ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Just Missed", an essay by Robert Wexelblatt

Just Missed:  Marx and Kierkegaard and Einstein and Kafka

            I've corresponded with a writer for some years now.  Our exchanges, professional and business-like at first, have, over time, become more personal, even affectionate.  I've learned about his family and he's inquired about mine.  It's an email relationship and still formal; we've never met in person.  In a recent message, he included a piece of information that amused him and intrigued me.  He discovered that decades ago we were in the same place at the same time.  He had been an instructor at the same university where I was a graduate student.  For a year we trod the same acres but, pursuing different disciplines, moved in circles as little likely to intersect as Dylan Thomas and differential equations, a Venn diagram with no overlap.  The tantalizing point, though, is that we might have met.  Somebody could have introduced us; we might have shared a table in the cafeteria or struck up a conversation in the stacks.  We also could have been seated beside one another when one or another intellectual celebrity came to speak at the University.  But if we had met on such an occasion, what would we have said to each other?  But we didn't sit next to each other.  We didn't meet at all.

            The urge to project the present onto the past is illogical but can be compelling.  Because we like one another now, it's tempting to suppose we'd have befriended one another then.  Never mind that we were in different circumstances with different status, interests, that maybe even our characters were different.  We might even have disliked each other. I could justly have thought him too superior to myself and intimidatingly sophisticated; with equal justice, he could have dismissed me as parochial, naïve, and not widely enough read.  Still, however small, there's the chance that we might have hit it off, that we'd have developed the same regard we feel now, that we might have influenced one another and so, in some measure, changed our lives.  But, we just missed.  Life is largely made up of contingencies any of which could, with a flip of a binary switch, go differently.  As a purely personal matter, that we didn't meet feels like a lost opportunity.  This feeling may be a proof of our present friendship but, as regards the past, it's no more than whimsical.

            All this has gotten me thinking about two cases of missed encounters, lost conversations between celebrated thinkers who also chanced to be in the same place at the same time without meeting one another.  I'd like to go back and make the introductions, then stand aside and await the results.  I like to imagine the conversations would be of historical significance.  This is because I'm thinking of introducing bodies of work, even if the work had yet to be accomplished, rather than actual human beings.  After all, even if the introductions were made, the principals might have been distracted by less famous but more interesting people nearby; they could have been brewing a head cold or feeling drowsy and have preferred an early evening.  Undazzled by fame not yet established, unimpressed by names not yet world-famous, they might simply have been uninterested in one another.

            In his exhaustive biography, Joachim Garff describes Søren Kierkegaard's second stay in Berlin from 1841-1842 when he attended a series of increasingly lengthy lectures by Friedrich Schelling.  The lectures were packed, especially the first.  According to Garff, Berliners looked to Schelling "to combat the all-engulfing Hegelianism"—a task with which Kierkegaard was in sympathy and was soon to carry out in his own way.  From all the pages devoted to this subject only one sentence stuck in my mind, actually just part of one.  It is no more than an aside, and it came to mind when I read my friend's email.

                        The crowd was enormous, as was the noise, and not a few
                        showed up in vain and were compelled to stand outside,
                        knocking on the windows of the auditorium in which,
                        incidentally, Karl Marx also was sitting. . .

Incidentally.  Also.  By the way.

            Marx was a Hegelian, albeit a revisionist one.  Kierkegaard respected Hegel, in his own fashion, and, like Marx, freely adopted the Hegelian dialectic.  But, unlike Marx, Kierkegaard appropriated Hegel chiefly to parody, rebut, and mock him.  When I first read it, Garff's aside about the coincidence of Marx and Kierkegaard being in the same place at the same time pulled me up short.  What if, by chance, they were seated next to each other in the jam-packed hall, as my friend and I were not at any university lecture?  Looked at by a strict Hegelian, this would be a dialectical moment indeed, the collision of two "world-historical" thinkers, a thesis and an antithesis, the thinker of classes and masses and the philosophical champion of the individual.  But looked at Kierkegaardianly, so to speak, these would be two individuals in an overcrowded, noisy hall.  They might be focused on what Schelling had to say, but maybe their attention had drifted to the damp autumn weather, their vexing love lives, deciding whether to go for a sausage and a beer when Professor Schelling finally stopped talking.

            Aside from his aside, Garff makes nothing of the matter.  He proceeds to lay out Kierkegaard's gradual disenchantment with Schelling's lectures and his shift to the writing of Either/Or.  But why did the biographer bother saying that Marx in particular was at Schelling's first lecture?  Plenty of other celebrities were also in attendance that night.  Perhaps Garff chose Marx because his name is better known than Mikhail Bakunin's, Jacob Burckhardt's, or Alexander von Humboldt's.  Or maybe it's because Marx had signed up as one of the Young Hegelians while Kierkegaard, to put it mildly, did not.

            Marx and Kierkegaard are names to conjure with, so I conjured.  I tried to imagine what the authors of The German Ideology and Concluding Unscientific Postscript would say to one another if they had repaired to a café, perhaps for some Nussecken.  Of course, it's more likely that they'd have had nothing much to say to one another.  Their ideas were still maturing; they had yet to write their masterpieces.  I imagined them as finished objects, their last names, not two young men, one twenty-eight, the other twenty-three, struggling to find their paths, subject to boredom, indignation, depression, and carbuncles.  Would Marx have grown his beard already?  Would Kierkegaard have spoken incorrect German with a heavy Danish accent?  Would Marx ask about social conditions in Copenhagen and whether Kierkegaard happened to be acquainted with the author of those incisive tales, "The Little Match Girl" and "The Emperor's New Clothes"?  So, I pictured them debating, responding and listening, beginning with Schelling and Hegel, moving on to what most divided them, the relative value of the group and the individual, their theories of life and life itself.  Would Marx have made any concessions to Kierkegaard or vice versa?  Would they have found one another's ideas at all attractive or wholly inimical?  Might Marx have spoken confidingly of his long engagement to Jenny von Westphalen or Kierkegaard about his broken one to Regine Olsen?  What if they had become friendly rivals and left a trove of correspondence?  Perhaps Marx would have gone home and left Kierkegaard with his well-off companion, because Engels was at the lecture too.

            I've no idea what Marx made of Schelling's lecture, but I suspect he agreed with his collaborator who, within weeks, published "Anti-Schelling," in which he concludes:

                        So, we have come to the end of Schelling's philosophy and
                        can only regret that such a man should have become so
                        caught up in the snares of faith and unfreedom.  He was
                        different when he was still young. . . the fire burnt itself
                        out, the courage vanished, the fermenting new wine turned
                        into sour vinegar.

            Kierkegaard gave his opinion in a letter written at the same time Engels was writing his article.  He says that he has given up attending Schelling's lectures, which had doubled in length, swelling from one hour each to two:  "I am too old to listen to lectures, just as Schelling is too old to give them."  Like the twenty-one-year-old Engels, Kierkegaard chides Schelling for not being young.  And, in a coincidence of metaphors, Kierkegaard likened the lecturer to a brewer "of sour vinegar".

            All three men belonged to an extraordinary generation, one that also included Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Marianne Evans, Frédéric Chopin, Edgar Allan Poe, Felix Mendelssohn, and Ivan Goncharov.  It's not in the past that these people meet—though they might have.  Perhaps like Marx and Kierkegaard, they just missed doing so.  Where they do meet is in the present, in our heads. But just for that reason, we may regret not being on the spot to make the introductions.

            The probability of Kierkegaard and Marx getting together at an overcrowded lecture in Berlin on a single night in 1841 is lower than low.  The case of Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka, on the other hand, is the just opposite.  Not only did they have over a year in which to become acquainted (1911-1912) but, by all accounts, they were both habitués of the Café Louvre and regular attendees at Bertha Fanta's salon on the Old Town Square in Prague.  These were the chief gathering spots for the German-speaking, mostly Jewish, intelligentsia of the Czech capital.  It was a small world.  So likely is it that Einstein and Kafka would have met that it's routinely assumed that they did, especially by publications aimed at tourists.  For example, the English language Prague Post declares confidently:

                        When Einstein was not at home or lecturing, he would be
                        found at one of his two favorite places in Prague. . . The Louvre
                        was a preferred café for the Jewish intellectuals of the time. . . Here,
                        he would often meet his friend and literary prodigy Franz Kafka.

As for the salon, the city has carved these putative encounters into a plaque affixed to the wall of Madam Fanta's former home:

                        Here in the salon of Mrs. Bertha Fanta, Albert Einstein, professor
                        at Prague University in 1911 to 1912, founder of the Theory of
                        Relativity, Nobel Prize Winner, played the violin and met his
                        friends, famous writers Max Brod and Franz Kafka.

The website Très Bohèmes takes things to the point of absurdity and in the passive voice:  "It is said that Kafka would sometimes read from his works while Einstein accompanied him on the violin."  Well, "it is said" by Très Bohèmes anyway, and perhaps by the Prague Chamber of Commerce.  But there is no getting away from what Jan Mieszkowski wrote bluntly in his review of Reiner Stach's three-volume biography of Kafka:  "There is no evidence that Kafka ever met the famous physicist."  Though Kafka's letters and diaries record meetings with and observations on what seems like every German-speaking intellectual who passed through Prague, there is no mention of Einstein.  So far as I can discover, Einstein never said a word about Kafka, either.          

            The promoters of tourism claim that Kafka and Einstein met many times, though their only evidence is the high probability that they would do so.  A recent play by Robert Marc Friedman is built on this hypothesis as well, and not just that the two men met in in Prague in 1912 but also in Berlin in 1923, as they were both there in that year—again, same place, same time.  I haven't seen Transcendence: Relativity and Its Discontents; but, unlike the "historical" plaque on the Old Town Square, Friedman's play is clearly a fantasy, with Kafka and Einstein exchanging views on religion and Jewishness.  According to the reviews, in the play Kafka makes a lot of allusions to his own work, which would hardly be characteristic of the modest, self-critical author who instructed Brod to destroy every bit of it.  Though the play is clearly fiction, one reviewer wants to suggest it is based in fact, writing that "Kafka and Einstein notably met in Prague in 1912..."  I agree that it would be notable if the two had actually met in Prague, or even Berlin, but, if they did, nobody took note of it.

            It's tempting to say that either they met or they didn't, but there is a third possibility.  Given the information about the Fanta salon and the Café Louvre, one might even say it is the most likely.  This is that Einstein and Kafka did indeed meet but had nothing to say to one another.  Perhaps they shook hands and drifted apart, back to their own circles.  This is unsatisfying.  Like the Chamber of Commerce, the Prague Post, and the playwright, we want them to have met and spoken.  We want Einstein to have explained his view of God and Kafka his on "the Indestructible".  We want an exchange on the unsteadiness of reality, on how thought can outrun or reveal it through uneasy dreams and thought-experiments.  We want them to talk about being Jewish.  We want them somehow to know that a century later they would both be world-famous, as if they had already lived their lives and done their work, as though Einstein had already won his Nobel and Kafka had not only written The Trial and The Castle but had already been lauded by Auden and Camus.

            Setting aside the obvious anachronism, were it up to me to correct these near-misses, I'd introduce Marx to Einstein and Kierkegaard to Kafka.  This, it seems to me, would have been livelier and more profitable on all sides.  Though Marx's doctorate was in philosophy, his thesis was about physics, atomic physics, in fact.  Its title is The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.  More poignant would be a tête-à-tête between Kierkegaard and Kafka.  Kafka read Kierkegaard with real interest and wrote a good deal about his impressions.  On August 21, 1913, he wrote in his diary that the Dane "bears me out like a friend."  Spiritual brothers, they could have talked for hours just about not getting married before ever getting around to God.


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg's Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Play and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; a book of verse, Fifty Poems; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.  Hsi-wei Tales, a collection of Chinese stories, and Intuition of the News, a book of non-Chinese stories, are forthcoming.


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