Democracy and the Myth of Cave Karel Kosík

The 20th century, which began with shots being fired in Sarajevo in 1914 and in our time is ending with the disintegration of the Soviet empire amid gunfire in that very same Sarajevo, is sometimes also called the century of Franz Kafka (“le siècle de Franz Kafka”)—and this is entirely justified. Kafka described the essence of this period with extraordinary insight. While it seemed to some of his contemporaries that his texts were dreamlike visions, poetic hyperboles and phantasmagorical hallucinations, today we have come to realize with awe the accuracy and sobriety of his descriptions. Kafka reached the conclusion, and in my view that is where his profound discovery lies, that modern times are hostile to the tragic, eliminating it and replacing it with the grotesque. That is why the century of Franz Kafka is at the same time a period whose quintessence is personified by one of his characters—Greta Samsa. Greta Samsa is the anti-Antigone of the 20th century.


In order to clarify the epoch-making nature of Kafka’s discovery I will first look at the work of two 19th‑century thinkers who concerned themselves with the tragic and examined the difference between ancient and modern tragedy. I am referring to Hegel and Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard characterizes modern times as a period of isolation and atomization when people and their mutual relations play the roles of mere numbers and take action as isolated individuals. The fact that individuals come together to form associations whose strength is measured by number is merely an expression of this isolation, rather than its overcoming and repudiation. Whether these associations have but a few members or grow into the hundreds of thousands, they are always a sum of numbers, not an alliance of specific, living people. Isolated individuals congregate together to form crowds. For Kierkegaard, people reduced to single numbers and people forming a mass or a crowd are two sides of the same coin. Can the tragic make an appearance at such a time? Or, to put in another way: Does Antigone exist in modern times and if so, in what way does she differ from the classical Antigone? The Danish philosopher sketches a portrait of modern Antigone, about whom it is said “she is my property and I send this tragic hero into the world and give her—the daughter of suffering—pain as a dowry.” Ancient Antigone, says Kierkegaard, came from a marriage which Oedipus had sealed with his own mother after he had first killed his father. Up to that point modern Antigone corresponds to her ancient namesake, but hereafter a profound change takes place and the philosopher remarks: “I leave everything as it is, yet nonetheless I change everything.” Kierkegaard summarizes this fundamental change into several sentences: “Oedipus killed the Sphinx, liberated Thebes and lives honored and admired in a happy marriage with Jocasta. No one suspects the terror that lurks beneath. The only one who knows is Antigone.” Modern Antigone knows the terrible secret of her father and all her life plays out as a collision of two antagonistic and mutually exclusive mental processes: on the one hand a limitless admiration for her father, on the other the awareness of his terrible guilt. Antigone is unable to bear the burden of this internal conflict and she can only find peace and reconciliation in death.

Kierkegaard’s Antigone differs from the Antigone of Sophocles in several key respects. His Antigone does not act, she only suffers. Her spiritual life consists of unspeakable agony, multiplied by the fact that she bears it as a secret and is not willing to share it with anyone. She suffers and through her suffering torments those around her, for she refuses to confide in anyone or look to those closest to her for advice or consolation. The collision is only taking place within her and Kierkegaard notes: “Her life does not transpire like that of the Greek Antigone; the direction of its development is inward, not outward, the scene occurs inside, not outside.” Because the conflict is taking place inside, rather than in public, the figure of Creon also becomes superfluous; in Kierkegaard’s mise-en-scène he is a pointless character. And so a political drama—i.e., events that concern the Community (polis)—becomes a drama of subjectivity that is closed in on itself. The conflict is not public, but takes place in the inner being and the most secret privacy: “Her most natural life takes place in hiding.” And modern Antigone leaves the world not because she is ordered to do so by the ruler, rather she is driven to death by her own suffering. She torments herself to death, she wilts like a withering flower.

If we look at Kierkegaard’s Antigone in her entirety, we realize that she is not a tragic character, but an unhappy one. The collisions which afflict her, just as death, are not tragic in nature and do not overcome the miseries of modern circumstances, which the philosopher described so brilliantly as the fall of people into isolation and the hegemony of the anonymous masses. This Antigone is a product and victim of these inverted circumstances and nothing in her life or death leads to overcoming them. The modern Antigone is not a tragic being, only an unhappy one, tormenting herself to death in a romantic-subjective immersion in personal grief, without having the power, in life or death, to bridge the isolation of people and become the seed of human solidarity (the modern polis).


As is well known, Hegel considered Sophocles’ Antigone to be the most perfect work of all time. And he too poses the question, as Kierkegaard did after him and in dependency on his polemic, whether the tragic is possible in modern times, contemplating its nature. In a dark and somewhat incomprehensible text from 1802 (“Über die wissenschaftlichen Behandlungsarten des Naturrechts”), Hegel describes the modern period as a dispute and struggle between two characters, figures or persons, who represent both the elements of what it means to be human and are an expression of human duality (“die gedoppelte Natur des Menschen”). Hegel characterizes one of these figures as inorganic and subterranean power (“die unorganische, unterirdische Macht”), the second person represents the light of reason and spirit. In this conflict, the two powers repudiate and mutually exclude each other, but at the same time they are bound to each other, each needing and demanding the other. Other, more intelligible names for the sides in conflict are the human being as producer and consumer—the bourgeois—and the human being as a political being— the citoyen. This duality of humanity, being both bourgeois and citoyen, is the source of the events of modern times which Hegel calls “Tragödie im Sittlichen.” Is this conflict really being played out as a tragedy? Hegel himself in several places in this text and elsewhere permits the possibility that this inorganic subterranean power, the tangle of economic relations forming the system of necessities (“das System der Bedürfnisse”), will break down all social relations, become independent of them and as the stronger power will make a stand against the spirit and the light, so that the mutual relations within this dual nature of the human being will not be enacted as a struggle or conflict between two equally strong powers, since one of the two powers, the nonspiritual one, will devour and subjugate the other, the spiritual power, and the human being as producer and consumer—the bourgeois—will gain absolute supremacy over the human being as political being. Thus there will come a turn of events in the conflict of bourgeois-citoyen, which is a possible source of modern tragedy, and the expected tragedy will take place as historical irony in which nonspiritual powers will devour the powers of the spirit and will degrade them to the level of their servants. One thing is noteworthy about both Hegel’s and Kierkegaard’s contemplations on the tragic nature of modern times, which connects both thinkers, who are otherwise so different. In both their cases the meaning of the tragic is altered, losing its accuracy and becoming identified with something that is not tragic. Kierkegaard’s Antigone is a wretched person but the philosopher calls her a tragic being and identifies the tragic with disaster and desperate suffering. Hegel describes the events of modern times as a conflict of subterranean, unpredictable powers with the powers of the spirit and calls these actions “Tragödie im Sittlichen,” even though in reality this narrative is not being played out as a tragic conflict but as an ironic transformation and substitution. Both thinkers thus begin the ill-fated process of the transformation of the meaning of the tragic, a process which culminated in the 20th century, when thoughtless public opinion calls any accident and random incident tragic. From the viewpoint of our times, any road accident, any natural disaster is a tragedy and the tragedy is the greater and more harrowing the more human lives it claims, so that it seems as if its essence was merely a number, an amount, a quantity.

This shift in the meaning of the tragic with regard to public opinion is not a trivial and marginal matter, but rather a telling phenomenon that says and reveals something about itself. The 20th century, which at the start I called the century of Greta Samsa, treats the tragic in an adverse manner and replaces it with something else, something that in reality is but a mere substitute—i.e., a false imitation, a simulacrum of the tragic. Because all manner of accidents and incidental calamities are accompanied by the modifier “tragic,” it may seem to people in a non-tragic epoch that they are surrounded by the tragic and encounter it with every step, even though in reality they are merely wading through accidents which have been reduced to technical, repairable malfunctions, and the lives of people have been purged of fatefulness and reduced to contingency.


I would like to examine more carefully at least two circumstances which hamper, or even exclude, the possibility of the tragic in our time. We live in a post-heroic period. Such an assertion does not mean that heroic acts have not taken place during the 20th century. This sentence merely states that anything noble, great, courageous, heroic that is done, or poetic and beautiful that is created, is immediately exposed to the threat that it will be brought down to the level of the narrow-minded, the prosaic, the petty, the banal, and in this flow of indifference and Gleichschaltung it loses its individuality. A powerful force of the 20th century which influences public opinion and through it spreads and permeates everything is sycophancy. The sycophant does not know and, more importantly, does not recognize a hero. The peculiarity of the sycophantic view of the world is that it transforms everything to its own level which is soullessness, and looks at everything from its own perspective and its own standpoint which is determined by a clandestine, concealed or open hate, suspicion and underhandedness. Unlike the time of Goethe and Hegel, when sycophants had their masters “figured out,” and because they knew them “close up” could not see any of them as heroes, today the sycophant’s stance has become master and ruler, dictating to the public and determining its morality and taste. The lurking and prying view of the world, concentrated in the gutter press, knows everything about everyone and can thus blackmail everyone with testimony and compromising material, whether real or fabricated.

The other, even more important, obstacle which stands in the way of the possibility of the tragic in modern times is the trivialization and domestication of death. Death has lost its liberating ghastliness and has been brought down to the level of an ordinary part of quotidian life. The death of another person, the death of someone close is no longer a shock which upsets, death has become hackneyed and has descended to ground level—i.e., into the familiarity and meaninglessness of things, artifacts, information, fleeting sensations produced as on a conveyer belt, passing through reality and disappearing without a trace. Gilgamesh is rightly described as the first tragic hero to appear in history. Gilgamesh is shaken up by the death of a friend, he is unable to recover from this shock; and this distress diverts him to a different pathway and is the beginning of a new, different movement—the search for immortality. Gilgamesh as a tragic figure unifies in his actions the transience of earthly life with the search for immortality. The essence of the tragic, as personified by Gilgamesh, is the contradictory nature of time, the dispute between the temporary and the permanent.

In our time, the external expression of impiety with respect to death consists of those funereal rites that have a public character and are broadcast on television. During these rites, the manifestation of homage to the departed recedes into the background and the most prominent position is taken up by the vanity and ambition of the living who consider taking part in the funeral to be a welcome opportunity to show and present themselves to the public.


The central figure in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (the “Metamorphosis”) written in 1911 is not Gregor Samsa, who metamorphoses overnight into an enormous insect-like creature (“ein ungeheueres Ungeziefer”), but his sister Greta. She actively intervenes in the storyline and her actions bring about its real turning points and twists—i.e., transformations. The grotesque metamorphosis occurs at the moment when Greta Samsa stops treating her brother as a human being, ridding herself of doubt and indecision over whether he is a human being or an animal, and his presence becomes unbearable to her. At this moment Greta abandons her brother and renounces him as a human being: it is no longer her brother lying in the adjoining room, but some king of freakish monster (“ein Untier”). It is only logical that Greta Samsa, a modern anti-Antigone, does not bury her brother herself, but leaves it up to the charwoman to make sure his remains are cleaned up (“wegschaffen”) and disappear from the face of the earth. A person did not pass away, rather an animal died, perished, croaked. The servant woman says of the dead Gregor Samsa: “ … es ist krepiert, da liegt es, ganz und gar krepiert!” When relations between people become so depersonalized that they consider each other to be pestilent insects, it would be grotesque to bury the remains of the people-non-people, these human insects, because it corresponds to their state—i.e., their grotesque transformation, that a funeral cannot be arranged for them—but they will be cleared away with banal utensils, a broom, a shovel and a rag, and disposed of prosaically. “Es” and “krepieren”—these are the appropriate expressions for dealing with grotesque metamorphosis.

But because people, even in their inhuman form, are endowed with consciousness and language, they must justify their actions in some manner—to themselves and to others. And Greta Samsa, the anti-Antigone of modern times, deliberates out loud as follows: Gregor Samsa is no longer her brother, nor a human being. If he was her brother and a human being he would show consideration for the family, would not disturb its peace and quiet, and would voluntarily clear himself away from the house.

For the family, including Greta Samsa, wishes to have peace and quiet (“seine Ruhe haben”) and everything that disturbs this peace is disgusting, repellent, must get out of the way, must be cleared away. And absolutely nothing may be allowed to unsettle this peace, not even death: death has lost its shocking power, it is powerless against the established routine, the ordinary peace which people come to rely on. Greta Samsa personifies this unshakable “peace and quiet” of modern times which cannot be upset by anything and therefore strides toward its goal—over dead bodies. The young body of Greta Samsa, her exuberant, pugnacious, and prolific youth, shakes off everything that could threaten its irrepressible growth, including her brother’s death, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing that could spoil this growth and proliferation. Not shocked by anything, unshakable by any death, the bereaved relatives of Gregor Samsa stride onward, even after the death of a brother and son they are entirely preoccupied with “prospects for the future” (“Aussichten für die Zukunft”) which are, as has now become apparent after the death of son and brother, “highly advantageous and most promising, especially in the longer term” (“überaus günstig und besonders für später vielversprechend”).

Greta Samsa, not upset by anything, not even her brother’s death, strides toward her future which is a reproduction of the past, and thus her next life will thus only be a repetition of sterility, narrow-mindedness, past routine, and she will put all her youthful energy into this sterile repetition.

That is why Kafka’s “metamorphosis” is ironic and grotesque on many levels and has many meanings. People have already been so transformed and imprisoned in banality, everyday routine, narrow-mindedness, the pettiness which they consider to be “normality” and ordinariness, that they do not have the power, the willingness or the will to liberate themselves from these degrading circumstances and thus to really and truly transform themselves. Gregor Samsa metamorphoses into an insect overnight, but this external and naturalistic transformation only emphasizes that internally and spiritually he remains within the banality and constriction of his life thus far. He has only changed form, but his self has not metamorphosed. Death is degraded and not even it has the power any longer to wrest people from this banality and narrow-mindedness.

But is the power of banality on the march, striding even over dead bodies, as personified by the figure of Greta Samsa who is the anti-Antigone of modern times, really so omnipotent that it can exclude all possibility of the tragic and in its victorious crusade through the world will sweep every possible Antigone aside?

I had to bring the situation to a head in this way to be able to make the initial question about the possibility, or impossibility, of the tragic in our times more precise and reformulate it into another question: Who if anyone can revolt against the real or imaginary omnipotence of Greta Samsa, who will defy her, the modern Antigone?


It is not hard to guess where I am heading with this. I believe it is time to liberate Milena Jesenská, so that she no longer has to cower in the shadow of Kafka’s work as a passing figure in his biography. Jesenská’s literary work cannot be measured alongside the poetic opus of Kafka. But Jesenská’s fate—in terms of its greatness and importance—does measure up to Kafka’s work. Fate and output do “co-respond”—i.e., they are engaged in a polemic and dispute, and in this argument the voice of modern times is born, one that does not agree with Greta Samsa and puts her omnipotence into question. This correspondence of fate and literary output, the output being represented by a Prague Jew writing in German, and fate being personified by a Czech woman, is also the last, concluding and final word of that community of Czechs, Germans, and Jews who converged in Prague as the “Center of Europe,” which has been irretrievably lost.

Our time, says Franz Kafka with his work, precludes the tragic; it is a time fundamentally opposed and hostile to the tragic. This period can be saved—i.e., lifted out of the banality of evil through tragic sacrifice, replies Milena Jesenská to Kafka’s skepticism, not with words, but through her attitude and her fate.

What is the essence of Milena Jesenská’s fate, which is both commensurable with Kafka’s work and in dispute with it? Her fate was to die in a German concentration camp. This finding is correct, but does not do justice to the whole truth. The fate of Milena Jesenská meant she found her death in a German concentration camp, but she would have met the same end in any other concentration camp at that time. Milena Jesenská’s fate is important because in a desperate historical situation, the short time period between autumn 1938 and autumn 1939, she simultaneously stood up against all three forms of evil which had a determining influence on that period: the evil of German Nazism, the evil of Russian Bolshevism, and the evil of European conduct of the kind epitomized by the Munich Agreement.

Perhaps there is accord between the Antigone of Sophocles and the modern Antigone in that both of them stand out from the silent and frightened crowd, step out of line and, standing alone, become exceptional figures. They stand out from the crowd in order to speak out and take action against what they consider to be an evil order. The modern Antigone has “one extra eye” (“ein Auge zuveil”). The modern Antigone has an extra eye because the others and everyone else have one eye, or both eyes, half-closed in order not to see existing evil, unwilling to see evil in all its forms. They only see evil in one form, but narrow their eyes so they do not see the second or third form of evil. Whoever has an extra eye not only looks into what is happening around them, not only discovers and identifies evil in all its forms, but also sees—and this is tragic clairvoyance—what they must themselves do, what action they must take: to resist all forms of evil. But being outnumbered, they must necessarily succumb.

I would like to avoid one misunderstanding. I am not trying to assert that Milena Jesenská is the Antigone of modern times. I am saying something else: whoever examines the possibility or impossibility of the existence of the tragic in modern times cannot overlook the fate of Milena Jesenská. There is something peculiar about her fate. And that is why I would like to make my initial question about the possibility or impossibility of the existence of the tragic in modern times even more precise and reformulate it one more time as follows: What obstacles does the potential modern Antigone come up against that prevent her from becoming a real Antigone?

Sophocles’ tragedy is usually and erroneously interpreted as a conflict between two equally justified necessities: the collision of state authority, which is obligated to punish traitors, with the piety of the family, whose duty it is to bury its dead members and not leave them at the mercy of predatory animals. But the deeper basis of this conflict is a collision between written, temporary human laws and the unwritten, eternal laws of the gods; thus the conflict is being enacted as the inevitable dispute between two individuals: Creon and Antigone.

The difficulty standing in the way of the potential modern Antigone becoming the real Antigone lies in that her adversary is “individualitätslos.” The modern Creon is not an individual personality, but a person without individuality, although the modern Creon is an omnipresent and commanding power, it is at the same time anonymous. That is why the potential Antigone of modern times can never clash with Creon face to face, their conversation and conflict can never take place eye to eye. This merely human element, which fails to acknowledge and suppresses the “divine,” this temporariness and transience of human commands and orders, is anonymous and faceless; it is not the uniqueness of the individual, but the anonymity of a powerful and commanding system.


At the start of my lecture I posed the question whether the tragic is possible in our time, but I skipped and concealed the most important query: What is the tragic? That is why I am going to make my question more precise yet again and will reformulate it: What is the tragic and what does the possibility or impossibility of the tragic mean for modern times?

Aristotle was the first person to investigate the nature of tragedy in his Poetics. In order for the philosopher to have been able to write a treatise on the nature of tragedy, there must already have existed the works of poets which were at the time presented in public in the form of theater. Tragedy as a work of poetry is older and more authentic than scientific contemplation of tragedy. But this distinction between philosophy and poetry does not yet say the whole truth about the nature of tragedy. Older and more authentic than scientific contemplation, but also older and more authentic than poetry known as tragedy, is the work of the citizens of Athens and this collective work is known as the polis. “We, the Athenian citizens,” says Plato, “are ourselves the creators of the most beautiful and warmest tragedy” (“tragódiás autoi poietai”). Plato, using the ambiguity of the words mimesis and poiésis, argues as follows: While poets and writers of tragedies imitate reality, we, the citizens, are this reality in the form of the polis. We are not (merely) poets, we are the real authors, we are the creators of the most truthful tragedy (“tragódiá aléthéstaté”). This tragedy is played out as a dispute (“polemos”), as a feud between the human and the divine, between the temporary and the permanent, between the banal and the noble, and the polis is established, persists, and renews itself in this dispute. If the merely human were to force out the divine in this dispute, which is the most truthful of tragedies, the banal were to devour the noble and the temporary were to defeat the permanent, the Community, the polis, would disintegrate and die out, and with it the most truthful of tragedies. The tragedy created by the citizens of Athens is the means by which the Community (polis) is established, renewed, and maintained. The most natural place and cradle of tragedy is politics, rather than poetics as the area where individuals of genius create their works.

When Hegel and Kierkegaard in the 19th century, and Georg Lukács (Die Seele und die Formen, Berlin 1911) and Paul Ernst (Der Weg zur Form, Berlin 1906) at the start of our century, investigated the difference between ancient and modern tragedy, asking the question whether a modern Antigone is possible, it was not out of concern for whether a new Sophocles and a new Shakespeare would appear. Their question was part of the critical thought which welcomed in the modern epoch, but at the same time found contradictions and biases within it, discovering an unstoppable tendency to go beyond all boundaries within its very foundations; critical thought thus voiced the concern that in place of the tragic, the grotesque and caricature might become the adequate articulation of this epoch, in which the tendency toward the immeasurable and immoderate, toward overstepping the limits and disregarding them, is expressed and becomes apparent. That is why the question of whether the possibility of tragedy, or rather the tragic, exists in modern times is identical with the question of whether the modern era has the power to unite which would enable it, given its prerequisites and its circumstances, to be able to create the solidarity that the Greeks called polis, and also koinonia, the community of humans and gods—the earth and the heavens (see Plato, “Gorgias,” 508a)—i.e., the modern equivalent, not an imitation of the ancient polis.


Karel Kosík, “Demokracie a mýtus o jeskyni,” Století Markéty Samsové, Český spisovatel, Prague 1993, p. 11–21.