Isn’t that Awkward? On What’s Missing in Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”


There are (and have been) countless television shows which make it obvious to the viewer that a character – in this or that situation – has done something awkward. Think, for instance, of Parks and Recreation, Workaholics,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The Office. Saturday Night Live makes it a staple, and just about every Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen film follows suit.   The point of such staged awkward situations is to show how – despite our identification with this or that comic character who says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, or misses the cue – the social context predominates over every situation.

In American life, social cues have become all important.   While this indicates that Hollywood writers want Americans to be more socially conscious of what they say and do, it also suggests something more problematic; namely, the fact that what is or is not socially acceptable is already interpreted. The camera shots at faces of onlookers – in the wake of this or that faux pas – indicate to the viewer that something awkward has just happened and that we, as intelligent, socially aware viewers, should take on a position of superiority.   Although the excluded comic character is endearing, the process of exclusion – though comical – is the focus.

In contrast to television sit-coms, we are fortunate to have a literature which gives the reader the option of freely deciding what is or is not awkward and an opportunity to think about what that decision means. Franz Kafka’s novel, Amerika is a case in point.   His main character Karl Rossmann offers the reader such an option and gives the reader a moment to think about what is at stake with the presence or the absence of awkwardness.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to read literature anymore and when we are faced with such an opportunity, we pass it by. I would suggest that today, more than ever, we need to take such an opportunity up. We need to question this preponderance of awkwardness and its implications. Is awkwardness something that should be seen as moral or ethical? Is our laughter at the awkward a form of social exclusion? Or is awkwardness a more somber kind of experience or mood?

The first chapter of Amerika comes from a story that Kafka worked, reworked, and published while he was alive: “The Stoker.” What is so fascinating about this chapter is the fact that, as a reader, I cannot but be surprised to notice Kafka’s decision to leave his character undeveloped and unmotivated. Moreover, I am also astonished by the fact that the narrator also seems to be lacking a clear understanding of things while, at the same time, acting as if he does. In other words, Kafka wrote this text in order for the reader to ask serious questions not only about the character but about the narration.

The first thing that should strike the reader is the fact that when Karl Rossmann arrives on the shores of America and should be excited to leave he remembers that he has forgot his umbrella.   His absent mindedness predominates and he goes on a wild search for his umbrella.   On his search, he stumbles across “the Stoker.” The Stoker treats Rossmann like a friend, shares his woes with him, and enlists him in his cause which is against a “Romanian” named Schubal (the Stoker is German). Rossmann gladly accepts the charge and wants to help this hospitable stranger. While the situation is unusual, we still partially identify with the kindness of these characters and Rossmann’s willingness. However, the identification is partial because it is ridiculous. How could Rossmann be so trusting or naïve? And shouldn’t he be more concerned or excited about arriving in America instead of defending someone he never met?

Awkwardness can happen between two people, but, for it to be really effective, it requires the presence of more than two.   The scene in which Rossmann appears in front of the ship’s crew members to defend the Stoker is awkward.

When Karl enters the scene, he doesn’t even get to make any case. All he says is, “Yes, I know, I know…You’re quite right, I never had the slightest doubt about it”(19).   About what? The context is missing and the men are “indifferent,” they don’t seem to feel that there is anything like a trial going on. Before he can fill in any blanks, he is immediately asked a question: “So what’s your name?”

Right when he’s about to answer the question, a knock comes at the door. It’s Schubal.

The narrator is more responsive than Karl. She makes the situation more awkward because she takes this ridiculous situation and its possible consequences seriously while Karl does not. It is obvious that Karl Rossmann is blind to so many things, but the narrator makes it seem possible that he could have acted differently:

Why had Karl not foreseen something so easily foreseen, namely, that Schubal would finally be obliged to come, if not of his own initiative then on a summons from the captain? Why hadn’t he devised a precise battle plan as he walked over with the stoker instead of mercilessly unprepared simply because there was a door there? Could the stoker still speak, say yes and no, as he would be required to do in the cross examination that would take place only if everything turned out for the best. The stoker stood there, legs apart, knees slightly bowed, head raised slightly, and the air went in and out of his open mouth as if he had no lungs left inside to handle his breathing. (21)

The reduction of the whole scene to the Stoker breathing “as if he had no lungs left” indicates the gross lack of intelligence in this scene. The fact of the matter is that Karl is just moving around with the Stoker and standing in the midst of what he imagines is a trial but, in reality, is just a bunch of people in a room.

To make things more awkward, while the narrator notes that “Still, Karl felt stronger and more alert than he had perhaps ever felt at home,” s/he is anxious and asks a series of questions:

Would they change their mind about him? Set him down between them and praise him? And then, only once, take a look into these eyes, eyes that were so devoted to them? What uncertain questions and what an inappropriate moment to be asking them! (21)

The obvious irony is that the narrator feels awkward, not the character.

And although Karl feels “stronger and more alert,” Schubal makes the case and speaks in a clear, articulate manner. The narrator, not Karl, gets frustrated and attempts to criticize the words of Schubal but the attentive reader can see that such criticisms are desperate.   The narrator – breaking narrative convention – wants her character to “get moving” and get involved:

All this was very clear and indeed that is how Schubal had presented it, quite against his will, but one had to tell the story to the gentlemen in a different way, even more explicitly. They had to be given a jolt. So get moving, Karl, and at least take advantage of the time before the witnesses enter and inundate everything. (22)

Immediately after the narrator’s wishful thinking on behalf of her character, something happens which displaces the whole “trial.” The captain speaks to “Mr. Jakob,” the “man with the bamboo stick,” and who is also called “the senator” and seems to be a part of the crew. Mr. Jakob turns to Karl and asks, once again, “So what’s your name?” After Karl tells him, everyone in the crew is “astonished”(23). It seems as if something awkward is about to happen.

Mr. Jakob repeats the word “But” twice and says “But then I am indeed your uncle Jacob, and you are my beloved nephew. Just what I expected all along”(23).   At this moment, the entire scene changes and all the narrator’s expectations are dashed. Karl realizes that he “does have an uncle Jakob in America.” The fact that he realizes this is also astonishing. Doesn’t he have a relative who is supposed to be meeting him when he arrives? Shouldn’t he know his name?

The most awkward thing of all is the Uncle’s retelling of Karl Rossmann’s story. It seems as if Karl is unable to say it himself. He is spoken for. Moreover, it is an awkward story because it gives too many details of things that need not be said in public. Recalling Karl’s sexual encounter which, apparently, is the reason why his parents sent him away, the narrator recounts why Karl was innocent but uses too much detail acting as if he was there when all this happened:

“Karl, oh my Karl,” she cried, as if she could see him and was confirming that she now had possession of him, whereas he could see nothing and felt uncomfortable under the many warm bedclothes that she had evidently heaped up especially for him. Then she lay down beside him and wanted him to tell her secrets, but he had none to tell, and she became annoyed, whether jokingly or in earnest, shook him, listened to his heart, offered him her breast so that he too could listen but did not induce Karl to do so, pressed her naked belly against his body…it felt as if she were a part of him. (27)

Karl, strangely enough, doesn’t feel awkward at all. And neither does the narrator.   The fascinating thing for the modern reader is to experience the lack of awkwardness.   It confronts the reader with a question: aren’t there times when a person should feel awkward – in this case both the narrator and the character, Karl Rossmann?

The question, it seems, is rhetorical. The answer to this question and our desire to see such awkwardness indicate one of two things and this, I think, is what Kafka was after.   The sense of guilt or shame that comes with awkwardness are a valuable thing because they alert us to something important about being human. The mood of awkwardness goes hand in hand with the desire we have, as readers, to speak out and tell the Uncle to stop or to tell the narrator to say something. Their silence is, in a way, dehumanizing.   It may all seem comical, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes awkwardness is not – as it is in so many TV shows and films – a formula for getting higher ratings or ticket sales. And it should not be used to affirm a regime of social control.

Rather, awkwardness, as articulated in Kafka’s Amerika – by virtue of its absence – provides the reader with a sense of humanity and of the power literature has to evoke morality. But this can only be discovered if we become more critical readers. Without questioning narrators and characters, we lose out on a great opportunity to learn how awkwardness truly matters.    And without doing this, our awkwardness is scripted and decided on – for us – by this or that TV show.   Reading Kafka in a critical manner, you, the reader can take the initiative by deciding on the meaning of awkwardness for humanity.   As Walter Benjamin once said to Gerschom Scholem in a letter written near his death, Kafka was “certain” about only one thing; “that a fool can help.”  The “question, however, is whether a fool can do humanity any good.”  That is the awkward question that may be missing from Kafka’s Amerika only because we must ask it.


On Innocence, Forgetfulness, and Reading in Kafka’s “Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared”


Kafka was fascinated with the meaning of innocence and guilt.   His characters are often portrayed as both innocent and guilty.   But the confluence of the two appeals not so much to a theological theme so much as to the reader’s relationship with Kafka’s characters. It seems as if Kafka created a situation where the reader is prompted to judge the main character’s actions: is the character’s innocence good or bad? And must I, as a reader, fight against the cynical tendency I or my culture has to judge innocence as stupidity or a failure to act and think properly? And this prompts a deeper literary question: What is the purpose of comedy? Do we learn, from such innocent characters, what not to be? Or do we, rather, gain insight into who we are? When it comes to comedy, is action or reflection primary? What is the basis for such a decision? And should that decision be based on an evaluation of the consequences?

Kafka’s Karl Rossmann, the main character of his novel Amerika: The Missing Person (and his short story “The Stoker”) provides the reader with an opportunity to address these questions. They all emerge when the reader is prompted to assess Karl Rossmann’s innocence and forgetfulness in terms of his character and situation.

At the outset of the novel, we learn that Karl Rossmann is “entering” New York Harbor on a “slow-moving” ship.   We also learn that he is “17 years old” and that his parents “sent him to America” because a “servant girl had seduced him” and “borne a child by him.” These circumstances suggest that Rossmann’s journey to America is not something he thought deeply about; it is circumstantial. And he did so because his parents sent him away from a situation in which he, apparently, did nothing wrong. Apparently, he is innocent.

But the reader cannot but wonder about what really happened and about what it means that his “parents” sent him away. Is Karl Rossmann really innocent? Or did he do something to the “servant girl?” In addition, the fact that his parents sent him away suggests that he is still a child – even though he is at an age of maturity. All of these factors alter our identification with Rossmann. Should we identify with a character that is so questionable?

Looking at the “Statue of Liberty,” Rossmann says two words “So high.” His observation is disjointed because the words that follow it suggest that he doesn’t say it as a person who has high hopes for a new life. Apparently, he didn’t think too much about leaving Europe:

“So high,” he said to himself, and although he still had not thoughts of leaving, he found himself being pushed gradually toward the rail by an ever-swelling throng of porters. (3)

Rossmann’s life, it seems, is accidental. He gets “pushed” from one place to another.   He doesn’t seem to know or care about where he is going. Rossmann is simply an innocent 17 year old who is going along with the current.

When asked by an excited passenger if he is ready to “get off” the ship, Rossmann acts as if he’s excited: “Oh, I’m ready all right,” said Karl with a laugh, and in his exuberance, sturdy lad that he was, he lifted his trunk up on his shoulders.” But in his “exuberant” attempt to act as if he is a man with a purpose, Rossmann realizes that he had “forgotten his umbrella below deck.”   In other words, Rossmann makes a schlemiel move.   His forgetfulness prompts him to interrupt his act.   And lose his direction. Now Kafka creates a divided consciousness: Rossmann leaves his trunk behind in order to get his umbrella down below.

Rossmann’s descent “down below” to get his umbrella throws him into a labyrinth in which he gets lost. He can no longer act as if he knows where he is going:

Downstairs he was disappointed to find a passageway that would have certainly shortened his path blocked off for the first time…and was obliged to make his way laboriously through numerous small rooms, corridors that constantly turned off, many short stairs in rapid succession and an empty room with an abandoned desk…he had quite lost his way. (4)

Now, Rossmann panics and “in his uncertainty” he starts “knocking at random on a little door before which he had halted.” The theme of being stuck before doors and unable to more is a constant in Kafka’s work. And, oftentimes, the person who is stuck is innocent.   However, in many of these cases where Kafka’s characters get stuck, the reader is prompted to ask whether or not this should have happened. Although Rossmann is innocent, perhaps he shouldn’t have shown any concern from his umbrella and just moved on – acting as if he had somewhere to go.

Nonetheless, sometimes surprises can be life-altering and luck can subvert proper decision making. The person who answers the door is the “Stoker.”

“It’s open,” cried a voice within and, sighing with general relief, Karl stepped into the cabin. “Why do you have to bang on the door like a madman?” a huge man asked, almost without looking at Karl. (4)

By letting him in, the Stoker alters Rossmann’s life. He gives Rossmann new possibilities.   The possibilities suggest something religious. Rossmann says he “lost his way.”   The Stoker is hospitable and invites Rossmann in to his home/cabin.   As readers, we can see that this character, despite that fact that he is friendly, is over-talkative and has no problem bringing a complete stranger into his life. Rossmann, however, has no problem with this:

“Lie down on the bed, that’ll give you more room,” said the man. Karl crawled in as best he could, laughing loudly at his initially futile attempt to swing himself ont to eh bed. No sooner was he lying down on than he cried: “Oh, my goodness, I forgot about my trunk.” (5)

What is astonishing is how much Rossmann, in his innocence, trusts this stranger and takes to him as if the Stoker will help him in some way. Rossmann’s forgetfulness – coupled with his trust – adds to his schlemiel character:

Perhaps I should stick with this man – thought Karl – for where else could I find a better friend just now? (5)

Besides his trust, the Stoken jokingly complements Rossmann who says that he “believes” that his trunk is still on deck with the man he trusted: “‘Blessed are those who believe,’ said the man.”   The blessing indicates that Rossman’s trust has something religious about it.

But while it is the case that in a Sholem Aleichem story, the innocent character is endearing (think, for instance, of Aleichem’s Motl or Tevye), here, this is not so much the case.   Aleichem’s schlemiel is different from Kafka’s because Kafka’s Rossmann prompts the reader to think more critically about the people he is meeting along the way and the decisions he makes.

Like many a schlemiel, Rossmann’s absent-mindedness can get him in trouble. However, Kafka creates reasons for the reader to be suspicious of Rossmann and though his innocence and trust may be endearing they can also be read as stupid and even infantile. This is what Heinz Politzer claims in his book, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox.

That aside, what the Stoker does is give Rossmann an opportunity to defend him to the Captain of the ship (since the Stoker is in a difficult situation by virtue of a woman he fooled around with and a Hungarian – the Stoker is German – who has a problem with him).   This opportunity puts the schlemiel in the position of a defense attorney.   There is a question and a problem here which Kafka is testing: Can a schlemiel, who has no knowledge of the situation save for what he learned at that moment, profess the innocence of a man who is most likely not innocent?

This question and the problem make it difficult for the reader to identify with Rossmann’s innocence – in particular – and innocence in general. Kafka has, in effect, used literature to pose deep questions about the meaning of the schlemiel and innocence. While Aleichem preserves our belief in the schlemiel and in the power of innocence, Kafka, with these characters and situations, puts it into question.   Kafka, it seems, was weighing these questions and knew that, for him (just like for a Midrashist or Talmudist), the meaning of innocence depends on how or whether the reader identifies with a character and his actions.

Innocence, for Kafka, is a spiritual pre-requisite. However, as he well knew it may go nowhere.   Even if a character is able to pass the gate or make a friend, his innocence does not preserve him from a tragic-comic conclusion. Rossmann’s laughter indicates this double-edged aspect of innocence. Sometimes acting “as if” something is true or good may only lead to problems. However, as Kafka well knew, the alternative is bitterness and cynicism.  Kafka laid out these possibilities in this novel and gave them to the reader.


….to be continued.

Oh, Have I Got a Deal For You! On Woody Allen’s Comedic Myth-Busting


In comedy there are no sacred cows. And when it comes to mythology, comedy doesn’t hesitate to smash this or that myth.   Jewish comedy is well known for its iconoclasm. And perhaps this has a root in Judaism’s resistance to mythology and idolatry as well as its prohibition of images. It may also have to do with Judaism’s interest in textual interpretation which shows that this or that story poses questions or is linked to another narrative (something we often see in Midrash).   Both Franz Kafka and Woody Allen are, without a doubt, Jewish iconoclasts.  They parody myth by way of their own revisions, but they differ in terms of the insights that they offer to the reader.   While Kafka gives the reader deeper insights into faith, self-doubt, existence, and consciousness with his parodic revisions of myth, Allen gives his readers or viewers a sense of how a New Yorker has better things to do than get caught up in this or that ridiculous myth.   In these comedic revisions, Woody Allen is out to sell a way of life not prompt deep reflection.

In a piece entitled, “Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts,” Allen takes aim at several different kinds of mythological creatures, fantastic places, and myth itself. Like any joke, he starts with a serious reflection, but ends with an ironic punch line:

A wise man in India bet a magician that he could not fool him, whereupon the magician tapped the wise man on the head and changed him into a dove. The dove flew out the window to Madagascar and had his luggage forwarded.

…The magician said that in order to learn the trick one must journey to the four corners of the earth, but that one should go in the off-season, as three corners are usually booked. (178, The Insanity Defense)

In another mythological rewrite, Allen takes aim at an imaginary place called “Quelm,” (which sounds like, Chelm, a place populated by schlemiels).   It is “so distant from Earth that a man traveling the speed of light would take a million years to get there, although they are planning a new express route that will cut two hours off the trip”(178).

In each punch line, Allen looks to ground the listener in the here and now of the New York Jewish attitude toward the hardships of life and getting by:

In addition to these obstacles on Quelm, there is no oxygen to support life as we know it, and what creatures do exist find it hard to ear a living without holding down two jobs. (179)

While Allen’s iconoclasm is funny and grounds us in the here and now, it can be construed in a negative manner since it doesn’t take myth as a basis of reflection. It rejects it wholeheartedly. The problem with iconoclasm is that when it is not done with a proper sense of humility, it could possibly come across (to some) as self-serving or even dishonest. Citing Aristotle, Leo Strauss argues that “irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).

But, as I note elsewhere, Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle, Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Reflecting on this, one can argue that even though Woody Allen isn’t using irony like Kafka (in order to tap into this or that depth while effacing a myth), he is also making a “proper” use of irony since the punch line dissimulates the superiority of myth.   His punch lines convey the humility of the New York everyman who is just trying to survive. The “speaker” in these pieces is the “ironic man” and his “noble dissimulation” conveys his only virtue which is to be a New Yorker.   But let’s not fool ourselves: each punch line is a sales pitch for a way of life which lives in the wake of myth and perhaps even philosophy. After all, both are interested in origins. (As Aristotle also notes in “The Metaphysics,” philosophy and myth start with wonder.)

I’ll leave the reader with a Woody Allen joke that takes both myth and philosophy as its target. Allen’s joke suggests that, in the world of the New Yorker, the philosopher (as much as the myth-lover) doesn’t exist:

Legend has it…that many billions of years ago the environment was not quite so horrible – or ate least no worse than Pittsburgh – and that human life existed.   These humans – resembling men in every way except for a large head of lettuce where the nose normally is – were to a man philosophers.   As philosophers they relied heavily on logic and felt that if life existed, somebody must have caused it, and they went looking for a dark-haired man with a tattoo who was wearing a Navy pea jacket.

When nothing materialized, they abandoned philosophy and went into the mail-order business, but post rates went up and they perished. (179)