"The pale, thin man in the last row, quiet with burning eyes."
Franz Kafka photographed in 1906 at the age of 23.
I. Early Life in Europe
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is recognized today as a major fiction author of the 20th century. However, during his lifetime in Eastern Europe he was an alienated failure as a writer.
Kafka, from an early age, found himself as physically repulsive and intellectually inferior. He felt no better about the rest of the world around him. However, history would record and interpret Kafka's life much differently: as a struggle for reason and love from a world dedicated to smothering anything resembling humanity.
Educated as a lawyer, Kafka lived and worked in Prague, Berlin and Vienna. Kafka sought escape from the weight of being the oldest child of a overbearing middle-class butcher with no other surviving sons. He lived with his family in Prague, Austria-Hungary in the modern Czech Republic with his three sisters until he was old enough to go to college at Charles-Ferdinand University. After graduation, he worked as an intern in criminal courts the following year.
Kafka suffered from clinical depression, social anxiety, migraines, insomnia, constipation, and boils all of which were brought on by excessive stress. Kafka added to his long list of ailments by developing tuberculosis in 1917 at age 34.
Complications from tuberculosis would kill him at the age of 40 in 1924 when his throat swelled shut and he was unable to eat. Intravenous drips and parenteral nutrition had not yet been invented - he essentially starved to death in a sanitarium in Vienna, alone.
II. Dystopian Philosophy, Existentialism and the Individual
Against Kafka's lifetime of inner struggles with depression and anxiety he also fought an outer battle against the world in which he lived simply to survive. In these worlds, the only weapons he could effectively wield against his crippling physical and psychological diseases was a pen and a typewriter.
Kakfa chose to write his own brand of dystopian philosophy in an effort to neatly categorize his ailments. In The Metamorphasis are found his psychologicial ones and in The Trial his physical ones.
Both short books are masterpieces of isolation, inferior complexes, anxiety and doomed alienation. They are made all the more horrifying because they seem almost plausible. As if anyone of us could wake up as a giant cockroach in our delicate family's home or be snatched up in a proto-Orwellian act of a disastrously incompetent criminal court system.
Dystopian philosophy is the grim and dire school of thought that says all of life is a doomed farce. It is all pervasive in the last few hundred years of literature and music. It's the collective dark wolf of society creeping towards it's inevitable death - dreaming of a final meal of snow white girlflesh before the wolf itself dies with an exhausted whimper at the shuffling heels of fools and liars.
Existentialism, also employed by Kafka, the study of the individual versus a constant factor, was a major focus of his work. Specifically, the fragile individual versus the monstrous whole or the unavoidable fate.
Perhaps the feeling of being a lone man or woman in a colossal city is what keeps Kafka's memory alive today due his use of this technique.
In fact, the living breathing reality of modern urban culture, in the underbelly of the whole world, is where Kafka lived and died in. Surrounded by crushing poverty, disease, overbearing fathers, impossible bosses, gullible courts, foolish bureacracy, a failed state with his country as the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary threw itself into World War One only to be bitterly crushed, short-sighted publishers, and emotionally abusive women he wrote manuscript after manuscript about this world - many of which would be unfinished or unpublished until after his death.
These characters were the people that populated Kafka's work. He wrote about them as an unending procession of power-crazed fools. These fools were at the controls of a massive vehicle that they neither could understand nor control - rolling gleefully over the backs of better men and women. The suffering of the individual at the hands of unidentifiable masses, such as justice systems or cruel family, is key in Kafka's work.
Kafka's writing, as in The Trial, unintentionally prophesized the rise of the Third Reich that came to power nearly 10 years after his death. His sisters Gabriele ("Elli") (1889–1941), Valerie ("Valli") (1890–1942), and Ottilie or "Ottla" (1891–1943) died in the ovens and ghettos of Nazi Germany. In fact, many of Kafka's letters to girlfriend Dora Diamant were later confiscated by the Gestapo secret police in 1933 and still remain missing today.
Yet, in his life, Kakfa was hopeful. For what was he hopeful?! He was ridiculed as a fool, a pretender or a criminal his entire life. Only a handful of his friends like Max Brod or Dora Diamant and former fiancees Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenská knew for what he was hopefull for. If he had survived TB he surely would have been killed by the Nazis.
III. Major Works
Kafka, whose remaining writing comes to the modern age incomplete and in fragments is chiefly remembered for two works:
In The Trial a man is snatched from his city apartment and put on trial for a nameless crime. He is tried by a rabidly paranoid court where an accusation is enough for a conviction. He is sentenced to death.
In The Metamorphosis a man wakes one morning to find he has been physically transformed into a giant cockroach. As he shrinks, he is sealed inside a filthy room, ostrasized and wounded by his family, and then finally dies of a combination of infection and starvation.
In closing, as modern cities and urban centers continue to eclipse the earth, Kafka, like Poe, are continually rediscovered by new generations that question the wisdom of a fundamental lack of morality, decency, human warmth, and rationale. This absence of humanity dominates historical and modern urban culture. While the mentality of exploitation and brutality become doctrines there will be men like Kafka exposing those who embrace bloodthirsty cruelty for what they are: dying, desperate wolves.
The title of this post comes from an excerpt from an interview with Josef Tal the son of Franz Kafka's language professor, Rabbi Julius Grünthal, with critic Hans Keller. Josef Tal remembers: "...the exceedingly pale man with those piercing eyes... obtrusively quiet, while his striking girl friend, whom he had brought along, was all vivacity." Please see Kafka's Wikipedia Bio for more.
Wikipedia, Franz Kafka
Levity.com, Franz Kafka