Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours
It is striking that in this image which comes to capture something essential about his anxiety for Kafka there is no other person present; to put this same thought differently is to say we are struck by the presence of this absence. To know something of the context of Kafka’s life brings this only into sharper relief. For much of his adult life Kafka was intensely preoccupied with the problem of extracting himself from the overbearing, intolerable proximity of his family and the question of his relationship with women. Whilst he often felt a desperate wish, as well as plenty of social pressure, to bind himself to a woman he did his utmost to keep at bay the women he loved. Famously, he was engaged three times in his life, twice to Felice Bauer and once to Julie Wohryzek, without ever marrying. His most intense relationships he maintained through correspondences, spending hours each day writing letters to his lovers in Berlin or Vienna, women he would see perhaps once or twice a year. In the summer of 1920, the time of these fragments, he wrestled with the question what to do in relation to Milena, who was about to return from Vienna to his hometown Prague. Whilst their relationship posed a number of social difficulties (Milena was married at the time and estranged from her father, a very eminent figure in Prague) in some ways she was perhaps best suited to him and Kafka quite possibly came closer to marriage than at any point in his life. But he could not go through with it and broke off the relationship soon after.
If Kafka’s struggle with the question of the woman in his life has indeed found its way into the Angst of the swimmer we have to ask how this might work within the image he creates. Are we to imagine the woman on the shore and the swimmer getting away from her, perhaps even enjoying the idea—’now you are a man, you are a great swimmer’—that he managed to swim free of her and can do without her, strong and independent as he is? Or is it, on the contrary, the sea itself that represents the woman, perhaps in her maternal aspect, and the temptation—only to be actually entertained by the brave, i.e. the real men—is to let oneself get carried away by sexual pleasure, until suddenly to be faced by the terrifying prospect of being engulfed and annihilated? The first reading interprets the anxiety as essentially agoraphobic, that is, along the lines of separation anxiety—the absence of the comforting other gives rise to panic; the scramble is to find succour in her arms. The second reading suggests the opposite: it is the overwhelming presence of the (maternally conceived?) other, precisely the lack of gap or distance that threatens the now tiny man with his demise. The scramble here is to get the hell out of this all-embracing flood and back onto the terra firma of solid distinctions.
But perhaps we should not be too impressed by this opposition of interpretations, they do after all have in common that the cause of the anxiety appears to be linked to the place of the other – too distant or too proximate respectively—and thus anxiety appears to be engendered by an external danger. Seen this way, it is the other who, either in their absence or their presence, has the ultimate power over the life and wellbeing of the subject—and our great swimmer, the little man is reduced to suffering this power passively. Perhaps. But a different reading is possible, namely, that in reaction to the perception of the other as either too distant/absent or too proximate/present something on the level of the body gets aroused in the psyche with a force that threatens to flood the ego – and it is in relation to this drive that the ego finds itself in the terrifying position of utter passivity.