"I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting"; or, Looking at Kafka

To the Students of English 275, University of Pennsylvania, Fall 1972

“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist.“We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably.“But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist.“Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?”“Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist.“What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?”“Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked.If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.

-Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”

1

I am looking, as I write of Kafka, at the photograph taken of him at the age of forty (my age)—it is 1924, as sweet and hopeful a year as he may ever have known as a man, and the year of his death.His face is sharp and skeletal, a burrower’s face:pronounced cheekbones made even more conspicuous by the absence of sideburns; the ears shaped and angled on his head like angel wings; an intense, creaturely gaze of startled composure—enormous fears, enormous control; a black towel of Levantine hair pulled close around the skull the only sensuous feature; there is a familiar Jewish flare in the bridge of the nose, the nose itself is long and weighted slightly at the tip—the nose of half the Jewish boys who were my friends in high school.Skulls chiseled like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens; had he lived, his would have been among them, along with the skulls of his three younger sisters.

Of course, it is no more horrifying to think of Franz Kafka in Auschwitz than to think of anyone in Auschwitz—it is just horrifying in its own way.But he died too soon for the holocaust.Had he lived, perhaps he would have escaped with his good friend Max Brod, who found refuge in Palestine, a citizen of Israel until his death there in 1968.But Kafka escaping?It seems unlikely for one so fascinated by entrapment and careers that culminate in anguished death.Still, there is Karl Rossmann, his American greenhorn.Having imagined Karl’s escape to America and his mixed luck here, could not Kafka have found a way to execute an escape for himself?The New School for Social Research in New York becoming his Great Nature Theatre of Oklahoma?Or perhaps, through the influence of Thomas Mann, a position in the German department at Princeton … But then, had Kafka lived, it is not at all certain that the books of his which Mann celebrated from his refuge in New Jersey would ever have been published; eventually Kafka might either have destroyed those manuscripts that he had once bid Max Brod to dispose of at his death or, at the least, continued to keep them his secret.The Jewish refugee arriving in America in 1938 would not then have been Mann’s “religious humorist” but a frail and bookish fifty-five-year-old bachelor, formerly a lawyer for a government insurance firm in Prague, retired on a pension in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power—an author, yes, but of a few eccentric stories, mostly about animals, stories no one in America had ever heard of and only a handful in Europe had read; a homeless K., but without K.’s willfulness and purpose, a homeless Karl, but without Karl’s youthful spirit and resilience; just a Jew lucky enough to have escaped with his life, in his possession a suitcase containing some clothes, some family photos, some Prague mementos, and the manuscripts, still unpublished and in pieces, of Amerika, The Trial, The Castle, and (stranger things happen) three more fragmented novels, no less remarkable than the bizarre masterworks that he keeps to himself out of oedipal timidity, perfectionist madness, and insatiable longings for solitude and spiritual purity.

July 1923:Eleven months before he will die in a Vienna sanatorium, Kafka somehow finds the resolve to leave Prague and his father’s home for good.Never before has he even remotely succeeded in living apart, independent of his mother, his sisters, and his father, nor has he been a writer other than in those few hours when he is not working in the legal department of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Office in Prague; since taking his law degree at the university, he has been by all reports the most dutiful and scrupulous of employees, though he finds the work tedious and enervating.But in June of 1923—having some months earlier been pensioned from his job because of his illness—he meets a young Jewish girl of nineteen at a seaside resort in Germany.Dora Dymant, an employee at the vacation camp of the Jewish People’s Home of Berlin.Dora has left her Orthodox Polish family to make a life of her own (at half Kafka’s age); she and Kafka—who has just turned forty—fall in love … Kafka has by now been engaged to two somewhat more conventional Jewish girls—twice to one of them—hectic, anguished engagements wrecked largely by his fears.“I am mentally incapable of marrying,” he writes his father in the forty-five-page letter he gave to his mother to deliver.“… the moment I make up my mind to marry I can no longer sleep, my head burns day and night, life can no longer be called life.”He explains why.“Marrying is barred to me,” he tells his father, “because it is your domain.Sometimes I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it.And I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that are not covered by you or are not within your reach.And in keeping with the conception I have of your magnitude, these are not many and not very comforting regions—and marriage is not among them.”The letter explaining what is wrong between this father and this son is dated November 1919; the mother thought it best not even to deliver it, perhaps for lack of courage, probably, like the son, for lack of hope.

During the following two years, Kafka attempts to wage an affair with Milena Jesenká-Pollak, an intense young woman of twenty-four who has translated a few of his stories into Czech and is most unhappily married in Vienna; his affair with Milena, conducted feverishly, but by and large through the mails, is even more demoralizing to Kafka than the fearsome engagements to the nice Jewish girls.They aroused only the paterfamilias longings that he dared not indulge, longings inhibited by his exaggerated awe of his father—“spellbound,” says Brod, “in the family circle”—and the hypnotic spell of his own solitude; but the Czech Milena, impetuous, frenetic, indifferent to conventional restraints, a woman of appetite and anger, arouses more elemental yearnings and more elemental fears.According to a Prague critic, Rio Preisner, Milena was “psychopathic”; according to Margaret Buber-Neumann, who lived two years beside her in the German concentration camp where Milena died following a kidney operation in 1944, she was powerfully sane, extraordinarily humane and courageous.Milena’s obituary for Kafka was the only one of consequence to appear in the Prague press; the prose is strong, so are the claims she makes for Kafka’s accomplishment.She is still only in her twenties, the dead man is hardly known as a writer beyond his small circle of friends—yet Milena writes:“His knowledge of the world was exceptional and deep, and he was a deep and exceptional world in himself.. . . [He had] a delicacy of feeling bordering on the miraculous and a mental clarity that was terrifyingly uncompromising, and in turn he loaded on to his illness the whole burden of his mental fear of life.. . . He wrote the most important books in recent German literature.”One can imagine this vibrant young woman stretched diagonally across the bed, as awesome to Kafka as his own father spread out across the map of the world.His letters to her are disjointed, unlike anything else of his in print; the word “fear” appears on page after page.“We are both married, you in Vienna, I to my Fear in Prague.”He yearns to lay his head upon her breast; he calls her “Mother Milena”; during at least one of their two brief rendezvous, he is hopelessly impotent.At last he has to tell her to leave him be, an edict that Milena honors, though it leaves her hollow with grief.“Do not write,” Kafka tells her, “and let us not see each other; I ask you only to quietly fulfill this request of mine; only on these conditions is survival possible for me; everything else continues the process of destruction.”

Then, in the early summer of 1923, during a visit to his sister, who is vacationing with her children by the Baltic Sea, he finds young Dora Dymant, and within a month Franz Kafka has gone off to live with her in two rooms in a suburb of Berlin, out of reach at last of the “claws” of Prague and home.How can it be?How can he, in his illness, have accomplished so swiftly and decisively the leave-taking that was beyond him in his healthiest days?The impassioned letter writer who could equivocate interminably about which train to catch to Vienna to meet with Milena (if he should meet with her for the weekend at all); the bourgeois suitor in the high collar, who, during his drawn-out agony of an engagement with the proper Fräulein Bauer, secretly draws up a memorandum for himself, countering the arguments “for” marriage with the arguments “against”; the poet of the ungraspable and the unresolved, whose belief in the immovable barrier separating the wish from its realization is at the heart of his excruciating visions of defeat; the Kafka whose fiction refutes every easy, touching, humanish daydream of salvation and justice and fulfillment with densely imagined counterdreams that mock all solutions and escapes—this Kafka escapes.Overnight!K. penetrates the Castle walls—Joseph K. evades his indictment—a “breaking away from it altogether, a mode of living completely outside the jurisdiction of the Court.”Yes, the possibility of which Joseph K. has just a glimmering in the Cathedral, but can neither fathom nor effectuate—“not . . . some influential manipulation of the case, but . . . a circumvention of it”—Kafka realizes in the last year of his life.

Was it Dora Dymant or was it death that pointed the new way?Perhaps it could not have been one without the other.We know that the “illusory emptiness” at which K. gazed, upon first entering the village and looking up through the mist and the darkness to the Castle, was no more vast and incomprehensible than the idea of himself as husband and father was to the young Kafka; but now, it seems, the prospect of a Dora forever, of a wife, home, and children everlasting, is no longer the terrifying, bewildering prospect it would once have been, for now “everlasting” is undoubtedly not much more than a matter of months.Yes, the dying Kafka is determined to marry, and writes to Dora’s Orthodox father for his daughter’s hand.But the imminent death that has resolved all contradictions and uncertainties in Kafka is the very obstacle placed in his path by the young girl’s father.The request of the dying man Franz Kafka to bind to him in his invalidism the healthy young girl Dora Dymant is—denied!

If there is not one father standing in Kafka’s way, there is another—and another behind him.Dora’s father, writes Max Brod in his biography of Kafka, “set off with [Kafka’s] letter to consult the man he honored most, whose authority counted more than anything else for him, the ‘Gerer Rebbe.’The rabbi read the letter, put it to one side, and said nothing more than the single syllable, ‘No.’ ”No.Klamm himself could have been no more abrupt—or any more removed from the petitioner.No.In its harsh finality, as telling and inescapable as the curselike threat delivered by his father to Georg Bendemann, that thwarted fiancé:“Just take your bride on your arm and try getting in my way.I’ll sweep her from your very side, you don’t know how!”No.Thou shalt not have, say the fathers, and Kafka agrees that he shall not.The habit of obedience and renunciation; also, his own distaste for the diseased and reverence for strength, appetite, and health.“ ‘Well, clear this out now!’ said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all.Into the cage they put a young panther.Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary.The panther was all right.The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it.But they braced themselves, crowded round the cage, and did not want ever to move away.”So no is no; he knew as much himself.A healthy young girl of nineteen cannot, should not, be given in matrimony to a sickly man twice her age, who spits up blood (“I sentence you,” cries Georg Bendemann’s father, “to death by drowning!”) and shakes in his bed with fevers and chills.What sort of un-Kafka-like dream had Kafka been dreaming?

And those nine months spent with Dora have still other “Kafkaesque” elements: a fierce winter in quarters inadequately heated; the inflation that makes a pittance of his own meager pension, and sends into the streets of Berlin the hungry and needy whose suffering, says Dora, turns Kafka “ash-gray”; and his tubercular lungs, flesh transformed and punished.Dora cares for the diseased writer as devotedly and tenderly as Gregor Samsa’s sister does for her brother, the bug.Gregor’s sister plays the violin so beautifully that Gregor “felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved”; he dreams, in his condition, of sending his gifted sister to Conservatory!Dora’s music is Hebrew, which she reads aloud to Kafka, and with such skill that, according to Brod, “Franz recognized her dramatic talent; on his advice and under his direction she later educated herself in the art . . .”

Only Kafka is hardly vermin to Dora Dymant, or to himself.Away from Prague and his father’s home, Kafka, at forty, seems at last to have been delivered from the self-loathing, the self-doubt, and those guilt-ridden impulses to dependence and self-effacement that had nearly driven him mad throughout his twenties and thirties; all at once he seems to have shed the pervasive sense of hopeless despair that informs the great punitive fantasies of The Trial, “In the Penal Colony,” and “The Metamorphosis.”Years earlier, in Prague, he had directed Max Brod to destroy all his papers, including three unpublished novels, upon his death; now, in Berlin, when Brod introduces him to a German publisher interested in his work, Kafka consents to the publication of a volume of four stories, and consents, says Brod, “without much need of long arguments to persuade him.”With Dora to help, he diligently resumes the study of Hebrew; despite his illness and the harsh winter, he travels to the Berlin Academy for Jewish Studies to attend a series of lectures on the Talmud—a very different Kafka from the estranged melancholic who once wrote in his diary, “What have I in common with the Jews?I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”And to further mark the change, there is ease and happiness with a woman:with this young and adoring companion, he is playful, he is pedagogical, and, one would guess, in light of his illness (and his happiness), he is chaste.If not a husband (such as he had striven to be to the conventional Fräulein Bauer), if not a lover (as he struggled hopelessly to be with Milena), he would seem to have become something no less miraculous in his scheme of things:a father, a kind of father to this sisterly, motherly daughter.As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a father, a writer, and a Jew.

“I have completed the construction of my burrow,” begins the long, exquisite, and tedious story that he wrote that winter in Berlin, “and it seems to be successful . . . Just the place where, according to my calculations, the Castle Keep should be, the soil was very loose and sandy and had literally to be hammered and pounded into a firm state to serve as a wall for the beautifully vaulted chamber.But for such tasks the only tool I possess is my forehead.So I had to run with my forehead thousands and thousands of times, for whole days and nights, against the ground, and I was glad when the blood came, for that was proof that the walls were beginning to harden; in that way, as everybody must admit, I richly paid for my Castle Keep.”

“The Burrow” is the story of an animal with a keen sense of peril whose life is organized around the principle of defense, and whose deepest longings are for security and serenity; with teeth and claws—and forehead—the burrower constructs an elaborate and ingeniously intricate system of underground chambers and corridors that are designed to afford it some peace of mind; however, while this burrow does succeed in reducing the sense of danger from without, its maintenance and protection are equally fraught with anxiety:“these anxieties are different from ordinary ones, prouder, richer in content, often long repressed, but in their destructive effects they are perhaps much the same as the anxieties that existence in the outer world gives rise to.”The story (whose ending is lost) terminates with the burrower fixated upon distant subterranean noises that cause it “to assume the existence of a great beast,” itself burrowing in the direction of the Castle Keep.

Another grim tale of entrapment, and of obsession so absolute that no distinction is possible between character and predicament.Yet this fiction imagined in the last “happy” months of his life is touched by a spirit of personal reconciliation and sardonic self-acceptance, by a tolerance of one’s own brand of madness, that is not apparent in “The Metamorphosis.”The piercing masochistic irony of the earlier animal story—as of “The Judgment” and The Trial—has given way here to a critique of the self and its preoccupations that, though bordering on mockery, no longer seeks to resolve itself in images of the uttermost humiliation and defeat . . . Yet there is more here than a metaphor for the insanely defended ego, whose striving for invulnerability produces a defensive system that must in its turn become the object of perpetual concern—there is also a very unromantic and hardheaded fable about how and why art is made, a portrait of the artist in all his ingenuity, anxiety, isolation, dissatisfaction, relentlessness, obsessiveness, secretiveness, paranoia, and self-addiction, a portrait of the magical thinker at the end of his tether, Kafka’s Prospero . . . It is an endlessly suggestive story, this story of life in a hole.For, finally, remember the proximity of Dora Dymant during the months that Kafka was at work on “The Burrow” in the two underheated rooms that were their illicit home.Certainly a dreamer like Kafka need never have entered the young girl’s body for her tender presence to kindle in him a fantasy of a hidden orifice that promises “satisfied desire,” “achieved ambition,” and “profound slumber,” but that, once penetrated and in one’s possession, arouses the most terrifying and heartbreaking fears of retribution and loss.“For the rest I try to unriddle the beast’s plans.Is it on its wanderings, or is it working on it own burrow?If it is on its wanderings then perhaps an understanding with it might be possible.If it should really break through to the burrow I shall give it some of my stores and it will go on its way again.It will go on its way again, a fine story!Lying in my heap of earth I can naturally dream of all sorts of things, even of an understanding with the beast, though I know well enough that no such thing can happen, and that at the instant when we see each other, more, at the moment when we merely guess at each other’s presence, we shall blindly bare our claws and teeth . . .”

He died of tuberculosis of the lungs and larynx on June 3, 1924, a month before his forty-first birthday.Dora, inconsolable, whispers for days afterward, “My love, my love, my good one . . .”

Reprinted from Reading Myself and Others by Philip Roth.Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1975.

“ ‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka,”American Review 17, May 1973.Quotations from The Castle and The Trial are from texts published by Knopf; all others from Kafka’s works (and from Max Brod’s biography) are from the Schocken editions.