Kafka, Reader of Kierkegaard

By Fabio Bartoli

Fabio Bartoli recently published his monograph on Kafka and Kierkegaard, in Spanish, called Un mismo lado del mundo. La seducción donjuanesca y la decisión fáustica en Kierkegaard y Kafka (Santa Rosa de Cabal: Casa de Asterión, 2022). Here he discusses, in English, Kafka’s reading of Kierkegaard.

The relationship between Kafka and Kierkegaard is still an open issue, as the scarce bibliography about it demonstrates. Nevertheless, these two authors can be productively analyzed together especially in terms of Kafka’s reading of Kierkegaard’s work. The aim of this note is to shortly examine the most important moments of Kafka’s reception of the Danish author.

Even if Kierkegaard was a famous author in Kafka’s cultural context, Kafka  first mentioned Kierkegaard only in 1913, when Kafka was 30 years old: 

Today I got Kierkegaard’s Buch des Richters. As I suspected, his case, despite essential differences, is very similar to mine, at least he is on the same side of the world. He bears me out like a friend.[1]

We can see that the first approach to Kierkegaard’s work is through an anthology of his diaries (Judge’s book). In that moment, Kafka’s attention is focused on the biographical similitudes between him and the Danish author. In particular, he perceives the dynamic of his own love story with Felice Bauer as very similar to the dynamic of the love story between Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen. Specifically, both tried to establish the matrimonial life, but, after several doubts and sorrows, both decided to abandon this project, because it would be incompatible with their literary activities[2]. It is thus evident  that in this first moment, the Czech author was focused only on the biographical similitudes, and he did not reflect ‘philosophically’ on Kierkegaard’s work. In any case, from that moment on, Kierkegaard entered into Kafka’s literary universe. 

In 1916 the second relevant moment of Kafka’s reception of Kierkegaard’s work occurred. It was the period in which Kafka came to find a difference between his own existential situation and that of Kierkegaard:

Give up too those nonsensical comparisons you like to make between yourself and a Flaubert, a Kierkegaard, a Grillparzer. That is simply infantile. As a link in the chain of calculation, they undoubtedly serve as useful examples –or rather useless examples, for they are part of the whole useless chain of calculation; all by themselves, however, the comparisons are useless right off. Flaubert and Kierkegaard knew very clearly how matters stood with them, were men of decision, did not calculate but acted. But in your case –a perpetual successions of calculations, a monstruous four years’ up and down.[3]

Four years after the beginning of his love story with Bauer, Kafka comprehended that his biographical similitude with Kierkegaard was only superficial. According to him, regarding the problem of married life and its relationship with literary activity, Kierkegaard (and Flaubert) had a will that he himself lacked completely. In fact, Kierkegaard decided to interrupt his engagement with Olsen to follow the religious lifestyle, while Kafka was wasting four years oscillating between his literary activities and the idea of a married  life with Bauer. Then, Kafka assumed that Kierkegaard’s example is useless for his own experience. 

However, a year later, in 1917, Kafka contracted tuberculosis, a mortal disease by then, and after interrupting his relationship with Bauer, he went for a few months to the country village Zürau to try to treat his pulmonary problems. In this occasion Kafka read Kierkegaard again, but this time he focused his attention on his pseudonymous works, particularly Either-or, Fear and Trembling and Stages of life, and not on his diaries, as he did in his earliest readings.

In my opinion, thanks to these philosophical texts, Kafka had the possibility to come into contact with Kierkegaard’s theory about the stages of life and he found a philosophical framework for his experiences. In fact, he understood that his problems with Bauer and married life were not a fortuitous event, but they had deep philosophical and existential reasons: As Kierkegaard shows in his work, the literary activity is incompatible with the marriage lifestyle for philosophical reasons and not just for a personal whim or contingency. Reading Kierkegaard’s theory, Kafka realizes that he is living the contradiction between the aesthetical and ethical lifestyles. 

In the same vain, he underlined other fundamental differences between his own attitude and that of Kierkegaard: The importance of religion in their lives. 

I have not been guided into life by the hand of Christianity – admittedly now slack and failing – as Kierkegaard was, and have not caught the hem of the Jewish prayer shawl – now flying away from us – as the Zionist have.[4]

In conclusion, we can see that through the reading of Kierkegaard Kafka passed from a simple identification in the biographies to a rigorous philosophical reflection about his works and existential experience. Moreover, he managed to find a philosophical perspective with which to read his own existential problems. 

Finally, Kierkegaard was an author who took a place of increasing importance in Kafka’s poetic universe, to the point that, already close to his death, Kafka made a final reference to Kierkegaard in one of the last entries of his diary: ‘Yesterday Either/or’.[5]

Even if it is impossible to know if Kafka, on his deathbed, found a further key to reading his experience in one of the most important Kierkegaardian works, it is sure that for him the Danish author was a faithful companion for most of his adult life. 

Fabio Bartoli, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana de Bogotá, Colombia

[1] Kafka’s diary, 21/08/1913. The edition that I use is Franz Kafka, Diaries (London: Schocken Books, 1964).

[2] I developed the concept of ‘same side of the world,’ that Kafka used in relation with Kierkegaard, in Fabio Bartoli, Un mismo lado del mundo. La seducción donjuanesca y la decisión fáustica en Kierkegaard y Kafka (Santa Rosa de Cabal: Casa de Asterión, 2022).

[3] Kafka’s diary, 27/08/1916.

[4] Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991), 25/02/1918.

[5] Kafka’s diary, 18/12/1923.