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The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus

Appendix: …The Works of Franz Kafka

The Myth of Sisyphus

Analytical Overview

Summary

The works of Franz Kafka present an interesting case: Camus opens by asserting that Kafka's works are to be re-read, that they are open to many possible interpretations, and that they are highly symbolic in nature.

The Trial reads as a work of absurd fiction. It tells the story of Joseph K., who is accused, brought before court, and condemned, without ever finding out for what crime he has been charged. Having been condemned, his life returns to normal, but he struggles to find out what he has been charged with and to appeal the court's decision. The novel ends with Joseph K.'s execution, and no explanation is given.

Everything seems natural to Joseph K. despite the fact that he inhabits a world with a peculiar logic that he accepts. This peculiar logic is due to Kafka's complex symbolism, which he uses to link the ordinary world with the world of our spiritual ambitions and supernatural anxieties. In The Trial we see all the anxiety, ambiguity, and hope of our spiritual life projected into the very concrete realities of a judicial system and bureaucracy. The Trial reads as absurd to the extent that it discusses the spiritual life in terms of concrete, everyday realities.

Camus explains that logic and ordinariness are important to tragedy and the absurd. The horror found in tragedy and the absurd come from seeing frightful consequences fall out as a part of a natural, logical order. The perverse logic of the absurd, and of Kafka's works, forces us to recognize that what repels us also makes sense.

In The Castle, Kafka goes beyond the absurd world he describes in The Trial and tries to find an explanation or some form of hope. The Castle tells the story of a character named K., who arrives in a town because he has been appointed the Land Surveyor to the castle in the town. However, K. finds that he is unable to communicate with the castle, and the villagers refuse to believe that he has any authority. This story is less dark and hopeless compared with The Trial, as there is always a sense of hope that K. might make some breakthrough. He tries to become a part of the community, and enters into a relationship with a woman who has had some tie to the castle. At the end of the story, he abandons this woman for the family that is the most outcast and least accepted by either the castle or the villagers. Camus reads The Castle as a deification of the absurd, a kind of existential leap similar to Kierkegaard's.

The Trial shows us that there is no hope to be found on earth, and so Kafka seems to conclude in The Castle that this makes hope in God all the more sensible. The lucidity brought on by absurd reasoning is sterile, so Kafka rejects it in favor of an existential leap.

Kafka is significant, Camus suggests, because he has given an eloquent voice to the nostalgia we feel for otherworldly hopes and tracks how our emotional response to the absurd leads us to run from life and leap into faith. Kafka deals with universal, religious themes, but for this very reason he is not an absurd writer, as the absurd deals only with the particular. While an absurd writer tries to distance our otherworldly hopes from the realities of this life and show how we can find happiness in a life devoid of hope, Kafka tries to show how we can find otherworldly hope precisely in the realities of this life.

Analysis

Camus is primarily drawn to Kafka's works because of the lucidity with which they present the fundamental dilemma that for him defines absurd reasoning. On the one hand, Camus says we hope to find some meaning—or God, or order, or explanation—in the universe, and on the other hand, we are faced with a senseless multiplicity of things that do not organize themselves in any way that promises an answer.

One of Camus's favorite metaphors is that of the condemned man (one that recurs frequently in his fiction), and he characterizes the human condition as a life- long death sentence without hope of appeal or reprieve. The Trial uses this very metaphor. Joseph K.'s quest throughout the novel is to find out who has condemned him and why. Kafka is playing on the same themes that Camus elaborates: Kafka tells the story of a man condemned to death in a senseless world, in which this man wants to find some kind of answer or meaning that will explain it all but that is met only with silence. Camus further approves of Kafka's use of everyday realities to express his spiritual anxieties.

The Castle also plays on similar themes. Here, the struggle to find meaning in one's life and a place in the universe is expressed through K.'s struggle to be accepted in his position of Land Surveyor. He feels that he has a right to this position even though it is constantly denied him just as we feel we ought to have a place in the universe and that life ought to make sense, even though this feeling is denied us. In both The Castle and The Trial, we read about men who are looking for answers in a world that gives them none.

Unlike The Trial, however, The Castle finds hope in this futility, and this hope is what makes Kafka an existentialist according to Camus. The existential leap is one of "philosophical suicide" of which Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Jaspers are guilty, according to Camus. The absurd is defined by a constant struggle between our desire for unity and the meaningless void that we encounter. The existential leap tries to reconcile this struggle by embracing the void and finding unity in it. Camus wants to suggest that we are only being authentic so long as we continue to struggle.

While Camus may not approve of Kafka's ultimate conclusions, he admires the clarity with which Kafka presents this fundamental contradiction that defines (according to Camus and Kafka, at least) the human condition.

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