The Pursuit of the Self

Traveling back, far back into the bohemia of yesterday, we find ourselves visiting Prague, then
belonging to Austria-Hungary, in the early part of the nineteen hundreds. This was a time of artistic
creativity and genius. One person comes to mind in particular when thinking about this era, Franz Kafka.
Contained within a letter to one of his friends, Franz Kafka once wrote, "I think we ought to read
only the kind of books that wound and stab us… We need the books that affect us like disaster that grieve
us deeply like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from
everyone… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us." To fully understand what is meant by
this quote and check the validity of its message, we must look into the man who spoke it.
Franz Kafka was born to Hermann and Julie Kafka on July 3, 1883. He grew up in Jewish Prague within a
middle class family. Kafka did well in his German high school later going on to earn his law degree in
1906. This allowed him to secure a position with the semipublic Workers’ Accident Insurance institution
that he worked at until 1917. This position was of great advantage to Kafka as he could write at night and
then go off to work during the day. Much of Kafka’s writing remained unpublished until after his death.
Unfortunately tuberculosis struck Kafka in 1917 causing him to take repeated sick leaves and then retire
from his position with the firm. From 1917 to his death on June 3, 1924, Kafka spent much of that time in
sanitariums and health resorts, his tuberculosis finally spreading from his lungs to his larynx. (Grolier
Incorporated, 1993)
Kafka had a love-hate relationship with his parents especially his father. "Kafka’s relationship to
his father dominates all discussions of both his life and his work" (University of Pittsburgh, 04-23-96). This
relationship with his father can explain the reasoning for Kafka’s use of the father as the authoritative,
robust, and loud figure weaved into most of his stories. Kafka lived with an emotional dependence on his
parents and had two failed engagements within his lifetime. Beside this fact, Kafka did lead an active social
life being part of some of the more intelligent literary cliques of his time.
Looking into the themes of Kafka’s writing, one sees loneliness, frustration, and the guilt of an
individual afflicted with a world beyond his
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comprehension or control (Microsoft Encarta, 1994). Kafka is related to philosophy with Soren Aabye
Kierkegaard and 20th century existentialists. "As with most existential writers, Kafka focuses on the
inability of man to
control the natural world around him" (The Existentialist’s Enigma’s Companion). His literary technique
has qualities of realism and fantasy. This allows for the gripping, thought provoking aspect of his writing.
Now that we know Kafka and the time period that he lived, we can go on to describe the deep
rooted meaning behind his quote. What he talks about in his quote can relate to the breaking free of the true
self and understanding. Reading books that cause us to think and evaluate what the author means, we
expand our own intelligence. This expanding of intelligence causes us to come closer to an understanding
of ourselves and our world.
In today’s society, this quote has much significance. With most of our culture obsessed and
addicted to the technology of television and radio, we no longer read books of merit. Reading a book like
this causes one to interpret it, deciding what was the author’s purpose. Questioning an author is good and
only furthers that progression toward enlightenment. We must realize though that understanding is a never
ending process, forcing us to
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think and question more. You may ask then, "Why start questioning in the first place if their is no end?" An
explanation can be given by Mr. Christopher M. Wisniewski saying, "It is this struggle for understanding,
this seemingly
unavoidable need to interpret that keeps us going, keeps us reaching for some kind of truth, no matter how
hopeless that task may sometimes seem. This is also why we create literature; it is through literature that we
hope to create some kind