The Kafka Cuts

Forget the Nightmare of Reason, Vidal Sassoon exposes the bald truth in the works of Franz Kafka.
Early Blow Dryer

BullSimple Press has at last published the first English translation of Vidal Sassoon’s erudite work, The Coiffures of Franz Kafka, 428 pages including a detailed map of the best hair salons of the late Hapsburg Empire. Concentrating on Kafka’s anxieties concerning his enormous ears and his obsessive fear of balding, Vidal Sassoon elucidates the subtle ways in which hair styling and beauty products significantly shaped the great author’s life and work. Sassoon demonstrates how Kafka’s meticulous care for his scalp–an almost religious calling that brought the genius at odds with both his father and fin de siècle culture–influenced his writings. Focusing on Kafka’s neglected writings, such asThe Tangle, Josephine the Louse, and The Country Barber, Sassoon’s exegesis captures the herbal essence of Kafka’s thought.

Breaking up with the V05 School is hard to do.

Like other Hair-storians of the VO Five School, Sassoon adheres to the Length of Hair Theory, the old argument that states when long hair is in fashion, social radicalism prevails, as the American and French Revolutions and the sixties movement have illustrated; when short hair is in style, conservatism reigns, as demonstrated by Nazi Germany, McCarthy’s 1950s and Reagan’s 1980s. Unfortunately, much of Sassoon’s introduction is a thinly-disguised polemic waged against the Faberge Faction, a splinter group that broke with the VO Five School immediately after the Milan Fall Fashion Show of 1988–a show where Sassoon forcefully defended the historical significance of wigs and where the unfortunate incident with the curling iron occurred immediately after a heated debate on whether long-haired Rasputin should be considered a revolutionary. Sassoon concludes his introduction with a blatant attack: “It is absolute madness to subscribe to a history based on hair color, as the tasteless cohorts of the Faberge Faction do. Only the length of hair can determine the historical process.” It is not at all surprising that Sassoon turns to Kafka, the most profound writer of the twentieth century with the thickest head of hair, and, ironically, a man whose fear of losing hair prompted him to create a nightmarish world of literature. 

“It is absolute madness to subscribe to a history based on hair color, as the tasteless cohorts of the Faberge Faction do. Only the length of hair can determine the historical process.”


In his first chapter, “The Crisis of Big Ears and the Torah at the turn of the Century,” Sassoon begins with a painfully precise analysis of Central European hair styling, which is best described as “Kafkaesque.” Kafka’s age was a time of diplomatic crisis, of intellectual uncertainty, and of excessive use of hair tonic. German unification not only disrupted the balance of power, but drastically shifted the pH. balance in Germany’s favor. In response, France initiated the production of enormous hair dryers. The rise of relativism fostered intellectual despair, a crisis of uncertainty best exemplified by W. B. Yeats’s phrase, “How can we tell the hairpiece from the wig?” Soren Kierkegaard’s Balding and Graying had a tremendous impact on Kafka’s generation, as did Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Alberto, which was Nietzsche’s last work before he lost his mind in the streets of Genoa after witnessing a young girl teasing her hair. 

Franz Kafka hiding his bald spot with a hat.

This was also a time of increasing anti-Semitism, as demonstrated by the Shower Cap Affair in France, an event that Sassoon, to be sure, overemphasizes. Nevertheless, he forcefully illustrates how the rise of anti-Semitism contributed to a crisis within Judaism: Zionism versus assimilation, or as Sassoon sees it, Hasidic earlocks versus the dry-look. He admits his debt to Jason Rabinbach’s brilliant study, “The Use of Hair Conditioner by Assimilated Jews of Prague and Moravia between 1890 and 1904.” From this study Sassoon learns that big ears were not only frowned upon by gentiles, but by Talmudic scholars as well. Thus Kafka, born with a pair of wind flaps for ears was destined, like the elephant in the Hasidic Legend Der Meshuggene Dumbo, to be an outsider. 

How can we tell the hairpiece from the wig?

W. B. Yeats

In the chapter entitled “From the Bowl Cut to the Page-Boy: The Early Cuts,” Sassoon surveys Kafka’s troubled childhood. We discover that Kafka’s pleasant childhood ended abruptly after walking into his parents’ bedroom at the age of four. In a letter to his life-long friend, Max Brod, Kafka recalls this trauma: 

As I gently pushed the door open, that ghastly sight–the horrible scene that still gives me nightmares–came into view. My mother sat at the edge of the bed in her nightshirt wearing curlers. Until then I had always thought that her hair was naturally curly. But infinitely more disturbing, she held a dark object in her lap and seemed to be stroking it. Then I realized that she was combing it. The room began to spin and the floor seemed to give way when I saw that she was combing my father’s toupee. Then I saw my father’s shiny bald head. Everything went black. 

Kafka felt that he had been unfairly whisked from the paradise of childhood. He was forced to endure his father’s constant taunts, “Someday you’ll be as bald as me, you meshuggener ritoch! And with those ears of yours! Ha!” 

The Trauma of the Bowl Cut

Kafka’s extremely strained relationship with his father is well documented. Most biographers, however, have failed to locate the source of this estrangement. Sassoon, armed with the keen insight of beautician, identifies the source of this father-son-conflict stemming from a single incident: Kafka’s first haircut. Sassoon writes: 

At the tender age of five, young Franz, was enjoying his breakfast, most likely slurping his cereal, when his father suddenly decided that Franz’s hair was much too long. His father went downstairs to the shop and promptly returned with a pair of tailor’s shears. He then snatched the cereal bowl and placed the bowl on young Franz’s head and proceeded to brutally snip off all the tuffs of hair that fell below the bowl’s edge. 

Hence, the bowl cut. After this humiliation, Franz began a hunger strike that would last for six months and ended when his mother finally took him to the finest barber in Prague, Jan Vojnovic–the man who wisely suggested the page-boy cut, the hairstyle Kafka would wear until age seventeen. Kafka, however, never forgave his father and resorted to revenge tactics, such as swiping his father’s toupee and hooking it to a broom handle during the house training period of Kafka’s first and only dog, Sheisser. Franz also began to write his father long and incomprehensible letters, which he addressed to his mother, creating even more confusion in an already chaotic household.

Yarmulkes, Toupees, and the Personality Bop

In the chapter “Yarmulkes, Toupees, and the Personality Bop” Sassoon argues Kafka’s late adolescence was a period of “intense experimentation.” After enduring years of ribald ear jokes, Kafka, during his senior year at the Altstaedter Gymnasium, was bent on finding himself a haircut that would accentuate his shapely head and divert all attention from his enormous ears. He had twenty-two haircuts in that year alone. Then, after his graduating class bestowed upon him the “Most Likely to Go Bald Award”, Kafka began a series of herbal treatments that would take him on a mad and wild exodus across the continent, and spurred him to write his first story, The Helsinki Doctor.

Upon his return, he began his study of Jurisprudence at Charles University with a feathercut and graduated, much to his father’s dismay, with an Andalusian Swirl. In order to finance his extravagant hair costs, Kafka began a dissatisfying career at Mutual of Omaha Insurance Corporation, Prague Office, and lived a relatively uneventful life until the sudden and unfortunate onset of itching and flaking, which prompted him to write In the Dandruff Colony.

Now, in the evening, out of boredom, washed my hair in the bathroom fifteen times in succession.

Franz Kafka

Whereas Kafka’s colleagues turned to Judaism, Socialism, Zionism, and alcoholism, Kafka remained an outsider. Sassoon claims that Kafka could never fully embrace his Jewish heritage because of the custom of keeping the head covered and because of the strict prohibition of using yeast shampoo during Passover. Furthermore, Kafka looked at the Yarmulke with disdain, believing it to be “nothing but a feeble attempt to hide a bald spot.” Kafka, Sassoon argues, was inclined toward Socialism and was certainly in favor of the distribution of shampoo according to need, but he could never stomach the idea of sharing a comb with a peasant. He, therefore, never joined any political or religious circles. As a loner, he found refuge in his writing and his sink, as illustrated by the following journal entry of May 9, 1909: “Now, in the evening, out of boredom, washed my hair in the bathroom fifteen times in succession.” Later, March 29, 1912, Kafka writes, “Delighted with the bathroom. Gradual understanding. The afternoons I spent on my hair.” 

The Receding Hairline and the Impossibility of Love

In the final chapter, “The Receding Hairline and the Impossibility of Love,” Sassoon conclusively demonstrates that Kafka’s most fecund period occurred when his hairline began to recede. Sassoon believes that Kafka first noticed something was amiss on December 15, 1910 when Kafka writes: 

I simply do not believe the conclusions I have drawn from my present condition, which has already lasted almost a year, my condition is too serious for that. Indeed, I do not even know whether I can say that it is not a new condition. My real opinion, however, is that this condition is new–I have had similar ones, but never one like this. 

For Sassoon, this condition can only be the loss of hair. After nearly two years of constant observation his forehead and scalp with a magnified mirror, Kafka finds conclusive evidence that he is indeed losing hair. On the night of September 22-23 he locates a black strand of hair on his pillow. Like a man possessed, he spends the entire night writing The Judgment, which, Sassoon forcefully argues, is allegorical — namely, that like his father, Kafka is also condemned to go bald. 

Next Sassoon uses hitherto unknown diary entries to demonstrate that The Metamorphosis was originally the story of a young man who awoke one morning transformed into a bald man. We certainly must agree with Sassoon, the final version of The Metamorphosis is clearly symbolic of Kafka’s fear of lice. 

Using the unedited version of The Trial, in which two barbers shave and, therefore, kill Josef K. with sheep shears, Sassoon proves beyond a doubt that Kafka suffered from what Dr. Loreal calls an unresolved Samson and Delilah complex. Throughout his life Kafka could never turn his back on a woman, making it impossible for him to marry or stand in line. Like many young men of his social class, Kafka’s first sexual encounter was with a housemaid with split ends. His first love, Felice Bauer, a Jewish woman from Berlin, had long and thick hair. The four-year courtship was doomed from the beginning: Kafka canceled the wedding twice because he could never marry a woman whose hair was thicker than his. Shaving his head at both bachelor parties, he intentionally made marriage impossible. 

Sassoon proves beyond a doubt that Kafka suffered from what Dr. Loreal calls an unresolved Samson and Delilah complex.

In 1918 Kafka met Julie Wohryzek, daughter of a synagogue custodian. By early 1919 he was engaged to marry her, but called off the wedding after he found out she was not a natural blonde. Then Kafka fell in love with Milena Jesenska, a young, but married Czech writer, who, he suspected, wore a hairpiece. Sassoon concludes they were never able to consummate their love because of the constant interruptions of a certain Miss Breck. In 1923 Kafka met Dora Dymant, a circus performer who swung from the trapeze by her hair. She was the only woman Kafka trusted to cut his hair and they appeared to find a brief moment of happiness when they took a small apartment together above a hair salon in Berlin-Zehlendorf. Unfortunately, Kafka at this time had already lost a considerable amount of hair. 

In early April, 1924 he was brought back to Prague, then sent to a sanitarium just outside of Vienna, where he died on June 3 with, according to one doctor’s report, “a fair amount of hair.” According to Dora Dymant, Kafka’s only regret in life was that he never parted his hair. 

Are Perms truly Permanent?

The tragedy of Kafka’s life, which Sassoon correctly identifies, “ . . . was not his lonely life, nor only having posthumous success. What stirs us most about Kafka was that he had no way of foreseeing the invention of styling mousse, hair spray or the blow dryer.” Clearly Sassoon’s landmark study is necessary reading for students of Comparative Literature, beauticians, and manicurists alike. We can only hope that Sassoon’s current work, Mein Haar: The Political Significance of the Part in Hitler’s Hair can measure up to The Kafka Cuts. 

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