Seeing Things Differently: Vision, Judgment, and Being(Re)Born in Kafka’s America

 

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Kafka never went to America. But he, like many Europeans, imagined what it would be like to emigrate there and how different it was from Europe.   These imagined differences are not only cultural. For Kafka, they are also physical, spatial, and temporal.   And through close attention to these differences, which come out in his detailed descriptions of characters, gestures, and spatial orientations, Kafka provides the reader with an experience of language and being that is original.   But, as Kafka – a lover of parable who well understood the Midrashic task of addressing the textual gap – knew, this experience can only be arrived at through a kind of reading that is attentive to each and every difference. Kafka suggests that in coming to America, Karl Rossmann, the main character of Amerika, must efface who he was and be, so to speak, born again.   But this need not be something that is experienced by Rossmann alone; it can also be experienced by the reader if she is attentive to the nuances of Kafka’s imagined America. Although the reader may resist it, she must, like a child, allow herself to be surprised by the text.   And that takes effort which appeals not just to how we read but also to how we see and judge what we see.  In fact, Kafka equates this rebirth with a change in how we see things on the street (so to speak).

At the outset of the novel, Kafka tells us that Karl is only 17 years old. He is incredibly naïve and distracted. And unlike many an immigrant to America, he doesn’t seem to have a deep desire He doesn’t quite know why he is there, who he is supposed to see, or where he is going.  It is we the readers who are (or should be) surprised by Rossmann’s lack of understanding and awkwardness.   Rossmann happens to stumble across his uncle (the “senator”) who, we learn, came to the ship to pick him up.

Rossman, unlike many an immigrant, doesn’t have to worry about immediately being thrown into poverty and the unknown upon arrival. His uncle is wealthy and successful.   But he is much different from Karl and Karl needs, so to speak, to catch up. His uncle brings him to his home in New York City. And Karl must accustom himself to a new circumstances, new spaces, and new speeds:

In his uncle’s house Karl soon become accustomed to his new circumstances. His uncle always obliged him even in trifling maters, and Karl therefore did not have to wait to learn from those bad experiences that so often embitter the early days of one’s life abroad. (35)

This gives Karl a little time to think about America:

For one could not hope for pity here in this country, and the things that Karl had read about America in that regard were quite true; here it was only those who were fortunate who truly seemed to enjoy their good fortune amid the indifferent faces on all sides. (35)

In America, it is luck rather than fate which is primary.   One’s circumstances can change at any moment. (This is an observation that Siegfried Kracauer made in his distinction between German film and American comic film and the audiences that consumed them.)  But what initially fascinates Rossmann (and the narrator) are not circumstances so much as the new urban space and the perceptions it offered. The space is what fascinates.

A narrow balcony ran along the full length of his room. In his native city it would surely have been the highest lookout, yet here it offered little more than the view of a single street that ran in a straight line between two rows of veritably truncated buildings and therefore seemed to flee into the distance, where the outlines of a cathedral loomed monstrously out of the great haze. In the morning and in the evening and at night in his dreams, this street was filled with constantly bustling traffic, which seen from above seemed like a continually self-replenishing mixture of distorted figures and of the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, constantly scattered by new arrivals…avidly refracted by the mass objects that made such a physical impression on one’s dazzled eye that is seemed as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force. (36)

While Karl is fascinated with this endless destruction of vision (“as if a glass pane, hanging over the street and covering everything, were being smashed again and again with the utmost force”), the uncle advises him not look at things in this manner. Look, but in a different way.

While he should take at a look at everything and always examine matters carefully, he should not let anything beguile him. (36)

Karl’s uncle wants him to distance himself from his perceptions and immediate judgments. He wants him to look closely but not too close. That way, he can be reborn as an American.

Indeed, the first days of a European in America could certainly be likened to a birth, he said, and then he added – so Karl would not have any unnecessary fear – that even though one adapted more quickly here than if one were entering the world of man from the hereafter, one should also keep in mind that one’s first judgment was always quite shaky and that maybe one should not allow it to upset all future judgments that one would need to make if one wanted to go on living in this country. (36)

These words can be applied to Karl’s experiences throughout the novel and can be used as a criteria of sorts. They can also be applied to the reader. In the novel, Karl and the reader are faced with many unexpected situations. The question – regarding each of these situations – is about how Karl (or the reader) sees the situation and how that affects his (or the reader’s) understanding and evaluation of the text.   However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the judgments of the reader may differ from those of Rossmann if they are to be effective.   We need to pay attention to these differences since, as the uncle suggests, Rossmann’s “first days” in America “could certainly be likened to a birth.”   The reader also needs to pay close attention to the situations, circumstances, and spaces that prompt Rossmann to make such judgments.

Karl’s uncle is troubled by people who “stood about on their balconies for days on end gazing down at the street like lost sheep.   It could only lead to confusing! All that solitary idleness, that wasteful staring out on a bustling New York day”(36). And when he sees Karl staring out at the traffic from his balcony – startled by the destruction of perception – he grimaces “with irritation.” Karl learns a lesson from his uncles’ face:

Karl soon noticed this grimace and consequently, insofar as possible, denied himself the pleasure of standing on the balcony. (37)

But, as readers, we know that, for Karl, such staring is not pleasurable; unless, that is, the destruction of perception is pleasurable. But – if anything is to be done and if any judgment is to be made, as Karl’s uncle suggests – one can’t look too long from the urban balcony (with this in mind, think of Facebook). It’s all a matter of how you look at things. In Kafka’s America, distraction, vision, and judgment are always at stake.

 

 

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