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  • In The Struggle Between You and Kafka, Back Yourself
  • Frederick R. Karl

“In the struggle between you and the world, back the world”


It is an article of faith in all Kafka biography that his lifelong struggle was with his father. Franz, who was named after the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph, seemingly became weak, passive, fearful, impotent when confronted with the physically large, forceful, demanding, apparently omnipotent father, Hermann—a godlike figure in the Prague household. Kafka of course wrote about this personal agony we recall, in his now very famous “Letter to His Father,” in 1919, when he, Franz, was thirty-six years old. The son’s attack came on several fronts: that at mealtimes his father was disgusting—especially his cleaning out of his ears with a toothpick; that his father brought Franz and his sisters up by means of irony—which suggests disrespect, condescension, verbal hostility; that Hermann resented nearly everything Franz tried to do, and particularly mocked his very mild sexual escapades; that Franz stammered or “hesitated” because of the father; that the shape of the family, in fact the map of the world, was dominated by the father’s large presence; that the images of extreme violence in Kafka’s work—for example, in “In the Penal Colony” or in numerous notebook entries—are perceptions of Franz as his father’s chosen victim; that Hermann spoke of the children in the past, as if they were no longer in the home, or else dead, humiliating them by failing to acknowledge their presence; that Hermann created sexual disgust in the son, no more than when they undressed together at bathing establishments—Hermann built on a large scale, Kafka with an almost skeletal frame.

This Oedipal battle continued throughout Kafka’s adult life (he died at forty). It is a given that some dimension of son-father relationships not only dominated Kafka’s mature personal life [End Page 189] but influenced perhaps more than anything else his writing life. The demons, the ghosts and spectral presences, the forces of mysterious domination which squeeze through every situation, the desire for and yet fear of authority, the emphasis on impotence alongside the persistent desire to break into one’s own potency—all these seem related to the father’s effort to efface the son and the son’s futile jousting to survive, but of course transformed, transmuted, as if the powers of the paternal God could be filtered through the son’s needs.

And yet what if the biographer does not see it this way at all? What if Kafka’s own narrative is read differently? What if the biographer probes Kafka countertransferentially, so that the biographer’s own perception of parental authority (despite quite different consequences) informs his sense of Kafka’s life?

The battle now shifts its grounds; but, as Joseph Conrad once said about other twisted relationships, “Where to?” This biographer has argued that the real conflict in Kafka’s life came over his mother and her role in the marriage. We know with certainty from Kafka’s notebook and letters, from his handling of female characters in his fiction, from his comments to his fiancée Felice Bauer, and from his overall difficulty with women that his relationship with his mother, Julie, was strained, and that one of the reasons was her utter and complete devotion to Hermann. She worked in his fancy goods store, she played cards with him in the evening, she raised the children and kept the home going. To his dismay, Kafka saw his more accomplished and better-spoken mother giving herself completely to Hermann; so that while the husband could play a divinity in the home—we have the son’s perception for that!—Julie played acolyte. The father demanded; she served. Furthermore, Kafka sensed that he and his three (younger) sisters had been neglected. In his Letter, he accused his mother of playing the “beater” in a hunt and driving Franz back into Hermann’s trap. The image is murderous. When I asked Kafka’s niece about this—she was fourteen when Kafka died in 1924—she considered it a possibility, but as the last keeper of...

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pp. 189-204
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