On September 23 it will be 100 years exactly since Franz Kafka wrote his breakthrough story, “The Judgement”. We are probably no nearer to understanding that or any other of his works today than his first readers were, nor should we expect to be. These books help to show us why.
Eighteen months earlier, on March 26, 1911, Kafka noted in his diary: “Theosophical lectures by Dr Rudolf Steiner, Berlin”. After commenting on Steiner’s rhetorical strategy of giving full weight to the views of his opponents, so that “the listener now considers any refutation to be completely impossible and is more than satisfied with a cursory description of the possibility of a defence”, he goes on:
“Continual looking at the palm of the extended hand. – Omission of the period. In general, the spoken sentence starts off from the speaker with its initial capital letter, curves in its course, as far as it can, out to the audience, and returns with the period to the speaker. But if the period is omitted then the sentence, no longer held in check, falls upon the listener immediately with full force.”
Only Kafka could experience language with such intensity and express his response in such a strange and striking way. Two days later he comes back to Steiner in his diary, either to another or to the same lecture, which he proceeds to paraphrase in deadpan fashion, interspersing this with comments about his neighbour:
“Dr Steiner is so very much taken up with his absent disciples. At the lecture the dead press so about him. Hunger for knowledge? But do they really need it? … Löwy Simon, soap dealer on Quai Moncey, Paris, got the best business advice from him … . The wife of the Hofrat therefore has in her notebook, How does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? At S. Löwy’s in Paris.”
(How Does One Achieve Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? was the tantalizing title of one of Steiner’s books.) Yet Kafka is sufficiently impressed to make an appointment to see Steiner in his hotel. “In his room I try to show my humility, which I cannot feel, by seeking out a ridiculous place for my hat. I lay it down on a small wooden stand for lacing boots.” Steiner is gracious, however, and tries to put the young man at his ease by asking if he has been interested in theosophy long. Kafka pushes on with his prepared speech: A great part of his being seems to be striving towards theosophy, while at the same time he greatly fears it. “I have, to be sure, experienced states (not many) which in my opinion correspond very closely to the clairvoyant states described by you, Herr Doktor.” However, he is also aware that in those states he did not write at his best, and since “my happiness, my abilities, and every possibility of being useful in any way have always been in the literary field”, he is terribly torn.
We never hear how Steiner responds to what Kafka has told him. Instead, this:
“He listened very attentively without apparently looking at me at all, entirely devoted to my words. He nodded from time to time, which he seems to consider an aid to strict concentration. At first a quiet head cold disturbed him, his nose ran, he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril.”
And with that Steiner disappears from the diaries.
June O. Leavitt, who begins her book with this episode, describes Kafka here as “ridiculing” Steiner’s claims and “satirizing” his psychic powers and self-appointed mission of enlightening humanity, describing the last paragraph as “facetious”. However, she argues, “Kafka’s yearning for transcendental mind continued despite his disappointing meeting with Steiner”. Throughout his life, she maintains, Kafka was torn between his desire to write and his experience of out-of-body states, which he longed for yet dreaded.
This brings out well how even the most learned and well-meaning critics, if they are not very careful, will start with a slight misreading and end in the further reaches of absurdity. For Kafka’s description of Steiner’s lecture and of their meeting follows the same pattern as everything else in the diary: he notes everything he sees and that happens to him with puzzled and scrupulous detachment. Pace Leavitt, he is not satirizing Steiner or the Frau Hofrat (or himself for the comedy with the hat), but merely noting it all, as though trying to pierce a mystery which is immediately comprehensible to everyone but himself.