Saturday, December 31, 2011

Number Twenty-Nine

Die Hintergedanken, mit denen du das Böse in dir aufnimmst, sind nicht die deinen, sondern die des Bösen. Das Tier entwindet dem Herrn die Peitsche und peitscht sich selbst, um Herr zu werden, und weiß nicht, daß das nur eine Phantasie ist, erzeugt durch einen neuen Knoten im Peitschenriemen des Herrn.

The ulterior motives with which you absorb and assimilate Evil are not your own but those of Evil. >> The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master's whiplash. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The reservations with which you take Evil into yourself are not yours, but those of Evil. >> The animal twists the whip out of its master's grip and whips itself to become its own master -- not knowing that this is only a fantasy, produced by a new knot in the master's whiplash. [Hofmann]


The section after the >> arrows is cancelled.

The first section, which I think tends to be overshadowed by the second: If you reject evil there is no need for argument about it. If you argue or struggle, you are already playing the game, bargaining, temporizing, parsing out your entitlements. The impulsive act is innocent, if not harmless, like the leopards entering the sanctuary. To reason about the wickedness of a possible act requires you to begin planning it.

The second section is like a rerendering of the slave rebellion as Nietzsche described it, although here it is the master who prevails. The point is that the slave doesn't overcome the master by force, because, in so doing, the slave becomes the master and the master the slave. Instead, the slave paralyzes the master with guilt and disgust, so the master doesn't act even though he can.

Linking these two sections together seems to require us to think of Evil as the master position, and that scourging ourselves is only another way to serve Evil, because we scourge ourselves in order to become our own Evil.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Number Twenty-Eight

Wenn man einmal das Böse bei sich aufgenommen hat, verlangt es nicht mehr, daß man ihm glaube.

When one has once accepted and absorbed Evil, it no longer demands to be believed. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Once we have taken Evil into ourselves, it no longer insists that we believe in it. [Hofmann]


The first verb is the tricky one, since it means to receive, specifically to receive persons (as opposed to acts). Receiving someone, and here evil is clearly personified, and taking someone or something into oneself are not quite the same. If I take evil into myself, then I become evil, don't I? Whereas what is under discussion here seems to be knowing and accepting evil, rather than doing or being evil.

It is a characteristic of evil that people do it while claiming not to be doing it. When you are unaware of it, it demands to be received. Once it is received, it hides.

This aphorism is also telling us that evil does demand we believe in it, so long as we do not receive it. Evil does not allow itself to be passively ignored, and, if it is actively ignored, that means it has been "received."

If this evil is the same as the imposed negative of the previous aphorism, then receiving it would be the flipside of having it imposed on you. This may mean that one cannot be subject to this imposition without first allowing the negative.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Number Twenty-Seven

Das Negative zu tun, ist uns noch auferlegt; das Positive ist uns schon gegeben.

Doing the negative thing is imposed on us, an addition; the positive thing is given to us from the start. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

We are instructed to do the negative; the positive is already within us. [Hofmann]


Hofmann takes greater liberties here than Kaiser/Wilkins, and loses the sense of "noch," which is that the negative is added to us. The implication, then, is that the positive, being opposed to the negative, must be the opposite of what is added, that is, what is innate, and hence already within us, but doesn't this entail an assumption? I don't think we should conflate what is given to us from the start with what we are.

The negative thing is not given to us from the start but imposed later; does this mean there are no imposed positives, and therefore any positive thing is given at the beginning only?

I think the emphasis here is on the idea of the negative as alien deviation from any previously-determined direction. If this is taken as an axiom, it does not necessarily follow that any change in direction is negative. It may negate the direction taken up to now, but if this happens because you are opting for a new direction, then this would be a new positive, and hence, by this definition, a new beginning. The positive, then, would necessarily be the beginning of something. Therefore the negative is a deviation that does not begin anything new.

The negative might be sloppiness, but then that doesn't explain the idea of imposition. Who imposes? Perhaps it doesn't matter who. But no one thinks of sloppiness in terms of an imposition, do they? Imposed sloppiness. What would that be? Confusion, induced by circumstances? This negative is far more general, and should be treated as any interference; perhaps especially as self-interference.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Number Twenty-Six

Verstecke sind unzählige, Rettung nur eine, aber Möglichkeiten der Rettung wieder so viele wie Verstecke. Es gibt ein Ziel, aber keinen Weg; was wir Weg nennen, ist Zögern.

Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities of escape, again, are as many as hiding places. There is a goal, but no way; what we call a way is hesitation.

There are innumerable hiding places and only one salvation, but the possibilities of salvation are as numerous as the hiding places. There is a destination but no way there; what we refer to as way is hesitation. [Hofmann]


This is another cancelled aphorism, very reminiscent of "Before the Law."

Briefly, it says that hiding places and possible avenues of escape or rescue are numberless, but only one of them is true. In parallel, there is somewhere to go, but no way to get there at all. In other words, there are countless wrong pathways and only one right one, from one point of view, whereas from another point of view there is not even one right pathway, because the mistake lies in thinking in terms of pathways. There is an aim that is not achieved yet, and which is simply to be achieved. To come up with a way to achieve it is to postpone that achievement.

If we begin with the supposition that all of us are elements of a single transcendent consciousness mistaking itself for an infinite number of discrete beings, then the student approaching the guru and asking to be liberated is actually one consciousness asking itself for freedom. The guru looks at the student and says in effect, "you're not fooling me, Visnu, I know it's you, but if you want to play this game, act the part of a hapless student, and invent laborious and elaborate procedures for your own liberation instead of simply liberating yourself right now, by all means, why not?"

This aphorism does not seem to be consistent with the idea of the true way, since he says there is no way to the one aim. However, there need not be a contradiction, and clearing up contradictions isn't necessarily tidying up where untidiness is called for. The true way isn't about going somewhere, it's about staying on the rope or brushing the leaves away continually, keeping pointed in the right direction, not about how much distance you've managed to cover. You cover no more ground than you are currently standing on, which is what he said in the twenty-fourth aphorism.

You can't spread out becoming, you can only train or practice or wait until it happens. The moment of becoming something truly new may or may not arise out of the old, but it isn't just the rearrangement of the old. The new may happen because you've arranged enough old stuff out of its birth canal, so there is something to be done with the old stuff, but the new, to be new, must be discontinuous with what went before. The paradox of the "way" is that you're trying to invite the new because there does seem to be some way to induce it to come from among all the old stuff, but what comes will come out of nothing old.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Number Twenty-Five

Wie kann man sich über die Welt freuen, außer wenn man zu ihr flüchtet?

How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one's refuge in it? [Kaiser/Wilkins]

How is it possible to rejoice in the world except by fleeing to it? [Hofmann]


This is not a rhetorical question.

Hofmann's "fleeing to" is closer to the German than Kaiser/Wilkins' "taking refuge in." The pronoun "ihr" is in the dative, which is usually locative in sense, but the combination of the verb "flüchten" and the preposition "zu" gives us a sense of motion better translated as "fleeing to."

This is important because it underscores the idea that one rejoices in the world while separate from it and seeking to join with it, rather than simply from within it. Kaiser/Wilkins conjures a Buddhistic image of self-identification with the world, while Hofmann emphasizes instead the notion of someplace to be reached.

What is there to flee or to take refuge from, if not the world? Taking refuge in the world is like renouncing the idea of refuge; it means being as tranquil in the midst of the flames as you would be in your mother's lap.

Escape and rejoicing are linked. To rejoice in something is to escape to it. One has to take the approach one is normally encouraged to take in escaping from the world into the mystical beyond, but use it to escape to the world.

Number Twenty-Four

Das Glück begreifen, daß der Boden, auf dem du stehst, nicht größer sein kann, als die zwei Füße ihn bedecken.

Grasping the good fortune that the ground on which you are standing cannot be larger than the two feet covering it. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Grasp the good fortune that the ground on which you stand cannot be any bigger than the two feet planted on it. [Hofmann]


Is this nonsense? Deleuze pointed out in The Logic of Sense that nonsense is more than the mere absence of sense -- which would be only gibberish -- it's the simulation of sense. I mistrust all the various ideas this aphorism gives me, because they seem uselessly prosaic.

Arguably, the most important word in the aphorism is "bedecken," which means "to cover." Hofmann's translation involves a nuance of stability or resolution that is not entailed in covering. The good fortune is that the ground is covered by the feet; what is to be grasped firmly is the good fortune.

Why fortunate? Because this means that things are scaled to your size and no larger. You are not and cannot be out of your depth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Number Twenty-Three

Vom wahren Gegner fährt grenzenloser Mut in dich.

From the true antagonist illimitable courage is transmitted to you. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

From the true opponant, a limitless courage flows into you. [Hofmann]


Your opponant must also derive comparable courage from you. What matters is that the opposition be true. A false opposition gives no courage because there is nothing to overcome. Where the opposition is true, the courage is limitless, perhaps because true opposition is limitless. It may take limited forms, or run its course in time, but the opposition of directions is strict.

This means that you -- and again Kafka uses the informal dich, possibly addressing himself -- generate your opponant by adopting a contrary position. Josef K. insists that the Court is his adversary, even in the absence of any hostilities.

I am only defeated where there is no fight, even though the struggle is an impasse. The impasse is a kind of success, because victory, which abruptly clears away all signs of struggle, is indiscernible in this respect from defeat or from there never having been any struggle.

Number Twenty-Two

Du bist die Aufgabe. Kein Schüler weit und breit.

You are the task. No pupil far and wide. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

You are the exercise, the task. No student far and wide. [Hofmann]


Aufgabe can mean duty, assignment, or problem, as well as task or exercise. It may be that the reference to a student in the second part conditions the translation of the first toward a meaning more like homework.

If a lesson is meant, what is it preparing you for?

Kafka uses the intimate du in this one. Is he addressing himself?

You are the problem. This is true of the main characters in many of Kafka's most important works. Their problems are not distinct from themselves. Even Josef K.'s problem cannot really be described as a misfortune that falls on him from outside, and he is not without a role to play in the determination of his fate. And, in The Castle, K. brings everything on himself.

No student. Only teacher?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Number Twenty-One

So fest wie die Hand den Stein hält. Sie hält ihn aber fest, nur um ihn desto weiter zu verwerfen. Aber auch in jene Weite führt der Weg.

As firmly as the hand grips the stone. But it grips firmly only in order to fling it away all the further. But the way leads into those distances too. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

As firmly as a hand holding a stone. Held, however, so firmly, merely so that it can be flung a greater distance. But there is a path even to that distance. [Hofmann]


No matter how far you throw the rock, you can't throw it so far away from you that you can't go find it again. The last line represents a way back, the kind that so often appears in Kafka's stories and which gives inconclusive freedom of action to his characters. You can throw this, whatever it is, very far away from yourself, but there's nothing to prevent you from going and getting it again. Do you want more limits than there are?

You firmly grasp things in order to throw them away from you. You can do it, but that doesn't necessarily change much. It's not as if you'd thrown your rock into a bottomless pit, or over an unclimbable, uncrossable wall. So it remains available to you, like a part of you, even if you reject it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Number Twenty

Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual. [Hofmann]


The repetition of the depredations of the leopards happens presumably despite the efforts of the temple custodians. Kafka has a persistent interest in impersonal, spontaneous alteration over time, although here it doesn't seem to matter whether or not the inclusion of the leopards in the ritual happens as a consequence of a decree, a decision with a particular moment in time, or as a result of a habituation.

Calculation prevents loss. In fact, once they become part of the ritual, the appearance of the leopards is necessary, and the ritual is vindicated when they arrive.

The leopards are innocent, so how can this be defilement?

Religion is like the leopard; both eat the same goods, both act in the same way -- all effects. The doctrine that esteems peace and love as its highest values is used to justify violence and no one thinks twice about it. No one thinks once about it. Ritual only seems to be the most rigid mindset, when it's actually the most flexible.

Number Nineteen

Laß dich vom Bösen nicht glauben machen, du könntest vor ihm Geheimnisse haben.

Do not let Evil make you believe you can have secrets from it. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Don't let Evil convince you you could keep any secrets from it. [Hofmann]


A cancelled aphorism, possibly slated for revision.

More good advice; William S. Burroughs used to say "nobody does more harm than people who feel bad about doing it." Why? Because they harm from a position of official justification, which is the same as saying they harm officially.

The misconception Kafka wants to clear up is that it's possible to do evil without being evil, or to do just a little evil, or to manage evil somehow; his point is that this idea is already fully evil. It's not evil you can keep secrets from, it's you, or rather, you have the power to deny or obfuscate or rename things about yourself or things you've done. Evil afflicts you by turning you into a false image, and that might be the falseness to which the trueness of the true way is opposed. The true way isn't something claimed and owned, it's a method of patient checking and attention.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Number Eighteen

Wenn es möglich gewesen wäre, den Turm von Babel zu erbauen, ohne ihn zu erklettern, es wäre erlaubt worden.

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been permitted. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without having to climb it, that would have been sanctioned. [Hofmann]


This aphorism is a model exercise in baffling pious argument.

There's no ban on building, even on a grand scale. The problem with the Tower wasn't its construction or even its height, but that it entails a misconception, like the cage going in search of the bird.

In the usual interpretation of the parable, the Tower is a blasphemous attempt to rival or to reach God, and man is punished for this presumption. Kafka doesn't present an opposing interpretation, he qualifies the existing one in a way that utterly shifts its footing when he suggests blasphemy arises wherever God's presence is mistaken for a barrier or a distance.

The task, like sweeping the leaves in the fifteenth aphorism, is not to take the path but to find it and keep on finding it. This is analogous to building a tower without climbing it.

Number Seventeen

An diesem Ort war ich noch niemals: Anders geht der Atem, blendender als die Sonne strahlt neben ihr ein Stern.

This is a place where I never was before: here breathing is different, and more dazzling than the sun is the radiance of a star beside it. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by a star beside it. [Hofmann]


Kafka is probably talking about Zurau; "Ort" can mean town or village, as well as place. This isn't an example of travel writing, though; he's describing his experience of the place as someone who came from elsewhere, and who remains a person from elsewhere in the new place. This is what it means to discover oneself in a new life; "new life" isn't paradise, the point of no return, or the point beyond the point of no return, but it is possible to see those places from a new life.

In the usual life, where you have been before, your breath comes in the same way, there's no glimpse of becoming and no reason to think there are any other stars but the sun.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Number Sixteen

Ein Käfig ging einen Vogel suchen.

A cage went in search of a bird.


This one is translated identically in both editions.

The search is paradoxical. A bird is free, and if its freedom is considered a part of its essence, then a bird deprived of its freedom isn't the same bird anymore. I don't think the primary point here is that one may have an idea of some thing only to find that possessing that thing isn't the same as possessing that idea. Kafka is pointing out how the search for something pushes it away from you.

You want the bird, but why do you want the bird? Because it's free. So you catch a bird. Now it isn't free any more. How do you "have" a free bird?

The cage is formed around the bird, roughly in keeping with its dimensions, needs, and habits. Kafka may be saying that certain ideas are like this; they are attempts to trap something.

Searching, the cage becomes more like a bird; it would have to go where birds go, flying from branch to branch. So the cage may end its search by turning into a bird. Then again, it may turn into something entirely new, neither a bird nor a cage.

This means that the search does not always push the object away, but that when it doesn't, it also does not result in capture.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Number Fifteen

Wie ein Weg im Herbst: Kaum ist er rein gekehrt, bedeckt er sich wieder mit den trockenen Blättern.

Like a path in autumn: scarcely has it been swept clear when it is once more covered with dry leaves. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Like a path in autumn: no sooner is it cleared than it is once again littered with fallen leaves. [Hofmann]


Perhaps this is offered in preference to the fourteenth aphorism; in this case, the problem is not some enigmatic backsliding, but that the path keeps disappearing. The method, to return to that idea, would be perennial sweeping.

You can't follow someone else down this path, because the leaves erase it behind each one who takes it. The leaves fall steadily as you yourself go down this path, and so, when you turn around, you see no path, only an ocean of leaves. The only bit of the path you can see is the bit directly before you, which you keep clear of leaves with your sweeping, and maybe the last few steps as well, but you don't see where it's going. You can, however, see which direction it seems to be taking.

This is a little like the common idea of time, that is, a moving point of view in the present, rolling down a line, with unavailabilities before and after. But first of all, you can walk wherever you like; this isn't a tightrope high off the ground. Second, there is the added element of methodical effort involved in being at all aware of the path. Did you know where to start sweeping, or did you just sweep here and there until you discovered it?

What are those leaves? Forgetting, not bothering, letting slide.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Number Fourteen

Gingest du über eine Ebene, hättest den guten Willen zu gehen und machtest doch Rückschritte, dann wäre es eine verzweifelte Sache; da du aber einen steilen Abhang hinaufkletterst, so steil etwa, wie du selbst von unten gesehen bist, können die Rückschritte auch nur durch die Bodenbeschaffenheit verursacht sein, und du mußt nicht verzweifeln.

If you were walking across a plain, had an honest intention of walking on, and yet kept regressing, then it would be a desperate matter; but since you are scrambling up a cliff, about as steep as you yourself are if seen from below, the regression can only be caused by the nature of the ground, and you must not despair. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

If you were walking across a plain, felt every desire to walk, and yet found yourself going backward, it would be a cause for despair; but as you are in fact scaling a steep precipice, as sheer in front of you as you are from the ground, then your backward movement can be caused only by the terrain, and you would be wrong to despair. [Hofmann]


The is one of the aphorisms Kafka struck out, but which editorial obstinacy includes in these editions and this blog anyway.

Your despair is a mistake. It would make sense if you were trying and failing to make progress, but, as it is, the difficulties arise from without. So the error lies in mistaking the mountain for the plain, and what is outside you for what is inside you.

The despair in the initial example is dreamlike, because there is no accounting for your going backward as you plainly move forward. Your intention is honest, so there is no question of anything like subconscious resistance. If you face bewildering setbacks, then despair is a reasonable reaction, isn't it? On the other hand, if there is an obvious and natural reason for your difficulties, then despair is unreasonable, because no one else could do what you're trying to do either.

Where are you going? If walking is all you want to do, then walking backward is as good as walking forwards. If this is the true way mentioned in the first aphorism, then this would be another representation of precariousness, instability or uncertainty, presented in combination with going back imagery from the fourth and fifth aphorisms. You have to keep going until you stop going back.

This aphorism also touches on point of view, since the cliff is as steep as you are seen from the ground. It's strange that Kafka chooses you for the simile of something steep, and implies for this purpose another person, looking up at you from below, as if you were the cliff he were climbing. This kind of reflecting-back is really typical of Kafka. He claimed he could never accuse anyone of anything without having it rebound back and attach itself to him instead. It might be that this aphorism is cancelled, because he doesn't really believe the steepness is in the ground.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Number Thirteen

Ein erstes Zeichen beginnender Erkenntnis ist der Wunsch zu sterben. Dieses Leben scheint unerträglich, ein anderes unerreichbar. Man schämt sich nicht mehr, sterben zu wollen; man bittet, aus der alten Zelle, die man haßt, in eine neue gebracht zu werden, die man erst hassen lernen wird. Ein Rest von Glauben wirkt dabei mit, während des Transportes werde zufällig der Herr durch den Gang kommen, den Gefangenen ansehen und sagen: »Diesen sollt ihr nicht wieder einsperren. Er kommt zu mir.«

One of the first signs of the beginnings of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to be moved from the old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will only in time come to hate. In this there is also a residue of belief that during the move the master will chance to come along the corridor, look at the prisoner and say: "This man is not to be locked up again. He is to come with me." [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A first indication of glimmering understanding is the desire to die. This life seems unendurable, another unreachable. One no longer feels ashamed of wanting to die; one petitions to be moved from one's old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will come to hate. A last vestige of belief is involved here, too, for during the move might not the prison governor by chance walk down the passage, see the prisoner, and say: "Don't lock this man up again. He's coming with me." [Hofmann]


The desire to die shows understanding is only just beginning. This is entirely equivocal, but I believe it means that a desire for death is a kind of maturity, like accepting death, and it comes about in part because one despairs of changing life. If "another life" refers to the beyond, then the desire to die arises not because one wants to reach the new life but because one believes one can't. Unreachable -- this could mean that the new life beyond ... and we should not assume this is what's meant but only include the possibility that it is ... doesn't exist, but what is unreachable usually exists, but is out of reach. Perhaps, as Kafka discussed in the previous aphorism, it is a matter of point of view.

Is it that one tries to find a new life but despairs that it will be really new, is all too sure it will only be as painful as the old? Being ashamed of the desire to die is here understood as resignation, accepting a painful life and refusing to try to alter it, so the change of cells does seem to mean death and not simply a change of life. The belief in actual change is the residue of something fuller, almost certainly the illusion or fantasy that one is beginning to know for what it is. Perhaps, by some chance, there is another life after all. The motives of the governor cannot enter into consideration, grace or works. I don't think the governor's own confinement to the prison is relevant either, because he belongs to a wholly different, messianic order.

Why doesn't the prisoner petition for his release, or an end to prisons? Is the wish to die actually a meager wish? Perhaps the problem with this wish is that it isn't a real wish at all. Wanting a new cell, this implies the one who wants death dares not ask for freedom but only for something that is more or less the same, not real change. Another arrangement of familiar old factors, nothing new.

Number Eleven / Twelve

Verschiedenheit der Anschauungen, die man etwa von einem Apfel haben kann: die Anschauung des kleinen Jungen, der den Hals strecken muß, um noch knapp den Apfel auf der Tischplatte zu sehn, und die Anschauung des Hausherrn, der den Apfel nimmt und frei dem Tischgenossen reicht.

Differences in the view one can have of things, for instance of an apple: the view of a little boy who has to crane his neck in order even to glimpse the apple on the table, and the view of the master of the house, who takes the apple and freely hands it to the person sitting at table with him. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The variety of views that one may have, say, of an apple: the view of the small boy who has to crane his neck for a glimpse of the apple on the table, and the view of the master of the house who picks up the apple and hands it to his guest. [Hofmann]


This aphorism is given a dual number in all the versions I've seen, although it's not clear to me exactly where the break occurs.

The views are not angles but really different lives or modes of life, since the boy might grow up to be a paterfamilias himself. The one eyes the apple with longing or with curiosity, the other gives it away without a second thought, or even a look. His view is not looking. The meaning of the apple varies with the desires that are brought to bear on it, and also the lack of desire, perhaps, if the host doesn't value the apple or sees it as only one of a store of apples each of which is at his command and available for his use. Perhaps the child wants the apple and the host wants what the apple can help him to acquire, that is, the good will of his guests.

There's the view of the one who seems to have no power over the apple, and that of the one who has complete power over the apple. So power affects this difference also. The child may have a hunger and a secretiveness - they both might. If the boy isn't supposed to take the apple, and he takes it, thoughtlessly, he has done wrong from an external point of view only. From an internal point of view, there was no opportunity for thinking to prevent the act, no struggle against the impulse. There's evil only if he stops to think about it, to struggle with the impulse to take it; then, apparently, there will be evil there even if he doesn't take the apple.

Reach - out of reach, barely, and within easy reach. There is a world of difference between those two. The boy may be able to take the apple, but does not dare to.

I don't want to read this as an allegory of the fall, particularly because Kafka says nothing about the boy taking the apple, but why would he want to look at it if not because he wants it for himself?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Intercalary Aphorism

Eine stinkende Hündin, reichliche Kindergebärerin, stellenweise schon faulend, die aber in meiner Kindheit mir alles war, die in Treue unaufhörlich mir folgt, die ich zu schlagen mich nicht überwinden kann, vor der ich aber, selbst ihren Atem scheuend, schrittweise nach rückwärts weiche und die mich doch, wenn ich mich nicht anders entscheide, 'in den schon sichtbaren Mauerwinkel drängen wird, um dort auf mir und mit mir gänzlich zu verwesen, bis zum Ende – ehrt es mich? – das Eiter- und Wurm-Fleisch ihrer Zunge an meiner Hand.

A smelly bitch that has brought forth plenty of young, already rotting in places, but that to me in my childhood meant everything, who continue [sic] to follow me faithfully everywhere, whom I am quite incapable of disciplining, but before whom I shrink back, step by step, shying away from her breath, and who will end up -- unless I decide otherwise -- forcing me into a corner that I can already see, there to decompose fully and utterly on me and with me, until finally -- is it a distinction? -- the pus- and worm-ravaged flesh of her tongue laps at my hand. [Hofmann]


This aphorism is omitted in Kaiser/Wilkins. Hofmann has translated schlagen, to beat, with the softer and more abstract word "discipline," and erht es mich? as "is it a distinction?" although I had to check the meaning of the verb before I could be sure it meant "honor" or "salute," not "difference" or "qualification."

Recoiling in hopeless passivity before the desecrated childhood companion and in particular the blind persistence of its love for him. The dog is importunate like the assistants in The Castle.

The aphorism is one drawn-out, breathless sentence like the culmination of a horror story. The horror seems to be all the things a child sees once it becomes an adult, and the trap that pity is, but, while he sees the corner he's being backed into, he doesn't have to enter it. This is often true of Kafka's characters.

Is this an image of death? It isn't like Kafka's typically statuesque depiction of death; it has a gross quality that reminds me of the tongues of the dead lapping at the river of death, and that seems to have more to do with still being alive than with being dead.

Is the problem that his pity isn't strong enough? Put the animal out of its misery, yes, but is he sympathetic to the dog? It's imaginable that someone might put an end to the life of a suffering animal selfishly, so he won't have to see it. Is it suffering that ineptly stalks after Kafka in the form of this dog?

The problem is not that he can't escape, that would be easy to understand; the problem is that he won't escape.

Escape what? The dog wants to lick him, maybe the way the dead want to lick the river of death, with its lingering savor of life. It will rot on and with him, but it's not a harbinger of death so much as it is coincidentally there with him in death. There is something deeper in this than mere uncertainty about death or wanting to live, because you live whether you want to or not. Not wanting to live is not the same as wanting to die. The doom in this short passage keeps steadily escalating and that licking is going on all throughout.

Animals in Kafka have a point of view that isn't low or high, they lose their point of view. The dog in "Investigations of a Dog" is devoted to empirical research, but he doesn't know anything, knows less and less.

Overall this aphorism is a description of a type of existential condition, rather than a lesson.

Number Ten

Die richtige Erklärung ist aber die, daß ein großer Teufel in ihm Platz genommen hat und die Unzahl der kleineren herbeikommt, um dem Großen zu dienen.

The proper explanation is however this: that a great devil has taken up residence in him and countless throngs of smaller ones come along to serve the great one. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The true explanation for his condition, however, is that a great devil has taken up residence within him, and an endless stream of smaller devils and deviltons are coming to offer the great one their services. [Hofmann]


I don't see where Hofmann gets "... devils and deviltons ... " Kafka speaks only of "kleineren," little ones. You see this all the time in versions of Kafka; people often want to doll him up with gargoyles and theatrical grotesquery for some reason. They want their Kafka "wet," not "dry."

A. is the seductive one because he is actually playing host to the greater evil. The foreign-ness of the lesser devils he mentioned earlier is part of this evil; they appear foreign to A. because he preserves his goodness by pretending to be a stranger to all evil. By refusing to allow evil to have any place in him or part of him, he inadvertantly cultivates a greater devil.

The lesser evils are drawn by the greater, and they seem to be the ones seduced into struggle with A. The struggle with women ends with both combatants in bed, not just one. The evil do not stand outside evil. Evil is never other.

Number Nine / Ten

A. ist sehr aufgeblasen, er glaubt, im Guten weit vorgeschritten zu sein, da er, offenbar als ein immer verlockender Gegenstand, immer mehr Versuchungen aus ihm bisher ganz unbekannten Richtungen sich ausgesetzt fühlt.

A. is very puffed up, he thinks he is far advanced in goodness since, obviously as an object that is ever seductive, he feels himself exposed to ever more temptations from directions hitherto unknown to him. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A. is terribly puffed up, he considers himself very advanced in goodness, since he feels himself magnetically attracting to himself an ever greater array of temptations from quarters with which he was previously wholly unacquainted. [Hofmann]


This is the ninth of the Kaiser/Wilkins aphorisms, while, in Hofmann, it is the first half of the tenth, the preceding being numbered eight and nine, and consisting of an aphorism (see next post) not found in Kaiser/Wilkins at all. Hofmann's tenth unites ninth and tenth Kaiser/Wilkins.

The idea of seduction is sustained with what seems like a familiar sort of a warning, pointing out that pride in one's virtuous attainments is still vanity. His sin of vanity is however prompted by the great many temptations he vanquishes, which shows how victory in the struggle against the seductions of evil is a false victory.

But A. is not resisting seduction, he's the seductive one.

Number Eight

Er ist wie der Kampf mit Frauen, der im Bett endet.

It is like the struggle with women, which ends in bed. [Kaiser/Wilkins]


Hofmann's translation is identical, except that he chooses to begin less formally --"it's."

The most conspicuous thing in this brief line, "struggle," is not the most important thing about it. I don't think Kafka is putting on a worldy, caddish air, suggesting that women seduce men they've already decided they want to sleep with by putting up false resistance. Evil doesn't seduce people by offering them phoney struggles; the struggle is real. A cad would say that the struggle is won when the woman is bedded, but I think Kafka is saying that the struggle is the end, that is, the intention, and the bed. It's not that the struggler becomes evil as he struggles, resorting to cheating or becoming increasingly ruthless; it's that the struggle is the evil.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Number Seven

Eines der wirksamsten Verführungsmittel des Bösen ist die Aufforderung zum Kampf.

One of the most effective means of seduction that Evil has is the challenge to struggle. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

One of the most effective seductions of Evil is the call to struggle. [Hofmann]


The Hofmann translation appends the eighth aphorism, "It is like the struggle with women, which ends up in bed," to the seventh, but I want to look at the seventh alone. It is interesting to note that both translators chose to retain the capitalization of Evil.

The struggle with evil, the idea that evil must be struggled with, is part of its seduction. The image of the good that this implies is that of effortless innocence. It does not seem that Kafka believes one can become innocent, at least, not by any effort with innocence for a goal. His protagonists struggle with the Court and the Castle, but they invent much of the struggle, and much of it is a matter of opinion, or point of view. This may be why so much of Kafka's fiction describes a pantomime of conflict by a solitary figure.

Struggle could be a kind of sloth: the struggle appears to act or to work, but achievements in a struggle are always mysterious. This idea of struggle couldn't be more diametrically unlike Hitler's "kampf." Someone struggles, but the situation keeps changing. Who can determine winners and losers?

If all human sin is impatience, then Evil might mean the inclination to impatience. If so, then impatience and struggle may be the same thing. The messiah doesn't come to struggle, but to end struggle.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Number Six

Der entscheidende Augenblick der menschlichen Entwicklung ist immerwährend. Darum sind die revolutionären geistigen Bewegungen, welche alles Frühere für nichtig erklären, im Recht, denn es ist noch nichts geschehen.

The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual. That is why the revolutionary spiritual movements that declare all former things worthless are in the right, for nothing has yet happened. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The decisive moment of human development is continually at hand. This is why those movements of revolutionary thought that declare everything preceding to be an irrelevance are correct -- because as yet nothing has happened. [Hofmann]


The stinger is in the last clause, which seems to deflate everything that comes before it. However, the spirit of the aphorism is plainly in sympathy with revolution, so that deflation doesn't seem to be the intended effect.

I think this is a statement of the messianic point of view; everything is preparatory to the arrival of the judgement, which is not happening yet, but which might happen at any moment. If the decision hasn't come yet, it is not because the moment has been withheld. It is always the right time for the decision. Time never resists or impedes it.

If human error is always impatience, and impatience is understood to mean acting prematurely, then -- assuming that the ideas of one aphorism are meant to carry over into another (and we shouldn't assume that, because it shouldn't be taken for granted that Kafka had a system in mind) -- that would mean human error is the attempt to act decisively, or simply stated, to act. This would mean all human activity is error.

What about animal activity? Many of Kafka's characters are animals, and their activity seems no less erroneous, so it doesn't seem that his choice of animal characters should be considered an escape from error.

If all activity is error, and action is unavoidable, then error is unavoidable. I don't think this is Kafka's meaning.

The real crux of this aphorism is Kafka's affirmation of the idea that the past is not relevant where change is concerned. The moment in which things change is now. What is called the routine operation of things is not change but the circulation of a set of familiar variables from a closed repetory. Change is the appearance of a new variable, and nothing new can arise merely by the extension or rearrangement of the old.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Number Five

Von einem gewissen Punkt an gibt es keine Rückkehr mehr. Dieser Punkt ist zu erreichen.

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

From a certain point on, there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached. [Hofmann]


Hofmann makes the second sentence a distinct imperitive, while Kaiser/Wilkins allows for the idea that this point is not stumbled across, that it has to be reached, which might mean it will not come to you.

This is certainly one of the most important and well-known of the aphorisms. It is interesting to think of this as an extension of the previous aphorism; it brings to mind those other dead, not included among the "many," who do not lap at the river of life and are not brought back ... rückläufige Strömung und schwemmt die Toten ins Leben zurück ... the particle rück repeats here and in Rückkehr above. Perhaps they've reached that point.

In the third aphorism, Kafka writes that mankind is not allowed to go back to paradise, kehren sie nicht zurück. This split verb is the same noun as is employed above: Rückkehr.

The point of no return is not passed, but only reached. There's no indication that one goes on past this point, but the point is not reached if one can still go back. From one point of view, this point could be like the South Pole; leaving in any direction one goes North. Leaving this point in any direction would be going back, which would mean one must remain. On the other hand, it might be possible simply to leave that point without going back. Going back is possible up to this point, but not beyond. It may be the moment of unbreakable commitment, but I think the meaning is less occasional and more fundamental to experience than that.

He may be discussing the genesis of the present moment as an irreducible difference from the past. In that case, this would be the moment the new appears, or a sort of natural selection. So the path would be like Herakleitos' river, with an added imperitive and the possibility of not quite managing to reach this becoming.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Number Four

Viele Schatten der Abgeschiedenen beschäftigen sich nur damit, die Fluten des Totenflusses zu belecken, weil er von uns herkommt und noch den salzigen Geschmack unserer Meere hat. Vor Ekel sträubt sich dann der Fluß, nimmt eine rückläufige Strömung und schwemmt die Toten ins Leben zurück. Sie aber sind glücklich, singen Danklieder und streicheln den Empörten.

Many shades of the departed are occupied solely in licking at the waves of the river of death because it flows from our direction and still has the salty taste of our seas. Then the river rears back in disgust, the current flows the opposite way and brings the dead drifting back into life. But they are happy, sing songs of thanksgiving, and stroke the indignant waters. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Many of the shades of the departed busy themselves entirely with lapping at the waters of the Acheron, because it comes from us and still carries the salt tang of our seas. This causes the river to coil with revulsion, and even to reverse its course, and so to wash the dead back to life. they are perfectly happy, and sing choruses of gratitude, and caress the indignant river. [Hofmann]


This one I find both especially troubling and especially mystifying.

The river of death comes from us. It would not be inconsistent with what seems to me to be the tenor of Kafka's thinking to think of mourning and grief as a way of driving the dead off and emphasizing the barrier between life and death, for all that they appear to originate in a desire to avoid a separation. One the one hand, no one wants to be separated from the lost one, but retaining the corpse can only increasingly underscore the loss; the body has to be put away in order to set the memory free for safekeeping.

The topic of the aphorism seems specifically to be the nature of the difference between alive and dead. I'm reluctant to think of the river as death itself because it seems to be only a part or element of death. Hofmann translates "Totenfluss" as Acheron; the underworld has rivers, or one crosses rivers to reach it, but the underworld is not just a river. The barrier between life and death is not hard in all places; in some ways the barrier is hard, like the surface of the earth between the domain of mortals and the classical underworld. In other ways, however, the barrier is soft, more like water, in that someone believed dead for one or another reason, absence or catalepsy, may turn out to be alive after all. People frequently continue to see their lost ones, owing to a kind of psychological persistence of vision.

We have the avidity of the dead, the bathetic miracle of their restoration, a kind of stunt, and the indignation and disgust of the river. The river carries the dead away from life, no matter how people may cling to the dead; then it carries the dead back again, not in response to the petitions of the living, but in disgust and indignation.

The river seems to be giving the dead what they want, but their activity seems mindless. Only the reservation that many, but not all, engage in licking the river suggests otherwise, and the suggestion seems unimportant to me. If the river is giving the dead what they want, they receive it not because they deserve it, but because the river is exasperated with them and it rejects them in a spasm of impatience.

The yearning of the dead for life is unseemly. I don't think this is because Kafka thinks it is unseemly to love life, but only to cling to half-measures, the dead licking the river for the taste of life, and so it's better to restore them to life entire.