Kafka and Pessimism

This is the fourth day of my “Write 500 Words a Day in November” challenge, and I am already at a loss for ideas. I went to Literary Hub’s home page a few hours ago and discovered that yesterday Emily Temple, the senior editor of Lit Hub, posted a playlist for The Trial by Franz Kafka. How timely! Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of any of the songs on the playlist.

I was surprised that Pink Floyd wasn’t on the list. All of their songs deal with the dark side of humanity, the meaninglessness of life, or the frustrations of bureaucracy. Indeed, “The Trial” is the name of a track from “The Wall”. But the album that most comes to mind when I think of The Trial is Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals”. K. is after all executed “like a dog”.

It seems like The Trial is gaining in popularity for the same reasons 1984 was sold out shortly after the election of Donald Trump. We are increasingly distrustful of our justice system and frustrated with the tyranny of the wealthy 1%. A percentage of the American population is all too familiar with stories about innocent men profiled, arrested, and/or shot for unknown reasons.

I know why so many of us are turning to dystopian and apocalyptic literature today. We see a disturbing parallel between the stories we are consuming and what we experience in our communities. Kafka suggests in The Trial that there is no hope in the world. K. should have accepted his guilt and renounced all hope for justice.

I disagree.

While we should be aware of the injustices in our society, and while there is always a need for literature that gives voice to the powerless, we must avoid losing hope for a better future. There have been many social reforms throughout history because some people had hope that conditions could change. There is a bureaucracy, but it is not omnipotent.

For years, I thought that cynicism was a virtue and optimism a vice. Pessimism often has a reputation for being “realistic” because there is so much injustice in the world. But the cynic risks becoming apathetic to evil. If we are convinced that our society is about as good as it will ever be, we will not fight for reform. We will consent to injustice.

Kafka created a nihilistic, hopeless world for Joseph K. In this outrageously unjust society, K. never had a chance. But no society is as immutable as K.’s. We can work together to make the world better. The hopeful reformer acknowledges the evil in the world, but tries to do something about it.

I am not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t read, but we all need a reminder from time to time that things can get better. Our society is not K.’s deterministic universe. There are actions we can take to make the world a better place for the 99%.

A year ago, I considered getting rid of my copy of the complete short stories of Franz Kafka because I was tempted by cynicism. I ultimately decided to keep the short story collection because I believe that there is a need for dystopian/existential literature in every age, and Kafka felt particularly relevant in 2016.

But I am now ready to read more hopeful fiction.


Note: This reflection took me forever to write. Writing daily is hard!

5 thoughts on “Kafka and Pessimism”

  1. Well said, I am here, joining you in that daunting task of making the world a better place! (Are you at goodreads? , someone else mentioned the Kirkus polemic saying “let the YA genre crumble”. I agree, I just don’t want that stupidity and nonsense to crawl into other genres, but it is happening.)

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