This week my existentialism class has been reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. To put the work in historical context, I showed my students clips from a film that portrayed Kafka’s unending torment in early twentieth-century Prague, a city suffused with the bureaucracy, anti-Semitism, and “national consciousness” that would suffocate Europe and tear it apart.

At the end of the film, a survivor of the Holocaust calls Kafka a canary in the mine, warning the rest of us of horrors to come. Then another commentator, author David Mairowitz, makes a striking final claim: one of the reasons Kafka remains worth reading, he says, is that “the world is ten times more anguish-making than it was a hundred years ago.”

Is Mairowitz right? I’m not sure. So I’m passing the question off to you and my students. Be grateful. They have to write a 2-3 page paper about it, for a grade. Talk about anguish.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
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2 Responses to Anguish

  1. He wasn’t a canary in a mine. He wrote of horrors, but the fact that horrors followed does not make him a sage. He is worth reading now, because he is worth reading. (I don’t have to worry about my grade, I already have my degrees. You have to read them. Talk about anguish.)

  2. Rick Simpson says:

    What a question–more anguish now or then? I suspect that within the confines of an individual soul, anguish is anguish–the calendar notwithstanding. The media play a role, however. When news traveled more slowly, and often without a visual component, the suffering of others could perhaps be placed at a distance. Vietnam changed that permanently.

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