Psychotherapy Kafka on the couch

Kafka on the couch
Kafka on the couch | Collage by Tobias Schrank (Sunder Muthukumaran / Unsplash)

In crisis situations, being able to identify with other people’s stories is helpful. That’s why Prof. Dr. Hantel-Quitmann, a marriage and family therapist from Hamburg, likes to use Franz Kafka as a resource. In this interview he explains the extent to which literature can help us solve our problems, and why it is nevertheless good that Kafka did not undergo therapy at the time.

Wolfgang Hantel-Quitmann, can you remember the first time you read a book by Kafka?

The first novel I read was Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), which we read at school and which was a highly accurate description of how I felt going through puberty. Puberty causes transformations for which we have no explanation and sometimes we feel like Gregor Samsa, who suddenly turned into a bug, trapped within his own body that seems alien to him but with which he has to live. Empathy with a suffering individual was the dominant emotion.

How did you arrive at the idea of using Kafka and his literature in your work as a psychologist?

Kafka addressed deep-seated emotions in his writings, for example despair, fear, loneliness, shame, guilt, powerlessness, arbitrariness, and complex family relationships. Nowadays emotions are the central focus of modern psychology, and I can scarcely think of an author who has described these emotions with such an intensity as Kafka. For me he is the ultimate writer where human rights are concerned, because he adopts the victims’ perspectives at a radical level – with no sentimentality whatsoever.

Your book entitled “Kafkas Kinder: Das Existentielle in menschlichen Beziehungen verstehen” (Kafka’s Children: Understanding the Existential Aspects of Human Relationships) was published in 2021 by Klett-Cotta. To what extent are we all Kafka’s children?

We’re all familiar with these emotions, and suffer from them to a greater or lesser degree. In this respect, his works are timeless. Kafka had no children himself, but we’re all his children in spirit and in our all-too-human emotions.

However he wasn’t the pessimist he is often portrayed as being. In his book Amerika he tells the story of a 16-year-old who is disowned by his family because the nursemaid seduced him and got pregnant. This Karl Roßmann is a true Sisyphus, who suffers many unjust knockbacks but also keeps getting back up and carrying on. Today we would call him resilient. And another observation: Kafka had a sense of humour – he was a great admirer of Charly Chaplin and slapstick comedy. Just think about the scene in The Trial where the lawyers coming up the stairs keep getting beaten and pushed back down, it’s pure slapstick.

To what extent can literature help to solve our problems?

People read books because characters, relationships and emotions are described in them, although in circumstances that are different from their own lives. We identify with the protagonists – and in this identification we experience a cleansing of our own emotions, something they had already described in Greek tragedy as catharsis. In the safe space of a book we can observe ourselves from outside, in a manner of speaking, thereby achieving a new perspective on our own existence.

What’s difficult is finding solutions – we have different solutions for ourselves compared with the protagonists in the books. But it does give us more room to manoeuvre, by giving us a variety of options from which to choose. Nevertheless they are not usually a replacement for therapy, because we have defence mechanisms that block changes with the potential to cause fear and conflict. That’s the difference between a book and a therapy.

I often recommend Kafka’s “Brief an den Vater” to sons who have difficulties with their authoritarian fathers.

What role is played by writing in overcoming a mental health crisis, both for your patients and for Kafka himself? 

I sometimes recommend that people in therapy write letters to partners, parents and children, that they sit down in a quiet space to formulate their own ideas, reflect on themselves and other people before hot-headedly getting into arguments that usually end in accusations, repetition and deadlock. And you can also write letters to people who have already died. I often recommend Kafka’s Brief an den Vater (Letter to my Father) to sons who have difficulties with their authoritarian fathers.

Kafka himself had to write; he had no choice. He attempted to overcome his personal crises by writing. His problems with his father in Brief an den Vater, his feeling of being accused without grounds in Der Process (The Trial), his feeling of being excluded in Das Schloss (The Castle), his desire to triumph over the starvation despite everything in Der Hungerkünstler (The Hunger Artist) etc. He shaped his relationships by writing, which allowed him the opportunity of expressing his emotions from a distance. That was the case in countless letters to Felice Bauer, and he fell in love with Milena Jesenská by writing to her.

What advice would you like to have given Franz Kafka, if he had been a patient of yours?

That’s a great question. It would depend on when he had come to see me, and what problem he brought. In a family therapy at the early stages it would have been about his family relationships, not just his authoritarian and despotic father, who denied him attention whilst at the same time commanding all the more for himself, but also his mother, who facilitated the father’s behaviour and wasn’t around much for the children. His sister Ottla was his lifeline in crisis, and he had always felt drawn to her when he experienced loneliness in that family context. The entire family would have benefitted from help, not just poor Franz.

If he had come by himself later on, then his self-doubt, inner insecurity and loneliness, as well as his fears, would surely have been important focuses. And equally importantly, a therapy is likely to have helped him in his partner relationships, to address the closeness/distance issue, his fear of sexuality, ambivalent desire for children, fear of becoming a father himself, etc. He certainly achieved the most openness and honesty in his partnership with Milena, partly because she was so confrontationally open herself – they were both certain to have merited plenty of help. They had an intellectual relationship in which they were equals. But there was always the risk that they would both go under, like two people clinging to each other as they drown.

Kafka resisted having therapy all his life. If he had, and if it had maybe even been a success, then we might have lost out on a tremendous amount of world literature, so in that sense it was good that he did not undertake therapy.