An Excerpt From The Chapter “Mycobacterium tuberculosis” in Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Inight

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They had a difficult time with Kafka. His statements about the dangerous illness seem oddly self-assured, sensory, and at times downright theatrical, even to modern readers who have internalized the paradoxical forms of expression of literary modernity. But when we look over the correspondence of that little circle, it seems equally odd that Brod, Weltsch, and Baum had not developed any real feeling for Kafka’s psychological volatility after more than a decade of close personal contact, or understood his vulnerable, literally exposed life and his sense of reality, maintained in spite of it all. This sense of reality was what told him what to do and what not to do for his illness. But it was a far more basic need, over which he had little control, that compelled him to derive meaning from what had happened.

Max Brod feared for the life of his friend, and he recorded his fears in his diary. Kafka himself did not fear the end in the slightest, and for years he was able to suppress the thought that his own death might be preceded by a long, painful, wretched process of dying. His fears centered instead on psychological breakdown, disintegration of his identity, the opening up of his personal boundaries, the proximity of insanity, and the existence, or at least hint, of an ongoing arbitrary, senseless chain of events. Felix Weltsch himself had provided that fateful catchphrase with his claim that “a hundred twists of fate” had a role in this ailment, which was obviously meant as consolation. But for Kafka, the concept of twists of fate stood for the absolutely unendurable, and robbed him of the only psychological weapon he could summon up–namely, to identify with the misfortune, make it part of his own identity, and subject it to the logic of his own life. But twists of fate undermined this integration and made it impossible to come to terms with it or take cover in the psychological shelter of understanding what was happening. But Kafka had reached the breaking point: There was no such thing as meaningless twists of fate; there mustn’t be.

This position was nonnegotiable, and as it turned out, his penchant for theorizing, which his friends gently mocked and regarded as bizarre, was vitally important for Kafka and essential to his psychological survival. He welcomed any and all psychosomatic interpretations because they clarified the catastrophe and thus enhanced his psychological intergration. He rejected anything that called the existential significance of his illness into question. His manner was friendly, but any opposition fell on deaf ears, as evidenced in his reply to Weltsch:

With regard to the causes of my illness, I am not obstinate, but hold to my opinion, since I am to some extent in possession of the original documents about my “case,” and can even hear the first lung in question rattling its approval.

Of course you’re right that the essential thing needed for recovery is the will to recover. I have that, but, to the extent that this can be said without affectation, I also have the opposite will. This is a special illness–you might say an illness bestowed upon me–quite different from the others I have had to deal with previously. Just as a happy lover might say, “Everything in the past was just an illusion; now do I truly love.” (emphasis mine).

An illness bestowed upon me? Kafka was talking as though he were standing at an open grave where no one wanted to hear about terrible twists of fate, no matter how justified by the facts, but rather about tragedy or destiny or suffering inflicted upon him. The language is of a distraught piety, which buttresses the unfathomable with grand pronouncements to provide some sort of focus to eyes darting about in the dark.

But Kafka was not aiming merely at illuminating his misfortune. He always spoke of his illness in positive images. He did not utter a single cry of anguish, and when he did complain on one occasion, it was about the disparity between the uniqueness of his “case” and the somewhat routine “tackling” of a common national epidemic, rather than a failure of his tormented heart, which would have been more consistent metaphorically and therefore made more sense. He wrote to Ottla, “There is undoubtedly justice in this illness; it is a just blow, which, incidentally, I do not feel at all as a blow, but as something quite sweet in comparison with the average course of the past years, so it is just, but so coarse, so earthly, so simple, so well aimed at the most convenient slot. I really think there has got to be some other way out” (196-7).

Portrait by Carl Köhler. Translated by Shelley Frisch.

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