Franz Kafka's Betrachtung as an Expression of Altered States

by James S. Whitlark

September 21, 2012


In Kafka’s diaries, he mentions how writing altered his mental states, for instance making him ambidextrous and even what he called “clairvoyant” (hellseherischen), leading to his temporary interest in the Theosophical Society to help him explain what he was experiencing. If analyzed according to Adolf Dittrich’s categorization of two common altered states (“oceanic” immersion and “dread of ego dissolution”), Kafka’s first published book Observation (Betrachtung) evidences these and occasions problems of reader responses to them.


Altered States Represented in Franz Kafka’s Betrachtung


In a diary, Kafka remarks that creative writing sometimes made him ambidextrous (Kafka, 1986: 109), or, as we might say today, his brain lateralization changed temporarily due to stimulation of the right hemisphere. Indeed, the psychologist Gregory T. Lombardo has hypothesized that all truly creative writing derives from altered states (Lombardo, 207: 351-71). About one such state, Kafka noted experiencing an immersion in a supporting swell if he did not hold back from it: “This feeling: ‘Here I shall not anchor”—and instantly to feel the billowing, supporting swell around one” (Kafka, 1954: 42). In 1911, Kafka even boasted (or complained) to the Theosophist Rudolf Steiner that a “major portion” of his own being was aspiring toward Theosophy because of “clairvoyant” (hellseherischen) experiences during writing—though not, he added, his best writing (Kafka, 1986: 57). Note that only a “portion” of Kafka was thus aspiring; furthermore, he described the ambidextrousness as making him a “double being,” thus perhaps self-divided as opposed to the orderliness of having a dominant side. June O. Leavit’s The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka (2012) emphasizes the positive aspect of such experiences, that his writings may express a mystical intuition of Reality. When, however, he told Steiner that these states brought him to the “boundaries of the human,” he did not necessarily mean the boundary between the human and the superhuman. Given his habitual low self esteem, he could also have meant between the human and subhuman (i.e., animal), and the “portion” that was pulling him toward the Theosophical Society was not necessarily the portion of which he was most proud, in that it did not lead to his best work. He never joined either Theosophy or Steiner’s later Anthroposophy.


In classic psychological studies, Adolf Dittrich demonstrated that two often-found characteristics of altered states are: (1) an oceanic immersion in an unconscious not firmly separate from the rest of the world, so that one is like a drop melting into the sea; or (2) dread of ego dissolution (Dittrich1985; 1996) The first of these dominates what twentieth-century slang termed a “good trip,” the second a “bad” one. Having discovered the first, the Romantic literary movement of the late eighteenth and thereafter tended toward a naïve reveling in immersion in nature. By the time of early twentieth century High Modernism, however, humanity seemed to have evolved from ooze and id to science, so nature frequently appeared a primitive, dangerous muck like the flooding river in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; that novel’s most imbecilic and demented characters are the ones with clairvoyant immersion in the world. Kafka falls neither into Romantic naivety nor Faulkner’s High Modern cynicism about oceanic immersion, but articulates precisely that pondering about what was happening within him that drew him momentarily to Steiner during the period (1904-1912) when he was writing his first published book Observation (Betrachtung). Rather than find how his ordinary and non-ordinary mental states fit together by interpreting them according to some given system, such as Theosophy, what he did primarily was explore this relationship through the literary sketches in that book.


Reader responses to Betrachtung thus face two challenges: first (as he told Steiner that his writings at this period included ones inspired by clairvoyant states), some of this volume may have come such states (as appears to be the case); and, second, Betrachtung mixes ordinary and the strange, as if to find how the two cohere. The first challenge is the lesser one. Take, for instance, R. C. Zaehner’s Mysticism Sacred and Profane, based on an experience he had during his twenties: on reading Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry, he had what he later termed an altered state that seemed to him exactly like the description of mescaline use Aldous Huxley provides in Doors of Perception (Zaehner, 1973: xii-xiii). A basic premise of Reader Response theory is that the act of reading is itself creative; thus, if Lombardo is correct that creativity depends on altered states, readers might experience them also; and Zaehner is certainly not unique in having responded powerfully to the mystical or sublime in literature.


Kafka’s mixing what seems to come from ordinary and from extraordinary states is a more complex problem. Unlike such Romantic poetry as Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” (Le Bateau ivre, Rimbaud, 1871: 426-429), Kafka does not provide a flood of weird imagery to overwhelm and intoxicate one into an altered state. Rather, his style is sparse while seesawing between quotidian life and vision. Beginning with his first volume, Betrachtung, his narrators and characters tend to feel drawn to the “supporting swell” of “oceanic” immersion but the narratives generally raise the question of whether they would do better to anchor as an ego defense against being swept away. Today, English-language translators tend to render the title of Betrachtung either as Meditation or Contemplation, each word capturing a different side of this struggle. “Meditation” in English now betokens an alteration of awareness, opening to the unconscious, accepting immersion. Twenty-first century German has borrowed this English word for states ranging from biofeedback to Samadhi. In Kafka’s time, however, that borrowing had not yet happened, nor was there much practical information about meditation available to him to explain the mental or spiritual states he was experiencing spontaneously (as contrasted with the more abstract and theoretical texts Leavit thinks he might have read). His word “Betrachtung,” though, means at root observation, thus making it fit well states resembling Buddhist emphasis on mindful attention, while another of the key words of the book, “nachdenken” (to think afterward or ponder) suits conscious “contemplation,” ego defense. To the extent that the 18 literary sketches that constitute Kafka’s Betrachtung are “stories” (as they often are called), the dynamic conflict in them is between immersive observation and dissociative contemplation.


Betrachtung’s first chapter is “Children on a Country Road” (Kinder auf der Landstrasse; Kafka, 1988: 7-9). The child narrator (of unspecified gender) is first caught up in the pure sensations of observing the traffic but when laborers stop to laugh, the child labels this a “Schande,” meaning disgrace, shame, infamy, ignominy, dishonor, humiliation, sin, or scandal. The narrator turns thus from pure perception to evaluation, i.e., contemplating. Thereby self-differentiated from the observation, s/he already has become tired, needing to rest secluded from the traffic, which, indeed, was already screened behind foliage as if the child required some ego-defensive boundary. Thereafter, the weariness increases, with the narrator falling asleep intermittently and drowsily rolling deeper and deeper into ditches/graves (Graben). Otherwise, the children thoughtlessly join voice and play in a manner compared to wild beasts of the tropics, so energetic they seem to burn. Almost by definition, children originally have what Zen calls “beginner’s mind” except when they are developing an adult, judgmental consciousness, a way of dissociating themselves from the stream of sensations (Suzuki, 1970: xiv). At the story’s close, however, the narrator wanders from adult warnings toward the tropics to a city where reputedly no one has to sleep. Why don’t they? They are said to be “fools” (Narren) and therefore (again reputedly) immune to fatigue. The dilemma is either to follow the energetic play of idiots and animals or to wear oneself out through its opposite, defensive thoughtfulness. This story strikes a note that resonates with many of Kafka’s best-known, later fictions about characters torn between animal and human natures from “The Metamorphosis” (Die Verwandlung) on. As usual in Kafka’s writings, his narrator does not tell readers whether they should side with the defensive, parental warning or with the path that promises uninterrupted immersion. The story introduces the conflict between defensive and immersive states, drawing the reader in to provide the conclusion.


The second chapter of Betrachtung, “Unmasking a Confidence Trickster” (Entlarvung eines Bauernfängers) is similar. There is at first an immersive experience: the narrator’s standing with the “trickster” produces a collaborative silence between them, which spreads throughout the neighboring houses and finally up to the stars. As if to disengage from this immersion, the narrator suddenly feels dishonor or shame (Scham) and labels the companion “a confidence trickster.” Thus denigrated, the “trickster” can be left by the narrator, who next feels a link of faith with some servants, as presumably faith joined narrator and “trickster” before the moment of losing it. The process is thus circular and potentially unending.


These first two pieces are fantastic (about a legendary city of unsleeping fools or a silence that spreads to the stars), but not so the next piece, “The Sudden Walk” (Des plötzliche Spaziergang). The only thing odd about it is how pleased the narrator is with him- or herself for finding the courage to leave family and apartment for inclement weather and a visit to a friend. What the reader needs to know is that Kafka himself spent many years trying to summon the nerve to walk out on smothering, abusive parents and so to him such courage may have seemed as extraordinary as the strange conditions depicted in the odder pieces.


The fourth chapter, “Resolutions” (Entschlüsse) brings us back to that more metaphysical territory. From “Children on a Country Road,” it picks up the themes of observing like a beast and also the fascination with death. Its narrator wonders if the best way to counter a “miserable mood” is “to stare at others with the eyes of the animal [Tierblick]…throttle down whatever ghostly life remains [and]… enlarge the final peace of the graveyard” (Muir, 87). This quietism suits the idea of not anchoring, but just letting oneself be swept by the swell. Kafka’s narrator ponders whether this requires killing the human part and even any remaining “ghost” (Gespenst), though whether that ghost equals spirit or ego is a good question. Since one of the most often recognized influences on Kafka is Schopenhauer, this quietism may reflect Schopenhauer’s idea that one must turn will against itself in passive acceptance of Reality—an activity Schopenhauer particularly associated with the arts as an occidental alternative to Asian meditation (Whitlark, 1981: 22). 


The fifth chapter is “Excursion into the Mountains” (Der Ausflug ins Gebirge). It develops that quietism to an extreme. The narrator begins with a series of negations, declaring lack of knowledge, lack of friends, lack of anyone’s accomplishing harm or help. As the narrator repeats “no one” over and over, the idea occurs to go with these no ones into the mountains. This inspires imagining such a trip while the narrator even considers singing together with the nobodies (as the children had united song in the first chapter). Recall also that it was another negation—silence—that brought immersion (in the second chapter). This ascent into nothingness particularly resembles versions of sunyata  (emptiness) described in Buddhist Mahayana and Vajrayana scriptures, where it is a metaphor for immersion, designed to unite the mind (Tsering, 2009: 32).


With the sixth and seventh chapters, “Bachelor’s Ill Luck,” (Das Unglück des Junggesellen) and “The Businessman” (Der Kaufmann), we are again among Kafka’s more ordinary problems, especially a loneliness associated with his bachelor state and the need to be in business (rather than being a professional writer among his peers). In the latter story, however, once truly alone in the elevator, the narrator accompanies the ascension with imagination or clairvoyance traveling on invisible wings through a crowd of images.


The eighth chapter, “Absentminded Window Gazing” (Zerstreutes Hinausschaun), is the opposite of meditative focus, its title literally meaning a dispersed looking out. The setting is very early spring, traditionally a season of sexual and spiritual renewal (as with Easter). For High Modernism (as in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the opening of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land), it betokened a tragic failure of that promise. Kafka uses it that way at the beginning of his 1912 story “The Judgment” (Das Urteil), where it leads to suicide. “Absentminded Window Gazing” is more equivocal. All that is observed is that a man’s shadow momentarily obscures a little girl; then she shines again. What can this shining mean? Light has a long history of association with mystical visions. In Kafka’s “Before the Law” (Vor dem Gesetz), the man from the country finally perceives a light shining from the Law, as if it were the light of God’s Justice, but it may simply be an aberration of his failing sight. Also in “Absentminded Window Gazing,” the light on the girl, made to stand out as significant by the brevity of the story, may, of course, just be a commonplace occurrence or may be a nod toward the Romantic convention of the spirituality of children, dulled as they fall under the shadow of the adult world.


In the ninth chapter, “The Way Home” (Der Nachhauseweg), the narrator feels an all-embracing sense of harmonizing with the tempo of everything, making him responsible for all the joy and love around him until he enters his home. There, s/he starts to lose confidence through contemplativeness (marked with two forms of the verb nachdenk- in the same sentence). Kafka is reversing the familiar pattern of a return home being a movement from problem to solution, probably since for him home had never brought such a solution.


The protagonist of the tenth chapter, “Passers-By” (Die Vorüberlaufenden), is a generalized “one,” so hindered by thought that s/he lacks confidence to tackle a ragged runner followed by a screaming pursuer as if the former had stolen from the latter. The beauty of this piece is its inherent doubleness. On the one hand, we can agree that “one” has thereby lost the opportunity to be the hero and being thus hindered by contemplation is a diminishment and anxiety. On the other hand, we know that intervening violently without understanding a situation is sheer bigotry. Kafka later transformed this issue into his story “A Fratricide” (Ein Brudermord) where a non-intervening character named Pallas suffers from psychological poison from the passivity—and, of course, “Passers-By” acts as a comment on the quietistic, altered state considered in Betrachtung’s previous chapters. How can one avoid regretting the surrender of the ego such quietism requires but also how can one but rejoice at the errors it prevents?


“On the Tram” (Der Fahrgast) embodies the self-doubt in a protagonist who is uncertain about every aspect of his or her life. In surprise, s/he sees a girl who does not seem to have any such doubt about herself. This piece introduces two similar ones about their narrators’ differences from extraverted girls. “Clothes” (Kleider) and “The Rejection” (Die Abweisung) idealize the girls. In “Clothes,” the girls are not only beautiful but somehow magically preserve their gorgeous costumes from soil or wear until late at night. “The Rejection” has its male protagonist humiliated by being told his having such shortcomings as his not being a Native American, by which is apparently meant someone virile and physically vital. Whereas some varieties of mysticism (e.g., Daoism and Tantrism) use sexual intercourse to stimulate an oceanic sense of immersion, these three pieces (particularly when joined to such earlier ones as “Bachelor’s Ill Luck”) suggest the narrator’s lacking such means and thus suffering from separation and loneliness. Capping these, “Reflections for Gentlemen Jockeys” (Zum Nachdenken für Herrenreiter) has “Nachdenken” in its very title and finds reasons for humiliation even in winning. It concludes with women laughing at the victor.


We are thus ready for a turn around from these portraits of diminishment and separation--a movement back toward immersive altered states. “The Street Window” (Die Gassenfenster) is again about the very process of meditative observation. It makes that aperture into an invitation to see heaven and earth together and achieve harmony with all humanity. “The Wish to be an Indian” (Wunsch, Indianer zu werden) is even further from the ordinary. “Children on a Country Road” had already compared the unifying, vivifying screams of children to those of stereotypical Native Americans. The association of children with Nataive Americans goes back at least to Rousseau’s Romantic cliché of the “Noble Savage,” another version of his idealization of what he considered primitive and childlike. In “The Wish to be an Indian,” the title presents it as a desire like the drive that sends the child toward the city of the unsleeping. In this piece,” the “Indian” is, of course, energetic (“instantly alert”) and united with nature: “leaning against the wind” and moving in rhythm with the ground—but it is a jerky movement. Of course, he casts aside emblems of civilization (rein and spurs), but these are also emblems of control—now lost to him. He speeds forward on a “shorn heath,” and in the process his horse’s head and neck have already disappeared. So this piece mostly involves oceanic ebullience, but at the end, a touch of disturbing disintegration, riding a dissolving, headless horse, in a fantasy that may also recall the chapter about moving into the mountains united with nobodies.


The tiny, seventeenth chapter, “The Trees” (Die Bäume) defines humanity with an analogy--a dissolving analogy. We resemble trees in snow—or do we? Trees appear to be easily moved, but are rooted—or are they? No, that is mere appearance, Kafka adds. So how are we like trees? Perhaps the only similarity is in everything being mere appearance, a maya-like notion of the sort often generated by the states of sunyata.


The final chapter is “Unhappiness” (Unglücklichsein). The narrator looks into a mirror and screams a scream that extends upward indefinitely and somehow continues after it is over. Here, not with silence but with sound, the protagonist is joined to the infinite and is experiencing a dreadful sense of ego dissolution. The narrator deems the situation “unbearable” (unerträglich) and, instead of welcoming the window as a connection to the world, is upset by it. The only comfort seems to come from the depth of a mirror, perhaps the comfort of a reflection of a self, otherwise threatened. Then a boy ghost enters in what the narrator describes as an expected and needed visit. Pathologically eager for separation from the world, the narrator has an odd argument with the ghost, where the former keeps offering to shut the door, and the ghost insists it is already shut and locked (as the narrative confirms). Then spirit boy and narrator admit that they have the same nature. The ghost is thus a part of the narrator. Having thus at least temporarily found himself and thus feeling less threatened by self-dissolution, the narrator is able to leave the protective apartment. In an ensuing conversation with another tenant, the narrator, who is revealed to be male (like the boy), says he does not believe the apparition was actually a ghost, but is still frightened by whatever has caused him to hallucinate it. In other words, having such an experience in a High Modernist period of science raises the fear that he is going insane. In the last story, we thus encounter a very possible reason why Kafka felt driven to Theosophy as an alternative explanation that would make his altered states not pathology but clairvoyance. There is, however, no evidence that he could ever entirely believe that alternative and put aside the doubts. In this story, even if the narrator’s experiencing a ghost is merely an hallucination, wouldn’t it be a symptom that could help the narrator to self-knowledge? The other tenant suggests this question, urging the narrator to interrogate the “ghost,” i.e., if it is a hallucination, the narrator should speak to his own unconscious through it. The narrator, however, says that such beings vacillate and do not believe in their own existence. Even for a Kafkaesque character, this remark is odd. If the ghost realizes that it is not a ghost but only a module within the narrator’s mind, then it should be able to act as such, providing information about its origin. The relevant point may be the vacillation. To Steiner, Kafka had explained that his writing sometimes came from altered states and sometimes not. A ghostly character (mental module) would presumably act differently imagined in one state or another. Theosophy would urge him to trust altered states; High Modernism would privilege ordinary consciousness. Because this conflict hampers communication with the unconscious, the cause of the hallucination remains repressed. Since psychoanalytic theory tends to see depression as often resulting from repression, one should not be surprised that the narrator, unable or unwilling to find why the ghost/mental module appeared to him, becomes deeply depressed and goes to bed.


In reading Betrachtung, one begins with “Children on a Country Road” about sitting and observing—in a sense, a writer’s and reader’s act as well. Rather like a meditation, much of the book describes stationary characters paying attention, interspersed with many visions of immersion and the ego threats involved. These are interspersed with those that mirror them on a more ordinary level by way of narrators’ conflict between extraversion and introversion. Expressed so economically as to be puzzling, both the stranger and more ordinary passages draw readers into the issue of surrendering or defending the ego—an issue the readers are themselves experiencing in wondering how much they should give themselves over to this text so skillfully like and challengingly unlike their own lives. Tellingly, it is at last that the readers encounter what has been implicity throughout: the fear that hallucinatory observation—another common altered state according to Dittrich—may be a symptom. Before anything is done to pursue this, the book simply stops and the depressed narrator goes to bed. In the first story, sleep likened to death (in that it brings one into the grave) is the enemy, and, at the end of the book it has won. The last narrator has not only broken off immersion into nature and humanity but union with himself (as child ghost) also. Being a child, it recalls the first narrator, as if the narrators might be different stages in a single person’s development. The book begins with the threat of folly—the warning of parents out in the country—and ends in a more urban setting with allusions to emerging psychoanalytic theory and its reduction of spirits to symptoms. Although Leavit has relatively little to say about this volume aside from the scream in its last chapter, it confirms her assumption that Kafka was reacting to altered states, but it does not seem to arise from an author who garnered from them the confidence and conviction that mysticism traditionally brought to mystics.





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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: James S. Whitlark "Franz Kafka's Betrachtung as an Expression of Altered States". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 11, 2012, Published: September 21, 2012. Copyright © 2012 James S. Whitlark