Born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, capital of what is now the Czech Republic, writer Franz Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. After studying law at the University of Prague, he worked in insurance and wrote in the evenings. In 1923, he moved to Berlin to focus on writing, but died of tuberculosis shortly after. His friend Max Brod published most of his work posthumously, such as Amerika and The Castle.
Writer Franz Kafka was the son of a well-to-do Jewish family who was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, a kingdom that was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Tragedy shaped the Kafka home. Franz’s two younger brothers, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy by the time Kafka was 6, leaving the boy the only son in a family that included three daughters.
Kafka had a difficult relationship with both of his parents. His mother, Julie, was a devoted homemaker who lacked the intellectual depth to understand her son’s dreams to become a writer. Kafka’s father, Hermann, had a forceful personality that often overwhelmed the Kafka home. He was a success in business, making his living retailing men’s and women’s clothes.
Kafka’s father had a profound impact on both Kafka’s life and writing. He was a tyrant of sorts, with a wicked temper and little appreciation for his son’s creative side. Much of Kafka’s personal struggles, in romance and other relationships, came, he believed, in part from his complicated relationship with his father. In his literature, Kafka’s characters were often coming up against an overbearing power of some kind, one that could easily break the will of men and destroy their sense of self-worth.
Kafka seems to have derived much of his value directly from to his family, in particular his father. For much of his adult life, he lived within close proximity to his parents.
German was his first language. In fact, despite his Czech background and Jewish roots, Kafka’s identity favored German culture.
Kafka was a smart child who did well in school even at the Altstädter Staatsgymnasium, an exacting high school for the academic elite. Still, even while Kafka earned the respect of his teachers, he chafed under their control and the school’s control of his life.
After high school Kafka enrolled at the Charles Ferdinand University of Prague, where intended to study chemistry but after just two weeks switched to law. The change pleased his father, and also gave Kafka the time to take classes in art and literature.
In 1906 Kafka completed his law degree and embarked on a year of unpaid work as a law clerk.
After completing his apprenticeship, Kafka found work with an Italian insurance agency in late 1907. It was a terrible fit from the start, with Kafka forced to work a tiring schedule that left little time for his writing.
He lasted at the agency a little less than a year. After turning in his resignation he quickly found a new job with the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia.
As much as any work could, the job and his employers suited Kafka, who worked hard and became his boss’s right-hand man. Kafka remained with the company until 1917, when a bout with tuberculosis forced him to take a sick leave and to eventually retire in 1922.
Love and Health
At work Kafka was a popular employee, easy to socialize with and seen as somebody with a good sense of humor. But his personal life still raged with complications. His inhibitions and insecurities plagued his relationships. Twice he was engaged to marry his girlfriend, Felice Bauer, before the two finally went their separate ways in 1917.
Later, Kafka later fell in love with Dora Dymant (Diamant), who shared his Jewish roots and a preference for socialism. Amidst Kafka’s increasingly dire health, the two fell in love and lived together in Berlin. Their relationship largely centered on Kafka’s illnesses. For many years, even before he contracted tuberculosis, Kafka had not been well. Constantly strained and stressed, he suffered from migraines, boils, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Kafka and Dora eventually returned to Prague. In an attempt to overcome his tuberculosis, Kafka traveled to Vienna for treatment at a sanatorium. He died in Kierling, Austria, on June 3, 1924. He was buried beside his parents in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery in Olsanske.
Body of Work
While Kafka strove to earn a living, he also poured himself into his writing work. An old friend named Max Brod would prove crucial in supporting Kafka’s literary work both during his life and long after it.
Kafka’s celebrity as a writer only came after his death. During his lifetime, he published just a sliver of his overall work.
His most popular and best-selling short story, “The Metamorphosis,” was completed in 1912 and published in 1915. The story was written from Kafka’s third-floor room, which offered a direct view of the Vltava River and its toll bridge.
“I would stand at the window for long periods,” he wrote in his diary in 1912, “and was frequently tempted to amaze the toll collector on the bridge below by my plunge.”
Kafka followed up “The Metamorphosis” with Mediation, a collection of short stories, in 1913, and then “Before the Law,” a short story, a year later.
Even with his worsening health, Kafka continued to write. In 1916 he completed “The Judgment,” which spoke directly about the relationship he shared with his father. Later works included “In the Penal Colony” and “A Country Doctor,” both finished in 1919.
In 1924, an ill but still working Kafka finished A Hunger Artist, which features four stories that demonstrate the concise and lucid style that marked his writing at the end of his life.
But Kafka, still living with the demons that plagued with him self-doubt, was reluctant to unleash his work on the world. He requested that Brod, who doubled as his literary executor, destroy any unpublished manuscripts.
Fortunately, Brod did not adhere to his friend’s wishes and in 1925 publishedThe Trial, a dark, paranoid tale that proved to be the author’s most successful novel. The story centers on the life of Joseph K., who is forced to defend himself in a hopeless court system against a crime that is never revealed to him or to the reader.
The following year, Brod released The Castle, which again railed against a faceless and dominating bureaucracy. In the novel, the protagonist, whom the reader knows only as K., tries to meet with the mysterious authorities who rule his village.
In 1927, the novel Amerika was published. The story hinges on a boy, Karl Rossmann, who is sent by his family to America, where his innocence and simplicity are exploited everywhere he travels. Amerika struck at the same father issues that were prevalent in so much of Kafka’s other work. But the story also spoke to Kafka’s love of travel books and memoirs (he adored The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin) and his longing to see the world.
In 1931, Brod published the short story “The Great Wall of China,” which Kafka had originally crafted 14 years before.
Incredibly, at the time of his death Kafka’s name was known only to small group of readers. It was only after he died and Max Brod went against the demands of his friend that Kafka and his work gained fame. His books garnered favor during World War II, especially, and greatly influenced German literature.
As the 1960s took shape and Eastern Europe was under the fist of bureaucratic Communist governments, Kafka’s writing resonated particularly strongly with readers. So alive and vibrant were the tales that Kafka spun about man and faceless organizations that a new term was introduced into the English lexicon: “Kafkaesque.”
The measure of Kafka’s appeal and value as a writer was quantified in 1988, when his handwritten manuscript of The Trial was sold at auction for $1.98 million, at that point the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript.
The buyer, a West German book dealer, gushed after his purchase was finalized. “This is perhaps the most important work in 20th-century German literature,” he said, “and Germany had to have it.”
An Animated Intro to G.W.F. Hegel, and Everything Else You Wanted to Know About the Daunting German Philosopher
There’s no way around it, German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is incredibly difficult to understand. And yet, his work, like few others since Plato, has been reduced over and over again to one idea—the “Hegelian dialectic” of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” As a 1996 beginner’s guide to Hegel phrases it, this “triadic structure” is the “organic, fractal form” of the effusive thinker’s logic. The formula is what most lay people learn of Hegel, and often no more. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Hegel himself never used these terms in this way. As Gustav E. Mueller has written of this “most vexing and devastating legend,” Hegel “does not use this ‘triad’ once” in all twenty volumes of his complete works, nor “does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth century.” So where does the idea come from?
From Hegel’s interpreters, who—baffled by his “obscurity” and “peculiar terminology and style”—have imposed all sorts of clarifying (or distorting) concepts on his work. In his animated School of Life video introduction above, Alain de Botton begins with the problem of Hegel’s famous difficulty. Hegel’s writing has generally been thought of as “horrible”—obscure, overstuffed, tangled, “confusing and complicated when it should be clear and direct.” I can’t speak to his German, but this certainly seems to be the case in English. Yet, whether anyone can say what a philosopher’s work “should be” seems like a matter of interpretive bias. How can we, after all, separate a thinker’s ideas from his or her prose, as though these things can exist independently of each other? De Botton continues with another should:
He tapped into a weakness of human nature: to be trustful of grave-sounding, incomprehensible prose. This has made philosophy much weaker in the world than it should be, and it’s made it much harder to hear the valuable things that Hegel has to say to us.
The video goes on to make a short list of “a small number of lessons” we can take from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to find out what de Botton thinks those are. Some may find in his tidy summations a useful guide to Hegel’s thought, others a further oversimplification of a philosophy that deliberately resists easy reading. No doubt, whatever we make of Hegel, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that his thinking easily boils down to a “Hegelian dialectic.”
For those seeking to understand why his work has been so influential despite, or because of, its legendary difficulty, there are numerous resources online. One might start with “Hegel by Hypertext,” a huge compendium of introductory and biographical material, analysis, discussion, links, and Hegel’s own writing. Hegel.netcollects excerpts and full texts of the philosopher’s work in both German and English, as well as “works of Hegel’s 19th century followers” on both the right and left. Hegel’s most famous interpreter was of course Karl Marx, and you will find in every archive a number of commentaries and critiques from Marx himself and several Marxist thinkers.
The Hegel Society of America also gives us articles on Hegel from a range of thinkers across the political spectrum. Finally, we should attempt, as best we can, to grapple with Hegel’s own words, and we can do so with all of his major work on line in translation at the University of Adelaide’s eBooks library. For two very different ways of reading Hegel, see professor Rick Roderick’s lecture on “Hegel and Modern Life” and Slavoj Žižek’s lecture on “The Limits of Hegel,” above. And should you feel that any or all of these interpreters misrepresent the formidable German philosopher, have a listen to the lecture below by Dr. Justin Burke entitled, appropriately, “Everything You Know About Hegel is Wrong.”