Critical Essays The Neurotic Element in Kafka's Art


In 1917, Kafka learned about his tubercular condition, which appeared in one night with heavy bleeding. When it happened it did not only scare him, but also relieved him of chronic insomnia. Surprising though this aspect of relief may be on first glance, it becomes understandable when we consider that he was well aware of the profound effect it had on his future: it forced him to dissolve his engagement with Felice Bauer and to give up all marriage plans, tentative though they may have been. The idea of marriage, however, meant more than the decision about his future with another human being in Kafka's life — it was, literally speaking, the one mode of life he extolled. To be married, to have a family, to be able to face life by escaping loneliness and by belonging — these were the ambitions which he never had the strength to realize.

The humiliation Kafka suffered at the hands of his father is a subject all by itself but has to be mentioned because one cannot see his disease or his understanding of it apart from it. Suffice it to say here that he felt humiliated, not only by his father's insensitivity and brutality (Letter to His Father), but also by his mere existence. To Kafka, he belonged to those wholesome, big, life-affirming characters whose very practicality instilled both envy and fear in him. This father could never be wrong. As far as his disease goes, this meant that Kafka agreed with his father's view that, as the only male descendant of the family, he had the duty to have a son. It is ironic that Kafka did have a son with Grete Bloch, Felice's friend, but that was out of wedlock and, besides, he never knew about him.

Yet Max Brod said in 1917 that Kafka presented his disease as psychological, as a sort of "life-saver from marriage." Kafka himself is quoted as saying to Brod, "My head is in cahoots with my lungs behind my back." To put it differently, to write all the fantastic things he wrote, Kafka could not allow himself to sink his roots into the practical sphere of his father, if, indeed, he had been able to do so at all. Yet he had identified himself with the aspirations of his father. Out of this conflict a crisis was bound to arise: what he could not solve in his mind was solved, in a sense, by his body. In a letter written in 1922, he refers to himself as a "poor little man obsessed by all sorts of evil spirits" and adds that it is "undoubtedly the merit of medicine to have introduced the more consoling concept of neurasthenia in place of obsession." Aware that a cure could only come through the exposure of the actual cause of a disease, he added that "this makes a cure more difficult."

Parallel to his awareness that he could not possibly gain spiritual relief, and certainly not salvation, in this world, Kafka's tuberculosis progressed. He spent more and more time taking rest cures, then the only therapy. "I am mentally ill, my lung condition is merely a flooding over the banks of a mental disease," he wrote to his second fiancée, Milena Jesenská. This disease consisted of an undissolvable dissonance, a deeply ingrained opposition within him. He had two main opponents, one in the sum total of the characteristics he admired in his father but which he loathed at the same time; the other in his craving to write about that which he was experiencing himself with such intensity — his lack of protection, his nagging skepticism, his withdrawal and alienation. His uncompromising attempt to depict the world almost solely in terms of this dilemma has been called his neurosis. Yet we should at least be aware of the fact that he himself also called it a first step toward insight, in the sense that a mental disease, too, can be an essential window through which to view truth. It is in this light that we should interpret his professions that he has not found a way to live out of his own strength "unless tuberculosis is one of my strengths."

The actual horror of his disease, as he saw it, was not his physical suffering. His father thought it was an infection, and Brod believed it resulted from his fragile constitution and his unsatisfactory work as a lawyer. Kafka saw beyond these at best superficial explanations and saw it as an expression of his metaphysical vulnerability. Viewed in this manner, it becomes a sort of sanctuary that prevented him from falling victim to nihilism. As he put it himself, "All these alleged diseases, be they ever so sad, are facts of faith, man's desperate attempts at anchoring in some protective soil. Thus psychoanalysis (with which he was familiar) does not find any other basis of religion but that which lies at the bottom of the individual's disease."

We have made the point elsewhere that in The Trial the Court and its paradoxes may be seen as the reflection of K.'s unresolvable problems. In connection with what we have said here, it is interesting to note that several attempts have been made to read K.'s story as that of a medical patient. The very title in German, Der Prozess, definitely also means a medical process. Also, it is possible to read entire passages without changing anything if we substitute physician for lawyer, disease for guilt, medical examination for interrogation, nurse for usher, patient for the accused, and cure for acquittal. We would not jeopardize the meaning of the story at all; whatever would remain as parabolic is also present in the original version. Certainly the argument that Kafka was not aware of his failing health when he was writing the novel is not a good counter-argument because, first, his deep spiritual dilemma existed of course long before its physical manifestation (that is, tuberculosis according to his own view) occurred; and second, because his hypersensitivity would certainly have enabled him to write from within the view of a consumptive. The point made here is not to prove that Kafka really had this in mind when he worked on K.'s case: on the contrary, the mere possibility of such meaningful interchangeability rather proves that K.'s fundamental situation is open to several readings which need not be at odds with each other.

All this is not supposed to demonstrate that Kafka simply equated faith and health or the absence of faith and disease. Certainly, however, there is a relationship between his uncompromising search for total truth and his vulnerability, his limitless self-exposure to the difficulties of life. It must take super-human strength to continuously snatch every bit of firm ground away from under one's feet in an almost maniacal effort to doubt one's own position. Kafka was notoriously incapable of living by the many little white lies the average person adopts as a means of surviving, and he both marveled at and envied those who could. As Milena Jesenská wrote, "He is without the slightest asylum . . . That which has been written about Kafka's abnormality is his great merit. I rather believe the whole world is sick and he the only healthy one, the only one to understand, feel correctly, the only pure human being. I know he does not fight life as such, only against this kind of life." The confessions of a woman in love?

The ultimate question is whether it is not precisely this fixation on purity and perfection that are his spiritual disease, his neurosis, his sin. Every fiber of Kafka would have yearned to exclaim with Browning's Andrea del Sarto: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" It was his fate that reach and grasp, in his world, were doomed to remain synonyms simply because there was no possibility of heaven.

Back to Top