14934_kafka_franz.jpgFranz Kafka


Before one can understand the basics of existentialism, we must understand the thoughts and ideas that came before it. Franz Kafka, among many others, has been said to be a "precursor" to such philosophy. This page is dedicated to our Bohemian friend; his life and works will be presented so one can understand where some of the thoughts and ideas in existentialism originated from.

Early Life



Franz Kafka was born on July 3 1883 and was the eldest of the children. His family was considered upper-middle class and the kids were raised by various governesses throughout their lives. Gabriele ("Elli") (1889–1944), Valerie ("Valli") (1890–1944) and Ottilie ("Ottla") (1892–1943) were his three living siblings. He had two younger brothers that died in infancy before he turned age seven. He loved his sisters dearly and although he was rather withdrawn even as a child he found time to read and write various plays for his little sisters.

Although
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Franz and his sisters
he was born in Prague his father did not send Franz to Czech schools. Instead he insisted on advancement and sent him to German schools. He was brought up speaking Czech due to his care givers but picked up German very quickly and then excelled. As he entered college he decided to study chemistry. Two weeks into the program he switched to Law and then the next semester German Literature. Professors and Franz himself found that this type of study was not his forte so he reverted back to law, for his sanity.


Adulthood



Throughout most of his life he held a job at an insurance firm. The job was not the best but held great hours and gave him plenty of time to write. Before 1908 most of his works were destroyed but while working this mindless job he devoted his afternoons to writing about the serious and saddening events in life. To his demise he was asked by his father to take over his brother-in-law's asbestos factory in 1911. This job took up most of his time until 1917 which almost drove him to suicide.

Franz had a very interesting social life with women in his college years and adulthood. With numerous off again on again affairs one would think he may have had issues with commitment. He had the occasional sexual relation with a woman but that was all it was. He partaked in the many indulgences of Czech men at the time, visiting the redlight district of Prague. Although these relations were purely sexual, the thought of having a normal relationship with a woman he respected was found to be too difficult. With this in mind it was noted he broke off numerous engagements right before the commitment was final. One of his lovers, Felice Bauer found this out soon enough.

Felice was his first love that was then interrupted by Gerti Wasner whom he met during a stay in a sannitarium in Italy. He also knew Grete Bloch who was a mutual friend of him and Felice. He wrote to her everyday about the problems between the two. He was clearly disjointed form her but she wanted to have Franz all to herself. As one can see this did cause issues in his love life and his psyche.

The End of Kafka and his Legacy



With trouble in his life and marriage, the on again off again relationship with Felice was put to a halt when he was diagnosed. He then moved with his favorite sister Ottla to enjoy a time of peace and quiet. While there he wrote many stories which would become The Blue Octavo Notebooks, a collection of proverbs thoughts and sketches. He believed that the eight months he spent with Ottla were the happiest of his life and with this attitude, returned to Prague.

Although this was towards the end of his life he found a lover once again and proposed to her. Julie Whoryzek was her name and Franz even went to the extent of getting them an apartment. But as always his fear set in; only a few days before the wedding he left...for someone else. Milena Pollak would then experience what many of Franz's women would; love by letter. She was very kind and understanding but was with a friend of his. After a couple years of this friendly relationship, her and her husband split...but Kafka did the same. Around this time he wrote The Castle that has been interpreted in many ways including the interpretation of his relationship with Milena.

In 1923 Kafka was set on learning Hebrew and met a young woman named Dora. They had a wonderful relationship and it has been speculated that this was the happiest time of his life. This was cut short when his health declined tragically. Kafka went from hospital to hospital but finally his life ended on the 3rd of June in 1924 with Dora at his bedside.

Franz Kafka had an interesting life. He wanted meaning but did he ever find it? He wrote about his own absurdities through a broken confused lens. He left us with great German literature that we still study today as well as monuments and ideas that helped set up what we now know as existentialism. Now that we know a little about his life we need to focus on his thoughts and ideas and how they formed the philosophy of existentialism.


Kafka's Alienation



If concern for human existence in its concrete reality makes one an “existentialist” then Kafka is more of an existentialist than most of those who are today called by this name.
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He does not start with any absolute or with the assumption of the death of God, but with human existence itself. In his personal correspondence, he characterized himself as "a reserved, silent, unsocial dissatisfied person, lacking all aptitude for family (or interpersonal) life except, at best, as an observer".
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He is the quintessential "loner", feeling more deserted with a second person than by himself, "If I am alone, all mankind reaches out for me-but the innumerable outstretched arms become entangled with one another and no one reaches me.".
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He even went so far as to establish an archetype, "The Bachelor". "The bachelor...has nothing before him and therefore nothing behind him...he went astray at that time when he felt his depth lastingly...the man stands once and for all outside our people, outside our humanity, his is continually starved...he has only one thing always: his pain;...he has only as much ground as his two feet take up, only as much of a hold as his two hands encompass.".
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One can never truly know another human being, so there is no use in striving for interpersonal relationships.


In The Metamorphosis, Kafka further develops his worldview of alienation with the character of Gregor Samsa. Gregor is a traveling salesman who supports his mother, father and sister with his work. He does not enjoy the work, but he relishes his ability to provide a better life for his family by being the breadwinner. When he wakes up one day as a cockroach, his first thought is "how do I explain this to the boss?" and "what will become of my family?". When his family discovers his new form, they cannot bare this new form and begin to objectify him as a giant cockroach rather than their dutiful son. They slowly begin to grow self-sufficient and as they transition into a new working lifestyle, the family begins to neglect Gregor more and more; using his room for storage and letting it get dusty. The Samsa family eventually regards Gregor, their dutiful and loving son, as a thing or object. They finally see him as a nuisance and talk openly about "what should be done about this "thing"?". Gregor hears this and, in a final gesture of filial piety, lets go of his own life. This exemplifies the alienation we see in modern society. You are nothing more than your role..what you contribute to the whole. Gregor was objectified as "breadwinner" when in human form, and as a monster in insect form. There is no escaping objectification; it is simply the way of the world. If you need evidence, consider how our society views the homeless as well as the C.E.O..



Kafka's Absurdity






The absurdity of life is typically defined as a search for meaning in a meaningless world. Although vague, this description does not encompass Kafka's desire. His exigent desire is for solitude and peace rather than finding objective truths about the world. He acknowledged the world as meaningless and chaotic place; one in which the pursuit of objective truths is an exercise in futility. In The Castle, the absurdity of modern life, in its nearly endless, meaningless toil and bureaucratic direction, is laid bare. The main character, known only as "K", is consumed with the task of being accepted as a resident of the castle rather than the villiage. The castle officials are inaccessible and shadowy figures with which one cannot communicate without their consent. Every day, K. makes the journey to the castle, only to be scorned and turned away. This all-consuming exercise in futility is a symbol of our own ontological exigency, or "probably futile quest for the eternal"
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. We are all "utterly consigned to the humiliations of the divine" and when the absurdity of this situation can be accepted, "surrender to the everyday becomes an ethic"
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.To quote Camus, "That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and the intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace."
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. Although K desires nothing more than to be part of the castle, and his greatest efforts go unnoticed and he makes no progress toward his goal, he retains a sense of hope that someday things will change and he will be validated by the castle officials. This, in Kafka's opinion, is the definition of delusion, and has no practical benefit to the individual
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In The Burrow, Kafka further illustrates his view of the world as an absurd place. "The very need for complete peace and perfect protection against the world makes it impossible that the burrow can bring either peace or a sense of security. The danger continues to threaten the mole . To spite his obsessive efforts, it is a losing battle; as the danger of the world persists, while his own resources diminish. The mole realizes this, but cannot cease his labors
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. The outside world, and what most people affectionately refer to as "humanity", has absolutely nothing to offer him except for greater pain than he has ever known and even death. The only objective truth, it seems, is that danger persists in our world to spite our best efforts. His existence has degenerated into a permanent, unredeemable dualism- a vision of timeless peace and a reality of restless anxiety
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In The Metamorphosis, the main character, Gregor Samsa, transformed overnight into a cockroach. The fact that his response to this disturbing development was one of mild annoyance and anxiety about how he would get to work, let alone perform his duties as a traveling salesman, is meant to evidence the absurd nature of our daily routines and what they mean to us. We lose all sense of self and are consumed with performing the tasks according to our role. In an uncaring and chaotic world, we adopt this as an ethic of survival
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Possible Criticisms and Responses





On Alienation:

Jean Paul Sartre would take issue with Kafka's "Bachelor Archetype"; particularly the Bachelor's lack of anything before or behind him. According to Kafka, the Bachelor is resigned to his fate of an ever-dwindling world and has no choices before him to change his fate. Sartre would say that we always have choices; even if one were to resign themselves to their fate, there would be a choice involved. This would be the choice to simply give up the struggle against his "fate". Facticity is unchangeable, and makes certain things possible or impossible for the subject. That said, there are always choices before us, so anyone's essence, even the Bachelor's, is not defined until death. Sartre's main objection, therefore, would pertain to Kafka's assertion of lack of choice or free will.


Kafka would respond by saying that the facticity which defines the Bachelor is one which precludes making choices. This facticity is the inability to resign oneself to the everyday and to become blind to the absurdity of the human condition. If Kafka had been able to read Sartre's work and have this conversation with him, he would probably then ask Sartre, "Would the Bachelor not be acting in bad faith by deluding himself into believing that he is something other than the Bachelor? If he were to blind himself to the very fate he sees the world has thrust upon him, If he were to disregard his sense of alienation, would he not be living more inauthentically?"



On Absurdity:

Albert Camus took issue with Kafka's absurdity. He said that "I shall speak as he does and say that his work is probably not absurd. But that shoud not deter us from seeing its nobility and universlity. They come from the fact that he managed to represent so fully the everyday passage from hope to grief and from desperate wsdom to intentional blindness. Hs work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to th extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death." He would further criticise Kafka's works for their mockery of hope, duty and the futility of rebellion against the absurd.
Kafka would respond by stating that his work was not universal. Those who have resigned themselves unquestioningly to the everyday will not identify with it. If one cannot face the absurdity of life, my work will never resonate with that person. It is not my work that is absurd, but the very state of affairs of which it is a caricature. My work, just as the world we live in, has no eternal truth embedded in it. There is only toil, injstice, pain and despair. Hope is a delusion and merely "leads on" the subject. To let hope drive a man to "rebel" against the absurdity of life is much like allowing oneself "the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it".

Other Interesting Links



Franz Kafka International Airport (The Onion Online)
The Trial (1992) with Tim Roth as Joseph K.
Animated Version of The Metamorphosis