On 9 October 1911, Franz Kafka, then 28 years old, wrote in his diary that he didn’t expect to reach the age of 40. At the time of this entry, he was not yet stricken with the tuberculosis that would lead to his death in 1924, shortly before his 41st birthday. What afflicted him at that time, making him doubt his longevity, was harder to pin down. Perhaps due to this very indefiniteness, it provided raw material for his aesthetic imagination:
I’ll hardly live to be forty years old, against that prospect speaks, for example, the tension that often lies over the left half of my skull, which feels like an inner leprosy and which, when I disregard the unpleasantness and try only to contemplate it, makes the same impression on me as the sight of the skull cross sections in textbooks or as an almost painless dissection while alive, where the knife a little bit cooling, careful, often stopping and turning back, sometimes lying at rest slices paper-thin coverings into even finer divisions very close to working brain parts.
– from The Diaries by Franz Kafka. This and subsequent translations by Ross Benjamin (2022).
The literary intensity with which Kafka portrayed his sense of physical malady is characteristic of his writing in his diaries, which he kept between 1909 and 1923; they offer an intimate glimpse into the transformative process by which he made even his most probing self-examination and his most agonising ordeals into a fertile source of invention. In the image of the knife piercing and cutting living flesh, and the sensuous pleasure hinted at in his description of the blade’s caresses, Kafka was shaping his distinctive sensibility and developing his repertoire.
Once wrought, these tropes were available to be repurposed and refashioned. Untethered from their initial association with the distress of ‘an inner leprosy’, they became components of Kafka’s poetics of corporeality. In a letter to his future fiancée Felice Bauer in February 1913, Kafka accentuated his perverse gratification in visualising himself being carved by a knife:
Such are the fantasies or wishes in which I indulge when I lie sleepless in bed:
To be a coarse piece of wood and to be braced by the cook against her body as she draws the knife toward her with both hands along the side of this stiff piece of wood (that is, somewhere around the area of my hip) and with all her strength cuts off shavings to light the fire.
In a letter to his close friend Max Brod in April 1913, the feeding of the flames turned into the feeding of a dog:
Fantasies, for example, that I lie stretched out on the floor, sliced up like a roast, and with my hand slowly push one of the pieces of meat to a dog in the corner – such fantasies are my mind’s daily nourishment.
A month later, Kafka testified in his diary to the recurrence of the vision, while rehearsing another variation of it:
Perpetually the image of a broad butcher’s knife that in the greatest haste and with mechanical regularity pierces me from the side and cuts off very thin cross sections, which during the quick work fly away almost rolled up.
With the ‘mechanical regularity’ of this mutilation, Kafka anticipated the torture and execution device at the centre of his story ‘In the Penal Colony’, which inscribes the condemned man’s transgression into his body. (A later passage in the diaries written for that story, but not ultimately included in it, also echoed his 1911 entry on his headache as a knife in his skull: ‘And even if everything was unchanged, the spike was still there, crookedly jutting out of his shattered forehead.’) The ‘broad butcher’s knife’ might have belonged to the same set of knives as the ‘long thin double-edged butcher’s knife’, which, in Kafka’s unfinished novel The Trial, is thrust into the protagonist’s heart and turned twice.
His ‘dreamlike inner life’ traversed distinctions between modes of writing
And could that knife be the same one Kafka evoked in a diary entry in November 1911: ‘This morning for the first time in a long while the pleasure again in imagining a knife twisted in my heart’? Or in an entry in September 1915:
The most fruitful place to stab seems to be between neck and chin. Lift the chin and thrust the knife into the tautened muscles. But the place is probably fruitful only in one’s imagination. There one expects to see a magnificent gush of blood and to tear apart a network of sinews and little bones, such as one finds in the roasted legs of turkeys.
The versatility with which Kafka adapted this image to ever-new forms and functions is epitomised by a letter to Milena Jesenská in September 1920: ‘Love is that you are the knife with which I dig inside myself.’ To trace Kafka’s reimaginings of such a motif – one that kept resurfacing in different contexts, migrating through his notebooks, letters and fiction – is to witness how his ongoing effort to depict what he called his ‘dreamlike inner life’ traversed distinctions between modes of writing. For Kafka, it seems, the act of putting pen to paper was always, at least potentially, an occasion to further elaborate his literary idiom.
Kafka’s diaries reveal how relentlessly he exploited the creative possibilities of his anxieties, doubts and self-torments. In these notebooks, Kafka was all over the place, recording daily experiences and observations, describing dreams, composing autobiographical recollections, jotting stray thoughts and impressions, excerpting reading material, outlining planned works, drafting fiction, letters, essays and aphorisms. His incessant reworking of texts in successive iterations, his false starts and stabs in the dark, his misspellings, slips of the pen, sparse and unorthodox punctuation, occasionally muddled syntax, and other stylistic quirks and infelicities – all these are direct traces of the haste, spontaneity and restless experimentation with which he wrote in his diaries.
In the midst of this disarray of disparate scraps erupted more fully realised works, such as the first drafts of the stories ‘The Judgment’ and ‘The Stoker’. Their emergence here – along with a number of prose miniatures that Kafka later published in Prague literary journals and collected in his first book, Contemplation – reflects the generative nature of the diaries as a whole. The creation of these pieces is sponsored by the abortive attempts preceding and following them, all animated by his overriding impulse to give artistic form to whatever he set down on the page. The rough edges and idiosyncrasies of their rendering in the diaries would be edited only subsequently. As yet unpolished, in their workshop phase, they still visibly belong to the flux and instability within which they came into being.
In the open-endedness, provisionality and heterogeneity of his diaries, Kafka was making his way, at times gropingly, toward the writer he would become. Out of his inner struggles and preoccupations, he forged his singular literary voice. In a diary entry in 1911, for example, he grappled with his profound ambivalence about the possibility of marrying and starting a family by enumerating the woes of the bachelor, among them ‘to have to marvel at strange children and not be permitted to keep repeating: I have none, to have an unchanging sense of one’s age since no family grows with one, to model oneself in appearance and behaviour on the one or two bachelors of our youthful memories.’ This text he later revised and published under the title ‘The Unhappiness of the Bachelor’.
Throughout his adult life, Kafka equated being a bachelor with being condemned to stagnation. At the age of 28, he wrote in his diary:
An unhappy person who is to have no child is terribly confined in his unhappiness. Nowhere a hope for renewal, for help from happier stars. He must make his way afflicted with unhappiness when his circle is finished, content himself and no longer take up the thread to test whether on a longer path, under different circumstances of body and time, this unhappiness he has suffered could disappear or even bring forth something good
An entry he wrote a decade later, after three failed marital engagements, registered how little his sentiments had changed:
The infinite deep warm saving happiness of sitting beside the basket of one’s child opposite its mother.
There is also something in this of the feeling: things no longer hinge on you, unless you want them to. In contrast the feeling of the childless man: things constantly hinge on you whether you want them to or not, every moment until the end, every nerve-racking moment, things constantly hinge on you and to no purpose. Sisyphus was a bachelor.
And yet, for all his discontent with his bachelorhood, facing the prospect of matrimony, Kafka vacillated between longing and dread. Shortly before his first engagement, he staged a self-interrogation as a dialogue in his diary, prodding himself to weigh a future as a husband and father against one in which he would at last leave his post at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, move away from Prague, and devote himself wholly to literature – an uncertain existence he thought incompatible with a settled domestic life.
Organic predispositions hindered him from applying his energies to any other sphere, including a love life
Kafka’s ultimate inability to take a decisive step on one of these two paths consigned him to painful self-division. By day an insurance official, by night an insomniac scribe of the liminal space between waking and dreaming, he denied his capacity to negotiate the conflict between his breadwinning job and his literary calling. He dramatised this dilemma in a letter of apology to his boss, written in his diary on 19 February 1911, for his absence from work that day:
When I tried to get out of bed today I simply collapsed. There’s a very simple reason for it, I am completely overworked. Not by the office but by my other work. The office plays an innocent part in it only insofar as, if I didn’t have to go there, I could live in peace for my work and wouldn’t have to spend those 6 hours a day there, which have so tormented me that you cannot imagine it, especially on Friday and Saturday, because I was full of my concerns. In the end as I am well aware this is only chatter, it’s my fault and the office has the clearest and most justified claims on me. But for me it is a horrible double life from which insanity is probably the only way out.
In an entry in January 1912, he attributed the irreconcilability between his nocturnal activity and his official duties to organic predispositions that likewise hindered him from adequately applying his energies to any other sphere, including a love life:
In me a concentration on writing can be recognised quite easily. When it had become clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction of my being, everything thronged there and left empty all the abilities that were directed toward the pleasures of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection music first and foremost. I wasted away in all these directions. This was necessary because my powers in their entirety were so slight that only gathered could they halfway serve the purpose of writing. Naturally I didn’t find this purpose independently and consciously, it found itself and is now hindered only by the office, but here thoroughly so. In any case, however, I must not bemoan the fact that I can’t bear a beloved, that I understand of love almost exactly as much as I do of music and have to content myself with the most superficial chance effects, that on New Year’s Eve I had black salsify with spinach for dinner and drank with it ¼ liter of Ceres and that on Sunday I couldn’t participate in Max’s reading of his philosophical work; the compensation for all this is perfectly clear. Thus I only have to throw the office work out of this community in order, since my development is now completed and as far as I can see I have nothing more to sacrifice, to begin my real life, in which my face will at last be able to age in a natural way with the progress of my works.
If not a family, then his literary productivity could free him from stasis – but only provided that it was permitted to proceed uninhibited by his office work.
Kafka would turn to his writing at the end of a day consumed with drafting legal documents and classifying industrial firms based on accident risk. In a diary entry in October 1911, he deployed the image of self-butchery to express the violence he inflicted on himself by straining to find a word for a bureaucratic report he was dictating to the office typist, when that exertion ought to have been expended on creating literature:
At last I have the word ‘stigmatize’ and the sentence that goes with it, but still hold everything in my mouth with a feeling of disgust and shame as if it were raw meat, cut out of my own flesh (so much effort has it cost me). At last I say it, but retain the great horror that everything in me is ready for a literary work and such a work would be a heavenly dissolution and a real coming alive for me, while here in the office for the sake of so wretched a document I must rob a body capable of such happiness of a piece of its flesh
Averse to all non-literary pursuits because his ‘powers in their entirety were so slight that only gathered could they halfway serve the purpose of writing,’ Kafka presented his predicament in terms of the need to allocate his scarce, easily depleted reserves of mental and physical energy. In a diary entry in November 1911, he imagined his vitality being spread too thin through his long, frail body:
There’s no doubt that a main obstacle to my progress is my physical condition. With such a body nothing can be achieved. I will have to get used to its perpetual failure. From the last few wildly dreamed-through but barely even snatchily slept-through nights I was so incoherent this morning, felt nothing but my forehead, saw a halfway bearable condition only far beyond the present one and in sheer readiness for death at one point would have liked to curl up with the documents in my hand on the cement tiles of the corridor. My body is too long for its weakness, it has not the least fat to generate a blessed warmth, to preserve inner fire, no fat on which the spirit might at some point nourish itself beyond its daily need without damage to the whole. How is the weak heart, which recently has often stabbed me, supposed to push the blood down the whole length of these legs. To the knee would be enough work, but then it is washed with only decrepit strength into the cold lower legs. But now it is already needed again up above, one waits for it while it dissipates down below. Due to the length of the body everything is pulled apart. What can it accomplish then, when perhaps even if it were compressed, it wouldn’t have enough strength for what I want to achieve.
His perception of his body as lacking vigour, sickly, irremediably defective, was inseparable from his self-recrimination and despair over not making ‘progress’ in his writing and his life.
‘The way I led my life never proved its worth in the slightest’
Stalled progress was a signature theme of Kafka’s work, most notably his unfinished novels The Trial and The Castle. In them, tenaciously striving, forever stymied protagonists encounter unforeseen setbacks at every turn, finding their desires and designs inexorably and capriciously thwarted, their hopes nullified by insurmountable impediments, their goals fundamentally unattainable. Their frantic, apparently purposeful, ceaseless action conceals a futile waiting and paralysis.
The diaries are filled with images of motion and standstill, from the very first entry: ‘The spectators stiffen when the train passes.’ The coupling of the train’s onrush with the spectators’ rigidity is reminiscent of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea’s paradoxes, which Kafka invoked in an entry in December 1910: ‘Zeno answered an urgent question as to whether nothing ever rests: Yes the flying arrow rests’. As it whizzes through the air, Zeno argued, the arrow is every instant at rest in whatever position it occupies, leading him to conclude that movement and change are illusory, impossible. In early 1922, the year Kafka began writing The Castle, he wrote in his diary:
[M]y life until now has been a marching in place, a development at most in the sense a tooth becoming hollow and decaying undergoes one. The way I led my life never proved its worth in the slightest. It was as if I like every other person had been given the center of a circle, as if I then like every other person had to follow the decisive radius and then draw the beautiful circle. Instead I have perpetually started the radius, but again and again had to break it off immediately (examples: piano, violin, languages, German studies, anti-Zionism, Zionism, Hebrew, gardening, carpentry, literature, marriage attempts, an apartment of my own) The center of the imaginary circle bristles with beginnings of radii, there is no more space for a new attempt, no space means age, weakness of nerves, and no further attempt means the end. If I have ever brought the radius a little bit farther than usual, perhaps in the case of my law studies or engagements, everything was simply worse by this little bit, instead of better.
Looking back on his life from the age of 38, several years after being diagnosed with tuberculosis and just a couple of years from ‘the end’, Kafka saw ‘a marching in place’. He appears to have found confirmation of what he had long since suspected and what his writing insistently implied: Zeno was right.
Kafka’s perpetual redescription of his plight suggests that throughout his writing life he was less interested in finding a solution or even arriving at a single, definitive formulation of the problem than he was in exploring the implications and complications of his situation from new, unexpected angles and crafting an ever-expanding lexicon of figures for its inescapability. It’s as if his imagination was propelled in so many directions by his stuckness itself. Rather than trying to write his way out of the unanswerable questions and unresolvable ambiguities in which he was mired, he worked them into the warp and weft of his art. For generations of readers, Kafka’s frenetic inventiveness became a resource far richer than relief, consolation, determinacy or completion. His writing jolts us, surprises us, disconcerts us, baffles us. It at once provokes us to laugh at our suffering, our estrangement, our irrationality, and exposes us all the more helplessly to them. It leaves us unprotected, and makes us feel more alive.
Note on translation: In my translation of The Diaries, I hewed closely to the original text of the handwritten notebooks, as faithfully transcribed by the German critical edition published in 1990 by S Fischer Verlag, deliberately reproducing Kafka’s omitted and non-standard punctuation, and other lapses and inconsistencies.