The Most Lost of Them All

Madness and Rescue from Kafka’s Prison

CJ Green / 6.29.20

Whether Franz Kafka was a religious writer has been considered an open question. For many people, of course, anything too dark, too weird, smacks of faithlessness. Edwin Berry Burgum once described Kafka as “the most lost of them all”; his “personal deterioration paralleled the degeneration of the society that produced him” (that is, Germany in the early 20th century). Many readers feel this way.

Others, though, like the poet Edwin Muir, take the opposite approach: Kafka’s skepticism “is grounded on a final faith … His skepticism is not an attitude or a habit; it is a weapon for testing his faith and his doubt alike, and for discarding from them what is inessential.” This, too, seems a bit of a stretch, but it is true that you can face up to the darker elements of human nature when you’re grounded by faith in grace. St. Paul wrote that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” The most lost of them all.

There is probably a little truth to both perspectives. An avid reader of Kierkegaard, especially Fear and Trembling, Kafka understood the seriousness of the “leap into faith,” the absurdity of it; and by most accounts, he seems never to have taken it. I haven’t read everything by Kafka, but in what I have read, I did not detect good news.

Then again, he wanted almost all of his work destroyed. Dying at the age of 40, he wrote to his friend Max Brod, “My last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” The manuscripts were not intended for worldwide scrutinization. You wonder what he might have written, if anything, had he known what his work would become.

I got to thinking about all of this after reading the lesser-known story, “The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time,” recently published in the New Yorker as one of four shorts. Part of a forthcoming collection, The Lost Writings, “The Rescue” describes the Christian life with sharp understanding.

The scene: two men are trapped in a (probably metaphorical) jail cell. Our narrator observes his cellmate and thinks:

He is of the view that his predicament is like that of a polar explorer who is frozen in some bleak waste but who will surely be rescued, or, rather, has already been rescued … 

[T]he fact that he will be rescued is for him beyond doubt, irrespective of his will, simply by virtue of the weight of his victor’s personality. Now, should he wish for it? His wishing or not-wishing will affect nothing, he will be rescued …

This cellmate knows that his “rescue will begin in its own time.” And whether he wishes for it is secondary to the fact that it will happen (or, mysteriously, has already happened). Our narrator has little patience for his cellmate’s certainty, and even less interest in the questions it raises, and he entertains the possibility that his cellmate “has been driven mad by captivity.” Indeed, the cellmate acts the part, holding fast to a little hammer, a symbol for his inevitable rescue:

Sometimes he kneels beside me and holds the hammer I’ve seen thousands of times in front of my face, or he takes my hand, spreads it out on the floor, and hammers all my fingers in turn. … Sometimes he runs his hammer along the walls, as though to give the signal to the great waiting machinery of rescue to swing into operation.

Such beautiful, specific, Kafkaesque lines! Is this madness? Certainly seems so.

I, also, have a hammer, and might be tapping the sentences of this story as if they were nails. Because to me, this is a parable of faith—the madness of faith—and the wisdom of God that looks like foolishness to the world (1 Cor 1:18). It is Kafka’s version of Kierkegaard’s two knights—the knight of infinite resignation (who lies passively in his cell) and the knight of faith, who is crazy, the most lost of them all.

I’m reminded of a line from Pascal’s wager:

Who then can blame the Christians for not being able to give reasons for their belief, professing as they do a religion which they cannot explain by reason. They declare, when expounding to the world, that it is foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it they would give the lie to their own worlds; it is in lacking proofs that they do not lack sense.

Image credits: Adolf Hoffmeister and Self-portrait of Franz Kafka