The InteractionAction Daily

Articles made by friends for friends.

26th May 2024

written by Daniel Wernegren

In the song “The Hills,” The Weeknd sings: “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” The song paints a depressingly realistic picture of the world. Reality is only true when it’s dark. The song comes to mind as I read Reiner Stach’s monumental biography of Franz Kafka. In the collective consciousness, Kafka is seen as gloomy, isn’t he? When I was in high school, there was some gloomy guy who had a T-shirt with Kafka printed on it. It said, “Kafka didn’t have much fun either.”

Despite the dark image of Kafka in popular culture, it’s not the picture that emerges in his biography when Reiner Stach is the author. It’s impossible for me to summarize in a single article the complex portrait of the man Franz Kafka that Stach presents. However, there are some aspects that I believe are generally of interest and that partly support the common image, partly turn it completely upside down.

Most people know that Kafka grew up in Prague, in Bohemia. That he was Jewish and that he had a problematic relationship with his father. Perhaps one has heard something about his broken engagements and that he died of starvation from tuberculosis in his throat, or that he was a doctor of law and worked with industrial accident insurance.

Furthermore, it is well known that “The Metamorphosis” deals with the anxiety of living up to others’ expectations and that “The Trial” is about an innocent man subjected to an anonymous, bureaucratic miscarriage of justice. Additionally, most people know that he wrote “The Castle” and “America” and perhaps that he wrote a long accusatory letter to his father.

However, Kafka didn’t quite live the dreary and meaningless bureaucratic life one might assume from his work with “insurance.” In fact, Prague at this time was very dynamic, and Kafka encountered the most incredible modern inventions, events, plays, and personalities. He meets both Rudolf Steiner and Albert Einstein. He reads and discusses Freud. He has an exciting circle of creative and insightful contemporaries. Martin Buber is one of them.

When I read Stach, two characteristics of Kafka stand out more clearly than the others to me. One trait is Kafka’s self-absorption. The other is the uncertainty in his world. It seems that he is psychologically torn between a part that takes himself very seriously and another part that questions the reasonableness of it. If we were to label these two traits with Freudian terms, we would call the first his “narcissism” and the second his “punishing superego.”

However, it would be a bit too simplistic. Kafka’s self-absorption is not the body’s narcissism but rather the narcissism of morality. He judges himself, harshly. And of course, it is a vanity that drives his creativity and writing. No author writes anything they don’t believe has value. In Kafka’s case, though, this is not certain, and his intelligence, or superego, or moral self-criticism, trips up his writing.

Kafka’s life seems to be a whirlwind of moral and intellectual vanity: a conflict between taking himself most seriously, yet also blaming himself for just that. An example of this is found in the letter to his father. There, he accuses his father of psychologically crushing him. But the letter doesn’t become a vulgar outing of the father in the way it sometimes happens in children’s books about their parents nowadays, most recently in Sweden perhaps in Felicia Feldt’s book about her mother Anna Wahlgren, also known from earlier popular books on child rearing.

Instead, Kafka turns himself inside out and questions his own image of himself as a victimized child. He expresses his criticism of his father but then retracts it and places equal blame on himself, or on some kind of determinism. Neither Kafka nor his father is to blame: they are so different and determined by their characteristics that they don’t understand each other and hurt each other on autopilot. It couldn’t have happened any other way, etc. The central point, however, is that the child shares the blame. That Kafka himself shares the responsibility.

Kafka’s self-absorption is not a love affair with his own reflection as in the myth of Narcissus. In Kafka’s case, the reflection becomes another face than his own, a Janus-faced one. He doesn’t trust himself; he questions his own needs, desires, and feelings from childhood. He accuses his father, but then judges himself for just that. Kafka is simply so self-absorbed that he must be the scapegoat himself.

Stach tells of when Kafka writes the short story “The Judgment” (Das Urteil). Kafka writes the story in some kind of sublime frenzy. He finishes it in a single night. It’s one of the few literary works Kafka is satisfied with, and the vision and writing itself, along with the story itself, seem to have become an almost religious experience for Kafka.

But what is it about “The Judgment”? Is it the plot? Is it the setting? Is it the characters that constitute Kafka’s contribution to world literature?

In my reading, it’s none of these things, but rather the story’s turning points that constitute Kafka’s great achievement. Not his critique of bureaucracy or criticism of family demands. Not at all the things he is known for. So what are these turning points?

“The Judgment” is about Georg, who is about to get engaged. He sits in his room writing letters to his friend in St. Petersburg to tell him about this life event. He then goes to his sick father’s room to talk about it. A conflict arises where the father accuses the son of wishing him harm, then orders the son to die by drowning, and in the last sentence, we find out that Georg jumps over the edge of a bridge. That’s the plot and the characters, in short.

But the turning points are embedded in the story in several places. First in the letter writing, where Georg suddenly becomes unsure if it’s really justified to write to his friend in St. Petersburg. Then in the conversation with his father, where the father unexpectedly claims that the friend doesn’t exist, but later also (again unexpectedly) that the father himself wrote to the friend and told him “how things really are” and that Georg can’t count on the friend reading Georg’s letter. Also, the accusation that Georg wishes harm to his father is unexpected and bizarre. In addition, the father’s death sentence of his son and the implied suicide in the last sentence. These are the turning points that make the story ‘Kafkaesque.’

The turning points create unease in the reader. It’s frightening when reality becomes so unreliable.

So Kafka’s world isn’t as dark as it’s often said to be. Instead, it glows with a vision of a world where nothing is certain. Kafka’s view of the world is, simply put, neither depressing nor joyful in the terms we normally imagine. It’s not about whether the ‘glass is half-empty or half-full’ here in the world, but rather if there even is a glass in the first place. The question is whether we can trust the world that meets us humans, not if it’s dark or light.

Kafka reminds us that it’s not certain that our view of the world is reliable. We can realize at any time and suddenly that we were mistaken. That we were wrong.

This text is written by our friend Daniel. A great humanist and a friend with whom one could discuss the seriousness of life, but also ordinary things like love and train schedules. He is missed. Some texts will be translated into English because they are worth reading by many. For those of you who understand Swedish, visit his blog: