Invisibility is a superpower.
Tolkien’s One Ring and Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility render the wearer unseen by conventional methods. Much before that, the Ancient Greeks had gods who surrounded their favourite heroes in mists and clouds so that they could pass unchallenged.
Of course, all superpowers come with a price, and occasionally end in tragedy. H. G. Wells’s invisible man, the protagonist of his eponymous novel, struggles to control his ability, so much so it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
But what of invisibility in daily life?
It’s actually quite prevalent, and it comes about in two flavours: as a result of being ignored, or as a result of ignorance. The former implies intention and a deliberate act, the latter an accident and blameless innocence—the middle ground is shaded by degrees of intentional ignorance.
(Unsurprisingly, both ignore and ignorance come from the negation of the same Latin stem gnō-, meaning to know, but perhaps surprisingly ignorance is the older word by a few centuries.)
Franz Kafka’s collection of short stories includes at least four very different explorations of invisibility, of which only Rejection was published during his lifetime. Here they are.
(Translated from the German by Will and Edwin Muir.)
You are invisible to others (ignored)
In The Bucket Rider a desperately cold man begging for a shovelful of the worst coal is ignored by the coaldealer and his wife. They hear him, toy with him, and like children on a playground, pretend that he is not there. Until at last the poor man, sitting on his coal bucket, wafts away So light has he become in his state of invisibility.
She sees nothing hears nothing; but all the same she loosens her apron strings and waves her apron to waft me away. She succeeds, unluckily. My bucket has all the virtues of a good steed except powers of resistance, which it has not; it is too light; a woman’s apron can make it fly through the air.
Others are invisible to you (ignorance)
In Investigations of a Dog, the narrator, a dog himself, repeatedly wonders about the nature of his world and the extent of his ignorance.
When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among gods, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate…
This curious dog winds his way through many a strange philosophical enquiry, including where food comes from. The story ends with him deducing how little he knows. Then it is up to the reader to deduce that the dog wasn’t able to grasp the notion that humans—his food providers—exist. To the canine race humans are invisible.
Ignoring each other for ignorance’s sake
In Rejection (1908), a sketch half a page long, a man sees a woman on a street, and asks her to join him. When she sashays past, he envisions their hypothetical dialogue. She would have spent a paragraph telling him that he is no Duke worthy of her attention; he would have replied that she is no adored, pretty lady so she shouldn’t be getting ideas above her station. She would have had the final word:
‘Yes, we’re both in the right, and to keep us from being irrevocably aware of it, hadn’t we better just go our separate ways home?’
She ignored him; to her he was invisible. So he rationalises the rejection by choosing to believe in the benefits of intentional, perpetuated ignorance (or self-delusion).
Curiosity kills the bridge
In The Bridge we’re privy to a bridge’s interior monologue (the narrative is in first person). The bridge is stiff and cold, lying over a ravine, staring down into it, when a traveller approaches and the bridge becomes excited to do its job. Then curiosity gets the best of the bridge.
But then—I was just following him in thought over mountain and valley—he jumped with both feet on the middle of my body. I shuddered with wild pain, not knowing what was happening. Who was it? A child? A dream? A wayfarer? A suicide? A tempter? A destroyer? And I turned around so as to see him.
A bridge that turns. Imagine that. My first thought was of the traveller: was she/he/it being flung off, arcing through the air, before disappearing into the ravine below? But actually we never hear of that. It is the bridge that falls and is torn and transpierced by the rocks at the bottom.
It’s a novel take on the cautionary tale of curiosity leading to catastrophe.
Curiosity is nothing other than a desire to transcend ignorance (like the dog, but unlike the hypothetical rejection) and attain a state of knowledge where to ignore or not to ignore is a choice, and therefore a source of power (like in the case of the coaldealer).
Curiosity is also the desire to see the invisible, though sometimes it’s futile (like the dog’s) and sometimes it is lethal (like the bridge’s). I say sometimes because Kafka’s oeuvre omits to highlight the positive role that curiosity plays as part of a meaningful existence. Though, there is no omission once you realise that Kafka’s works themselves are the embodiment of a positively curious mind. The absurdity of it, naturally, rankles.
As it should, as it should.
P.S. I came across what appears to be a reference to Kafka’s Bridge in Maurice Blanchot’s 1948 novel Death Sentence (translated by Lydia Davis). Blanchot imbues the bridge with more than simplistic curiosity, and he is explicit about the traveller’s fate:
…the road had summoned [the traveller] and he walks onward, but the road wants to see if the man who is coming is really the one who should be coming: it turns around to see who he is, and in one somersault they both tumble into the ravine.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Various articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: on Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (1998).
- Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem: on mixing metaphors in a quote from Exemplary Departures.
- Wittkop’s Necrophiliac: On Gabrielle Wittkop’s Necrophiliac (1972) and the questions in raises.
- Kafka’s Harrow: On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1919).
- Kafka’s Hunger Artist: On Franz Kafka’s Hunger Artist (1922) and the performance art of fasting.
- Kafka’s Invisibles: