Franz Kafka, the “German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short-story writer,” is customarily identified with “modernism.” Thus Wikipedia (whence the above description also comes from): “the majority of [Kafka’s] output was associated with the experimental modernist genre.”

Fine. But what does that mean? We dutifully click through to the Wikipedia entry on “literary modernism” and learn that it “is characterized by a very self-conscious break with traditional ways of writing, in both poetry and prose fiction…. This literary movement was driven by a conscious desire to overturn traditional modes of representation and express the new sensibilities of [the modernists’] time.”

Though this is doubtless a standard way of thinking of Kafka in paraphrase, as it were, it may conceal as much as it reveals. Such would have been the opinion of W.H. Auden.

Auden was profoundly affected by Kafka’s writings, as shown both in his poetry (he mentions him by name in New Year Letter and quotes Kafka’s Aphorisms a couple of times in the notes to the long poem published in The Double Man) and in his prose. As far as the latter is concerned, Auden wrote about Kafka at least three different times over the course of a couple of decades with a great deal of consistency, frequently cribbing from earlier essays in his later ones.


For Auden, Kafka, far from being an avant-garde innovator, is inconceivable apart from the “European tradition,” of which he is Auden’s chief contemporary exemplar. Auden’s earliest essay on Kafka that I’m aware of (it is possible I’ve missed one) was published in The New Republic in February of 1941. His piece is a review of three translations of Kafka (Amerika, A Franz Kafka Miscellany, and The Castle)—or at least, it says it is. But as is so often is the case with Auden’s “reviews,” “The Wandering Jew” is more about his own ideas than the books he is reviewing.

Auden opens with one of Kafka’s aphorisms: “One must cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.” (Not long after this review, Auden would repurpose this aphorism in his long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, with one crucial change: “God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”) He then begins the essay proper (emphasis added):

[T]here is no modern writer who stands so firmly and directly in the European tradition, none less romantic and eccentric. Had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of.

A 20th-century Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe—quite an endorsement. But just how does Auden mean it?

To answer that question, Auden takes the reader on a whirlwind tour, over the course of a few pages, of Western literary history, or at least of one facet of it. The sum is this: Kafka’s traditionalism is found in his employment, in a distinctly 20th-century key, of the oldest type of story, the Quest, which Auden sees at work in all three of his novels (Amerika, The Castle, and The Trial). Each successive iteration of the Quest in the tradition brings with it its own permutations. In the fairy story (he gives the Golden Fleece as an example), the predestined Hero, endowed with natural abilities that suit him for the purpose, searches for and acquires a Sacred Object. (Auden had a penchant for capitalizing nouns.) Next, in the legend of the Holy Grail, supernatural Grace is given to “the predestined knight,” not to possess the Sacred Object, but to find and worship it.

The Reformation brings a change, in Auden’s view: the disappearance of the Sacred Object and a new purpose for the Quest, personal salvation. (Interestingly, he thinks Moby-Dick leapfrogs back over this development, for it is not salvation that Ahab seeks, but the whale, the Sacred Object.) Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the chief exemplar here. (C.S. Lewis would have agreed with this classification: Bunyan’s “high theme had to be brought down and incarnated on the level of an adventure story of the most unsophisticated type—a quest story, with lions, goblins, giants, dungeons and enchantments.”) And as the nature of the Quest has changed, so has the nature of the hero: heroes in such stories “succeed not because they are perfect but because they never give up the struggle to achieve perfection.” They persevere.

Next, for Auden, comes the introduction to the Quest of the Ironical, in which the goal remains personal salvation, but certainty in religious authority has been removed and doubt has been introduced. As Auden would write later in “K’s Quest,” published in a 1946 collection called The Kafka Problem, “in these quests, the faith in religious authority is lacking, and what is sought is an individual and immediate certainty, without faith, that the subject is ‘in the truth.’ This can only be acquired by exploring all the possibilities of one’s nature, good and evil, for it is only when a man knows them all, that he can be perfectly certain which is the right one; as long as there is a single possibility untried, he cannot know that it should be rejected, he can only believe that it should.” One thinks here of Qoheleth in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. And where do we find such an Ironical Quest? In Goethe’s Faust and, especially, Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. (It was a somewhat pleasant surprise that some undergraduates in our course liked this latter work the best of those included in the second half of Auden’s “Fate and the Individual” syllabus.) “Not only,” says Auden in “The Wandering Jew,” “are all the answers only provisional but the possibility of salvation itself is left in doubt.” “The Hero has become a Bohemian.” (Oh dear.) If he does not fulfill the Delphic command to “Know thyself,” he at least follows Polonius’ advice “To thine own self be true,” though, like Peer, he does not know what that self is because Apollo has been ignored. By regarding “the Arbitrary in [himself] as the Necessary,” this hero becomes exceptional.

How does Kafka fit into all this? For Auden, he turns it on its head: “the Kafka hero is…the negator of the negator.” Peer Gynt tried to become exceptional—thus his Quest. When we come to The Castle of Kafka and K, the novel’s central character, “it is precisely the fact of his being exceptional” that constitutes his dilemma, for “he cannot tell in what his exceptionality consists.” Not only that, but the more closely he looks into the dingy village he has come to and the castle to which it is supposedly subject, all begins to appear arbitrary. There is nothing to hold it up other than the villagers’ faith, which seems to be misplaced. The veil is pierced. And that is dangerous.

Where Peer Gynt made the arbitrariness of his self-identity the supreme and necessary fact—an unwitting harbinger of our own age’s perilous and far more extreme tinkering with nature—K begins to suspect that what we believe to be the Necessary is in reality arbitrary. When one becomes contemplative or “reflective” (the latter is Auden’s word), he becomes exceptional, and that is when doubt is introduced. And then the problems for the modern Kafkaesque hero are interminable, “since he can never again hide the arbitrary appearance of everything from himself” and thus “is in constant danger of denying the Necessary he cannot understand, of losing his faith, and to lose Faith is to be damned.”

One might put the problem another way. Obedience (what is demanded of K) implies decision—to obey the mysterious rulers of the town or not. But what K sees, increasingly, is a castle made of sand, to put it in Jimi Hendrix’s phrase, and that includes the town’s seemingly arbitrary bureaucracy that demands his obedience. And now we have an ethical problem that Auden describes as a rupture in the division between “the outer and the inner”: “For K, the Modern Man…[the] ethical problem is how to separate what he must obey from what he must decide.”

Like Peer, then, K too portends our own maladies. When external nature has been discarded, the proposition that one should be obedient to nature—as, for example, the ancient Stoics suggested—becomes nonsensical, or else becomes nothing more than an instrumentalized language game (“Do what feels natural”). For before there can be any act of obedience, one must first decide what is real—what is real for me, what is “natural” for me, what is my truth. And that arbitrary choice is then externalized and projected across the now permeable boundary between “the outer and the inner” to the outside world, attempting in an act of divine theft to speak a new world into existence by sheer force of will. This is not what K, who is often read as an instance of heroic resistance to bureaucracy, does, of course, but it is a corollary of the spiritual disease to which Kafka was sensitive, and which seemed to him perhaps intractable.

But why make K the villain? (He isn’t.) Ultimately, the problems he faces are not of his own making. We might just as easily turn the previous paragraph around and say that K was right and justified in refusing to put his faith in what he was told by the authorities, because the authorities were lying. Reality is not up for a vote, so why go along with the pious fiction that it is? Perhaps, then, K is precisely the hero for our day? After all, we no longer rewrite reality on the individual level only, but enforce our arbitrary fiats by sanction and by law, both written and unwritten. K’s relentless questioning has something to recommend it.

What we can learn from Kafka, in other words, is that the problems faced in our current circumstances are complex rather than simple. They are spiritual, yes, as fundamental human problems have been in every age, but they are also political, as they not infrequently are, and Kafka has something to say to both. To his credit, he will not give an easy answer. Such a refusal is salutary for those on all sides of our current divides. As Auden puts it: “Kafka is equally upsetting to the liberal intellectual who thinks that there are no ethical problems, only esthetic ones, and to the revolutionary who admits an ethical problem but wants it simplified into a dualistic form.”

In this midst of this vertiginous confusion, we must not lose the thread. Any attempt to simply go back to the Golden Fleece or the Holy Grail, as tempting as it may sound, would be foolish, as both Kafka and Auden knew. It would also be futile. Genies do not go back into bottles. The only way is forward, through the problems and confusions to a reclamation of the Real, a reformulation of the Quest that is at once both more worldly and more wise.

“It was fit and proper,” Auden said in 1941, “that Kafka should have been a Jew, for the Jews have for a long time been placed in the position in which we are now all to be, of having no home.” In order to reach our desired destination, we must first realize where we are, so that when we move, we move in the right direction. For that, Kafka is essential.

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.