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Writing the Unwritable

Exploring the Differend in Kafkas’s Letter to His Father
by Christian Fischer

Franz Kafka’s over forty page long, sprawling Brief an den Vater (1919) never reached its addressee, because he never sent it to him. However – was it ever meant to reach him? In the following lines I want to discuss the possible addressees with special regard to the differend, as defined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Differend. Phrases in Dispute.

In the letter, Kafka responds to a question of his father, Hermann Kafka, why he maintains to be afraid of him. He then recapitulates his life with his father and thereby shows that he has always been a tyrant for him. Franz felt guilty all his life and his father gave him this feeling by expecting a gratitude that Franz never showed and could never show. His father’s physical and psychological strong presence was so overwhelming for Franz, who had completely different interests than his father had and wanted his son to have, that he actually tried to escape him several times – and failed. Franz furthermore describes traumatic scenes of his youth, in which the much stronger father always tyrannized the young Franz. Later in his life there are also Franz’ several attempts to marry, another means to escape the father’s shadow into his own life, that originate from the difficult relationship with Hermann Kafka. Of course, every attempt is doomed from the beginning on because there is no way for Franz to free himself from this overwhelming and omnipresent father-figure. „[…] Du warst für mich das Maß aller Dinge.” (FK 151)

Then, at the very end of his letter, he even comes up with his version of a possible response letter from the father. In so doing, most of his former arguments seem to become relative and even wrong. In fact, this passage, Franz Kafka speaking with the imaginary voice of Hermann Kafka, is the key element of the letter to his father and will be the center of the following attempt to show the desperate situation Franz Kafka finds himself in. Furthermore the letter, in its entirety, might also show Kafka’s way of escaping his father’s influence, or better, be this way.

As a first step, one should ask who the true addressee of the letter is. Did it really fail to reach him, because Hermann Kafka never got it? Or could the intended recipient also be a third person, an unknown reader? Or every possible reader? Or even Kafka himself? And if the father is not the true addressee of the letter, then why was Kafka writing it?

To find out about this, one first has to uncover, in exactly what kind of desperate situation, in which there seems to be nothing he could do to better it, Kafka finds himself in. Jean-François Lyotard establishes the term of the wrong: “This is what a wrong [tort] would be: a damage [dommage] accompanied by the loss of the means to prove the damage.” (L 5) Kafka certainly got this damage very early in his youth, the description of his father as he perceived him as a child is that of a true monster:

„Dich aber hörte und sah ich im Geschäft schreien, schimpfen und wüten, wie es meiner damaligen Meinung nach in der ganzen Welt nicht wieder vorkam. Und nicht nur Schimpfen, auch sonstige Tyrannei.” (FK 172)

This is one of many passages in which Franz is terrified by the sheer presence of his father, even though he is not yelling at Franz but at his employees. This disturbed father-son relationship can be found in a concentrated form when Franz describes a traumatic incident:

„Ich winselte einmal in der Nacht immerfort um Wasser, gewiß nicht aus Durst, sondern wahrscheinlich teils um zu ärgern, teils um mich zu unterhalten. Nachdem einige starke Drohungen nicht geholfen hatten, nahmst Du mich aus dem Bett, trugst mich auf die Pawlatsche und ließest mich dort allein vor der geschlossenen Tür ein Weilchen im Hemd stehen. […]
Noch nach Jahren litt ich unter der quälenden Vorstellung, daß der riesige Mann, mein Vater, die letzte Instanz fast ohne Grund kommen und mich in der Nacht aus dem Bett auf die Pawlatsche tragen konnte und daß ich also ein solches Nichts für ihn war.“ (FK 149)

This is a remarkable passage in many concerns. First of all, it is the way, Kafka describes himself. He does not cry, but “winseln”, which has two negative connotations: It indicates that Franz was really getting on the nerves of his father (and therefore takes the blame in the beginning of the incident’s description), and also that the one doing it („winseln”) is not only small but rather pathetic as well. In the next insertion („gewiß nicht aus Durst, sondern wahrscheinlich teils um zu ärgern, teils um mich zu unterhalten”) Kafka stresses his own guilt by blaming himself for the attempt to annoy („ärgern”) his father or at least to do it for his own entertainment. The father’s way of punishing his son seems to be justified on the one hand, but, on the other hand, trying to see the situation objectively, without being manipulated by Kafka’s weighted choice of words, far too extreme. Even the description of the punishment itself seems to convey it as being more harmless than it may have been: His father keeps him outside for a little while („ein Weilchen”) – Kafka uses the trivialized form of the noun. One should not forget at this point, that the older Kafka writes about, or even in the perspective of, the young Kafka.

In many psychoanalytical interpretations of the letter (some of them finding an unsolved Oedipus complex) the lonely Kafka on the “Pawlatsche” is also one of the key scenes. It would go beyond the scope of this interpretation to consider Freudian readings of the letter to his father but the possibility of an unsolved Oedipus complex might help to understand the complexity of Kafka’s trauma and the hopelessness of his situation.

Afterwards, when writing about the consequences this punishment had for him, he does not trivialize the situation any more – it seems to be the more grown up voice of Kafka speaking about a „quälende Vorstellung”. To sum it up, one can say that Kafka’s father truly did tyrannize his son, but surprisingly Kafka chooses a very mild language to describe his nightmares, indeed, he seems to use two entirely different voices: the young and the old Kafka.

As one can now see; the first part of Lyotard’s definition of the wrong is fulfilled: the damage. However, Kafka, at first glance, does not seem to fulfill the second prerequisite, which is the loss of the means to prove the damage, because he can testify that his father tyrannized him and even stresses this by speaking with two different voices: the young Kafka seems to be the witness for the older Kafka, appearing as the plaintiff. But is this really true? Can Kafka be a plaintiff?

Looking closely at the text previously, revealed that the surprisingly mild language does not seem to fit the image of a plaintiff. This is one of the first indications of Kafka’s inability to be such a plaintiff. In fact, he appears to be a victim; as Lyotard defines it:

“It is in the nature of a victim not to be able to prove that one has been done a wrong. A plaintiff is someone who has incurred damages and who disposes of the means to prove it. One becomes a victim if one loses these means.” (L 8)

It first seemed that Kafka had the means to prove the damage, because by speaking with the voice of the young Kafka, he is a direct witness of his trauma. Yet, there remains one fundamental problem, the reason why Kafka can never be a plaintiff and must always be a victim: his father is also his judge. Lyotard goes on: “One loses them, for example, if the author of the damages turns out directly or indirectly to be one’s judge.” (L 8)

Kafka fully understands this vicious circle – that is the reason why he uses such mild language to describe his father’s cruelties and, at the end of his own letter, writes in the name of the father and thereby reveals that what his father did to him is even more than just a crime. Moreover, it is the “perfect crime”, as Lyotard explains:

“Reciprocally, the “perfect crime” does not consist in killing the victim or the witnesses […], but rather in obtaining the silence of the witnesses, the deafness of the judges, and the inconsistency (insanity) of the testimony.” (L 8)

The literal silence of the witness, therefore, no longer surprises: Kafka never gave the letter to his father and he never published it, because it would not have changed anything. With his father being the judge, he could never prove the wrong that he did to him and therefore had to remain the silent victim. What Lyotard calls the "inconsistency of the testimony” is also already recognized by Kafka when he writes the imaginative answer of his father:

„Lebensuntüchtig bist Du; um es Dir aber darin bequem einrichten zu können, beweist Du, daß ich alle Deine Lebenstüchtigkeit Dir genommen und in meine Taschen gesteckt habe.“ (FK 215)

Kafka himself realizes that he cannot escape, that he has to remain the victim. At the very end, Kafka says something remarkable about his father’s possible answer, now with his own voice again:

„[…] mit der Korrektur, die sich durch diesen Einwurf ergibt, eine Korrektur, die ich im einzelnen weder ausführen kann noch will, ist meiner Meinung nach doch etwas der Wahrheit so sehr Angenähertes erreicht, daß es uns beide ein wenig beruhigen und Leben und Sterben leichter machen kann.“
(FK 217)

He calls the imagined answer a correction („eine Korrektur“). Without this alteration, in which he himself lets his father be the judge and destroy Franz’ former arguments, the image would be wrong. Thus, the image Kafka is creating of the relationship can only come close to the truth („der Wahrheit so sehr Angenähertes”) when including the imaginary reply, in which the father appears as the judge. This indicates that Kafka knows about being a victim and, even more importantly, being doomed to stay the victim. Therefore, it is essential, that Kafka cannot explain the correction, as he says “eine Korrektur, die ich im einzelnen weder ausführen kann noch will”. He literally cannot say what he wants to and therefore uses the structure of an imagined reply. What Kafka tries to express here, therefore, is a differend as Lyotard defines it: “I would like to call a differend [différend] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim.” (L 9) Lyotard furthermore explains that a differend can not be expressed by means of ordinary communication:

“In the differend, something 'asks' to be put into phrases, and suffers from the wrong of not being able to put into phrases right away. This is when the human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication learn […] that they must be allowed to institute idioms which do net yet exist.” (L 13)

So maybe Kafka’s inability of explaining the correction he made by including his father’s possible answer is the proof that he only has an idea of what he wants to say, but no means to do so. Because he is obviously trying to express the differend, he manages it, as far as this is possible, by creating the father’s voice. Therefore he cannot speak the truth, but something very close to it („der Wahrheit so sehr Angenähertes”). The letter consequently only works as a contrast between the voice(s) of the son and the imagined voice of the father – in so doing it reaches a high level of describing the differend, but it also shows that Franz is and will always be the victim.

Coming back to the question, who might be the addressee of this letter, one can now assume that it might not be the father. As the judge, he would have nothing but another proof of his sons inability to live („Lebensuntüchtig bist Du”), as Kafka stresses. Thus, it would be useless to give him the letter; he already committed the “perfect crime”.

Nevertheless, Kafka did write the letter. Why? Could the writing itself be the reason for writing it? Kafka knows that he can never escape his role as the victim. Maybe that is why he entirely committed himself to literature. As soon as one starts to write, the author dies, postulates Roland Barthes in his essay The death of the author. Barthes proposes that the very act of narration stands in opposition to the idea of a subject acting in the present. Once the author sits down to write, he or she becomes the one who is the mediator between the language and the writing, he becomes a scriptor. He lives only in the moment of writing and his text becomes “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.” (RB 146)

When Kafka gives birth to the scriptor while writing his texts it is an entirely new instance which might be influenced by, but is not necessarily part of, Franz Kafka, the victim. Therefore, the act of writing itself seems to be the only possible, yet partial, release for Kafka. Of course he will never be able to free himself entirely because he will still always be his father’s victim, but the very moment of creating the tissue of quotations can bring relief. Therefore, Kafka’s existence is totally committed to literature, as he wrote to Felice: „Ich habe kein literarisches Interesse, sondern bestehe aus Literatur, ich bin nichts anderes und kann nichts anderes sein.” (letter to Felice, 08.14.1913) Thus, Stanley Corngold, trying to evolve Kafka’s Narrative Perspective in the so titled essay, states:

“If Kafka, the man, embodies literature, if, indeed literature inscribes Kafka, then it would seem, in a strict sense, that no such thing as Kafka’s self exists. […] The phenomenon of Kafka appears to illustrate par excellence 'the death of the author'.” (SC 162)

And Theo Meyer, who tries to find evidence for Kafka’s being literature in his essay Franz Kafka, Labyrinth und Existenz, writes:

„Sich durch Schreiben am Leben erhalten, im Schreibvorgang als solchem den Sinn der eigenen Existenz zu sehen, zu erfahren – dies wird in wachsendem Maße zum Daseinsentwurf des Schriftstellers Kafka.“ (TM 477)

Much evidence for Kafka’s existential view of writing can be found; as well as in other sources, also in the letter to his father. When speaking about his three unsuccessful attempts to marry, Kafka admits that it is not his father who hindered him in the first place:

„Ich habe schon angedeutet, daß ich im Schreiben und in dem, was damit zusammenhängt, kleine Selbständigkeitsversuche, Fluchtversuche mit allerkleinstem Erfolg gemacht habe, sie werden kaum weiterführen, vieles bestätigt mir das. Trotzdem ist es meine Pflicht oder vielmehr es besteht mein Leben darin, über ihnen zu wachen, keine Gefahr, die ich abwehren kann, ja keine Möglichkeit einer solchen Gefahr an sie herankommen zu lassen.“ (FK 211)

One should not underestimate this statement because of the typical trivializations. Writing is by far the most important thing for Kafka and that is why he wants to have a wife on the one hand but cannot marry (it would make it impossible to spend all his free time writing) on the other. He has to be a bachelor, has to commit his whole existence to writing.

Kafka himself would not have agreed with Barthes view of an instance writer, of the author not being the “I” when writing it, as Corngold points out: “[…] Kafka’s subject is a poetic self” (SC 165). Nevertheless, Meyer refers to an important sentence of Kafka, writing to his friend Oskar Pollak: „Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch?“ Meyer, therefore, characterizes Kafka’s texts as:

„Selbstbefreiungsversuche eines Schriftstellers, der in mehrfacher Hinsicht an Repressionen, an äußeren und inneren Zwängen litt, die er durch das Schreiben zu kompensieren und zu überwinden hoffte.“ (TM 471)

In addition, Corngold comes to the similar conclusion that Kafka’s writing “always generates a second, an excessive text oblique to the first.” (SC 168) The person, Franz Kafka, generates a scriptor who can go beyond the experiences and the reality of Kafka’s victimized self.

Asking once again, who, after all, is the addressee of his letter, one can finally also say, that there could be none - indeed, does not have to be one.
Kafka himself wanted the letter to be destroyed after his death – it fulfilled its task, which might only have been to become written. Kafka dedicated his life to the being literature, which, considering the wrong that doomed him to be a victim for his lifetime, might also have given him the only possible relief by automatically creating an instance, the scriptor, which itself gave origin to the text. Kafka could never actually manage to escape his father’s influence, being the victim, but, while writing, he created something that was independent from it.

The letter to his father therefore works on two different tiers: it does not only show, on its first, very literal level, how close one can come in describing the differend, while knowing that a perfect description would be against its definition and thus must be impossible, but, on a second level, also shows an author finding a way to deal with it: by writing the unwritable.


Works cited

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986 (RB)

Corngold, Stanley. The Fate Of The Self. German Writers and French Theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994 (SC)

Kafka, Franz. Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II. Hrsg. Jost Schillemeit. New York City: Schocken Books Inc., 1992 (FK)

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend. Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 (L)

Meyer, Theo. Franz Kafka, Laybrinth und Existenz. In: Neue Deutsche Hefte. Hrsg. Joachim Günther. 179, Jahrgang 30, Heft 3. Berlin, 1983 (TM)