Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



A significant element in epics, history, and polemics, predictions of future events expressed in such genres as APOCALYPSE and VISIONARY LITERATURE exemplify the value to rulers of those who can foretell the future. Literary accounts of prophecies go back to the Chinese I CHING (1144 B.c.), the Carthaginian apologist TERTULLIAN’S Apologeticus (The Apology, ca. A.D. 198), and the Yiddish folklore of ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER. The stereotype of the seer as a source of hope and promise emerges often in the literature of empire, including the Hebrew CREATION LORE in GENESIS (ca. 500 B.c.), Malian heroics in Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (ca. 1255), the Qing dynasty in Cao Xueqin’s novel DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1791), the anonymous Hawaiian romance Laieikawai (1863), and King David Kalakaua’s The Legends and Myths of Hawaii (1888), a collection of folklore from prehistoric Oceania. A poignant model, the Aubin Codex, written in 1576 and published in 1867, contains the forecasts of the Dominican monk and translator Diego Duran that Spanish con- quistadores will overwhelm the Aztec empire in unparalleled carnage. A similar volume, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (1617), by GARCILASO DE LA VEGA describes a harbinger of the downfall of Cuzco, Peru, at the hands of Spanish adventurers.

The scriptural book of 1 Samuel (ca. 920 B.c.) places the priest Eli in an intimate scene at the temple of Shiloh (north of present-day Beit-El, Israel). Oblivious to Eli’s presence, Hannah, in “bitterness of soul” (1 Samuel 1:10), prays directly to the Almighty for an end to her barren state. The priest Eli implies a positive answer to her plea with a simple benediction, “Go in peace” (1 Samuel 1:17). After his foretelling comes true with the birth of a son, Hannah acknowledges the future Israelite leader by naming him Samuel, meaning “God has heard.” Prefiguring the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Virgin Mary’s New Testament canticle honoring her cousin Elizabeth’s begetting of John the Baptist, Hannah’s song blends the elements of the Te Deum with an affirmation that God is capable of remedying the misfortune of individuals. Of the fall of empires, she sings, “The bows of the mighty men are broken and they that stumbled are girded with strength” (1 Samuel 2:4). The episode elevates Samuel to a supreme rabbinical role in Israel involving the anointing of the empire’s first kings, Saul and David, who established his capital at Jerusalem.

Prophecy and the Holocaust

Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, literary prophecy, such as the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s “Petrogard, 1919,” corroborated citizens’ apprehensions about global instability. A contemporary of the Czech PROTEST poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the author Franz Kafka (1883-1924), born in Czechoslovakia and writing in German, sensed the future reintegration that awaited Europe as it shook off outworn empires and entered the modern age. He turned to existentialism and surrealism to describe the individual’s entanglement in central European politics. A citizen of Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka worked at an Italian insurance agency while writing tortured fiction about bureaucracy and the decline of citizens' rights under the Emperor Franz Joseph. For material, in 1915, Kafka drew on the scarcity of commodities under the Hapsburgs and the dominance of the black market during a winter famine. Looming in the background, the Russian occupation force, like vultures, patrolled Bohemia's borders.

In 1917, Kafka viewed the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires through a dual perspective, that of an alienated Jew and a tuberculosis patient awaiting death. His loathing of dehumanization overwhelms the narrative of Der Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis, 1915), in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, a low-level clerk, changes overnight into a giant insect, a symbol of helplessness and lost humanity. A more chilling view of incarceration and the grotesque, the short story In der Strafkolonie (“In the Penal Colony, 1919”), introduces a device that inscribes the court's judgment on the defendant's body. The mechanization of judgment foresees control of humanity by malignant technology, a theme dominating the works of science-fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury a half century later.

Two of Kafka's protagonists, K. in The Trial (1925) and Josef K. in The Castle (1926), portray the victimization of ordinary people by heartless, largely invisible governmental powers. An artist's summation in The Trial, which opens with impersonal passive verbs, implies the Byzantine maze of bureaucracy: “The rules for painting the various levels of officials are so numerous, so varied, and above all so secret, that they simply aren't known beyond certain families” (Kafka 1999, 151). In The Castle, the narrative describes an atmosphere of suspicion, paranoia, and retribution where simple questions risk “inadvertently breaking some unknown rules” (Kafka 1998, 182). Kafka's method of incorporating eerie, unforeseen twists of fate added the term Kafkaesque to the English language, meaning “nightmarishly illogical,” a fair summation of the coming GENOCIDE of the Holocaust. His warning to his readers of totalitarianism proved prescient, prophesying the rise of Adolf Hitler's SS in the 1930s and the Nazi regime in the early 1940s, when the lethal gas Zyklon B provided the “final solution” to unwanted citizens and gas ovens disposed of remains. Kafka's own three sisters languished in the Lodz ghetto and died in death camps.

In their illogical dreamscapes and scenarios of impersonal torment to the individual, Kafka's writings mirrored the shift in literary forebodings toward the surreal evil of the future. An admirer of Kafka, Anna Akhmatova, echoed the persecution of citizens in her play Prologue: A Dream within a Dream (1923). In her struggle to survive the purges, insane asylums, and gulags of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, she acknowledged Kafka's authenticity as a prophet of modern history, and art. His works also influenced the Holocaust writings of ELIE WIESEL and MERVYN PEAKE and the Australian FRONTIER LITERATURE of PETER CAREY.


Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Translated by Harmon. New York: Schocken, 1998.

----- . The Trial. Translated by Breon Mitchell. New York: Schocken, 1999.

Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986. Stach, Reiner. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Translated by

Shelley Frisch. New York: Harcourt, 2005.

Tsumara, David Toshio. The First Book of Samuel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007.