Kafka & Lovecraft : Dreamlands and Nightmares

Franz Kafka’s reliance on a dreamlike state of existence in his work is reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. Whose work includes several stories based in a dreamlike state. While Kafka is more classically noted than Lovecraft the two share some major similarities in their use of dreams and nightmares in their works. Both have penned some of the most horrifying fiction ever written. Kafka mastery of what can only be called an absurdest reality shakes the reader to the core. You identify with the characters and come to feel his anguish and despair on a personal level that can break you down while reading. There is such a sense of depression associated with works like The Metamorphosis that they become infectious. This is the strength of his writing style. Kafka in his writing tapped into the ideas of Freud and  the symbolic nature of dreams to create works that touch us on a deeply emotional and primal level.

On the other hand  Lovecraft created stories that are horrifying and touch us no less deeply than Kafka but he does not rely on the Freudian symbolic dream. In fact Lovecraft often challenged the very idea that dreams were symbolic. Lovecraft saw dreams as meaningful  and almost as real as the waking world. While Lovecraft seems to reject Freud you can not help but to see the symbolic relationships between the creatures of Lovecraft’s nightmares and the mental problems he faced in his own life.

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is probably the one of the most disturbing pieces of short fiction I have ever read. When reading a classic novel or piece of fiction I endeavor to identify with the protagonist or at least one of the major characters. Gregor Samsa’s plight in Kafka’s work hits me at home in so many ways that it becomes disturbing. At thirty-eight years of age I was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. I had always known I was different from everyone around me. I am the only person I know that had to actively teach myself how to smile and I still don’t have a convincing one. I remember my mother’s constant admonition as a child to either smile or to stop grimacing when I tried to smile. So a story about a man waking up to find himself a virtual alien is a story that deeply touches me as someone who feels like an alien at times. I remember vividly realizing I was not like other people and how it felt to be an alien. This story brought so many memories back to me from my childhood that when I read it the first time a few years ago it stuck with me. My copy is now dog-eared and almost falling apart. I have sought to find meaning for my own life in the pages. To write something like this Kafka must have felt much as I have felt about life. This gives me some small comfort that I am not alone and leaves me with some mixed feelings about Gregor.

Unlike Kafka, Lovecraft was often dismissive of Freud and in at least one story mentions Freud in passing while dismissing the Dream symbolism in Freud’s work as “Puerile”. Lovecraft embraced the ideas of Carl Jung. To Jung dreams were based on real things not just symbolic and they represented shared archetypal information. Lovecraft embraced the idea of the collective consciousness that we have racial and subconscious memories that play out in our dreams.Lovecraft wanted to reader to believe that his creatures could actually exist in some dreamlike state or in some archaic half forgotten racial memory of eons past. Like Kafka Lovecraft touches me on a very emotional level. The idea that just beyond our limited perception is an entire world of horror waiting for the chance to step over and engulf us is at its heart the ultimate nightmare.

These two authors use dreams and nightmares to evoke a sense of horror and depression in their readers but they do so using different psychological mechanisms. I think it is important to compare their styles so that future authors can more easily understand the broad panoply of human psychological and subconscious fear. The mind is a wonderful and dangerous tool. Herein lie worlds of Freudian subconscious symbolism and  worlds of Jungian unplumbed instinctual memory. Who knows what may lurk deep in our primitive reptilian cortex.


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