Kafka is probably the funniest writer I’ve ever read. Partly the world of paranoid fantasy he depicts is just so familiar to me. (What? Is there something wrong with that? Why are you judging me?) I have laughed till I was in tears reading Kafka, and supposedly Kafka himself, his friend Max Brod, and others of his tiny Prague literary circle would often laugh quite a bit when he read aloud from his work. That said, it’s true that Kafka’s subject matter never strays far from paranoia, self-loathing, loneliness, and self-destruction; so how can it be funny?
Kafka is the great innovator of psychologically sophisticated expressionism. Many writers before him depicted their dreams and imaginings, but Kafka does so with a certain groundbreaking insight into the psychological motives and irrational methods of dream-life. And I believe it’s that sophisticated faculty of psychological observation that makes him so funny. More than any other writer, Kafka is alert to the conscience as a potentially overactive and irrational psychical force, a wily, tormenting inner adversary which uses the imagination as its weapon in its internecine wars against the human self. It’s that insight that allows him to parody (and describe) the conscience and its irrational methods, rather than be duped by them and take them at face value. Borges, who was so influenced by Kafka (he invokes the name “Qaphqa” in his Kafkaesque story “The Lottery in Babylon”) is rarely very funny precisely because he chooses to take seriously the perversities perpetrated on him by his conscience. The Borgesian conscience bricks Borges up in a labyrinth, but unlike Kafka he mistakes the bricks and walls of the labyrinth for reality. He isn’t onto the mischief of his own conscience and cannot laugh at it as Kafka can. This makes Borges rather lugubrious reading, even though his conscience destroys him and his claim on reality with grace and elegant persuasion.
Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” is the finest parodic description of overzealous conscience ever written. It’s about a torture device for prisoners (that is faintly reminiscent of Pilates equipment) and the penal colony where prisoners are senselessly tortured. Try reading the story as an allegory on the structure and function of the human conscience. Where it says “penal colony” read “conscience.” Where it says “our former Commandant” read “childhood.” Certainly, where it describes the torture device, read “conscience.” “It’s a remarkable piece of apparatus,” says the officer in the very first line.
“In the Penal Colony,” like “Metamorphosis” and the novel The Trial, is of course tragic as well as witty. Every Kafka story is wise, profound, darkly humorous in some way, and so dense with knowledge, joy, and pain that I have to read a little bit and walk away (it’s hard for me to read many Kafka stories in a row). Some stories are more subdued (like “In the Penal Colony” or “The Hunger Artist”), some more flagrantly ridiculous. “The Judgment” is flat-out hilarious. So is “Report to an Academy.” But every Kafka story is brilliant, crafted with a blend of artistic control, imaginative freedom, and fearlessly scientific self-observation unique to Kafka, and realized with a nuance and specificity found only in the greatest of all works of literature.