Morrissey and Kafka

A Personal Perspective

by Mac Tonnies


"I am made of pop music. It is the air that I breathe."

Morrissey is the ex-lead-singer for The Smiths and now a solo performer with a massive cult following. His lyrics are characterized by witty, thoughtful introspection, frank honesty and wry wordplay. Morrissey is an unusually literary singer ("Cemetry Gates" is complete with references to Wilde, Keats and Yeats), having authored a book (the now out-of-print "James Dean is Not Dead").

Since the beginning of his career, Morrissey has made compelling use of his persona, eliciting both mockery and admiration. Intensely private and (perhaps deliberately) enigmatic, Morrissey has been caricaturized into a depressive, morbid recluse at odds with the contemporary pop music scene. Interviews with Morrissey are usually hilarious in their evasive, contradictive pronouncements; he's perhaps most famous for announcing his alleged "asexuality"...a telling affectation that he's since dispelled by admitting to a backfired romantic relationship. As always, his true sexuality is undisclosed--the material for at least one academic essay on the role of personae in rock music.

Morrissey's canon of songs is unparalleled; he dissects radio-unfriendly themes such as alienation ("The Boy Racer"), rejection ("Driving Your Girlfriend Home") and melancholy ("Now My Heart is Full") with grace, tact and a refreshing pop-sensibility that transcends the ballads of the iconic Roy Orbison. Critics almost universally overlook the fact that Morrissey's subject matter is not mere suicidal fodder. Rather, in songs such as "Late Night, Maudlin Street," "Break Up the Family" and "The Ordinary Boys" (a moving paean to self-sufficiency), he displays a weird brand of optimism: subtle, but correspondingly profound.


"I am literature."

Morrissey has a soul-mate of sorts in Franz Kafka, the Czech writer who authored "The Metamorphosis," "The Trial" and other stories. Kafka's life was marked by an inexcisable sense of inferiority; he considered writing an intense "form of prayer" with which he attempted to exorcise the madness of the world around him. Although liked and admired by his acquaintances, Kafka nonetheless harbored an unutterable fear of intimacy, leading to the image of an obvious genius living behind a "glass wall."

Kafka's labyrinthine prose style and exacting grasp of nuance and character reveal a world riddled with bureaucracy and corruption; his protagonists are burdened by anxieties grown to mythical dimensions. Though reluctant to confess to true happiness, Kafka managed to enjoy a significant deal of success in his work and a degree of notoriety among his literary peers. Unfortunately, his reputation as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century came only after the posthumous "rediscovery" of his works by his friend Max Brod. (Compellingly, Kafka had asked Brod to burn his unpublished works before his death.)

In "The Metamorphosis," Kafka's best-known story, his protaganist alter-ego awakes to find himself transformed into a gangly, segmented insect. The proceding narrative is a rich, ambiguously symbolic attempt to write his way out of the nightmare of reality. Ironically, Kafka viewed escape as yet another nightmare to be surmounted.

But, like Morrissey, Kafka is too easily typecasted. Critics and readers alike may be too jaded to miss the rare episodes of absurd humor and self-referential mirth. His letters, diary entries and fiction reveal a disquieting intellect and a formidable capacity to persist when steeped in the bureaucratized malaise pitted against his fictional protagonists.

Kafka realized the degradation of the human self as surely as he searched for its redemption. He communicated this by making his settings distressingly surreal. This same freedom of setting is most notable in the science fiction genre (a genre Kafka professed no interest in, even though "The Penal Colony" foreshadows the stereotypical "robots gone amok" theme endlessly recycled in the 1940s and 50s).

(William Gibson, another author with a decidedly cult appeal, made Kafka's brooding, mechanical landscape the thrust of the "Metamorphosis theme bar" introduced in the first chapter of his novel "Idoru." Inside the bar, patrons make themselves comfortable amidst articulated machinery suggestive of "The Penal Colony's" Harrow and a hodepodge of insectile decor that wouldn't be out of place in an H.R. Giger painting or in William S. Burroughs' "Nova Express.")

Like a good song, Kafka articulates the madness that encircles us. There's something almost paternal in his knowing, suffocated prose. Kafka, as a person and a reality-defying presence, appeal via a courage rarely encountered in literature.

"A dreaded sunny day, so let's go where we're happy and meet me at the cemetery gates."

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