A way out – The relationship human-animal in Kafka

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This article is a translation by Valentino Valitutti of the original Italian work “Una via di fuga – Il rapporto uomo-animale in Kafka” by Federico Redaelli, published for RadiciDigitali on Septemper 19, 2018.

What is the dividing line between culture and nature? What symbolic needs does the relationship with the animal satisfy?
The aim of the following article is neither to propose a consideration about the role of animals in Kafka’s works, nor to show the influence of Kafkaesque animals in literature.
I would like to suggest, instead, the analysis of a primary, universal, yet very often ignored theme: the relationship between man and animal, starting from a fragment of literary history – particularly, the short story A Report to an Academy – written by an author whose mindset was suggestively illuminated by the relationship with animals.

Academy concerning my previous life as an ape. (K., 266)

This is the beginning of A Report to an Academy: in media res absurda. As usual, Kafka does not prepare the reader to absurdity, to folly, to contradiction, to inconsistency; rather, the author throws him into them. That is the unreasoning and scientific way in which he probes reality: his writing is the result of an experiment. He creates an artificial setting, he puts a subject in it, and later he observes his behaviour. However, there is not a final test: the writer does not make a review, he does not give opinions. On the contrary, he goes straight on up to insinuating himself in the human being’s deeper layers, absorbing his shadiness, and mixing it up without purifying it.

Copertina de "La metamorfosi" del 1916. Immagine reperibile a questa URL.
Cover of “The Metamorphosis”, 1916. Image reachable at this URL.

As Primo Levi (LEVI 2016, pp. 1096-98; pp. 1532-33), who translated The Trial for Einaudi publishing company, claimed himself after a work implying a deep and nearly physical pain, in Kafka’s works there is not a vertical movement filtering reality. Kafka is not interested in giving back a reality cleaned up by incoherence, contradiction, folly and nonsense. The bohemian author creeps into it, absorbing bacteria and fungus and so giving them back to the reader.

In A Report to an Academy (that is, moreover, one of the few short stories edited during the author’s life in 1917 in the periodical Der Jude. Eine Monatsschrift), Kafka chooses an ape among his zoological garden and he puts him on the desk of an Academic room. The savage strength, the brutality, the disconnected call become comprehensible all of sudden, and, moreover, deserving the audience of teachers and professors. Peter the Red, the name given to the ape after his capture, stays in the place where culture is elaborated and selected. This is an element not to be ignored, as it turns perspectives upside down and it subverts knowledge hierarchy. The ape has been called to provide a report about his life as an animal. The savage, the animal, the beast, what it is par excellence outside the sphere of logos, can tell his history and he can be listened to.

Copertina della rivista "Der Jude".
Cover of the periodical “Der Jude”. Image reachable at this URL.

The duty of the ape is not simple, the same Peter the Red claims it immediately:

Almost five years separate me from my existence as an ape, a short time perhaps when measured by the calendar, but endlessly long to gallop through, as I have done, at times accompanied by splendid men, advice, applause, and orchestral music, but basically alone, since all those accompanying me held themselves back a long way from the barrier, in order to preserve the image. (K., 266)

What is that “barrier”? It is the ontological and epistemological principle at the base of the entire Western culture. It is the opposition between man and animal or, better to say, between human and not human, between culture and nature. It is not necessary to dig up the Aristotelian categories to realize how crucial it has been this distinction in shaping the thought, until becoming an accepted and essential assumption not to talk about anymore.

Yet, this dichotomy has been discussed in the second half of the Nineteenth century, and it should be examined again. In the preface of the second edition of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Levi-Strauss talks about a “dividing line” between nature and culture that is “tenuous and curvy” (LEVI-STRAUSS 1967, pp. 19-20). Besides, the author wonders if, far from being an immutable, a priori, and unquestionable fact, this dividing line is a cultural construction, “an artificial creation of the human culture” (ibid, p. 20). It is a “defensive work” – he adds – built by the man in order to claim his first place in the animal kingdom. Even in a former speech, composed years before to commemorate the French Enlightened Rousseau, he denounced the “cursed cycle” (LEVI-STRAUSS 1978, pp. 45-46) inaugurated by the man with the radical separation from the animal kingdom. That same cycle, later, would be limited again through the exclusion and the subjugation of many fringes of human beings.

Copertina del 1969 de "Le strutture elementari della parentela". Immagine reperibile a questa URL.
Cover of “The Elementary Structures of Kinship”. Image reachable at this URL.

Peter the Red accepts this barrier and he realizes that it is necessary to endorse and cross it in order to survive.

This achievement would have been impossible if I has stubbornly wished to hold onto my origin, onto the memories of my youth. Giving up that obstinacy was, in fact, the highest command that I gave myself. I a free ape, submitted myself to this yoke. (K., 266)

Thanks to his typical memorable sense of humour, Kafka reveals what the passage from the free state of nature to the world of culture could be. And the same culture had the final goal to create the bourgeois society, in which Kafka, as a maltreated clerk of an insurance agency, felt himself extremely subjugated.

Kafka’s way is subtle, as revealed by the irony through which the ape reminds his audience of their common biological origin:

Speaking frankly, as much as I like choosing metaphors for these things – speaking frankly: your experience as apes, gentlemen – to the extent that you have something of that sort behind you – cannot be more distant from you than mine is from me. But it tickles at the heels of everyone who walks here on earth, the small chimpanzee as well as the great Achilles. (K., 267)

There is a common physical substratum both for the peak of culture and for the ape’s prone pace. The objective physical and natural fact is the tangible and trivial condition that no way of thinking can reject, deconstruct, or incorporate. And yet, the man is erect, while the ape can never achieve the upright position. Nevertheless, there is something bizarre about this condition. Edgar Morin notices that the first hominids were just the mice of the Mesozoic era (MORIN 1974, pp. 57-66). They were those who had lost the battle for the control of the forest and had been sent to the savannah, where the survival sources were much more inadequate. So, while adapting himself and acting in the new environment, in which the search for food implied long distances, the primate developed the erect posture. Getting up, the man obtained more strength and precision in the grip of the hand, the hand released the jawbone from several mechanical obligations, and the liberation of the jawbone implied the skull volumetric increase.

There is a game of vital and logical cross references in the works of the author from Prague: from apes to mice (just remember Kafka’s last short story, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk) and from mice to other animals used to survive in the society interstices, in other words the beetles, whose importance in Kafkaesque works is widely known.

Through the metaphor of the heels tickling touching the ground, Kafka reaffirms one of his topics: the body, that inseparable clump of symbolism and materiality. In 1917, the year in which he publishes A Report, he begins to suffer from tuberculosis. In the summer of that year, an intense spill of blood forecasts the mortal disease that will torment him until 03/06/1924, the day in which he would die in a sanatorium in Vienna.

“If he initially interprets the event (the spill of blood) as a punishment for the guilt feelings towards his father and Felice (the woman he broke up with), later he lives it as a liberation from every worldly bond”.  (GUGLIELMINO, GROSSER 1989, p. 136).

In Kafka’s opinion, the relationship with his own body is trapped by what the members of the school of Palo Alto called 
double bind (BATESON 1977). The idea implies a subject incessantly submitted to opposing and binding messages: in Kafka’s specific situation, the desease as punishment and liberation. It is a contrastive and tight knot: Kafka felt his body annihilating him, devastating him, and excluding him from mankind, and at the same time this condition was the only way out of the bourgeois society, of the middle-class worldly events he perceived as oppressive and extraneous.

And there is something more: “Kafka felt an animal inside himself”, as Pietro Citati masterfully notices in a passage whose poetry needs to be mentioned entirely:

he perceived a beetle or a cockchafer in hibernation in himself; a mole digging holes in the ground; a mouse escaping as soon as a man approached; a slithering snake; a worm squashed by a human foot; a flying bat; a parasitic insect sucking his own blood; a silvan beast laying desperate in a filthy hole or in a lair; an ash-like grey crow with wasting wings; a dog grinding his teeth to his molesters or barking while running nervously around a statue; a double animal, with the body of a lamb, and the head and the claws of a cat, with soft hair and the savage and shiny eyes of both of them. (CITATI 2000, p. 59)

Kafka feels terrorized towards the animal, as perceived by his words. Yet, at the same time, he feels the need to crawl into his guts, into that swarming and unknown abstrusity under the skin, in order to understand the meaning of his own existence.

Later, he would have understood the meaning of his feelings. The animal living in him – a beetle, a badger, or a mole – was nothing but his soul and body as a writer, used to close himself in the basement every night and every winter to listen to the voice of the inspiration, like some animals spending the winter in hibernation in their nighty liars. (Ibid)

Kafka creates minimal and eternal stories from his nighty liars, from those cubby holes in which he retires to write. The claustrophobic rooms in Niklasstrasse, Zarau, or in the boarding house Ottoburg in Merano look like the cage in which Peter the Red is closed after his capture: “too low to stand upright and too narrow to sitting down” (K., 268). Even in the act of writing Kafka seems to undertake a way with no exit, as he had already told himself, while holding a pen and a paper: “There is no way out”.

And since at first I probably did not wish to see anyone and to remain constantly in the darkness, I turned towards the crate, while the bars cut into the flesh of my back. (K., 269)

At this point, Kafka, the man, and Peter the Red, the ape, join their paths.

I had no way out, but I had to come up with one for myself. For without that I could not live. Always in front of that crate wall – I would inevitably have died a miserable death. But according to Hagenbeck, apes belong at the crate wall – well, that meant I had to cease being an ape. A clear and beautiful train of thought, which I must have planned somehow with my belly, since apes think with their bellies. (K., 270)

Thinking with the belly” is a popular saying that means leaving space for one’s own feelings, but also letting the guts (the more brutal part of our body) think. Nevertheless, there is a deep difference between Kafka, the man, and Peter the Red, the ape. If, as said before, the first one decides to renounce a connection with the world and to crawl more into his own obscurity, into an universe with no way out, the second one plans how to find a way out. It will be the Other, the world of men looking at the animal from outside the cage in that moment, that will indicate a way out. If according to Kafka the problem is how to find “an entrance, a side, a passageway, or a vicinity, …” (DELEUZE, GUATTARI 1996, p. 15), for the ape is how to find a way out.
If Kafka’s complete work looks like a sacrifice of the civilized man, of the millenarian culture, and of European society for liberating the animal inside of his body and soul, on the other hand Peter the Red has to sacrifice his own animality, his own freedom and brutality, in order to find peace in the cultured and civilized world. If in
The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa understood that the animal condition was the only solution for him, the ape understands that his future depends on the assumption of the human condition. So, just as Gregor Samsa the beetle was killed by his own family, Peter the Red repudiates his own origin in order to be accepted by the human big family.

But Kafka reshuffles the cards again:

I’m worried that people do not understand precisely what I mean by a way out. I use the word in its most common and fullest sense. I am deliberately not saying freedom. I do not mean this great feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape, I perhaps recognized it, and I have met human beings who yearn for it. But as far as I am concerned, I did not demand freedom either then or today. Incidentally, among human beings people all too often are deceived by freedom. And since freedom is reckoned among the most sublime feelings, the corresponding disappointment is also among the most sublime. In the variety shows, before my entrance, I have often watched a pair of artists busy on trapezes high up in the roof. They swung themselves, they rocked back and forth, they jumped, they hung in each other’s arms, one held the other by clenching the hair with his teeth. “That, too, is human freedom”, I thought, “self-controlled movement”. What a mockery of sacred nature! At such a sight, no structure would stand up is the laughter of the apes. (K., 270)

There is no freedom in humankind, the only freedom is the childish imitation of the apes’ vaults. Besides, Peter the Red did not wish to escape to feel himself free. He understood that if he had succeeded in the challenge, he would have been captured again and closed in a cage even worse than the previous one. Peter the Red realized that there was no other solution but throwing himself either into the coils of the pitons in the cage in front of his own, or into the sea, waiting to drown (K., 272). Adopting Gunther Anders’s maxim, freedom is “a negative prison” (ANDERS 2006, p. 62). “The living person is a negative prisoner: he is not closed in, he is left out” (ibid, p. 60). There is always a sense of oppression not of those living in the cage, but of those outside. Social alienation vanishes while entering the external cage, or, better said, the way out turns into the exit from the bars just to bum pinto a prison. This is the Kafkaesque vertiginous dilemma.

What the ape was looking for on the ship carrying him to Europe with sailors was “calmness” (K., 271). What could be the meaning of this word in Kafka’s short story? The “calmness” Peter the Red talks about could be gained by bearing “heavy steps echoing in my half-sleep”, “gross but friendly jokes”, their “laughter always mixed up with a threatening but meaningless cough”, the indifference of their spits, their continuous complaints about “my lice jumping onto them” (K., 271); the approaching of the lighted pipe to a point of the skin that Peter the Red was unable to reach until his fur started to burn “but then the sailor himself deadened the flame with his enormous good hand” (K., 274).

The calmness which I acquired in this circle of people prevented me above all from any attempt to escape. (K., 271)

At first sight, “calmness” seems a synonym of “docility” in such a context: willing to learn, ready to be guided, but also bending and surrendering. Foucault talked about “submissive bodies” (FOUCAULT 1976) in relation to the practices of knowledge and power in Modern Age. From the Eighteenth century onwards the individual integration in the social body is not the result of a violent submission to the authority anymore, but it can be achieved through the acquisition and the introjection of a social protocol. So, Peter the Red would gradually acquire the inner workings of that human context along his path from the ship to the variety stage to the Academic desk. Thanks to this free and voluntary acquisition, Peter the Red turns into a subject (to use a philosophical vague term).

La prigione panoptica descritta da Foucault. Immagine reperibile a questa URL.
The panoptic prison described by Foucault. 

We have to pause again on this moment in the story, as it is crucial in Kafka’s mindset. Deleuze and Guattari underline how this passage exemplifies the binary relationship in the poetics of the author from Prague: “low head-high head” (DELEUZE, GUATTARI 1996, pp. 11, and onwards.). In other words, Peter the Red closed in the cage, forced by the bars to stay with the bended neck, and Peter the Red raising his head to look into the sailors’ eyes. Nevertheless, this dichotomy has not be interpreted as the alternation between subjection and rebellion. The two French authors quote the same A Report to underline that

the head lifting up does not have […] its own formal validity, it is just a deformable, dragged, and transported substance now […] it is not a well-defined vertical movement towards the sky or above, it is not the breach in the roof, but the intense movements headlong, even standing still or with no direction, it is not freedom against submission, but just a break line, or better a simple way out, “to the right, to the left, as long as it was” (K., 270) the less significant. (Ibid, p. 13)

As stated before, according to Peter the Red the way out is the acquisition of social models proposed first of all on the ship: spitting, smoking the pipe, and drinking spirit with enormous difficulty. The smell of alcohol disgusted Peter the Red, and just the methodical example offered by a sailor every night would lead him to success.

Peter the Red undertakes a process of learning by imitation: the ape “does not think, but he observes with calmness” (R., 272), he mimics that behaviour “now indistinguishable from my model” (K., 274), and he is approved when adopting functioning manners: “and if I then pressed my thumb down into the bowl of the pipe, the entire area between decks cheered” (K., 273). Deleuze and Guattari warn the reader not to be misled by this way of learning. Even if it seems a progressive anthropization of the ape, as the learning by imitation complies with the progressive adjustment to the social protocol, it is actually deterritorializing (DELEUZE, GUATTARI 1996, p. 25). Here it is another cryptic term, hard to be defined. Introduced initially in 1972, according to the authors it conveys a figurative or symbolic movement from a specific and usual zone to an outer unknown place. Deleuze recalls the idea in the book Dialogues, written with Claire Parnet in 1977, in the chapter On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature. Deleuze describes the deterritorialization carried out by literature, pointing put two verbs: the first one is to run, that is “to come out of the groove”, to trace down a “break line”, not to escape into the imaginary and the fantastic, but to produce reality. The second verb is to betray, in other words to move, to become something else. Kafka seems to be the perfect personification of the idea, as the author of The Metamorphosis and other short stories in which it is presented what the two philosophers call becoming animal, with no relationship of mere mimesis between the human and the animal, and with no mere symbolic substitution of something with the animal character.

On the contrary, what happens is a meeting in which each one encourages the other, involving themselves in their own break lines, in a combined deterritorialization. (DELEUZE, PARNET 2006, p. 51)

Therefore, we could suppose that there could not be a total adjustment to human behaviour, rather the ape keeps the animal essence alive while acting like a human. Peter the Red does not substitute humanity for his brutality; instead, he lets his animal side achieve the human world. Deleuze and Guattari’s idea supposes that the mindset could not be based on defined and identifying monads holding together meanings and considerations, rather on continuously stratified identities, always escaping astray and unable to grab hold of each other.

As a result of this, there is a subversion on anthropocentric codes.

Becoming animal [or, becoming human for an animal] means therefore starting a movement, tracing positively the break line, crossing the threshold, achieving a continuo of auto-referential intensities, finding a world of pure intensities in which all shapes, significances, and significants dissolve, in order to meet a shapeless substance made of deterritorializing flows and meaningless symbols. (DELEUZE, GUATTARI 1996, p. 23)

Once disembarked and sold, Peter the Red would undergo different teaching processes, leading him to an higher and higher level of humanity. Nevertheless, these processes would cost an arm and a leg for his teachers, as they would irremediably end up in clinics. The ape turning into human implies a trespassing that wounds the man, as he feels damaged in his ontological human structure.

But I went through many teachers – indeed, even several teachers at once. (K., 276)

The price to pay for having forced the ape to leave his nature is consumption. There is something in the human dissolving, eroding, deteriorating, up to going crazy. What could these lines mean? May there be Kafka’s warning about avoiding subverting natural hierarchical order? The answer is negative. The cause of madness is in the man’s and the ape’s guts. The attempt to leave the instinctive nature to elevate oneself is condemned to failure. So, culture realizes that its project could have success just by going crazy, even if initially it was considered indifferent and above nature, demanding this single animal being to align.

Peter the Red, instead, loses his savage nature: as stated before, his way out is closing himself in the “negative prison”: he attains “the average education of a European” (K., 276). He puts some pants on, he takes wine to the table, he swings on the chair, he puts his hands in his pockets, he looks out of the window. And, if he likes spending some time with a half-tamed female ape at night, he rejects her during the day

for she has in her gaze the madness of a bewildered trained animal. I am the only one who recognizes that, and I cannot bear it. (K., 277)

Finally, speaking in the Academy, Peter the Red does not create knowledge; instead, he becomes the subject of knowledge. He talks about his life just to be inspected, understood, absorbed and re-elaborated by the official culture. It is the triumph of humanism as rejection of every diversity.

It arises between Peter the Red and the humankind what is called “enharmonic exchange” in music:

throughout history a subject or a person, born from a specific metaphor, assumes a different symbolic meaning; the “sharp” becomes immediately “the flat” somehow. Nevertheless, as the person or the subject keeps a specific identity throughout history, the “global significance” becomes incomprehensible. (ANDERS 2006, p. 72)

That is Kafka’s style, characterized by mixing up bacteria again and again in the deepest layers. In this sense, A Report does not redefine new perspectives through which thinking about the relationship nature/culture, but it envelopes them, making the incongruences emerge and giving space to aporia.

Peter the Red himself has neither ideas to publicize nor human advice to ask for.

Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Academy, I have only made a report. (K., 277)

He laconically concludes.

After all, this is Kafka.


    • 1970 = Kafka F., Racconti, a cura di E. Pocar, trad. it. R. Paoli, Mondadori, Milano 1970.
    • ANDERS 2006 = Anders G., Kafka. Pro e contro (1951), Quodlibet, Macerata 2006.
    • BATESON 1977 = Bateson G., Verso un’ecologia della mente (1972), Adelphi, Milano 1977.
    • CITATI 2000 = Citati P., Kafka, Mondadori, Milano 2000.
    • DELEUZE GUATTARI 1996 = Deleuze G., Guattari F., Kafka. Per una letteratura minore (1975), Quodlibet, Macerata 1996.
    • DELEUZE, PARNET 2006 = Deleuze G., Parnet C., Conversazioni (1977), Milano: Ombre corte 2006.
    • FOUCAULT 1976 = Foucault M., Sorvegliare e punire. La nascita della prigione (1975), Einaudi, Torino 1976.
    • GUGLILMINO, GROSSER 1989 = Guglielmino S., Grosser H., Il sistema letterario, Vol. 5, Principato, Milano 1989.
    • LEVI 2016 Levi P., Opere complete II, a cura di Belpoliti M., Einaudi 2016.
    • LEVI-STRAUSS 1967 = Levi-Strauss C., Le strutture elementari della parentela (1949), Feltrinelli, Milano 1967.
    • LEVI-STRAUSS 1978 = Levi-Strauss C., Antropologia strutturale due (1973), Feltrinelli, Milano 1978.
    • MORIN 1994 = Morin E., Il paradigma perduto (1973), Feltrinelli, Milano 1994.

Author: Federico Redaelli
Translated by Valentino Valitutti


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