Kafka, Angelou, Derrida, Foucault and Plath: 

An Excursion into Alienation, Modernism and Post-Modernism

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

Transnational Research Associates


1. A Tentative Working Definition of ALIENATION in the Modernist and Post-Modernist Sense:

There are a number of approaches which can be taken to define, adequately and appropriately, the notion of "alienation" within the context of an equally wide variety of disciplines and literary genres. In the field of psychology, psychiatrists speak of alienation as a blockage or dissociation of a patient's emotional framework. In philosophy, many writers feel that alienation is generated by a superficial or dehumanized social structure. Whereas in theology, Augustine referred to it in relation to man's imperfect state, identifying alienation as a causal factor in the committing of sinful actions. In counter-distinction to the field of pure psychology, Freud and other psychoanalysts felt that alienation was related to the dichotomy between one's conscious mind and the sub-surface unconscious thought process. Sociologists such as the Frenchman, Durkheim, stated that alienation resulted from a loss of traditional values and moral codes, in contrast to the existentialists who, for their part, noted that alienation was inevitable because it was an intrinsic element of the human condition.

For purposes of our analysis, however, all of the foregoing elements are incorporated in a definition of 'alienation' used in the novels and selections we have assimilated in this course. To this preliminary definition will be added, of course, some intensely dramatic and powerful factors generally acknowledged to be extant in contemporary American society. These new elements essentially bear on the alienation created by racism, in the case of Maya Angelou's best-selling novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and by societal disaffection and detachment as in the case of Kafka's masterwork, The Metamorphosis, with implications, of course, for his other works, notably The Trial.

Eight Concise Sub-Sections Highlighting the Theme of Alienation in

The Metamorphosis and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

2a. Very much an integral part of the school of literary critique and thought known as Modernism is the concept of alienation. The sense of estrangement which permeates Kafka's The Metamorphosis, for example, is readily apparent from the beginning to the end of this novel. Not only is Gregor, who passes perhaps as the protagonist, alienated, indeed monstrously transformed, but his entire family and the boarders in his home exhibit traits of dissociation and protest, in the modernist vein. A noteworthy scene during which metamorphosed Gregor's mother cleaned his room, resulting in an overblown family argument, is ample evidence of the chaos and growing disgust which characterized the severe dislocation of this household. The father was so alienated, disoriented and disturbed that, trying to exercise his authority, he seemed completely powerless:

Here, Kafka reveals clear-cut trademarks of modernism since the stress he places on fragmentation and violence lead to an overall aura of alienation and irrational distortion.

2b. It is curious in The Metamorphosis to observe the evolution of the sister's irrational and highly emotional thought process. She somehow becomes inwardly convinced that the 'beetle' is no longer her brother, in fact, can no longer be her brother. This abrupt realization within her, indicative on a sub-surface level of overall alienation from her monstrous sibling, but also from her society as a whole, is reflected to a lesser degree in the actions and pronouncements of others in the novel; however, the sister seems the driving force behind the shift in their attitudes. Her seemingly inexplicable transformation is reinforced when she:

Psychodynamically, the sister is drawing the last ounces of maternal affection for Gregor from the mother and hastening toward the father for protection from the horrid creature who, in her opinion, should die. This action -- demonstrated again and again by Kafka in different scenes -- is primarily indicative of the modernist's abandonment of moral values, in the face of not only alienation, but external threat of post-modernist anti-rationalism and self-assertion.

2c. Kafka, along with Nietzsche, has launched in The Metamorphosis an attack on Christian Morality as it has been conventionally defined for two thousand years. By justifying in the reader's mind the virtual murder of Gregor, who had become something of a pariah, Kafka is removing all vestiges of Christian behavior and standard ethical conduct from his novel. Although Gregor dies as a result of a festering infection, his death was inflicted upon him by ostracism and rejection, both social and family-based. Unit One of our CD-Rom, page 3, refers explicitly to the notion of "ethical relativism" which is considered a hallmark of modernism. Kafka, along with other modernists, displays this feature quite visibly in his often 'morally offensive' writings, viewed from a traditional or conservative literary perspective.

2d. There are indications early in The Metamorphosis that Gregor's career plans and conventional competitive orientation may have triggered his conversion into a literal and figurative verminous beast. Kafka's modernist disaffection with technology, industrial growth and contemporary trends lay at the basis of his novel's underlying thesis. While he was obviously convinced that art was serious business and seems to harbor faith in human intelligence in other novels, if not this one, he felt that a sense of estrangement had descended on human existence. Many examples could be mustered from The Metamorphosis to demonstrate that Kafka was -- perhaps without knowing it -- moving toward the post-modernist theme of destruction of urban society and organized social patterns. These impressions are further elucidated in our CD-ROM, Unit 1, pages 4 and 5.

2e. Maya Angelou's I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings abounds with indications of alienation and disaffection. Her entire body of literary creation is predicated on the emotions generated by early childhood sexual abuse, racist discrimination, and the knowledge of her people's origins. Her 'self-expression' is another feature of this autobiographical account, told in Black American Dialectal English (falling short perhaps of Ebonics), which, in itself, tears down Anglo structures and conventions, almost in the sense of Derrida's and Foucault's deconstructionist model. Similar non-conforming linguistic trends exist, incidentally, in Khatibi and Khair-Eddine, two Moroccan writers, whose works are published in unconventional Arabic-flavored French. We note, however, in Maya, lingering tendencies to retain vestiges of Christian morality, even though she is plainly toying with the idea of abandoning these ethical constraints.

In this passage, Maya is struggling with a lie she had told in Court, a lie that would put her rapist in prison. Was she justified in doing so? The Judge had asked a question that could have reflected on her own credibility, honor and virginity. She 'had to lie' to convict her attacker in the eyes of the Court. It was either her victory or his.

This type of dilemma is handled well by Maya who convinces her reader, in the shifting perhaps immoral tones of modernism, that she had to defend herself at the expense of another. Her style reflects the microcosmic introspection of modernism which we also see in D.H. Lawrence (Sons and Lovers, particularly) or even in Virginia Woolf.

2f. In Chapter 33 of her novel, Maya turns her attention to one of the post-Stamps eras of her life. The family had moved to San Francisco and in a stirring narrative scene, which bears some of the characteristics of both modernism and post-modernism, she tells of her brother Bailey's being forced into the streets at age sixteen. Her alienation and disenchantment are complete in this sequence. In fact, she is almost dispassionately removed from all feeling and emotion, because she has been desensitized to the suffering of her people for her entire life. Indeed, she exhibits a sense of resigned detachment, so horrible had her life been before Bailey's premature and tragic 'eviction' in San Francisco. Bailey had begun to frequent the 'fast crowd' and, after a superficial argument with his materialistically inclined mother, he moved out as a mere boy. Maya recounts with a bit of wistful despair (typical of Joycian modernism, as well) this scene, which also reflects a little modernist 'anti-materialistic' philosophy, reminiscent of Neo-Marxism to some extent:

Here we are allowed into the minds of the narrator, Bailey and the Mother, in an almost non-narrative, synchronic style, typical of modernism. The potentially destructive intensity of this scene, and many others, in Maya's novel which rely on an underlying acceptance of the essential rottenness of American life, could be construed as verging on the post-modernist tendency toward deconstruction and dismantling of conventional literary and social patterns.

2g. Maya Angelou's writing career has spanned several decades, now, since the turbulent 1960s. She has lived in Africa, taught, and served as distinguished poet and speaker at major functions in this country. Her "Poem from the Million Man March", quoted on our CD-ROM, Unit 2, page 31, features a refrain that reflects her alienation, suffering and revolt. Not only does she speak for herself, but for her people. This social statement, shattering and painful, was spoken publicly at the time of 'the million man march' in Washington, D.C.

Maya goes on to recount the capture of her people by slave-traders and alludes to the shame they bore for two centuries.

In his essay, originally a verbal presentation, on Marxism and Postmodernism, not included in our course materials, Max Farrar of Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K., brilliantly analyzes the relationship of racism, alienation and post-modernism (Farrar, 1998). He echoes many of the thoughts and feelings of Maya in her above-cited poem, notably calling to mind the need to unify all now-opposed elements within Cultural Studies and Sociology to prevent on-going racist exploitation in either the Marxist (socio-economic) sense or in the urban capitalist setting of contemporary Western society. He feels, like Maya in her novel and in her poems, that such suffering and exploitation can be minimized if anti-racist sociology is promoted through close examination of post-modernist thinking and "restoring" of human beings as the focal point of Cultural Studies (Farrar, 1998).

2h. At President Clinton's Inauguration, Maya (following several decades later on the heels of Robert Frost whose readings at JFK's Inauguration she admired) presented her poem "The Rock Cries Out to Us Today." The following excerpt strikes the reader as indicative of a distinct sense of exploitation and alienation, but contains a modicum of hope:

Clearly, Maya's writing is heavily marked by the protest and revolt, almost Camusian, which typify her genre and her literary school of artistry. Her personal experiences, stained by the hatred of racist southerners in rural Arkansas, propelled her toward many of the tendencies of Kafka, but also of Lawrence, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac -- all of whom protested and rebelled to varying degrees; but who held out the glimmer of hope and solidity represented by "the tree planted by the river, which will not be moved."


Post-Modernist Alienation: Both an Intensified Extension

of Modernist Estrangement and an Affirmation of New Truths

It is generally recognized that the Modernist School of Thought, characterized heavily by alienation of all who participated in it, as well as those who were affected by it, terminated just as World War II began. The concentration of mental energy and supreme effort which the Allied Powers exerted against the Fascist Axis during the war years seemed to drain the creative resources of several major nations' literary pools. A discernable hiatus in creativity ensued. Authors such as André Gide of France went into exile in Tunisia, for example, and others fought and perished valiantly in various theaters of military activity. The once fashionable influence of Yeats, Pound, Woolf and Stein diminished as attention turned from general disaffection and alienation to issues of sheer survival.

Within this context of foment and transition, it is our purpose, therefore, to briefly demonstrate that, although there were two distinguishable camps of post-modernists, the disembodied alienation of the Modernist School gave way, on balance, to an even more intense sense of despair, hopelessness, disorder and destructiveness, taking, in effect, the form of an intense outgrowth of the previous era's foundation of alienation and disenchantment.

While skepticism was a distinct characteristic of Modernism, the direction of style and critique which evolved after World War II delved even deeper into the disturbed post-war psyches of twentieth century mankind. This new school of thought was identified, not so much as the pure philosophy of Existentialism which had roots in similar despair, but rather as a literary phenomenon, Postmodernism. This new school soon divided into two dichotomous camps: (1) the constructive or affirmative postmodernists, arguably typified by the less influential JeanFrancoise Lyotard who dwells on the less negative notion of the metanarrative, and, (2) in opposition, the postmodern deconstructionists, skeptical and totally alienated, such as Jacques Derrida at Yale. This contention is amply supported by Jason Griffith of Southern Illinois University, in a statement made in response to a recent Postmodernist Debate sponsored by Chico State University in California:

The important distinction between those who find some room for affirmation of past values in postmodern literary endeavor, and those who wish to tear down all past models and structures, in an intensified extension of modernist alienation, seems to lie at the heart of the full range of thinking among those who study postmodernism. It would seem fair to state, however, that both those who "affirm" and those who would "deconstruct" are still imbued with an intensity of emotion and purpose (striving for elusive truth) which reflect the tensions of both World Wars and the virtual breakdown of 19th and early 20th century systems.

There is ongoing dialogue among those who observe literary trends as to the true nature of postmodern thought. That it revolves around seeking a new truth, and around rejection of Modernist values of estrangement, in favor of more progressive and radical thinking is not open to debate. Jacques Derrida and his colleagues at Yale worked their way toward the bleak skepticism of wholesale rejection of past meaning, convention and order in literary works, with somewhat dire implications for society in general. Others, few in number, affirmed the existence of hope and, while seeking dramatic change, acknowledged that some values should be perpetuated for the sake of ensuring effective understanding and broadbased communication. It would appear that the latter were not in the majority.

One postmodern British poet , Sylvia Plath, often goes unheralded by critics. Although she was born in Massachusetts, she moved to London with her new husband, an aspiring poet himself, and settled into literary circles. Plath is the author of The Bell Jar and Ariel, among other works, and could be construed as a Postmodernist, founded in Modernism to some extent. Her verse focuses on feminist themes of rejection, alienation and on the futility of life.

Both her book, The Bell Jar, and her collection of poems, Ariel, belie a distinct sense of alienation, suffocation, of dissatisfaction and of protest. Her use of language arguably qualifies her as a postmodernist, in the Derridian strain, because it expresses, not only the need to restructure meaning, but also a rejection of convention and superficiality.

As if in support of her feelings of estrangement, perhaps influenced by her readings of the Modernists, Joyce, Lawrence or even her husband Hughes, Plath later committed suicide in London out of despair, internal suffering and perhaps almost existential disgust with societal norms and values. She follows in the tradition of Woolf (Bloomsbury Group) and Stein (Lost Generation) and could be cast into the 'alienated' school of postmodernism by virtue of the power of her protest and call for reform, in literature as in society.

Indeed, Postmodernism was an intrinsically more radical response to everdeteriorating conditions, on the moral, ethical and societal fronts, but was also an outgrowth of Modernist thinking.

Together, Modernism and Postmodernism expose the century-long quest of literati and cognoscenti, such as Lawrence, Eliot, Woolf, Derrida and Lyotard, to seek truths that were ignored or de-emphasized in previous centuries. To these authors, those we concentrated on in class could be added: Kafka and Maya Angelou, each classified as being on the cusp of Modernism and moving toward the intensified despair and alienation of the postmodernists in the Derridian school of thought. By adopting radical tactics, such as espoused by Foucault who felt, incidentally, that language actually controlled human behavior, they have succeeded in revealing truths, through the prism of alienation and disenchantment, that were not exposed by their predecessors.

The foregoing arguments and proofs constitute a firm foundation on which to build an assertion that Postmodernism was largely an intensified extension of Modernist alienation, but -- as Griffiths, in part, points out -- it contained an admixture of softer elements, overshadowed by the more destructive and almost pathological tendencies toward tearing down that which had been built by preceding generations, in the interest, of course, of revealing elusive truths.

Clearly, there are unifying factors, involving strong emotions such as alienation, in both the Modernist and Postmodernist schools, as well as a peculiar intensity of destructive potential in Postmodern writings, such as those of Derrida and arguably Angelou, which do not exist in the modernists' break with earlier convention.