Walking in Literary Shoes: Franz Kafka and Robert Walser on Walking, and the Horrors of Modernity



by Jeffrey A. Bernstein

What do we do when we walk? What happens to us? Do we walk in order to get somewhere? Do we walk to get our bodies moving? Our minds? Do we walk to form an image and identity of ourselves (one thinks of Thoreau’s pronouncement “tis a great art to saunter”)? Do we walk to figure out problems? Or to escape from them? And what about missed walks? Are they happenstance? On purpose? Are they symptoms? When we ask the question concerning what we do when we write about walking, the problems only multiply. For here, the question is one of using the image or action of ‘walking’ as a moment of reflection, or an optic, in order to communicate something else. This holds equally for writing about the inability to walk as it does for writing about walking.

Within the context of the myriad German-language writers between the years of 1914 and 1933, Franz Kafka and Robert Walser occupy a somewhat unique place as a result, in part, of their frequently being classed together. In one sense, this pairing seems artificial unless one construes it as a pairing of opposites. An inveterate peripatetic, Walser’s walks attained a certain amount of notoriety—many of his stories involve the travelling from one place to another by foot, and his own death occurred during one of his wintertime walks. The famous picture on the cover of the English edition of Walser’s Selected Stories [i] shows a mid-life Walser in profile and (presumably) on one of his walks: a hat and umbrella in his right hand, leaning slightly inward to see something ahead (to which the reader is not privy), with mouth open. It is almost as if the voracious walker is rendered utterly captive by a sight seen on the walk. In sharp contrast, Kafka was afraid of travel—by foot or otherwise. It always seems as if Kafka’s stuckness—like so many problems his characters face—is indicative of an unresolved problem (be it with family, love interests, or bureaucrats).

Readers are thus faced with the seeming dichotomy: Kafka, the symptomatic sedentary versus Walser the wild, wide-open rambler. This is, in fact, how their prose reads as well. If ‘walking’ serves as an optic for these two writers, what are the two different relations to this optic trying to tell us? This question pertains not simply to the personal lives of Kafka and Walser. Insofar as they are both writers, we might wonder what ‘walking’ tells us about the time period in which they are writing: what does their particular gait tell us about the movement of early twentieth century Europe—i.e., about industrial change, collapse of the old order, war, and the transformed character of communication in general?

For thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti, the relation between Kafka and Walser tells us one thing and one thing only: while both authors investigated the interior of conscious life—to the point at which such internal landscapes turn into nightmarish dreamscapes—Walser took this investigation in a more extreme direction than Kafka did (or could); Kafka’s texts symbolize or allegorize the affects of fear and horror; in shutting out or suppressing conventional discussions of worldly events, Walser’s texts rumble beneath the conventional presentation of semantic content. They thus extend into actual madness.

It cannot simply be a matter of holding that Kafka was symptomatic (to which his autobiographical writings surely attest) while Walser was insane (despite the fact that, when not moving from hotel to hotel as temporary residence, he spent the last 2-3 decades of his life in psychiatric hospitals). This reductive mistake would be analogous to suggesting that their respective texts were simply talking about walks (or even actually taking walks) rather than using walking as a lens through which readers are given to understand something. Instead, I wish to pursue the distinction between symptom and madness—what Freud calls ‘neurosis’ and ‘psychosis’—as narrative strategies by which Kafka and Walser are attempting to show us something. For Kafka and Walser, the literary trope of ‘walking’ presents itself in both a neurotic (i.e., symptomatically stuck) and psychotic (i.e., disavowing) manner. And despite the fact that these two authors are generally understood to have shied away from political or historical concerns (Walser even more so than Kafka), I want to argue that the access which they grant us to the political and historical time period in which they wrote lies in the different uses that they make of this trope.

Neurosis and Psychosis as Narrative Registers of Modernity

I am certainly not the first person to note that the Freudian categories have a distinct application to questions concerning modern life. This question of neurosis has been well explored in Kafka. Additionally, the more extreme category of psychosis has been explored (through a reading of Daniel Paul Schreber’s memoirs) by Elias Canetti and Eric Santner. For both Canetti and Santner, Schreber’s memoirs give readers a glance into the paranoid structure of fascist thought. Schreber thus serves as a key resource for understanding the thought of the Nazis. My approach is somewhat different. I claim that Walser’s carefully constructed delusional narrative provides a psychotic register in which to glimpse modern horror; it is analogous to the neurotic register provided in Kafka’s symptomatic narrative. In order to make good on this claim, I need to give an account of the Freudian categories of neurosis and psychosis as well as sketch the contours of what I take the horrors of modern life to (partly) consist of.

At a certain point in the development of the ‘talking cure’, Freud believed it necessary to explore the differences between individuals who had difficulties coping with their individual lives (as a result of being stuck in certain routines), on the one hand, and individuals who evinced a much more extreme difficulty with their situations. As a neurologist, Freud knew well the problem of somatic symptoms rendering people ‘stuck’ in unwanted patterns. But he also knew, from both observation and conversations with psychiatrists (such as Jung), that there were more severe individuals—people who were subject to auditory and visible delusions as well as people who created elaborate but idiosyncratic mental ‘systems’—that seemed to have the opposite problem. Far from being stuck, these people seemed to have little control over their life-journeys; their existence was as wildly rambling as their discourse seemed to be. Instead of articulating a narrative of their experiences, their discourse registered a nightmarish history that resembled nothing so much as murmuring.

In 1924, Freud began to elaborate the difference between the former (neurosis) and the latter (psychosis). And so, in “The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis”, Freud set out to elucidate the similarities and differences between the two:

Neurosis does not deny the existence of reality, it merely tries to ignore it; psychosis denies it and tries to substitute something else for it . . . But the new phantastic outer world of a psychosis attempts to set itself in place of external reality. That of neurosis, on the contrary, is glad to attach itself, like a children’s game, to part of reality—some other part than the one against which it must protect itself; it endows it with a special meaning and a secret significance which we . . . call symbolical. Thus we see that there arises both in neurosis and in psychosis the question not only of the loss of reality, but of a substitute for reality too.

The neurotic attempts to deny reality by focusing on one aspect of it, investing it with symbolic meaning, and—to the person’s dismay—creating a symptomatic behavior instead. The psychotic attempts to deny reality by substituting something completely different for it—be they hallucinations or deluded ‘thought-systems.’ As the old adage has it, neurotics build castles in the air (and, I interpelate, symptomatically become frustrated when they discover that their castles are only symbolic) while psychotics live in them (by means of a complete disavowal of the strictures of the external world).

It is my contention that Kafka’s narrative style amounts to the literary equivalent of neurotic symbolization while Walser’s amounts to that of psychotic disavowal. In both cases, their indirection or reticence about problems of modern life (Kafka’s is partial while Walser’s nearly total) amounts to lenses through which to disconcert readers about precisely those problems. But which problems of modernity might be symptomatically symbolized by Kafka and be delusionally disavowed by Walser?

In his 1936 essay on Nicolai Leskov, “The Storyteller”, Walter Benjamin gives an account of modernity which describes the political and historical situation faced by most thoughtful German-language writers during the 1910s and 1920s:

With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

Although Benjamin emphasizes World War One as the locus for this new and horrific situation, it contains all the features that come to embody Central European literature during the aforementioned years: war, technology, Capitalist expansion, and unremitting change and destruction—none of which can be directly communicated. Building on this, one can say that, while Freud acknowledged the horrors concerning the effects of modern civilization on real people (in works such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and its Discontents), Kafka and Walser made them felt via narrative indirection.

Works such as “The Judgement,” “In the Penal Colony,” The Trial, and The Castle show that, for all his explorations of immobilized interiority, Kafka certainly intended them to be viewed against the backdrop of labyrinthine bureaucracy and jurisprudence run amok. One also sees that he understood that Walser’s work evoked something different. He notes, in a 1908 letter to Max Broad, that Walser’s work seems to be already falling apart upon receipt. To be sure, Kafka’s remark exhibits the characteristic bite that one associates with writers in competition; nonetheless, it correlates with Walser’s own estimation of his work: “My prose pieces are, to my mind, nothing more nor less than parts of a long, plotless realistic story. For me, the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.”

Wherever one journeys with Walser—whether the walk is long or short—it leads back to the same place: the fragmentation of his self. While that text was from 1928-1929 (during the period of his terminal hospitalization), it is presaged at the very end of his early novel Jakob von Gunten, where (after the collapse and destruction of the Benjamenta Institute) young Jakob sets out with the Principal in the hopes of finding a new life. Upon his departure, Jakob notes “And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero. The individual me is only a zero.” Although it was written in 1908, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Walser’s early novel predicted the upheavals that Europe in general and the German-speaking nations in particular would go through in the next ten years. Those changes would render the category of “the individual” (both at the level of social actors and scientific discoverers as well as at the level of nation states) deeply problematic. In other words, individuals—both persons and peoples—were left to make their way through uncharted terrain.

The radically directionless (some might say ‘homeless’) and up-ending character of modern life is registered in Kafka by frustration and in Walser by anxiety. In “A Country Doctor,” the frustration is palpable when, upon making a medical visit in a different town and realizing that he is not able to save the patient, the doctor internally exclaims: “Never shall I reach home at this rate; my flourishing practice is done for . . . Naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages, with an earthly vehicle, unearthly horses, old man that I am, I wander astray. My fur coat is hanging from the back of the gig, but I cannot reach it, and none of my limber pack of patients lifts a finger. Betrayed! Betrayed! A false alarm on the night bell once answered—it cannot be made good, not ever.” The doctor is confronted by the limits of his ability, his age, his practice, and his direction. Written around 1916-1917 and published in 1918, it would not be unreasonable to see it as an allegory for that other “most unhappy of ages”—i.e., modern European life.

Walser’s narrative discloses even less content about modern life than Kafka’s. Yet, the narrative itself—precisely insofar as it seems to disavow such content—compels readers to make precisely that connection. In his 1916 prose piece “Nervous”, Walser writes: “I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes. Mortars have mortared me to bits. I am a little crumbly, decaying, yes, yes. I am sinking and drying up a little. I am a bit scalded and scorched, yes, yes. That’s what it does to you. That’s life.” The narrative itself gives little in the way of context: it is a two-page story about a nervous individual. However, the fragmented descriptive terms—viewed in a wider context—amount to a remarkable (albeit indirect) elucidation: “Mortars have mortared me”, “I am a bit scalded and scorched”. Without mentioning the War, Walser has indicated to us the precise historical locale of his anxiety. That problems concerning war psychosis were beginning to be recognized and diagnosed at this time is certainly not irrelevant. But while Walser gives us (in the psychoanaytic terminology of W. R. Bion) only “bizarre bits,” its ending could not be more suggestive in this regard: War—“that’s life.”

The indirection of which Walser makes use amounts to a kind of disavowal. The semantic content tells us nothing of his situation. Rather, the anxiety comes through in fragments. Its lack of symbolic form exemplifies exactly what Benjamin referred to as the loss of communicable experience. Shorn of any background, Walser’s text could be read as the murmurings of a mad individual. Construed as a narrative strategy, however, Walser’s text registers the horrors of war. This point is worth making also because Walser’s style admits of successors in the light of the Second World War. In the first chapter of W. G. Sebald’s 1992 masterpiece The Emigrants—amidst an utterly dry recounting of the narrator’s travels, and attendant memories, in Britain visiting Mr. Selwyn—the reader encounters the following passage: “I have never been able to bring myself to sell anything, except perhaps, at one point, my soul.” Like a bomb, Sebald’s narrator has just alluded to something extreme. After a short description of the narrator’s inability to deal with monetary matters, he elaborates: “The years of the second war, and the decades after, were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing even if I wanted to.” If one reflects on the fact that these are the only two statements out of a twenty-three-page chapter, one sees how a similarly disavowed content breaks through in undigested fragments (to the point that the narrator narrates his inability to narrate events).

A similar technique occurs in Thomas Bernhard’s 1971 novella Walking. Amidst an agitated narrative recounting discussions between Karrer and Oehler (whose friendship is based on the compulsive character of their walks), the narrator recalls: “Our whole life is composed of nothing but terrible and, at the same time, terrifying circumstances . . . and if you take life apart it simply disintegrates into frightful circumstances and states, Karrer said to Oehler.” Without any background, one could certainly read this as a tale the demise of a madman, especially given the narrator’s first sentence: “Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesday, now I go walking on Monday as well.” However, readers are again compelled to make sense of the above fragment’s odd placement in an otherwise mundanely-recounted story. Sebald and Bernhard, like Walser, provide fragments of horror in an otherwise antiseptic narrative that raises questions about what the rest of that narrative is attempting to disavow. In the former cases, it is World War Two; in the latter case, it is World War One; in all three cases, the narrative can be termed “psychotic.”

Kafka and Walser on Walking

At certain points, Walser’s narrative style borders on the unearthly. The sweet, other-worldly tone of the prose suggests a near-complete departure from events occurring at the time of the work’s composition. In such cases, one is faced with a choice: either one takes the narrative as a simple, self contained piece—a romanticizing of the here-and-now—or one wonders what Walser may be trying to communicate underneath such prose. Remarkably, one can engage this technique, in dialectical tension with Kafka’s neurotic prose, as it gets articulated in the topic and trope of ‘walking.’

Given Kafka’s fear of travel, it should not be surprising that his short “The Sudden Walk” (c. 1912) would evince the same conflicts. But, as stated earlier, the stuckness evident in this piece also symbolizes the same stuckness that the individual faces in modern life:

When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets—then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.

All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.

Kafka’s experience of walking is here presented in the image of near-total stuckness—the symptom of this is the narrator’s inability to even finish the sentence about walking until he has managed to detail all the concerns that might detain or derail him. In any case, it is a picture of walking saturated with the anxious concerns of bourgeois family life (e.g., the evening meal, the games, the weather, one’s restlessness and need to get away from one’s family). Kafka’s narrator is stuck in his sentence, stuck indoors, and stuck in modern life. When the narrator finally emerges, it is only to meet his friend (and see “how he is getting on”) who—for all we know—is equally as stuck.

Walser’s 1914 “A Little Ramble” could not be more different in style and tone:

I walked through the mountains today. The weather was damp, and the entire region was gray. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it upon my arm. The walk on the wonderful road gave me more and ever more pleasure; first it went up and then descended again. The mountains were huge, they seemed to go around. The whole mountainous world appeared to me like an enormous theater. The road snuggled up splendidly to the mountainsides. Then I came down into a deep ravine, a river roared at my feet, a train rushed past me with magnificent white smoke. The road went through the ravine like a smooth white stream, and as I walked on, to me it was as if the narrow valley were bending and winding around itself. Gray clouds lay on the mountains as though that were their resting place. I met a young traveler with a rucksack on his back, who asked if I had seen two other young fellows. No, I said. Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way. Not a long time, and I saw and heard the two young wanderers pass by with music. A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.

While Kafka’s narrative is burdened by interior problems and conflicts, Walser’s text brims with exteriority. The narrator “sees so much” and yet, in contrast to Kafka’s text, nothing happens—i.e., the narrative describes not agency (not even the neurotic agency of Kafka’s text) but rather receptivity. “A Little Ramble” is thus the textual equivalent of the photograph described earlier: an utterly passive undergoing.

There are, however, some hints as to what might be behind this apparent paean to the natural world. One might point first to the passage in which Walser notes that the mountainous world appeared to him as a dream. In Walser’s 1907 text “The Theater, A Dream,” Walser explains the German theater as providing a dreamlike escape for viewers: “Our theater is like a dream, and it has every reason to become even more like one. In Germany everything wants to be enveloped and enclosed, everything wants to have a roof . . . We’d rather step into a dear, dreamlike, strange building where we encounter our true breezes, our true nature.” While he goes on to note that this need for escape is not in itself problematic (only our shame over it is), it nonetheless raises the question as to what modern Germany is running away from. When Walser, in 1914, connects the mountain range with theater, he is implicitly suggesting that it is a dream. Could nature be an escape from social reality? This raises an interesting question about the final, epigrammic statement: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” What, in this story, counts as “normal” and what “out of the ordinary”? Is Walserian nature the normal setting in which we “see so much”? Or is it precisely the dream through which we escape from the “ordinary” of 1914 German history? Walser, characteristically leaves it open for interpretation. Yet, the indirect, fragmentary connection drawn between nature and theater suggests that the pleasant, receptive narrative is an escape from the realities of German politics and society. If it is a paean to nature, it is a hallucination in order to evade contact with modern life.

As I stated above, my claim is not that Kafka and Walser are (respectively) actually neurotic and psychotic (although they may have been). Rather they write in such a manner as to evoke what I have referred to as the horrors of modernity (in their cases, the all of the attendant problems surrounding the industrialized, technological, bourgeois character of modern life including World War One). These problems, for our writers have everything to do with how one ‘moves through’ modernity (or better, whether or not this movement can be communicated or simply murmured). Insofar as neurosis implies the capacity to symbolize, Kafka’s work would not suffer from his being actually neurotic; in that case, his writing would simply be a legitimate extension of his life. For Walser, however, the situation is more complex. If he were actually psychotic, he would lack a great deal of the capacity for bringing his consciousness together with the external world; insofar as writing is itself a form of symbolization, Walser would (in that case) be unable to write. However, though Walser’s production appears to have stopped after the 1920s, Carl Seelig (Walser’s guardian in the late 1930s) recounts a telling anecdote that suggests he nonetheless had an internal distance from his own “psychotic narrative.” Upon being asked whether he was writing anything, Walser is said to have exclaimed “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” This response could not have been given by someone who was simply mad insofar as they would (presumably) lack the awareness about what they were “supposed to be doing” in an asylum. This awareness suggests that, at the very least, Walser’s literary journey was not simply the ravings of a lunatic, but (as with Kafka) an attempt to provide an optic for the reader to begin to see modern life. In Walser’s case, this optic presents modernity in the manner of hidden rumblings (which remain unarticulated because they are simply too much for Walser’s narrative to bear).

It is, ultimately, by walking in Kafka’s and Walser’s literary shoes that one gets a sense of the greater landscape—inner and outer—faced by Europe in the first part of the twentieth century. Are we, in fact, bidden to walk in their shoes? This depends upon how we answer certain questions: Has social-media enriched or further impoverished our capacity for communicable experience. Has cyber-technology increased the quality of our lives at the same rate as it has increased the output of our work? Do the wars being fought today have a lot or little in common with the old ideal of war as protecting the (noble) way of life of a nation? Kafka’s stuckness and Walser’s rumbling, murmuring, rambling may provide us with options for how to re-experience problems first articulated near the beginning of the last century. If we are bidden to walk in those shoes, it is perhaps because that century has not yet ended.


[i] Robert Walser, Selected Stories, translated by Christopher Middleton (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Grioux, 2012).

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.