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Karl, F.R. (1998). In the Struggle between You and Kafka, Back Yourself. Am. Imago, 55(2):189-204.

(1998). American Imago, 55(2):189-204

In the Struggle between You and Kafka, Back Yourself

Frederick R. Karl

“In the struggle between you and the world, back the world”—Kafka

It is an article of faith in all Kafka biography that his lifelong struggle was with his father. Franz, who was named after the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph, seemingly became weak, passive, fearful, impotent when confronted with the physically large, forceful, demanding, apparently omnipotent father, Hermann—a godlike figure in the Prague household. Kafka of course wrote about this personal agony we recall, in his now very famous “Letter to His Father,” in 1919, when he, Franz, was thirty-six years old. The son's attack came on several fronts: that at mealtimes his father was disgusting—especially his cleaning out of his ears with a toothpick; that his father brought Franz and his sisters up by means of irony—which suggests disrespect, condescension, verbal hostility; that Hermann resented nearly everything Franz tried to do, and particularly mocked his very mild sexual escapades; that Franz stammered or “hesitated” because of the father; that the shape of the family, in fact the map of the world, was dominated by the father's large presence; that the images of extreme violence in Kafka's work—for example, in “In the Penal Colony” or in numerous notebook entries—are perceptions of Franz as his father's chosen victim; that Hermann spoke of the children in the past, as if they were no longer in the home, or else dead, humiliating them by failing to acknowledge their presence; that Hermann created sexual disgust in the son, no more than when they undressed together at bathing establishments—Hermann built on a large scale, Kafka with an almost skeletal frame.

This Oedipal battle continued throughout Kafka's adult life (he died at forty).

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