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Our April LMCC meeting (and our final meeting of the semester) took place on Wednesday, April 26 at 5:30pm in Greenlaw 225 and via Zoom. We continued our Cover of The Language of Trauma by ZilcoskyMarch discussion of John Zilcosky’s 2021 monograph, The Language of Trauma: War and Technology in Hoffman, Freud, and Kafka from the University of Toronto Press. Specifically, we discussed chapter 3: “Inexplicable Tears: Trains, Wars, and Kafka’s Aesthetic of Indeterminacy” (pp. 69-119).

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You can also revisit notes from our March meeting in which we began our discussion of Zilcosky’s The Language of Trauma.


Zilcosky, John. The Language of Trauma: War and Technology in Hoffman, Freud, and Kafka. U of Toronto P, 2021.

Some key passages:

“Franz Kafka’s interest in the effects of modern machinery on the human body extends back to his early years as a business traveller and tourist, when he described the dangers of transportation technology” (Zilcosky 69).

“Even more than automobiles, trains were for Kafka treacherous, not least because they almost doubled their speeds in his lifetime – reaching velocities of 100 kilometres per hour by 1910. As Karl Rossmann notes in Amerika, trains brought great noise and ferocity to the countryside” (Zilcosky 69).

“Later in life, Kafka says that humanity invented such travel technologies for good reason: to encourage physical presence against the absence-sponsoring telegram and telephone” (Zilcosky 69).

“Modern travel technologies were, constitutionally, accidents waiting to happen. And the possibilities of injury were endless” (Zilcosky 69).

“This trembling and sobbing man prefigure the post-WWI ‘war shakers’ – Kriegszitterer – and echoes another traveller from Wedding Preparations: Raban’s ghost-like double, the ‘clothed body,’ whom Raban usually sends on journeys in his stead and who now likewise ‘staggers,’ ‘stumbles,’ and ‘sobs’ (CS 55)” (Zilcosky 70).

“Although these characters’ symptoms have multiple causes – the travelling salesman has work worries, the clothed body must meet with the dreaded fiancée, Samuel is sexually frustrated – the fact that they appear repeatedly during or after train travel implies the influence of contemporaneous medical discourse. ‘Railway doctors’ (Eisenbahnärzte) specializing in ‘railway illnesses’ (Eisenbahnkrankheiten) and ‘railway health’ (Eisenbahnhygiene) regularly saw similar bodies that quivered, shook, and trembled without apparent cause. Such illnesses resulted not only from crashes, doctors argued, but also from the fundamental inelasticity of trains. Beginning already in the 1860s, researchers reported that railway personnel and passengers were experiencing nerve and brain damage” (Zilcosky 71).

“In a pamphlet on the railway’s influence on public health commissioned by England’s top medical journal, The Lancet, researchers claimed that the trains’ continual ‘small and rapid concussions’ produced a ‘commotion of the brain or spinal system of nerves.’ Even in milder forms, this commotion could result in a ‘disease’ that – after ‘remaining a long time latent’ – returned to afflict the nervous system” (Zilcosky 71).

“The resultant ‘shaking’ (zitter[n]) often culminated in acute anxiety, including the ‘fear of death’ and, in severe cases, ‘traumatic shock’” (Zilcosky 72).

“Whereas horse-drawn carriages put wooden wheels on dirt, trains set steel upon steel, and this rigidity – in Kafka’s words, ‘the collision of the rail points” (MP 293) – sent a series of small and quick concussions through the traveller’s body. The ‘nervous-making shaking’ nestled into the passenger’s nervous system and left him quivering long afterwards. As Kafka writes, the train’s vibrations transmitted themselves ‘through the whole body of the train’ into the body of the traveller” (Zilcosky 72).

“Kafka’s interest in this shaking appears not only in his early (pre-1912) stories, but also in his most famous tale, The Metamorphosis (1912), in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, travels the rails professionally. When Samsa transforms into a ‘monstrous vermin,’ he in fact assumes that he is suffering from ‘the torture of traveling’ and has contracted an ‘occupational ailment of the traveling salesman’ (M 4, 7). We should of course not simply accept Samsa’s interpretation, for he misinterprets many things about himself. But we should ask why Kafka inserts this self-diagnosis at all. As I argue in this chapter, Kafka does this for two reasons. First, he aims to expose the deleterious effects of modernity – a task for which he is better suited than other modernists who delivered similar critiques. Of the great writers of his era (Joyce, Proust, Mann, Woolf, Eliot, etc.), Kafka was the only one to endure regular third-class rail travel for his work and the only one to see the inside of a factory; he visited shop floors regularly as a bureaucrat involved in workers’ accident insurance claims and in connection with his family’s own asbestos factory. The second reason is complex, for Kafka is much more than a Zolaesque realist intent on criticizing industrial technology. He wanted to investigate how the legal and medical ways of speaking about trauma that he encountered at work related to his writing – specifically, to the problems of mimesis and truth at the essence of art” (Zilcosky 73).

“For Kafka’s awareness of the impoverishment of the sign is not without context. His poetics of indeterminacy, I maintain, is at once literary and historical-political. It is a response to the linguistic aspects of Kafka’s entire business of accident insurance: the medical-legal discourses surrounding train travel, the Balkan Wars, World War I, and the treatment of veterans after 1918. More specifically, I argue that Kafka is reacting to the medical-legal insistence that we locate a single material cause for the traumatic symptoms of modernity. Kafka’s challenge begins in The Metamorphosis and intensifies in his later stories, where he eventually presents us with symptoms that seem to be completely disconnected from the physical world. In these stories, Kafka increasingly unmoors all of his language and metaphors from identifiable reference points – thereby producing a more specific form of indeterminacy, a poetics of trauma” (Zilcosky 73-74).  

“Kafka believed that his stories could ‘mediate’ between one another…. In this spirit, we can envision a similar internal conversation between The Metamorphosis and Wedding Preparations. Wedding Preparation’s earlier travelling salesman has now become Samsa, I maintain, playfully reconfigure by Kafka five years later” (Zilcosky 74).

“If Samsa has a prequel cameo in Wedding Preparations, it is not as Raban’s happily lounging, stay-at-home beetle but as this proto-hysterical travelling salesman, tossed about in a train that ‘beats on the rails like a hammer’” (Zilcosky 75).

“The ‘preparations’ for The Metamorphosis begin precisely here, on this 1907 train, with Kafka/Raban declaring his need to gain more knowledge of professional travel, which Kafka notoriously does during his five subsequent years of ‘maddening’ business journeys to factory regions outside of Prague (LF 64)” (Zilcosky 75).

“Kafka awakens one morning five years after writing Wedding Preparations in ‘misery,’ dreading another beastly professional trip, only to invent a new story (LF 47). The ‘incubation’ or ‘latency’ period typical for train-illnesses and traumatic neuroses had begun five years earlier, in 1907, and ends now, with a young travelling salesman waking from ‘unsettling’ (unruhigen) dreams to find himself pathologically transformed (M 3, D 115)” (Zilcosky 76).

“Gregor’s symptoms tally with the findings of train-illness research from the earliest years onward, which claimed that five years of regular train travel would be dangerous to anyone – especially to commercial travellers, who were more susceptible to everything from ‘overexcitement’ to premature aging. Gregor’s symptoms echo the railway doctors’ descriptions, which included the same melancholia, anxiety, and involuntary muscle movements present in the travellers in Wedding Preparations” (Zilcosky 76).

“Like Gregor’s failing eyesight, his ‘worrying about train connections [Zuganschlüsse]’ jibes with medical claims: that the railway’s ruthless punctuality caused debilitating psychological stress, especially because of travellers’ lingering confusion about standardized time (M 4, D 116). Before the advent of the railways, every town had a slightly different time: Reading, for example, was four minutes later than London, but ten minutes ahead of Bridgewater. Because these differences did not allow for interregional timetables and often caused crashes, railway companies eventually introduced ‘railway time,’ which at first meant only that each company kept its own time, enforced by the originating conductor passing his watch to a new conductor at the next station. This too led to accidents, such that governments eventually instituted a uniform railway time. Not surprisingly, mix-ups between this new ‘railway’ time and ‘local’ time persisted – even after the introduction of international standard time (in 1893 in Germany and Austria-Hungary” (Zilcosky 78).

“Researchers from the mid-nineteenth through to the early-twentieth century claimed that many railway illnesses issued not primarily from industrial mechanics but from time’s mechanization” (Zilcosky 78).

“Gregor suffers likewise from anxieties about missing trains, to the point that he spends his evenings obsessively perusing railway timetables…. Railway time oppresses Gregor partially because it moves irrationally fast, as it did for Raban. After realizing that he has overslept and that it is already half past six, Gregor watches as the clock hands move uncannily quickly, continuing ‘past the half-hour’ and, before his eyes, to quarter to seven (M 5). Like the clock in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, these accelerated hands parody global modern mechanized time” (Zilcosky 79).

“Driven mad by railway time, Gregor is, as critics have noted, an alienated worker: a subject transformed into a Marxian object. But it is vital to add that Gregor’s objectification is amplified because of his job as a professional traveller. As Marx insists, transportation is the only industry where production and consumption occur ‘simultaneously’; that is, where the product – change of place – is consumed at the same time that it is produced, resulting in a commingling of labour and consumption. Even though the traveller – unlike the conductors, stokers, and attendants – is not explicitly working, the machinery works on him. The train’s vibrations and noise give the modern bourgeois his only direct experience of industry. In Gregor’s words (coincidentally repeated by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in his book on the railway), the traveller experiences industrialization ‘am eigenen Leibe’: on his own body. It is as if consumers were to consume manufactured goods inside the factory. This comparison is especially apt for the non-upholstered third-class wooden benches on which Kafka sat (and Gregor as well, who undoubtedly travelled in the same class as his fellow Reisender from Wedding Preparations). With production and consumption so unusually intertwined, the transport industry unmasked any remaining delusions about the autonomy of the bourgeois subject. As Marx writes, ‘humans and commodities’ travelled together within the same ‘means of transport’; more explicitly than in other industries, humans became here ‘living appendages’ to the machinery” (Zilcosky 80-81).

“Early train travellers from all political stripes agreed. Unlike the passenger in a horse carriage, who could see the natural sources of the horsepower and of the bumps and jerks, the industrial passenger knew neither how his vehicle functioned nor why it shook and clattered. The traveller was alienated and unaware, ultimately nothing more than a ‘package,’ a ‘bale of commodities,’ or, in the words of Joseph Maria von Radowitz, a ‘piece of freight.’ Gregor Samsa becomes precisely such a commodity, a body transported from place to place for the profit of both his firm and his family” (Zilcosky 81).

“Gregor has perhaps tallied his own symptoms with us: fatigue, twitching muscles, uneasy dreams, nervous volubility, blurred vision, and psychological stress from timetables and alienation. For he now minces no words about his diagnosis. ‘The torture of traveling,’ ‘worrying about train connections,’ and being ‘day in and day out – on the road’ have caused this traumatic ‘upset,’ these ‘agitations’ (Aufregungen) (M 4, D 116). Gregor has ‘no doubt in the least’ that he is suffering from this common ‘occupational ailment of the traveling salesman’ (M 7). Scholars have ignored Gregor’s claim, instead generally viewing his transformation as an externalization of an internal conflict…. Might it be time to take Gregor at his word?” (Zilcosky 81).

“But as with so many other possible interpretations of The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s own – and the one I have been presenting so far – is challenged by Kafka himself” (Zilcosky 82).

“Indeed, as critics have pointed out, Kafka’s bodies resist metaphorical – and diagnostic – readings because Kafka’s human tenors and material vehicles are labile. The metaphor is always in motion. Gregor’s transformation is unfinished: Is he an animal or is he our son? This question renders all interpretations of his body unstable. Because Gregor’s body, like Raban’s clothed body, cannot point towards a stable meaning – cannot function reliably as a ‘sign’ – the reader is at an interpretative impasse. Why do Kafka’s travellers stagger and stumble? Why do they cry? Why, in the most extreme case, do they metamorphose? Kafka’s bodies deny our answers before we can formulate them” (Zilcosky 82).

“But this problem of the opaque sign lies at the heart of fin-de-siècle trauma discourse, especially its legal branch. For Gregor, the confusion about his bodily symptoms leads him to fear the ‘health-insurance doctor’ (Krankenkassenarzt), whose job resembles that of the deconstructivist critic: he must prove that the body is not a functioning sign, that it points to nothing. According to the feared Kassenarzt, nothing at all is causing Gregor’s symptoms; he simply doesn’t want to go to work, is ‘afraid to work’ (work-shy, ‘arbeitsscheu’) (M 5–6, D 119). Gregor’s dread of the Kassenarzt lends a legal-medical context to the long-standing literary problem of Gregor’s apparently unreadable body” (Zilcosky 82).

“Because the German railways became legally liable for injuries after 1871 – almost single-handedly creating Kafka’s profession of accident insurance in 1884 (1887 in Austria-Hungary) – the legal medical debate about traumatic neuroses exploded by the fin de siècle. Doctors now had to distinguish between the truly injured and what Gregor’s Kassenarzt calls the ‘completely healthy’ simulators (M 5)” (Zilcosky 83).

“They had suffered lesions on their spinal column: the ‘railway spine’ to which Nordau later referred. Beginning in the early 1880s, after autopsies of spines proved negative, researchers argued that there was no spinal damage. They shifted the focus to the brain (‘railway brain’) and to what Hermann Oppenheim in 1889 influentially termed a ‘traumatic neurosis’ of the cerebral cortex (see chapter 2). This move from spine to brain coincided with the replacement of Erichsen’s theory of pathological anatomy with biochemical explanations” (Zilcosky 83).

“But because the molecular brain damage that Oppenheim cited was submicroscopic, doctors were not able to distinguish between the work-shy simulators and the truly ill” (Zilcosky 83).

“Enough doubt was shed on Oppenheim’s ‘molecular’ argument that the 1880s psychogenic theories of Herbert Page, Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, and Paul Julius Möbius gained new momentum” (Zilcosky 84).

“Although these researchers still held, more or less, to the likelihood of accompanying somatic trauma, they argued that Oppenheim’s ‘traumatic neuroses’ – which Charcot termed ‘traumatic hysterias’ already in 1876 – could also be caused by ideas, suggestions, or fantasies” (Zilcosky 84).

“Each patient’s constitution and sexual and family history helped to determine whether a particular shock produced in them the profound disruption that caused hysteria” (Zilcosky 84).

“Gregor Samsa has the typically hysterical body of his day: symptomatic but with an ‘undetectable pathological-anatomical substrate.’ This ‘submicroscopic’ cause of his suffering is at once also the missing link; molecular damage could not be proven. In this way, the ‘ultramodern’ medical language of hermeneutic undetectability mirrors the postmodern literary-critical assertion of Gregor’s ‘unreadability.’ But this interpretative language now develops significance beyond literary criticism’s games of semiotic self-reference. Opaqueness points instead towards the traumatized body itself. Like the slanderous rumours swirling around travelling salesmen, Gregor’s symptoms are only felt subjectively, on his own body – ‘am eigenen Leibe’ – and can therefore never be ‘traced back to their causes’ (M 18, D 136–7). His injured body is left only to make mute or garbled entreaties that are not even understood” (Zilcosky 84-85).

“Even Gregor admits, despite his telltale symptoms of ‘railway illness,’ that his self-diagnosis will not convince the authorities” (Zilcosky 85).

“Gregor’s uncertainty lurks deeper. His claim that he is not sure whether he is simulating prefigure Freud’s statement from 1920, ‘All neurotics are malingerers; they simulate without knowing it, and this is their sickness.’ To rephrase this in the broader terms of my reading: we cannot know whether Gregor is suffering from a train-induced trauma, but we do know that he suffers from that same illness of suspected simulation that haunted all travelling bodies at the fin de siècle” (Zilcosky 85).

“But if we look at Kafka’s story in the context of his general interest in mechanized bodies from 1907 to 1914, we see a steady progression towards hyperbole that could explain such an overstatement. On the heels of the lightly damaged travellers from Wedding Preparations and Richard and Samuel, Kafka creates a commercial traveller who explodes medical orthodoxy. Travel ‘agitations’ lead not only to uneasy dreams, fatigue, twitching muscles, and blurred vision, but to a complete metamorphosis” (Zilcosky 85).

“Kafka’s 1914 penal apparatus is not simply a train in disguise, but neither is it, as scholars have asserted, a planing machine, a phonograph, or even a new weapon from World War I. As a symbol of mechanized violence, however, the machine’s screeching wheels and vibrating frame recall an overdetermined atmosphere of technological brutality that culminated in the Great War – also known as the ‘war by timetable’” (Zilcosky 86).

“Although military historians debate whether the intricate prewar timetabling really made war inevitable, it is clear that decades of railway planning created a material logic that overwhelmed even the General Staff…. War timetabling also provoked unheard of rail traffic and exponentially more crashes, including the most lethal in British and French history, encouraging Freud to cite the railway again in his 1920 revision of his traumatic-neurosis theory” (Zilcosky 87).

“As questionable as Freud’s cerebral cartography is, Walter Benjamin was right to view Freud’s ‘protective shield’ as a powerful metaphor for modernity. The shocks of technology increased, as did the thickness of our shields. Modern man developed a protective armour like Gregor Samsa’s and, in so doing, became dialectically intertwined with the technology that he had hoped to ward off. As Max Weber argued in 1905, the very machinery that was supposed to protect and free us had become our ‘iron cage’ (stahlhartes Gehäuse): in a more accurate translation, it had become a new, thicker layer of skin, our “shell as hard as steel.”” (Zilcosky 88).

“These technologies intensified in Kafka’s day, when inventors experimented with protecting many bodies at once through armoured vehicles…. Although the Austrian command rejected Burstyn’s design [of the first modern tank] as fantastical, his creation demonstrated how the dialectic between new weaponry and new armour climaxed – in preparation for war – just one year before Kafka invented Gregor’s panzerartigen body” (Zilcosky 88-89).

“This context connects Gregor’s body to the contemporaneous theories about the brain’s ‘protective shield’ and, now more specifically, to the trauma of war. At the moment in the story when Gregor first leaves his room and exposes his grotesque body to his family, he sees something that strikes the reader initially as unimportant. Gregor spots a photograph of himself, dressed in military garb” (Zilcosky 89).

“The Balkan War was the first modern one to target civilians, leading to unspeakable atrocities – prefiguring the Second World War as much as the First. Soldiers torched villages, butchered the faces of captured enemies, and poisoned wells. The Western press referred to the ‘Balkan Slaughterhouse’ and documented this with brutal newspaper images, especially in neighbouring Austria-Hungary” (Zilcosky 89).

“It is impossible to gauge the effect of the war on Kafka, because he is as reticent about it as he is about other world events. But he could not have avoided the daily headlines and appalling images in the Prager Tagblatt, which he read every day, or the rumours of imminent war between Austria and Russia (through Russia’s support of the Balkan League)” (Zilcosky 89-90).

“Just because Samsa views his previous soldier-self as ‘carefree’ does not mean that this is true. For Samsa has misunderstood many aspects of his life, including, notoriously, the financial situation of his father. From this perspective, Samsa’s vision of his soldier-life as carefree is a nostalgic fantasy, an image of himself in a state other than that of a panicked insect. In reality, a young 1912 officer in a militaristic empire who ‘demands’ respect for his uniform is just as alienated as a travelling salesman who works day in and day out for his mendacious family” (Zilcosky 91).

“An officer who would theoretically soon have to face such British and French tanks, Lieutenant Samsa is not the carefree opposite of insect Samsa. He is rather that strange vermin’s techno-neurotic relative: its predecessor (together with the Samsa the train traveller) and its successor. Lieutenant Samsa is the soon-to-be front-soldier who will armour his ‘thin skin’ with the latest technology – the steel helmet – yet succumb to the still thicker skin of these armoured beasts. Lieutenant Samsa and train-traveller Samsa coincide in this technological dialectic. Their merging produces Samsa the superbug: a human with a ‘shell as hard as steel,’ a Panzer. Kafka imagines all this one morning in November 1912, himself so traumatized that he cannot leave his bed” (Zilcosky 91-92).

“This interpretation gains traction when we consider that the firs doctor to use the term ‘shock’ to describe the illnesses of apparently uninjured but symptomatic soldiers was not the famous Charles Myers of World War I. It was Octave Laurent, a Belgian physician who observed the Balkan Wars. If the Balkan Wars were indeed a testing ground for the new French and German artillery that the two countries were about to aim at one another, then it was also a testing ground for the effects of these weapons. Laurent coined the phrase ‘cerebro-medullary shock’ to describe the soldiers’ symptoms: they suffered exhaustion, tingling, twitching, paralysis, and catalepsy from being near to explosions even when not hit by them. What is significant here is not the fact that these indications match Samsa’s – although most of them do – but that Laurent, like the researchers investigating train trauma before him, assumed that he needed to locate a physical cause. He examined corpses for nerve lesions and found none, so ended up hypothesizing a source. He located this in the same spot that the medics from the Napoleonic Wars had. Speeding projectiles, Laurent claimed, caused violent vibrations in the air that damaged the soldiers’ inner ears” (Zilcosky 92).

“The start of the 1914 war changed Kafka’s work life immensely, because a compelling set of new victims suffering from an apparently undeniable cause temporarily bolstered the belief in the truth of trauma. If train victims were faking their nervous quivers, these new ‘war shakers’ were certainly not, and any doctor who asserted otherwise would have seemed unpatriotic…. In addition, Kafka, the best writer in the office, received the crucial task of making the public aware of this crisis of nervously ill veterans. He undertook the ‘propaganda’ work of drumming up support for their care (AS 79), writing four different public pleas in 1916–17, with the first two calling for the creation of a Volksnervenheilanstalt, a State Hospital for the Treatment of Nervous Diseases” (Zilcosky 93).

“As a call to arms, Kafka’s article is an effective form of popular science, describing in laymen’s term the modern neurosis doctrine created by Oppenheim and others. Kafka would have known these tenets from his work in accident insurance, and he seems to agree with them. These shaking, leaping men are suffering from ‘neuroses, generally traumatic ones’ caused by real events (AS 494). These events also preceded the war, Kafka insists, following Oppenheim: ‘Slews of traumatic neuroses’ appeared already in ‘peacetime.’ And the causes of these neuroses were clear: ‘factory accidents’ (for ‘the working classes’) and ‘rail transport’ (for ‘the general population’) (496–7)” (Zilcosky 95).

“Our nervous modernity did not begin with the war, Kafka insists, and would not end with it. Unless help was found, today’s iconic veteran – the ‘twitcher and leaper’ (Zitterer und Springer) – would simply be added to the mass of ‘uncured peacetime neurasthenics,’ whose numbers would undoubtedly continue to grow after the war (499). With these pre- and postwar victims in mind, Kafka asks for donations from the likely culprits: the railway management as well as the entire accident industry that springs from it – specifically, private insurance companies and social insurance institutes like the one employing Kafka” (Zilcosky 95-96).

“By viewing the war as part of a longer Nervenkrieg instigated by mechanization, rapid transportation, and industrial violence, Kafka placed the war within the context of modernity. This brought him to concur with Oppenheim’s convictions about simulation. The vast majority of neurotics were not faking. Their symptoms had clear material causes – industrial modernity – which had led, as Oppenheim presumed, to physical (molecular) damage. Although this ‘anatomical substrate’ remained submicroscopic, Kafka, like Oppenheim, seemed to be certain of its existence” (Zilcosky 96).

“With the number of nervously unfit soldiers now growing exponentially, the neurologists decided that simulation was the greatest single crisis facing the nation. It was more dangerous than shell shock itself. Even if the soldiers were not deliberately faking their illness, the doctors argued, they were succumbing to psychic fantasies: to ‘negative wish-ideas’ (negative Begehrungsvorstellungen) with no physical counterpart” (Zilcosky 96).

“The simulation hunters conveniently forgot Freud’s main point: that the neuroses developed unconsciously, meaning that one could speak of simulation only in a certain sense. As Freud argued as an expert witness in the postwar enquiry on military psychiatrists discussed in chapter 2, neurotics could not help but simulate. But this did not mean that they were not ill; this unconscious simulating is ‘their sickness’” (Zilcosky 97).

“As an acknowledged expert on Invalidenrenten (pensions for war invalids), Kafka not only saw the war-shakers, he spoke and negotiated with them. In his attempts to determine proper compensation, Kafka was caught up in the dilemma of simulation that divided the psychiatry community” (Zilcosky 98).

“As researchers on train and war traumas – including Freud – discovered, there are symptomatic bodies that seem to have neither a detectable physical injury nor a hidden psychic one: molecular damage cannot be proven and psychic explanations ‘cease to carry weight’ (Freud, SE 18:32). Just as Gregor’s mechanized body becomes a broken sign – lacking both a clear physical injury and a psychic one stemming from his childhood – Kafka’s body might also end up referring only to itself: ‘twitching and leaping’ on the streets of Prague” (Zilcosky 98).

“Neurology and psychiatry have failed to discover an original ‘cause,’ only a mise en abyme of submicroscopic substrata and pathological simulation. Kafka fears precisely this undiagnosability, this etiology vaguer than tissue damage, childhood trauma, or even the ‘fear of death’” (Zilcosky 99).

“The first victims of this scourge of modernity were, as Kafka knew, the weak: women and ‘feminine’ men. This fear of being labelled feminine may explain why he insisted that he was suffering not from the hysterical disorder of ‘travel anxiety’ (Reiseangst) and not from what he, following Nordau, called ‘weakness of will’” (Willensschwäche) (L 333, B 384)” (Zilcosky 99).

“This fear of an undiagnosable injury brought on by the mysteries of modernity puts a fine point on my argument. To be clear: I am not claiming that Gregor’s transformation is a direct result of train trauma. Such trauma cannot cause a man to turn into a giant bug. Nor am I arguing that Gregor is a malingerer, at least not in the sense suspected by the Kassenarzt. Rather, I see Gregor as embodying the modern technological anxiety of indeterminacy, in which even the victims do not know whether they are ill and in which simulation itself becomes the illness. Gregor’s body is modernity’s prototypical broken sign: a conglomeration of symptoms that does not refer to a clear physical cause” (Zilcosky 99-100).

“For although Kafka thought deeply about trains and industrial trauma (his professional writings and diaries reveal great compassion for injured factory workers), his obsession lay elsewhere. Zolaesque moments appear in Kafka’s work, but such realist political exposés were never his end goal – not even on this more sophisticated level of presenting modern bodies’ tragic undiagnosability. Rather, Kafka sees in trauma’s semiotic dubiousness the social condition for his poetics – at once its catalyst and its verification” (Zilcosky 100).

“As critics have demonstrated for decades, Kafka’s writing sprang out of his ‘despair’ of metaphor and metaphoric language: vehicles did not refer back to tenors just as signifiers did not point to signifieds (Di 398). Like language itself, Gregor’s body emphasizes this unreadability. This body is an accumulation of symptoms without causes and, as such, the cipher for Kafka’s original combining of literary and medico-legal discourses. Kafka emphasizes how the Sprachkrise of his era was also a linguistic trauma, connected to the traumatized bodies around him and the ground for a poetics that truly investigates the suffering of indeterminacy. As discussed in my introduction, Kafka, like Freud, succeeds here in finding a language that is both ‘medical’ and ‘literary’: a language that explains traumatic suffering and gives it a voice” (Zilcosky 100).

“Gregor’s train-damaged body and more obviously, the mutilated officer from ‘In the Penal Colony,’ were now right in front of Kafka, in the staircase of his workplace. The exotic world of colonial machine torture had come to Prague: through the effects of both war and the military-psychiatric torture practised on traumatized soldiers around the corner from Kafka’s office. With the technological nightmare of Kafka’s fiction realized, did he still need to imagine and write stories about it? Might he have found it now more important to devote his literary energies to helping these pitiful ‘apparitions’ that appeared before him? The masterful literary aspects of Kafka’s 1916 public pleas for shell-shock victims suggest as much. His writing is here no longer just the representation of ‘my dreamlike inner life’ but also a tool for generating compassion and social change (Di 302)” (Zilcosky 100-101).

“I would like to insist that, instead of searching for oblique allusions, we take Kafka’s erasure of the war seriously. I see in this erasure precisely Kafka’s preoccupation with the war – specifically, with the war neurotics and their relation to his struggles with literary form. My point is that Kafka’s later texts engage even more intensively than The Metamorphosis with the same structural dilemma that he grappled with as an adjudicator of wartime disability claims: the unstable, possibly simulated, relation between symptom and source” (Zilcosky 101).

“In this new fiction [his later texts], Kafka deliberately heightens the causal crisis of trauma that he had exposed in The Metamorphosis. He describes characters who suffer from mysterious symptoms that again cannot be traced back to what Gregor Samsa calls an original ‘cause’” (Zilcosky 101).

“…he is deliberately effacing technology from this later work. He is systematically catapulting his characters backward, out of modernity. In this pre-industrial world, their neurotic symptoms now appear to be fully disconnected from ‘intensive mechanization’” (Zilcosky 102).

“The range and depth of Kafka’s fascination with this malfunctioning symptom is astounding. In the relatively brief period from January 1917 to his death in 1924, he creates over a dozen distinct characters who live with such broken ‘signs of illness.’ We see this already in his first new burst of writing from early 1917, when he was still working with injured veterans. Various characters appear who, although transferred backward to a pre-industrial world, show symptoms similar to those of the modern ‘war hysterics’ who crowded Kafka’s office” (Zilcosky 102).

“Kafka’s most famous story from this period, when he was still in the midst of adjudicating settlements for war invalids, is ‘A Country Doctor,’ and it too opens with a patient presenting symptoms that appear to have no cause” (Zilcosky 103).

“In medical diagnostics, the symptom – the surreal ‘wound’ – should have a source, whether internal disease or external injury. In literary criticism, the metaphoric vehicle (the wound) should point to a tenor (the ‘meaning’ of that wound). When the work of medical diagnostics fails, as the doctor’s recourse to metaphor suggests, the work of poetic hermeneutics begins” (Zilcosky 104).

“But what if the wound does not signify any of these meanings commonly cited in the secondary literature? What if it is not a classical metaphor at all but rather a marker of the breakdown of metaphoricity in both literature and in the diagnostics of trauma, which was occupying Kafka while he wrote this story? The metaphor, like the medical ‘sign of illness’ (Krankheitszeichen), is divided traditionally into two parts, one on the surface and one beneath. Just as the medical symptom (the wound) traditionally pointed to a ‘substrate,’ so did the metaphor’s vehicle (the wound) traditionally point to a meaning ‘beneath’ the linguistic surface (desire, absurdity, death). In the world of trauma diagnosis that Kafka inhabited professionally, this bond between symptom and substrate had broken. Symptoms no longer connected to substrates. In the story, likewise, the vehicle is severed from any single tenor; as much as readers have tried, they have been unable to fuse this wound to a meaning” (Zilcosky 104).

“This impossibility refers us back to Kafka’s suspicion of metaphor. As critics have pointed out, it is metaphor that makes Kafka ‘despair of writing’ (Di 398). He even goes so far as to decapitate and ‘literalize’ it, from The Metamorphosis onward. But we can now understand this oft-cited literary suspicion in its historical, medical-legal context. The crisis of representation essential to Kafka’s poetics dovetails with the hermeneutical crisis of trauma diagnosis from his professional life” (Zilcosky 104-105).

“If the source of Gregor’s symptoms is ultimately unlocatable – who can know whether train-travelling really causes trauma? – then this problem is driven to its logical extreme with the boy [in “Good Country Doctor”]. What could have produced a wound like this? Nothing. At least nothing ‘earthly,’ as the doctor senses at the end (K 65). The causal relation between symptom and substrate is undone” (Zilcosky 105).

“Readers have often viewed ‘A Country Doctor’ as Kafka’s criticism of the medical world, and this is certainly true. But Kafka is not criticizing the doctors themselves – however incompetent and secretive, however reliant on magical cures. Rather, he is revealing a structure in which the public health officer, too, is trapped. In a 1917 legal world that demanded a physical cause where none was evident, the best a ‘generous’ doctor could do was to provide the fantasy of a ‘real’ injury: to invent the blows of the ax. For proof of a physical source was still a requirement for compensation in European tort law. The country doctor’s charitable lie thus short-circuits accusations of simulation and gives the patient causal closure. More than this, as Freud argues just three years later, an actual physical injury – if the boy had indeed suffered one – might have kept him from developing a neurosis by directing his libidinal energy towards the wound (SE 18:33)” (Zilcosky 106).

“Following the surge of creativity in early 1917, Kafka writes almost nothing for three years. He starts writing again in separate bursts in summer/fall 1920 and most of 1922, and his obsession with sourceless symptoms recurs” (Zilcosky 106).

“As Freud had claimed just three years earlier, the desire to simulate was itself an ailment. Mainstream neurologists refused to consider simulation unconscious and thus a sickness, but they did acknowledge that it functioned like one: it was apparently infectious, as discussed in chapter 2” (Zilcosky 108).

“A Little Woman,” (1923): “The little woman infects him with her uneasiness, he claims, but this contagion becomes more complex when we remember that, at the beginning of the story, she had thought that he was infecting her. Both characters somehow contaminate the other. In this, the narrator confirms mainstream neurology’s claim that hysteria was circular. It jumped from psyche to psyche, and one could, tragically, not pin down its origin” (Zilcosky 108).

“The Burrow,” (1923): “The creature’s constant state of ‘nervous anxiety’ intensifies precisely because he is unable to locate the cause. He imagines a panoply of invisible enemies trying to dig their way into his burrow, but he has never seen any of them and wonders whether they even exist. The creature goes even further, doubting whether his anxieties are caused by any identifiable ‘outside’ source at all (K 174)” (Zilcosky 109).

“More specifically, Julia Encke links the creature’s frantic search for a nearly inaudible noise to soldiers listening nervously on the floors of their trenches for enemies tunnelling below. World War I soldiers in fact systematically heeded every slight sound of ‘hammering and knocking,’ which suggested digging underneath or alongside” (Zilcosky 109).

“First, as in most of his post-1916 writings, Kafka constructs a premodern world that rigorously excludes both the war and any contemporaneous technology; we see no relation between the creature’s hysteria and industrialization. Kafka even avoids metaphors borrowed from modern technology” (Zilcosky 111).

“Second and most important, Kafka repeatedly undermines any relation between symptom and cause within the text, which hints at his larger poetics of indeterminacy, in which – as in The Metamorphosis – the hero’s body cannot be read as a metaphor for something else. Just as the creature cannot locate a source of his neurasthenia outside of his body or outside of the world of his burrow, Kafka’s readers cannot locate a meaning for these symptoms outside of the text itself” (Zilcosky 111).

“Outside and inside are identical, he claims. We do not here have the Freudian model of repression, which is structured on difference: the internal truth appears disguised as the external symptom, which we need to decode” (Zilcosky 111).

“Rather, in Kafka’s world, this symptom of trauma – the physical Unruhe of scratching at walls – points only to itself. The creature continues to tear at the walls now not in order to find something ‘but to do something that matches [his] inner disquiet [Unruhe]’ (K 182, N2 615). He produces an external activity that corresponds to an internal feeling: external Unruhe is ‘the same’ as internal Unruhe. In semiotic terms, there is no longer a relation between signifier and signified – only an equivalence. The sign is more than just broken. There is no sign at all, no semiotic relation. Unruhe points only to Unruhe. Just as Gregor Samsa’s body signified not train trauma but rather a discourse of trauma in which the sign itself was shattered, so too does the creature’s trauma point not to the war but to the diagnostic crisis of the war, in which the physical symptom was tragically unable to point to the event that caused it. The creature’s body, like so many traumatized bodies of his day, could refer only to itself” (Zilcosky 112).

Kafka’s last story, “Josefine, the Singer or The Mouse People” (1924): “Josefine’s struggle for her pension is also a struggle against her ‘people’ (Volk). As such, it performs the social conflict at the heart of all forms of insurance. Insurance spreads risks from individuals to a larger community, and in so doing, creates tension between that community and the individual. The narrator sees this in Josefine’s struggle and, like the narrator in ‘A Little Woman,’ reveals sympathies with the community” (Zilcosky 114).

“When the people decide that Josefine is not truly injured, they choose to reject her petition. In so doing, they act as a decision-making indemnificatory body, a corporation of insurance. They decide not to bear the responsibility for her individual subsistence” (Zilcosky 115).

“The narrator adopts again the position of the community and restates the problem of insurance. The community must assess whether the individual is truly injured before granting benefits. Otherwise everyone could, like Gregor Samsa and the ‘little woman,’ declare himself unable to work” (Zilcosky 116).

“Despite appearances, her people never really needed this. When it comes to gifts like this, the community can only bestow and, furthermore, can only bestow one specific gift: social security. In return, it demands no gifts and certainly not aesthetic ones. It demands only work and – essential to this – an agreement not to simulate” (Zilcosky 117).

“Whoever breaks this agreement is, like Josefine, refused the gift of communal sanctuary. The community does not weep after losing Josefine. It simply ‘continues on its way.’ And because this is the way of insurance, it insists not on a process of mourning but on a recalculation. The headcount must be readjusted. As we learn in the story’s final sentence, Josefine, the shunned simulator, is subtracted from the number of insurable bodies. But she is more than just subtracted. She is removed from the very idea of calculation: she becomes ‘incalculable’ (zahllos)” (Zilcosky 117).

“Each individual knows that she could be next. She, too, could move from the secure plural to the exiled singular. She, too, could become the person who claims to be ill but finds no relation between her Krankheitszeichen – her signs of illness, her symptoms – and an underlying physical lesion. Like the insurance industry of Kafka’s day, Josefine’s community insists on a pathological physical substrate. General ‘dysphoria’ does not suffice. And simulation remains the enemy of the people” (Zilcosky 118).

“As with my reading of The Metamorphosis, my interpretation of ‘Josefine’ and the other late stories does not aim to solve them – especially not by definitively diagnosing their characters” (Zilcosky 118).

“As I pointed out earlier in this chapter, this problem of broken signification extends into The Metamorphosis, where critics have long viewed Gregor Samsa’s body as an ‘opaque sign’ and a ‘free-floating’ signifier. This Undeutbarkeit continues even more powerfully, as I am arguing here, into the late stories” (Zilcosky 119).

“While not ‘solving’ the stories, contextualization does allow us to see Kafka’s aesthetic of Undeutbarkeit in a new light: as a reaction to the contemporaneous attempts to find a definitive material source for the ‘nervous’ scourge of modernity. Although Kafka cites such a source in his 1916 public pleas for donations (‘intensive mechanization’ and the ‘war’), he consistently resists this in his fiction. We see this already in Wedding Preparations and The Metamorphosis, where Kafka hints initially at the possibility of railway hysteria only to subvert this diagnosis through overdetermination, hyperbole, and irony. He undermines such diagnoses more powerfully in the post-1916 stories, where readers have long noticed an increase in Undeutbarkeit but not the context of this increase: Kafka’s wartime work at Prague’s Accident Insurance Institute, where the crisis of the opaque body confronted him every day. In these stories, symptoms similar to those from the earlier work persist, but they are now fully decapitated from a source” (Zilcosky 119).

“Kafka’s protagonists exhibit Krankheits-Zeichen that point to everything and nothing. These opaque signs – signifiers without apparent signifieds – disrupt the causality at the heart of contemporaneous trauma research. Their brokenness expresses the quandary of simulation” (Zilcosky 119).


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