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He knew people as only people of great sensitivity are able to know them, as somebody who is alone and sees people almost prophetically, from one flash of a face.

(Jana Cerna, Milena Jesenska; from Jasenska's obituary of Kafka in Kafka's Milena, 1993)

What does the phrase "He knew... know them" mean?

I think that the "them" in the excerpt above is referring to "beautiful people" and the "such persons" in the longer excerpt below. But I'm still not sure how to fully interpret it.

He was too clear-sighted and too wise to be able to live; he was too weak to fight, he had that weakness of noble, beautiful people who are not able to do battle against the fear of misunderstandings, unkindness, or intellectual lies. Such persons know beforehand that they are powerless and go down in defeat in such a way that they shame the victor. He knew people as only people of great sensitivity are able to know them, as somebody who is alone and sees people almost prophetically, from one flash of a face. He was himself a deep and extraordinary world.

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He knew people as only people of great sensitivity are able to know them.

Let's try to get rid of the confusing double use of people.

The author has an opinion about the skill of knowing people: if you have great sensitivity, you can know people in a special way.

Let's call someone who has great sensitivity (and therefore can know people in in a special way) a sensitive guy.

By substituting, we get:

He knew people as only sensitive guys can (know people).

All in all, it is an elaborate way of saying:

He was a very sensitive person. Therefore he knew people in a special way.


The them that you singled out refers to people in general, as in "members of the species homo sapiens_".

The he in the sentence is himself one of those "beautiful people" that are described, and one of his properties is that he knew people in that special way.

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He knew people as (to the same knowledge level) only people of great sensitivity (those people who have high levels of sensitivity and no other types of people at all) are able to (could possibly/can) know people.

His ability to know people was (or had been) with the utmost intimacy.

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