The Decisive Years
Asceticism was a magic word for Kafka, an intricate complex of images, cultural paradigms, idiosyncrasies, fears, and psychological techniques that he incorporated into his thought that feelings and gradually made a focal point of his identity. He was entirely justified in asserting that he had ‘a fabulous innate capacity for asceticism’. It is remarkable how tenaciously he clung to the rule of self-abjuration once his period of dawdling came to an end. The way he steadfastly denied himself warmth, meat, drugs, and medicine clearly refutes his alleged weakness of will. He reduced his good intake, toughened his body, and simplified his habits. […]
Asceticism is not austerity for its own sake; it is a process of self-regulation and self-formation based on the utopian notion of attaining complete control over one’s body, self, and life. All Kafka’s interests, habits, and penchants were modified accordingly. A diet of nuts and fruits, a flawless method of chewing, devotion to calisthenics, and long walks. He cultivated and shaped his body. He gained awareness of his body as well. He felt a growing aversion to and even loathing for everything that threatened to undermine his new sense of autonomy, especially doctors who treated his body as though they were plumbers, and medicines that had unanticipated side effects. He contended that it was degrading to battle insomnia with valerian: his insomnia was not caused by a lack of valerian.
His ascetic self-design was a decisive psychological achievement; it turned the inconspicuous Jew from Prague into a unique phenomenon. In the years leading to 1914, Kafka brought his self-invention to a state of perfection. First, he lived it in practice, and only then did he reflect on it and put it into words. It achieved a comprehensive psychic integration, which enables him to subject all the facets of his life to one idea and thus to give shape to his existence.
But wanting a pure life, he denied himself any leeway, any opportunity for momentary relief.
He had modest needs, was indifferent to money, and tended not to be attuned to the trouble that lay ahead.
Kafka was quite familiar with this logic; his notion of truthfulness was essentially purist and, to the chagrin of those around him, did not allow for compromises, whether the issue was eating a roast, buying furniture, or working on a journal. On the other hand, he conceded everything possible when it came to mere opinions or philosophical views. He did not proselytize, and he wanted to persuade only people who were close to him and whose lack of understanding upset him.
The Years of Insight
Kafka, who ate very little anyway, had an easier time than most with the dwindling daily rations. He did not care for meat or cake, and the now-pathetic menus in restaurants and coffeehouses made no difference to him. He told his concerned sister Ottla that at Alchimistengasse he had more every evening than he could eat, and even the looming absence of coal (heating at night was already forbidden) could not stop him from staying in his new sanctuary for as long as possible. When Brod visited him there and Kafka read a text to him—there was now something to read aloud again—Brod was amazed at this ‘monastic cell of a real writer,’ and had the impression that Kafka was suffering less than he from the horrors of the third winter of the war. He was probably right. Kafka might have replied that this was the age of the ascetics. A dark time, an icy time, time to write.
It even seems as though this long fallow period inched him closer to his ascetic narrative ideal. In both language and plot framework [of The Castle], he now avoided anything that could be perceived as mere grandstanding.
[Dora Diamant] even admired the way Kafka paid close attention to unremarkable, ordinary things, which reminded her of the ‘sanctification’ of life that Hasidism preached and she had internalized. Nothing escaped his attention. The simplest things made him happy, and even when he was provoked into offering resistance and criticism, he was never disrespectful.
Brod also visited Kafka’s home several times and was not surprised to find his room as bare and almost as impersonal as his earlier one in Prague, not to mention the uncomfortable cold.