I had a brother who died at the age of 16 of leukemia. Right after my wife and I were married, we took him (his name was Allen) and his brother, Michael, from Michigan to North Carolina.
Once, when Allen was no more than 7, we were walking in the back fields, behind my grandparents’ house. It was cold; snow drifted against the chicken wire fences in various undulations like Frank Gehry-designed white sheets. There was a small building in one field where my grandfather had once kept a pony. Allen and I entered the building to get out of the wind. Straw covered the dirt floor, and we brushed our booted feet against the straw, moving it about. It felt colder in the building, as if the cold had settled permanently and would not yield even when spring arrived.
“The dead can see everything you know,” Allen said.
“What?” I said.
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“The dead,” Allen said. “They can see everything. They know everything too.”
“What kind of notion is that?” I asked.
“My notion,” Allen said.
It was dark in the building because we had the door shut and the building had no windows. I could see Allen’s breath like small puffs of wet smoke. I was a 19-year-old young man, on my first winter break during my freshman year of college. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t imagine where a 7-year-old got such a thought.
“Who told you that?” I asked.
“No one,” Allen said. “I came up with it myself.”
I knew this had something to do with him losing his mother and father. Both had died by the time he was 3. We shared the same father.
“Do you remember your mother and father?” I asked, knowing that he couldn’t.
He hesitated. “Yes,” he said. “I remember everything.”
At the time I was reading Kafka for the first time. In a first-semester English course, Kafka’s theme of alienation struck me as deeply as thirst in a desert. But I think it was his “little stories” that I found most compelling. In them Kafka presents all of his themes in miniature.
Take his story “Homecoming.” He said, “I have returned ... I hear nothing but a faint striking of the clock passing over from childhood days, but perhaps I only think I hear it. ... What would happen if someone were to open the door now and ask me a question? Would not myself then behave like one who wants to keep his secret?”
All families have secrets. “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy remarked in the first sentence of Anna Karenina. My family’s secret was that the adults knew where my mother had disappeared, but they didn’t (and never did) tell her three young children. We discovered her hideout on our own, well into adulthood.
Kafka’s recurrent theme of never reaching the desired destination, which can be summed up in mostly metaphysical terms, was at the heart of his writings. His works were about the nature of what it means to be human in the face of incontrovertible evidence that humans, even at the familial level, have difficulties understanding one another, and, at worse, on a grand scale demonstrate misunderstandings through acts of aggression. We see this kind of brutality in our own backyard, and globally.
The first sentence of Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis”: “When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed … into a monstrous vermin,” which depicts, as only Kafka can, alienation to the extreme. Samsa (Kafka) is utterly cut off from society; he is even removed – he is literally locked in his bedroom – from his own family. His family fears him. Fear, particularly irrational fear, is often met by violence. Indeed, Samsa’s family, repulsed by his “differentness,” attacks him on a number of occasions. Terror often yields terror.
How shall we respond to a world that seems in chaos and seemingly bent on our, if not self, destruction? I find truth in Kafka’s aphorisms. But I also find mystery.
In the end, meaning in his works of absurd fiction isn’t about their strangeness, about whether there is hope, or not, but in how we are to respond on a personal level. I believe this is what is meant by Erich Heller’s critique of Kafka when he describes the need to go “outside” the world, which is to say outside oneself. Indeed, perhaps Julia Kristeva said it best in “Strangers to Ourselves”: “Strange indeed is the encounter with the other. ... By recognizing our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners.”
We are constantly confronted with the possibilities of the personal, such as I was so many years ago now, when in the dark of that cold barn, I witnessed the irrepressible, baffling words of my brother, whose ideas felt so absurd at the time that I, feeling confused and thwarted by a lack of imagination, said nothing. Yet, we walked out of the barn together.
You can reach Robert Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org