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Creatural Fictions : Human-Animal Relationships

Literary Modernisms, Animal Worlds, and Trans-species Entanglements


Kafka’s animal stories, especially “The Metamorphosis” and “A Report to an Academy,” have been of great interest to the interdisciplinary field of animal studies. A number of works in literary animal studies have used the complexity of Kafka’s stories to discuss such topics of current interest as crossing the human-animal divide, what we can and cannot know of what it is to be another animal, how writing from the point of view of a nonhuman animal can both provide possible exits from the solipsism of the modern or bourgeois subject and also shift our own understanding of human subjectivity, ontology, epistemology, and limitation; also, how thinking about these stories, and animal literature in general, can serve the goal of decentering anthropocentrism.

 In this chapter, I focus on the convergence in Kafka’s animal stories of modernist form with the radical questioning Kafka undertakes of the singularity, superiority, and dominance over all other animals of homo sapiens.

By “modernist form,” I mean the highly diverse departures from realism in all the arts, in many parts of the world, from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Kafka’s version of modernist form derives from various sources, primarily Expressionism, and also anticipates elements of Surrealism and Magical Realism. My focus, however, is not on locating Kafka’s formal experimentation within the history of modernist movements and ideologies. I do not argue against certain modes of the New Modernist Studies that turn away from, or at least de-emphasize, issues of form.

Rather, I assume the importance of formal innovation—especially the imaginative freedom it allow —in twentieth-century modernism, and I proceed to discuss the ways in which Kafka’s particular formal innovations interconnect with his powerful imaginings of interspecies human-animal modes of being. Specifically, Kafka used the uncanny interpenetration of realism and the fantastic that modernist formal freedom allows to create oscillating characters who are neither/both human and animal.3 These figures radically challenge notions of human uniqueness and dominance.

In order to demonstrate Kafka’s use of these constantly oscillating humanimals, which depart from more conventionally stable, non-oscillating narrating animals, I focus on two supposedly exclusively human capabilities that have been, and still are, used as unimpeachable proof of human exceptionalism: language and reason. Kafka’s use of modernist form, I argue, calls into question the assumption that these capabilities mark homo sapiens’ ontological difference from, and superiority to, all other animals.

The story most relevant to Kafka’s balloon-puncturing of human language as the primary argument for human exceptionalism is of course “A Report to an Academy.” Its protagonist, Red Peter, is usually understood as an ape turned (more or less) human. I argue here that he is instead an oscillating humanimal, and that his ambiguous status creates the power of the story.4 Red Peter speaks elaborate formal human language in his report, which is identical to the story itself.

He uses the kind of language his audience of academicians would use themselves. The language he uses in the story is what makes him seem most human. However, the becoming-human the story recounts radically undercuts the privileging not just of sophisticated human language, but of human language itself.5 Red Peter, generally considered by his readers to be primarily human, is just as much an oscillating, indeterminate human/animal, or, for convenience’s sake, humanimal, as Kafka’s more obvious combinations of human and nonhuman animal such as Gregor Samsa, the dog philosopher of “Investigations of a Dog,” the burrowing protagonist of “The Burrow,” and both Josephine and the narrator of her story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

It is the story of his acquisition of human language that makes Red Peter’s life history so important to Kafka’s attack on the belief that 

KAFKA’S ANIMAL STORIES

language is what makes humans superior, in fact supreme beings, not just separate from but dominant over all other animals.7 Red Peter is shot, captured by the Hagenbeck zoo expedition, and trapped in a cage too small for him to stand up or sit down in—a “crush cage”—so he must crouch without respite with knees trembling and arms stretched up (a form of torture now euphemized as a “stress position”).

 Red Peter knows that the freedom he had as an ape living in his habitat is gone, without possibility of return. Freedom, so desired by humans, is possessed only by animals in the wild in this story. Red Peter knows of freedom only after he has lost it. As ape, he had freedom but did not know he had it; as humanimal, he can see both that freedom is unattainable by humans, something that humans cannot see, and also that freedom is permanently lost to him.

These insights, which undercut ideas of human superiority, would be unavailable either to a human or to an ape. It is only through the point of view of an oscillating humanimal that Kafka can convey these profound insights. Red Peter’s acquisition of human language is no victory for him, no passage into a higher order of being: here the comforting notion of the supremacy of human language is stripped away from humans. It is something that, again, can only be the insight of a humanimal.

He shouts “‘Hallo!’ breaking into human speech, and with this outburst broke into the human community” (257). This moment seems to endorse the notion that human language both creates and proves the bright line separating humans from other animals. However, Kafka erases that line: “there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason” (257).

In a poignantly comical statement often alluded to by critics, he declares that “With an effort which up till now has never been repeated I managed to reach the cultural level of an average European” (258). Reaching the cultural level of an average European “opened a special way out for me, the way of humanity . . . I have fought through the thick of things . . . There was nothing else for me to do, provided always that freedom was not to be my choice” (258).

“Humanity” and “freedom” go together for anthropocentrism; in fact, humanity might be seen as the condition for freedom, as in the work of the existentialists. Here, however, “humanity” and “freedom” designate, perhaps even define, mutually contradictory states of being. Red Peter describes the acrobatic acts that often precede him in the variety theaters—they swing, rock, spring, float; “one hung by the hair from the teeth of the other” (253). He goes on: “‘And that too is human freedom,’ I thought, ‘self-controlled movement.’

MARIANNE DEKOVEN 

What a mockery of holy Mother Nature! Were the apes to see such a spectacle, no theater walls could stand the shock of their laughter” (253).9 In addition to mocking human simulations of freedom, this statement constitutes a reversal of the situation of the story, making apes the audience for human spectacle by imagining a reversal of the performer-audience relation. Becoming-human has deprived Red Peter of the possibility and even, according to him, the desire for freedom, but his status as humanimal, his knowledge that apes are free (“free ape as I was” [250]), have a more meaningful freedom than humans ever can, allows him to see the hopeless absurdity of human imitations of freedom.

Red Peter’s “training” in becoming-human, a pivotal sequence discussed by many critics, is initiated by the ship’s crew.10 His description of the crew members, and of his interactions with them, are crucial to the oscillating humanimal status the story constructs for Red Peter, which would be impossible without the freedom achieved by modernist form to blur the distinction between human and animal by assembling creatures who are neither and both. He describes the crew’s laughter as containing a “gruff bark.” “They always had something in their mouths to spit out and did not care where they spat it.”

They complain about the fleas they get from him, but “they were not seriously angry about it; they knew that my fur fostered fleas, and that fleas jump; it was a simple matter of fact to them.” When they’re off duty they sit with him; “they hardly spoke but only grunted to each other . . . stretched out on lockers; smacked their knees as soon as I made the slightest movement; and now and then one of them would take a stick and tickle me where I liked being tickled” (254). Their behavior very pointedly (and of course comically) establishes a further blurring of the human-animal distinction.

I read this sequence not as a comic reversal of human and animal, but rather as a moment suggesting their commonality. In effect, the primary difference betweenthe crew and Red Peter is that they are stretched out on top of lockersand he is trapped in a cage constructed around the impermeable barrier of a locker.11His “way out” is to join them, to become one of them. As RedPeter puts it: “It was so easy to imitate these people. I learned tospit in the very first few days. We used to spit in each other’s faces;the only difference was that I licked my face clean afterwards andthey did not” (255).

Not only is Red Peter’s spitting as an “ape” aresult of imitating the human crew rather than doing something thatis natural to him, but also Red Peter is “naturally” more fastidiousthan the crew members. This detail, usually read as a straightforward

KAFKA’S ANIMAL STORIES

critique of human behavior, is characteristic of the kind of human-animal intermixing Kafka relies on to create his humanimals. Red Peterdoes also imitate the crew in human behavior, of course. He learns tosmoke a pipe “like an old hand.” There is a “roar of appreciation” if“I pressed my thumb into the bowl of the pipe” (255). Red Peter theperformance artist is already building his repertoire. His final initiation comes through schnapps, drunk heavily by the crew and repeatedly offered to him. He struggles mightily against his disgust, notingthat “the smell of it revolted me” (256),

again indicating his superiorfastidiousness, and more refined sensibility, entirely in line with thekind of cultural capital possessed by the “civilized” human audienceof his Report. So, the supposedly human refinement he “achieves”was innately his all along.

One particular crew member undertakes Red Peter’s training inbecoming-human by means of drinking schnapps. He stands in frontof Red Peter’s cage, repeatedly giving elaborate, pointed demonstrations of drinking and then “rubbing his belly and grinning” (256).Because of Red Peter’s disgust, the crew member has to torture himin order to get him to drink the alcohol, further evidence of theanguish and distress caused by becoming-human: “sometimes indeedhe would hold his burning pipe against my fur, until it began tosmolder in some place I could not easily reach, but then he wouldhimself extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand; he was notangry with me, he perceived that we were both fighting on the sameside against the nature of apes and that I had the more difficult task”(257).

Clearly the “nature of apes” is preferable here, not just in itsgreater refinement and discernment, but, more important, in its difference from the deliberate cruelty of the human. Red Peter’s wounding, capture, and tortured imprisonment are the only reasons he mustleave behind the freedom of the apes and become-human, which notonly offers a way out, but also offers the only way out. Again, RedPeter’s “refinement” as a prehuman ape marks his already-humanimalstatus, even before his training in schnapps drinking.


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