Monday, January 2, 2012

Number Thirty-One

Nach Selbstbeherrschung strebe ich nicht. Selbstbeherrschung heißt: an einer zufälligen Stelle der unendlichen Ausstrahlungen meiner geistigen Existenz wirken wollen. Muß ich aber solche Kreise um mich ziehen, dann tue ich es besser untätig im bloßen Anstaunen des ungeheuerlichen Komplexes und nehme nur die Stärkung, die e contrario dieser Anblick gibt, mit nach Hause.

Self-control is something for which I do not strive. Self-control means wanting to be effective at some random point in the infinite radiations of my spiritual existence. But if I do have to draw such circles round myself, then it will be better for me to do it passively, in mere wonderment and gaping at the tremendous complex, taking home with me only the refreshment that this sight gives e contrario. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

I do not strive for self-mastery. Self-mastery is the desire -- within the endless emanations of my intellectual life -- to be effective at a certain radius. But if I am made to describe circles around me, then I had better do it without action: merely contemplating the whole extraordinary complex and taking nothing away with me but the strength that such an aspect -- e contrario -- would give me. [Hofmann]


The two translations diverge on numerous points. Hofmann's "self-mastery" makes this aphorism an extension of the preceding, presenting this approach as the preferable alternative to self-flogging.

Infinite radiations or endless emanations?
Spiritual existence or intellectual life?
Wonderment and gaping or merely contemplating?

The Hofmann translation favors more passive language, which might be more consistent with the non-active approach the aphorism describes. There is more energy in wondering and gaping than in merely contemplating, and, to me, radiating seems more dynamic than emanating. Urine can be emanated.

Hofmann also selects intellect rather than spirit, I imagine because his translation is intended to distance these aphorisms from the more or less exaggerated religiosity with which Brod first presented them. Either term is equally acceptable, which means that the two ideas, mind and spirit, are both present in the German term, so the alternate meaning should be remembered when this term is translated into English.

The difference between "some random point" and "at a certain radius" is glaring. Hofmann is clearly trying to strengthen the connection between this statement and its sequel about circles, but the original text plainly says that the moment of effectiveness is a chance occurrence.

Wirken means to act, while untätig means inactive. There is a contrast here that should not be missed: self-mastery means wanting to act, but Kafka prefers to be inactive.

Perhaps most important, is it refreshment or strength? While refreshment is a legitimate translation, strength is the more immediate meaning of Stärkung. The inactive, receptive approach gives you strength to take home with you, but this puts the emphasis on the idea of retaining, finding and carrying away strength, rather than simply being strong. You carry the strength back home with you, which means you can't get it at home.

Very suggestive: the strength is both nehme, taken, actively, and gibt, given, in which the action comes to you. You must act, leave home, go get this strength, but getting it entails being in the right place and having the right frame of mind in which to receive it. Actually, the distinction between activity and passivity in this aphorism is not sharp at all.

The strength is not some abstract power inserted into you, it is the contrast between your usual condition and another. Nietzsche, Deleuze, both insist that it's a mistake to think of power as a possession or like the charge in a battery; power, they say, is a relationship, like a gradient. Kafka, who read Nietzsche carefully, might be thinking of power in the same way, tying it to the contrariness. This is not struggle; struggle wears you out. I think this strength springs from an encounter with an alternative to your normal way of living.

You receive strength in a way that isn't wholly active or passive. The desire for self-mastery or control is to want to act or to want to be able to act. Wanting to be able to act and acting aren't the same thing. You can prepare for action interminably and never act, and you can act without any preparation. Deleuze writes that action is never conscious; our motive for acting is always an interpretation. Action doesn't spring from interpretations, even if the interpretation precedes the act. "This is what my action will mean" is not the same thing as acting nor does it make us act.

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