Unknown, Unkissed, and Lost Part 2: Kafka & Kaufman

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The stories of Franz Kafka infuse the mundane with the fantastical, putting regular people in absurd situations without easy solutions. The worlds Kafka crafts are paradoxical, following no strict logic but requiring characters to act without understanding how their world works. It is through these circumstances that Kafka explores what it means to be human and how one creates art. Kafka’s and Kaufman’s stories explore the relationship between mind and body through the contrast of human and animal characters, examine the purpose of art in simultaneously relying on and being rejected by the public, and meditate on the confusing logic of existence through paradoxical situations where symbols of authority consistently fail to make sense of the situation.


WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A HUMAN

Both Kaufman and Kafka explores human identity by blending the line between animal and human. For instance, Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” outlines an ape’s journey from savagery to civilization; however, the ape’s language is equally animalistic in describing the human characters. He refers to the ship’s crew as “good creatures” who “hardly spoke but grunted to each other,” much like beasts would (Kafka 254). Kaufman explores the human/animal divide as well in his first film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman contrasts the human characters with Lotte’s pets, most notably the chimp Elijah. In the film, human characters attempt to enforce clear labels on what constitutes humanity versus animality, such as when Craig insists to Elijah “You don’t know how lucky you are being a chimp, because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer” (Being John Malkovich). However, Lotte explains that Elijah suffers ulcers due to “suppressed childhood trauma,” a problem for which the chimp sees a psychoanalyst. In a flashback, the film reveals that Elijah was unable to save his family from being captured, showcasing not only how the apes had the capacity to communicate, feel regret, and process loss. The human characters “are, actually, probably lower than animals” as “Elijah the monkey seems to be the only noble character in the film,” showing compassion and overcoming his trauma through freeing Lotte from the cage (Repass 31). In both narratives, the humans are animal-like and the animals are human-like, offering intriguing commentary on what makes humans human.

The ape in “A Report” even undermines his own process of civilization in insisting that “I imitated them because I needed a way out,” making his acquisition of language and culture simply a tactic for survival (Kafka 257). Kaufman’s Human Nature deals with similar themes, which is no surprise considering that Kafka’s story “provides Human Nature with a narrative framework the presentation and portrayal of its central characters” (Der Ruhr 70). Similarly, Puff learns to be civilized as a means to end to achieve another biological imperative, explaining “I understood from that moment that in order to ‘get some,’ I would have to play their game;” even his desire to be civilized is rooted in instinctual desire (Human Nature).

"Human Nature" (2001)

“Human Nature” (2001)

In both stories, “civilized” humans also follow social conventions to survive in a different sense, realizing that one must know how to speak and act in public to achieve success. Nathan’s father tells him that what separates humans from the chimps they see in the cage is “Culture. Civilization. Refinement” (Human Nature). The implication is that he refuses to acknowledge how “our behavior is invariably the product of evolutionary biology, “selfish” genes, neuroses, unconscious urges, or similarly elusive causes;” Nathan’s father, and Nathan by extension, see the idea of civilization as apart from nature rather than a product of it (Von Der Ruhr 79).

In the same way that the ape in Kafka’s story is “made human” through learning to memorize inconsequential tricks like drinking alcohol and exclaiming “Hallo!” so does Puff learn pointless showy behaviors like how to act at the opera or choose the correct fork at the dinner table instead of practical life skills; it is almost as if the humans teaching the uncivilized people do not know themselves what is at the core of being human (Kafka 257).


WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ARTIST

Both Kafka and Kaufman also reflect on the role of art; more specifically, how the artist interacts with their audience and what purpose art has.

There are several similarities between the artist in Kafka’s A Hunger Artist and the typical Kaufman artist. Most notably, Kafka’s and Kaufman’s artists both feel misunderstood and isolated from the rest of the world, often at odds with their audiences. In the same way that the hunger artist loses popularity with his audience and believes “Anyone who has no feeling for [the art of fasting] cannot be made to understand it,” so does the character of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation feud with Hollywood executives who want to have the characters fall in love and screenwriting gurus who insist on conflict as the root of the story, whereas Kaufman wants to “let the movie exist rather than be artificially plot-driven” in the same way the book meditates on flowers, having to choose between staying true to his art and pleasing the public (Kafka 276, Adaptation).

Representation of "A Hunger Artist"

Representation of “A Hunger Artist”

Also, both Kafka’s and Kaufman’s artists take self-destructive paths in pursuit of their art. The hunger artist, by nature of his craft, can only complete his art by slowly killing himself; to nourish himself is to give up on his art. Kaufman’s characters has similarly self-destructive art. For instance, Caden Cotard’s endless ambition pushes away the people he loves, such as when he makes his wife reenact the domestic dispute they had the previous night in rehearsal for his play, choosing verisimilitude over respect for his wife.

However, what separates Kaufman’s artists from the Kafka’s is the ways in which they approach the purpose of their art. The hunger artist, while rejecting food, still gorges himself on the attention he receives from his audience, as he “[works] for fame rather for the sake of creating beauty” (Steinhauer 32). The hunger artist is not content solely with his craft; instead, he is constantly attempting to regain the fame that has passed him by.  In order to continue making his art, the hunger artist chooses to join a circus, losing much of his independence for a chance at greater exposure. This choice dehumanizes the artist, forcing him to live in a cage among animals who attract far more attention than he does. The hunger artist, however, chooses this demeaning lifestyle, with the narrator explaining “he had the animals to thank for the troops of people who passed his cage” even if “he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie;” he prioritizes whatever little fame he has left over his dignity (Kafka 275-6). The fact that he believes that “the world was cheating him out of his reward” emphasizes how he seeks external validation instead of being satisfied solely by his craft; his art loses meaning unless people are there to count the days, which makes it even more unfulfilling when the artist is able to fast as long as he wants, but the circus crew forgets to update the number of days he fasts.

Kaufman’s characters, on the other hand, often want to endlessly perfect their art in hopes of capturing some kind of truth, even if it means withholding it from the public by indefinitely delaying the production. For instance, in Caden’s quest to craft a theater piece that is “Something big and true and tough,” he goes to extreme lengths to plan his project, continually enlarging the scope of the piece until he has almost crafted a full-sized replica of New York City in his warehouse. Whenever the piece seems close to being finished, he perceives some new element that he feels breaks the facade of the piece. He even starts picking away staples of traditional theatre like the “fourth wall;” Caden too much artifice in the open-faced buildings, causing him to exclaim “This is a lie” before demeaning for his crew to “Wall it up” (Synecdoche). What is most ironic, however, is that the more time Caden spends working on his play, the more out of touch he becomes with the truth; the world outside the warehouse is almost post-apocalyptic, with soldiers forcing people into threatening vans to an eerily vague “Fun Land.”

Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation faces a similar dilemma in trying to avoid Hollywood tropes; however, he finds more of a common ground between the opposite worldviews of the hunger artist and Caden by listening to his brother Donald and embracing blockbuster cliché in the third act. Even though these last few minutes parody all the gimmicky elements Kaufman was trying to avoid “it simultaneously validates the need for symbolic dramatic closure,” reflecting how sometimes one must stray from truth to create more powerful art (Hill 215).


WHAT IT MEANS TO BE

Kafka’s characters find themselves in situations with no clear logic or systems, reflecting the chaos and inherent indifference of the world. Kafka explores these themes most succinctly in his parable “Before the Law,” which depicts a man who tries his whole life to enter the gates into the Law, but never succeeds, approaching death with his goal unfulfilled. The Law, beyond a legal sense, represents order; people expect for the universe to act fairly and to abide by certain rules, expecting its logic to be readily understandable in the same way that the man thinks the Law “should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone” (Kafka 3). The Law even appears accessible, since “the gates stand open” for the entire time the man is waiting (3). However, the man can never gain access to the Law, underlining how it is impossible to place such human concepts on a world that defies human understanding.

"Synecdoche, New York" (2008)

“Synecdoche, New York” (2008)

Kaufman’s characters also seek out answers to no avail. For instance, Caden Cotard wishes to make sense of all the bizarre anomalies of his health, so he too seeks advice from a supposed authority: the medical system. However, he consistently fails to receive the answers he desires. In the same way that the doorkeeper makes light conversation but “the questions are put indifferently” and without actual concern, the doctors in Synecdoche are unsympathetic to the emotions of their patients. For instance, the first doctor Caden visits complains that the man screaming in agony in the other room is “in here every week like clockwork.” The medical system also claims to be rooted in logic and reason, yet it follows no rules and is difficult to navigate. The first doctor insists that he recommends an ophthalmologist over a neurologist; however, when Caden visits the ophthalmologist, he recommends a neurologist. Caden even has trouble communicating on basic terms with the series of doctors. For instance, the ophthalmologist insists that “the eyes are part of the brain,” and when Caden questions whether that is “right,” the doctor asks “Like morally correct? Or right as in accurate?” (Synecdoche). Similarly, the doctors speak in paradoxes; when Caden asks if his ailment is serious, the doctor responds “We don’t know, but yes.” It seems like the more questions Caden asks, the more confused he becomes; for instance, in another doctor’s visit, Caden asks “You’re a doctor, right? Am I dying? Can you tell me that?” The doctor replies only with “No.” When Caden attempts to clarify by asking “No, you can’t tell me?” the doctor responds only with “I can’t tell you,” leaving all the answers still ambiguous (Synecdoche). The man in “Before the Law” faces similar confusion, despite his “insatiable” questioning over the years he waits (Kafka 4).

Thus, both Caden and the man from the country are lost in systems where rules seem apparent, but which are ultimately dense, paradoxical, and impossible to navigate. For both Kafka and Kaufman, the inner workings of the universe are impossible to uncover, causing only frustration and confusion for those who try to decode it.


Both Kafka and Kaufman explore what human existence entails, showing their characters to be civilized animals, creators, and perplexed navigators. Depicting fantastical and absurd situations to test the borders of what humanity entails, both authors craft compelling narratives that feel true to life despite their ridiculousness. Even when Kaufman and Kafka depict characters with opposite motives, they exist on different ends of the same spectrum, still meditating on the same issues and themes. Kaufman builds upon these themes for a new generation and through a new medium, carrying on the absurdist legacy for which Kafka helped build the foundation.

 

Works Cited

Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. 2002. DVD.

Being John Malkovich. Dir. Spike Jonze. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. John Cusack and John Malkovich. 1999. DVD.

Hill, Derek. “The Divided Self: Kaufman, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Human Nature.” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. Ed. David LaRocca. Lexington, KY: U of

Kentucky, 2011. 208-23. Print. Human Nature. Dir. Michel Gondry. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans. 2002. DVD.

Kafka, Franz. “Before the Law.” Trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir. Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1983. 3-4. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” Trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir. Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1983. 268-77. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “A Report to an Academy.” Trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir. Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1983. 250-9. Print.

Repass, Scott. “Being John Malkovich.” Film Quarterly 56.1 (2002): 29-36. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 29 July 2017.

Steinhauer, Harry. “Hungering Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’.” Criticism 4.1 (1962): 28-43. JSTOR. Web. 29 July 2017.

Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. 2008. DVD.

Von Der Ruhr, Mario. “The Divided Self: Kaufman, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Human Nature.” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. Ed. David LaRocca. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2011. 66-88. Print.