I read the Joachim Neugrochel translation of this story.
I have been reading a collection of short stories by Franz Kafka. The famous author tends to dwell upon common themes. His tales often reflect the alienation of the individual from family, religion, humanity and society. They also commonly express bewilderment in the face of the modern world. His tales often also include an element of the fantastical and the absurd. The stories are often weird or uncanny in a disturbing way.
Less famous than some of his other works, A Report For an Academy is a short story that looks at society, individualism and behavior in a highly critical light. Like many other Kafka works, it is strange, interesting and thought-provoking.
The story is presented as a speech given by an individual known as Red Peter in front of an unnamed academy. Within the first few paragraphs, it becomes apparent that Red Peter is an ape who has been educated and has reached human intelligence. How and why Red Peter achieved what he did is the crux of his speech. The speaker was captured by a zoological expedition hunting for live specimens. Caged and treated with brutality, Red Peter began to intuitively grasp that the only way to escape captivity and ill treatment was to imitate humans and conform to a certain set of behaviors. Eventually people realized that Red Peter was sentient, and they began to treat him like an equal. The process was difficult, as Red Peter had to adopt certain behaviors that were counter to his nature. He found some of the behaviors to be abhorrent and harmful, such as consuming alcohol.
The irony in this situation is apparent to the speaker and to the reader. In order to gain his freedom Red Peter had to lose his freedom to be who he naturally was. He had to discard his nature and lose himself in order to be “allowed” freedom. Thus, he argues that the concept of freedom is illusionary,
“But for my part, I did not want freedom then nor do I want it now. Incidentally: human beings all too often deceive themselves about freedom. And just as freedom is considered one of the most sublime feelings, the corresponding disillusion is likewise one of the most sublime.”
He goes on to talk about the self-suppression of his nature.
“one learns if one must: one learns if one wants a way out; one learns relentlessly. One supervises oneself with the whip; one mangles oneself at the least resistance.”
Obviously, this story has a lot to say about an individual’s place in the world. In order to live in society and be allowed a degree of personnel autonomy, we must conform and make compromises. Kafka goes very hard on this pattern of behavior that all humans, to some degree, must follow.
Kafka wrote dark stories, and he tended not to see much positive in the world. My take is that that this story only presents part of the picture. Living with others and conforming to certain precepts of society is necessary not only for an individual to function, but it is often the ethical thing to do. Much of social behavior is about respecting of other peoples’ rights, empathy towards others and common decency. Kafka does not consider such issues in this story. Had he done so, I think that this would have been a balanced exploration of these issues. However, Kafka is just not the kind of writer to look at life in this way.
With all of that, conformity in many other contexts can be a terrible thing. Religion, tradition and other social pressures can lead to all sorts of irrational and unethical behavior. It can crush an individual’s spirit as well as an individual’s ability to think for oneself. In some situations, forced conformity harms the individual and society. These malevolent effects are best highlighted in this story by Red Peter’s adaption of drinking alcohol.
Kafka is such an interesting writer. His short stories can be both challenging and disturbing. Though he is very negative and dark, he is also thought-provoking and his critiques upon society contain a lot of truth. Even if one is not completely onboard in regards to his outlook upon the world, his stories are often well worth reading.