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A Report to an Academy - Contemplations on a Short Story by Franz Kafka


A Report to an Academy - Contemplations on a Short Story by Franz Kafka

One can wonder why Kafka’s stories are populated with a rich and diverse cast of non-human characters, including dogs, horses, jackals, apes, rats, mice, and vultures, all of whom play significant roles in his work. By imbuing these animals with the ability to imagine, think, speak, and even sing, Kafka creates a world that is both enchanting and full of mystery and mystique.

Kafka’s use of animal characters not only reflects his deep identification with them but also a reflection of his sense of alienation and feelings of being an outsider. In November 1913, he famously compared himself to a dog. “At the bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled to go to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food has offered me, and to leap back when he has swallowed it.” He also compares himself to a sheep: “I am really like a lost sheep in the night in the mountains, or like a sheep which is running after this sheep.” In his diary in 1910, Kafka writes, “…from time to time I listened to myself outside of myself, it sounded like the whimpering of a young cat.” Through his animal characters, Kafka explores the inner lives of creatures that are often marginalized and overlooked, offering a glimpse into their unique perspectives and experiences.

It is also possible that Kafka’s use of non-human characters in his stories may be attributed to his experience living as a Jew in Prague during the unstable and rigid time of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As a member of a Jewish Ashkenazi minority, Kafka may have felt vulnerable, alienated, and lost. Being a misfit from a bourgeois family, and on bad terms with his father, only added to his isolation and loneliness. His Yiddish heritage also subjected him and his people to being called names such as dogs, rats, and vermin. These encounters pushed Kafka to turn his attention inward and create amazing non-human animal worlds. While some critics see Kafka’s anthropomorphized animals as allegories for human problems, others view them as metaphors for the assimilation of Jews in Europe, the loss of innocence, and the inability of humans to communicate. In the Notes on Kafka, Theodor W. Adorno says, “Each sentence is literal, and each signifies.”

With so many allegories thriving, Kafka’s stories ought not to be approached just as allegories. They are stories that deal ironically and funnily with what goes on between human beings and non-humans. A Report to an Academy, published in 1917, features an ape that is shot at in Africa, caged, and shipped over to Europe. To work his way out, he is forced to adopt human-like behaviors. The story is delivered entirely as a monologue ape, who learns to speak first by observing and imitating humans, and later through methodical education.

Red Peter - he earned his name for the red mark on his face left from the gun wound - now stands before the esteemed members of the academy and explains his past apish life and his journey into humanity, with absolute confidence, reason, and a subtle trace of irony in his speech.

“HONORED MEMBERS of the Academy,” Red Peter starts. “I did not think things out, but I observed everything quietly. I watched these men go to and fro, always the same faces, the same movements, often it seemed to me there was only the same man.”  The repetition of the word same may be seen as prescient, as it reflects the scientific fact that humans and chimpanzees share almost the same mental capacity. DNA tests have shown that chimpanzees share 99.9% of their DNA with humans. Kafka’s use of non-human characters in his stories, and his exploration of their consciousness, may be seen as a reflection of this shared mental capacity, and an invitation to view animals as equal members of our community.

Interestingly, the ape doesn’t go through any physical transformation, as with the salesman, Gregor Samsa, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He remains an ape, but the situation forces him to transcend nature and thus develop his mental capabilities. In the first paragraph, he says, “I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins… To give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I lay upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke.” 

His words indicate total freedom of thought, decision, and choice. Once he begins to think as a human, he realizes that there are no visible or invisible entities that control his mind. It is he who lays a “commandment” upon him. It is he who submits himself to that yoke. In a world of constant denial, he also admits his stubbornness and views his decision - to get rid of this human vice - as a revelation that has changed his life forever. Had he not decided to reach the highest of all human abilities, he would have spent the rest of his life looking out at the world behind locked iron bars. It is from this unfortunate position that he starts dividing from his nature.

Red Peter reports that none of the men on the boat promised him freedom, “…but if one achieved the impossible the promises appear later retrospectively precisely when one looked in vain for them before.” He exhibits sensibility, critical thinking, and rationality, emphasizing the importance of trying to do one’s best under any circumstances. Kafka's portrayal of Red Peter challenges the limited view of animals as mere instinctual beings and expands our understanding of their potential for higher thought processes. In 1917 psychologist Wolfgang Kohler published a monograph titled, The Mentality of Apes. He writes, “The chimpanzee’s manifest intelligent behavior of the general kind familiar in human beings…Chimpanzees not only stand out against the animal world…but also display behavior that counts as specifically human.”

A few months later, Kafka published A Report to an Academy, possibly to shed light on the victimization of animals. At the age of sixteen, Kafka became familiar with the works of British naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged the theological dogmatism of origins from a design or deism, which saw nature as evidence of the designing power of all creatures. This theory also challenged the notorious notion of human superiority in intelligence, reason, and language. Kafka’s work can be seen as an attempt to challenge the dogmatic notions of his time regarding animals and their mental abilities, and to highlight their victimization. In The Descent of Man Darwin writes, “This chapter is to show that there is no foundational difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental abilities. All science is the reason, acting/systematizing/on principles, which even animals practically know.” Darwin put that in his notebook and kept wondering whether animals have consciousness, knowing, and thinking. 

From the hunting expedition, Hamgenbeck fires the first shot at him as he comes down to the shore for a drink. Much of what Red Peter remembers before his capture has been told to him. He resents his name because it reminds him of a performing ape named “Peter” who died recently and who had gained a small local reputation. He feels ashamed of his name, which might have been associated with inappropriate behavior, the same behavior he sees in the men on the boat heading for Hamburg.

The second shot hits him below the hip, causing a severe wound that still causes him to limp to this day. He is then put into a four-sided barred cage between decks in the steamer and shipped from the jungle of Gold Coast, Africa, to Hamburg by the Hagenbeck company, a leading animal trade company operating in the German-speaking world with wild animals. While some argue that animals may be better off in zoos than in the wild, from Red Peter’s perspective as an ape, this is not the case. He reports, “The whole construction was too low for me to stand up in and too narrow to sit down in. So, I had to squat with my knees bent and trembling all the time, and also, since probably for a time I wished to see no one and to stay in the dark, my face was turned toward the locker while the bars of the cage cut into my flesh behind.” 

Red Peter’s experience in captivity was a living hell for him. He felt hurt, uncomfortable, and alone, which created feelings of anxiety and despair. Sadly, many apes caught and kept in zoos suffer the same fate, with many dying within a few months of capture. Although unpleasant experiences are difficult to endure, they play an important role in learning and contemplation for both humans and animals. Both remember traumatic experiences better and longer, and they often lead to profound changes in behavior and perspective. Fear and sadness can reach deep into the soul, forcing one to take things more seriously the next time around. It is often under extreme pressure that an impossible miracle occurs. Peter says, “And I learned things, gentleman. Ah, one learns when one has to, when one needs a way out; one learns at all costs. Until then I had so many ways out of everything, and now I have none. I was pinned down. My right to free movement would not have been lessened if I had been nailed down.”

This sudden and sad realization through his change and lack of physical freedom puts greater pressure on him. From now on he begins to search not for freedom but for a way out and thus turns his eyes in a direction unknown to him before. To escape from his unfortunate fate, he sees that the only way out for him is to become human. Peter says, “I had to stop being an ape. A fine, clear train of thought, which I must have constructed somehow with my belly since apes think with their bellies.”

And so, to cope with his new reality, Red Peter begins to see himself as a performer rather than a captive animal. He observes the humans around him, imitates their behavior, and learns to speak their language. Through his journey into humanity, he gains a new perspective on the world and his place in it. He realizes that being human means having agency and control over one’s own life, and he seeks to emulate these qualities.

Red Peter’s statement about the belly can be interpreted in different ways, but one possible interpretation is that he is emphasizing the importance of intuition and emotions in addition to rational thinking. The yogic tradition believes that the limitations of the mind can be transcended, and greater skill can be attained resulting in expressing higher levels of understanding of existence, creativity, and love. In the space around the navel, you can find the solar plexus -Manipuraka in Sanskrit. It is the third chakra where all emotions live. A person with a balanced and open solar plexus can experience a sense of inner harmony, self-confidence, and a clear sense of purpose.

It wasn’t the freedom Red Peter wanted. It was a way out because he didn’t believe in either human or ape freedom. He reports, “As an ape, perhaps, I knew that, and I have met men who yearned for it. But for my part, I desire such freedom neither then nor now…” He then talks about a couple of acrobats performing on the trapezes high on the roof swinging, and springing into the air. Humans have gained some control over their movements through discipline and practice, but at the same time, this control is unnatural and goes against the instincts and movements that animals like him have. Red Peter sees it as a mockery of nature because it contradicts the spontaneity and freedom of movement that he believes should come naturally. For Red Peter, this highlights the fundamental difference between humans and animals - humans have gained control over their lives and environment, but at the cost of losing touch with their instincts and connections to nature.

Another reference to negative freedom is when he reports his escape options. “I could certainly have managed by degrees to bite through the lock of my cage. I did not do it.” He neither jumps into the sea nor slips by the pythons that could as he explains, “breath out his life in their embrace.” He calls these attempts to freedom, “Desperate remedies.” And he is right. If he tried to escape, he would have died. He is not as stupid as a man. Freedom is not always rewarding. Red Peter is human in an ape’s body and can decide against both kinds of freedoms. He just wants a way out. The cage is unbearable. He wants to come out from this, stretch his arms and legs, leap up onto the trees, breathe fresh air, and become one with nature again. But he knows that that is impossible. The only way out is to become human. From now on his transition comes in a series of breakthroughs.

First, he starts to imitate the men on the boat. “I learned to spit in the first days. We used to spit in each other faces…” He also reveals that he smoked a pipe, but his worst trouble was the schnapps bottle. The smell “revolted me” but he went on and drank it. Of all the men on the boat, the one that stands out for him is the man who teaches him to drink. “He could slowly uncork the bottle and then look at me to see if I had followed him. I admit that I always watched him with wildly eager, too eager attention; such a student of humankind no human teacher found on earth.” After a series of human gestures, the man drinks from the bottle and ends his theoretical teaching “by rubbing his belly and grinning.”

Red Peter tells us how he started to drink, “I put it to my lips and throw it down in disgust, utter disgust.” He also tells us that the lesson always ended in that way. The triumph came on a night the crew was celebrating, “…I took hold of a schnapps bottle…uncorked it in the best style…set it to my lips without hesitation…like a professional drinker…and drunk it empty.”  With the word “Hallo!” Red Peter transcended his nature and broke into the human community. “Listen, he’s talking!” was the crew’s reply. Through observing and imitating he managed to excel in human gestures and thus start to speak.

The concept of the mirror stage in Lacanian theory refers to the development of the human infant’s self-awareness and sense of identity, which occurs when the child recognizes their reflection in a mirror. According to Lacan, this moment is crucial for the formation of the ego and the sense of a coherent self. The child identifies with their mirror image, which they perceive as a complete and unified entity, and this identification lays the groundwork for the ego’s formation. So, in the context of Kafka’s story, the suggestion might be that Red Peter’s desire to become human is a result of his identification with the humans who hold power over him and whom he perceives as complete and unified entities.

But Red Peter does not consider becoming a man and mastering language as his ideal goal. “I repeat there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I wanted a way out and for no other reason.”

Scientific discoveries have been made about the rich cognitive, linguistic, and emotional capacities of animals. As a result, behaviorist assumptions about the impossibility of knowledge in them have been subverted.  Kanzi, a captive bonobo can recognize himself in front of the mirror, suggesting self-awareness. He has a rich vocabulary and conveys messages from humans to other bonobos who have not learned to understand human speech. Together with other bonobos he engages in sophisticated deceptive behaviors, pointing out that they can think about the mental states of other animals.

When Red Peter is conscious of his existence, he seems to be having a great time using his ability to learn and understand the world around him. His high senses lead him to perceive and experience reality to its fullest and he is exhilarated by the knowledge streaming into his mind. “The progress of mine! How the rays of knowledge penetrated from all sides into my awakening brain!” He then tells us that with an effort he managed to reach the cultural level of an average European. “There is an excellent idiom; to fight one’s way through the thick of things…” 

Despite his newfound celebrity status, Red Peter acknowledges that he is not complacent. He understands that whether living among apes or humans, it is impossible to find complete understanding, love, and happiness. These elusive emotions are difficult to attain and even harder to maintain, especially in the short but precious time we have on this earth.

Nonetheless, Red Peter’s realization doesn’t diminish the importance of pursuing a life lived fully and authentically. He believes that a fulfilling life can only be achieved by embracing it wholeheartedly, with generosity and honesty. Only then can we hope to uncover the beauty and truth that surrounds us, waiting to be discovered.

In essence, Red Peter’s message is one of hope and encouragement, reminding us that despite the challenges we face in our search for happiness, understanding, and love, we should never give up on living a life filled with purpose, authenticity, and generosity. Only then can we hope to find the true meaning and beauty in life.

Kafka’s decision to create non-human characters in his stories delves deeply into the realms of ethics and values, challenging readers to consider animals as equals in the human community, deserving of the same respect, responsibility, and care. His stories subtly encourage us to recognize the importance of treating animals with the same level of dignity and compassion that we would extend to our fellow human beings.

Interestingly, Kafka appears to identify more closely with animals than with humans, exploring the psychological implications of animals with human characteristics and how such transformations might alter both their and our understanding of consciousness. Through his writing, he hopes to challenge the rigid anthropocentric worldview that often dominates human thought and behavior and to expand our capacity for empathy and understanding beyond our species.

Overall, Kafka’s stories offer a powerful commentary on the relationship between humans and animals, urging us to recognize the intrinsic value and interconnectedness of all living beings. By inviting us to view the world through the eyes of non-human characters, Kafka encourages us to broaden our perspectives and to challenge the narrow-mindedness that so often limits our understanding of the world around us.

Upon immersing yourself in Kafka’s stories, you are transported to a surreal and bizarre world where your perceptions of reality are challenged, causing you to question your identity as a human being. Despite the chaos and confusion, you find yourself unable to turn away. Instead, you choose to confront the obstacles presented in the stories with all your strength and resourcefulness. But even with your best efforts, sometimes the forces you are up against are simply too strong to overcome.

Kafka’s writing reflects the human experience, showing us who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can expect from life. He reminds us that life is not always predictable and rational and that we must be prepared to face the unexpected. Through his stories, Kafka invites us to inhabit the perspective of animals, enabling us to experience their similarly complex and emotional nature.
In short, Kafka’s writing is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, urging us to persist in the face of adversity and to embrace the unknown with open arms.

The word kavka, in Czech, refers to a jackdaw a small Eurasia bird belonging to the same genus as the raven. At times Kafka felt like “a sparrow, practicing his jumps on the step.”

When Kafka became a vegetarian, he went to the Berlin aquarium with a lady, who wrote in her diary. Kafka leaned against the glass and said, “Now I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore.”  

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