Why Kafka Still Matters
Reading Kafka may improve your capacity to find meaning in the meaningless.
Posted May 16, 2011
The first time I read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, I was hooked. In college I had the opportunity to read some great literature, but no writer spoke to more than Kafka.
Not too long ago I was purging my library and came across my beat-up copy of Kafka's stories from college. I began to re-read The Metamorphosis and sure enough I was drawn back into the story as deeply as I had been 20 years ago. For those unfamiliar with the story, it centers on Kafka's protagonist, Gregor Samsa, who "one morning from uneasy dreams [finds] himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." The image of a man transformed into an insect always struck me as the perfect metaphor for the angst and emotional alienation so often associated with the human experience. Confusion, despair, and paranoia are the hallmarks of Kafka's writing -- no wonder the term Kafkaesque has become synonymous with the absurdity of modern existence.
Kafka was certainly no stranger to absurdity. As an insurance salesman and state bureaucrat, he spent much of his life surrounded by it. He wrote from personal experience and many of his stories explored the dangers of modern bureaucracy and the institutions created to perpetuate it. In reading Kafka, the reader is reminded that we do matter and our actions impact others. His message seems no less relevant today as it did a century ago.
According to researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia, exposure to the works of Kafka can actually serve to enhance a person's cognitive ability to learn novel tasks. This finding was published in Psychological Sciences (2009) and was based on an ingenious research design in which participants were presented with a bizarrely illustrated Kafka story and then asked to perform an artificial-grammar task. What the researchers found was that reading and struggling with the existential dilemmas depicted in Kafka's writings may serve to facilitate a person's capacity to find order in a world that seems meaningless.
For those interested, here is the link to the research article entitled, "Connections from Kafka," appearing in Psychological Science.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.