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Melancholy and Exclusion: On Reading Kafka during the Pandemic

By Duncan Stuart.


For those of us lucky enough to sequester ourselves away during this pandemic, we find in literature an account of our own time. Thus, Albert Camus’ The Plague is being widely read again, and now those in the know have jumped ship—much like a plague rat might—onto a different text: Daniel Defoe’s Diary of a Plague Year. Suddenly these unprecedented times seem wholly precedented. These stories and our own converge: we begin with incredulity, then we realize we are doomed. The rich bail on the cities, taking the plague to the countryside, and the impoverished die in droves in the overcrowded street. Yesterday’s doomsayers become tomorrow’s prophets. Eventually it goes away; no pandemic has yet wiped us off the face of the earth. In the aftermath of this disaster the next great work or literary account of the plague is published, and a century or four from now humanity will turn again to these forgotten tomes, which will seem to hold within them infinite wisdom and guidance in the face of cataclysm.

The turn to the fictive contains in it an attempt to understand our current moment. Whilst one may read for pleasure, reading is in fact an act of illumination. We learn from The Plague about our inherently shitty human behavior, as we turn on each other in the face of crisis, and Diary of a Plague Year tells us a familiar story, including one where time itself becomes stretched and distorted as a period of self-same anxious waiting descends upon us.

The attempt to come to grips with our current moment has produced a dominant mood. These times have an emotional register. What is this emotional register? Scott Berinato recently argued in The Harvard Business Review that this feeling is grief. We are grieving the loss of the world we once knew. Coming to grips with a sudden and substantial change in our collective lives. At last, a name to this strange combination of nothingness and dread. We are waiting for the new world to kick in and have no idea what it might be. Meanwhile, the old world is dead and has been buried out back and without ceremony.

Perhaps, rather than grief, a better word is mourning. This slight linguistic shift might tell us something important about the terms that best describes our moment and our collective mode. As the global death toll from coronavirus tops 370,000—with more than 100,000 of these deaths occurring in the United States alone— we must not lose sight of just how unevenly these numbers fall.

Mourning and grief bring with them an emphasis on inclusivity: we are all in this together, grieving the same loss. It is mourning that Sigmund Freud famously contrasts with melancholia. Mourning is the normal process of dealing with loss, and one we expect to emerge from on the other side. Melancholia is the absorption of loss into the ego, into the self. It differs from mourning in that it is more severe and more permanent. It is given literary form in the works of Franz Kafka, as we shall see. More so than mourning, melancholia carries an imagery of exclusion. Freud argues that melancholia brings with it a turn against one’s own worth. In this we see something of its exclusionary character: it is something that happens to me, in melancholia I retreat from a world that stands in contrast to my state of depression. We can collectively mourn, but I am not so sure we can experience collective melancholia.


I will not be the first to think of the works of Kafka in these uncertain times. It’s easy to see, with a looming unknown threat, the willingness of our masters to throw us at the feet of the invisible yet all scared economy—whose rules remain opaque to us—the world of The Trial or The Castle. In our isolation and sickness we see the world of The Metamorphosis, in our fear of the outside world we hear echoes of The Burrow.

Why turn to Kafka? We, as writers and as readers, have a responsibility to think carefully through this uncertainty. Berinato’s invocation of grief is plausible enough, but it creates a false sense that we truly are all in this together.

Though we are all at risk of death, this risk is not evenly distributed.  The scythe of the pandemic does not fall evenly. In our hasty and irresponsible generalizations, we risk ignoring this fact. Time passes strangely for those of us locked in our apartments reading Defoe or Camus, but the character of time is different for those who continue to be forced to go to work, for those waiting to hear from landlords and debt collectors, for those on what has been called the front line.

In turning to Kafka as a source of reflection on our current pandemic we must look beyond the clearly universal sentiments: fear, obscurity, and dread. We must think about how Kafka’s world is built. At the heart of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle is the theme of exclusion. We could say, to bring it closer to our current moment, that the theme is one of being locked out. In the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin captures this theme of Kafka’s perceptively, writing:

Why does the glance into an unknown window always find a family at a meal, or else a solitary man, seated at a table under a hanging lamp, occupied with some obscure niggling thing? Such a glance is the germ cell of Kafka’s work.

Note that it is the glance itself that is critical. Already in this short passage Benjamin conveys the sense of exclusion that is built into Kafka’s novels. There are two worlds, each isolated from the other. In the figure of the one who looks in we can identify the ‘protagonists’ of Kafka’s world. In The Castle K. desperately attempts to gain entrance to the castle, but is denied at every turn. His inability to access the castle itself appears to be generated through an exclusion from the social norms of the village at the foot of the castle hill. The villagers seem to know something K. does not. He is not just excluded from the castle but from the world of the villagers. K.’s ostracism becomes the dominating theme.

For something to be exclusive it must apply to some and not others. Thus, the horrific character of Kafka’s world is not evenly distributed, even though it is all pervasive. This can be seen clearly in an early scene in The Castle in which K.  is attempting to make his way up to the castle and is struggling through the snow:

He was amazed at the extent of the village; it seemed endless, always the same little cottages and frosted window-panes and snow and no sign of life. Finally, he forced himself to leave this street and turned into a narrow lane where the snow lay even deeper; his feet sank into it and it required a great effort to pull them out again. He broke out in a sweat, then suddenly he stopped; he could go no further.

Shortly after this, K. encounters Arthur and Jeremiah, the infamous assistants. In the very same snowy circumstances through which K. has just struggled, Kafka describes the assistants thusly: “Even in these conditions they made astonishing progress, marching in step on their slim legs. They did not slow their pace and were walking so fast that it was only possible to communicate with them by shouting.” The material conditions have not changed. The street remains clogged with snow. Yet somehow the assistants navigate it with ease. They belong to the village and the castle and K. does not; they inhabit this world. K.’s exteriority to the world he has found himself in will be the source of all his troubles. In his essay on Kafka, Benjamin will identify the assistants as those for whom there is hope in Kafka’s world. In a certain sense Benjamin is articulating a logical outcome of the exclusionary character of this world—there are some who move through it with ease, others never will. If K. is the figure glancing through the window, the assistants come to represent the family having dinner, the man and his obscure thing. Inside and out of harm’s way. They are locked in and safe.


In a passage remarkably similar to Benjamin’s, Péter Nádas attempts to define the essence of melancholy. He writes:

Or think of being in a totally unfamiliar street of a foreign city, thickly covered with snow, and suddenly a lit-up window forces you to halt; the thin curtains are half drawn, and inside, in the warmth, in the soft light of a shaded lamp, someone is sitting in a room furnished in exquisite taste; nowhere else could I imagine my life to be more perfect.

Here Nádas suggests that a feeling of exclusion also rests at the heart of melancholy. In this way it coincides with Kafka’s world. Whilst melancholy is often associated with an inability to act, with a loss that cannot be overcome, it has an exclusionary quality as well. Perhaps in this sense exclusion converges with loss: exclusion from the world is a loss of the world. Thus, to read Kafka in the time of the pandemic is to notice the exclusionary character of our current moment, to see how it shapes the dominant mood of our time.

Returning to Berinato and his invocation of grief, we should note that it fails to recognize this important defining quality. To suggest, as he does, that we are all in mourning is to imply that this will pass for all of us. For those already dead, for those behind the register and forced to don second rate protective equipment, there is no certain sense that this will pass. Likewise for those around the world who, due to social, political and economic inequities may well suffer permanent upheaval even if they survive the virus. Increasingly there is a sense that there is “a world” that many have been excluded from and will continue to be excluded from for reasons that are obscure and mysterious. If such a world has an emotional register or character, it is a melancholic one. Peering in to the safe and calm lives of those who are able to relieve themselves of the burden of these times, the “outsiders” will struggle onwards, hoping they are heading towards a return to normality, to a time when they were not excluded from the world they once knew. Yet such a world has already been lost to them.

Many of us will ride out this pandemic more or less intact. We may have secure housing where we can work or study, or perhaps we have already returned to our parents’ homes, or fled to family retreats in the country, unknowingly bringing pestilence with us. Freed from routine, for better or worse, we idly watch the days pass by. We read Camus or Defoe and think that this too will pass. We feel a loss, but it is one we will overcome. We are mourning. We think we are the protagonist; we feel like K. locked out of the castle. In fact, we are the assistants, cutting through the snow that stands in our way with relatively little trouble whilst some poor bastard, just beyond our field of vision, struggles against a world we effortlessly traverse.  Perhaps if we looked up from our table and glanced out the window, we would see this figure and perhaps let them in, ask them to join our world. Yet things are not so simple: some mysterious and obscure law prevents us from doing precisely this. We remain safe and warm inside. Meanwhile, outside the day draws to a close, growing darker and colder with each passing minute.

Duncan Stuart is an Australian writer living in New York City. His writings have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Overland, Demos Journal and The Cleveland Review of Books. Find him on twitter @DuncanAStuart

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020.