By Ed Simon


The Montréal Review, July 2024

With none of the stateliness of the grasshopper or the elegance of the cricket, the beauty of the butterfly or even the gothic sublimity of the spider, the cockroach is among evolution’s most detestable of insects. That throbbing fecal-colored concentrically segmented thorax and the grotesque-papery wings, the crooked legs and the doll-like black eyes. For some 320 millions years that most unlovable of insects has supposedly skulked the earth, through primordial jungles and tenement blocks alike, the cliché holding that even after the last nuclear explosion has reduced the entirety of the planet to gray radioactive ash the domain of the cockroach shall still not have been abolished. A creature that despite its species’ endurance, seems individually fit for the heel of a boot, for the exterminator’s gas. A cockroach that’s “armor-plated” with “numerous legs” that “waved helplessly,” an insect with a “dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments.”

That’s Franz Kafka’s famous description of the traveling-salesman Gregor Samsa in the 1915 The Metamorphosis after that character had “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams” to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, as the first sentence of the novella has it. Or perhaps a beetle, or just a bug. The original word in German – “Ungeziefer” – doesn’t directly translate to the word most associated with The Metamorphosis, rather connotating a more general bugginess, but Kafka’s description has lent itself to most English translations rendering Samsa’s transformation into the distressingly verminous cockroach. Regardless of its accuracy to the original, “cockroach” lends a particular charge to Kafka’s novella, for where “bug” can sound archetypal and “insect” clinical, the associations with filth and disgust, dirt and revulsion – and of the feeling of being reduced into the inhuman – are part of why Kafka’s strange parable, his modern allegory, endures a century later.

Kafka, who perished from the tuberculosis that had reduced him to a quiet whisper of a human a hundred years ago, endures as the iconic author of modernity, the variable conscious cipher for the twentieth-century’s dislocations and alienations, traumas and horrors, and most of all its absurdity. Few authors – Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell – apotheosize to the status of an adjective. The word “Kafkaesque,” with all that it entails in its evocation of alienation and absurdity, unfeeling bureaucracy and indiscriminate cruelty, is perhaps better known than the author itself, though that’s maybe the fate of any writer transformed into a descriptor. Having died at the age of forty, little of Kafka’s work was published during his own lifetime, appearing in a handful of Czech and German literary magazines (that is when he wasn’t burning his output before anyone could read it). From his desk job at an Italian insurance company’s Prague office, the sleight, olive-complexioned, black-haired author soothsaid our modern scripture, a literature which James Hawes in Excavating Kafka: Uncovering the Truth About the Lonely Genius of Prague describes as having the “chthonic power of mysterious fragments from a lost scroll of the Pentateuch or a tantalizingly half-preserved Greek myth.”

There is the traveling salesman transformed into a cockroach, of course, the one tale that probably everyone who has heard of Kafka is familiar with. But then there is also Joseph K. in The Trial, posthumously published in 1925, who was arrested, tried, convicted, and condemned without ever learning what his charge was (note the auspicious “K.” as his surname). His is a world defined by the legal apparatus of the inscrutable state he must live under, maybe reflecting the strictures of Kafka’s own crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, but clearly prefiguring the logic of concentration camp and gulag. “Where was the judge he had never seen?” wondered Joseph K. “Where was the High Court he had never reached?” Everywhere and nowhere, as is the nature of authoritarianism. In the face of that authoritarianism, the individual is an exile, a refugee, in a diaspora of himself, like Karl Rossman in Kafka’s posthumously released 1922 Amerika, forced to emigrate to the New World because of a sex scandal and now marooned in as fantastical version of the United States where the Statue of Liberty holds aloft a sword. Another K. is the central character in The Castle, again posthumously published, but in 1922. Here a bucolic European village is dominated by the eponymous Castle, from whence an invisible regime absolutely governs, with K. unsuccessfully trying to gain entrance into the fortress. Today, on the author’s centennial Yahrzeit, it’s worth asking what any of these bizarre tales mean (or if there is something even potent in their meaninglessness).

Born in the nineteenth-century and never totally comfortable in the twentieth, Kafka nonetheless understood the tenor of our times, the invisible bondage that we all labor underneath, our lives, actions, and very thoughts and beliefs carefully circumscribed, for as he writes in The Castle, if a “man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” The hermetic and occult attractions of his corpus have been central to the preservation of his name, the author who in his iconic photograph taken a few months before his death presents the gaunt, high-cheek boned, corpuscular Kafka with his slick of black hair exuding a tubercular, mystical beauty which only confirms the popular perception of the genius. Obviously much of this image – of the ascetic, neurotic, virginal Kafka – is overstated and reductionist, when it’s not outright inaccurate (he was, after all, a tremendous lover of brothels). But that’s not to say that the stereotype is entirely untrue, nor is it certainly to ignore that the writing itself, which is after all the most important aspect of Kafka’s biography, doesn’t encourage such interpretations.

The author of The Metamorphosis, a book in which Gregor is transformed into a quivering insect, was abundantly aware of the meaninglessness that pervades modernity, how the experience of contemporary life – where a cold, rectilinear rationality masks a deep irrationality, where all truths and values are contingent – is profoundly disorienting. Gregor, a dutiful, respectable, hard-working man who has done everything according to the dictates of his society nonetheless wakes up to find himself as vermin in the eyes of everybody else (an experience prefiguring Kafka’s fellow Jews only a few decades later). That’s why Kafka, whether he was some mystic prognosticator or not, spoke to the twentieth-century. That following the apocalyptic personal metamorphosis into this creature – remember, Gregor’s transformation is not dream or hallucination, but rather literal – the salesman is most worried about being in trouble with his employers, is why Kafka still speaks to us today. Because this transformation is literal, it must be said that to read The Metamorphosis as a dreary exercise in that most freshman literature class activity of parsing “symbolism” is to miss the point. Gregor’s nocturnal mutation doesn’t mean anything. An anti-parable in the form of a parable; what the critic Walter Benjamin described a decade after Kafka’s death as being tales where “One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily.” Kafka’s great images – the cockroach, the castle, the courthouse – are symbols without a referent, perfectly calibrated to the antinomian excesses of our current moment. As a result, whether he has actually prophesized about totalitarianism or late stage capitalism, Kafka’s incantatory stories remain the most apt expression of modernity still written.  

This is, it must be emphasized, an expression made possible because of Judaism, or because of Kafka’s interpretation of the faith of his fathers. German-speaking in the Czech nation, Kafka was removed from his gentile neighbors, but also from Yiddish-speaking Jews immigrating from Poland and Ukraine, whom the consummately European writer raised in the waning days of the Hapsburg empire would describe as appearing “Asiatic.” Fascinated by the Hasidim, and an attendee at the Yiddish theater whose words he couldn’t understand, Kafka wasn’t conventionally religious, though nor was he assimilationist. Politically, he was drawn to divergent causes, whether anarchism or monarchism, socialism or Zionism, the last of which supplied the fantasy of his dying days that perhaps he’d live out his life as a waiter in a beachfront restaurant in the Levant. Yet as at times as ambiguous as Kafka’s Jewishness may have been, how ambivalent or conflicted, in Prague itself Judaism itself was inescapable. The distance from his parents’ house, where he lived, to the thirteenth-century tan-bricked and mansard-roofed Old-New Jewish Synagogue which loomed over the cobble-stoned and red-tiled homes of the ghetto like the golem whose corpse was rumored to inhabit its attic, was less than a mile. This was the Prague of the great kabbalist Rabbi Judah Lowe ben Bezalel, who in the sixteenth-century was intrinsically associated with this city that already had a reputation for magic, for alchemy and conjuration, necromancy and divination. Prague was, in short, already a city with a reputation for the surreal, the bizarre, the absurd.

Kafka’s is a vision that in its totality evokes an ancient wisdom less Talmudic than Kabbalistic. Despite Hawes’ insistence that the Czech author’s Judaism is overstated, a position worryingly insistent throughout Excavating Kafka, the assimilated, German-speaking, secular Jew’s fascinations with mysticism is obvious. Two years before he would die, Kafka noted in his diary a desire to create a body of work that could develop “into a new secret doctrine, a new kabbalah,” while the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem would write in 1937 that Kafka’s is a “secular statement of the Kabbalistic world-feeling in a modern spirit.” Benjamin, meanwhile, compared the relationship between Kafka’s writing and our world to that between Halakah and Haggadah (though he never specified which was which). In particular, one sees in Kafka’s own obsession with displacement, dismissal, and diaspora a sacred understanding that goes beyond even the particulars of Jewish history and into a comment about the nature of reality itself. For example, within the Kabbalistic teachings associated with the sixteenth-century Rabbi Isaac Luria, there is a doctrine which holds that creation was only made possible by the infinite Godhead, or Ein-Sof, contracting within itself, so that a space for the cosmos would be made possible because of a type of self-deicide known as Tzimtzum. What this renders, throughout the entirety of existence, is a void, an abyss, a nothingness, where not only are all of us are in diaspora, but so is God himself. Many things are derived from this heterodox position, including the strange synthesis of immanence and transcendence which defines humanity, but a central aspect of tzimtzum is a death of easy meaning, a universal absurdism that makes the literal moot and mere fact irrelevant. The paradox of the Ein-Sof’s mutilation is that our being isn’t just riven through by this nothingness, but that it’s made possible by it. 

For Kafka, alienation is the lot of a man forced into exile in America, a defendant condemned without a charge, a salesman transformed into an insect. Alienation is the lot of Kafka – and me – and you. Alienation is the lot of the Lord Himself. Paradoxically, this is not an alienation that is completely despairing, though there are certain caveats, for as Kafka himself infamously said to his friend Max Brod in 1920, there is “Plenty of hope – for God – no end of hope – only not for us.” Just because God is dead doesn’t mean that he always was; or that He always will be. The process of restoration known as Tikkun-Olam which reassembles the Ein Sof is a collective messianic mission, though not necessarily individually redemptive. Our lives may be meaningless, but for Kafka the world itself is not without meaning, and there is succor in that. Robert Alter argues in the journal Salmagundi that Kafka’s is a “balancing act on the razor-edge, peering into the abyss of nihilism and leaning back against the framework of authoritative religion.” Kafka’s is what could be called a “dialectical Judaism,” an absurd faith where meaning can be found amidst meaninglessness, where the tomb of nothing is also the womb of the infinite. What is valued in such a faith is not the answer but the question, not the dawn but the dusk, but that it’s a faith itself isn’t to be doubted. Such exilic sacredness is arguably the only thing which can be holy in the modern world.

Because he’s gnomic and aphoristic, partial to parables and paradoxes, Kafka is oft-identified as a kind of prophet. Hawes is withering in his scorn for such an image, and just as he deracinates Kafka of his Judaism, so does he reduce the author’s oeuvre to the mundane, claiming that any prophetic relationship between the author of The Metamorphosis and for the calamity about to befall European Jewry is “philosophical balderdash,” and thus he writes in emphatic italics that “the Holocaust is utterly meaningless when considering the writings of Dr. Franz Kafka,” because of the stultifying and prosaic logic that Kafka died two decades before the Final Solution. We are, according to Hawes, to obscure that Joesph Goebbels’ noxious propaganda film The Eternal Jew would juxtapose Kafka’s people with images of vermin like cockroaches appearing as if Gregor Samsa, to bracket out that the Nazis intended to transform the Old-New Synagogue into a “Museum of an Extinct Race;” we are to ignore that two sisters of Kafka would later be immolated at Auschwitz. Hawes’ is a historian’s argument no doubt – how can Kafka be applicable to an event which happened after his death? Maybe even it’s a variety of literary critic’s reading, but it’s certainly not an argument of the mystic. To argue that Kafka, with his intimations of dehumanization, of arbitrary punishment, of state cruelty, of exile and abandonment is irrelevant when concerning the Holocaust is maybe not philosophical balderdash, but certainly human balderdash.

Any truly great writer is a prophet, an oracle intuiting frequencies that the rest of us can’t hear and which they themselves may not understand. If Kafka is not a prophet, than neither was Shakespeare, Milton, Blake – but I refuse to believe that we weren’t encompassed in their visions, in their own ways. Furthermore, to ignore the ways in which Kafka speaks to the travesties of our bloody, modern epoch (a reading which requires no mysticism, but rather is implicit in the texts themselves) is its own obscenity, because it’s to obscure how all which we need to understand and to survive our age is present in The Castle, The Trial, and The Metamorphosis just as all souls born and unborn were at Sinai. Like Sarah laughing before the Lord, Kafka offers an acute and critical scapular-sharp humor before the absurd, before the crematoriums of modernity. There is a sense among those unfamiliar with him that Kafka is humorless, which is clearly not the case for anyone that bothers to even just skim the master’s oeuvre. Indeed how could it be otherwise, if we’re to understand Kafka as the prophet of modernity, for that sick-grimaced smile of dark comedy is implicit in the absurdism that defines those aforementioned dislocations, alienations, traumas, and horrors? Kafka doesn’t save our lives, but he provides the means to have a wisdom that hears meaning within nothing, that finds hidden gems in the ash, of being able to pray to our nonexistent God through laughter, no matter how pained.


Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions, as well as a widely published freelance writer who has appeared in The AtlanticThe New Republic, The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Paris Review DailyJacobinMcSweeney's, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among dozens of others. He is also the author of several books. His latest book, Relic, was published by Bloomsbury Academic in January 2024.


The illustration for this article is from Kafka: Making of an Icon (30 May – 27 October 2024), an exhibition organized by Oxford University to mark the 100th anniversary of the author's death and to celebrate not only his achievements and creativity, but also how he continues to inspire new literary, theatrical, and cinematic creations around the world.

The exhibition features materials from the archives of the Bodleian Libraries, which hold the majority of Franz Kafka's papers, including literary notebooks, drawings, diaries, letters, postcards, glossaries, and photographs. Notably, the notebooks in the archive include the original manuscripts of two of Kafka’s unfinished novels, Das Schloss (The Castle) and Der Verschollene (America), as well as a number of short stories.

Using this rich archive, the exhibition not only sets Kafka in the context of his life and times but also shows how his own experiences nourished his imagination. His notebooks show how his travels in Western Europe enabled him to practise descriptive writing, while his readings strengthened his fascination with remote spaces and made him aware of European colonialism.




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