Story: “Investigations of a Dog”
In Selected Short Stories of Frank Kafka
Dorothy’s post on Sebald linked to an interview with the author, in which he had some exciting things to say about Franz Kafka’s story story “Investigations of a Dog.” For some reason, I became exceedingly enthused about reading this story, rushing down to the basement to find my old (1952) Muir translation of Kafka’s stories — I sat down to read it mere minutes later. It did not disappoint.
Sebald’s description of the story is as follows:
So metaphysics, I think, shows a legitimate concern. And writers like Kafka, for instance, are interested in metaphysics. If you read a story like “Investigations of a Dog,” it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn’t grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn’t know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we. So it’s quite legitimate to ask—and, of course, it can become a kind of parlor game—as these philosophers said, “Are we sure that we’re really sitting here now?”
“Investigations of a Dog” is a tale of understanding and its limits, with a extraordinary existential slant. The scope of the dog’s investigations are, in context, massive: he wants to know where food comes from, cutting against the accepted indifference of his compatriots. His unending desire to question and investigate puts him at odds with the other dogs, who are seemingly content in their unexamined existence. This forces the dog into the position of outsider, so familiar in Kafka’s writings:
Why do I not do as the others: live in harmony with my people and accept in silence whatever disturbs the the harmony, ignoring it as a small error in the great account, always keeping in mind the things that bind us happily together, not those that drive us again and again, as though by sheer force, out of our social circle?
The questions Kafka’s dog asks are disruptive and unwelcome: he wants nothing more than to suck at the very marrow of life. The dog is the clearest expression I have yet encountered of Kafka’s ability to rip the world and our accepted interpretation of it to shreds. Kafka upsets the order and the falsehoods of life, assailing the traditionally praised accomplishments of culture. As Kafka show us, historical progress, for all its achievements, rarely help us in the living of our actual lives; truths communicated to us through history help society progress, but they do not communicate meaning to the existing individual who needs a meaning for his life.
True, knowledge provides the rules one must follow, but even to grasp them imperfectly and in rough outline is by no means easy, and when one has actually grasped them the real difficulty still remains, namely, to apply them to local conditions — here almost nobody can help, almost every hour brings new tasks, and every new patch of earth its specific problems; no one can maintain that he has settled everything for good and that henceforth his life will go on, so to speak, of itself, not even I myself, though my needs shrink literally from day to day.
“Investigations of a Dog” is, most specifically, an exploration of the gaps that exist between knowledge and application — it is one thing to “know” a truth and quite another to infuse your life with that truth. The dog’s quest for a truth that will settle his distress and his questioning is an impossible one. He wants to “escape from this world of falsehood,” but has no means by which to do this. All he can do is search for more knowledge, looking for a truth or an event that will apply to his “local conditions,” namely the life that he lives from day to day.
Kafka’s short story is a magnificent dive into the deepest questions and problems of examined existence. Its distinctive style is not quite an allegory, which is perfect for this story’s mix of penetrating explorations and existential yearning.
Here are there we catch a curiously significant phrase and we would
almost like to leap to our feet, if we did not feel the weight of
centuries upon us.