Franz Kafka has enjoyed posthumous glory, but his time on earth was, by all accounts, miserable. The German-language writer died at age 41 without having published the three novels that would later place him among the most influential literary figures of the 20th century.
For the most part, information about Kafka's private life surfaced years after his 1924 death, with the publication of "Diaries," in 1937, and "Letters to Milena," a collection of his correspondence with the German writer Milena Jesenska, in 1953. From his personal writing, it became apparent that Kafka dealt with psychological torment, career dissatisfaction and poor health. And, among other revelations, his letters exposed a self-aware battle with rest.
"Sleep is the most innocent creature there is and sleepless man the most guilty," he wrote in his diaries. Drawing on his musings about sleeplessness and his apparent symptoms of mental illness, Italian researchers published a letter to the editor earlier this year in the journal Sleep Science, attempting to classify the insomnia of Kafka, whom they consider "an emblematic case of co-occurrence of sleep and psychiatric disorders." In retrospect, Kafka's self-reflections prove prescient. In line with current ideas about sleep, creativity and mental illness, Kafka understood insomnia both as an assault on his well-being and a conduit to his genius.
Kafka suffered from tuberculosis but, researchers write, his diaries and letters suggest that mental disease, rather than physical, shaped his life and work. The resulting composite shows a man with "an insecure, frail, anxious and depressed personality, a distorted and unstable self-image, a gloomy relationship with his family, friends and loved women, a man living in a state of alienation from the outside world and having self-destructive tendencies." Researchers speculate that Kafka's pathological traits, fractured sense of self and difficulty with interpersonal relationships jointly indicate borderline personality disorder.
Unearthing his insomnia, however, requires less speculation. In "Letters to Milena," Kafka said that he was in good health except for his increasing insomnia. In "Diaries," he described what researchers interpret as a fear of falling asleep: “My insomnia only conceals a great fear of death. Perhaps I am afraid that the soul, which in sleep leaves me, will not be able to return."
Kafka's work habits underscore his knowingly fraught feelings towards sleep. He deliberately saved his creative and intellectual pursuits for nighttime. "It's true that he wrote at night because he worked at day, but Kafka also affirm[ed] this was a deliberate choice because his sleep-deprived mind had access to otherwise inaccessible thoughts," said paper co-author Antonio Perciaccante via email.
It's not clear how or why Kafka found himself unable to drift off, but researchers propose he had what they call "psychophysiological" insomnia, a form caused not by outside stressors but rather "a learned response that teaches the subject to not fall asleep when planned." Think: Pavlolv.
Clinical reports and research support a link between many (if not most) mental disorders and sleep troubles, borderline personality disorder being no exception. It's not clear how the co-existing afflictions influence each other, i.e., if one causes the other, or if they mutually reinforce each other via a feedback loop. But, people who experience psychosis, emotional instability, and other disordered behavior and beliefs commonly exhibit abnormal sleep patterns.
And, to build on the researchers' argument, consider that current theories floating in the sci-osphere increasingly place creativity (or its more exaggerated version, genius) in the same interrelated framework as sleep and mental illness. For example, a UK researcher named Sue Llewlyn sees creativity and mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, as both being the product of what she calls "dedifferentiated consciousness." By that, she means some people are susceptible to falling into states of consciousness between dreaming and wakefulness (dedifferentiated states), where lucid dreaming take place. Gaining access to this mental marshland means gaining access to eureka moments, argues Llelwyn. But, while some degree of dedifferentiation helps unlock creative potential, too much can facilitate mental illness because cognitive and emotional functioning, particularly with regard to processing memories, hinges on spending time in each state of consciousness, and only in that state.
Based on the clues Kafka left for us to parse, it's possible he recognized a relationship between sleep, genius and madness, on some level. Or maybe our unyielding need to make sense of extraordinary minds leads us to think that. Regardless, Perciaccante believes the importance of Kafka's sleep issues were likely underestimated. Nearly a century later, we're making up for it.