Article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Thomas

Who understood villains better: Shakespeare or Kafka?

Almost everyone believes in “villains” of one sort or another.

After all, nearly everyone thinks something is wrong with the world, and someone is to blame for it.

But who? Or what?

It’s a heavy topic, and there are plenty of answers here. Many will point to politicians, “just regular folk” trillionaires, or some cackling nemesis at work. Young brothers and sisters often point to each other or the dog. Answers flood in from all sides, all specific to someone’s unique story and situation, all seemingly contradictory.

To make sense of it, then – and of our world today – we need to step back to a higher level of abstraction to try to get a better view.

The key ingredient in villainy is usually described as “evil.”

But what is “evil,” after all? And who really understands it?

For weighty questions like these, we should probably tag in a few heavyweights.

Two literary geniuses, Shakespeare and Kafka, have some profound insights into these matters.

But of course, they also disagree.

Literary critic Lionel Trilling compared the two and offered his take on who had the deeper insight into this matter.

As Trilling describes in The Opposing Self:

“…if we compare Shakespeare and Kafka, leaving aside the degree of genius each has, and considering both only as expositors of man’s suffering and cosmic alienation, it is Kafka who makes the more intense and complete exposition.”

But why is that?

“…for Kafka the sense of evil is not contradicted by the sense of personal identity.”

What is the counter-force to evil?

Most of us would answer, simply, “good.”

But Trilling here is much more specific and personal. He describes it much more narrowly as “the sense of personal identity.”

To understand this, we can contrast Shakespeare’s world – from centuries ago – with our own.

People then didn’t have smartphones or Teslas, but they did have selves.

Trilling first describes Shakespeare’s penetrating insights into the nature of evil.

“Shakespeare’s world, quite as much as Kafka’s, is that prison cell which Pascal says the world is, from which daily the inmates are led forth to die; Shakespeare no less than Kafka forces upon us the cruel irrationality of the conditions of human life, the tale told by an idiot, the puerile gods who torture us not for punishment but for sport; and no less than Kafka, Shakespeare is revolted by the fetor of the prison of this world, nothing is more characteristic of him than his imagery of disgust.”

But he then shifts to explain Kafka’s deeper insight.

It deals with the degree to which it’s possible to become “depersonalized.”

Our understanding of evil has evolved, apparently, in the centuries between Shakespeare (16th century England) and Kafka (19th Century Austria).

The “sense of personal identity” is lush and rich in Shakespeare. Even when that identity turns toward corruption – such as in Macbeth and Othello – it’s still an identity.

But in Kafka, even that has been stripped away.

Kafka describes the process of a human being “de-personed.”

“But in Shakespeare’s cell the company is so much better than in Kafka’s, the captains and kings and lovers and clowns of Shakespeare are alive and complete before they die. In Kafka, long before the sentence is executed, even long before the malign legal process is ever instituted, something terrible has been done to the accused. We all know what that is – he has been stripped of all that is becoming to a man except his abstract humanity, which, like his skeleton, never is quite becoming to a man. He is without parents, home, wife, child, commitment, or appetite; he has no connection with power, beauty, love, wit, courage, loyalty, or fame, and the pride that may be taken in these. So that we may say that Kafka’s knowledge of evil exists without the contradictory knowledge of the self in its health and validity, that Shakespeare’s knowledge of evil exists with that contradiction in its fullest possible force.”

Kafka’s world – in contrast to Shakespeare’s – has been stripped of self.

Trilling describes “all that is becoming to a man” and what is “never is quite becoming to a man” – and how, tragically, one can be reduced to the other.

In Kafka’s world, a man may one day suddenly find himself to have transformed into a bug (“The Metamorphosis”). In another story (The Trial), a man we know only as Josef K. finds himself being accused of a terrible crime – but despite his efforts, he just cannot get a straight answer from anyone about what his crime is, exactly, who is accusing him, by what authority that person or entity is accusing him, or what will happen as a result. (Spoiler alert: he’s eventually executed without ever getting answers.) In another story (The Castle), another man known only as “K” arrives in a village in Europe with the hope of meeting a Count who lives in a castle above the village (and who might or might not represent God). But despite his efforts, he can never find his way to the castle.

Shakespeare’s world is full of good and evil selves. That “contradiction in its fullest possible force” leads to rich drama full of unforgettable characters and personalities. The villains might be profoundly diabolical, but those villains have names. They have terrible vices and flaws, but they are human.

Kafka’s characters, on the other hand – and even the protagonists – are often nearly anonymous. They hardly have names, or individuality.

Instead of “contradiction in its fullest possible force,” the activity is often flat. Kafka’s plots aren’t the stuff of high drama. Much of the drama, in fact, has been drained out, and what’s left is something closer to anti-drama. The world is no longer a “stage” with an epic battle between heroes and villains, but an empty field with absurd, senseless, meaningless events that ultimately lead nowhere. Reasons to struggle or hope are surgically removed, and as a result, the sense of drama – the sense that “this story going somewhere” – gets castrated.

Struggle, after all, depends on an effort worth making.

In Kafka’s universe, much of what happens is incoherent and senseless. Struggle is portrayed as hopeless. In some ways, it’s a world almost – to use a phrase coined by Nietzsche – “beyond good and evil.”

Rollo May wrote around 1953:

“…in our age of emptiness, tragedies are relatively rare. Or if they are written, the tragic aspect is the very fact that human life is so empty.”

The sense in Kafka is an age where people can not only become evil in a traditional sense, but something we instinctively sense is even worse: we can become anonymous.

Children often would rather get attention for “being bad” than be ignored. Punishment, as bad as it can be, is often better than being anonymous, or living a meaningless emptiness, or not seeming to exist at all, or living in a place where “nobody knows your name.”

The opposite of this kind of situation is great drama.

In the stories of our own lives, we instinctively aim to become who we are – to become fully human, or “self-actualized.”

In compelling stories, a person’s character is revealed through the choices they make.

In that way, we witness someone struggling to “become oneself.”

Deadpool, for example, flirts with nihilism.

He makes fun of everyone and everything. Nothing is safe, and nothing is sacred.

The results are hilarious. But it’s also a dynamic that could become nihilistic if it was allowed to run rampant. Ridicule for the sake of ridicule, endlessly, would eventually become a very flat plot.

But DeadPool never goes full Kafka.

As discussed here, Deadpool always finds an element of humanity that pulls him back from the brink. This can offer us a good clue. The DeadPool movies – despite flirtations with nihilism – are fully bound in a traditional plot structure and rooted in classical drama, which ultimately makes sense and feels right. It resonates with something deep inside us.

That’s why the Deadpool movies make hundreds of millions of dollars while Kafka movies are seen by approximately no one.

One rings true with human nature, and the other doesn’t.

So, what lesson can we take from all this?

As the progression (regression) from Shakespeare to Kafka demonstrates: evil seems to have evolved. (Or, devolved.)

We now have more knowledge about this situation. But knowledge by itself is neutral. It can go either way. Meaning, it can be used by good people to help develop more powerful antidotes to evil. Or, it can also be used by those on the other side – those who want to corrupt the good more effectively.

So, for those of us who want to do good:

What to do?

The aim is to reverse Kafka.

Kafka described The Problem very well. At least in Trilling’s view, he plumbed the depths even more deeply than Shakespeare.

But he didn’t have The Answer.

He was a pessimist. His endings were downers. He’d plop The Problem in our laps – perhaps as clearly as anyone has done – but then he’d let the credits roll. The End.

What did he lack?

Kafka was missing a certain kind of knowledge.

That “knowledge” was – to express it in his language – was the ability to find the Count who lived in the castle above the village in The Castle. He lacked the ability to meet his accuser, engage in an honest dialogue, prove his innocence, and be set free once again in The Trial. If a man can be transformed into a bug, as in The Metamorphosis, then it seems entirely possible – and very likely, even – that a bug can be transformed back into a man.

What are the forces at work that degrade a human being, that turn a person into a kind of insect? If we can discover and understand those forces, maybe we can approach them in a way that ennobles us instead of degrades us. If we can understand these transformative forces, it might be possible to go even further.

Kafka – or at least the protagonists in his stories – clearly lacked that knowledge.

But what is that knowledge, and how do we find it?

Again, there are many potential approaches to that answer.

But a key element can be essentially described in one word.


While “reversing Kafka” might be a bigger enterprise, a few initial steps can begin to set the stage for it.

Rehumanizing can set the stage for more developments that can come later.

But rehumanizing isn’t as easy as it sounds. After all, the effort to dehumanize seems to be out in full force today. It seems, somehow, to have been recently unleashed.

We now seem to live in an age of machines. Many of the greatest villains in our stories are half-human-half-machine, like Darth Vader, The Agents in The Matrix, Frankenstein’s monster, HAL, Ultron, The Terminator, etc.

The heroes of epic stories, on the other hand, are often quiet little hobbits, humble farm boys who do their chores, or mothers who simply want to protect their sons from killer robots from the future. These heroes don’t have superpowers. They’re often humble, flawed, and seemingly powerless. They’re human.

Yet the humble humans (or hobbits) eventually overcome the apparently invincible villains.

Mini-Vaders, micro-Dr. Frankensteins, and Diet-SkyNets seem increasingly common and active in the world today.

Some forces in the world seem to want to keep us physically and spiritually weak, lonely, addicted, anxious, depressed, angry, afraid, isolated, confused, resentful, indebted, full of hatred, misinformed, and spiritually illiterate.

These are forces that – either accidentally or deliberately – oppose our ability to achieve full humanity, become ourselves, or reach our highest potentials.

One way they accomplish this, for example, is by staying invisible while nudging everyone into fighting each other. It’s a strategy of agitation used to gain power, and the basic trick is getting everyone to imagine that other regular folks are the supervillains. Call it "The Gaunt Strategy" from the movie Needful Things.

Another technique is pathologizing normal, everyday qualities of human nature. That is, they convert normal human qualities into a disease, an illness, or a disorder. They do it simply by interpreting, describing, and explaining things in certain ways. It takes root when we believe those interpretations and explanations. They then offer a “cure” (for a fee, of course) which also (coincidentally, of course) happens to involve them accruing more wealth and power.

This can lead to dehumanization, or human strip-mining.

They work to extract our resources – our time, energy, expertise, money, etc. – and harvest them for their own benefit. They essentially – like the machines in The Matrix – want to convert humans into batteries. We aren’t valuable as ourselves, as they see it – only for the resources they can extract from us.

Trilling included a footnote about Kafka:

“…he had a very intense knowledge of the self through its negation, that his great and terrible point is exactly the horror of the loss of the Shakespearean knowledge of the self.”

The “loss of the Shakespearean knowledge of the self” – and “the horror” of it – seems to be what Kafka was trying to warn us about.

The hope, it seems, would lie in the ability to reverse it.

So, whose world are we steering toward?

Are we heading more toward Kafka’s world, or Shakespeare’s?

If we want to steer in the direction of a flourishing humanity – how?

We might be tempted to “depersonalize the depersonalizers.” We might think the best solution is to repress any individuals we think are repressive, reject anyone we think rejects others, judge anyone we think is judgmental, be mean to anyone we think is mean, and so on.

But of course, those routes risk trying to extinguish fires by dousing them with gasoline.

As the saying goes, the way to clear a muddy puddle is by ignoring it. Some problems – especially everything problems – are best solved by ignoring direct solutions in favor of indirect solutions. (Letting muddy water settle by itself works better than trying to force the dirt to the bottom.) Sometimes we stir up and feed certain problems by struggling with them.

Instead, we could focus on other things that are positive, smaller, achievable, and more local.

This could solve certain problems indirectly by starving them.

Here’s advice from Rollo May (in Man’s Search for Himself):

“…the loss of the self and the rise of collectivist movements…are both the result of the same underlying historical changes in our society. We need, therefore, to fight on both flanks – to oppose totalitarianism and the other tendencies toward dehumanization of the person on one flank, and to recover our experience and belief in the worth and dignity of the person on the other. (58)

To overcome depersonalization, repersonalize.

What would this look like?

Well, saying this kind of thing out loud can sound a little cheesy.

But – if we brave the dire risks of cheese – it could go something like this.

The counter to the inhuman is the human. The counter to the impersonal is the personal. The counter to dehumanization is rehumanization. So, how do we “rehumanize”? It could mean actively working to “become more human” ourselves – with the natural and intuitive understanding of what that means – and to actively seek out the flawed, imperfect, weird humanity in others, even when it’s deeply hidden, and appreciate it. All of this seems to lie in the direction of humility, which is a natural by-product of real sanity, or being in touch with reality.  In that sense, we can strive to get in touch with reality.

We can deliberately try to seek out the real instead of the unreal (the virtual, the substitute, the simulation), because real is better.

For example, instead of virtual relationships, we could turn more toward real relationships. (That is, instead of forming some of our deepest relationships with celebrities (who we’ll never meet and who will never know us), mere "followers," or Facebook friends, we could strive to interact more with the unpolished, unedited, un-retouched, flawed-but-real face-to-face people in our actual lives.)

We can work to rethink some of the “games” we’re playing in life (especially games we know, at some level, will eventually leave us unsatisfied, even if we “win.”) Instead, maybe we can switch to other games that can be more rewarding.

It could mean deliberately making things more difficult for ourselves instead of easier ("the strenuous life"), because difficulties can make us stronger. We could use lighter weights when working out. That would be easier, but we’d be missing the whole point. In the way Luke eventually turned off his computer to blow up the Death Star, we might benefit from rejecting certain kinds of “help,” and deliberately making tings harder on ourselves, which will force us to dig deeper within ourselves to solve problems. This kind of effort can make us less dependent and fearful and can foster a certain self-reliance and strength.

Instead of adopting and anxiously clinging to cherished ideas about ourselves, we can work toward more genuinely understanding ourselves. For example, instead of our natural inclination to be subjective toward ourselves and objective toward others, we could work to be subjective toward others and objective toward ourselves. Instead of adopting the hardened position of “I don’t care what other people think” and retreating inside self-validating bubbles of narcissism, we can have the courage to open up, listen, have actual conversations, and try to see from someone else’s point of view.

That said, we can't simply empathize and affirm our way to universal bliss. Any work along these lines should be grounded in basic sanity and reality.

Instead of adopting grand, all-encompassing causes and mindlessly trying to save the world, we could focus to some degree on working on ourselves. We could muster the courage to pause our hurtling race toward grand, vague visions of utopia – which might be based on false and unexamined assumptions – and even risk an existential crisis by open-mindedly examining our most basic assumptions about the world. As Nietzsche said well: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions...”

That could also lead to beefing up our healthy psychological defenses or our philosophical self-defense. It could lead to us becoming more existentially fit, or clarifying our fundamental worldview, or upgrading our model of human nature.

If this goes well, we can continue to aim high but without forgetting where we came from, and we might reverse priorities from the outer to the inner – that is, to get a better view of the futility of putting our faith in technology and the value of working to evolve psychologically.

If the world really has changed, we can adapt. If supervillains have made some major moves recently, fine. Game on.

It seems to be time to learn about the dehumanizing forces at work in the world today, thoroughly educate ourselves about them, and resist. We can resist by being human.

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