One of the most lucid and devastating testaments to the relationship—or clash—between fathers and sons is a long letter written by Franz Kafka in Schelesen, Bohemia, in November 1919. It begins:
Dearest Father: You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because even in writing this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.
More cold and stiff than recriminatory or angry, the letter’s tone is that of a clinical examination. By exploring the abyss that divides father and son, Kafka undertakes an autopsy of the power incarnated in the stern and distant figure of the father. Next to this big, physically imposing man, who presents himself as the sole bearer of truth, the young Kafka feels helpless and weak.
“You were for me the measure of all things,” he writes, in acknowledgment of his subordinate position. “From your arm chair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal.” The son finds himself trapped in an inhospitable place, the laws of which he is unable to decipher, because the person responsible for enforcing them—the elder Kafka—doesn’t even do so in a systematic way:
Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: into one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then into a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally into a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.
The whole literary universe of Kafka, from The Metamorphosis to The Trial, seems to coalesce along these lines: suddenly, for no reason at all, a person finds himself in an incomprehensible situation, subject to accusations or arbitrary punishments, reduced to the condition of an insect, a pariah, an accused man. Too often Kafka is mistaken for a writer of the fantastic, but there is no more realistic description of the awakening of the consciousness of a son or citizen subject to implacable authority than Kafka’s letter. The consequence, according to young K., is the loss of one’s voice; in a home—or a society—where disagreement is banned, words lose their meaning: “What I got from you…was a hesitant, stammering mode of speech, and even that was still too much for you, and finally I kept silent, at first perhaps from defiance, and then because I couldn’t either think or speak in your presence.”