The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival

The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival

The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival

The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival


In a long-overlooked diary entry, Franz Kafka admitted to suffering from "bouts of clairvoyance." These bouts of clairvoyance can be seen in his writing, in moments when the solid basis of human cognition totters, the dissolution of matter seems imminent, and objects are jarringly severed from physical referents. June O. Leavitt offers a fascinating examination of the mystical in Kafka's life and writings, showing that Kafka's understanding of the occult was not only a product of his own clairvoyant experiences but of the age in which he lived.

Kafka lived during the modern Spiritual Revival, a powerful movement which resisted materialism, rejected the adulation of science and Darwin, and idealized clairvoyant modes of consciousness. Kafka's contemporaries - such theosophical ideologues as Madame H.P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and Dr. Rudolph Steiner - encouraged the counterculture to seek the true, spiritual essence of reality by inducing out-of-body experiences and producing visions of higher disembodied beings through meditative techniques. Leaders of the Spiritual Revival also called for the adoption of certain lifestyles, such as vegetarianism, in order to help transform consciousness and return humanity to its divine nature.

Interweaving the occult discourse on clairvoyance, the divine nature of animal life, vegetarianism, the spiritual sources of dreams, and the eternal nature of the soul with Kafka's dream-chronicles, animal narratives, diaries, letters, and stories, Leavitt takes the reader on a journey through the texts of a great psychic writer and the fascinating epoch of the Spiritual Revival.


In August 1920, the journalist Milena Jesenská wrote an elegy to Max Brod about her former lover, Franz Kafka, whom she had fondly nicknamed “Frank.” Although the relationship was doomed for many reasons, including her being Catholic and married, she clarified those qualities about Frank that continued to mesmerize her: “Here is a man who is forced to be ascetic because of his terrible clairvoyance, his purity and inability to compromise” (Letters to Milena, 1990 244).

Jesenská’s use of the word clairvoyant is especially significant in light of how she defined it. She suggests that for Kafka the world was a “mystical secret” (365), something he could not attain, but something he held in high regard. In Jesenská’s eyes, Kafka was a man intently aware of a secret substance in the universe, a substance that eluded his grasp. On June 5, 1924, Jesenská again described Kafka as clairvoyant under entirely different circumstances. In the obituary she composed for Kafka, who had died at a sanitarium in Austria two days earlier, she referred to his overendowment of “clairvoyance and wisdom” as having made him incapable of living (271).

Jesenská’s sense that Kafka was in some sense clairvoyant is particularly striking because he himself used the word to describe the agonizing condition that impeded his writing. In a meeting with Dr. Rudolph Steiner on March 28, 1911, Kafka confessed that he experienced altered states of consciousness that corresponded, in his words, to the clairvoyant states Steiner had described (Diaries 48–49). Actually, Kafka claimed that the reason he wanted to meet with “Herr Doktor,” who was then head of the German branch of the Theosophical Society and one of the most eminent occult figures of his day, was because his bouts of clairvoyance were confusing him, and the works he wrote in this state were not his best.

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