While the distinction between man and animal has, for millennia, been a concern for both monotheism and philosophy, the blurring of that distinction has been of interest to mythology and folklore. And as anyone who has read Franz Kafka knows, the distinction between man and animal is the subject of many of his stories. As I pointed out in my last blog with reference to the “wavering” crow and the crow who tries to challenge the “sky,” Kafka used the image of animals in his diary entries as a way of understanding himself and his differences with other human beings (“crows”). What is most compelling about these entries and these stories is the fact that, as a reader, Kafka (and we ourselves) can either experience a kind of comical reflection or (as Blanchot suggests with the crows) a melancholic reflection on what it means to be a unique human being in relation to oneself, others, existence, and eternity.
Writing on Kafka’s animal parables, Walter Benjamin argues that K., in The Trial, has gestures that are necessarily absent-minded:
Without being fully conscious of it, “slowly…with his eyes not looking down but cautiously raised upwards he took one of the papers from the desk, put it on the palm of his hand and gradually raised it up to the gentleman while getting up himself. He had nothing definite in mind, but acted only with the feeling that this what he would have to do once he had completed the big petition which was to exonerate him completely.” (121, Illuminations)
Benjamin describes this as an “animal gesture” which “combines the utmost mysteriousness with the utmost simplicity”(122). This combination suggests not just an animal gesture but a mystical gesture that one might find in a Hasidic tale.
Building on this Benjamin argues that the reader may be so won over by this “mysteriousness” and “simplicity” of this gesture that one may “forget” that “they are not human beings at all.” But when they do realize, they withdraw in terror:
When one encounters the name of the creature – monkey, dog, mole – one looks up in fight and realizes that one is already far away from the continent of man. (122)
Kafka “divests the human gesture” of its traditional support so that it can become an “animal gesture” that communicates “mysteriousness” and “simplicity.” These gestures are comical, not terrifying. It is only when one realizes that they are enjoying something that is inhuman that the reader – according to Benjamin – is ashamed or frightened.
Turning to Kafka’s story “Investigations of a Dog,” we see a comical play on this fear by way of a melancholic dog narrator. The interplay of comedy and melancholy happens between the reader and the narrator.
How much my life has changed, and how unchanged it has remained at bottom! When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate. (178)
What, wonders the reader, have you become? Are you, a dog, now human? How are you no longer a dog? What was the “discrepancy,” the “maladjustment” which kept you from being a dog?
Whatever it is, the dog-narrator doesn’t tell us. He simply tells us what triggers his sense of otherness from other dogs:
Sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had caught it for the first time, would fill me with embarrassment and fear, even with despair. (178)
The look of the other dog, it seems, reminds him that his “maladjustment” is shameful to look at. He tries to “keep” his despair at being found out “quiet.” In other words, he wants to hide his sense of awkwardness around other dogs. However, he does tell his friends and they “help” him: “Friends, to whom I divulged them, helped me”(278).
But he does note that he found a way to have “peaceful times.” He did this by “accepting” his maladjustment and discrepancy by way of “more philosophy, fitted into my life with more philosophy.” What makes the philosophy meaningful is not that it makes him happy; rather, it “induces” a “certain melancholy and lethargy” and this allows him to “carry on as a somewhat cold, reserved, shy, and calculating” dog. The narrator considers this kind of melancholy to be the basis for his becoming a “normal enough dog.”
The dog notes that melancholy helps him to live better although in truth that life is one of unhappiness.
Solitary and withdrawn, with nothing to occupy me save my hopeless but, as far as I am concerned, indispensable little investigations, that is how I live. (278)
What makes this comical is the fact that his “hopeless…indispensible little investigations” help him to live. But he is not a tragic, solitary character. He claims he is no longer a dog – by virtue of his investigations – but he still cares about dogs.
Yet in my distant isolation I have not lost sight of my people, news often penetrates to me, and now and then I even let news of myself reach them. The others treat me with respect but do not understand my ways of life; they bear me no grudge…For it must not be assumed that, for all my peculiarities…I am so very different from the rest of my species. (278)
Moreover, he is proud of dogs and distinguishes them from other animals. He “confuses them” and tries to “ignore” them. He notices that other dogs “stick together” while these “other animals” do not. As the reader will note, the narrator’s love and admiration of other dogs shows us that his investigations are not only melancholic. It is only when he is reminded of his “maladjustment” that he feels a “slight discomfort” which must be compensated for by way of melancholic reflections on hopelessness. Even so, he also has friends who “help” him. His anxiety is not, as Blanchot has argued, unbearable.
Rather, his gestures are closer to what Benjamin called the “mysterious” and “simple” nature of the “animal gesture” which is, ultimately, a human gesture stripped of…its humanity. Even the fact that he reflects in a melancholic manner is comedic because instead of locking him into a state of inertia, melancholia keeps him alive. And it mitigates his shame at being “maladjusted.” To be sure, melancholic thought (which he calls “philosophy”) makes him happy.
His melancholic kind of maladjusted individuality (cultivated by his investigations) co-exists with his admiration of other dogs and their tendency to community. But there seems to be more at stake in this dialectical tension between the individual and the community. The comical element is to be found in the precarious balance that is maintained between melancholy, friendship, fear of others (outside of his circle of friends), and admiration of others (also outside that circle). He oscillates between complexity (melancholy) and simplicity (acceptance). However, he does this in a blind way, without thinking. Because if he did and was overtaken by his “slight discomfort,” he wouldn’t be able to co-exist….or survive as a dog amongst dogs.
I’ll end with a few possibilities: Perhaps Kafka is suggesting that if one insists that he or she is different from the rest of the species, one is making a death wish and is subscribing to a life that is utterly bitter (think, on this note, of Michel Houellebecq’s novels which often include the most bitter narrators and characters). Perhaps, the blind and mysterious gesture of forgetting while remembering this difference is a (comical) saving grace. Perhaps hose who engage in cynicism – which is, traditionally, portrayed as “dog-like” – may not return to the world since the investigations of truly cynical dog and the ensuing melancholy do not bring peace so much as…more discomfort. This is an intellectual path that is dire contrast to the “animal gesture” of simplicity. It’s mystery, so to speak, is comical while, for cynicism, there is no mystery. The cynic is a lost dog while Kafka’s dog is perhaps too busy “investigating” to know….whether he is lost or not.