Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years Of Insight

When we last left Kafka, after the first volume of Reiner Stach’s trilogy of biographies, the year was 1915: Europe was in the middle of a catastrophic war; Kafka had already completed two of his major works, “The Metamorphosis” and The Trial, and his relationship with Felice Bauer, the one great love in his life, was floundering after a failed engagement. “Complete solitude. No longed-for wife to open the door. Now you’ve got what you wanted,” he wrote in his diary. No reader of Kafka can imagine that last sentence written in total sincerity. With his personal life imploding, and the world around him gone mad, the question of how to proceed – of what to do, and where to go – becomes a difficult one, for Kafka as for all of Europe, and in this second volume of his biography, Stach charts the impact of these upheavals on Kafka and his writing, contextualizing the man in his times.

In an extended interview at New York University, Stach described the lengthy process of research and writing, amounting to some six years per volume, and his special concern with understanding the realities of life in Prague and Berlin during World War I: the initial optimism, quickly tempered by food rationing and the return of maimed and wounded soldiers from the front lines, and the eventual despair generated by the sheer numbers of the wounded, and the deprivations caused by the collapse of Europe’s economy. Kafka’s employer, the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, managed to exempt him from service, on the grounds that he was an essential employee, but Kafka had his own window into the war’s destruction: on a daily basis, he processed the claims of roofers who had lost legs, carpenters who had lost arms, labourers left blind. Nor could he fail to note that, from the perspective of the enormous bureaucracy that employed him, the dead were perversely preferable to the living wounded. But the War had an unexpected impact on Kafka, as well. At this great distance in time, it’s difficult for us to understand the psychological impact of World War I, but Stach recreates for us a Europe that has experienced a total break with its past and traditions. What good was the moral order if it resulted in the killing fields of France? Why scrimp and save and sacrifice if the combination of government spending and inflation made the future an uncertainty? And why continue to adhere to the restrictive sexual morality of the 19th century, when women are being pulled into the workforce in record numbers, and young men are in short supply? What did authority mean to those who survived the assassination of their head of state, Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Incredibly, the collapse of the moral order seemed to revitalize Kafka: “At the very time that the state began leaving its subjects to their own devices and suffered the loss of its highest representative, Kafka started reorganizing his life and writing. He tried out new avenues in both arenas. The close chronological connection is astounding, the coincidence obvious, mere chance out of the question. Kafka was reacting productively to a crisis that compelled him to overcome inhibitions, break with old habits, and seek means of survival.” Paradoxically, for someone prone to overreacting to the slightest disturbances, the complete breakdown of society proved inspirational to Kafka, a spur to greater ambition and creative drive.

The war years coincided with – it would be more accurate to say caused – a revaluation of Kafka’s Jewish identity. His best friend, Max Brod, had been a committed Zionist for some time, but had proved utterly unsuccessful in converting Kafka to his political vision, and Kafka himself never seemed to express more than a tepid interest in the religion of his family. For various reasons, that would change during the First World War. To begin with, the swift and total collapse of Europe’s way of life left the general public both angry and disoriented, and the Jews were the convenient scapegoat. Antisemitism, never vanquished from public life, became more vociferously expressed, and Kafka – whose family were successful business owners, compounding their guilt in the eyes of the public – felt the lash of public prejudice acutely. He turned with renewed zeal to the Old Testament, made concerted efforts to learn modern Hebrew, studied Judaism under various rabbis, and – championed by Brod, who had literary connections across Europe – began submitting work to the philosopher Martin Buber’s monthly magazine Der Jude (The Jew). This turn to religion impacted Kafka’s writing, as well, producing what Kafka readers have come to know as the Zurau meditations (named for the town, in West Bohemia, in which they were composed). These are short aphorisms, or observations, sometimes pithy, often cryptic, and deeply thought-provoking. Stach contends that these meditations represent a qualitative shift in Kafka’s goals as a writer. “What I have to do, I can do only alone. Become clear about the ultimate things,” Kafka told Max Brod, with characteristically enigmatic phrasing. The meditations are the product – though perhaps not the final product – of that shift, and draw clear inspiration from Pascal’s Pensées:

If we had not been expelled from paradise, paradise would have had to be destroyed.

His exhaustion is that of the gladiators after the combat; his labor was the whitewashing of a corner in a civil servant’s office.

A cage went off to catch a bird.

The essential strangeness of these writings, together with their disconnectedness, has made them oddities for readers, who are inclined to ignore them. Stach wishes to view them as stepping stones to a greater artistic development:

The texts are unsettling; their contents and aesthetics are difficult to assess, and they seem more like a collection of enigmas than works of literature. They attest to an act of reflection that tackles the hardest of tacks, and here and there, Kafka is able to come up with formulations that appear to operate at the outer limits of human cognition and several steps beyond, in the clear, rarefied zone between knowledge and wisdom.

Operating “at the outer limits of human cognition,” at the intersection “between knowledge and wisdom” – what better description of Kafka’s writings, of The Trial and The Castle, could we ask for? Much later on, Stach delves deeper into a literary analysis of Kafka’s work, in terms that will recall the above:

Kafka’s writings are never mere illustrations of “messages,” let alone metaphysical propositions. Readers who misunderstand this underpinning of the creative process are more easily led astray with Kafka than with any other author. Kafka does not seek out an image; he follows it, and would rather lose sight of his subject matter than the logic of his image, as even some of his early readers noted. […] Kafka pursued his images into the vast thicket of associations, differentiating them and making the most of their dynamism, even when he was no longer aware that literature was being created in this manner and, indeed, even when he himself had not yet grasped the core meaning, the metaphor.

This is excellent advice for approaching Kafka, for readers determined to pin the texts down, to subject them to a standard analysis of meaning or interpretation, will quickly find themselves perplexed by the sheer strangeness of what they’re encountering. Kafka does not seek to convey an idea but, like an artist, wishes to embody a mood or feeling; he provokes in us the same sense of alienation and isolation and nameless guilt under which he laboured. It is precisely this ability that makes reading him so unsettling.

I wish to end on a more personal note. I had a conversation with a precocious friend recently – someone, like Kafka, gifted with rare intelligence and sensitivity, and therefore condemned, like Kafka, to feel more acutely than most the pains of life (Pushkin: “Only a soul that raves with poetry can ever be doomed to feel it”). She asked me whether such a life was worth living, if it were not preferable to be among the many whose limited perceptions all but guarantee a life of quiet happiness and contentment. My mind went instantly to Kafka, who for years after a brief encounter with his great love, Felice Bauer, considered the time he spent with her the happiest of his lonely life. Stach puts this into perspective for us: “Fourteen days – nothing in comparison with the hundreds upon hundreds of nights from which they were wrested, but an astonishing, wonderful, and unique experience for a nervous self whose time did not fly by but entailed struggle every step of the way, and the only relaxation he experienced came as complete exhaustion.” This is not, for most people, an enviable life. Kafka understood this himself, intuitively: “I have brought nothing with me of what life requires, so far as I know, but only the universal human weakness.” By the standards set by his time, and the expectations placed on him by his father, Kafka was an unqualified failure. And yet how many people, unknown and unknowable to him, have lighted their darkness by the fire of his life and works?