Monday, May 28, 2012

Thank you.

This concludes Kafka's Zurau Aphorisms. I hope that you have found something of interest here, and that my commentary, if not profound, was at least not too irritating.

Thank you for your interest.

Number One Hundred and Nine

»Daß es uns an Glauben fehle, kann man nicht sagen. Allein die einfache Tatsache unseres Lebens ist in ihrem Glaubenswert gar nicht auszuschöpfen.« »Hier wäre ein Glaubenswert? Man kann doch nicht nicht-leben.« »Eben in diesem "kann doch nicht" steckt die wahnsinnige Kraft des Glaubens; in dieser Verneinung bekommt sie Gestalt.« Es ist nicht notwendig, daß du aus dem Hause gehst. Bleib bei deinem Tisch und horche. Horche nicht einmal, warte nur. Warte nicht einmal, sei völlig still und allein. Anbieten wird sich dir die Welt zur Entlarvung, sie kann nicht anders, verzückt wird sie sich vor dir winden.

"It cannot be said that we are lacking in faith. Even the simple fact of our life is of a faith-value that can never be exhausted." "You suggest there is some faith-value in this? One cannot not-live, after all." "It is precisely in this 'Cannot, after all' that the mad strength of faith lies; it is in this negation that it takes on form."
>> There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can't do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

"It cannot be claimed that we are lacking in belief. The mere fact of our being alive is an inexhaustible font of belief."
"The fact of our being alive a font of belief? But what else can we do but live?"
"It's in that 'what else' that the immense force of belief resides: it is the exclusion that gives it its form."
>> It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.


Our being alive gives us faith or requires faith of us, since life is not mathematical and impossible to know in advance. Likewise knowledge is a matter of faith, albeit faith grounded in certain guarantees that are lacking when it comes to things like religious belief. To the skeptical question, the one that is inclined toward disbelief or thinks it is, that there doesn't seem to be anything beyond life, that life is not a choice and hence faith, understood as a choice, can't be tied to life, the answer is that it isn't possible, on the contrary, not to believe things, and that the questioner always questions from some vantage point or implied value. The skeptic may claim to believe or value nothing, but, apart from wondering if that isn't more a belief itself than a fact, the skeptic usually claims to believe nothing because nothing satisfies his or her idea of truth, which is a value and hence believed.

Hofmann goofs, I think, when he loses the idea of madness associated with belief. Belief is prescriptive madness, insisting on something come what may. That may be the only possible certainty or ground for belief, apart perhaps from mathematics which I don't comment on either way except to say that as yet it doesn't seem that everything can be founded on mathematics. This is more or less the heart of the modernist problem with values; that values rest on affirmation only, so that, at the heart of even the most beautifully rational and ramified philosophies and systems, there is a crude, rustic, stupidly donkey-like intransigence on some point or other.

Kaiser/Wilkins marks the second half of this aphorism cancelled. Evidently Kafka is supposed to have recoiled from so Buddhistic a statement as this. I think again of the activity of narrowing the circle.

Entlarvung can also mean expose, which suggests to me an image of the world presenting itself as a seduction, stripping for you. Verzückt is like ecstasy in that it preserves the idea of being drawn out, transported. Winden is related to our word wind (as in what you do to a watch, not what blows) and can also mean writhe.

This suggests to me the idea that the world is an experience, and that we can see this all the more clearly the more we reduce the distractions of external events to a minimum. The world that most affects and matters to you, almost certainly will be the one with which you have the most to do. This is how Beckett wrote, this effect is familiar to any reader of Beckett. It is like the Buddhist idea of meditation, but Buddhists don't meditate to cause the world to throw itself at them like Potiphar's wife, naked, bare-faced, undulating seductively like a serpent. This may happen, but Buddhist teachings warn against taking this kind of manifestation seriously; you're supposed to just shine it on. Kafka here is not, I think, as Buddhistic as he might seem, because, for the Buddhist, the desire is supposedly coming from me; the lascivious writhing of the world is only the rewinding of my own desire back on myself. But I think Kafka is saying that the world does exist, does desire things, and desires you and me. He says that the world can't help itself; our stopping seems to be something like an escape, so the world rushes to us and really lays it on, trying to win us back. But where else is there to go?

Number One Hundred and Eight

»Dann aber kehrte er zu seiner Arbeit zurück, so wie wenn nichts geschehen wäre.« Das ist eine Bemerkung, die uns aus einer unklaren Fülle alter Erzählungen geläufig ist, obwohl sie vielleicht in keiner vorkommt.

"But then he returned to his work just as though nothing had happened." This is a remark that we are familiar with from a vague abundance of old stories, although perhaps it does not occur in any of them. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

"And then he went back to his job, as though nothing had happened." A sentence that strikes one as familiar from any number of old stories -- though it might not have appeared in any of them. [Hofmann]


I think Hofmann hits this one more squarely, because it's hard to imagine an abundance being vague in any really meaningful way.

The point here I think is that this sentence is familiar because it's something we need, and so it isn't like a familiar aphorism or saying. You may not know who said "a rose by any other name blah blah blah," but you know it's a quotation from somewhere and that it's in circulation because it sums up the idea that what something is called is only a convention. But the idea "as if nothing had happened" belongs to another category, reserved for ideas that seem indispensible and obvious. Inventing "as if nothing had happened" is like inventing clothing or cooking; it's something so basic that it is not only too remote in the past to be traced to this or that person, but it's something that you wouldn't think people would have to invent at all.

So it would seem that this idea, that something can happen and yet have no effect, is fundamental somehow. What does that say about people? About the idea of work? As if work were a purposeless, eternal duty that no event can do more than interrupt.

Number One Hundred and Seven

Alle sind zu A. sehr freundlich, so etwa wie man ein ausgezeichnetes Billard selbst vor guten Spielern sorgfältig zu bewahren sucht, solange bis der große Spieler kommt, das Brett genau untersucht, keinen vorzeitigen Fehler duldet, dann aber, wenn er selbst zu spielen anfängt, sich auf die rücksichtsloseste Weise auswütet.

Everyone is very kind to A., more or less as one tries to guard an excellent billiard table even from good players, until the time when the great player comes, who will carefully examine the table, will not put up with any damage done to it previously, but then, when he himself begins to play, lets himself go wildly, in the most inconsiderate manner. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Everyone is very friendly to A., in roughly the way one might seek to protect an excellent billiard cue even from good players, until the great one comes along, takes a good look at the table, will tolerate no precocious mistakes, and then, when he starts playing, rampages in the wildest way. [Hofmann]


A cue is a Billiardstock, typically, so I think Kaiser/Wilkins makes more sense here, especially since the proprietor of a billiard table will usually have many cues and so can go ahead and play even if one is kept on reserve, but, if the table itself is reserved, then no one can play at all. The good players must have acquired their skill practicing on a different table; either that, or they are naturally good at the game.

In any case, this isn't an aphorism about billiards, but about how a certain person is treated, and specifically how the preservation of a person inviolate has less to do with consideration for that person than it does with the imperious demands of the other one, who has a claim on that person. So, sparing someone may simply be a matter of setting them up for something worse.

To me, this aphorism seems to have little in common with the others preceding it, unless you decide that the great one to come is a messiah. When the messiah comes, everything is put right, but this may involve a lot of wrecking. Is it our task to preserve things for the messiah to wreck?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Number One Hundred and Six

Die Demut gibt jedem, auch dem einsam Verzweifelnden, das stärkste Verhältnis zum Mitmenschen, und zwar sofort, allerdings nur bei völliger und dauernder Demut. Sie kann das deshalb, weil sie die wahre Gebetsprache ist, gleichzeitig Anbetung und festeste Verbindung. Das Verhältnis zum Mitmenschen ist das Verhältnis des Gebetes, das Verhältnis zu sich das Verhältnis des Strebens; aus dem Gebet wird die Kraft für das Streben geholt. Kannst du denn etwas anderes kennen als Betrug? Wird einmal der Betrug vernichtet, darfst du ja nicht hinsehen oder wirst zur Salzsäule.

Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility. It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship to one's fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one's striving.

>> Can you know anything other than deception? If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Humility gives everyone, even the lonely and the desperate, his strongest tie to his fellow men. Immediately and spontaneously, too, albeit only if the humility is complete and lasting. It does so because it is the language of prayer and is both worship and tie. The relationship to one's fellow man is the relationship of prayer; the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; out of prayer is drawn the strength with which to strive.

Can you know anything that is not deception? Once deception was destroyed, you wouldn't be able to look, at the risk of turning into a pillar of salt. [Hofmann]


Kaiser/Wilkins mark the second section of the aphorism cancelled. Hofmann marks a break only.

People can see themselves in the low and humble. This reminds me of Agamben's idea of the baseline human, that the humanity in an individual becomes the more apparent the more stripped and wretched he is. I suppose this is because the sense of humanity is generally a sense of universal suffering or liability to suffering, and therefore an aspect of compassion. Nietzsche on the one hand considered human beings abject enough, but on the other hand he was wary of the sort of approach that makes compassion the basis of our relations with others, since this suggests that humans are only human when they're miserable. When confronted with someone happy, strong, beautiful, will that compassion still abide, or will it turn to resentment? Are the compassionate really interested in seeing others become happy, or are they miserable people who want to make sure no one else is any happier than they are, who want to console themselves with the idea that no one is ever really happy?

This might clarify the connection between the two elements in the aphorism.

Making room for others, which could be another way of contracting your circle. Humility has to be permanent: I think this means, no congratulating yourself on how humble you are!
One strives with oneself, not with others. One draws strength to strive with oneself with others. This is exactly the opposite of what we usually hear everywhere.

The idea that humans relate to each other in a prayer-like way immediately reminds me of Amalia in The Castle, the way her family is ostracised largely on her account, and yet they are still members of the community in a way that K. can never be. Has Amalia been too proud in rejecting Sortini? Is the Castle really distinct from the community, or is it necessary in some way to make it possible for the community to pray to itself? K. is constantly petitioning throughout the novel; maybe coming to the village is his way of establishing himself in a position of strictest humility, one that is not just an affectation but a social position that is binding on him for as long as he chooses to stay. This puts him in an attitude of prayer toward other people whether he likes it or not.

Deception: the difference between truth and error is notoriously elusive, but the difference between truth and a lie is something else. It may be that difference is a bit thornier than Kafka expected, which might be why he cancelled the second bit of the aphorism. After all, you might unwittingly tell the truth while believing you're lying, if you don't know the truth. This is mainly a language problem; there's truth in the sense of what is the case, and then truth in the social sense, meaning there is no difference between what the speaker says and what he thinks.

Number One Hundred and Five

Das Verführungsmittel dieser Welt sowie das Zeichen der Bürgschaft dafür, daß diese Weit nur ein Übergang ist, ist das gleiche. Mit Recht, denn nur so kann uns diese Welt verführen und es entspricht der Wahrheit. Das Schlimmste ist aber, daß wir nach geglückter Verführung die Bürgschaft vergessen und so eigentlich das Gute uns ins Böse, der Blick der Frau in ihr Bett gelockt hat.

This world's method of seduction and the token of the guarantee that this world is only a transition are one and the same. Rightly so, for only in this way can this world seduce us, and it is in keeping with the truth. The worst thing, however, is that after the seduction has been successful we forget the guarantee and thus actually the Good has lured us into Evil, the woman's glance into her bed. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The seductiveness of this world and the sign that warrants its transitoriness are one and the same. And rightly so, because only in this way can the world seduce us, and accord with the truth. The grievous thing is that after falling victim to the seduction, we forget the warranty, and so the Good has led us into Evil, the woman's smile has led us into bed with her. [Hofmann]


What is happening when I am seduced by the world? The convention is that being seduced by the world is a more or less excusable or even innocent first step, while sin and guilt are the second step. Being seduced by the world means giving it too much attention, while neglecting what lies beyond it.

But the idea that we should not pay too much attention to the world is grounded in the belief that the world is transitory, and that there is something more lasting beyond. Kafka says this is the right idea, but that it can lead to evil consequences, since, once I know this world, which includes whatever I might do in it, is transitory, then I might be inclined to think that what I do won't matter very much, and so excuse my transgressions to myself.

What might these two worlds be? Convention, dating back at least as far as Ancient Greece, tells us that the world we see is not that important, and change is the reason for that. What changes, what is impermanent, has no essence of its own, can't be relied on, and so it isn't real. It would have been more honest to say, it is not what we want to find when we go looking for reality. There's no reason we can't identify reality and change, instead of identifying reality with permanence, and when we make that other identification, then, not surprising, the resulting outlook is correspondingly very different. It is especially enlightening to look back at the conventional way of thinking from this new point of view; it suddenly seems pretty timid, conservative, suspicious, resentful.

The problem in this aphorism is the failure to take change seriously enough, and the inconsistency in relying on change to save you by transposing you to another realm where you will be miraculously preserved from change.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Number One Hundred and Four

Der Mensch hat freien Willen undzwar dreierlei: Erstens war er frei, als er dieses Leben wollte; jetzt kann er es allerdings nicht mehr rückgängig machen, denn er ist nicht mehr jener, der es damals wollte, es wäre denn insoweit, als er seinen damaligen Willen ausführt, indem er lebt. Zweitens ist er frei, indem er die Gangart und den Weg dieses Lebens wählen kann. Drittens ist er frei, indem er als derjenige, der er einmal wieder sein wird, den Willen hat, sich unter jeder Bedingung durch das Leben gehn und auf diese Weise zu sich kommen zu lassen undzwar auf einem zwar wählbaren, aber jedenfalls derartig labyrinthischen Weg, daß er kein Fleckchen dieses Lebens unberührt läßt. Das ist das Dreierlei des freien Willens, es ist aber auch, da es gleichzeitig ist, ein Einerlei und ist im Grunde so sehr Einerlei, daß es keinen Platz hat für einen Willen, weder für einen freien noch unfreien.


This aphorism is identical to Number Eighty-Nine, except that, where the earlier aphorism opens with Ein Mensch, this one opens Der Mensch.

Kaiser/Wilkins deals with this duplication by omitting Number One Hundred and Four altogether, while Hofmann collapses Number Eighty-Nine into the preceding number and presents the second version under this number. His translation can be found in the blog entry for Number Eighty-Nine.