How Insomnia Shaped Franz Kafka’s Creative Process and the Writing of The Metamorphosis: A New Study Published in The Lancet

What­ev­er else we take from it, Franz Kafka’s night­mar­ish fable The Meta­mor­pho­sis offers read­ers an espe­cial­ly anguished alle­go­ry on trou­bled sleep. Filled with ref­er­ences to sleep, dreams, and beds, the sto­ry begins when Gre­gor Sam­sa awak­ens to find him­self (in David Wylie’s trans­la­tion) “trans­formed in his bed into a hor­ri­ble ver­min.” After sev­er­al des­per­ate attempts to roll off his back, Gre­gor begins to ago­nize, of all things, over his stress­ful work­ing hours: “’Get­ting up ear­ly all the time,’ he thought, ‘it makes you stu­pid. You’ve got to get enough sleep.” Real­iz­ing that he has over­slept and missed his five o’clock train, he ago­nizes anew over the fran­tic work­day ahead, and we can hear in his thoughts the com­plaints of their author. “Sleep and lack there­of,” writes The Independent’s Christo­pher Hooten, “is of course a cen­tral theme in Kafka’s best known work…. It seems there was a strong dose of auto­bi­og­ra­phy at play.”

Chron­i­cal­ly insom­ni­ac, Kaf­ka wrote at night, then rose ear­ly each morn­ing for his hat­ed job at an insur­ance office. Though he made good use of rest­less­ness, Kaf­ka char­ac­ter­ized his insom­nia as much more than an incon­ve­nient phys­i­cal ail­ment. He thought of it in meta­phys­i­cal terms, as a kind of soul-sick­ness. “Sleep,” he wrote in his diaries, “is the most inno­cent crea­ture there is and sleep­less man the most guilty.”

Insom­nia trans­formed Kaf­ka into an unclean thing, quiv­er­ing in fear of death. “Per­haps I am afraid that the soul, which in sleep leaves me, will not be able to return,” he con­fessed in a let­ter to Ger­man writer Mile­na Jesen­ská. Anx­ious expres­sions like this, writes There­sa Fish­er, have led researchers to “spec­u­late that Kafka’s patho­log­i­cal traits… indi­cate bor­der­line per­son­al­i­ty dis­or­der.” This posthu­mous diag­no­sis may be a leap too far. “Unearthing his insom­nia, how­ev­er,” and its effects on his life and work, “requires less spec­u­la­tion.”

Kafka’s descrip­tions of his anx­ious insom­ni­ac writ­ing habits have led Ital­ian doc­tor Anto­nio Per­ci­ac­cante and his wife and co-author Alessia Coral­li to argue in a recent paper pub­lished in The Lancet that the writer com­posed much of his fic­tion in a state of some­thing like lucid dream­ing. In one diary entry, Kaf­ka writes, “it was the pow­er of my dreams, shin­ing forth into wake­ful­ness even before I fall asleep, which did not let me sleep.” Per­ci­ac­cante and Coral­li note that “this seems to be a clear descrip­tion of a hyp­n­a­gog­ic hal­lu­ci­na­tion, a vivid visu­al hal­lu­ci­na­tion expe­ri­enced just before the sleep onset.” It’s some­thing we’ve all expe­ri­enced. Kaf­ka, fear­ing sleep, stayed there as long as he could. Lest we think of his writ­ing as ther­a­peu­tic in some way, he gives no indi­ca­tion that it was so. Indeed, it seems that writ­ing intro­duced more pain: “When I don’t write,” he told Jesen­ská, “I am mere­ly tired, sad, heavy; when I do write, I am torn by fear and anx­i­ety.”

Kaf­ka made many sim­i­lar state­ments about sleep depri­va­tion bring­ing him to “a depth almost inac­ces­si­ble at nor­mal con­di­tions.” The visions he encoun­tered, he wrote, “shape them­selves into lit­er­a­ture.” Through sur­vey­ing the lit­er­a­ture, biogra­phies, inter­pre­ta­tions, and the author’s diaries and let­ters to Jesen­ská and Felice Bauer, Per­ci­ac­cante and Coral­li pieced togeth­er a “psy­chophys­i­o­log­i­cal” account of Kafka’s dream log­ic. As Per­ci­ac­cante told Research­Gate in an inter­view, his study con­cerned itself less with the caus­es of Kafka’s sleep­less­ness. He admits “it’s dif­fi­cult to clas­si­fy Kafka’s insom­nia.” Instead the authors con­cerned them­selves with the effects of remain­ing in a hyp­n­a­gog­ic state (a word, notes Drake Baer, that ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly means “being abduct­ed into sleep”), as well as Kafka’s aware­ness of his insomnia’s mag­i­cal and debil­i­tat­ing pow­er.

Meta­mor­pho­sis, says Per­ci­ac­cante, in addi­tion to a work about social and famil­ial alien­ation, “may also rep­re­sent a metaphor for the neg­a­tive effects that poor qual­i­ty sleep, short sleep dura­tion, and insom­nia may have on men­tal and phys­i­cal health.” Had Kaf­ka over­come his mal­a­dy, he may nev­er have writ­ten his best-known work. Indeed, he may not have writ­ten at all. “Per­haps there are oth­er forms of writ­ing,” he told Max Brod in 1922, “but I know only this kind, when fear keeps me from sleep­ing, I know only this kind.” Per­ci­ac­cante and Coral­li see Kafka’s insom­ni­ac tor­ment as a pri­ma­ry theme in his work, but two dis­sent­ing voic­es, writer Saudami­ni Deo and foren­sic doc­tor and anthro­pol­o­gist Philippe Char­li­er, dis­agree. Writ­ing into The Lancet to express their view, they assert that despite Kafka’s per­sis­tent laments and the squirmy fate of the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Gre­gor Sam­sa, the writer’s “insom­nia was not at all dehu­man­iz­ing… but the exact opposite—ie, human­iz­ing the self by bring­ing to sur­face ele­ments of uncon­scious that guide most actions of our wak­ing life.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Franz Kaf­ka Ago­nized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Vir­tu­al­ly Use­less;” “Com­plete Stand­still. Unend­ing Tor­ments” (1915)

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Cre­ativ­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Lucie says:

    Mile­na Jesen­ská was a Czech writer to be exact.

  • Jude says:

    Sleep depri­va­tion through insom­nia makes me feel like I have the flu: I ache and drag thick head­ed through the day.

    It’s phys­i­cal­ly, as well as men­tal­ly painful.

    Insom­nia is also one of the indi­ca­tors of bio­log­ic depres­sion, which also goes a long way to explain Kafka’s work.

  • Kaj Bernhard Genell says:

    The result of Kafka´s semi-con­scious writ­ing process is dis­cussed at leangth in my lat­est book: Kaf­ka and the kafkaesque.Recito, 2017.

  • brahim says:

    the web­site is great but a bit euro­cen­tic

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