“On Raking Up the Dead” by Ben Reed
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “On Raking Up the Dead,” a nonfiction finalist in our 2022 Perkoff Prize contest for writing about health and medicine, Ben Reed considers some striking similarities between the plague years in Prussia and public response to COVID-19 in the United States.
On Raking Up the Dead
How the unusual afterlife of a Prussian servant sheds light on social-media comeuppance in the time of COVID-19.
Were it unlawful to speak ill of the dead, it would follow that no histories ought to be wrote.
–Andrew Le Mercier
A Treatise Against Detraction, 1733
In his fascinating 1905 chronicle, A History of the Plague in East Prussia*, German historian Wilhelm Sahm recounts a curious incident during an epidemic that ravaged the Baltic region in the early 1700s. In March 1710, a domestic worker named Barbara Thutin was found criminally responsible for fatally infecting both herself and her employer with plague. Following something akin to contact tracing, the civil and sanitary authorities in Königsberg determined that Thutin had stolen clothing from one of the many houses deserted through exodus or death and that she had taken in a sick relative without her employer’s consent. However, by the time the judiciary handed down its decision, Thutin was already dead and buried. What happened next is astonishing: Barbara Thutin’s body was exhumed from its burial place in the new churchyard, and on the following day, it was hanged, inside its coffin, from a gallows. After being left on display for three days, body and coffin were cut down and burned to ash. Dead or not, there was still a price to be paid, if only symbolically.
By the start of 1710, Prussian state and ecclesiastical authorities were already struggling to mitigate an unprecedented crisis. Central Europe had been wracked by outbreaks of plague since the Black Death in the late 1340s, but this latest epidemic, one of the very last plagues to afflict Europe, was the deadliest wave ever in some parts of Prussia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A consequence of the Great Northern War between the Swedish Empire and the Tsardom of Russia, infection spread across the region as far as Germany and Sweden, killing between one quarter and two thirds of the populace where it struck the hardest. Many died from hunger, as agricultural production was virtually halted. And because the farmlands in the worst-affected areas of Prussia were predominantly owned by the crown, the bottom fell out of the national economy. Attempts to throttle the spread of plague were insufficient or tragically delayed. Despite widespread understanding of the threat of epidemic, early cases were downplayed until the disease had taken root, after which news of the devastation was hyperbolically exaggerated, undermining trust in the state’s authority, particularly in the new sanitary ordinances. The missteps were many, leading to civil unrest. In the autumn of 1709, after the closure of the eastern capital city of Königsberg, the “fiery, irascible Pietist” and professor of theology Heinrich Lysius—later accused of being “a Cartesian and Copernican”—gave a sermon in which he rebuked threats by the authorities to hang citizens who might attempt to break through the plague barrier outside the city, suggesting instead that the people who deserved to be hanged were those who ordered the city to be closed, as they were the ones who had done the most to increase general misfortune. The sermon was later confiscated.
Writing almost two hundred years later, the historian and schoolteacher Wilhelm Sahm wistfully observes, “How should the epidemic be stopped under these circumstances! After all, it may be difficult to absolve the state authorities of individual mistakes, but it would mean misjudging the facts, if one were to unjustly attribute the whole severity of the problem to them.”
The difficulty of contending with early mistakes, disinformation, social disorder, and widespread distrust of government health officials are just the beginning of the similarities between the plague years in Prussia and the public response to coronavirus in the United States today. Sahm writes that unrestricted personal movement and simple carelessness contributed to the early spread of the disease across Prussia. Economic trade tapered off in numerous sectors, leading to high unemployment. The cost of goods spiked. Jews, foreigners, and the homeless were targets of suspicion. City streets were filled with turbulence and mayhem. Robbery and violent crime rose sharply, precipitating the formation of armed night watches. Citizen militias—or Bürgerwache—frequently clashed with police, who in turn were given enhanced latitude to battle mobs and quell riots. Agitators such as Professor Doktor Lysius were censored and punished for giving provocative speeches. Many Prussians sought bizarre folk remedies with no empirically observed history of efficacy, and some attempted to worsen the outbreak by decapitating plague corpses, in the belief that this would strew plague-causing poisons. One government doctor bemoaned the populace’s “foolish resistance” to the sanitary ordinances, and the “mindless defiance” of infected patients who stubbornly refused the prescribed remedies. He complained that the threat of the most common punishment—public lashing with a braided whip—was “not respected at all” and speculated “whether a harsher example should not be made.”
In the spring of 1710, officials in plague-beleaguered Königsberg must have thought that Barbara Thutin, owing partly to her social status as a servant and partly to her being dead, could provide an opportunity to make a sufficiently harsh example. Previously, violators of plague edicts were publicly whipped or put in a stockade, but state warnings that more serious penalties—life imprisonment, or execution—would be handed down were understood to be disingenuous, even by the Berlin Medical Council responsible for issuing them. State authorities and the citizenry were seemingly of the same mind that it would be an injustice to hang an individual just for trying to escape the daily miseries of urban quarantine or find food or do a little commerce, at least not while public morale was already so low. Such callous punishments would cause only more rioting, whereas Barbara Thutin was not only dead; she had done something that had reliably increased one’s chances of being executed for centuries in Prussia: she had contributed to the death of her employer. Her corpse could be hanged and burned, almost as an effigy, with little threat of backlash. Just as astonishing, this gambit seems to have elicited a promising response. Three months later, Prussian state authorities prompted the clergy to read a new edict from the pulpits, announcing, in effect, that Barbara Thutin’s posthumous punishment had been promulgated into law, with notable expansion. In June 1710, church leaders warned parishioners that anyone who died after violating the sanitary ordinances would be considered a suicide and that their body would be exhumed and publicly hanged by the judiciary. The clergy also proclaimed, “The same punishment would also apply to those who died after refusing to take the prescribed medications.”
Today, inflicting physical punishment on a dead body strikes one as both ludicrous and ghastly. In fact, postmortem punishment was commonplace in medieval and premodern Europe, and the castigation of those who died by suicide persisted much longer. Ignominies and abuses were inflicted upon suicide corpses in many parts of Western Europe until the early 1800s in a diverse range of rituals and state-sanctioned practices that all underscored a general repugnance toward the body of a person who had died by their own hand. What was exceptional about Barbara Thutin was not the calculated mistreatment of her remains but the postmortem administrative recategorization of her death by disease as a suicide and the development of this recategorization into policy. Once Thutin had been officially designated responsible for her own death, her remains became available for public humiliation.
In Europe, well into the 1700s, the bodies of those who committed suicide were frequently subjected to public indignity, such as being dragged through the streets or transported in the same cart that carried condemned criminals to the gallows before being left on public display. In England, stakes were sometimes hammered through the hearts of suicide corpses. Typically, across cultures and over centuries, the principal chastisement was the denial of proper burial. Bodies were burned and cast into a river or corpses were exposed and left to be ravaged by animals and the elements. In Ireland, suicide corpses were buried at the seashore. In southern Germany, these bodies were sometimes sent downriver in barrels in a practice called “running” or even used as bait for wolf hunts. Frequently the job of handling the body of a suicide was left to the hangman, the same local figure often tasked with killing rabid dogs, running lepers out of town, and cleaning out cesspits. Willful suicide committed by an outwardly sane person was a crime and a sin, widely understood to be the result of diabolical or supernatural intervention, rendering such bodies untouchable, out of a fear that physical contact might transmit demonic enchantment. As a consequence, the place of final interment was often adjacent to the gallows or in the same potter’s field where executed criminals were buried.
In 1710, faced with the difficult task of reducing criminality and mitigating the spread of disease within an unruly population, the Prussian state needed an opportunity to demonstrate natural authority. This was achieved not simply through the dreadful spectacle of exhuming, hanging, and burning Barbara Thutin’s body, but also by playing on a deeply seated cultural revulsion of suicide and the awful implications of being denied interment in hallowed ground—of being not simply unremembered by one’s own community, but deliberately ostracized from human society, even after death.
In Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany, 1600-1987, Richard J. Evans observes that suicide alone was not traditionally a cause for posthumous execution in medieval or early modern Europe. Despite the litany of degradations and physical insults commonly inflicted upon the corpses of suicides, the hanging or beheading of the dead was generally reserved for criminals who had killed themselves in order to escape capital punishment. Such was the case of Johann Lätsch of Erfurt in 1806, who was condemned to die on the wheel but committed suicide the night before. The local authorities decided to “execute” his corpse, as “the intention of the law is that the sentence shall be carried out on suicides of this kind, as far as is possible, to serve as an example for the deterrence of others.” In 1704, a Vienna newspaper reported on a man who was accused of murdering his wife but who had committed suicide before his sentence could be carried out. His body was dragged to the place of execution, where the executioner beheaded him with an ordinary shovel. In Upper Lusatia in 1647, a domestic worker strangled her employer’s young child before hanging herself, and afterward her body was similarly dragged to the gallows and beheaded by shovel. Perhaps the most famous example of posthumous execution in premodern Western Europe is the Utrecht statesman Gilles van Ledenberg, who was due to stand trial for treasonous activity against the Prince of Orange but preemptively cut his own throat with a bread knife. Like Barbara Thutin, van Ledenberg was later exhumed and hanged in his coffin. Again and again in premodern Europe, the bodies of criminals who attempted to elude justice by taking their own lives were subjected to postmortem or simulated execution, while “regular” suicides were not punished in the same way.
Of course, the public castigation of suicide corpses and the social spectacle of capital punishment are similar in obvious, meaningful ways. Both are elements of social control intended to terrify and shame; both implicitly intend to condemn and deter; and both are ritual performances concerned with the sanctification of the community. However, the capital punishment of criminals who commit suicide carries a specific additional meaning: namely, that the death of a transgressor will not frustrate the community’s entitlement to justice. If a murderer kills himself in the jail to avoid being bludgeoned to death in front of a crowd—well, there would still have to be a bludgeoning because there would still be an expectant crowd. To borrow a phrase, The show must go on.
Given the uncanny similarities between the Prussian epidemic of the early 1700s and the response to COVID-19 in the United States today, it should not be surprising that the practice of postmortem mortification has also been resurrected. This time, the posthumously flogged are social media users who employed their online platforms to stridently downplay the seriousness of coronavirus and to undermine trust in the mRNA vaccines, only to later die from COVID-19. While this reckoning against the transgressive dead involves rhetoric and ridicule, not literal disinterment and physical obliteration, the abuse remains retributive, grounded in a sense of cosmic justice, and very much intended for public consumption.
By midyear of 2021, after vaccines had become widely available, many in the U.S. were well past feeling alarm and frustration at the sizable number of unvaccinated Americans who disputed the deadliness of COVID-19, questioned the safety of the new vaccines, and casually undermined basic mitigation strategies. By September 2021, consternation at this mixture of impudence and fatalism had found an outlet in a mordantly entertaining genre of videos on TikTok. Content creators began making montages of social media posts by individuals who amplified vaccine disinformation and derided mask-wearing before dying—ironically but predictably—from causes secondary to COVID-19.
These TikTok montages follow a fairly rigid template. Act I consists of several screenshots of a social media user’s posts, often citing contrafactual research or promoting dubious COVID-19 remedies such as hydroxychloroquine and veterinary ivermectin. Act II has begun when the user shares that they’ve become infected. The posts then focus on their worsening condition. Act III is typically a single frame announcing the subject’s death, either a screenshot of an obituary or a social media post written in memoriam by a family member. Sometimes TikTok creators superimpose themselves over the montage to editorialize and pontificate, dryly or maliciously. Some accounts provide no narration. When music is present, a staple soundtrack is Heinz Kiessling’s “Blue Blood,” best known as the theme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Snark such as this can make the viewer uneasy, as it underscores the medium’s maximal impoliteness and how vigorously these videos breach the ancient social proscription against disparaging the recently deceased. It is not just our bodies that find sanctuary in the tomb.
TikTok creator @…secretlytiktoking has created many solid examples of the genre, such as when she focuses on social media posts made by a Colorado man named Scott Hilliard, whom she describes as an “anti-vaxxer.” In a series of Facebook posts, Hilliard makes statements like, “Take the mask off dumbass democrat,” and “If you get this vaccine your [sic] about a fucking idiot.” Hilliard promises that anyone who tries to forcefully vaccinate him “will die by my hands.” In ACT II, the posts detail Hilliard’s extreme illness: “I’m so dizzy… shit,” “I’m going down hill [sic] fast… my freaking lungs,” “My dear God this covid is kicking my ass,” “My heart feels like it’s going to explode, it hurts to move,” and “Not knowing what lies ahead of me for tonight Is giving me anxiety through the roof.” Then a post announces that an ambulance has been called. Then Hilliard asks for prayers. Act III is Hilliard’s profile picture, in which he is proudly displaying a fish he has just caught in open water. @…secretlytiktoking informs us that Halliard died on November 15, 2021, at the age of forty-two. There is no background music and throughout the video the creator’s tone is flat with occasional notes of wistfulness and melancholy, as if she has been numbed by the never-ending supply of similar stories she has tasked herself with recapitulating.
One of the more prolific and recognizable contributors to several varieties of COVID-related TikTok content is @crazymotherrunner, who shares and explicates public health information and contradicts disinformation. @crazymotherrunner has accrued over a half million followers and over 21 million likes because she is sharp but relatable, winsome even as she scolds. Unlike others, @crazymotherrunner tends to reserve her comeuppance content for public figures, such as South Carolina Republican Party chair Pressley Stutts, who used his Facebook account to voice resistance to lockdowns and what he saw as unwarranted panic in response to COVID-19. In Act II of a montage video made by @crazymotherrunner, Stutts shares updates on his month-long battle with the virus, much of it in the ICU, which ends with Stutts preparing to be ventilated. Viewers learn that Stutts died shortly after. This time Act III is followed by an encore, as @crazymotherrunner adds a coda on cognitive dissonance, displaying a memorial Facebook post by conservative activist and celebrity attorney L. Lin Wood, who theorizes that the pandemic is being used to partisan ends, because “Only republicans are dying of covid.” @crazymotherrunner also made a video of posts by conservative radio host Phil Valentine, who used social media to make false equivalencies about vaccine safety before dying from complications related to COVID-19. @crazymotherrunner’s closing line for that video: “Is it just me, or is there like, a theme here?”
In terms of antipathetic commentary, however, @crazymotherrunner is hardly extreme. In September 2021, Minnesota-based TikTokker @mikeypiv contributed several montage videos to the comeuppance genre, including a TikTok made with screencapped Facebook posts by a man named Doug Pothul, beginning with a post in which Pothul disputes media claims that COVID-19 is widespread by arguing, “I don’t know anybody that has it.” @mikeypiv offers a disdainfully sardonic narration for a series of slides in which Pothul chronicles his infection and symptoms, shares an image of an “Unvaccinated Lives Matter” T-shirt, and looks forward to overcoming the virus so he can enjoy his “natural immunity.” The last image in the montage is a screenshot from an online obituary reporting Pothul’s premature death at fifty-eight. @mikeypiv says, “Well, at least now you know someone who’s had it.”
The online ridicule of outspoken antivaxxers and pandemic deniers who subsequently died from COVID-19 is by no means limited to TikTok. The website sorryantivaxxer.com is a compendium of social-media reportage on the deaths of “anti-vaxxer [activists] who helped spread COVID-19 misinformation on social media.” There is a private Facebook group titled “My new kink is watching antivaxxers die of Covid.” Twitter is frequently a forum for freestyle comeuppance content, such as a January 2022 tweet by comedian Laurie Kilmartin, who shared the link to a Daily Beast article titled, “QAnon Star Who Said Only ‘Idiots’ Get Vax Dies of COVID,” commenting, “Would be great if these people could get deprogrammed instead of infected oh well.” And finally there is a popular subreddit dedicated to bestowing “Herman Cain Awards,” a reference to the Darwin Awards—sarcastic accolades posthumously conferred upon those “who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool”—as well as one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain, who became one of the first notable right-wing figures to succumb to COVID-19 shortly after downplaying the severity of the disease. (In a bizarre turn, Cain’s Twitter account continued to operate after his death, including a tweet that read, “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.”)
Almost everywhere that COVID comeuppance media appears online, commenters roundly indict the content-makers for their ghoulishness and toxicity, accusing them of reveling in the deaths of those to whom they feel intellectually and morally superior. Often at least one commenter will invoke the ancient mortuary aphorism, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” Inevitably, the same question arises: Is content like this a public service, bolstering faith in a new form of vaccine—or is it just schadenfreude? In other words, is humorously highlighting the death of a vocal anti-vaxxer from coronavirus disease an attempt to demonstrate that anti-vaccine rhetoric and “planedemic” conspiracy theories are harmful to the public good, or is content like this no more meaningful than raking up dead dissidents for a few gratifying kicks?
In 2015, psychology researchers at Emory University postulated “a novel tripartite taxonomy” for schadenfreude, or the experience of pleasure or satisfaction at witnessing the failure and suffering of others, which they found is motivated by aggression, rivalry, and a sense of justice. Psychologist C. W. Leach, who was cited by the Emory researchers, connects schadenfreude with gloating and attributes the emotion to social and political polarization. Leach has said, “[It’s] not just taking a little pleasure in somebody’s misfortune […] In many ways, it’s seeing your enemies suffer because of what they believe. That is the sweetest justice, and that’s partly why it’s so satisfying.” Researchers in child psychology at the University of Haifa have suggested that this reflex arises in us as part of our resistance to unfairness and inequality. Schadenfreude isn’t wicked, it follows “the termination of an unequal situation.” The psychologist Norman Feather, who has studied schadenfreude for three decades, has repeatedly argued that the degree to which we enjoy schadenfreude depends on the “perceived deservingness” of the person or group to whom the central misfortune has befallen. For example: If we watch a Dallas Cowboys linebacker get knocked unconscious, we worry for his well-being. But if he gets knocked out two plays after taking a cheap shot at our team’s quarterback, well, that’s practically a morality play.
As robust as the clinical investigation into schadenfreude has been in recent years, the diagnostic terminology retains semantic problems, specifically when it comes to the putative relationship between satisfaction and suffering. It cannot be true that every TikTok user who clicks the little heart icon over a COVID comeuppance video is in fact savoring the real fear, pain, and distress a stranger endured as they approached an undignified and untimely death. More likely, what is most gratifying about these TikToks is how squarely the bad logic and junk science of the TikTok’s Act I are countermanded by the implacable truth of Acts II and III. A cause has met its anticipated effect.
TikTok comeuppance videos confirm the viewer’s assumptions about the world—in this case, that they did the right thing by trusting the science, by depriving themselves of social contact and small errands, by giving Anthony Fauci the benefit of the doubt. They seem to offer unimpeachable proof that we live in an ordered, knowable world of action and reaction. Such a perception of sense and stability in the face of naysayers can lead to faith in reason beyond reason and a level of self-congratulation almost narcotic in how well it satisfies our desire to be right, even as it suppresses our compassion for strangers and their predicaments. It’s also a kind of enchantment, fogging out the reality that vaccine status cannot fairly be correlated to justice or morality, at least not when one’s vaccine status is also correlated to their wealth, race, level of education, and nationality. These TikToks are proof that what ultimately matters to at least some of us, at least some of the time, is belief in a world where people get what they deserve. To reconsider these TikToks as a product of the same drives that once led to the ritualized erasure of the dead is to wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not whether this comeuppance content is public service or just schadenfreude. Maybe the schadenfreude is the public service. Maybe what the public wants is not necessarily the good of the public but moral clarity above all else.
When the anti-vaccine proselytizing and COVID denial of the deceased are recontextualized, certain liberal and progressive spaces on the putatively secular, science-loving Internet are ritualistically sanctified, the way medieval villages were once purified with violence after the sudden interruption of a suicide. Here again, it is not the trespasses of the dead in life that comprise the underlying offense, but their death itself. What good is being vindicated in a moral and ideological schism—a schism that calls into question the very epistemological framework of scientific rationalism—if one is denied the ultimate satisfaction: the biologically impossible situation in which an avid COVID-19 denier or anti-vaxxer gets sick and dies from COVID-19, yet also remains attendant and accountable, able to bear witness to their error? What is the common end of empirical and rationalist modes of thinking if not to change hearts by uncovering that which is indisputable? But the dead do not capitulate, and so justice will always feel elusive. And so some of us may find ourselves wending down the path to the graveyard, carrying shovels and rope.
*Title translated from the German Geschichte der Pest in Ostpreußen.
Ben Reed often writes about politeness, medicine, and dystopia. Find him on Twitter: @BenFromAustin. His essays have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Texas Review, and online at The Millions. His short stories have appeared in Pank, Seattle Review, West Branch, and online at Tin House. Ben teaches literature and creative writing at Texas State University and lives in East Austin. He is currently at work on both an essay collection and a novel.
“From Kafka’s Window” by Jeffrey Condran
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. When writer and editor Jeffrey Condran found his novel research on Franz Kafka colliding with the need to shelter in place, the result was this delightful literary reflection on how Kafka would have fared during a pandemic.
From Kafka’s Window
An Essay of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Jeffrey Condran
Catching myself daydreaming recently, it struck me that there are many reasons to believe the Czech author Franz Kafka would have known just how to handle himself during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kafka could fairly have been described as a hypochondriac long before he actually became chronically ill with tuberculosis, from which he died in June 1924 at the age of forty, and he had perfected the routines of a professional invalid, often visiting sanatoriums during his vacations from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute to take faddish cures. My favorite among these is Herr Doktor Hartungen’s institute in Riva del Garda, where there were constructed several Lufthütten—little shacks with no glass in their windows so that the fierce winds coming off Lake Garda would storm through, the fresh air theoretically invigorating the health of patients with respiratory ailments.
More to the point, Kafka contracted and survived influenza during the 1918 pandemic, taking to his bed in October and not rising again until more than three weeks later, his temperature at one point recorded as 105.8 degrees. He endured long days in which he could barely breathe and soaked his bed through with sweat. For much of this time, his family believed he would die.
To be honest, though, these experiences aren’t really what I have in mind. Kafka’s potential pandemic “success,” let’s call it, has more to do with temperament. Sheltering in place, living in quarantine, and becoming acclimated to the idea of illness over an extended period take their toll. The Internet is awash with stories of people dealing with the sudden change in their lives, struggling to adapt to new responsibilities at work, in child-rearing, and in the care of the sick or elderly.
Everyone I know or talk to feels a kind of fatigue. Many are not getting enough sleep or eating well; they’re drinking too much, and even if their hours are being shared with family members, compared to pre-pandemic days, people often feel alone—cut off from the idea they had of themselves before the disease struck. Our Zoom meetings and teleconferences only bring into stark relief how much we miss our friends and coworkers or, if you’re an educator like me, our students. What’s ensued is a new sustained level of anxiety, yes, but also an ennui that develops when we are alone for too long in our minds, a condition that has us seeing the world in ways both claustrophobic and kaleidoscopic.
Isolation, insomnia, claustrophobia: a world still recognizable but steeped in incomprehensible, anxiety-inducing change? All these circumstances are immediately familiar to anyone interested in the life and work of Franz Kafka. So often in his diaries and letters, Kafka describes himself standing alone by the
window of his father’s house in Prague and bearing silent witness to a society he either couldn’t participate in or, just as often, simply chose not to. It must be remembered that he organized his life around quiet and isolation in order to dedicate his time spent away from the Insurance Institute to reading and writing.
Kafka biographer Ronald Hayman believes this was, for the young writer, “an alternative to suicide.” And there’s absolutely no doubt that Kafka was most at ease with his own company, dreaming even as a child of ways to remove himself from social situations that made him uncomfortable. In many ways he fits wonderfully the stereotype of the bookish introvert: the undersized boy who is chosen last for every team and hates mathematics, whose “Terror at his inadequacy led straight to daydreams of escape. What if he could get up invisibly from the school bench, slip like a ghost past the teacher, and through the door and out into the undemanding air?” It was a path that would eventually lead him to the safety of the family home, the familiar confines of his bedroom, where the only way he had to talk to potentially difficult people was through the voice he used in his letters.
Kafka was a deeply invested letter writer, partly due to the control he could exercise over the persona that came through on the page. Letters also offered a way to test out ideas that might eventually find their way into his fiction; and they were a method of procrastination from the creative writing on which so much of his self-esteem rested. Hayman says of him, “Kafka could better overcome his nervous reserve when writing a letter than when looking into another human face,” and he was “also writing to the people (and especially to the women) who looked at him with an indifference he found intolerable.”
Arguably most famous among his correspondents was his first fiancée, Felice Bauer—Kafka was engaged four times, but never managed to marry. His side of the correspondence was voluminous: in all, he wrote more than a quarter million words to Felice, telling her how much he missed her, how marriage and rearing children were among the greatest things a human being could achieve, how if they were bold they might run off together and visit Jerusalem and see the growing Zionist project for themselves.
This bold, enthusiastic Franz Kafka, however, is mostly literary invention. When it came time to visit his fiancée in person or make tangible plans for a wedding, suddenly a new Kafka appeared—the real Kafka, perhaps—who found so many obstacles to action in the real world: there were complications at work, ruffled feathers to be smoothed over with his parents, and, most important of all, the concern that these pedestrian, middle-class aspirations would take him away from his one true calling, literature. Oh, yes, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kafka would have been wonderfully free to let his pen take him wherever it would. Why not be a letter-writing Cyrano de Bergerac when the virus would prevent any flesh-and-blood lover from climbing Felice’s balcony and making love to her? In the safety of medical isolation, Kafka the literary lover could thrive.
I’m teasing Kafka here a little bit, possibly because it’s so easy to do. His romantic failures are a broad target, and his writing is filled with characters who are dithering and ineffectual, especially against the largely invisible tidal influences of social institutions—or maybe simply against fate, against the world. I often dwell, for example, on those people in 2020 whose pandemic thoughts turn to ideas of crime and punishment. This disease, some suggest, comes to us not by chance, not even from some geopolitical adversary, but from the hand of an unknown power. We are like the victims in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” who have the law they have ignorantly broken tattooed onto their bodies. We’ve clearly done something terrible, and we’re being punished for it—we simply don’t know what “it” is.
Even if your mind doesn’t turn to cosmic powers to understand COVID-19, there’s no denying that people are desperate to understand themselves and the world within the context of the disease. When I had to stop seeing my students in March and rethink how we’d finish the semester, one of my assignments asked them to keep a “Plague Diary”—the name my attempt at levity, even though I knew what they wrote in the diary might be some of the most significant work they did all term. My hope for the assignment was simple: I wanted a mountain of words to act as a shield against the unknowable. Even if those words offered no solutions to the writer, I suspected they’d eventually take on an unexpected power. My decision was partly influenced by the diary Kafka had started in 1910. It was a place that “gave him a pretext and a medium for talking to himself.” And, as the years went by, he came to rely on the sounding board those pages represented. “I won’t give up the diary . . . I must hold onto myself here, for it’s only here that I can.”
Many of us will emerge from sheltering in place changed in unexpected ways. Before COVID-19, I’d thought of myself as an introvert who, through professional obligations, had compelled himself to pass as an extrovert, expending a tremendous amount of emotional energy to keep up the performance. What have the online personality quizzes taken to calling it? The extroverted introvert? That was me. Except as the months of quarantine ticked by, I went from feeling like a caged animal inside my apartment, desperate to get a drink with my friends, to someone who had legitimately lost all desire to speak to anyone. I dropped out of a Zoom book club, I answered messages two weeks after they were sent—if I answered them at all. Even showering felt optional. Deodorant still is. The only person I wanted to hear from anymore was myself.
And, of course, in a pandemic all that troubles you rises to the surface. In the normal course of our lives, the daily routine is filled with obligations that distract us from our troubles. So many people simply don’t have time to examine their lives and deal with whatever emotions develop. Not so, now that isolation has created an echo chamber from which it is impossible to escape. Maybe this is simply a long-overdue reckoning, but for many people, the process is painful and, at least for the moment, unrelenting. Alone with ourselves, we must face down what Kafka called “the swampy viscosity of time.”
There is no better example of this than in Kafka’s most famous work, “The Metamorphosis.” From the moment Gregor Samsa changes into a beetle, he is kept confined to his bedroom, largely visited only by his sister, Grete, who brings him food and sometimes tidies the room. In his isolation, his only pastime outside of acclimating himself to his new insect body is to eavesdrop on the conversations of his family. What he discovers is that his transformation, which has clearly made any kind of employment impossible, has threatened the family with economic ruin. His elderly father must take work as a bank messenger, his mother earns money sewing undergarments, and his sister, whose musical talent might have seen her studying the violin at the Conservatorium the following year, has taken a job as a clerk. Gregor is distraught at the way he’s let down his family, feeling “hot with shame and grief.”
It’s impossible for me to read this section of the story without immediately thinking of Americans whose lives have been transformed by the loss of their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and who must rely on the inconsistent help of government stimulus and unemployment payments. Who, like Gregor when assailed by the chief clerk’s admonition that a season of the year to do no business at all “does not exist . . . must not exist,” must despair when they hear Ivanka Trump suggest that the unemployed should simply “find something new.” Aggravating this financial need is the historical relationship of Americans to their employment; it is, for many, the mainstay of their personal identities. To be so suddenly unmade by this invisible virus, to live in fear of your life and to no longer know yourself so easily as you once did, is a catastrophe that has many, again like Gregor Samsa, literally climbing the walls in despair. And when exhaustion comes over us, as it eventually must, what’s there to do except lie wherever it is we’ve found ourselves and wait for something to change:
Often he just lay there the long nights through without sleeping at all. . . . Or he nerved himself to the great effort of pushing an armchair to the window, then crawled up over the windowsill and, braced against the chair, leaned against the windowpanes, obviously in some recollection of the sense of freedom that looking out a window always used to give him. For in reality day by day things that were even a little way off were growing dimmer to his sight; the hospital across the street, which he used to execrate for being all too often before his eyes, was now quite beyond his range of vision, and if he had not known that he lived in Charlotte Street, a quiet street but still a city street, he might have believed that his window gave on a desert waste where gray sky and gray land blended indistinguishably into each other.
His vision dimmed by the new reality of his transformation, Gregor’s inner eye, the one governed by his tormented brain, sees only the gray haze of the unknown. Through the frames of our windows, what do most people see today? Often now, the view is the even crueler irony of clear, blue summer skies, the sunlight dappling the green leaves on the trees, our personal prisons verdant with a possibility that, until a vaccine is created—or peoples’ behaviors change—will continue to taunt and elude us.
Those who choose not to follow CDC guidelines for wearing masks to cover the nose and mouth and who refuse to abide by any of the recommended procedures for social distancing are, to be blunt, reprehensible. Anyone even vaguely familiar with ideas regarding freedom versus responsibility in a democracy will know what to do. Kafka might have been terrified by the anti-maskers; at the very least his hypochondria would have been piqued. Yet I can’t help but believe he also would have understood them. Those who have grown weary after months of isolation, who fear for their financial well-being, or who are desperate for the company of others, are simply all too human. To check my frustration, I often think of what it would have been like to have fallen in love during, say, the second week of March. To have been kept apart by the threat of the disease. As I say, even Franz Kafka, notorious introvert, would sympathize. For him there would have been moments when, like so many of us this summer, he was almost bursting with the desire to get out into the world and see people. Even for the man whose life has been described as “a series of hesitations” that left him full of self-loathing and who professed that “because reality is so terrifying, the only refuge is in the pretense that everything is happening to someone else, an alter ego,” Kafka still hated the idea of being completely excluded from the world. To save himself, he relied on what so many of us rely on, and which is now in such short supply: happy accident.
One such moment well known to Kafka biographers occurred during his law school years. Studying for an exam on Roman law, Kafka paced back and forth in front of his window that looked out on Zeltnergasse. A dress shop was across the street, and the young woman who worked there often stood outside its door. Through what Kafka describes as a series of “signs”—one is left to imagine exactly what those signs might have been—they agreed to meet at eight o’clock. When Kafka appeared on time, to his surprise another man was there as well. The woman took this man’s arm and had begun to walk away when she discreetly signaled that Kafka should follow. They went to a place on Schützen Island and drank beer, Kafka setting himself up at the table next to the couple. When they left, the other man walked the woman home, said good night, and then Kafka watched her disappear inside the house. She reappeared a few moments later, and at her suggestion they went together to a hotel on the west side of the river. Kafka described the night he spent with the shop girl as “charming, exciting,” and wrote that he finally had some “peace from the constant whining of the body.”
It being Kafka, however, he looked back on his unexpected night of passion with tremendous ambivalence, even describing it as having been “vile and filthy,” though that didn’t stop him from spending a second night with the shop girl in the hotel before the Kafka family left the city for a long summer vacation. Eventually, time lent a different perspective. Recollecting the incident seventeen years later, he described his lover as “a good-hearted, friendly girl.” Maybe this is what quarantine makes us desire most, the possibility that fate has something remarkable in store for us, some happy accident that will transport us in unexpected ways—if only it were safe to go outside. If I’m going mad, if all the world is crumbling around me, let me die in the arms of someone good-hearted and friendly. Looking down on us from his window, Kafka would have understood.
Begley, Louis. The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head. Atlas & Co., 2008.
Brod, Max, ed. The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken Books, 1965.
Brod, Max. Franz Kafka. Da Capo, 1995.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Schocken Books, 1971.
Hayman, Ronald. Kafka: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1982.
Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1984.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of two story collections, A Fingerprint Repeated and Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. His debut novel, Prague Summer, received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize from the Missouri Review. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.