Tying and Untying the Knot: Kafka and Milena on Marriage, Jewry and History



by Jeffrey A. Bernstein

Franz Kafka was no stranger to fear and anxiety—his works radiate them. Yet his oeuvre is not simply a catalogue of the terrifying and traumatic situations that can befall humans. If (as he indicates in an unpublished notebook) Freud’s writings about anxiety serve as the Rashi for modern Jews, Kafka’s own work is most assuredly their Nachmanides; the latter took himself to be in constant dialogue with the former, always alchemically transforming Rashi’s seemingly concrete Torah commentary into allegories that lead in secret, mystical directions.[1] So just as we wonder how the rabbinic commentators made use of their own past experience, we have to wonder what gets registered in Kafka’s accounts of fear and anxiety.

What, in the end, was Kafka so worried about? Basically, everything: women, marriage, health, travel, family, Judaism, tradition, even writing. And he wrote in detail about all of these things. Most of the time—in the stories, in his three novels, and in the journals and letters, these worries simply overwhelm the reader and/or interlocutor. Kafka’s biography has been viewed as the site of many undesirable traits, such as his ambivalence towards Judaism (a faithless religion based on calculation), and his treatment of women (engaged twice but broken off out of narcissistic anxiety). What no one disputes is his brilliance at registering the anticipatory difficulties facing any thinking individual in simply getting through a day. If Kafka was a self-hating Jew, he showed that self-hatred emerges from legitimate doubts. And if he was a mansplainer, he showed his female interlocutors (if there was any doubt on this score) how such a ‘practice’ oftentimes derives from pathological fears of engaging in women as equals.

Kafka’s female interlocutors are usually portrayed as young, and intellectually submissive to Kafka’s brilliance. This narrative can, of course, be challenged in numerous ways: Canetti refers to the letters to Felice Bauer (the first of his failures to tie the knot) as his “other trial”—suggesting that Kafka’s inability to face marriage to Felice is analogous (or, in any case, produces an analogous awareness) to K.’s inability to control his circumstances when he is accused by the courts in The Trial. In this way, Felice becomes a crucial figure for the development of Kafka’s consciousness. Similarly, Dora, the woman with whom Kafka lived near the end of his life, was instrumental in getting Kafka to return to the Jewish sources (in particular, Talmud); if Kafka’s writing is consciously connected to the Jewish intellectual and religious tradition, therefore, he has Dora—among others—to thank for this. In both cases, however, the women remain tangential to Kafka’s development. That they aid and assist him, there is no doubt. But they are hardly autonomous figures.

The situation is quite different in Kafka’s correspondence with Milena Jesenská. In this case, Kafka has met an equal. But this consideration is accompanied by a limitation. Milena’s letters to Kafka no longer exist; on her instruction, Max Brod burned them (thus showing himself to be a more ‘faithful’ friend to Milena than he was to Kafka himself when he made the same request of Brod). There are her letters to Brod, as well as essays that she wrote and sent to Kafka. One of these essays, “The Devil at the Hearth”, deals with the problems inherent in modern understandings of marriage. This essay, and Kafka’s response to it, forms a unique moment in which Kafka and Milena co-create a literary example of their discussion on marriage. In short, in a certain sense, Kafka and Milena’s ‘untying the (intellectual) knots’ about marriage amounts to a literary/allegorical ‘tying the knot’ between them. Because of Kafka’s allegorical reading of Milena’s essay, their co-creation has implications that reach beyond marriage to other issues concerning Kafka, such as contemporary Jewry, tradition and history.

Paradoxically, or not so paradoxically, Milena’s life story is complimentary but not to say polar opposite to Kafka’s. That she was a non-Jew born to an outspoken anti-Semitic father may have been fascinating to the son of a domineering Jewish father. That she was a Czech journalist, we might surmise, resonated contrapuntally with his living in Vienna and not writing for a living (he was trained as a lawyer and worked for an insurance company). Finally, we might wonder why Kafka was fascinated by Milena’s unhappy marriage to a Jew, Ernst Pollak, who was, so the story goes, apparently successful in romantic endeavors, while he evinced extreme difficulty both with ‘knot-tying’ and consummation. All this lends to the intensity and tortured character of their correspondence. Deleuze and Guattari note that Kafka refers to Milena as an ‘Angel of Death’ and that she serves “more as an accomplice than as a recipient” of his letters. That both of these notations are true gives a quality to their 1923 exchange on marriage that is as rich as it is completely unexpected.

The Devil in the Details of Married Life

Milena begins her essay with a basic question: Why are “all or almost all” modern marriages unhappy? Making explicit an aspect of the question that Milena leaves implicit, we can rephrase the question: at the very moment when the traditional religious structures of social life are in decline, at the moment when newly realized freedoms allow people to marry simply out of love, why does unhappiness persist? If married people are free, why do they everywhere experience their marriages as enchained? Instead of answering the question directly, Milena turns it around: Why would we think—let alone expect—that the union of two people would bring happiness? Put differently, the question of happiness carries unwarranted assumptions with it—i.e., that people are already happy “by birth, nature and right.” If these assumptions are not true, how can one expect that two people “all at once, at about 9:30 AM., while locked inside an apartment, a name, a fate, . . . to be happy instantaneously, at a wave of the hand, simply because they are two?” If, in fact, the desire for wedded happiness is simply an attempt at “calculation and accounting in spiritual affairs,” its selfishness contradicts the promise of union that is the very hallmark of marriage: “The minute two people marry in order to be happy, they are robbing themselves of the chance to do so.”

Milena holds that there is only one good reason to get married—if not doing so amounts to an impossibility for the people in question; I marry when I cannot live without the other person. Milena does not experience it as a romantic notion; it is almost a factual issue. Marriage is for the purpose of living together—that is, in order that the people in question do not attempt to live under impossible circumstances. Yet people are unwilling or unable to stay with this simple thought—they always seek more:

Why, in addition to the overwhelming, extraordinary gift of this opportunity [to live together], do they also need to be happy? Why can they never be satisfied with true, unadorned greatness, preferring the well-polished lie instead? Why do they promise each other something that cannot satisfy them, and cannot satisfy the world, nature, heaven, fate, or life, and which no one has ever been able to fulfill? Why do they expand a very real and realistic, holy and worldly contract to include such a fantastic claim as happiness? Why do they demand from others more than they are able to give themselves, why do they demand anything at all, when faced by something as important, serious and deep as a life together?

Milena notes two reasons that we overshoot the realities of marriage: First, people do not “consciously confront marriage before embarking on it.” In failing to do this, people are unaware of the utter renunciation, which marriage calls for, “of everything that marriage does not offer.” And this amounts to the second point: “People marry without having positively decided for one another; or, to put it better, without having decided to renounce everything else.”

If this really is the case, then it follows that I really don’t know the person with whom I have decided to spend the rest of my life. I may have gotten to know this person after the first half-hour of conversation, Milena states, but the next step would take something on the order of ten years: “it’s practically out of the question that two people could have the faintest notion who they are and whom they are marrying.” Even supposing that one is apprised of all the great qualities of one’s spouse, “you still don’t know anything about his socks, his puffed-up eyes in the morning, his method of gargling while brushing his teeth, and his peculiar way of tipping the waiter. For what lies deep down is deceiving; but you can know a person by the surface.” In a manner redolent of Nietzsche, Milena attests to Leo Strauss’s oft-quoted maxim around three and a half decades before he comes to formulate it: “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” If people would momentarily bracket their concerns about their spouse’s political, religious, and philosophical views long enough to observe the latter’s bed-head and morning breath, they would in fact be the wiser for it.

These knotty surface problems can only be undone by addressing them at the very beginning (right after one has tied the knot). In fact, Milena asserts, it is relatively easy to “forgive” the loftier differences than to “forgive what’s on the surface.” The difficulty involved in forgiving the latter has to do with the latter’s being “determined by personality” rather than by ideas that can be consciously affirmed or denied. And this gets to the heart of the oblivion in which most people are trapped when they experience marital unhappiness: “It doesn’t occur to them at all that being married really means accepting the other person so he will feel justified in being himself.” Whether or not Milena is aware of the Aristotelian resonances of her conception of marriage, she has just come close to infusing that institution with his definition of the highest type of friendship—that is, caring simply about the good of the other: “People live together to have a friend. To have someone that will spare them from punishment, revenge, ill opinion, justice, or a bad conscience.” To see the distance between this understanding of marriage and the reality of marriage, you only have to contemplate how your spouse would react upon discovering the bank account depleted as a result of your impulse-buys. The acceptance of marital friendship is, for Milena, far greater and more difficult than the empty promise of happiness.

In a shrewd dialectical turn, Milena holds that the cause of modern marital misery is our having “ma[d]e it so damned easy for ourselves. It’s very comfortable to accept a promise that can’t be kept and then turn indignant and run away when the promise is broken a year later. I think it would be much more difficult to promise what can be kept, and then live up to such a promise.” Modern marriage, it turns out, is political campaigning by other means. “But,” Milena asks:

why don’t people promise each other they won’t scream when the roast is burned, or if one of them is late to dinner? . . . Why don’t they promise one another the freedom of silence, of space, of being alone? Why don’t they promise each other these myriad difficult trifles, which can be fulfilled, and which are nonetheless constantly neglected, instead of promising something as incidental as happiness?

Dealing with these ‘trifles’ is exactly what makes marriage both easier and more difficult than living alone. Insofar as they can coincide with one’s feelings of love, we can always try to “overlook” them. Insofar as they are day-to-day occurrences—insofar as they are on the surface—however, they are wearying and endlessly reactivating. But the ultimate problem facing modern marriages is that they labor under a grand assumption that, for Milena, is patently false: the participants all assume that happiness is something that is within their grasp: “Happiness! As if being happy depended on us and us alone! As if there wasn’t a talent for being happy, just like there’s a talent for singing, writing, politics, making shoes!” But if (in good classical Greek fashion) happiness is one part effort and (at least) one part chance, then the hope for happiness inevitably leads to the frustration surface imperfections.

In the end, for Milena, there are only two paths the married couple can follow: “either get to know your fate and bind yourself to its good sides and bad, to happiness and unhappiness, bravely, honestly without bargaining, generously and humbly. Or you can seek your fate: but the search will not only consume your strength, time, illusions, instinct, and any proper, benevolent blindness; it will also consume your self-esteem. You will become poorer and poorer, because what lies ahead is always worse than what you had.” In the manner of the good Rashian psychoanalyst, Milena holds that the hope for the unreasonable leads down the royal road of despair—that is, despair is simply disappointed hope. Better, after all, to accept one’s fate than to impotently attempt to change it. “Besides,” she concludes, “seeking requires faith, and faith may require more strength than life.” If modernity is characterized by the rejection of the divinely ordered cosmos, then faith is the useless expenditure of energy. There may not be a personal God sanctioning the institution of marriage, but one can at least avoid making married life a living Hell by accepting the infernal details as an inevitable part of the deal.

In response to this essay, Kafka does something quite uncharacteristic. Or better, what is uncharacteristic lies in what he does not do. He does not correct her; he does not claim that her essay has produced unthinkable anxiety in him; he does not withdraw from her; he does not give her the “I have to be going now—its not you, its me, you sweet little Fräulein” line. Instead, he interprets her essay, extending it to issues concerning Jewry, tradition and history.

Kafka’s Allegorical Interpretation

The first thing Kafka notes, upon reading Milena’s essay, in his 1923 letter is that it discloses “the presence of an inconceivably courageous person.” Although their correspondence had lain fallow for a few years (the majority of the heated, passionate and anxious letters were written in 1920), they were able to pick up largely where they had left off. Milena’s courage does not frighten him; rather, it inspires him to extend her topic:

What you offer the reader is itself like a married couple or perhaps the child of a marriage: Jewry is on the verge of self-destruction when it is seized by the mighty hand of an angel (the angel is no longer clearly visible, having been obscured on Earth by the marriage, but in any case it was probably not impossible to see him earlier, since he is too large for human eyes) . . . who loves Jewry so much he marries them all so they will not perish.

The question as to how much Kafka knew of the Jewish mystical tradition has been, and continues to be, endlessly debated. But even if he lacked exact knowledge of the source-texts, there is little doubt that he would have imbibed the popular representations of a tradition stemming (according to Gershom Scholem) from the Biblical Psalms and Song of Songs, leading through the Talmudic tractate Kethuboth and the Zohar, and culminating in the hymn of the 16th century Safed mystic Shlomo Halevi Alkabez referring to the mystical marriage of the Jewish people with the divine Sabbath Bride (the personification of the Shekhinah). The angel, in Kafka’s retelling, enters into an analogous marriage with the whole of Jewry so that they will be spared death (and, we might add, live in peace and happiness).

He continues:

And now the child of this marriage is standing here looking all around and the first thing he sees is the devil at the hearth, a terrible apparition that didn’t even exist before the child was born. At any rate it was unknown to the child’s parents. In general, the Jews who had reached their—I almost wrote: happy—end did not know this particular devil they could no longer differentiate among various infernal things, they considered the whole world a devil and the devil’s work—and the angel? What does an angel, as long as he’s not a fallen one, have in common with the devil? But on the other hand, the child sees the devil standing over his hearth very exactly. And now the struggle of the parents begins in the child, the struggle of their convictions trying to escape the devil.

Kafka famously wrote about his own father in “The Judgment” and “Letter to My Father”; he similarly dealt with the questions of lineal (and legal) transmission and individuation in pieces such as “The Great Wall of China” and “The Village Schoolmaster or The Giant Mole.” In this retelling, the child sees precisely the infernal oblivion into which the married couple has fallen—an oblivion to which the couple is blinded both by the illusion of the normality of their infernal state (for Jewry) and the absolute transcendence of that state (for the angel). We can surmise, based on a 1921 letter to Max Brod, that this image represents how Kafka understood the situation of young German-Jewish authors: “Most young Jews who began to write German wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely (this vagueness was what was outrageous to them). But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness and with their wavering anterior legs they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration.”

Put differently, parental oblivion over their situation (be it marital or religious), and the ensuing ambivalence that they transmit to their progeny, turns them into (wait for it!) bugs that remain tied to the past without being able either to identify with it or to leave it. The children’s despair over the inability either to embody, or free themselves from, the fathers’ tradition results from the promise of such identification with, or liberation from, such tradition. Instead, the transformation of this tradition into a usable past is what Kafka accomplishes in allegorizing Milena’s essay along the lines of the mystical marriage. In the language of his November 1920 letter to Milena, Kafka “makes up for the past” not by overcoming it, but by overturning it (in the sense of Ben Bag Bag’s Mishnaic statement about the Torah: ‘turn it, turn it, for everything is in it’). Ultimately, then, the child’s success against the devil depends upon whether one faces–and makes use of—the infernal surface of one’s situation. Such a success requires breaking with the dialectic of hope and despair.

For Kafka, facing this infernality means witnessing the struggle between two different ‘personality’ types:

Again and again the angel hauls the Jews on high, to where they should defend themselves, and again and again they fall back down and the angel has to return with them if he doesn’t want them to be swallowed up completely. And there’s no reason to reproach either side, both are the way they are, one Jewish, one angelic. Then the latter begins to forget his high heritage and the former, feeling safe for the moment, becomes haughty . . . At this point at last, good heavens, the angel pushes the Jews back down and frees himself.

It would be easy—too easy, perhaps—to view Kafka’s portrayal of Jewry as lowly and seeking security as a manifestation of his ambivalence over the Judaism of his time. This is neither incorrect nor, however, is it sufficient. True, the angel is attempting to ‘elevate’ the Jews beyond a point where they are able to go. We ought to recall, however, Kafka’s nuanced and dialectical description of angels (from his First Octavo Notebook: “What is ridiculous in the physical world is possible in the spiritual world. There, there is no law of gravity (the angels do not fly, they have not overcome any force of gravity it is only we observers in the terrestrial world who cannot imagine it in any better way than that”). Echoing Thomas Aquinas (wittingly or unwittingly), Kafka shows the absolute transcendence of the angelic realm in relation to the human. Angels do not have the imperfection of Jews/humans; however, they also are absolutely unmoved. As Paul North notes, “Angels do not think . . . [T]hey do not recognize burdens as burdens.” In this decisive respect, they are certainly no more suited for marriage, transmission of tradition, “making up for the past”—all the things we recognize as history—than Jews are. Far less, in fact. So while (for Kafka) the angel dispenses with Jewry and frees himself, one has the right to ask: is it not Jewry that is freed once the angel has left the Shul? The same inability to dialectically overturn the relation between hope and despair—present in Milena’s account of actual married couples and in Kafka’s account of the ambivalent transmission of tradition from fathers to sons—is present in the mystical marriage of Jewry and the Angel. The promise of hope, which obscures reality, leads to despair. The freeing of the Angel is, therefore, simultaneously the freeing of Jewry.

Tying the Knot through Untying the Knots

Although Kafka’s interpretation of “Devil in the Hearth” concludes with the divorce of Jewry from the angel, performance of Kafka’s retelling may illuminate a different possible ending for ours. Kafka, the son of an overbearing Jewish father has made creative use of the ambivalent tradition in which his father is implicated. He accomplishes this with the help of a woman with whom he shared (save one disastrous actual encounter in Gmünd) a relationship solely in letters. In this unique and surprising letter from 1923, one sees a Kafka who accepts the surface of Milena’s text and extends it via mystical allegory. A risky endeavor, to be sure—one that we might call ‘courageous.’ Kafka and Milena, by virtue of their untying the conceptual and lived knots that characterize modern marriage, modern Jewry, and modern life in general, have entered into a relation of deep respect. This shows that their relationship was characterized more by “facing,” rather than by desperately “seeking,” each other. In this respect, while we may not imagine them happy, we can certainly imagine Kafka and Milena as having literarily tied the knot. And if we take seriously Kafka’s final pronouncement on Milena’s essay to the effect that there are no “unhappy” marriages but merely “incomplete” ones, we are compelled to wonder whether and how this incomplete matrimony might have been consummated had Kafka not died the following year. That said, there might also be a certain paradoxical consolation in the fact that even incomplete and unconsummated marriages produce such wonderful offspring.

Cover image from Introducing Kafka, by R. Crumb, 1993.


[1] Rashi is the acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), who was a medieval French rabbinic Torah commentator known for presenting the basic meaning of the text in a clear and straightforward fashion. Nachmanides is the Latinized name for Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi (1194-1270), who was a medieval Spanish Torah commentator known for his mystical interpretations of the text.

About the Author:


Jeffrey A. Bernstein is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He works in the areas of Spinoza, German philosophy and Jewish thought.