground, which is their element, and already you are lost. Here it is of no avail to console yourself with the thought that you are in your own house; far rather are you in theirs (ibid, p.355).