Kafka and Venus

Kafka and Venus


The first letter from Franz Kafka to Czech translator Milena Jesenskà is in April of 1920; over the course of the next two months, they will fall in love solely through the medium of letters. 

In a similar fashion, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs and namesake for the word “masochist” also fell in love through correspondence. After his book gained popularity, a woman wrote to him under the pen name “Wanda von Dunajew”— the same name as the lead woman of his novel— and they were married shortly thereafter.

Kafka was certainly familiar with Sacher-Masoch’s work, for he was influenced by it and incorporated the image of the cruel Venus into his iconic novel The Metamorphosis. There is more to this connection than mere literary inspiration, however; both Kafka and Sacher-Masoch toy with the line between themselves and their characters, reality and fiction. The protagonist of Venus in Furs, Severin, shares carnal fantasies with his Sacher-Masoch, who lives them out with a far better outcome than what Severin gets.

There are too many references to Venus in Furs within Kafka’s letters to Milena for them to be mere coincidences. There is, of course, the cliché of a woman so engrossing and enchanting that she is as vibrant as living flame, which Kafka brings up several times to Milena, but doesn’t everyone who falls in love feel this way? There is warmth, light, and comfort, but also the acute awareness that if one gets too close and they will get burnt. Kafka/Gregor and Sacher-Masoch/Severin revere the image of the woman who, by merely thinking of her, completely consumes her lover, like flames licking up the logs of a bonfire.There is one phrase in particular that Kafka uses that is too obscure and strange to be chance or cliché. In Venus in Furs, when Severin sees Wanda for the first time, he identifies her as the Goddess of Love and describes her: “Her skin was so infinitely delicate that the blue veins shimmered through everywhere, even through the muslin covering her arms and her bosom.”1 What a strange way to describe a woman, I thought as I read it for the first time. He describes her as if she were a ghost or some other eldritch creature, as otherworldly and terrifyingly (beautifully) foreign. It struck me as strange then, but what became even more strange was one of Kafka’s letters to Milena, where he describes one of the many dreams he has had about her. He writes as follows: “But I couldn’t see you exactly, it was so far away, although I could make out your husband’s features a lot more clearly— I don’t know why, you just remained something bluish-white, flowing, ghostlike.”2 Although this came to him, apparently, in a dream, the imagery, when paired with the nature of his relationship to Milena, is too similar to be coincidental. This bluish attribute, in the case of both women, elevates them to myth. Whether he does so consciously or not in this instance, Kafka makes Milena his Venus. The power difference between these Venuses and the men that worship them is instrumental to their dynamic and illustrates why it is successfully passionate for only a short period of time.

The fantasies of these real and fictional men all deal with themes of subjection and abjection. It is echoed in Severin, in Gregor Samsa, in Franz Kafka that they find themselves so disgusting, so undeserving of the attention of Wanda, of the woman in the portrait, of Milena, that they are again and again and again on their knees begging for a fragment of the attention they so crave. Kafka walks circles around his desire; he will openly admit it but, in the same letter, deny himself before Milena can respond: “I’ve never seen anyone who was more of a girl than you, and girl that you are, I don’t dare offer you my hand, my dirty, twitching, clawlike, fidgety, unsteady, hot-cold hand.”3 In fact, in Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, he writes that the author “felt compelled to distrust and denigrate his own emotions.”4 Kafka holds Jesenská on such a high pedestal that he cannot imagine them as equals; his reverence for her heightens his lack of self-worth. The complicated nature of Milena and Franz’s professional, eventually loving relationship — he, engaged with no intentions of marrying, her, in an unbalanced open marriage— contributes to this strange and tangled mating ritual. Kafka– like Gregor, thus like Severin, thus like Sacher-Masoch– is torn between his ideal of love and the reality of his and Milena’s situation.

After months of courting and copulating, Wanda von Dunajew finally grants Severin his wish to live out his fantasies of being completely subjugated to her, and in the day before they leave their secluded resort for Italy, she tells him he will no longer be himself, Severin the man, but he is now her servant and given the name Gregor. He is reborn and renamed at her hands; it seems Kafka also seeks this to some degree in Milena. The self-loathing and hatred for the literature which has made him famous becomes something new by her touch. In Venus in Furs, Severin is slightly alarmed by Wanda demanding he change his name but savors her complete control over him. The Metamorphoses’ Gregor Samsa is horrified by the ungeziefer he wakes up as, but likewise accepts that he will never again be the man he fell asleep as. He finds solace in the haughty face of the woman draped in fur plastered to his wall. The sway Milena has in Franz’s life is probably best illustrated in the manic manner and volume of his letters immediately after their rendezvous in Vienna; he writes several times a day, every day, backtracking his own words in subsequent letters before he receives a response from Milena, and describes how distracted he is because all he can think about is her. Whether she wants to or not, she unwittingly dictates his every waking moment.

Where Severin and Gregor fear the way their identity is forcefully torn away, Kafka flirtingly jokes about he uses his name to sign the letters to Milena less and less: “now I’m even losing my name– it was getting shorter and shorter all the time and is now: Yours.”5 The primary difference between him and these literary characters in this case is that he sweeps his own identity away, inviting Milena to acknowledge him solely in terms relating to herself. It is not sudden, it is not unexpected, it is requested, and none the less sweeter for it. What frightens Severin is that Wanda exceeds his fantasies and takes them very seriously. By the end of the book, Severin and Wanda have gone their separate ways because he found that, in reality, his dreams were far too brutal for him to bear. Milena and Franz will not— cannot— go so far. They each have their own problems pulling them apart: “… you are bound to your husband by a virtually sacramental, indissoluble marriage… I am bound by an identical marriage to— I don’t know, but I often feel the gaze of this terrible wife…”6 Their separate obligations to others are too tangled and complex for them to be with one another and have peace of mind. Milena’s husband, Ernst Pollack, is the main factor that keeps them apart; she can’t help but still love him, in spite of her love for Kafka.

The final blow to Severin is the involvement of another man in his and Wanda’s relationship. He wants to be beholden to her alone, and by involving another man (Alexis Papadopolis) who will take part in subjugating Severin, the dreamed-of dynamic is thrown off-kilter. The performers take off their masks, the play is done: the fact is that complete subjugation, without limits, was never what he truly wanted. The dream was far sweeter than reality. The equivalent of this in Kafka and Jesenská’s case is Pollack. What makes matters worse for Severin is that Wanda loves Alexis, just as Jesenská loves Pollack. Despite the pain Pollack has caused her, as Kafka discusses in their letters, Jesenská finds she cannot remove herself from him.

Jesenská’s letters to Kafka are missing, and we can only get a sense of their rapport in the scant occasions Kafka quotes what she has previously written to him. Within his letters, we hear only half a conversation, just as with Dante’s tragic romantics Francesca and Paolo. Francesca is the only one to speak and relay the tale of their doomed relationship. Paolo weeps wordlessly at her side for the eternity of pain they share. In real life, Jesenská’s missing letters, along with the fact that the letters were published after both their deaths without their consent, illustrates the sanctity of their relationship. The fact that they were never intended for the public eye lends credence to their rawness; these letters illustrate, (relatively) without filter, the passion, longing, and loss of love between the two.

There is this theme surrounding letters in both Kafka’s life, Dante’s tragic couple, and even Sacher-Masoch’s own life. The power of written language sways these lovers and sets them down tracks that they will never come back from. In the case of Sacher-Masoch, this takes form in the woman who becomes his wife; Aurora Rümelin and a friend of hers write a letter to the author, mimicking the tone and subject of his Venus in Furs and, like Severin, he falls hopelessly in love with her. She signs the letter as Wanda von Dunajew, effectively blurring the line between reality and fiction. Where does Severin end and Leopold begin? Likewise, where is the line between Gregor Samsa and Franz Kafka? How is he unlike the man-turned-bug who wastes away his days with dreams, who tries to better his situation and alleviate the suffering of others (his fiancée and Jesenská for Kafka, his family for Gregor), only to not change the situation at all or make matters worse? Sacher-Masoch lives out a rewritten ending of Venus in Furs: him and his wife live out his fantasy and raise a family until his passing; Kafka does no such thing in his own case. After an unsatisfying rendezvous in Gmünd with Jesenska for a single day in August, the letters begin to slow down. After Vienna, they were obsessive and manic, albeit with the best intentions. After Gmünd, they dwindle to a few letters written, then sent at once, until they return to a regular schedule. That, too, dwindles down eventually, and all correspondence stops in  November of 1920. In Vienna, Franz and Milena were the whole world to each other. They were drunk on potential and sheer proximity to one another. The day before he leaves Prague for their one day in Gmünd, Kafka quotes Jesenská about their relationship: “It will never be.”7 The trip to Gmünd will not be one of Vienna’s potential. Rewriting her words here, in a letter that will reach her only after their trip, returns yet again to the theme of her control over him and illustrates all the responsibility he places on her shoulders.

What drives Jesenská and Wanda away from the men they love is how much responsibility they are given. Neither Franz nor Severin want any agency in their relationship— they view these women as higher beings, when they are simply human. Jesenská and Wanda would have to rescind their sensibilities in order to make their men truly happy. They cannot win. They are exhausted by this kind of love. In the second to last page of Venus in Furs, Severin receives a letter from Wanda three years after they separated where she writes, “you yourself smothered my feelings with your fantastic surrender, with your insane passion.”8 From the “It will never be” that Kafka quotes, there is such finality and exhaustion in those words, it isn’t hard to imagine she shares a sentiment similar to Wanda’s.

It is literature that brings all these people together: Kafka and Milena, Severin and Wanda, Aurora and Leopold, even Paolo and Francesca. It is also how they are torn apart.

Why do I tell you all this? I am looking at— I want you to see— these reflections, the repeating motifs that arise time after time. They are all mirrors echoing the movements of one another, sometimes getting things lost in translation, but the essential vein of meaning that drives them all stays true: There is a deep (almost too deep; it comes at the cost of self loathing) love and respect for the woman that the man uses to compensate his own lack of self worth. Milena is divine and intelligent unlike any other in Kafka’s eyes, a flame burning brighter than he ever could. He dreams of her often and writes to her about it. The obsessive, frantic nature and sheer volume of his letters illustrates how deeply engrossed he is with her; he wants Milena to know and understand him in a way no other person has. With his literary friends, things are different, there isn’t any indication of a romantic affection for them. With the women he has been engaged to, he holds himself apart, while still binding himself to them; the idea of a romantic life partner certainly interests him, but his relationships never seem to fulfill his ideal. In these letters, the distance between him and her is not so great, and the space is filled with potential until reality interrupts the fantasy that pen and ink have fostered.

  1. Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. (Penguin Books, 2000), 17.
  2. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena. Translated by Philip Boehm. (Schocken Books, 2015), 49.
  3. Kafka, Letters, 45.
  4. Kafka, Letters, xv.
  5. Kafka, Letters, 52.
  6. Kafka, Letters, 163-164.
  7. Kafka, Letters, 164.
  8. Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs, 118.
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