Why Kafka Wanted to Be Forgotten by Having His Manuscripts Burned

Kafka’s protagonists in 'The Trial' and other works were persecuted because of forgetfulness, but sometimes forgetting actually enables redemption

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Franz Kafka.
Franz Kafka.Credit: Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Noam Tirosh
Noam Tirosh

“He feels imprisoned on this earth... no comfort can comfort him, since it is merely comfort, gentle, head-splitting comfort glozing the brutal fact of imprisonment. But if he is asked what he actually wants he cannot reply, for – that is one of his strongest proofs – he has no conception of freedom.”

– Franz Kafka, “The Zürau Aphorisms”

During the coronavirus pandemic we have all become “imprisoned on this earth.” In contrast to Kafka’s prisoner, who lacks any concept of freedom, for me freedom includes the ability to address the sublime and what transcends the everyday. The attempt to understand another layer of Kafka’s timeless writing certainly constitutes a small moment of mental and conceptual freedom at this time, in which the routine consists largely of washing dishes, trying to preserve the children’s sanity and online social meetings.

I chose to reread “The Trial,” with the aid of which memory – and within it, processes of remembering and forgetting – can be shown to occupy a central place in the work of the Jewish-Czech writer. Kafka understood forgetting, and in particular a person’s forgetting of himself and his past, as a moment of grace; perhaps, in the wake of Kafka, self-forgetting will be our consolation when everything comes to an end.

Kafka, said Willy Haas, his friend and one of his first publishers, was a “devotee of memory.” When they met in 1919, after a seven-year break, Haas asked Kafka, “What are you reading?” “I am still reading the book you recommended in our last meeting,” the writer replied. Haas was taken aback, astonished that Kafka had remembered the recommendation. After all, “betwixt and between the Great War had taken place [but] he still knew it.”

In Haas’ view, this anecdote attests to far more than Kafka’s phenomenal memory. Memory, for Kafka, was “his conscience, his ethic, even his religion,” he said. In light of this, Haas proposed that one read “The Trial” as a story dealing with forgetfulness and its effects on man.

Walter Benjamin, who quoted Hass in the seminal text he wrote about Kafka in 1934, on the 10th anniversary of his death, adopted Haas’ approach. Surprisingly, however, this interpretation was abandoned in time, even by Benjamin himself: Apart from words of agreement with the spirit of the remarks, he preferred to focus on other aspects in the writing of the well-known author.

“… he had to remember every tiny action and event from the whole of his life, looking at them from all sides and checking and reconsidering them. It was also a very disheartening job.”

– Kafka, “The Trial”

A reading that examines processes of memory, remembering and forgetting in “The Trial” reveals that Haas was right. In the story, K. wakes up in his room and understands that he is a suspect. Like K., the reader, too, does not know until the bitter end why he was a suspect and what reasons led the tentacles of the law to persecute him and finally execute him “like a dog.” K. awakes one morning into total amnesia – he doesn’t remember what had made him a suspect. He has forgotten his past, his life story. That forgetting is the source of his transgression.

Kafka in Prague.
Kafka in Prague.Credit: Sovfoto / UIG / Getty Images

In our time, too, we tend to perceive forgetting as a failure. Stored in our phone are thousands of images captured during moments that we hope to remember forever. Each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day we are enjoined “to remember and never forget,” and humanity as a whole is occupied with constantly honing and improving its means of memory.

From this perspective one can understand why K. decided to write his autobiography as a writ of defense. If his sin is one of forgetting, then rewriting his life story is the solution. The written defense “would contain a short description of his life and explain why he had acted the way he had at each event that was in any way important, whether he now considered he had acted well or ill, and his reasons for each.”

K. has lost control over his past. He doesn’t remember what caused the difficulties he is experiencing. Accordingly, he tries to remember, to rewrite his life story, in order to grapple with the accusations against him and thereby restore his identity, his self, what was erased in him when his memory departed. In short order, however, he realizes that “it was impossible ever to finish it.” How dreary is ambitious autobiographical writing such as this, which examines every detail of a person’s past; an impossible task.

Whereas for Kafka memory is an ethical imperative, K. would appear to have transgressed because he forgot his past and, thereby, himself. The paralyzing fear of oblivion and its impact was termed by Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi the “terror of forgetting.” And, indeed, it is terror that impels “The Trial.” If we cannot remember who we are, if we forget our past, we are condemned to a constant, miserable and debasing journey of trying to remember, whose end is of necessity death – be it a concrete, spiritual or symbolic.

However, in the novel, Kafka offers an additional process that undermines that interpretation. Forgetting, it seems to me, is perhaps the transgression for which K. is persecuted, but absolute forgetting is the moment at which K. achieves relief from his suffering.

“‘But I’m not guilty,’ said K. ‘There’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.’”

K. does not know what he is suspected of. Because he has forgotten his past and is unable to write an autobiography, he is condemned to be imprisoned in an incomprehensible legal tangle. Despite this, throughout the story, K. is convinced that he is innocent. Toward the end of the story, when K. meets the priest in the cathedral, in what can be construed as the occasion of the recitation of his verdict, he clings to his innocence and insists that human beings cannot be guilty of the sin of forgetting.

If K.’s transgression is indeed the forgetting of his past, his insistence that he is innocent and that no one can be guilty of the “sin of forgetting,” is significant. K., Kafka says, did indeed forget, but what’s so terrible about that?

The fact is that processes of forgetting are an integral part of the processes of remembering and of memory in society. Without forgetting, there is no possibility of remembering and of maintaining a normal life. (For example, Borges’ protagonist, “Funes the Memorious,” remembered everything but was incapable of interpreting the immensity of the information he remembered, because he was unable to forget anything.)

In many cases, it is in fact forgetting that is critical to our psychic wholeness as individuals and as a collectivity – an idea that was enshrined not long ago in the “right to be forgotten,” which is recognized today in European law and regulations (stipulating that in certain circumstances, personal information about an individual can legally be removed from the internet and other sources).

But if “forgetting” is sometimes positive and necessary, why does K. find himself accused, and why is he ultimately executed? The answer is surprising. It seems to me that K.’s execution does not symbolize his guilt but, actually, his innocence and his absolute exoneration. With his execution, the law grants K. one moment of grace: total cessation of his barren attempt to remember and be remembered. Freedom.

Absoluteness of forgetting

“I forgot to ask you; what sort of acquittal is it you want? There are three possibilities; absolute acquittal, apparent acquittal and deferment.”

For Kafka, as for a number of his protagonists, forgetting was a source of some moments of acceptance, perhaps also of self-love. Forgetting, perhaps, is absolute freedom.

One of the fascinating characters in “The Trial” is the painter Titorelli, whose task is to explain to K. the options for possible acquittal. In the case of “apparent acquittal,” a person might think that the accusations against him have been rejected completely, but this is not the case. As Titorelli said, “Seen from outside, it can sometimes seem that everything has been long since forgotten, the documents have been lost and the acquittal is complete. No-one familiar with the court would believe it. No documents ever get lost, the court forgets nothing.”

In contrast, in the event of absolute acquittal, which is possible only if the accused is in fact innocent, “all proceedings should stop, everything disappears from the process, not just the indictment but the trial and even the acquittal disappears, everything just disappears.” In other words, the difference between absolute acquittal and apparent acquittal is the absoluteness of forgetting that the judicial system offers. Whereas partial acquittal constitutes only a temporary respite from the ordeals of the trial, absolute acquittal is absolute forgetting and the evanescence of the accused.

In their book “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature,” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggested that “absolute acquittal” means death. They argue that absolute forgetting is possible only when one is dead. If absolute acquittal is absolute forgetting, namely death, perhaps this is what K., who was ostensibly executed, ultimately obtained?

It seems to me that K.’s death, namely his absolute acquittal, is Kafka’s way of intimating to us the complexity of forgetting. On the one hand, K. sinned by forgetting his past and his life story; and on the other hand, absolute forgetting is what has liberated us from the burden of remembering. Forgetting is also a liberating force.

Kafka seems to suggest that forgetting is a force of this kind in other texts as well. In “The Metamorphosis,” for example, Gregor Samsa wakes up in his bed as a giant vermin. In this story, too, the past plays a significant role. Samsa opposes vehemently his sister’s attempts to empty his room of its furniture so that now, as a vermin, he will have a larger living space:

“Had he really wanted to transform his room into a cave, a warm room fitted out with the nice furniture he had inherited? That would have let him crawl around unimpeded in any direction, but it would also have let him quickly forget his past when he had still been human. […] Nothing should be removed; everything had to stay.”

Samsa’s inability to forget his past and accept his vermin existence imprisons him in an intolerable situation: half vermin, half human. He is offered the freedom that resides in forgetting, but he prefers to remember to the very end.

Konstantin Raikin as Gregor Samsa in the play "Metamorphosis" based on Franz Kafka's novel of the same name, 1995.
Konstantin Raikin as Gregor Samsa in the play "Metamorphosis" based on Franz Kafka's novel of the same name, 1995.Credit: Oleg Lastochkin / Sputnik / AFP

Unlike Samsa, the ape in the short story “A Report to an Academy” has forgotten. The ape, who became human some time ago, refuses to comply with the request made by the “esteemed gentlemen” of the Academy to recount his apish past. He could not have become a human if he had not liberated his past, if he had not forgotten. “This achievement would have been impossible if I had stubbornly wished to hold onto my origin, onto the memories of my youth.”

Whereas Gregor Samsa did not agree to forgo his human past, and therefore became free only upon his death, Kafka’s ape understood that his connection to his past was an obstacle he had to overcome if he wished to be reborn as a human.

If according to Kafka, forgetting is freedom, perhaps we can better understand why he wished to be forgotten by having his writings burned.

“Vanity, self-forgetfulness for some days”

– Kafka, “The Blue Octavo Notebooks”

For Kafka, as for a number of his protagonists, forgetting was a source of some moments of acceptance, perhaps also of self-love. Forgetting, perhaps, is absolute freedom. It seems that for Kafka forgetting is also a source of pressure and helplessness (was it fear of forgetting the Jewish past that haunted him?), but in parallel, forgetting is a source of liberation from the suffering entailed in persistent memory and remembering.

Kafka calls on us to rethink the roles of memory, remembering and forgetting in the life of the individual and the society. Memory is stagnant, frozen eternally in realms to which access necessarily entails suffering and unease. Forgetting, in contrast, is a creative, active, continuous force. The forgotten, as Benjamin suggests, is the individual who remains alive, receptive to renewed creativity, shaped by the force of imagination and fabrication.

Precisely after he was forgotten, he may have hoped, his works would inhabit the space of ceaseless creativity. Kafka, the “devotee of memory,” wondered whether eternity and eternal memory are the true oblivion. The abyss into which all the remembered and the self-evident enter.

For us, too, occasional forgetting is worthwhile. After all, in the name of “the past,” we justify in the present wrongs for which there will be no forgiveness and no atonement. Yehuda Elkana wrote about this decades ago in his essay “The Need to Forget.” Indeed, the present epidemic is also bound to be forgotten. In his letter to his father Kafka wrote, “it is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”

We will yet warm ourselves in that little spot, soon, after a little time has passed, and forget.

Dr. Noam Tirosh teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Ben-Gurion University.

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