Kafka’s Letters to Milena and the Question of the Body

Shadi Neimneh


This article describes how Franz Kafka's correspondence with the Czech journalist and translator Milena Jesenská, from 1920 to 1923, documents the development of his illness, his  fear of physical intercourse, and his consequent reliance on writing. Writing is exploited in this epistolary affair to replace both physical presence and physical love. Simply stated, writing negates the body in this correspondence. The ensuing erasure of the body leads to a dim mode of bodily presence, a ghostly one. Kafka’s Letters to Milena are read as a rich hunting ground for psychoanalytical and feminist interpretations of the (female) body and female sexuality. It is the mystery of femininity that Kafka tries to solve in the course of this correspondence. Sexuality and the female body are rendered in this epistolary love as a reviled “dark continent” that should be sublimated in favor of the symbolic realm of writing. Of special importance at this stage of Kafka’s life as a tubercular is his conception of the diabolical nature of his writing, an issue that has received very little critical attention. A man living close to death chooses for himself a life of seclusion and introversion from human relations and withdraws into a ghostly existence. The body that deteriorates into a ghostly presence finds its counterpart in "demonic" letter writing that conjures up physical presence in Kafka's relationship with Milena. The first section of this article introduces Letters to Milena in context. Section two presents a reading of the letters informed by psychoanalysis and feminism, and section three focuses on the final letters and presents Kafka as a “ghostly lover.

Keywords: Franz Kafka; Letters to Milena; the Body; Psychoanalysis; Feminism; the Ghostly Lover

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