Kafka's World and the Modern World

Symposium on European Modernism, 1895-1935

Professor Ronald Speirs, University of Birmingham

16 October 2010

The concept of the “modern” has been a contested one ever since the word entered the vocabulary (as “modernus”, from “modo”, meaning that which is of the present, as opposed to “antiquus”). In one, increasingly dominant usage, “modernity” was understood, as it still is today by many, as denoting the advance of reason, science and technology through all areas of life. This view, which rose to prominence in the eighteenth century and spread widely throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, came to be challenged by the belief that a truly modern sensibility was one that, on the contrary, understood rationalism and scientism to be shallow and blind to the powerful irrational forces at work in human beings and in the world at large. Both the light side and the dark side claimed, and still claim, to be the true witness and bearer of the modern. The life and work of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) were stamped by each of these contending elements in the intellectual, social and material world into which he was born, that of Prague, the provincial capital of Bohemia, which by the end of the nineteenth century had become one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As a qualified lawyer, Kafka was employed for most of his adult life in a large, partly state-owned insurance agency where he specialized in industrial accident insurance, assessing the risks of operating different kinds of machinery and the compensation appropriate to various degrees of injury (from the loss of one finger or several to that of a limb). Both in this role and through his reluctant involvement for a period in the asbestos business owned by a family member, Kafka gained first-hand knowledge of the real-world consequences of modern rationality when translated into industrial technology and manufacturing processes. His short story of 1914, “In the Penal Colony”, captures both the fascinating ingenuity and the lethal potential inherent in the cold, technical inventiveness of “homo faber”, as well as the dire capacity of technology to subserve irrational ideologies, to malfunction, and ultimately to destroy its supposed masters. Kafka’s description, in his first novel, The Man who Disappeared (1912), of a vast telephone exchange in New York where all employees must work at inhuman speed was written fifteen years before Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and twenty-four years before Chaplin satirized Taylor’s crazed “rationalization” of production in Modern Times.  Kafka’s knowledge of the competitive, alienating and anxiety-inducing worlds of contemporary commerce and bureaucracy, where life is governed by hierarchies and devoted to illusory goals of personal advancement, is evident in the sharply observed details of the lives of the lowly travelling salesman Gregor Samsa (in “The Metamorphosis”) or the ambitious young businessman Georg Bendemann (in “The Judgement”) or even that of the relatively senior bank official Josef  K. (in The Trial).

The unique character of Kafka’s fiction emerges, however, not simply from his rendering of the surface features of contemporary existence but from their embedding in a structure of events that appears to be dictated not by any rational calculation but by irrational or at any rate utterly opaque principles or energies. In this respect Kafka’s work is shaped by that other strain of modern sensibility which, emerging first in Romanticism, found various forms of expression in Schopenhauer’s blind, eternally hungry “Will to Life”, in Nietzsche’s hymn to Dionysiac self-creation and self-immolation, or, more or less contemporary with Kafka, in Freud’s theory of the Unconscious.

“Thoughts of Freud, naturally” was one of the notes Kafka jotted down in his diary as he tried to capture, in its immediate aftermath, a quite extraordinary experience, never again to be repeated with such intensity in the rest of his life, that of writing the story “The Judgement” in a single, uninterrupted flow during the night of 22-23 September 1912.The events of the story (the main focus of this talk) certainly recall Freud’s account of Oedipal conflict in some respects. In the course of a Sunday morning at the height of spring, Georg Bendemann is transformed from an outwardly successful young businessman who contemplates his forthcoming marriage to a woman from a well-to-do family with apparent satisfaction into a suicide, prepared to submit with immediate, infantile readiness to the command of his aged but still “gigantic” father that he should kill himself by drowning. Yet the speed with which the family drama unfolds carries the story out of the realm of socio-psychological pathology that Freud’s theories were designed to illuminate. The irresistible force that “drives” Georg from the flat, impelling him to hurtle down the stairs “as if down a slanting plane”, to vault over the balustrade of the bridge and let himself drop, after a last, momentary hesitation, into the river below, is some inscrutable element of existence that resists being subsumed in Freud’s rationalist, systematizing account of unconscious behaviour. Images of such restless energy, often felt but seldom fully released, are the most frequently used metaphors in Kafka’s attempts to describe his experience of the process of writing. Movement and stasis are key elements both in the content of his fiction and in its formal unfolding.  Kafka, himself at a loss to comprehend exactly what had happened to or with him during that exhilarating night of inspired writing, when he had felt himself to be both the gaping birth-channel through which the story was carried into being and the foetus/story that emerged, in utterly unexpected form, from the depths of his imagination, could say only that he felt it had “inner truth” and that the “music” of this unusually coherent story was inspired by fear (“Angst”). On that night in September, Kafka wrote five years later to his Czech translator and lover, Milena Jesenská, “the wound broke open for the first time”. By that time the “wound” to which he referred had become something physical, namely the first bleeding from the lung that signaled unmistakably the tuberculosis that would spread to his throat and kill him some seven years later. Whereas Milena, an adherent of Freud, wanted to restore Kafka to health by persuading him to see his disease as a manifestation of psycho-physical, ultimately sexual discontent, Kafka insisted that physical disease is, in its essence, a cry from a “human being in crisis”, something that emerges from more profound spiritual depths than any doctors, who deal merely with the symptoms of symptoms, could ever hope to reach. The experience of writing “The Judgement” was for Kafka the first point at which an energy greater than could be contained within a human life burst open a wound deep within his being in a joyous release of simultaneous creation and destruction.



  • Several editions and translations of Kafka’s stories are available, including:
  • The Transformation and other stories, trans. Malcolm Pasley, Penguin, 1992
  • Kafka’s Selected Stories, ed. and trans. Stanley Corngold, Norton, 2006
  • The Metamorphosis and other stories, trans. Joyce Crick, Oxford University Press, 2009
  • Other writings by Kafka:
  • The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod, trans, J. Kresh and M. Greenberg, Penguin, 1964
  • Letters to Felice, ed. M. Brod, trans. J. Stern and E. Duckworth, Schocken Books, 1977
  • Letters to Milena, trans. P. Boehm, Schocken Books, 1990
  • Secondary literature:
  • A. Flores (ed.), The Problem of “The Judgment”, Gordian Press, 1977
  • R. Robertson, Kafka. A very short introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004
  • R. Speirs and B. Sandberg, Franz Kafka, Macmillan/Palgrave Modern Novelists, 1997
  • K. Wagenbach, Kafka, trans.E. Osers, Harvard U.P, 2002

Professor Ronald Speirs, Department of German, University of Birmingham