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Number 12: Summer 2016

Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours

Werner Prall

This is how both being able and not being able to swim can be present at the same time – as an intrusion of the past in the present. Remembering one’s helplessness threatens to return one to its early condition undermining the competent self-assured adult and tending to arouse anxiety. Swimming by now has ceased to be about sport and become a powerful metaphor for keeping oneself afloat as a human being. If being able and incapable of ‘swimming’ coexist as Kafka reports then both swimming and drowning (in anxiety) are ever-present possibilities.

In letters to Milena Pollak, the woman with whom he struggled (and not soon after failed) to establish a lasting love relationship in 1920, he wrote about his Angst,1 a term he had frequently placed in inverted commas at the time: ‘I do not know its inner laws, only its hand on my throat—and that is truly the most terrible thing I have ever experienced or could experience.’ He felt, however, that this Angst was an essential part of him and gave rise to what was perhaps most valuable, and even loveable, in him: ‘It really is part of me and perhaps the best part.’ (ibid, p.375). Still he struggled to describe, let alone explain to Milena the nature of this feeling. It was in a letter to his friend, the writer Max Brod, that he hit upon an image that perhaps succeeded best in conveying the actual experience of it:

Like a person who cannot resist the temptation to swim out into the sea, and is blissful to be carried away—’now you are a man, you are a great swimmer’—and suddenly, with little reason, he raises himself up and sees only the sky and the sea, and on the waves is only his own little head and he is seized by a horrible fear and nothing else matters, he must get back to the shore, even if his lungs burst. That is how it is (ibid, p.376).

Now we know. Mastery, if that is still the word, is founded on ‘horrible fear’ and appears to be developed in direct proportion to its intensity. The one who is most terrified wins the world record because he scrambles more desperately than others to get the hell back on land. We will need to return to question what this fear is ‘of ’ or ‘about’, but we can see already that the status of the self-image, or the ego, is centrally involved in this struggle. ‘Now you are a man’ – this is the swimmer talking to himself, viewing himself as if from the perspective of another, and applauding himself for (finally?) living up to the image (whose image?) of what it is to be a man. And not any man at that, not just a man amongst other men, but one who stands out on account of his physical prowess. ‘You are a great swimmer.’ And suddenly, the whole edifice gives way. At the moment the ego is enjoying its own potency something (some Thing?) returns from another place – and an abyss opens up as deep as the deep blue sea.

What is at stake here? What is this Angst about? The swimmer, in a moment of self-confidence, finds himself out at sea, and, having momentarily revelled in his achievement, even playing with the idea of getting carried away, suffers what we might characterise as a severe case of vertigo. Suddenly seeing himself as a tiny head bobbing along on the vast ocean brings on a sense of panic as if he were about to fall—physically drown in the sea or go mad, i.e. give way to the pull of this huge object of his enjoyment and psychotically disappear into it. The latter fear seems to have taken over, since it triggers a desperate scramble to get out of the water ‘even if his lungs burst.’ But what is this ‘object’? The sea itself? And what precisely is endangered? The life of the swimmer or the coherence of the imaginary structure of his ego? If in the first scene the Olympic champion suffers a crisis of self-recognition here we are faced with the catastrophic potential of the fragmentation of the ego at the point where it might become submerged—and enjoy its submergence—in something infinitely bigger than itself.


  1. The German Angst, which in English tends to get translated as either anxiety or fear, covers the range of both of these terms undermining somewhat the distinction typically made whereby fear is taken to have an object but anxiety is supposed to be without one—a view opposed, as we will see, by Lacan.