Kafka the “Muscle Jew”

Sarah Wildman describes the short, ingenious workout system that had Mitteleuropeans — including Kafka — gyrating into the 20th century:

At the turn of the last century, Müller's wildly popular cult of physical fitness swept Mitteleuropa, turning parlor-sitting dandies from Copenhagen to Berlin to London into ironmen. Müller's My System was published first in 1904 as little more than a long, bound pamphlet graced with an image of the Greek athlete Apoxyomenos naked and toweling himself. The exercise guide, which promised that just "15 minutes a day" of prescribed* exercise would make "weaklings" into strong men (and women), was ultimately translated into 25 languages, reprinted dozens of times, and sold briskly well into the 20th century.

The Müller system … is something like a precursor to Pilates, it borrows from ballet, and it needs no equipment, other than commitment. It is strict but appealingly accessible. Unlike some of the other popular physical fitness gurus of the time—including the Prussian Eugene Sandow, who is known as the father of bodybuilding—Müller wasn't interested in building muscle mass through dumbbells. And while My System wasn't only aimed at men—in his original pamphlet, he explains that a woman needs to develop a "muscular corset" (that is, core muscles)—Müller, eventually, added to his bookshelf, writing My System for Ladies and My System for Children. There was also the remedial My Breathing System for those for whom, trapped in a Victorian sartorial nightmare, respiration had to be taught.

You can read Muller's book here. It's full of good old Mitteleuropean common sense. I may actually try out the system myself. After all, if it was good enough for Kafka…

3 thoughts on “Kafka the “Muscle Jew”

  1. How can one resist a book with subheadings like, “Illness is Generally One’s Own Fault”?

    I prefer the comic book version, “The Insult that made a Man out of Franz” (Kafka).


  2. Actually it did not work for Kafka: according to his bio he used to have a weak physical constitution and never really succeeded in strengthening his body, even after he took up exercising. I can’t remember if he started exercising before or after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.


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