September 22, 1912 is one of the most famous dates in twentieth-century literature. On that night, in one sitting, Franz Kafka wrote ‘The Judgement’. In a diary entry the following day, he gave a detailed account of the experience: ‘Only in this way can writing be done, only in a context like this, with a complete opening of body and soul.’ The short story was dedicated ‘to Miss Felice Bauer’, a woman Kafka had been introduced to a month earlier, and with whom he had initiated a correspondence that would last five years and involve two marriage proposals and much heartache.

As with all of Kafka’s work, ‘The Judgement’ has been subject to a myriad of interpretations—from a personal exposé of Oedipal angst to a parable about political conformity—but for many, most notably Elias Canetti in his book Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, it is a means through which Kafka explored his conflicted feelings about embarking on a relationship with Felice Bauer. It is important to remember, however, that when Kafka wrote ‘The Judgement’ he was twenty-nine years old and living in the family home in Prague. After five years studying law at the university, he had secured a job as a lawyer in an insurance company, later embarking on a business scheme with his brother-in-law. ‘The Judgement’ may have been written in a matter of hours, but it was the fruit of many years of dedication to writing in a world that was hostile to any occupation that did not involve the making of money. A world Kafka was all too familiar with.

By 1912 capitalism was the dominant political and economic system of societal governance in Europe. As the child of ambitious parents who ran a fancy goods shop at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kafka was a product of this system. His formative years were dominated by dinner-table talk of sales targets and profit-and-loss margins. In both school and university, the education he received was that of the production-line model in which vast amounts of knowledge were inputted into a young person with the aim of producing efficiency and compliance, rather than intellectual curiosity. As an adult, most of Kafka’s time was taken up with his job as an insurance lawyer and the responsibilities that came with being part-owner of an asbestos factory. And yet, under the stolid veneer of the man who got up early every morning to go to work, was a writer whose heart was consumed with one thing, and one thing only—his failure to write as fully himself.

Torn between the desire to write and the demands of making money, Kafka is obsessed in his fiction with uncovering the site of tension between the ‘unreal’ world, of imagination, fantasy, creativity, and the ‘real’ world, of work, family, social engagement. Again and again, in his stories and novels, he puts an unprepossessing everyman figure into a nightmare landscape where they squirm and writhe until they can bear it no longer. Josef K. in The Trial; Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis; a man from the country in Before the Law; K. in The Castle; the travelling researcher in The Penal Colony: all discover the tenuous nature of reality when they unwittingly cross into what Freud called the ‘unheimlich’, a German word that means both ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’. This site of tension—the unheimlich—is a place where ‘norms, limits, boundaries and foundations are neither natural nor fixed or stable’, as Fred Botting describes it in his book Gothic. The ‘real’ part of Kafka’s world may have been built from the sturdy bricks of capitalism, but the ‘unreal’ was constructed from the subterranean, murky world of the subconscious. It was on the night of September 22, 1912, when he sat at the desk in his bedroom while the rest of the house slept, and in one sitting wrote ‘The Judgement’, that these two worlds first crashed violently into each other.

On the surface ‘The Judgement’ is very much a ‘real’ story. It has a setting: a Sunday morning in spring. It has characters: an adult son and his father, both involved in the family business. It even has plot: the breakdown of the relationship between the two men. But its power lies in the fact that, underneath this flimsy surface, all is ‘unreal’. There is no logic in the way the plot develops. The reader gets no insight into character motivation, no clues as to how to interpret the disturbing interaction between the two men. And the resolution, in which the son rushes off to kill himself by drowning, is shocking.

At the beginning of the story, Georg Bendemann is sitting by the window in his study on a Sunday morning at the height of spring. He has just finished writing a letter to an old schoolfriend who lives in Russia, and the task has put him in a mood of reflection. On first impression, he appears a rather benign character, a typical petit bourgeois, absorbed in the details of his life circumstances. We discover that his mother died two years previously and that since then his elderly father has taken a backseat in the family business, allowing Georg to come to the fore, with the result that the business has ‘unexpectedly boomed’. He has also recently become engaged to a ‘young lady from a well-off family’. The only uncomfortable dilemma that he’s had to face—whether or not to tell his struggling friend in Russia about his good fortune—is resolved in the writing of the letter. And so, in a mood of self-satisfied confidence, he makes the journey across ‘the little passage’ to inform his father of his actions.

‘As an entrepreneur of its own self, the neoliberal subject has no capacity for relationships with others that might be free of purpose,’ the philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Georg Bendemann is such a subject. As was Kafka’s father and, it could be argued, Kafka himself, prior to the fateful night of 22 September, 1912. Georg has a market value mindset. As a perfect capitalist, he measures everything. He is Nietzsche’s ‘last man’, a man who takes no risks and seeks only comfort and security. It is easy to imagine him updated for the twenty-first century:

suit by Hugo Boss / shirt by Marks & Spencers / tie by The Tie Bar / watch by Apple / tan loafers by Ben Sherman / gym membership / dry January / Tinder account still active despite engagement / books on bedside locker by Steven Pinker and Antony Beevor, both abandoned about ten pages in / Audi A8 in driveway / hair receding at brow…

Crossing over the hallway, Georg finds his father reading a newspaper. The room is ‘unbearably dark’ and when his father gets up his dressing gown falls open. Despite these small ripples of disturbance, Georg proceeds to inform his father of the letter he has written to his friend, going so far as to pull the envelope a little way out of his pocket, before letting it slip back. His father’s response is bizarre. He refers to certain ‘unlovely developments’ that have taken place since the death of Georg’s mother. He questions the very existence of a friend in Russia. He then alludes to a collusion between himself and this friend behind Georg’s back, and finally, he disparages Georg’s relationship with his fiancée, calling her a ‘disgusting slut’. During this barrage Georg maintains a discourse of reason, tucking his father into bed and observing that he requires more care, even resolving to take the old man to live with him and his future wife in their new home. Then suddenly, overwhelmed by his father’s taunts, he is unable to refrain from shouting, ‘You play-actor!’ Georg wishes his father would fall and break into little pieces, but in the end, it is he who breaks, rushing off to carry out the sentence that his father has passed on him, death by drowning. The transformation of Georg, from a rational man to an irrational one, is inexplicable. Is it he who has been acting all along? Playing the part of the good son, the sensible businessman, the wholesome fiancé?

This holding of oppositional realms in tension—the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’—is rare in fiction, particularly contemporary fiction. In uncertain times, we like our stories to play out on solid ground. On the one hand, this perhaps explains the current upsurge in popularity of true crime and horror, and, on the other, the deluge of novels branded by publishers as ‘up lit’ (life-affirming stories of hope, kindness, empathy and love). Readers, it seems, prefer to be firmly rooted in one world or another. Fiction reflects the values of the society that creates it, and a late capitalist society that strives to abolish thresholds with hypervisibility and transparency, inevitably produces fiction that is easy to classify: real or surreal, good or evil, thrilling or comforting, what’s hot and what’s not. This is especially true now as more and more of us (dressed in leisure wear, sitting at Ikea desks) spend our time online, in a world where everything is on display, and personal, even intimate, disclosure is normalised. But no matter how hard people try, it is not possible to eliminate the transgressive desires of the subconscious. The more we push darkness to the edges—denying it any legitimacy—the more we intensify our dread of it, and thus the power it holds over us. An insistence on positivity is wearying and the banal sentimentality of ‘up lit’ can be as dispiriting as incessant newsfeeds. The novelist Thomas Bernhard wrote that an idealistic literary work may produce disgust in the reader and lead them to ‘fall back into negativity’, but the real danger is that, in the name of clarity, accessibility and inoffensiveness, we will find ourselves living in a world where writers whose work is difficult or ‘problematic’ will no longer be read, or even published.

In the irruption experienced by Georg Bendemann in ‘The Judgement’, the most startling element is the way in which his appetite for life switches so suddenly to desire for death. Having ‘raced’ toward the river, he swings himself over the rails, ‘like the excellent gymnast he had been in his early years’ and, as he ‘let[s] himself’ drop into the river, he calls out, ‘Dear parents, I have always loved you.’ But, while he is a literal writer, death in Kafka’s fiction should not be seen in purely literal terms. This rupture from one world into another is suffused with a powerful negative ecstasy. It is a deliverance from the terrible pressure of individuation, that conveyer belt transporting us endlessly towards personal optimisation. Death for the characters in Kafka’s fiction is an erotic release from the tension of simply existing.

In our late capitalist world, the outward performing self—the ‘play-actor’ as Bendemann puts it—likes to believe that endless consumer choice equates with freedom. But all the while the subconscious nurtures a powerful desire to be free of this freedom we profess to love. We survive, quite comfortably for the most part, distracted by food or sex or work or new shoes or babies or drugs or football matches or holidays, but from time to time we become aware of a sensation of strain. Usually, we find a way to go on. But sometimes—like Georg Bendemann, or our updated version with his Marks & Spencers shirt and receding hair—there is an overwhelming desire to plunge into the abyss. In the introduction to Tristan Garcia’s book The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession, the translators observe that ‘a seemingly insignificant instant … can suddenly leap out and give us a feeling of epiphany like a shock of electricity. This shock once again exposes us to the intensity of real life and pulls us out of the mire of routine which we have sunk into without even realising it.’

The writer and critic Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works … One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation.’ I have no idea what ‘the point’ of ‘The Judgement’ is (which makes it so brilliant) but I do not read it as a mystical story and there is more to any writer’s work than biography (what their childhood was like, who they did or did not sleep with). Perhaps in ‘The Judgement’ we find something closer to ordinary, day-to-day life; the experience of being caught in a web of socio-economic expectation which, every now and then, the subconscious would like nothing more than to violently destroy. On that night of 22 September, 1912, I picture a tall thin man, dressed in black, hunched over a wooden desk, his entire face, lit by a lamp, in a state of rapture, especially his beautiful dark eyes. I wonder if he knew then, at 6 am, when the maid walked through the anteroom, and he said to her, ‘I’ve been writing until now’, that so much had been destroyed: (1) his chance of getting up early to go to work the next day, (2) the possibility, despite his subsequent prevarications, of entering into marriage, with all the constraints it would entail, and (3) all pretence of being an upstanding citizen. Did he know that the rest of his short life would be spent seeking to recapture the experience of writing ‘The Judgement’ … ‘a complete opening of body and soul’?