Psychoanalytic Reading of Kafka’s The Man Who Disappeared

Kafka’s first novel, The Man who Disappeared (Der Verschollene), still better known in the English-speaking world at least under Max Brod’s title, Amerika, is set against the realist backdrop of the most modern and technologically advanced society in the world, the USA. The America of this novel remains strangely hyper-real, however, in spite of Kafka’s careful depiction of various icons of modernity. This strange encoding of reality, both mimetic and anti-mimetic, cannot fully be explained by Kafka’s lack of first-hand experience of American life. Rather, it has to do with the way he employs modern America both as the main locus of social contest and as a metaphor. From the outset, the novel is characterised by the citation of cultural myths and stereotypical images of the American dream, such as the description of the Statue of Liberty in the opening paragraph and Uncle Jakob’s life story, which seems to validate the all-American ‘From Rags to Riches’ fairy tale.

Kafka repeatedly evokes the great American myth of boundless opportunities: there is Uncle Jakob’s enormous steel residence in chapter 2, which, with its six overground and five underground storeys, its enormous lift and balconies, is a symbol of power and cutting-edge technology. In chapter 5 American architectural and technological modernity is further underlined by the multistorey Hotel Occidental, which contains a buzzing self-service restaurant and operates some thirty lifts. In addition, there is the detailed description of Uncle Jakob’s gigantic business enterprise, which, with its mechanical telephone operators, reads like an early version of the modern call-centre.

These descriptive details, however, do not denote the American reality mimetically but rather connote a specifically European version of America. Or, to put it differently, the Statue of Liberty, the traffic in New York city, the vast buildings and interiors are all scripted and perceived from the European perspective of the novel’s young protagonist, Karl Rosmann. The opening description of the Statue of Liberty indicates this clearly. Upon entering the harbour of New York, Rosmann sees the Statue as if it were illuminated by a sudden burst of sunshine. The arm holding the sword seems to rise up afresh and, round the Statue, free winds are blowing. Some critics have interpreted the sword-bearing Statue as a symbol of a destructive power, others have read it more positively as an allegory of justice. The point of this distortion, however, is twofold: it not only anticipates the outcome of the novel but also foregrounds perception as one of its prominent themes.

Expelled from his family and home, Karl is a deterritorialised figure who, as this chapter argues, is unable to read what he sees. From the very moment of his arrival in the new world he perceives unstable images and distorted objects which are simultaneously both vivid and blurred, hyper-real and anti-mimetic. Paradoxically, by taking mimesis to its extreme and carefully registering the contradictory sensual impressions of the hero, the narrative mode becomes extremely anti-mimetic. The Man who Disappeared does not limit itself to disfiguring the great American myths of wealth and opportunity; it also points the reader to the very forces that underpin what some psychoanalysts have called the ‘symbolic order’: repression and the exclusion of otherness. According to Jacques Lacan, the symbolic is dominated by the ‘law of the father’ which requires the child’s acceptance of its post- Oedipal position. Lacan argues that through the Oedipal drama the child has to repress its pre-Oedipal attachment to the mother. This alone enables the child to become a speaking subject in the social order. Thus the symbolic is dominated by the imperatives of paternal authority.

The following analysis therefore examines how authority and power are exercised in the novel. Tracing Karl’s odyssey through a space which is neither real nor wholly imaginary, the novel exposes the power play of a social order which relies entirely on mechanisms of exclusion for its sense of identity. In the last analysis, Karl’s degradation at the hands of those who represent the social order reflects the phobic nature of this order itself, which needs to assert its power through repeated gestures of expulsion. As a young immigrant from Central Europe, Rosmann embodies physical and epistemological dislocation. It is essential to establish how we interpret Kafka’s treatment of the dynamic of appearance and disappearance, as this structures his novel throughout. As the title suggests, this dynamic eventually causes Rosmann to disappear somewhere in the vast American space.

Unlike The Trial and The Castle which are set in predominantly imaginary landscapes, The Man who Disappeared presents itself at first sight as a piece of realist writing. Kafka refers his reader to geographical locations on the map, such as New York, Boston, the Hudson River, and San Francisco. This apparent realistic tendency was further underlined when Max Brod published it in 1927 as Amerika. By choosing this title rather than following Kafka’s various references to Der Verschollene (which conveys the sense of  ‘missing presumed dead’), Brod placed the novel squarely in the context of the modern travel narrative which employs the travel paradigm as a tool for social critique. Holitscher emphasises the social consequences of rapid technological change. American society in his account can be analysed rationally and, consequently, reformed. His largely socialist perspective acts as a conceptual filter that allows him to interpret what he sees coherently. It is therefore not surprising that he uses a stable register which maps out the physical and social environment confidently. In contrast, Kafka’s America is, as Mark Anderson has rightly pointed out, both recognisable and disfigured.1 While the Statue of Liberty holds a sword instead of a torch, no other famous New York buildings or streets are identified at all, and the sparse references which are made to real locations tend to be displaced. Although Kafka’s descriptions of objects and places appear to be visually exact, they have nothing to do with conventional realism. In Anderson’s words, Kafka’s novel is an ‘anti-tourist guide’ which, by distorting well-known American icons, demonstrates the destabilisation of the protagonist’s perception.2 As a result of this, Karl fails to undergo the process of self-formation (Bildung) typical of travel writings in the Enlightenment tradition. According to this paradigm, travel, with its pitfalls, dangers and challenges, ultimately allows the self to experience a process of growth. Kafka diverges from this by expelling his hero from home, thus indicating his lack of traditional free will. From the outset his journey consists of repeated acts of punishment which take him down the social scale.

Karl is always punished by male characters (Uncle Jakob, his emissary Mister Green, the Head Waiter, and the Head Porter at the Hotel Occidental). They act as socially graded representatives of the prevailing order and enforce its harsh patriarchal laws. For instance, chapters 2 and 3 reveal that the adoption by his uncle turns out to be conditional on Karl’s complete submission to paternal authority. Uncle Jakob’s letter of expulsion in chapter 3 spells out the rigid rules by which he lives his life: defining himself as a ‘man of principles’, he argues that Karl’s acceptance of Pollunder’s invitation represents a ‘general attack’ on the very foundations of his life which he cannot tolerate (DV: 97).

Uncle Jakob is the first in a series of male characters who rely on mechanisms of exclusion to form their own power-driven sense of identity. Expelling Karl from his care, he is not at all concerned with the total mismatch between the alleged misdemeanour and his harsh punishment, which casts the now impoverished Karl back to the bottom of the heap. The same scenario is re-enacted when Karl first finds and then loses employment in the Hotel Occidental. Here it is the maternal figure of the Head Cook, the Viennese Grete Mitzelbach, who adopts him by offering him food, accommodation, and a job as lift-boy. However, the interrogation scene in chapter 6 shows that her maternal impulse to protect him is severely hampered by the paternal authority of the Head Waiter who, like Uncle Jakob, exercises his right to punish Karl severely for a relatively minor transgression. The next stage of Karl’s gradual degradation is his encounter with Brunelda and the former vagrants Delamarche and Robinson. Enslaved in a seedy world of sado-masochism, he now seems to have plunged to the lowest social depths.

In The Man who Disappeared, the suspension of intimacy between self and world, one of the hallmarks of travel writing, only points to the fragility and instability of subjectivity in a largely unreadable and hostile modern environment. The travelling self we encounter in Karl Rosmann is therefore no longer the ‘seeing man’ who looks at the world in order to possess it.3 Instead he is a blinded maze-walker whose experience remains disorientating and fragmented.

The novel’s opening chapter, published separately as ‘The Stoker’ in 1913, provides a microcosm for my analysis as it encapsulates nearly all the prominent themes. The chapter carefully builds up a network of associations between the hero’s sense of non-belonging and his past which weighs him down. One of the most powerful images of his sense of dislocation is his suitcase which he abandons on the first page in order to search for his umbrella. This search leads him from the Stoker to the Captain’s cabin, where he accidentally meets his temporary saviour, Uncle Jakob. At the end of the chapter we see Karl leave with his rich uncle who has the means to offer him a brilliant career. We hear nothing more of the suitcase until Karl receives Uncle Jakob’s letter of expulsion at the end of chapter 3: Mister Green then hands it to him along with his umbrella and a third-class train-ticket to San Francisco. Thus, the narrative establishes a metonymic relation between the suitcase and Karl’s homelessness.

When the suitcase is foregrounded again at the beginning of chapter 4, the reader is pointed to Karl’s individual history and family background which he carries around with him as an ultimately non-disposable burden. When Karl examines the contents of his suitcase he is afraid that the most precious items might well have disappeared. Initially he is shocked at the great disorder of his belongings, but finds on closer inspection that none of his things has gone missing. All his clothes are there, his money, passport, and his watch, even a Veronese salami that was packed by his mother, as well as a bible, writing paper, and one photograph of his parents. The suitcase now seems to evoke a sense of a caring order that is associated with his parents. However, this impression is deceptive, as a close-up examination of some of the contents will reveal.

The suitcase denotes both the immigrant’s otherness and his longing to belong; it evokes a sense of connectedness which it simultaneously denies. From a logical viewpoint absence and presence are clearly defined through a relation of mutual exclusion. While this opposition normally underpins the subject’s identity, in Kafka’s narrative absence and presence interlock with each other in such a way that the presence of Karl’s only belongings always evokes a significant absence. That this absence gives shape to Karl’s presence is also alluded to in the novel’s title: announcing the hero to be a missing person, Kafka not only prefigures Karl’s fate but, more importantly, highlights his and – by implication the reader’s – relationship to time past: the title is a figure of inversion which produces Karl Rosmann as a presence in the reader’s life. As long as we read about him he has not gone missing. However, on the other hand, this presence is always predicated upon a significant absence, a pervasive lack for which the suitcase is a powerful image.

The passport found in the suitcase is the official document which endorses the immigrant’s identity. It attests to his name as well as to his place and date of birth. It should also contain the visa which gives the immigrant official entry rights and entitles him to work and to settle down. The reader first comes across the passport in chapter 1: when asked what his name is, he answers briefly ‘Without, as was his custom, introducing himself by means of his passport, which he would have had to search for first: Karl Rosmann’ (DV: 29). Thus he usually delegates the act of introducing himself to an official document. His reluctance to utter his own name is a first hint of his lack of a proper self. The second, more indirect reference occurs at the beginning of chapter 2 where he arrives at the conclusion that without his uncle’s intervention the American immigration officials would probably have sent him straight back to Europe without any regard to the fact that he no longer had a home. The implication here is that his parents dispatched him to the United States without a proper visa. From the very beginning he is thus an unwelcome outsider with neither a stable identity nor secure rights.

Karl’s estrangement from his parents is fully brought to the fore when he examines his only parental photograph. Family photographs are an indispensable item in the immigrant’s suitcase. In the words of Susan Sontag: ‘through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself, a portable kit of images that bear witness to its connectedness’.4 The Man who Disappeared can be traced back to real-life sources, such as Kafka’s cousin Robert Kafka, who was seduced by a family cook at the age of fourteen, or Otto Kafka, his ‘interesting cousin from Paraguay’.5 Northey also reproduces the photograph of Kafka’s grandparents, Joseph, the butcher from Wossek, and his wife Franziska, which inspired his description in the scene analysed above. But this ‘kit of images’ documents a connectedness that is historical and highly elusive, a relic that incites the onlooker to sentimental reverie. While on one level the family photograph authenticates the togetherness of this particular family at that particular place and time, on a second level it does just the opposite. As Annette Kuhn has argued, it ‘is also the expression of a lack and a desire to put things right’,6 since it shows that the family is no longer together. Presence once more denotes absence.

In Karl’s case the photograph does not really succeed in terms of social rite: instead of furnishing evidence of the family’s connectedness it documents Karl’s displacement. The photograph follows the formal convention of showing the pater familias standing with one arm draped on the back of an armchair and the other on an illustrated book. Karl’s mother occupies the armchair. Two iconographic details can be observed in this description: the father’s hand is clenched into a fist while the mother appears withdrawn, her posture slightly slumped. Karl’s alienation from the sphere of the paternal is further reinforced when he examines the picture more closely but fails to catch his father’s eye: no matter how hard he tries, his father’s image does not gain life. The family photograph thus represents Karl’s painful alienation from the paternal sphere and prompts his corresponding desire to heal this wound. This can be demonstrated with reference to Karl’s careful examination of his mother’s image which unleashes in him a strong pre- Oedipal attachment and unfulfilled desire. Certain of the secret feelings of his mother in the photograph, Karl is overwhelmed by the desire to kiss her dangling hand. Laden with unspoken Oedipal rivalry, the family photograph thus presents an image of alienation which is also a blueprint for the family dynamic in ‘The Metamorphosis’ and ‘The Judgement’, the two stories which Kafka considered combining with ‘The Stoker’ under the title of ‘The Sons’.

At the beginning of chapter 1 Karl’s search for his umbrella turns into a labyrinthine journey through the ship’s interior. His sense of confusion is given grammatical expression in one long sentence whose subclauses lead the reader and the protagonist into dead ends, up and down short staircases, to branching off corridors, until both parties are totally lost. Kafka repeatedly describes Karl’s environment as a series of labyrinths which mirrors his sense of dislocation. During the trial scene in the Captain’s cabin he notices the bustle of the boats and ships on the river. In their perpetual movement, these reflect a restlessness which, according to the narrative voice, has been transferred from the sea onto human beings and their works. In chapter 2 Karl gazes down similarly on the constant stream of traffic visible from his uncle’s balcony. Seen from such a vantage point, New York’s traffic appears in perpetual movement, distorted and unclear:

From morning to evening and in the dreams of the night there was a constant stream of traffic on that street which, seen from above, looked like a forever restarting, inextricable mixture of distorted human figures and rooves of all kinds of vehicles, giving rise to another new mixture, multiplied and wilder, of noise, dust and smells; and all this was enveloped and penetrated by the powerful light which, time and again, was dispersed, carried away and strongly reproduced by a multitude of objects, and which appeared to the dazzled eye so physical as if a glass roof stretching across the street were being smashed into pieces at every moment. (DV: 49)

As before, the grammatical structure of this sentence mimics Karl’s confusion as he finds himself confronted with an overwhelming concoction of sounds, smells, and dust. The resulting ‘wild mixture’ blurs olfactory, visual, and audible impressions to such an extent that the ability of both central figure and reader to perceive any object clearly is disrupted. This perceptual confusion is further heightened by the light, which, as so often in Kafka’s writing, does not illuminate. Instead it disperses the boundaries of the objects until the human eye is completely dazzled.

This departure from the stable register of naturalism is characteristic of many texts of this period which explore the city as a space of a newly depersonalised perception. Another example of the modernist exploration of the metropolis is Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten (1909) which Kafka knew and praised. Like Karl Rosmann, Jakob von Gunten is fascinated by the cinematographic dynamic of the urban space, in this instance Berlin:

What a crush and a crowd, what rattlings and patterings! What shoutings, whizzings, and hummings! And everything so tightly penned in. Right up close to the wheels of cars people are walking, children, girls, men, and elegant women; old men and cripples and people with bandaged heads, one sees all these in the crowd. And always fresh bevies of people and vehicles. The coaches of the electric trolleys look like boxfuls of figures. The buses go galumphing past like clumsy great beetles.7

The juxtaposition of the two passages shows how the city is metonymically construed in both novels. Unlike metaphor, which substitutes one expression for another on the basis of similarity, metonymy takes a characteristic or attribute and substitutes it for the whole. For instance, in Walser’s passage the description of the noise of city life replaces the depiction of the moving crowds. This metonymic evocation of the metropolis has a striking effect: it flattens all social hierarchies and distinctions by telescoping everything into a relation of contiguity. By its very nature contiguity disrespects the hierarchical boundaries of the established social order. This danger is clearly perceived by Uncle Jakob who, in a long speech, emphasises the importance of good judgement and explicitly warns Karl not to spend his days on the balcony looking down at the bustle of the city. As Karl’s paternal educator, Jakob adheres to a value system which equates good judgement with order, discipline and ‘good principles’ (DV: 46). From this viewpoint, the city therefore appears as a space of disorder and confusion which jeopardises Jakob’s plans for Karl’s education.

This perception of the city as a transgressive space is also echoed in Joseph Roth’s novel Hiob (1930; Job), where the central character Mendel Singer loses consciousness when, upon his arrival in New York from his Russian shtetl, he finds himself exposed to an overpowering cocktail of heat, smells, and noises. Like Walser and Kafka, Roth describes this moment as one in which the individual is totally overcome by a blend of sensual impressions which he can no longer decode. While Kafka and Walser emphasise the visual and audible, Roth concentrates more on the olfactory sense by evoking the smell of melting tarmac, dust, the stench of sewers, petrol fumes, and fish halls, all of which melt into a hot vapour that overpowers the hero completely. Although Roth and Kafka are very different writers, they both dramatise the total collapse of boundaries as the principal reason their central figures are no longer able to make sense of their environment. For, if making sense depends on one’s ability to register and categorise facets of reality with the help of discrete concepts, then both Kafka and Roth highlight the dramatic consequences for the self when such distinctions are abolished: the self’s boundaries are violated to such an extent that it can no longer differentiate between the inner and outer world.

penguins-kafka-2In all three novels the metropolis of New York is characterised as a space which de-familiarises all kinship relations. Von Gunten deliberately disowns his aristocratic family background in search of an energy which is associated with the city. At first sight Mendel Singer and Karl Rosmann seem to differ from him in that they do not celebrate the rejection of the kinship principle in the same manner; however, they too experience a failure to recognise their own kith and kin. In Karl’s case, kinship was first denied when his parents expelled him from home. But this denial also characterises Karl himself who, in chapter 1, is emotionally quite unaffected by the disclosure that the influential Senator is his uncle. Significantly, chapter 1 finishes with him doubting whether this man would ever be able to replace the Stoker in his affections. This latent rejection of kinship is reciprocated by Uncle Jakob himself when he expels Karl. In the second chapter the failure to recognise kinship is projected onto the vast space of the metropolis where humans appear disfigured. The city as an icon of modernity thus mirrors Karl’s sense of displacement.

At the end of chapter 2 Pollunder’s car takes a complicated route through the packed streets of New York to the suburbs, where it is further diverted into side streets because the main arteries are blocked by a workers’ mass demonstration. As in the scene on board ship, the chaotic quality of the traffic is a symbol of Karl’s status as a maze-walker who never quite realises that he makes no progress within the labyrinth. In chapter 3 Pollunder’s country house turns out to conceal a nightmarishly complex architectural maze. Finally, Karl encounters another labyrinth when, after his dismissal from the Hotel Occidental, Delamarche drags him through the interconnecting corridors and courtyards of a working-class apartment block.

What is striking about Kafka’s labyrinths is the combination of a grammatical precision which mimics architectural complexity, and his hero’s sense of confusion. The labyrinth is thus characterised by a fundamental ambivalence: from a bird’s-eye-view it is a magnificent design, from the perspective of the maze-walker it is a ‘space of anxiety’.

The physical and perceptual disorientation Karl experiences in the ship’s interior is suspended when he is invited into the Stoker’s cabin where he takes up the latter’s invitation to lie down on his bunk. Here he loses all sense of alienation and the feeling that he is on the uncertain boards of a ship, beside the coast of an unknown continent. This sudden experience of feeling at home leads to his eagerness to act as the Stoker’s spokesperson. The immediacy with which he adopts this role suggests that he identifies with the Stoker and if this is so, there are two reasons for it: their apparently shared social status and, more importantly, the Stoker’s underlying xenophobia. The Stoker’s major complaint about his employment on board the transatlantic liner consists in the fact that his superior, a certain Schubal, is of Romanian rather than German origin. He later launches into an inarticulate attack on Schubal, which is described as a ‘sad whirlpool’ (DV: 24), devoid of any argumentative rationality. The Stoker’s language and, in particular, the obsessive repetition of Schubal’s name, is reminiscent of a child’s anguished attempt at self-defence. Clearly, Schubal is the object of the Stoker’s xenophobia which, simultaneously, condenses his fear of all otherness and reveals his powerlessness. The Stoker is an example of the phobic psyche which attempts to maintain its fragile boundaries through mechanisms of exclusion. It is for this reason that the only sense of identity which is available to him depends on the jingoistic notion of a shared Germanness.

This phobia towards all things foreign is echoed in Karl’s memory of how he used to sit up at night because he feared that a Slovak fellow passenger would steal his luggage. The same fear resurfaces in chapter 4 where Karl, after introducing himself to Delamarche and Robinson as a German national, worries about Robinson’s Irishness. Ironically, whenever the idioms of kinship and home are cited in the narrative, they connote Karl’s homelessness.

The Man who Disappeared thus highlights the self’s fragile position within the harsh symbolic order. The experience of reality as labyrinth always points to the physical, perceptual, and psychological disorientation suffered by a self that has gone astray, or a maze-walker who cannot assimilate an environment which only heightens his disorientation. Although the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation undoubtedly reinforce his dislocation, they are not, contrary to the claims of some critics, the ultimate cause of the loss of identity in the novel. Kafka explores more than social change, he deals with the underlying mechanisms of the symbolic order as such. Instead of anchoring his hero’s plight in metaphysical guilt, he points the reader to the relentlessness of a social order which relies primarily on male rites of expulsion and punishment for its sense of identity. In order to elaborate this aspect which is crucial for many of Kafka’s writings, the notion of the ‘symbolic order’ needs to be briefly explained with reference to its origin in psychoanalytic theory.

Central to our understanding of the way in which the symbolic order is constituted is Freud’s Oedipal drama which establishes social relations through the paternal prohibition of incest. According to Freud, the Oedipal drama interrupts the symbiotic mother–child relation by curbing the little boy’s demands for unlimited access to the mother through the father’s phallic authority. Realising that the father is an unbeatable rival and potential castrator, the little boy eventually gives up his attachment to the mother in favour of a pact between father and son which stipulates that if the boy renounces the mother and takes on the father’s attributes he too will ultimately occupy a position of power. The symbolic order is thus founded on the phallic power of the father and the repression of desire for the mother. As Elizabeth Grosz writes, this pact ‘founds patriarchy anew for each generation, guaranteeing the son a position as heir to the father’s position in so far as he takes on the father’s attributes’.8 Lacan speaks of the ‘paternal metaphor’ to indicate that it is not necessarily the genetic or biological father but symbolic representations such as the Law, God, economic power, and so on, which instil in the child this sense of submission. For Lacan, the Oedipus Complex and the paternal metaphor also explain the centrality of language in the social construction of subjectivity. Without this, he argues, the child would not have access to a stable identity. Lacan thus views the symbolic order as a system based in language whose primary signifier is the sign of the father, the phallus. In other words: patriarchal dominance results less from biological privilege than from a phallocentric socioeconomic and linguistic system.

Like no other modernist writer Kafka is concerned with the symbolic threats on which the symbolic order is erected. This is the explicit theme of his ‘Letter to his Father’ which explores his own relationship with his father as an example of the crippling effects of unbridled paternal dominance. Both ‘The Judgement’ and ‘The Metamorphosis’ also deal with the consequences of the son’s failure to manage the culturally expected internalisation of the symbolic father’s authority: while Georg Bendemann (‘The Judgement’) appears as a socially grounded individual who is about to get married (assuming his position as heir), the ensuing linguistic battle between him and his giant father highlights the father’s unbroken power over the son. Similarly, Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a beetle and his attempt to explain himself to his family are met with the father’s physical attack on him. Hurling an apple at Gregor, the father wounds him in the back and contributes to his demise. In Kafka’s world the fathers and their delegates do not just punish their sons, they destroy them in order to reinstate their fragile identity as phallically empowered fathers. In neither story does the ageing father-figure accept his son as rightful heir.

Karl Rosmann appears like a younger version of the figure of the unsuccessfully dutiful son which haunts Kafka’s writings. Throughout the novel the male representatives of power perceive him as a threat to a social fabric which relies exclusively on the law of the father for regulating social interchange. This also accounts for the fact that the only representative of maternal love – the Head Cook who in a typically maternal gesture provides Karl with food, a bed, and a job – does not succeed with her intervention on his behalf when he is about to be sacked by the Head Waiter. In Kafka’s world the voice of the maternal is always submissive to the authority of the law of the father. Viewed from a psychoanalytic angle, The Man who Disappeared can thus be read as a story of non-assimilation in which the social rites of expulsion and rejection are repeatedly enacted in order to protect the power of the symbolic father.

Again this can be demonstrated with reference to chapter 1. After he has made the Stoker’s acquaintance, Karl decides to act as his spokesperson. When the Stoker’s request to speak to the Head Purser is met with blunt refusal, Karl launches himself across the room, produces his passport, and makes a quasi-judicial speech on the Stoker’s behalf. Unlike the Stoker, whose ability to represent himself linguistically is clearly limited, Karl is the master of his language. Essentially, he repeats the Stoker’s allegation against Schubal, claiming that the former has a solid track record as a worker. However, by moving from the general to the specific and employing subordinate clauses as well as modal verbs and the subjunctive, he also manages to demonstrate his allegiance to a rhetoric of rationality which governs the norms of social interaction. This impression is reinforced a little later when he reprimands the Stoker for his emotional outburst in the following manner:

You must tell it more simply, more clearly; the captain cannot pay attention to what you are telling him if you carry on like that. He can hardly know all the mechanics and ship’s boys by their surnames, let alone by their first names, so that when you mention so-and-so, he can hardly know immediately who you mean. Order your grievances, begin with the most serious and descend to the lesser ones, perhaps it won’t then be necessary to mention most of them at all. (DV: 23)

By asking the Stoker to observe the rhetorical rules of judicial pleadings, Karl makes a demand which his new friend cannot possibly meet. As a phobic self, the working-class Stoker can only express himself through symptomatic linguistic gesturing. Karl appeals explicitly to the stable social code which is governed by collective rules and shared conventions which regulate the symbolic order. But his advocacy of the symbolic order turns out to be feigned since his speech act is based on a lie: ‘If one can steal suitcases in America, one can surely also tell a lie now and then, he thought letting himself off the hook’ (DV: 23). Evidently, the lie undermines the whole purpose of the exercise because it destroys both the propositional content of the speech act and the social relation between speaker and addressee which must be based on truthfulness in order to function. The lie thus allows Karl to feign mastery of a social code which, as the ensuing story unfolds, he does not really possess. His actual position within the symbolic order is extremely fragile.

It is striking when he is expelled from his uncle’s care in chapter 3 that he never questions the rationale for such severe punishment. Instead he confines himself to asking Green for his suitcase and umbrella. While this certainly underlines what Manfred Engel has aptly called the Musterknabensyndrom, namely Karl’s unflinching acceptance of the code of authority,9 it also demonstrates how, on this journey down the social ladder, his ability to defend himself is gradually undermined. Compare for instance the first chapter with the dismissal from the Hotel Occidental: while at the beginning Karl acts as a strong advocate of the symbolic order and its rhetoric, in chapter 5 he echoes the Stoker’s loss of all hope when, even prior to the interrogation by the Head Waiter, he arrives at the pessimistic conclusion that he will be dismissed from the hotel. Recognising that no efforts in self-defence will overcome the interrogators’ fundamental lack of good-will, he eventually falls silent. This progression from a seemingly authoritative rhetoric of rationality to moments of total speechlessness shows his growing awareness that his voice is not powerful enough. On the other hand, his stifling also points to the erosion of his status as a subject within the symbolic order. Kafka thus suggests that language is not simply an important tool for implementing a social practice, but that it is the very condition for the constitution of the subject. Accession to the symbolic order rests on one’s mastery of language.10

There were already hints of Karl’s fragile position within the social order in the Captain’s cabin when the attendant chases him away ‘as if he were chasing a piece of vermin’ (DV: 20), creating an obvious link to ‘The Metamorphosis’. As a bug or ‘piece of vermin’ (Ungeziefer) Gregor Samsa feels disgust at human food, preferring household rubbish and leftovers. This change in his tastes is compounded by the loss of his human voice. When he tries to communicate with his family and the Prokurist (the executive secretary of the company which employs him) through the door of his bedroom, to his horror the Prokurist hears an animal’s voice. At the end of chapter 1, when Gregor is eager to explain his failure to turn up for work on time, he is still unaware of his changed physical appearance and the complete loss of a comprehensible language. But this loss has far-reaching consequences: it amounts to an unconscious renunciation of his participation in the symbolic order. The metamorphosis thus allows him to abandon a social identity which is based on the son’s obligation to clear the parental Schuld, a term which connotes both financial debt as well as guilt. By repudiating a commonly shared code through the metamorphosis, Samsa revolts against the omnipresent and stifling law of the father by crawling with enjoyment up and down the walls of his room. However, the price to be paid for this attempt to separate himself from the symbolic is his own death. At the end of the story, the maid proudly announces that she will dispose of the ‘rubbish next door’ (EL: 156). The representatives of the symbolic order, in this case the family, view his dead body as refuse that has to be thrust aside in order to make room for life. This image reverberates in one of Kafka’s famous letters to Felice in which he explains: ‘My life consists and, at bottom, has always consisted of attempts at writing, most of which have been unsuccessful. But when I was not writing, I was lying flat on the floor, fit to be swept out of the house’ (1.xi.12; BF: 65). Kafka’s drastic metaphor spells out that when the process of writing fails, the writer turns into mere waste, a corpse which has to be disposed of. As that which is no longer of use, waste is clearly the other of the symbolic; it thus upsets the mechanisms of referencing and ordering, in short all those relations which establish the signifying system. Without his writing, the writer is waste. Kafka thus disposes of the notion of a subjectivity prior to the act of writing.

Similarly, Karl’s increasing inability to participate in the linguistic power games of his superiors highlights his growing distance from the symbolic order. One of the most poignant symbols of the gradual erosion of his status is the name he chooses when signing up for the Theatre of Oclahama (sic): stripped of his suitcase, passport, and his only family photograph he has finally lost all tokens of identity. Enrolling as ‘Negro’ (DV: 306), he now aligns himself with the most stigmatised and oppressed group in American history. But even here in the quasi-utopian world of the ‘Great Theatre of Oklahama’, which promises to employ everybody, regardless of the applicant’s professional expertise, his acceptance is conditional on his ability to produce Legitimationspapiere, papers that legitimise him. His original aspirations are once more evoked when he tries to apply for the post of engineer. However, he is quickly discharged and sent on to the bureau for ‘people with technical knowledge’ (DV: 305), and from there to that for intermediate pupils, where he is again dispatched to an even smaller and humbler booth for European intermediate pupils, situated on the very margins of the theatre’s grounds. The bureaucratic enrolment procedure with its hierarchical structures and, above all, the imminent threat that his details will be cross-checked, show that the Theatre of Oklahama is hardly a paradise regained but that it reads more like a slapstick parody of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy which Kafka knew so well. Karl’s grotesque categorisation as ‘Negro, technical worker’ underlines once more the loss of his social status, true history, name, and voice.

Senator Jakob invites his nephew into a world that is defined by authority and power. But before Karl is allowed to establish new ties, the initial act of expulsion is repeated and he finds himself in the company of two other social rejects, the vagrants Delamarche and Robinson. His abrupt expulsion from his uncle’s world is, however, not an obscure and unfathomable decision but rather a gesture that underlines the fact that Jakob’s allegiance with the symbolic supersedes emotional ties. The precariousness of their relationship is already alluded to in the recognition scene in the first chapter where Karl responds to the revelation that the Senator is in fact his own uncle with a high degree of detached, unemotional formality. This impression is reinforced in the ensuing exchange in which he challenges this offer of kinship on the grounds that Jakob does not carry the maiden name of his mother, ‘Bendelmayer’ (DV: 32). Upon his arrival in America, the uncle relinquished his original name, thus not only cutting off all ties with Europe but also with his first family. In a way, the American myth of the self-made man allows Uncle Jakob to give birth to himself without the aid of a mother. As the embodiment of the American dream he thus represents the price the speaking subject pays for the mastery of its position within the symbolic order: the silencing of the maternal. By inviting Karl to enter his world, he ultimately asks Karl to subject himself to a rebirth which represses the physical and sensual side of life in favour of the rational activity of imposing order:

The first days of a European in America were comparable to a birth, and although Karl should not be unduly frightened because one got used to it more quickly than if one entered this world from the afterlife, one had to keep in mind that one’s first judgements rested on fragile foundations and that one should not let this jeopardise all future judgements which would shape one’s life over here. (DV: 46)

Jakob’s idea of an orderly rebirth is totally cut off from the painful physicality of the real process of giving birth. Instead he offers a sterile fantasy of a rebirth based on nothing but the cerebral activity of making the right judgement. In his thinking the physical raw material of life, the body with its impulses and energies, requires a regimentation that aims at the repression of all pleasure and, in the last analysis, of all desire. Desire is clearly present in the balcony scene where Karl is totally absorbed by the city’s perpetually vibrant movement and its complex traffic pattern. Thus Mark Anderson argues that traffic in the novel connotes not only automobile and pedestrian movement but also sexual traffic, most explicitly in the Brunelda episode.11 From Uncle Jakob’s point of view, pleasure and desire can only corrupt Karl. However, the narrative encodes Jakob’s repressive behaviour not just as an example of individual authoritarianism, but rather as the symptomatic expression of the symbolic order as such. Jakob, Green, the Head Waiter, and  the Head Porter are all in their own way representatives of the symbolic order whose stability depends on a harsh penal system and the repression of all desire.

Within Kafka’s narrative universe, these gestures of expulsion always serve to reinstate the authority of the symbolic which Karl unwittingly challenges by ignoring the rules and boundaries that are its very substance. However, this is not to suggest that The Man who Disappeared actually endorses the judgements that are made by the hero’s opponents. On the contrary, the novel foregrounds the fictionality of such clear boundaries and divisions.

Source: The Cambridge Companion to Kafka Edited by Julian Preece, Cambridge University Press 2002.


  1. Anderson, Kafka’s Clothes, p. 105.
  2. Ibid., p. 105.
  3. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 7.
  4. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), p. 8.
  5. Northey, Kafka’s Relatives, p. 52.
  6. Annette Kuhn, ‘Remembrance’, in Jo Spence and Patricia Holland (eds.), Family Snaps – the Meaning of Domestic Photography (London: Virago, 1991), p. 23.
  7. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, tr. and intro. Christopher Middleton (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1969), p. 48.
  8. Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: a Feminist Introduction (London andNewYork: Routledge, 1990), p. 68.
  9. Manfred Engel, ‘Aussenwelt und Innenwelt: Subjektivit ‥atsentwurf und modern Romanpoetik in Robert Walsers Jakob von Gunten und Franz Kafkas Der Verschollene’, Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft 30 (1986), 533–70, here p. 544.
  10. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 67.
  11. Anderson, Kafka’s Clothes, p. 109.


  • Anderson, Mark M., ‘Kafka in America: Notes in a Travelling Narrative’, in Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg Fin de Si`ecle (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), pp. 98–122.
  • Emrich,Wilhelm, ‘The Modern IndustrialWorld: the Novel The Man WhoWas Lost Sight of (America)’, in Franz Kafka: a Critical Study of his Works, tr. Sheema Zeben Buehne (New York: Ungar, 1968), pp. 276–315.
  • Fuchs, Anne, A Space of Anxiety: Dislocation and Abjection in Modern German- Jewish Travel Narratives (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1999). Hermsdorf, Klaus, ‘Kafka’s America’, in Kenneth Hughes (ed. and tr.), Franz Kafka: an Anthology of Marxist Criticism (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1981), pp. 22–37.
  • Northey, Anthony, ‘The Discovery of the NewWorld: Kafka’s Cousins and Amerika’, in Kafka’s Relatives – Their Lives and His Writing (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 51–68.
  • Politzer, Heinz, ‘Der Verschollene: the Innocence of Karl Rossmann’, in Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, 2nd edn (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), pp. 116–62.
  • Sandberg, Beatrice and Ronald Speirs, ‘The Missing Person’, in Franz Kafka (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 29–62.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Modernism, Psychoanalysis

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