How Kafka’s Eating Disorder Shaped His Writing

08/28/2017 07:30 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2017

“I am made of literature, I am nothing else, and cannot be anything else.”

— Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, August 14, 1913

Drawing by Kafka (1910)
Drawing by Kafka (1910)

Franz Kafka was anorexic. You can read about his illness in German medical journals and in literary criticism of his work. What’s more: his anorexia was intensely tangled with his writing process. Writing was like religion to Kafka, and he believed that fasting made him better at it. He was also an admirer of asceticism, which means he valued discipline and self-control as avenues for reaching transcendence in his work. He worked very hard—and earned a reputation as one of the great modernist writers of all time—but at what cost? Eating disorders are complicated, and Kafka was a strange guy. He was sensitive but neurotic. He was terrified of women, and, perhaps, even more terrified of God. He died in 1924 (very thin, in a sanatorium in Prague), so most of what we know about his internal life comes from his own writing—his personal letters and his fiction. Through his years of correspondence with Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and Max Brod, we can begin to understand the internal life that informed Kafka’s fiction. His eating disorder may have played a bigger role than most people know.

Kafka was underweight his entire life. His sickly thinness has even been written about in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. In 1987, Doctor Manfred Fichter, a psychiatrist at the University of Munich, presented significant evidence from Kafka’s letters, diaries and literary work to show the author’s unusual preoccupation with fasting. Kafka exhibited obsessive-compulsive tendencies (as well as some psychosexual issues), which are commonly linked with anorexia nervosa. His diaries describe a strict avoidance of food, alcohol and even sex. “I dieted in all these directions,” Kafka wrote on January 3, 1912. “When it became clear that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction, and left empty all other of my abilities.” In other words, Kafka focused on art to the exclusion of bodily comfort.

When Kafka was consumed by a creative task, he abstained from consuming food. It was as if he wanted to empty his body in order to fill the page. He believed that shutting his body off from nourishment would help push his writing to a more transcendent level—even as this process caused him to waste away physically. Kafka reduced his world to a writing chamber. Then he reduced his writing chamber to the process of reduction itself. He wanted to become pure, and the more he shrank himself down, the more his art grew up and out of him. He became an autophage (a self-devourer). He became a kind of mystic.

Kafka believed that writing was transcendent. He was like a monk who fasts for religious reasons—fascinated by the idea that strict self-control would lead to sublimation in his art. Max Brod, Kafka’s close friend and biographer, once noted that writing was a “form of prayer” for him. Kafka saw literature as “the earthly reflection of a higher necessity.” He labored passionately to capture “purity” and “truth” in his work, even as this labor exacted a psychological toll. In 1913, Kafka declared in a letter to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, that he was “made of” literature. This is an irrational statement, and, when taken at face value, disconcerting. It shows a bizarre confusion of the figurative and the literal: Kafka wanted his body to be figurative, and he wanted his writing to be literal. He wanted his writing to be more meaningful than his own life. “I can never tear myself open wide enough to people,” he wrote in one of his letters to Felice. Scholar Leslie Heywood points out: this is either tragically romantic, or, possibly, unhinged.

Fasting is a common component in asceticism: strict avoidance of earthly pleasure for spiritual enlightenment. Kafka himself noted that he had a “fabulous innate capacity for asceticism.” But what none of his contemporaries were able to recognize is that the line between asceticism and anorexia can sometimes get blurred. Even though eating disorders have existed since at least the Middle Ages, they have not always been understood. In medieval times, early recorded cases of anorexia were infused with a rapturous or even saintly significance. In the Victorian era they were considered a symptom of hysteria. Today, thanks to advances in medical research, we understand anorexia to be a complex psychological disorder. And yet, our culture continues to romanticize anorexic suffering—most often, these days, in the form of impossible body-image standards, as perpetuated by the 21st-century “religions”: fashion, fitness, celebrity worship, and so on (for men and women both).

In 2008, New York Times book critic Ginia Bellafante explained the disorder well. “Anorexia is a disease of contradiction,” she said. “It demands both discipline and indulgence. The anorexic disappears in order to be seen; she labors to self-improve as she self-annihilates.” Elsewhere, Bellafante has argued that anorexia is an “intellectualized hallucination.” This logic of feverish contradiction applies to Kafka well. Anorexics are often high achievers—always at the expense of their own health. Kafka’s health was notoriously poor: a sign that he was locked in a constant battle against his body. Kafka may have believed he was in control of his appetites, but it is more likely that he was, in fact, helplessly out of control. This is just one of the many contradictions that seem to have characterized his life.

Throughout his prolific career, Kafka subscribed to a few extreme, eccentric habits that are worth noting. He was a hypochondriac. He was a vegetarian and fastidious exerciser. He was an impeccable dresser—famous for his spotless linens and elegant suits—but he also had a reputation for being neurotic, secretive and peevish. He was effeminate, but has also been labeled as a womanizer, who maintained passionate correspondences with several girlfriends and fiancées—although he never married. His whole life, Kafka shuttled restlessly, paradoxically, between grandiosity and self-disgust. In a letter to his second fiancée, Milena Jesenská, he once confessed, “No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell.” This would have been a beautiful line if it were not immediately preceded by this tortured admission: “I am dirty, Milena, infinitely dirty, this is why I scream so much about purity.” Kafka obviously carried a great deal of darkness inside him. Several of his biographers have even speculated that he was secretly gay.

It is true that Kafka struggled with relationships his whole life—to women, to his father and to God. He was “the poet of his own disorder,” wrote historian Saul Friedländer. For example, Kafka’s first fiancée, Felice Bauer, was his muse for many years. But their relationship took place almost entirely in agonized letters. Felice lived in Berlin and Kafka lived in Prague, and when it came to the actual wedding, Kafka got cold feet at the last minute and called the whole thing off. He did this to her twice. In this light, the theory that Kafka was dealing with repressed homosexuality begins to make sense. He suffered from loneliness, and he feared that people would find him repulsive. He feared mediocrity. He was Jewish but uneasy with his relationship to God. As a writer, Kafka developed a complicated sense of divine justice, discipline, punishment and imprisonment—themes that influence his most enduring works of fiction (The Trial, “The Judgment”, “In the Penal Colony”). He struggled endlessly with God.

“God” as an idea became the overpowering counterpart to Kafka’s own imagination. On November 9, 1903 he wrote in a letter to a classmate, “God does not want me to write, but I, I must.” Kafka was twenty when he wrote this. It is difficult to imagine a young person moved by such a strong conviction to write in defiance of God. And yet, this emphatic assertion—“I must”—foretells a lot about Kafka’s more mature work, which was yet to come. The writer’s relationship with his father was also fraught; to the point that the “distant, disapproving, forbidding father figure” is now a favorite topic of discussion in literary analysis of his work. Kafka’s father did not see much value in writing as a career, which may have fueled the son’s exaggerated sense that writing was in fact a sacred task. Basically: it does not seem far-fetched to say that Kafka’s desire to close himself off from the world—to suppress and control his own body through fasting—stemmed from a deep longing to simply be accepted.

Kafka’s relationship to writing was itself plagued with contradictions. He strove for unattainable perfection in his work (just like most artists of spiritual destitution—Baudelaire, Pascal and Kierkegaard to name a few). Kafka was striving for literary transcendence, but he was also vexed the failure of these strivings. In July 1922, he wrote to Max Brod, “Writing sustains me, but what sort of life is that is thus sustained?” Writing was supposed to be his calling, but it may have also been his curse. Writing was supposed to be his freedom, but in pursuing it, he was forced to shut himself inside a cage to keep the world out. Metaphors of prisons and cages appear often in his work. In describing his own creative process, Kafka often uses metaphors of physicality. As he wrote to Felice: “The world… and my ego are tearing my body apart in a conflict that there is no resolving.” It’s almost like writing itself is a kind of bodily performance: a penance, an exaltation. Writing is a barely habitable place where these contradictions merge.

At the same time, admirers of German language will tell you that Kafka’s words resonate with a unique clarity and beauty—which is indeed transcendent in the way of great art. His stories are alive with tension, impossible to reduce or flatten. Volumes and volumes of analysis have been written about his work. Saul Friedländer explains how much substance Kafka’s work encompasses: Kafka “was the messenger of an anti-patriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, and an iconic voice of High Modernism.” Clearly, only a writer of great contradiction could accomplish all of that.

In his iconic 1922 story, “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka describes a man who starves himself publicly—as a performance. The hunger artist sits in a cage in the town square and relishes in the awe of spectators, even though he is the “only spectator capable of being completely satisfied with his own fasting.” The hunger artist feels that being marveled at is his main purpose in life, but, eventually, the crowds lose interest. Even the groundskeepers forget about him, and he slowly wastes away, losing track, even, of how many days he has gone without food. Right before he dies, the hunger artist beckons an attendant close to his cage and whispers, “You shouldn’t admire [my fasting]… because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else.” In the end, he is replaced by a young panther, which pleases the crowd immensely.

Like a lot of Kafka’s work, “A Hunger Artist” is a story that defies interpretation. Maybe the title character can be read as a metaphor for all artists who struggle to be recognized for their work. Or maybe the hunger artist is performing a self-erasure—a public suicide. He stakes his identity in the very activity that will eliminate him. This is ironic because the hunger artist is not really making art; he’s seeking praise and attention for a spectacle of disappearing, which only he can appreciate. It is a perfect demonstration of anorexic logic. The hunger artist cancels himself out, and in the process clears the way for the panther, which “lacks nothing… never seemed once to miss its freedom. Its noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, even appears to carry freedom around with it.” Just like the way that Kafka cancels himself out to make room for his art to enter the world, the hunger artist vanishes so that the panther can appear in all its impressive vitality. The story of the hunger artist bears striking similarities to Kafka’s own personal struggles with hunger and eating. Kafka’s art was only made possible through deep conflict with his own body. It therefore comes as no surprise that he was working on final edits of the story on his deathbed.

Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924. He was 40, and he never achieved much recognition for his writing during his lifetime. He worked as an insurance clerk his whole life. Kafka also famously requested that his manuscripts and letters be burned after he died. But his friend, Max Brod, could not bring himself to burn these documents. Brod published several works, and he also carried a suitcase full of Kafka’s diaries and sketches with him, in 1939, when he fled Prague for Israel. Brod died in 1968, at which point Kafka’s papers eventually went to the National Library of Israel. The publication of Kafka’s letters to Felice and Milena probably would have mortified the poet. But, ultimately, Kafka’s letters are how we know that he was anorexic. Writer Erich Heller notes, quite eloquently, in his introduction to Letters to Felice that Kafka’s desire for his manuscripts to be destroyed may have represented a hope that “after they had been burned, [they] would rise again from the ashes, purified, in unheard-of beauty and perfection.” Even though the papers never did get burned, perhaps they have ultimately achieved the kind of purity and perfection Kafka longed for. His work is, indeed, transcendent.



Further reading:

Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt by Saul Friedländer, Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach, Dedication to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture by Leslie Heywood, The Imperative to Write: Destitutions of the Sublime in Kafka, Blanchot, and Beckett by Jeff Fort

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