Thursday, January 12, 2012

Number Thirty-Nine (a)

Dem Bösen kann man nicht in Raten zahlen - und versucht es unaufhörlich. Es wäre denkbar, daß Alexander der Große trotz den kriegerischen Erfolgen seiner Jugend, trotz dem ausgezeichneten Heer, das er ausgebildet hatte, trotz den auf Veränderung der Welt gerichteten Kräften, die er in sich fühlte, am Hellespont stehen geblieben und ihn nie überschritten hätte, und zwar nicht aus Furcht, nicht aus Unentschlossenheit, nicht aus Willensschwäche, sondern aus Erdenschwere.

One cannot pay Evil in installments -- and one always keeps on trying to. It could be imagined that Alexander the Great, in spite of his youthful triumphs in warfare, in spite of the superb army he built up, in spite of the energies he felt in himself that were directed to transforming the world, might have halted at the Hellespont and not have crossed it, and this not from fear, not from irresolution, not from weakness of will, but from the force of gravity. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

It is not possible to pay Evil in installments -- and still we always try. It is conceivable that Alexander the Great -- for all the military successes of his youth, for all the excellence of the army he trained, for all the desire he felt in himself to change the world -- might have stopped at the Hellespont, and never crossed it, and not out of fear, not out of indecisiveness, not out of weakness of will, but from heavy legs. [Hofmann]


One often reads about people sinking into evil, but Kafka seems to be saying that the cost is paid in full at the outset, when evil is first admitted, and that whatever degeneration that might follow is only the aftermath. Sometimes in these aphorisms Kafka speaks of evil as a destination, and elsewhere, as in this case, evil is a starting point -- although in either case evil is a cause rather than an effect.

Even Alexander the Great, conjured up as a figure of maximum power and as the famous knot-cutter, stops before the decisive step because it is basically too heavy. As in the previous aphorism, the question is: are the "uphill" or the "downhill" within me or outside me? In this aphorism, the problem is logistical, the weight is in the problem, not in the solver. He wonders if he can't conquer the world a piece at a time, but this is like trying to 5%-marry someone today, add another 1-2% a month later, and build up to a full marriage. It seems that Kafka is saying that this approach is like trying without doing, or noncommittally committing, and identifying that with evil.

Evil must be paid for with action, and piecing action out in installments means trying to act in the least active way, as close to inaction as possible, which is like turning away from action even as you supposedly do it. Installment action is like a passive imitation of activity. It's interesting to remember here that Kafka generally tried to write his stories all in one sitting, and, when interrupted, would often start all over again, even if that meant rewriting the beginning verbatim. This suggests that a story written bit by bit would have lacked a wholeness he was looking for, like trying to break the ice with the axe by swinging the axe a few inches over the ice every day. Bergson noted that a movement cannot be subdivided; if you break a movement up into a series of movements, then you have replaced one movement with many.

Kafka's novels weren't written at one sitting, but perhaps Kafka, every time he worked on them, plunged as far as he could go in that episode. In that case, he wouldn't have been breaking up one act into a series of lesser acts, but the novel would have been a series of unique, maximal efforts, like trying to launch himself over a chasm again and again. If this is true, then it might help to explain why Kafka never completed any of his three novels, because it would mean that the novel itself is not a single act broken into parts but a collection of acts, hence open-ended.

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