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The Modern Crisis of Authority in Kafka and Eliot

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The modern crisis of authority revolves around the recognition that current versions of traditional authority are no longer credible or reliable. Such a dramatic shift in perception cannot be effectively realized in the safe, florid writing of La Belle Epoch. When Franz Kafka and T. S. Eliot write about the modern crisis of authority, they communicate the idea through the very structure and nature of their new, unsettling styles of writing. The crisis is, to borrow a Freudian term, sublimated into the very essence of the works; that is, the manifest doubt and insecurity of the content becomes translated into the uncertain, insecure writing style. To be sure, Kafka and Eliot both explicitly present an authority crisis in “The Metamorphosis,” “The Wasteland,” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Kafka’s bellicose Mr. Samsa illustrates the current decadence of authority figures, while Gregor’s metamorphosis undermines the authority of the self. Eliot’s pseudo-prophets (such as Tiresias, Mme. Sosostris, and Prufrock himself) present the collapse of truth and wisdom. Yet behind these characters, beneath the manifest anxiety and crisis of the content, there lies a stronger stylistic anxiety, and a more powerful crisis of composition, which accentuate the angst of the works. Specifically, Kafka’s use of perspective and Eliot’s use of structure transforms the crisis of authority already present in the texts into a crisis of style, thereby sublimating this uncertainty into the very nature of the works.

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Before examining the style of Kafka and Eliot’s works, it is important first to establish the presence of an authority crisis in these works. Both Kafka and Eliot dramatize this decadence of authority through the denigration of certain achetypically authoritative characters. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Gregor’s father, as the paterfamilias, embodies the authority of the family; as a uniformed bank messenger, he embodies the authority of business, and as an old soldier, the authority of the state. In Part I, Gregor notices “a photograph of [his father] in military service, as a lieutenant, hand on sword, a carefree smile on his face, inviting one to respect his uniform and military bearing” (Kafka 101). Note how Kafka specifically points to the uniform and bearing as icons of respect, i.e., of authority. In Part III, Mr. Samsa’s “[bank] uniform, which was not brand-new to start with, began to look dirty… and Gregor often spent whole evenings gazing at the many greasy spots on the garment… in which the old man sat sleeping in extreme discomfort” (123). Thus, as the story progresses, the two icons of authority, the uniform and posture, have decayed into filth and discomfort. The ruin of the uniform is a powerful illustration of the decline of Mr2E Samsa as an authority figure.

In Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” the decline of authority is manifest in the decadence of modern prophets. These ostensible authorities reveal themselves to be shams or disappointments. Consider, for example, Madame Sosostris, the tarot reader, a would-be prophet who “is known to be the wisest woman in Europe” (Eliot, “The Wasteland,” 43, 45). Her predictions, such as the “drowned Phoenician Sailor” in line 47 and “death by water” in line 55 do come true in Part IV, “Death by Water,” as Phlebas the Phoenician Sailor drowns. Yet this prophetess is a ridiculous phony: Eliot undercuts her with “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, had a bad cold” (43-44), thereby imbuing her with a certain too-terrestrial commonness. Though her accurate tarot reading establishes her as an authority of truth, she cannot be taken seriously. In “Prufrock,” one sees a similar rejection of truth:

If a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one… should say: ‘That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant at all.’ (“Prufrock,” 7-8).

Prufrock, upset already at the difficulty of communication, imagines a magic screen that would, with complete accuracy and thoroughness, communicate the truth; yet still, he muses, such absolute truth would still be rejected. Similarly, he wonders,

Would it have been worth it, after all…

To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’

If one…

Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all.’

Here, the prophesy of life after death, along with a promised description of such a hereafter, is rejected. In all these examples, one sees the authority of truth, and of prophesy, not just decayed, but utterly rejected, ignored, and excised. Thus, through such rejection, the crisis of authority is visibly present in the content of Eliot’s works.

Here, it becomes crucial to examine one more authority crisis present in Kafka’s story, that of Gregor himself, and the alienation of self from which he suffers. Simply put, Gregor loses authority over his self, over his body and mind. The most obvious place to begin is at Gregor’s initial transformation: he loses his human shape and becomes a monstrous vermin. No explanation is offered, nor any hope of improvement. Such a strong and terrifying image of self-estrangement quite effectively underscores Gregor’s loss of control. As he attempts to leave his bed, he is frustrated by “the numerous little legs which never stopped waving in all directions and which he could not control in the least” (Kafka 92). Gregor’s inability to control his legs reflects a general loss of authority over his body. Similarly, when he reflexively snaps his mandible in his mother’s face at the sight of coffee, or when he “senselessly” crawls about the walls of his room, one sees a general loss of authority over his mind. As Gregor’s mind and body fluctuate between “Gregor the Human” and “Gregor the Vermin,” he experiences a crisis of the self, and a decay of authority over his own being.

As Gregor experiences this estrangement from body, the reader experiences an estrangement from the confining perspective of the story, and herein lies the genius of Kafka. He sublimates Gregor’s own authority crisis into a crisis of perspective, and thereby directly transmutes Gregor’s anxiety into the reader’s anxiety. This crisis of perspective revolves around the fact that almost the entire narration of the “Metamorphosis” is filtered through Gregor’s mind and perspective. For example, when Gregor first wakes up, the reader perceives the qualities of the environment in the order that Gregor looks at them:

His room, a regular human bedroom, only rather too small, lay quiet between the four familiar walls. Above the table on which a collection of cloth samples was unpacked and spread out… hung the picture… [of] a lady, with a fur cap on… Gregor’s eyes turned next to the window….

The last sentence tells the reader that he/she has been looking through Gregor’s eyes for the entire paragraph, and indeed the language is colored by Gregor’s unique situation: would anyone but a giant bug call his bedroom “a regular human bedroom”? Furthermore, the room has other qualities he might also have described, such as the “flowered wallpaper;” yet this detail does not arrive until thirty pages later (119). In addition, the reader’s perception of the family is limited to the voices that Gregor hears through the door in Part II (109), and to the sights that Gregor sees through the half-open door in Part III. The reader is, as it were, imprisoned in Gregor’s perspective; his thoughts and his senses form exclusively the reader’s vessel of perception . Furthermore, as Gregor becomes more and more estranged from his self, the reader begins to experience a similar estrangement from his/her vessel of perception. The reader begins to see flaws within this prison of perspective, and to realize exactly how skewed Gregor’s perception of reality is. After all, Gregor wakes up as a monstrous vermin, and almost immediately begins to worry about the train he’ll miss! Such strange irony instantly draws suspicion to Gregor’s perspective. One must wonder whether his sister plays the violin as divinely as he thinks, considering the lodgers’ unfavorable reaction to her music. Similarly, when Gregor addresses the Chief Clerk, he “knows perfectly that he is the only one who had retained any composure,” a very odd remark coming from a giant cockroach. Such bizarre, funny, disturbing instances serve to distance the readers from the only vessel of perception they have, much as Gregor becomes distanced from the only vessel of perception (his body) he has. Thus, Kafka’s use of perspective makes Gregor’s crisis of self a crisis for the reader as well.

Eliot, in a similar fashion, uses the structure of “The Wasteland” to transform the rejection of prophecy into an integral part of the experience of the poem. By obscuring the many prophetic voices of the poem with cacophonies of fragmented voices and languages, Eliot hinders the message of the prophets, and forces the reader to hear them, if at all, at a distance. For example, the “Thunder” in Part V, “What the Thunder Said,” is a clear prophetic voice, hearkening back to the Thunder as the voice of the god Prajaparti in the Upanishads (Eliot, note to “The Wasteland” l. 402, pg. 53). As in the Upanishads, the Thunder delivers the godly command Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata: give alms, show compassion, and exercise self-control. As in the Upanishads, all this must be understood from the only words it actually speaks, “DA DA DA” (“The Wasteland,” 401, 411, 418). If such prophesy seems ambiguous in the original text, one must wonder how well T. S. Eliot’s English and American audience could appreciate this Sanskrit wordplay. Yet Eliot, throughout the poem, hides his words within Italian, Latin, French, German, and Sanskrit quotations and phrases, which even in his own footnotes he rarely translates. Such a jumble of languages obfuscates the message of the poem’s prophets, and pushes the unscholarly reader away from an understanding of the poem. In other sections of “The Wasteland,” Eliot hides the prophetic voices within a cacophony of vulgar and distracting voices. In Part I, “Burial of the Dead,” one notices a certain prophetic voice, which includes the first four lines, “April is the cruelest month…”, then begins again with the Ezekial quotation, “Son of Man, you cannot say, or guess, for you only know a heap of broken images…”, and continues until it ends with:

I will show you something different from either

Your shadow in the morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

The use of the second person, and the hint of revelation in the text, establish the “Ezekiel” voice as a prophetic one. Yet this voice is only one of many strange voices present in Part I, including that of the vacationer, “We went into the Hofgarten, and drank coffee, and talked for an hour”, that of the ersatz German, “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch”, and “Marie,” “And when we were children’s staying at the arch-duke’s, my cousin’s…”. This varied and indiscriminate inclusion of different voices distracts the reader from the “Ezekiel” voice and draws attention away from his message. A similar effect occurs in Part III, as Tiresias’ sexual prophecy is sandwiched between Philomela’s incomprehensible “Jug jug jug” warbling, Mr. Eugenides’ business contact, and the Thames-daughters’ song. Eliot hides his prophets within noise-filled passages and scattered languages, obscuring the voices of prophecy. Such obfuscation reinforces at a structural level the already-seen rejection of prophecy present in the content of the poem. Eliot thus transforms a theme of the content into a direct experience for the reader.

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It is one thing to say that the authority of the self fails, or that the authority of prophecy is rejected, and quite another to make the reader experience such crises first-hand. When Freud used the word “sublimation,” he meant a transformation of unmentionable or disturbing feelings into the elusive, obscured symbols of dreams. Similarly, Eliot and Kafka transform the disturbing crisis of modern authority into something subtle, something hidden between the lines of poetry and prose. Yet as in dreams, this hidden crisis stirs deeper, more integral waters, and the reader experiences in his or her emotions the same disturbing feelings present in the content of the works. Kafka’s use of perspective and Eliot’s use of language do not merely “ballast” or “support” the crisis of their content; they drive it home, and transform it into the most personal, experiential crisis of reading.

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