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Anastasia Platoff

May 2012
Literary Diaries and Journals
Brooke Allen

Kafka and the Instrumental Body


It is certain that a major obstacle to my progress is my physical condition.
Kafka, 1911.1

In his diaries and his fiction, Kafkas surrealistic representations of the human body

convey a dichotomous understanding of its purpose: at once, his portrayals symbolize the body

as conduit, and the body as coffin. Beneath the intricate descriptions of posture and gesture and

the extreme physical criteria from which he derives interpretations of himself and others,

Kafkas obsession lies in the uncertain unity between mind and body.

When Kafka writes of the body in harmonious integration with the mind, the body

becomes an instrument of truthit exposes and liberates character through imitation and

catharsis. As a pure channel of artistic and intellectual ability, the body becomes the external

outlet of the minds redemption. When this relationship is invertedwhen the mind and body

are divided through discordthe body becomes the minds coffin. Throughout Kafkas writing,

false impressions are made when the minds inclinations are nullified or confined by the

distorted expressions of the body. Thus, physical illness, alienation, and incapacity can compel

analogous depression, anxiety, insecurity within the mind. In this paradoxical way, mental

faculties are overpowered by corporeal weakness, resulting in the minds perpetual dependence

on the body.

In his diary, Kafkas recorded observations, attitudes, and experiences are immersed

in these ideas about the body. As a theater spectator, he is fixated on the impressions given by

1 Kafka, Franz. Diaries 1910-1923. New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

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actors through their physical appearances and movements. In the case of Mrs. Tschissik, Kafkas

eyes for exposition are magnified. An entry from 19 December, 1911 reads:

Mrs. Tschissik acted again. Yesterday her body was more beautiful than her face, which seemed
narrower than usual so that the forehead, which is thrown into wrinkles at her first word, was too
striking. The beautifully founded, moderately strong, large body did not belong with her face . . .
with her face distorted, her complexion spoiled by make-up, a stain on her dark-blue short-sleeved
blouse, I felt as though I were speaking to a statue in a circle of pitiless onlookers (142).

Although his critique is severe, it is significant to note that Kafka likens the actress to a

statue: a non-human figure, existing as an object to be perceived, rather than as a communicative

body. Because of this, Mrs. Tschissiks harsh image sabotages her ability to imitate, thereby

creating a false impression in the eyes of her spectators. Kafka observes this mind-body

discordance and, given his fondness for the actress, responds with a level of sympathy that he

worries the encircling, pitiless audience will not experience.

Kafkas piercing judgment most often thrives on the awareness of his own deceptive

body. In October of 1911, at the age of twenty-eight, he remarks on a seventeen-year-old girl

who took him to be fifteen or sixteen: I couldnt make her change her mind throughout our

entire conversation . . . She was not from Radotin but from Chuchle, which she wouldnt let me

forget (83). Kafkas unusually thin figure precludes his communicationand the young girls

acceptanceof certainty in age. At the same time, this seventeen-year-old girl, with her

seventeen-year-old body, effortlessly implants her hometown into his memory. She is free, and

Kafka is confined.

Kafkas body is the cradle of another false impression: well-being. His former governess,

he writes, thinks I am a tall, healthy gentleman at the beautiful age of twenty-eight who likes to

remember his youth and in general knows what to do with himself (123). Additionally, after a

conversation with his mother about children and marriage, he states, How untrue and childish is

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the conception of me that [she] builds up for herself. She considers me a healthy young man who

suffers a little from the notion that he is ill (143). In these instances, Kafka takes issue with the

misconception that his body is in good condition, for this belief would wrongfully suggest that

the same is true for his mind.

In view of these extracts, one may initially be puzzled by evidence of Kafkas strict

adherence to health regimes throughout his life. In Kafka: A Very Short Introduction, author

Ritchie Robertson describes Kafkas gymnastic exercises, done twice daily, naked, in front of an

open window. Robertson also notes that Kafka abstained from sex and alcohol, implemented a

vegetarian diet, and demonstrated an ascetic attitude toward fasting.2 Further writings on Kafka

suggest that he probably suffered from anorexia nervosa.3 It would seem, then, that Kafkas

strivings for health, while perhaps consciously motivated by a desire for physical fitness, are

unconsciously aimed at the ascendancy of mind over body, so that his physical condition may

truly act as a mirror of his internal life. However, these austere practices did not emancipate

Kafkas able mind from his misleading body, but activated a cycle of masochism that further

entombed the mind in the bodys privations.

The characters and themes of Kafkas fiction have many implications for the

representation of his body within his diaries. In particular, The Metamorphosis (1915) and A

Hunger Artist (1922) illustrate the idea of the dichotomous body, both conduit and coffin, in

analogous ways. Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in The Metamorphosis, awakes one morning

after a night of disturbing dreams to find that he has transformed into a giant insect. His human

mind is intact, but he is restricted by this strange and foreign body, as well as an

2Robertson, Ritchie. Kafka: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
3See, for example: Fichter, Manfred. The Anorexia Nervosa of Franz Kafka. International Journal of Eating
Disorders 6.3 (1987): 367-377.

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incomprehensible voice. Gregors new form prevents him from continuing his employment,

much to the hardship of his family. Due to his repulsive appearance, Gregor remains quarantined

in his bedroom. One day, he flees from his room and into the kitchen to see his mother. His

father walks in and, mistaking Gregors movements as an attempt to attack, throws an apple into

his back three times. Badly injured, Gregor returns to his room and chooses to starve to death so

that he may relieve the burdens he has placed on his family.

In A Hunger Artist, similar themes of physical confinement, isolation, false impressions,

and self-marginalization are uncovered through the experience of the protagonist. In contrast to

Kafkas diaries, these two works contain implicit elements of martyrdom and transcendence of

corporeality that Kafka does not seem to have discussed or attained in his own life. In A Hunger

Artist, although the protagonists craft is unappreciated by society, his own body is widely

acknowledged as the explicit reflection and instrument of his art. Kafka, who aspires to

transform emotion into character for the purpose of his writing, consequently transforms his

body into an icon of peculiarity and punishment; the reverse image of his firm and resilient

father; the emblem of a dependent, childlike instinct that is repressed by conscious thought. In

these ways, Kafkas radical subjectivity and surrealistic world are reified as a suffering body

from which he is unable to escape. Therefore, Kafkas private understanding of his body is rather

Kafkaesque.

I dreamed today of a donkey that looked like a greyhound, it was very cautious in its movements. I
looked at it closely because I was aware of how unusual a phenomenon it was, but remember only
that its narrow human feet could not please me because of their length and uniformity. I offered it
a bunch of fresh, dark-green cypress leaves . . . it did not want it, just sniffed a little at it; but then,
when I left the cypress on a table, it devoured it so completely . . . Later there was talk that this
donkey had never yet gone on all fours but always held itself erect like a human being and showed
its silvery shining breast and its little belly. But actually that was not correct (Kafka, 94).

Kafka is the donkey. He looks like a greyhound; he is cautious in gesture and motion,

acutely aware of his potential impression on others; he judges features of his body as

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aesthetically unpleasant; he wants others to witness and understand his refusal of nourishment,

though he subsequently negates this active desire with involuntary, lonely indulgence. Other

people misrepresent him in their descriptions, wrongfully thinking that he behaves in a certain

way that would be contradictory to his nature. The promoters and recipients of these rumors do

not bother to observe him for any sort of corroboration, but rest on their assumptions. They

believe him to be a donkey that possesses a human realism when, in his surrealistic reality,

Kafka is something worse: a simulacrum of a greyhound struggling against the instincts of his

donkey constitution. In the attempt to make his body a conduit for the mind, his mind has made

his body a coffin.

Works Cited:

Fichter, Manfred. The Anorexia Nervosa of Franz Kafka. International Journal of Eating
Disorders 6.3 (1987): 367-377.

Kafka, Franz. Diaries 1910-1923. New York: Schocken Books, 1948.

Robertson, Ritchie. Kafka: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.