"Please-- consider me a dream." Those words were spoken by Franz Kafka to the father of his lifelong friend Max Brod. (Baumer, pg. 2) Within that sentence, the entire theme of Kafka's life is summed up. A lonely man who was terrified to reach the summit of his creative potential, Kafka was forced to instead spend most of his adult life stifling his passion to write. Perpetually trapped in a cage of low self-esteem, Kafka had to battle his father, his Jewish ancestry, and his own self-doubts. Extremely introverted, Kafka felt a need to hide his inner true person, and instead mask it with something that society would accept. Using writing as an escape valve for his soul, such works as "The Metamorphosis" and The Trial metaphorically provide a window to this hidden person. Kafka also revealed this part of himself to trusted friends like Max Brod, and his love of five years, Felice Bauer. For the most part, however, Kafka was a dual person of sorts: Franz the accepted employee of an insurance company who nicely fit the demands he felt from his social environment, and Franz the cursed writer trapped in a "dreamworld" whose work was never to be fully appreciated in his lifetime.
Childhood and Discouraging Isolation
Kafka does not be a perfect fit into one important part
of Howard Gardner's model. Gardner's examples usually were
inspired and encouraged by their family during their
childhood. Kafka, on the other hand, felt isolated,
controlled, and abandoned by his. Born on July 3, 1883, in a
Jewish ghetto of Prague known as Josefstadt, Kafka was the
first of four children. (Baumer, pps 15,21) (Being a
first-born child, Kafka did match a common theme in Gardner's
model.) Kafka felt strong feelings of abandonment in early
childhood. Raised by a cook, a nursemaid, and another
domestic servant, he faced an emotional detachment from his
parents very early in his life. (Baumer, pps 24-25)
This detachment was not as strong with his mother as it was with his brash, vulgar, manipulating, yet successful father. Deeply filled with determination to succeed, Kafka's father took what was originally a small time peddler's shop which sold thread, shoelaces and buttons to a highly respected business. (Baumer, pg. 16) This accomplishment is an example how ruthless, driven, and brutal Hermann Kafka really was. His mistreatment of employees and manipulation of his mother deeply scarred young Franz, stripped away any admiration of his father, and replaced it with disgust. Later in life, Kafka explains his resentment of that treatment to him by telling his father: "Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and-- oddly enough-- self pity." (Kafka, 1966 pg. 35) Hermann would even go so far as to try to suffocate Franz's yearning for books, forbidding him from reading in the evening. Kafka took this outlawing of books as almost a death sentence. (Baumer, pg. 27) Kafka also resented his father's lack of approval towards him, and the manipulation that caused: "When I began to do something you did not like and you threatened me with the prospect of failure, my veneration for your opinion was so great that the failure became inevitable, even though perhaps it happened only at some later time." (Kafka, 1966 pg. 37) Kafka's goal was to gain that approval, or even his smile, that would make him "lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps again now, writing it down" (Kafka, pg. 43) Despite the contrasts between himself and his father that would later lead to life-defining internal conflicts, Franz continued to venerate his father. As Max Brod, his biographer and best friend, wrote: "His admiration of his father ... was endless-- it had a touch of the heroic in it" (Brod, pg. 5)
Franz had a completely different relationship with his mother. Brod describes her as being "quiet, pleasant, clever, not to say wise, person". (Brod, pg. 4) He understood why his mother could not do more to alleviate his miserable relationship with his father. Like Franz, Julie Kafka (Löwy) was a victim of Hermann's cold manipulation. Kafka once blasted his father by telling him "that mother was infinitely good to me, but for me all that was related to you, that is to say, no good relation." (Baumer, pg. 22) Kafka had deep admiration for his mother; unfortunately, due to her position in the family, she was unable to fix Kafka's feelings of isolation that would haunt him throughout his life.
Kafka also felt isolated from his three sisters. It was only later in life that he was able to establish an intimate relationship with Ottla his youngest sibling. (Ottla would later sacrifice herself to a concentration camp so she could accompany children who were already damned to go there.) (Kafka, 1982 pg. x) Still, throughout his childhood, Kafka had to face stark contrasts and isolations that would force him to recede deeper within himself, and put up a facade in order to be accepted.
The scars left from his father, and the inability to relate to his family would go on to shape the rest of his life. Kafka's carving for approval with his father led to a constant internal struggle. As a result of his father, Kafka felt humiliation because of his differences from the rest of the family. This caused him to feel somewhat evil, and drove him to smother these differences and pursue whatever his father, his family, and later, society, deemed successful. (Baumer, pg. 40) However, it would be those very differences that would shape Franz Kafka into the dynamic creator that he would come to be. Franz Kafka would manage to take that isolation, and make it an important theme in later works, such as "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist."
The Crisis of Education, Career, and Religion:
Absence of the "Faustian Bargain"
Franz Kafka would also be shaped by two other periods of his
life. One period of Kafka's life which has a profound impact
on his life was his period of education. Franz would have to
face which path he should take in education: becoming a
writer, which he felt to be his true calling and talent, or
going into law, something which his father approved of. A
second factor, a crisis in his religious faith, helped him to
decide. Franz chose to attend law school, and obtain the
mundane and boring job of being an insurance clerk. He did
go on to write, but he considered that writing a curse, and
he felt strong shame for it. That shame would even cause him
to ask Brod to burn all his work except for "The Judgment,"
"The Stoker," "The Metamorphosis," "In the Penal Colony," The
Country Doctor, and "The Hunger Artist." He explained to
Brod that his real wish is that "they be lost. But since
they already exist, I don't want to stop anyone from holding
on to them if he so desires." (Baumer, pps 5-6) The two
factors listed above played a huge part in this shame for
himself and for his work.
Franz Kafka received a fine education. His father sent him to the toughest secondary school in Prague, known as "Staats Gymnasuim." (Baumer, pg. 32) The Gymnasuim he attended focused on Greek and Latin instruction. The monarchy drew its civil servants from that type of school, which obviously played a factor in the elder Kafka choosing that type of school for his son. Franz disliked the school, and instead found himself emerging in books of other writers such as Spinoza and Darwin. (Baumer, pps 34-35) Later on, Franz stumbled upon Nietzche, and was immediately captured by his ideas and beliefs such as "God is Dead." (That belief of Nietzche would later have a strong influence on works such as "The Judgment") (Baumer, pps 36, 89) Franz found himself drifting further and further from Judaism.
Franz was sociable in school, and was very well liked. His classmates considered him to be a pleasure to be around. However, he still seemed quiet and mysterious to them, as if he were hiding something. Emil Utitz, a classmate of his, once wrote "Somehow a glass wall always surrounded him He opened the world for himself with his quiet, charming smile, but he shut himself off from it." (Baumer, pg. 33) That glass wall was the facade that hid the side of him that he was ashamed of.
A second crisis would affect Franz Kafka: The choice of a career. The end of his time in the Gymnasium was a turning point for Franz. Besides the "terrible anxiety about the matriculation exam" he felt, Kafka now had to settle on an acceptable career which would not disgrace him or his family. (Baumer, pg. 39) He once wrote: "There was no real freedom of choice of profession for me the only thing is to find a profession which will give the widest scope for this indifference, without hurting my vanity too much." (Brod, pg. 41) So, with the strong approval of his father, Franz, in 1901 went to Munich to study Law at the German University, and gained his degree in 1906. (Kafka, 1982 pg. 122)
The creators of Howard Gardner's model all committed a "Faustian Bargain"-- Kafka was the antithesis of this. Franz was not willing to sacrifice his shaky relations with his family, his friends, or with society. Instead, he stifled his passion, and succumbed to the pressures that those relations presented to him. The reasons for this are complex.
As stated before, Kafka was deeply concerned with pleasing his father. In addition, Kafka's struggle with theology influenced his decision. Growing up in the Jewish Ghettos of Prague had deeply scarred him, and made him feel like an outsider. He once wrote to a friend: "Prague doesn't let go You have to submit or else". (Baumer, pg. 40) This feeling of being inferior and trapped by his religion caused him to examine his Jewish heritage. Kafka concluded that he was doomed because of his ancestors. He even felt that any writing was "pay service for the devil." (Baumer, pg. 41) He also felt that "God does not want me to write, but I must." (Baumer, pg. 42) This, as well as his father, drove Kafka into a spiritually unrewarding job with an insurance firm, and to separate his career from his passion.
Kafka felt as though he were sentenced by destiny to not write, and he did nothing to change his position. Later on, in 1911, Kafka wrote: "Everything in me is ready for a creative work, and such a work would be a heavenly solution and a real coming alive for me, while here in the office I must rob my body, which is capable of such happiness, of a piece of it's flesh for some miserable document." (Baumer, pg. 56) To Kafka, he had two choices: To remain alive, toil in his miserable job, and write all hours of the night as he had been doing, or kill himself, and free himself from the pressures of society. He felt "staying alive would interrupt my writing lesseven if all one does is talk about interruptionthan death" (Baumer, pg. 59) Still, Kafka chose to remain in the fight between his inner self, tied to a passion that seemed forbidden, and his outer self, tied to a world that seemed mechanical, spiritually devoid, and isolating.
In relation to Howard Gardner's model of creativity, it appears that Franz Kafka never did make a "Faustian Bargain" in order to better his talents. Unlike other writers who also had to work in areas that prevented them from writing, such as T.S. Elliot, Kafka did not remain in his profession for financial reasons. Franz was scared to divulge himself entirely to writing. His relations to society, especially his father, his feelings towards his writing ability as being "evil," and his critical attitude towards his literary work caused him remain at his job, and write at night, when his inner soul forced him to do so. Franz Kafka never did commit a "Faustian Bargain"-- He was too scared to do so.
Crises as Inspiration: The Absence of a 10 Year Cycle
Howard Gardner's examples in his model all seemed to have a common theme: Breakthroughs occur around every ten years. Gardner seems to believe that this is because time is needed for the creator to branch off in new directions, and discover new niches within the domain to explore. Kafka may be the exception to this rule. Kafka did not need time to discover new niches within his domain. Rather, it was life-altering events and crises that touched his creative inner soul and drove him to create. Examine the following time line that lists when most of his works were written.
1904-1905 Writes "Description of a Struggle."
1907 Writes "Wedding Preparations in the Country."1909 Writes "The Aeroplanes at Brescia"
1911 Writes Amerika, and co-authors Richard and Samuel with Max Brod.
1912 Writes "The Judgment," "The Stoker," "The Metamorphosis," and rewrote Amerika.
1913 Continues rewriting Amerika
1914 Still continues working on Amerika, Begins The Trial, and "The Village Schoolmaster." Writes "In the Penal Colony"
1916-1917 Writes "The Warden of The Tomb," "An Imperial Message," and "The Hunter Gracchus."
1919 Writes "Letter to His Father"
1922 Writes "A Hunger Artist", and "Investigations of a Dog." Begins The Castle.
1923 Writes "A Little Woman" and "The Burrow"
1924 Writes "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" Just before dying.
(Kafka, 1982 pps 122-127)
Examining the writing above, once can see that there is no
time pattern that would match Howard Gardner's "10 year
cycle" theory. Unfortunately, Kafka only lived to be 40,
dying in 1924, so we were only able to see what he could
produce within a time span of 20 years. As stated before,
Kafka differed from the model in that it was events, not
time, that spurred creation and evolution. As his life
changed, so did his writing. When struggles occurred
extrinsically, such as the ones with his father and with
society, or intrinsically, such as living through a bleak and
painful Great War, finally breaking free from his parents, or
becoming stricken with a miserable case of tuberculosis,
Kafka's writing became the voice of his inner person. As
author Franz Baumer stated: "The years of greatest conflict
were also Kafka's years of greatest productivity." (Baumer,
The first crisis that would inspire Kafka was the phase in his life when he was struggling with what his career should be. Kafka's earliest surviving work, "Description of a Struggle," describes the pain and frustration he felt about his struggle with his inner and outer person. Written while he was studying law at the German University, it tells of a fictional person who does not fit in with society. Kafka himself was struggling to find his place at that time as well. Kafka presents this story as proof that it is "impossible to live." The soul of the person is so out of place that the things around him "sink like a snowfall while others even a small whisky glass on the table stands as solid as a monument." Perhaps inspired by his crisis in Religion, Kafka then, through a questioning of faith by the character in the story, confronts the Virgin Mary by stating " and I no longer recognize your menacing attitude, column of Holy Mary, when I call you `Moon that casts a yellow Light.' It really seems to me that it does you no good when one meditates about you, your courage and health are failing." (Baumer, pps 48-49) Here, Kafka is creating from stimuli produced by personal crises and struggles he was feeling.
His next works would continue to hint at the struggle that Kafka felt losing his inner self to his outer self, dominated by a new, evolving, world on the brink of a Great War. "Wedding Preparations in the Country," written in 1907, displays Kafka as being in "the form of a large beetle, a stag-beetle, or a cockchafer." (Baumer, pg. 23) Kafka continues that theme in his 1912 work "The Metamorphosis."
Considered widely to be one of his best works, and perhaps an autobiography of sorts, in "The Metamorphosis" Kafka describes a person transforming into an insect. Gregor Samsa, the tragic hero of the story, awakes one morning to find himself an insect. Throughout the story, Gregor gradually, and very painfully, loses his human qualities. (Baumer, pps 90-91) Kafka, with great detail, tells of how Samsa's family are shocked and grief stricken at first. They were repulsed at what Gregor had become, and wanted him to somehow change back. They took his transformation as an illness, and would regularly check to see if any "improvements" had been made. They then would go on to isolate him, feed him garbage, and mutilate his body whenever he would attempt to rejoin the family. As a result of the isolation, Gregor was given time to evaluate himself, and decided that he wanted to be "integrated into society once again" (Kafka, 1996 pg. 143) However, Gregor never did "improve." He remained the monster that he evolved into. The family continued to isolate him further and further, and eventually just wanted him to die. He had become too much of a burden. As Gregor's sister stated in the story: "We must try to get rid of it. It will be the death to you two, I can see it coming." (Kafka, 1996 pg. 37) Eventually, Gregor relieved his family of the burden he was presenting, and passed away.
Like "Wedding Preparations in the Country," Kafka was deeply influenced by crises in his life during the time he wrote this work. Kafka provides a window to his dealings with the identity crisis that would haunt him throughout his life. However, he revealed much more in this story than in "Wedding Preparations in the Country." Kafka revealed through the character Gregor his pain about feeling isolated and misunderstood by his family. Whereas Gregor's true self was now an insect, Kafka's true self was now a writer, something that he felt he had to hide from society. Perhaps out of fear of ending up like Gregor, Kafka continue to suffocate those desires and live the life that his family had accepted. He did not want to be a repulsive insect in this society that he felt misunderstood him so much.
Another crisis in his environment that spurred inspiration was living in Prague during the onset of World War I. When war broke out, Kafka began to furiously work at three manuscripts: The Trial, "In the Penal Colony," and "The Railroad to Russia." (Brod, pg. 149) The mobilization for war and deindividuation of society painted a picture of an automated future that lacked any spiritual depth. Society now seemed even more brutal and barbaric. During this phase of his life, Kafka has many dreams where he is being tortured. These dreams began to carry over into his writing.
Although he never refers to the Great War once during "In the Penal Colony," it is obvious that it was a huge influence. Kafka now saw a foreboding picture about the future that he captured in some of his works. Throughout "In the Penal Colony," images of executions in Concentration Camp like atmospheres fill the story. All compassion is lost, instead, humans carry on as if they are cogs in some sort of machine. (Baumer, pps 91-92) This image of a society gone mad reflects a Europe that had also gone mad. Senseless killing of millions upon millions of people had been filling Europe. It was if the value of the individual human being and life itself had been lost, just as in the Penal Colony.
A third conflict in Kafka's life that spawned inspiration was when, in 1923, he met Dora Dymant. One year after leaving his job because of tuberculosis, Kafka became acquainted with Miss Dymant, and immediately fell in love. This love he had with her came at a time when illness was cutting his life short. Both the illness and his newfound love produced a revolutionary change in his life: he was going to create a permanent bond with a woman, and he was going to break the chains that bound him to his family. (Baumer, pps 102-103) Kafka had tried to forge a bond with a woman earlier in his life, holding a five year relationship with former fiancee Felice Bauer, but his internal struggles prevented him from giving her the love she needed. (Baumer, pps 78-79) Dymant was able to help Franz settle some of these conflicts, and break free from the chains that had been holding him back.
His relationship to Dora inspired him to leave Prague and his parents, move to Berlin, and live with her. This allowed Franz to escape the demons that had been haunting his inner soul: "I have slipped away from them. This moving to Berlin was magnificent, now they are looking for me and can't find me, at least for the moment." (Brod, pg. 197) This of course inflamed his father, (they were not married), but Kafka didn't care. He was a new man. And, being a new man, he needed new writing.
Before he could write new creations, he had to slay the dragons that had been haunting him, and start fresh. To do this, he had Dora burn a great deal of his earlier work. By burning the old writings he was now ready to write his new, definitive work. (Baumer, pg. 104) Unfortunately, this new man would live only one more year to create this new work.
Kafka wrote a collection of stories entitled "Hunger Artist." This collection contained the stories "A Hunger Artist," "First Sorrow," "Little Woman," and "Josephine, the Singer, or the Mouse Fold." Later, Kafka would add "The Burrow." All of these stories, except for "A Hunger Artist," was written after he met Dymant. And, these stories also provided a window to his freed inner soul.
"A Hunger Artist," like "The Metamorphosis," appeared to be a metaphorical autobiography. The story was about a man who starved himself while living a cage for exhibition in carnivals, only to watch his audience become apathetic, annoyed, and then oblivious to his existence. Like Kafka's perception of his family's opinion to him, the exhibitionist had become "an obstacle for the customers on their way to the menagerie." Still the Hunger Artist did not change, just as Kafka struggled to not cave in. When asked why he would not change, the artist replied "Because I couldn't find the food I liked. Had I found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and eaten my fill just like you or anyone else." (Baumer, pps. 106-107) Kafka, like the Hunger Artist, could not change either. He could not come up with an alternative to writing that appealed to him Here, perhaps, he is coming to grips with it.
The crisis of death appears in another story, "The Burrow." While writing the story, Kafka's illness began to overwhelm him. He hints of that sickness in the work: "meantime slowly and quietly the enemy is boring toward me from somewhere And I would like to say farewell to everything here, descend into the burrow, and never return again." (Baumer, pg. 104) Just one year later, Franz Kafka would do the same.
On Kafka's deathbed, Kafka was presented the proofs of the collection of stories. One of his last actions in life was to read the proofs. Finally, for one of the first times in his life, Kafka was satisfied with his work. All throughout his life, Franz was highly critical of it, and never wanted any of it published. Here was work that he was proud of. Kafka wept as he read it. At last, he was free of all the doubt and pity that he had previously felt. (Baumer, pg. 106)
Conflict, crises, and change throughout Kafka's life inspired his works. No time was needed to come up with new breakthroughs; changes in his outer and inner person, and the struggles that caused inspiration was all Franz Kafka needed to produce great, creative work.
Prague, Circle of Friends, and the Marginality of Isolation:
Kafka's Relation to Gardner's Model
In all fairness to Howard Gardner, Kafka did fit some parts
of his model. Gardner's examples all worked in an environment
that was conducive to creation, had a close circle of friends
and followers that encouraged work, and were marginalized to
some degree. Kafka had all of these. He had a small number
of friends that, over a period of years, convinced him to
publish his works and give them to the world. Kafka lived in
Prague, which contained, at that time, a very creative
atmosphere. And, because of his isolation from the world,
Kafka was very marginalized.
Franz had a very small group of friends that came to be the testing ground for his creativity. Max Brod, a close friend and companion of Kafka's, developed into his most reliable and trusted companion. It was Brod who promised to Kafka that he would burn his works following Kafka's death, only to preserve and publish them for the whole world to appreciate. It was also Brod who wrote a biography on Kafka that is used today as a first hand source by most Kafka scholars. Kafka was always reading his works to Brod, and the two were together when Kafka met the two men who would convince him to start publishing his work: Paul Ernst and Johannes Schlaf. (Baumer, pg. 72) Kafka came to love two women who were very important in his life: Felice Bauer and Dora Dymant. Although there were not many close friendships in his life (most of the ones he did manage to establish in his life faded), the ones he did manage to hold on to were very important to him.
While in Prague, Kafka managed to get into exclusive literary circles that influenced his work. During his days in school, Kafka joined a group of followers who discussed the work of Franz Bretano. He went to these group meetings along with Brod and another friend, Felix Weltsch. Many ideas of Franz would be shaped during these discussions. (Baumer, pps 45-46) Later on in life, Kafka would rejoin with a former member of the Bretano circle in another exclusive group, Berta Fanta. It was in this group that he came across such intellectuals as the mathematician Kowalewski, the physicist Phillip Frank, the philosopher Ehrenfels, and Albert Einstein. Kafka also came across the most "avant-garde" Czech writers and leading socialists. (Kuna, pps 86-87) His time in these intellectual circles provided him an opportunity to bounce ideas off of these people, become introduced to new ideas, and when he had the courage, give him an audience for his work.
Being isolated and leading a double life made Franz Kafka a marginal figure; this marginality created the differences that set his work apart from other writers of the time. As stated before, Kafka's isolation and craving for acceptance from his father produced two sides of Kafka. One diary entry of his from 1911 stated: "But for me it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape from insanity." (Baumer, pps 67-68) Until illness forced him to retire, and love inspired him to break free from his parents, Kafka would not attempt to end that double life. Kafka chose to separate part of himself from the norm-- he chose to be marginal.
Franz Kafka would fit nicely into Howard Gardner's model-- with a few small adjustments. Many elements of Gardner's theory are present in Kafka, some of which are listed above. Although not the typical award-winning creator that emanate in Gardner's examples, Kafka's creations came to be widely respected after his death. And, for those who held relationships with Franz intimate enough to understand him, his work was appreciated. Franz Kafka does hold striking similarities to Howard Gardner's model.
Franz Kafka will forever be remembered for
revolutionizing the field of literature, just as the examples
in Howard Gardner's model revolutionized their fields. There
were many other parts of the model that Kafka did and did not
fit into, but the aspects of the model listed here are the
ones that most deeply affected his work. Franz Kafka
revolutionized his domain with his works; however, the
structure of his life and his environment that produced these
creations are inconsistent with Gardner's model. This should
not exclude him from consideration. Perhaps a few
adjustments to the model are necessary. More creative
thinkers in history exist that might have been unfairly
excluded from the examples in Howard Gardner's theory.
Brod, Max Franz Kafka: A Biography New York: Shocken Books Inc., 1960
Gardner, Howard. Creating minds. New York: Basic books, 1993.
Kafka, Franz Letter to His Father New York: Shocken Books, 1966
Kafka, Franz Letters to Ottla and the Family New York: Shocken Books, 1982
Kafka, Franz The Metamorphosis New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996
Kuna, Franz On Kafka: Semi-centenary Perspectives New York:
Harper & Row, 1976