The Autoscopic Author: Kafka and Toole

Once again I have Kafka on my mind. I’ve been amending a review of Toole’s biography Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces by the very excellent Cory MacLauchlin to appear in the Journal of Mind and Behavior. Here is a snippet:


The phenomena of the autoscopic and the autotelic was perhaps too rich a mix for Gottlieb, a rarified psychological state that is incongruent with the neat and tidy categories that the business of publishing demands. Exceptional writers need exceptional editors: how different would the world’s intellectual landscape have been were it not for the insight and foresight of Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor? [1]

[1] See here and the follow up story: I can’t determine if, after nearly a year, any further developments have transpired. 


Here is a “survey” of a flourish of recent works on Kafka all replete with attempts to discipher this extraordinary and enigmatic mind.

In a letter to his long-suffering fiancée Felice Bauer he declared: “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” This was a constant theme of his mature years, and one that he expanded on in a highly significant diary entry from August 1916: “My penchant for portraying my dreamlike inner life has rendered everything else inconsequential; my life has atrophied terribly, and does not stop atrophying.”

Now this meets the autoscopic phenomenon that the brilliant Aaron Mishara writes so insightfully about and which I discuss at length in my review. This is where Banville reveals how little he understands:

Of course, Kafka is not the first writer, nor will he be the last, to figure himself as a martyr to his art—think of Flaubert, think of Joyce—but he is remarkable for the single-mindedness with which he conceived of his role.

A martyr to his art? This must rate as one of the most superficial assessments of what’s going on. (And here is the most annoying irony – Banville was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize!!!!!)

Again, here is an extract from my review, from the section I’ve entitled The Autoscopic Author.


Mishara proposes a fourfold idealized taxonomy, of course more holistic as a phenomenological experience (Mishara, 2007, 2010b, pp. 593-606).

(1) Type I: Visual hallucinatory autoscopy

– I is mirrored by a me (body or self as object)

(2) Type II: Delusional (dream-like) autoscopy (usually called heautoscopy)

– I becomes a me, i.e., the mirror image (ironically) of the other I who usurps the feeling of being a self

(3) Out of body experience

– The I separates from the physical body and views it from an elevated position: I (body as subject) and me (body as object) are experienced as separate

(4) Feeling of a shadowy presence

– Another I is sensed but not seen

Based upon MacLauchlin’s excellent reconstruction of Toole’s writing process (and shadowed by some excerpts from Confederacy), Toole falls more or less into Type II. Type II autoscopic “doubles” are accessible to all perceptual modalities. I put the term “double” in scare quotes because it gives the impression of a mirror-like exactitude. It should be noted that the double need not resemble the subject’s outward appearance – the sartorially dapper Toole [p. 167] is very much at the opposite end of the spectrum to his alter ego Ignatius Reilly’s gait and presentation. Furthermore, age and gender are not material to the double. What of course matters is that the “double’s” personality and worldview are more or less aligned. In short, autoscopic experience does not depend on the phenomenological characteristics of the spectre but on how the subject constitutes the experience (Mishara, 2010b, p. 297, emphasis in original). This form of autoscopic experience has more in common with a dreamlike state, feeding off the actual state of consciousness of the ontologically real persona.

Three aspects of Kafka’s writing modus operandi as presented by Mishara strongly resonates with Toole’s:

1. Kafka deliberately scheduled his writing during the night in a sleep-deprived state; deprivation may serve as a non-drug “psychotomimetic” model.

a. Toole: “and now it had unleashed with consuming urgency . . . could hear the clacking of the typewriter at all hours of the day and night . . .” [p. 151].

b. Toole: “Writing feverishly, I have completed three chapters . . .” [p. 152].

c. Toole: “The ‘creative writing’ to which I turned about three months ago in an attempt to seek some perspective upon the situation has turned out to have been more than simple psychic therapy” [p. 155].

d. Toole: “Russy noticed that there was a ‘remoteness’ about him . . . for a moment she thought he might be depressed. What she previously identified as depression, she now recognized as an astoundingly deep immersion in his manuscript. She noticed that Toole acted as if his mind was split between reality and his book, not as if he couldn’t distinguish between the two, but because he had poured his soul into the novel. “The center of his existence had become his book,” she observed. “When he walked on campus, he looked straight forward, not making eye contact, and every once in a while he would kind of chuckle to himself as if something just struck him as absurd” [pp. 168-169].

2. Kafka is avoidant of unnecessary stimulation; the avoidance or withdrawal from photic and social stimulation; for Kafka, a prerequisite for the self-induction of hypnagogic-like trances.

a. Toole: “It is rolling along smoothly and is giving me a maximum of detachment and release from a routine which had long ago become a somewhat stale second nature” [p. 152].

b. Toole: “In the unreality of my Puerto Rican experience, this book became more real to me than what was happening around me; I was beginning to talk and act like Ignatius” [p. 155].

c. Thelma “noticed something different about him. He seemed quieter, as if completely absorbed by his book” [p. 165].

d. “While Toole’s writing had provided him relief, it also caused him to retreat . . . he became further detached from everything and everybody” [p. 156].

3. Kafka marveled at the automaticity of his own writing.

a. Toole: “I am writing with great regularity. It seems to be the only thing that keeps my mind occupied; I have never found writing to be so relaxing or so tranquilizing . . .” [p. 152].

b. “The language started to pour out. Pent up energies of a decade flowed, filling page after page . . .” [pp. 2, 182]. In Kafka’s work, the writer’s self is doubled in the protagonist in different ways. The narrator’s and protagonist’s perspectives collapse into one another; the protagonist stands in for the author as a double, but takes on a life of his own (Mishara, 2010a, p. 28).

Again, consider Toole and others’ thoughts on the matter:

(a) Toole: “Whenever I attempt to talk in connection with Confederacy of Dunces I become anxious and inarticulate. I feel very paternal about the book; the feeling is actually androgynous because I feel as if I gave birth to it” [pp. 177, 219].

(b) MacLauchlin: “In a twist of roles, Toole, who had spent so much time observing people around him, had placed himself into his character he created to re-envision his world” [p. 179].

(c) Toole: “. . . but since something like 50 percent of my soul is in the thing” [p. 180].

(d) “And at times he could take on that supercilious tone so evident in Ignatius Reilly” [pp. 167, 154-155].

(e) “Seemingly at a loss as to how to edit his novel without destroying it, unable to spill the blood of his creation, his master plan now lay unraveled in his hands” [p. 187].

(f) “He was not egotistical, but it was something deeper. He believed in the exceptionalism of the book, but he had anxiety about it. It had very much to do with his identity and profound sense of self. It seemed he had given himself over to his creation, as if the actual people surrounding him were shadows and the truth lie in the pages that he continued to edit. It was not a task to display his literary prowess. He had created something far more alive than an academic argument” [p. 169].

(g) “In 1980 in the Bloomsbury Review, Michael O’Connel merges the author and protagonist into a single entity, claiming, “Toole-Ignatius despises living in the world, inveighs and scolds; Ignatius in his Big Chief diary and Toole in his fiction” [p. 234].


In one of the books under review – Stach’s – Banville writes:

He wishes, he tells us, to experience “what it was like to be Franz Kafka,” yet suggests that the effort even to get “just a little bit closer” is illusory:

Methodological snares are of no use; the cages of knowledge remain empty. So what do we achieve for all our efforts? The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible.

Well whoopdy doo (as Archie Bunker was fond of saying). The logic of Thomas Nagel’s seminal paper What is it like to be a bat? might be salient here, whether or not those in consciousness studies buy into this argument. He continues:

“… he does truly give a sense of “what it was like to be Franz Kafka.”

Yeah, right oh! Who is Banville trying to kid? More . . .

an epistemological approach to his task, cleaving to the facts as he knows them

Banville wouldn’t know what epistemology is even if it bit him in the Gettier.

And like the low-grade psychological speculation of Toole by René Pol Nevil and Deborah George Hardy (please don’t waste your money on this tripe), Kafka too is subject to speculation that he was a repressed homosexual which, to Banville’s credit, he describes as:

Friedländer’s rare lapses into near psychobabble

The best part of this article is the photo below showing K. with an uncharacteristic smile and in a “normalized” context.