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The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague

April 11, 2002 - January 5, 2003


Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue)
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Prague

Old Synagogue and Town Hall of Prague
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Prague

The Primal Scene

A cage went in search of a bird.
--Kafka, “Fragments from Notebooks and Loose Pages”

Franz Kafka was born into a myth called Prague, a city in which Czechs, Germans, and Jews lived side by side for centuries, yet were separated by culture, ethnicity, and language. These divisions left their mark on the city’s face, turning districts into hermetically sealed compartments and creating invisible boundaries. However, they did not define the ultimate nature of the cage. This we may intuit from the bird’s point of view.

Let us imagine a child, a German-speaking Jewish boy, who is a mystery to himself, an enigma surrounded by dead brothers, distant sisters, cold governesses, and a caustic cook. He is besieged by a world that he experiences through a veil of fear and guilt, a world where his father’s personality expands in all directions, leaving very little space for the life of a hypersensitive son.

The Jewish Quarter of Prague.

This area, known as Josefstad, extended from the edge of Old Town Square to the Charles Bridge, which spans the Moldava River. For centuries, the ghetto was home to scholars of the Kabbalah and other Jewish mystics, learned Hasidim, alchemists, astronomers, and astrologers. In time, however, Josefstad became a squalid district of decaying houses, brothels, and junk shops. By the time Kafka was born, in 1883, very few of the traditions remained. In 1895, the city began a drastic restoration of the district, part of an ambitious and radical ten-year urban renovation project. The old ghetto lives on in Kafka’s writings; in fiction by Leo Perutz, Paul Leppin, and Johannes Urzidil; and most vividly in the phantasmagoric atmosphere of Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel The Golem.

The Hilsner Case.

On April 1, 1899, near Polná, on the border between Bohemia and Moravia, the murdered body of a young Christian woman named Anezka Hruzova was found. Because the death took place close to Passover, the local Christian population interpreted it as a Jewish ritual murder. Although there was no evidence to support an indictment, Leopold Hilsner, a Jewish cobbler, was accused of the crime.

The Hilsner Case—later considered the Dreyfus Affair of Central Europe—was part of a wave of anti-Semitism that swept the kingdom of Bohemia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although the subsequent attacks against Jews did not directly affect the Kafka family, they very likely influenced Franz’s childhood and youth, as they were openly reported in the Prague press. Traditionally, the persecution of Jews had been carried out by German and Czech groups on religious grounds, but by the late nineteenth century it had acquired the racist overtones of theories promoted by Georg Ritter von Schönerer. Schönerer, among others. Schönerer was the founder of the German National Party, which proposed the unification of all ethnic groups of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under German rule—except Jews.

The Shadow of Hermann Kafka.

Kafka’s famous “Letter to His Father,” written in 1919 but never read by the person to whom it was addressed, is a unique autobiographical and literary document. Childhood and adolescence, family and friendships, profession and vocation, literature and marriage, the rejection of an empty Judaism and the search for its authentic roots—all of Kafka’s conflicts unfold in this desperate outpouring to and diatribe against his father. It is generally interpreted as a classical example of the Oedipus complex as formulated by Freud. Yet the letter goes further, turning Kafka’s dispute with his father into an endless leave-taking, and a rejection with universal implications.

Life in a Circle

The life of society moves in a circle.
--Kafka, quoting Dostoyevsky’s “Letter to a Woman Painter”

Model of the old town (1826-1834) where Kafka's first three homes, his school, the university, and his office were located

Installation shot,
The City of K.
Franz Kafka and Prague, Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona

One day, when Kafka and his Hebrew teacher, Friedrich Thieberger were looking out over Old Town Square from a window of Oppelt House, Kafka pointed out his secondary school in Kinsky Palace; what they could see of the university where he had studied law; and, a little farther away, the location of his office. The writer twice gestured in a small circumference, condensing his entire existential space. “This small circle contains my whole life,” he told Thieberger. Prague had become both cage and refuge, a place that protected him from the natural world, but also a place that the writer changed in his dreams. We see how Kafka slowly creates the mesh, weaves the web, lays the foundations of his mysterious literary architecture.

Kafka’s world was only deceptively narrow. It consisted of intersecting Prague circles that included intimate friends, fellow writers at the Café Arco, and those who, like him, frequented Berta Fanta’s intellectual salon at the Unicorn House.

Kafka’s Body.

Kafka first experienced the contradictions of urban modernity within the family circle, during visits to his father’s fancy goods shop. His initial fascination with his native bourgeois sphere, however, was gradually penetrated and finally undermined by his discomfort with his own body, even as he moved into the wider circles of Prague’s Jewish intelligentsia. Although his photographs and Max Brod’s biography reveal Kafka to have been a bit of a dandy, his Diaries tell us that he hated his “miserable appearance,” which he attributed to the “awful clothes” that started him off on the road to self-contempt: “I let the awful clothes affect even my posture, walked around with my back bowed, my shoulders drooping, my hands and arms at awkward angles, was afraid of mirrors.”

The Inner Circle.

The Austrian-born Max Brod (1884–1968) was a leading figure in German-speaking Czech intellectual circles from the beginning of the twentieth century until his exile to Israel in 1939. Brod was a prolific and wide-ranging writer, but he is chiefly remembered as Kafka’s friend, executor, and first biographer. Their friendship began in 1902 and deepened over the years. They traveled together to Italy, Weimar, Paris, and Switzerland. At the end of his life, Kafka, in Kafkaesque fashion, asked Brod to burn almost all of his manuscripts, but his friend—not without feelings of guilt—disobeyed him, thereby bequeathing to us what Jorge Luis Borges called “the most singular works of our century.”

The Philosophy Circle at the Fanta Home.

Like Madame de Staël, the French-Swiss woman of letters, Berta Fanta hosted a preeminent intellectual salon. The soirees at her house in Prague—which was distinguished by the unicorn on the façade—might feature readings from Hegel, Fichte, and Kant. Lectures explored major new topics of the time, such as psychoanalysis, the theory of relativity, transfinite numbers, and quantum theory. Besides Kafka, Max Brod, and Felix Weltsch, other frequent visitors were the mathematician Gerhard Kowalewski, the philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels, the physician Philipp Frank, and the physicist Albert Einstein, who was then teaching in Prague.

Café Arco.

The Café Arco, at Hibernergasse 16, was where the young German-speaking Prague writers—known as “the arconauts”—met. Kafka himself best defined their dilemma in a letter to Max Brod: “[The Jewish writers] live beset by three impossibilities: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German and the impossibility of writing differently, and we could add a fourth impossibility: the impossibility of writing at all.”

First Publications.

In his youth, Kafka was particularly reticent to show his work. When Max Brod began to publicize his early writings, Kafka furiously rejected the entire literary machine, which Brod knew inside out. The mundane aspects of a writer’s existence seemed to Kafka painfully, even dangerously, incompatible with his idea of what that life should be: independent and uncompromised by any demands extraneous to the work.

The Civil Servant and the Artist

I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else.
--Kafka, Diaries, 1910–1923

Installation shot,
The City of K:
Franz Kafka and Prague, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

There are certain existential conflicts that contribute to the ills of modern society. The incompatibility of vocation and profession is one of them. For Kafka, the struggle to balance his artistic calling and his civil job would prove catastrophic, even as it provided the material and truth of his fiction. When he chose literature as the only avenue that offered a chance for liberation, he was already an attorney in the service of the imperial Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. The problem for Kafka lay in the anguish that this double life caused him, and the tremendous tension it involved.

Kafka became a double agent. A bureaucrat in a world of bureaucrats, he could have been a candidate for the annual lawyers’ convention he imagined in one of his short stories. At the same time, in His Majesty’s Secret Service he pursued his art. This pursuit drained him and drove him to become a representative witness of his century.

A den of bureaucrats.

When he joined the Workers’ Accident Insurance Bureau, Kafka was appointed to the most important division, insurance assessment, at the orders of the superior inspector, Eugen Pfohl. Kafka was entrusted with statistical tasks, “important appeals” and “hierarchical appeals.” However, it was not long before his “outstanding intelligence” led to his being assigned to accident prevention, a function of the highest responsibility. This brought him into direct contact with the more negative aspects of the process of industrialization: an increase in bureaucracy, dehumanization of workers, and a dramatic rise in the number of accidents. Kafka had a good relationship with his superiors, for whom he wrote speeches and a vast number of reports, but he ultimately became disillusioned and bored, to the point of describing his working environment as a “den of bureaucrats.”

The God of Suffocation

For each invalid his household god, for the tubercular the god of suffocation.
--Kafka, Diaries, 1910–1923

Installation shot,
The City of K:
Franz Kafka and Prague, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

One night in August 1917, in his apartment in the Schönborn Palace, Kafka started coughing up blood. His lungs hemorrhaged for ten interminable minutes; the subsequent diagnosis almost immediately confirmed what he expected—tuberculosis. Kafka was not surprised. He described his situation with implacable lucidity as he knew he would never regain his health. He had been aware for some time that his existential drama was leading to a great illness, one to which the writer accorded a symbolic dimension, perceiving it as the climax of his relentless inner battle.

Kafka became obsessed with the spiritual world. It was the only thing he admitted as real, and through it he established a link with Jewish mysticism. From the writer Kafka feared he would never be, he took the substance of autobiography and turned it into fiction and yet again into testimony. Doubting, trusting, and denying himself, writing until the end, Kafka constructed the City of K. Let us see what happens in the advanced stages of this metamorphosis.

“A Hunger Artist.”

Kafka read the proofs of this short story when he was dying of starvation due to an inflammation of the larynx that made it impossible for him to eat. His friend Robert Klopstock described the sight as a “macabre spectacle”: the dying Kafka correcting the galleys of a story about a professional faster starving to death in his cage, forgotten by everyone. The “hunger artist” fasts because he has no choice—he has never found any food that he likes. We should remember here that, for many years of his adult life, Kafka was a committed vegetarian with a wry sense of humor: on one occasion, he commented that vegetarians have it easy—they eat their own flesh.


During the last weeks of his life, Kafka also had to contend with thirst. He was unable to speak, his communication with the world reduced to the “conversation sheets,” on which he expressed his terrible desire to drink water, “a great mouthful of water,” “good mineral water,” and noted that certain flowers, such as lilacs, “drink when they die, still continue to drink.”

The last letter.

While in the throes of his final illness, Kafka studied Hebrew, attended lectures at the Berlin Academy for Jewish Studies, and expressed an interest in immigrating to Palestine. As he faced his mortality, his great conflict with his father eased and the psychological walls he felt surrounding him began to disintegrate. In his last letter to his parents, he said how lovely a visit from them would be, yet also stated that “there is too much that argues against it.” Even as he was approaching death, Kafka struck both a nostalgic and a conflicted chord.

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