What is the fear that is taking hold of our feelings in this millennium? What troubles and confounds our experience and reason? What is it that threatens, intimidates and terrifies us? Is it something dreadful coming back from the past, something that we wrongly believed had been completely subdued, but that now reemerges to drag us back to the insecurity and danger we thought we had escaped forever? Or is it something totally new that shakes and dissolves all our certainties, throwing open before us unpredictable, unthinkable horizons where the very notions of humankind and nature appear to crumble? What do we fear most? Repetition or difference? The return of a barbarism that is remote and prehistoric or the advent of a barbarism that is technological and post-human?
These questions themselves are not an enigma — they simply express a fear; enigma emerges when the two poles of these questions, the world of the past and the world of the future, pass into one another without border — when they are collapsed into an ambiguous problematic present.
This sense of an extremely problematic present is the basis of much of the anxiety that we sense when reading the works of Franz Kafka. Whether read as modern, postmodern, existential, surreal, or what you will, Kafka’s works have been interpreted to explain ways of looking at the present moment, whenever that present moment occurred, be it 1925, 1965, or 2011. Because Kafka indicated no precise dates in his stories, and because his stories are not set in any definite time, their characters tend to be interpreted by readers as actors in an always present.
The working conditions portrayed in The Metamorphosis or The Trial, though seemingly antiquated by modern computerized office standards, do not locate the works historically. If anything, they take Kafka’s works out of time rather than place them into a known age. This Kafkan time-zone, in which very unpredictable, often unthinkable events occur, is rife with anxiety for the characters who inhabit it, and it is equally anxiety producing for Kafka’s readers. It shakes and dissolves all our certainties. It is not new, of course, to consider Kafka’s works “enigmatic” in the sense of being puzzling and inexplicable; however, if we take the sense of enigma further and define it as that moment when fear of the past and fear of the future collide in the present, that is, this sense of enigma — perhaps new insights into some of Kafka’s stories may be gleaned.