Friday, May 26, 2017

A Report For an Academy by Franz Kafka

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.


Mudpuddle said...

i went through a Kafka period some years back and i remember thinking at the time that he was a genius one hundred years or more ahead of his time... some of the biographies treat him as mentally ill, which is possible, but i still see a lot of truth, albeit from a polygonal angle, in his work... tx for featuring him; brings back memories...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - He really was a unique thinker. I did not know about the supposed mental illness I should read more about his life.

JacquiWine said...

Interesting review as ever, Brian. I think the dynamic between the desire for personal autonomy and the need to conform to the requirements of society is at the heart of much of Kafka's work. Like many other readers, I went through a Kafka phase in my younger days. Thanks for the reminder.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian,

Great review and I didn't know that about Kafka, that he had such a negative view of society. I have The Trial in my kindle and have read a few pages and I plan to finish the book since it's an intriguing story and a classic. You have to wonder Kafka died in the 1920's and when you consider the horrors of the 20th century that came after him, the Nazis, Stalin his dark view of society seems prophetic.

CyberKitten said...

I tried to read Kafka in my youth and, as with many other classic books/authors failed. Maybe I should give him another 'go' now that I seem to have conquered my 'fear' of the classics... [thinks]

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Kafka does tend to visit these common themes. It seems that cynical writers tend to attract folks when they are younger. Thus Kafka's appeal.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. I never read The Trial. I would like to do so.

You raise a good point. I also wonder what Kafka's reaction to the horrors of The Second World War would have bee.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - I also tried to read Metamorphosis when younger and I was terribly bored with it. I got a lot more out of it when older. If you gave Kafka another try I would love to know what you thought of his work.

The Bookworm said...

I haven't read Kafka but this sounds like a thought provoking short story. It is ironic that Red Peter had to lose himself to gain his freedom. Interesting and thought provoking post as usual. Enjoy your weekend!

baili said...

Kafka sounds like a daring one who believe in freedom of absolute inner expressions one can have.
we all at one point think like him though but in a wrapper of civilization ,culture and religion we can even dare to think like him or we are well expert in pretending business.
we here had one write who wrote dark stories like Kafka and was thrown in jail for his dare years ago.

i admire your today's choice for review brain .i think trth is bitter but swallowing it is necessary to grow better

thecuecard said...

This seems like an interesting way to think about conformity. I had not heard about Red Peter before. In some ways his story The Metamorphosis is a bit like this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Many of the themes present in Metamorphosis are present on this story. Kafka's writing was very preoccupied with these issues.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili.

It does take daring to question societal norms. It is terrible that people are thrown into jail and otherwise punished for questioning them. I agree that people and society as a whole gets better when such things are questioned.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Irony was such a big park of Kafka's stories. This one was full of it.

Have a great weekend!

James said...

This sounds like a very thought-provoking story. As usual Kafka raises issues and questions that are difficult to answer. I find the issues here particularly difficult because they not only raise questions about the nature of freedom, but also about the nature of man and other sentient beings, and what that means for our life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - This sort of fiction and philosophy does indeed tackle the big questions about life. This is one of the reasons that I like Kaka a similar writers.

Suko said...

Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph. This sounds like a very interesting, thought-provoking collection of short fiction. I've read The Metamorphosis so I'm familiar with some of the themes mentioned in this post.

Enjoy the rest of the long weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

MetamorphosIs is so well known. I recently reread it. I may put up a post on it but so much has already been written about it. I am finding it difficult to come up with anything new.

Kate Scott said...

Great review, Brian! This sounds like an interesting story. I haven't read anything by Kafka yet, in part, I admit, because of his reputation for pessimism and focusing on the darkest aspects of humanity. (I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate that sort of thing.) Everyone always talks about The Metamorphosis, but I think when I do get around to reading Kafka, I might start with this instead. The place of the individual in society is a topic I find fascinating and his take on it is intriguing.

HKatz said...

I must be feeling especially pessimistic about human nature, but it's likely Red Peter wouldn't be treated as an equal even if he did evince human capacities and skills. Because people wouldn't look past the fact that he's still an ape. I haven't read this Kafka story, but some of his others have always hit me powerfully, beyond any intellectual analysis of them. Probably because even though I do see the better side of humanity, and I know we've come a long way ethically in what we view as acceptable behavior, I'm repeatedly struck by how willfully stupid and cruel we still are. Among the problems we face is what you get at in the post - finding a balance; here it's one between agreeing on certain standards to live by peacefully vs. succumbing to a conformity that persecutes people or crushes their spirit.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kate. Kafka really reflected the dark side of life in his stories. I recently reread Metamorphosis. It is extraordinary. Both that story and this one are short and often are available together in many collections.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Kafka's stories are often very affecting.

I agree with you about Red Peter. Folks would likely treat him as second class at best.

I also am bewildered. Sometimes it seems that humanity has come so far. At other times we do such stupid and barbaric things.

RR@15037 said...

Isn't it wonderful that the man he told to burn the stories upon Kafka's death ignored Kafka's demand! Imagine a world without Kafka! Very poor world. The one thing that gets me about Kafka's stories is this paradox: they are almost all unforgettable (and perhaps even pleasurable?) even if they are almost always inexplicable. Very strange worlds!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tim - It would have been such a loss to the world had these stories been burned.

I think that there is something pleasurable in reading troubling works. This is indeed a paradox!

RR@15037 said...

Yes, thank God for Max Brod!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the information and link Tim.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

I should really read something by Kafka. Although I usually don't go for short stories much - I just get too attached to the characters, and the next thing you know, it's over. Have you read anything else by him (I assume you probably have)? The negative and dark bit discourages me though. I'm one to get depressed at sad books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Elvelina - I recently finished this short stor collection by Kafka.

It contains many of his famous stories.

Until recently, I had gone years without reading many short stories. Recently I have made an effort to read more however. I often feel the same way however. I long for more plot and character development.

Certain kinds of stories also sadden or disturb me. Oddly enough I have not found that Kafka's stories do. I think it is his absurdity that tempers them for me.

The Reader's Tales said...

Even if Kafka wrote dark and not joyful stories he remains in my eyes one of the greatest writers. These writings were influenced by his not very positive view of the world and, his frustration existence. That said, I find them very mind enriching, not at all depressing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales.

Many great writers and thinkers were pessimistic. As I mentioned above, though some writers depress me, Kafka does not.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING review as usual, Brian!

You won't be surprised to learn that Kafka is definitely not one of my favorite writers! Lol. He is indeed very dark and negative, as you have pointed out here. However, you are right to also point out that he is a very thought-provoking writer.

The only Kafka work I've ever read -- and I never finished it, by the way -- is "The Castle". I found this novel to be not only very negative, but extremely depressing. I actually began to feel more and more anxiety as I read, so I ended up dropping the effort entirely. The sense of alienation was just too overwhelming for me! But I did have to admit that Kafka is an intellectually engaging writer. He gave me much food for thought with that novel. I just didn't like that it contributed to my feeling MORE alienated than I already was! Lol. (I was in college at the time, which is when lots of people go through a stage of existential questioning.)

I've just looked up this novel on Wikipedia, and the following paragraphs make me SO very glad I never finished it! (By the way, K. is the name of the central character. Yep, just "K." No full name. Symbolic of the poor guy's alienation, of course.)

Here's the quote:

"Kafka died before finishing the work, but suggested it would end with K. dying in the village, the castle notifying him on his death bed that his 'legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was permitted to live and work there'. Dark and at times surreal, "The Castle" is often understood to be about alienation, unresponsive bureaucracy, the frustration of trying to conduct business with non-transparent, seemingly arbitrary controlling systems, and the futile pursuit of an unobtainable goal." UGH, UGH, UGH!

I suppose that, given the worldwide turmoil that took place throughout the 20th century, it would only be natural for literary fiction writers of the time to reflect this in their work. This is the century of Sartre, Camus, and other existentialist philosophers and writers. AND the century of Simone du Beauvoir!! Then there are the famous dystopian novels, such as "1984", "Animal Farm", and "Brave New World".

If you would like to read the complete article on "The Castle", you can find it at this link:

(More coming.....)

Maria Behar said...

(Here's the rest of my HUMONGOUS comment. Lol.)

This particular story by Kafka is very interesting in its exploration of personal freedom versus conformity to societal rules. And the fact that the main character is an ape is pretty funny, if in a dark sort of way. I see a not-so-subtle reference to Darwin's theory of evolution. I wonder if Kafka was actually making fun of Darwin through his use of such an unusual main character. Maybe he was also making fun of human beings, in the process.

The problem of freedom versus conformity is not an easy one. It's true that freedom has its limits, and these are the rights of other people. After all, there are ethical realities to consider, as you have also mentioned in this excellent review. Unfortunately, narcissistic people are unwilling to consider the rights of others; their only concern is their own, so-called "freedom", as well as their own, so-called "right" to say and do WHATEVER they want, no matter the consequences to other people. I think you know who I have in mind when I state this, lol.

The fact that Kafka failed to take into account the ethical ramifications of the dilemma of personal freedom as contrasted with the rights of others is unfortunate. But it seems to me that, from what I know of his work, he has a very marked solipsistic viewpoint. In "The Castle", his focus is totally on K., the otherwise totally anonymous central character. In "A Report for an Academy", Red Peter is the sole focus of the narrative. I don't know whether the reactions of the academy members listening to Red Peter's speech are mentioned at all. So this speech might as well be a soliloquy, for all intents and purposes.

So this is yet another of Kafka's works that I will definitely not read! Lol. (And don't get me started on "The Metamorphosis"! I HATE insects!! Lol.)

Thanks for sharing your fascinating thoughts!! Hope you're enjoying your Saturday!! <3 <3 :) :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. Kathy of the blog Kathy's Corner mentioned that Kafka's work seems to have been prophetic, since he died before the Nazis rose to power, as well as before WWII and all of the other armed conflicts and societal upheavals of the 29th century. I re-read my "little post" (lol), and realized that Kafka was indeed ahead of his time. So, thanks to Kathy!! <3 <3 :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

It is interesting, some dark fiction really disturbs me. Some does not. I have only read Kafka’s short stories, I have not read The Castle. As for the short stories, they tend not to disturb me too much. I think that the absurdity tempers it for me.

Kaka’s time was in deed a time of bewilderment at the state of the world and his writing reflected that.

There is no audience reaction in this story.

Though I hope that they are all not true narcissists, we see the behavior that you refer to on social media. People claiming to be “free thinkers” insulting and slandering people. When folks call out their behavior they make false claims of authoritarianism or that they are repressed. I know that you know exactly what I am talking about :)

Maria Behar said...

Hi, again!

Two more comments....yes, unfortunately, I DO know what you're talking about, as we've discussed this rather disturbing phenomenon at length.

And the other comment: I just noticed that I typed "the 29th century", instead of "the 20th century", in my second comment above. OMG!!! LOL!!!!

Gee, I do hope the human race is still around then.... Maybe I briefly teleported there without realizing it! Or Scotty accidentally beamed me there.... LOLOLOLO!!!!

Enjoy your Sunday!! :) :) :)