Kakfa, grief, theatre

Paul Cotterill
2 min readSep 24, 2022


I’ve been re-reading Kafka’s main (to me) stories in date order: Wedding Preparations in the Country,The Judgment, Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. I’ll leave out the Penal Colony for now.

I know them all like the back of my hand but I’ve really only just clocked that the five versions of Kafka himself reflect the chronology of grief, as set out in five stages by Kubler-Ross about 50 years later and as relevant as ever, and which is of course itself an extrapolation/building on of Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’.

Eduard in WPitC (1906ish) cannot accept that the world will not accept him (his ID) on his terms, and slips into a *denial* — effectively sending someone else, his othered self, on the train (modernity symbol alert) to deal with the necessaru preparations.

Then George in The Judgment, whose other is his old friend in Russia, is confronted by his father who flies into a rage because his *hyper-anxious* son will not express his Id and because he will not, condemns him to drown in the river as the traffic deadens the sound (modernity alert)

The same themes appear in Metamorphosis, written 1913 or so but here there is already a hints of the kind of salvation that awaits Karl in Amerika later (e.g. the temporary reprieve of music as Id confirmation

K in The Trial is in some ways a stronger character than Gregor Samsa in Metamporphosis, but it is this veneer of capacity to cope, by seeking to bargain with the ‘authorities’ of Id-discplining modernity that draws him into deep *depression* as he has to come to terms with his ultimate lack of capacity for integrity, and of course he ‘dies like a dog’.

K in The Castle is more robust still — gives as good as he takes. He’s a full on Kubler Ross-ian *bargainer* willing to take on what he cannot fathom, with an emerging a faith in his own renewing sense of identity. He comes a long way, along hard, steep, sometimes drunken paths.. His publishers Brod said the unwritten final chapter saw him get a conditional deal

Then finally in Amerika, Karl Rossman, again with a name (K in the Castle was written by Kafka first person in an early draft then changed) becomes at ease with himself, in an almost Baudrillardian knowingness of the limits of the knowable .

Here, in the theatre of life, is *acceptance*.

Anyway, that’s a bit like what we’ve got to do in the 2020s, en route to a new rationality in which we validate both ourselves and others in an agreed compromise of what can be known.

Truth, not truthfulness, said Bernard Williams (sort of).

We must grieve for our lost ideals, now that we have found the remains. We must mark the grave. We must engage with why and how they died, then we must move on with the theatre.

The audience needs us, and we need the audience.

See also, Kierkegaard.



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.