23rd February 2011: The Secret Raven

Sharp, Daryl (1980). The Secret Raven: Conflict and Transformation in the Life of Franz Kafka. Toronto: Inner City Books. 128 pages.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic writers. The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926) introduced the term ‘Kafkaesque’ to the English language: unreliable narrators who battle absurdist bureaucracies and who are caught in sudden, existentialist twists of fate. Kafka’s fragmented writing style mirrored his troubled life, diaries, and the continued international hunt for and legal battles over his unpublished work.

Sharp’s Jungian study focuses on two dimensions: Kafka’s psycho-biography and the psychological themes in his stories and novels about conflict and transformation. Kafka worked at an insurance agency and wrote in the evenings. He had an unstable family life and unsatisfying, distant relationships with several women. Sharp notes this social isolation figuratively shaped Kafka as an author and influenced the psychological themes he explored (24). Instead, Kafka lived in a divided world between the inner life of his writing and how he dealt with contemporary realities.

Kafka suffered from the ‘provisional life’ which Sharp diagnoses as ‘neurotic depression’ (75, 48, 61). Sharp suggests Kafka’s life was ruled by his ‘secret raven’: a chthonic shadow that created inner plight (48, 97-98).  Unable to find a ‘grounded’, everyday experience, Kafka used his writing as a vehicle to exteriorise his inner despair. He is caught between idealisation of marriage and sex phobia (56). Sharp suggests Kafka was overly dependent on his mother and that this became a barrier to his self-growth, sense of freedom and abilities to manifest his longed-for spiritual ideals (82). Only near the end of his short life does Kafka achieve transformation via a relationship with Dora Dymant and whilst battling tuberculosis (102). These experiences transform Kafka’s ‘provisional life’ into a state of numinous self-integration (109-114), or at least a clear step towards this possible healing.

Kafka’s life offers several important lessons. Whilst it is possible to lead a ‘dual life’ of inner reality versus the outer world, the two must become integrated and not remain in tension. Otherwise, conflicts will eventuate, which Kafka’s diary entries ruminate over in great, tortured detail. Without a framework to understand his journey and experiences, Kafka emphasised negative aspects of his life and writing (61-65). This gives his writing an elegiac, at times disembodied quality yet it also clearly affected his life-awareness. Sharp’s reflections on Jung’s constructs—the chthonic shadow, the anima, individuation, transformation—can inform our understanding of artistic and creative work, and the nature of initiatory quests.

We all may have our inner, secret ravens.