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The Czech poet Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is a product of the perfect storm and a unique combination of personal traits, upbringing and time that made him a sensitive seismograph to the human condition. With his razor sharp pen and hyper-alert consciousness he captured man’s eternal search for himself in the midst of modernity’s breakthrough. While being a hopeless stranger to all and everyone – including himself.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 by the Jewish couple, Hermann and Julie Kafka. Typical of the time the family was not practising jews but the atmosphere in Prague was still charged with hatred of jews and the Jewish community had to walk a thin line between a Czech speaking population and a Christian, German minority that both exhibited strongly anti-semitic tendencies. Although Prague was the only home they knew, the Jewish people in Prague were, in fact, a people without a home and Kafka’s Jewish heritage is a central part of his personality and one of several reasons for his intense experience of alienation and feelings of being lost.
From his earliest childhood Kafka also competed with his father in an uneven battle for his mother’s attention. Kafka never forgave his mother that she chose the father over him but his longing for his mother was expressed in his lifelong battle with his father. This would lead to an endless string of humiliating defeats for Franz – with Julie Kafka as unwilling spectator and witness.
Often overlooked in Franz Kafka’s childhood is the fact that Franz at the age of four lost two smaller siblings aged two years and half a year. Like any other first born Kafka must have experienced feelings of deep resentment and jealousy towards his smaller brothers that stole of his mother’s limited and precious attention. He must have wished for the brothers to disappear, now and then, and have experienced feelings of deep guilt over his mean spirited wishes when the brothers disappeared and left his home in deep sorrow; a guilt that was much too heavy ever to be consciously recognized but had to live on in the unconscious.
The Young Years
Kafka’s education lived up to the traditions of the time; one-way teachings to be learned by heart. The curriculum was distilled by tyrannical or involuntarily comical teachers (with few exceptions) that prepared the students for a life as bureaucrats enabling them to master colossal amounts of completely meaningless work. The frightening experiences here only reinforced Kafka’s experiences from home where his father constantly lectured and belittled Kafka. To Kafka this way of life must have appeared almost like a law of nature and these omnipresent forces put him constantly on edge. To protect himself he developed his ability to “disappear” and hide behind the glass wall that everyone, that knew him, sooner or later ran into. They also led to a life of hypochondria, insomnia and a fragile health that eventually would cost him his life at the age of 40.
Thus, several central conditions during his upbringing would lock Kafka in a cocoon of guilt and anger in a world in which he could barely breathe. He did not dare, however, to let his emotions show. Instead, from early childhood he did everything he was told, obeyed his parents and teachers and behaved as a quiet and obedient child that went to school and the synagogue and never caused any reason for concern.
And while Kafka already from childhood had learned to see himself through the eyes of the physically imposing father, over time, Kafka started to see himself as a typical unworthy, slight figured, fragile and frightened West Jewish intellectual. He despised what he saw because – to his mind – his body resembled the anti-semitic cliché image – a burden he shared with many other young jews of his generation. This self-hatred was later explicated in his eerily frightening and prophetic words:
Sometimes I want, precisely because they are jews, to stuff all of them (including myself) into a drawer and close it, wait a little and then open it ever so slightly to see if they’ve all suffocated, and if not close the drawer again and keep on doing this until it is over.Franz Kafka in a letter to Milena Jesenská (1920)
The Adult Years
In 1906 Kafka finished his law degree ending a university career that had by no means been noteworthy. His degree gave access to a modest career in the public sector and from 1908 and until shortly before his death Kafka worked for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute. Life as an adult, however, only opened up a new arena and he now battled to survive in two worlds at the same time; as an insurance officer and as an underground hermit battling with the eternal and inexplicable riddle of existence.
Even though he was commended at his work and regularly promoted he soon learned that it would never be possible for him to reconcile the two. He now was independent, yes, but his new found freedom came with a bitter taste. He was an insurance officer that wanted to be a writer and his feelings of deep, personal failure meant that he often experienced long periods of deep depression. This frustration with himself was later put into words in a famous diary note:
What do I have in common with jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself …Diary note (January 8th 1914)
Even more, his new situation showed him something he had known all along: that the obstacles on his way had nothing to do with his outer life conditions.
To add to his misery Kafka despised physical intimacy. To him sex was the essence of everything sleazy: the opposite of love. Instead, and in line with the regrettable tradition of the time, he frequently visited brothels or picked up part-time prostitutes in sordid establishments. For sure, one thing Kafka could never conceive of was to bed the women he respected.
Here it is worth mentioning that although one may trace homosexual tendencies in Kafka’s relations one must not jump to conclusions. It was typical of the times that men had male friends and loved his friends, while one went to bed with the people one did not love. Moreover, there is nothing in Kafka’s later life, including his literature, that justifies any generel conclusions about a latent or obvious homosexual tendency.
In time, however, the question of marriage became more urgent as Franz’ siblings and friends got married and had children – something Kafka himself longed for. Although the terror of intimacy and a gradual eating away of his inner artistic self, chained to life as a wage slave, looked horrorful the alternative as a lifelong bachelor did not seem appealing either. Kafka expressed the desolation of this fate eloquently in his short essay The Misery of the Bachelor:
It appears rather sad to remain a bachelor, as an old man with only feeble hopes of maintaining his dignity to seek invitations from friends so as to not spend the night alone, to be sick and for weeks observe the empty room from the corner of the bed, always to bid one’s farewells by the door, never to push forward up the stairs together with one’s wife, only to have doors in one’s room that open into other people’s apartments, to carry one’s dinner home in one hand, admiring other people’s children and not always have to repeat: “I myself have none,” to develop in one’s manner and in one’s appearance from one’s recollection of one or two bachelors.
So it will be, only, that one will actually, in real life and later today, stand there oneself, with a body and a real head, that is, with a forehead as well, that one may bang one’s hand against.Franz Kafka, “The Misery of the Bachelor” from Kafka’s first published book “Meditation” (“Betrachtung”, 1912)
Hence, Kafka tried to wrestle with this challenge and his first and greatest victim was Felice Bauer (1887-1960) whom he periodically wooed and rejected in an intensive letter correspondence from 1912 to 1917. Even though they only met a handfull of times (she lived in Berlin) and nearly all their meetings went disastrously they were engaged three times during their five year long relationship.
The most tragical thing about the drama is that Kafka’s passion and his anxiety were equally deeply felt and he was tormented by their destructive, opposite forces. In connection with their engagement party he wrote:
Was chained like a criminal. Had they tied me up in a corner with real chains and placed police officers around me and just let me be it could not have been worse.
The engagement did not last long. A meeting a few months later in a hotel room in Berlin took form practically as a trial where Felice Bauer presented Kafka with the overwhelming evidence against him: all the reasons he had given – in writing to a mutual friend! – why he and Felice should not marry. It was a humiliating and traumatic experience for Kafka (and for Felice Bauer, one must assume; still, the two were engaged again two years later!) and he resigned to not say a word during the entire meeting since he felt he had nothing to offer in his defence. He later incorporated the experience in his novel The Trial that he began working on shortly after.
Kafkas relationship with his parents
Throughout his life Kafka lay in an open war with his father who would always belittle and punish him, whether it took the form of locking him out on the balcony as a little child or ridicule his relationships with women as an adult. Moreover, Hermann Kafka could not stand Franz’ lack of interest in the family business, his intellectual friends or his eccentric habits, such as, his habit of chewing his food exactly 12 times before swallowing.
The real life Hermann Kafka, however, was a far cry from the monster that roamed the son’s imagination. In fact, the father seldom did more than bark but Kafka had gotten so used to losing that he planned his battles with his father in such a way that he could practically only lose no matter what he or the father did.
Kafka dealt with the conflict between father and son in his early stories, The Judgment, The Stoker and Metamorphosis but with his combination of symbolism and strict realism he managed to expand the conflict far beyond the confinements of the family drama. If the father in The Judgment represents Hermann Kafka he also represents all the fathers of the world that cripple their sons and, in the final analysis, divine omnipotence. It is this richness in facets and the dubious nature of the story coupled with a strict realism that opens the reader’s eyes to the existential conditions of life in all their confusing complexity – while letting the story be open for a multitude of alternative interpretations.
Later on Kafka’s hatred towards his father would take very concrete form in his “Letter to my Father” from 1919 where Kafka tried to put the record straight. In a letter almost 100 pages long Kafka minutely went through all the incidents where his father had traumatised him. In many ways, his analysis is exemplary of judicial thoroughness but it is also flawed and Kafka completely overlooks that his father was also scared of Kafka that intellectually bested him far and away. Instead, Kafka only saw a very jewish, omnipotent and suspicious God in his father. Kafka wanted to make peace with both of them. He wanted to love the father he never had and to have faith in the God he never had faith in. The purpose of the letter was to prove that the impossible was .. impossible. And in this he succeeded, as Ernst Pawel writes in his biography on Kafka.
Before sending the letter to his father, however, Kafka showed it to his mother who advised Kafka against sending it to his father. Hence, Kafka never sent the letter but the question is whether the intended addressee did not in fact receive the letter. Although, Kafka was constantly in war with his father his mother was often an unwilling witness. From time to time she was terribly humiliated by Hermann Kafka’s reactions, for instance, when he casually suggested to escort Franz to a brothel if he had “those kind of problems.” Being the astute observer that he was, Kafka must have been aware of the impact on the mother his fights with the father had on her and it is very likely Kafka was content that his mother, at least, knew his true feelings.
Kafkas Development as a Writer
Nothing expresses Kafka’s view of himself as a writer clearer than his brief definition of writing as “a form of prayer.” He wrote that he was not a writer, but a man for whom writing was the only way to live and the only way to defy death in life. It was through language Kafka lived and when Kafka haunts us to this day it is because of his passion, his consideration of “writing” as the practising of a wholly calling:
Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward, but for what? Tonight it dawned upon me with childish clarity that it is payment for a devil’s service. This descent to darker powers, this liberation of spirits, bound by nature like problematic embraces and what else goes on down there, all that one no longer knows anything about when one writes stories in daylight. Perhaps there are other ways to write, I know only of this; to write at night, when my anxiety will not let me sleep, I know only this way.
As poet and writer Franz Kafka was in a league of his own. His audience was limited but he was highly respected among the intellectuals in Prague. First and foremost, with his language he made a clear break with the past. The ice cold prose he used right from the outset when he analysed his nightmares was like a scalpel he used on his own heart.
Over time, what initially had been a personal problem for Kafka transgressed into a more general conflict that extended far beyond the confinements of the family. As time progressed he saw that the loneliness and isolation he had experienced in his childhood and youth was merely a reflection of the endless isolation the “West jews” experienced as they navigated their way through enemy waters with no land in sight and without any hope or faith to cling to. Not even the language he wrote in – German – was his own (he began studying jiddisch in his late years).
This insight created the foundation for the Kafka we today know as one of the most visionary writers of the twentieth century. With calm resignation he accepted the alienation he considered to be an unavoidable fate for the West jews. But by describing this fate using ever more abstract vocabulary and symbolism combined with a razor sharp pen Kafka managed to turn the alienation of the West jew into a description of a more common alienation in the midst of modernity’s breakthrough.
Reading and Interpreting Kafka
Reading and interpreting Kafka is a rewarding and challenging feat because, on the one hand, they are written in a clear and straight forward language and, on the other hand, his texts are so charged with symbols one may interpret in most all directions; a person waking up as a giant insect; a land surveyor that can never get access to the castle that hired him; an accused person that can never learn what he is accused of.
When interpreting Kafka some readers will emphasize that Kafka captures “the modern”, the advancement of mass industrialization, bureaucracy and the experience of lostness and alienation that accompanies this development. This is the sociological interpretation. The psychoanalytical interpretation offers another perspective focusing on the father/son-relationship and the Oedipal project. Others still will read Kafka from a religious perspective and in his stories trace man’s eternal struggle with and search for a God whose laws we are seemingly governed by but that we may never know or acknowledge.
But even the wisest and most sensitive reading of Kafka is necessarily tied to the reader’s subjective perspective and can, at best, only tell us what point of view the reader has. Moreover, every new reading of Kafka opens up new avenues of understanding and often prompts two or three re-readings each with different objectives in mind. In this manner they function as riddles or labyrinths with ever more mirrors, corridors and doors to open.
So, with those cautionary words let’s see what the writings of Kafka can offer from an existential perspective.
Kafka from an Existential Perspective
Kafka has long since been very highly regarded among existential writers. Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, wrote of the impression The Castle had on the French intellectuals:
Our admiration for Kafka was imminent and radical, even if we did not know exactly how his writings affected us personally… … Kafka spoke to us about ourselves. He showed us our own problems in a world without God but where our salvation, nonetheless, was at stake. No Father embodied The Law for us, but The Law was still marked insolubly in us. No universal intelligence could interpret it. It was so unique, so secret, that we would never be able to interpret it, and at the same time, we knew, that we were lost if we did not obey it.Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Throughout his life Franz Kafka fought an intense, internal battle; the burden of freedom laid heavily on his shoulders and he was never able to come to terms with his fate, be it, with regards to his professional life or his personal life. Professionally he remained in a job he loathed from the outset and as for his private life his relationship with Felice Bauer is exemplary of his shortcomings. This embarrassing relationship lasted five years from 1912-1917 and was then only terminated because Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Actually, this was a disease that could be completely cured but Kafka almost welcomed the diagnosis that gave him the impetus to make some important decisions. The price, however, was a more or less conscious or subconscious recognition that it would cost him his life.
This battle with freedom and the burden of responsibility can be traced throughout Kafka’s authorship but is especially poignant in The Trial. The story begins:
Someone must have maligned Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.Opening line of The Trial (posthumously released in 1925)
At first it appears that Joseph K. is confronted with an authoritarian and bureaucratic system, but as the reader gradually realises Joseph K. is confronted with an internal court residing in his private depths. And in this respect he is guilty; guilty in his unlived and lonely life.
Hoping to circumvent the court Joseph K. asks a priest if he can find a mode of living completely outside the jurisdiction of the court. The priest replies with the searing tale of a man and a doorkeeper. A man from the country begs admittance to the law. A doorkeeper in front of one of the innumerable doors greets him and announces that he may not be admitted at the moment. When the man attempts to peer through the entrance, the doorkeeper warns him: “Try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other and the sight of the third man is already more than even I can stand.”
The supplicant decides then that he had better wait until he gets permission to enter. He waits for days, for weeks, for years. He waits outside that door for his entire life. He ages; his vision dims; and as he lies dying, he poses one last question to the doorkeeper, a question he had never asked before: “Everyone strives to attain the law. How does it come about then, that in all these years no one has come seeked admittance but me?” The doorkeeper bellows in the mans’ ear (for his hearing, too, is fading): “No one but you could gain admission through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it.”
With this searing parable Kafka encapsulates the entire human drama, the never ending battle with our terrifying freedom. But why, one may ask, is freedom terrifying? Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom (b. 1931) says of freedom:
Ordinarily we think of freedom as an unequivocally positive concept. Throughout recorded history has not the human being yearned and striven for freedom? Yet freedom viewed from the perspective of ultimate ground is riveted to dread. In its existential sense “freedom” refers to the absence of external structure. Contrary to everyday experience, the human being does not enter (and leave) a well-structured universe that has an inherent design. Rather, the individual is entirely responsible for – that is, is the author of – his or her own world, life design, choices, and actions. “Freedom” in this sense has a terrifying implication: it means that beneath us there is no ground – nothing, a void, an abyss.Irvin Yalom in “Existential Psychotherapy” (1980)
Hence, from an existential perspective the universe is contingent; everything that is could have been created differently. Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1905-1980) view of freedom is far-reaching: the human being is not only free but is doomed to freedom.
Thus, a deep and honest confrontation with our personal freedom produces a dizzying sensation and it can be enormously tempting instead choosing to feel lost in a world where God (and “other big answers”) has abandoned us, but where the burden of personal responsibility feels less crushing. This is Joseph K.’s choice as he waits forever in front of the door of freedom and with a courageous despair tries to learn what exactly it is he is guilty of, who his judges are, and what the law says. Using rational argumentation he tries to defy the infallible logic of a verdict that cannot be rationally expressed or founded and so chooses in the end willingly to join his executioners as they lead him to a landslide where he accepts his death sentence ”like a dog.”
The Heritage after Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka died midday June 3rd 1924. In the small world where Kafka had spent almost his whole life people grieved over his death. 500 people came to the memorial but around the world, even among the Czech people, his death was barely noticed. As he had suspected and feared he was buried in Prague; “the little mother’s claws” kept him close to home right til the bitter end. His city honours his grave but forbade his books up until the Fall of the Wall.
For good reasons, as Ernst Pawel writes in his biography on Kafka, since:
The world Kafka had seen so clearly that he could not bear it, is our own world, our own universe after Auschwitz on the brink of extinction. He wrote the most influential books in modern German literature. They are so genuine, crystal clear and full of pain, that they come across as naturalistic, even when they rely heavily on symbolism. His authorship is subversive, not because he found the truth, but because as a human being he could not find it, yet, he could not accept half truths or any compromises whatsoever. In visions he wrestled out of his inner self and in a langue of the highest purity he expressed the anxiety that comes with being a human being.Ernst Pawel in “Franz Kafka – The Nightmare of Reason” (1984)
With those words ends this introduction to Franz Kafka. I warmly recommend the reader to delve right into Franz Kafka’s own books that are written in a straight forward language (I hope this is clear from the above!) even if they also incorporate fascinating imagery and often rely heavily on symbolism. His authorship consists of three unfinished novels of which The Trial and The Castle are his most well known works. Among his short stories The Metamorphosis is the most well known (a Google search for Metamorphosis + Kafka produces more than 32 million results) but In The Penal Colony is also an outstanding and horrific stort story.
If you want to learn more about Kafka I will strongly recommend reading all his works before embarking on some of the countless Kafka introductions. It really is worth the effort. It will also make it much more rewarding reading, for instance, The Cambridge Introduction to Franz Kafka by Carlin Duttlinger that I found short and rewarding. Then after an introduction go back and read the stories again. And again.
Also his “Letters to Felice” will show you Kafka behind the facade and offer another look into his fascinating writing style as he, simultaneously, woos and rejects Felice Bauer’s advances. Similarly, his “Letter to my father” offers a fascinating look into Kafka’s mind and life from his own perspective. Also, Ernst Pawel’s biography “Franz Kafka – The Nightmare of Reason” offers a rich presentation of Europe up to and after the First World War alongside a splendid presentation of Franz Kafka.
On this website you can learn more about Søren Kierkegaard whom Franz Kafka studied himself (he was well aware of the parallels between Kierkegaard’s failed engagement with Regine Olsen and his own ditto with Felice Bauer), although, Kafka did not share Kierkegaard’s faith in God. Moreover, you can read more here about Irvin Yalom and his thoughts on freedom.
The Skeleton-Man Show Death: The High Price of Living
In my new show Death: The High Price of Living I introduce the audience to the existential tradition. You can find more information about the show here that is specifically targeted educational institutions and companies, for instance, as a fun and engaging event at the yearly company art club assembly.
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