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.

Number One Hundred and Three

Du kannst dich zurückhalten von den Leiden der Welt, das ist dir freigestellt und entspricht deiner Natur, aber vielleicht ist gerade dieses Zurückhalten das einzige Leid, das du vermeiden könntest.

You have to hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world: this is something you are free to do and is in accord with your nature, but perhaps precisely this holding back is the only suffering that you might be able to avoid. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

You can withdrawn from the sufferings of the world -- that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature -- but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid. [Hofmann]


If suffering is an inevitable aspect of life, then fearing and avoiding it is like fearing and avoiding life. Kafka appears to be following more a Stoic line than an Epicurean line. It's interesting to note that he says the tendency to avoid suffering in life is not unnatural, but natural; this is in keeping with the general trend of his thought in these latest aphorisms toward a complex idea of volition.

Number One Hundred and Two

Alle Leiden um uns müssen auch wir leiden. Wir alle haben nicht einen Leib, aber ein Wachstum, und das führt uns durch alle Schmerzen, ob in dieser oder jener Form. So wie das Kind durch alle Lebensstadien bis zum Greis und zum Tod sich entwickelt (und jenes Stadium im Grunde dem früheren, im Verlangen oder in Furcht unerreichbar scheint) ebenso entwickeln wir uns (nicht weniger tief mit der Menschheit verbunden als mit uns selbst) durch alle Leiden dieser Welt. Für Gerechtigkeit ist in diesem Zusammenhang kein Platz, aber auch nicht für Furcht vor den Leiden oder für die Auslegung des Leidens als eines Verdienstes.

We too must suffer all the suffering around us. We all have not one body, but we have one way of growing, and this leads us through all anguish, whether in this or in that form. Just as the child develops through all the stages of life right into old age and to death (and fundamentally to the earlier stage the later one seems out of reach, in relation both to desire and to fear), so also do we develop (no less deeply bound up with mankind than with ourselves) through all the sufferings of this world. There is no room for justice in this context, but neither is there any room either for fear of suffering or for the interpretation of suffering as a merit. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

All the sufferings we occasion we must also suffer. We don't all share one body, but we do share growth, and that leads us through all pain, whether in this form or in that. As the child grows through all its phases and becomes old and dies (and every stage seems unattainable to those before, whether from desire or from dread), so we develop (no less connected to others than to ourselves) through all the sufferings of the world. There is in this context no room for justice, and not for fear of suffering either, or for the presentation of suffering as merit. [Hofmann]


Kafka dispenses with the complex of suffering, merit, justice, and fear that is so essential to both Judaism and Christianity. Suffering is set apart as an element of life and evolution in what looks to me like a Bergsonian way, and is divorced from merit or justice in a way that is basically Nietzschean in tendency. I don't think Kafka is conflating suffering with life, but I think it's clear he sees them intertwined, just as he sees all mankind intertwined in one continuous unfolding of growth. There seems to be consistency between growth understood in this way, will to power, elan vital, and becoming.

This aphorism gives us a look at life from this perspective, in part to show us how ideas like salvation through suffering and justice appear in it. I don't say Kafka is tossing justice or merit aside; he is saying that it is inappropriate to connect them to suffering as a cosmic condition of life. I don't think there is necessarily a contradiction between maintaining this disconnection while requiring people to indemnify anyone they may hurt; the consequence of the disconnection in that context is only to point out what most people would probably already concede, namely that justice and merit are social conventions grounded in manmade institutions, and not cosmic principles.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Number One Hundred and One

Die Sünde kommt immer offen und ist mit den Sinnen gleich zu fassen. Sie geht auf ihren Wurzeln und muß nicht ausgerissen werden.

Sin always comes openly and can at once be grasped by means of the senses. It walks on its roots and does not have to be torn out. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Sin always comes openly, and in a form apprehensible to the senses. It walks on its roots and doesn't need to be plucked out of the ground. [Hofmann]


So does this mean that sin is not a matter of interpretation? Perhaps virtue is the task of interpretation, and sin is not, or is somehow beneath or unable to achieve that level.

We are not talking about a plant, so the attribution of roots is deliberate. A root is what is fixed, so what does it mean to say something walks on its roots? Wouldn't what you walk with be a foot, not a root? How can you move with a root? How can a root be a root if it moves? Perhaps this is what makes it sin, that its roots move, and yet are roots. It abuses its roots. I think the gesture is what counts here, and not some allegory.

If interpretation is an analogue to uprooting something, then does this suggest something potentially sinful in it? Interpretation doesn't make something walk on its roots, but it does tear up roots, and if that's the case, then isn't it unrooting? Destroying roots? You interpret a thing, and end up with an idea of what something is, but to the thing's cost. And yours, since there is no use you can make of it once it's torn out of the ground. Even if the thing doesn't die, now that it's out of the ground, it might get up and start walking on its roots.

Number One Hundred

Es kann ein Wissen vom Teuflischen geben, aber keinen Glauben daran, denn mehr Teuflisches, als da ist, gibt es nicht.

There can be knowledge of the diabolical, but no belief in it, for more of the diabolical than there is does not exist. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

It is possible to know of the devilish but not to believe in it, because there is no more devilishness than exists anyway. [Hofmann]


One can only believe in what is beyond our experience. This would be a backhanded way of saying that the diabolical is entirely confined to our experience, and is not transcendent. This would also mean that believing in something, whatever that might be, means believing there is more of it than there is, or that it is greater than it is, which is a contradiction, a kind of mistake. The only way to salvage something from this that is not just a goof, as far as I can see, would be to say that believing in something means believing it can be somehow greater, whether in quantity or in quality, than it currently is. The addition of the idea of current state and possible future state would also bring this aphorism more close to the stream of thought in some of the other adjacent aphorisms. If this is the case, then that would mean devilishness can't be greater than it already is. Is Kafka saying things can't get any worse? Or is he simply saying that, devilishness being the worst, it can go no further in that direction? In that case, we would not have angelicism to believe in either, since it can't get any better. Then we would have only what could get better or worse, larger or smaller, left to believe in, which I suppose would be us.

If this is what Kafka thinks faith is, then Kafka's work is saturated with faith, obsessed with faith. In all his work, Kafka seems to want to maximize the amount of room around every particular, giving it all the leeway he can manage, in which to inflate or contract, get better or worse. His directions telescope indefinitely. Faith, in this case, would then precisely be the tendency in Kafka to reject finality and make everything as provisional as he can.

This may be the only thing in all my commentary on Kafka's aphorisms that has any actual worth.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Number Ninety-Nine

Wieviel bedrückender als die unerbittlichste Überzeugung von unserem gegenwärtigen sündhaften Stand ist selbst die schwächste Überzeugung von der einstigen, ewigen Rechtfertigung unserer Zeitlichkeit. Nur die Kraft im Ertragen dieser zweiten Überzeugung, welche in ihrer Reinheit die erste voll umfaßt, ist das Maß des Glaubens.

Manche nehmen an, daß neben dem großen Urbetrug noch in jedem Fall eigens für sie ein kleiner besonderer Betrug veranstaltet wird, daß also, wenn ein Liebesspiel auf der Bühne aufgeführt wird, die Schauspielerin außer dem verlogenen Lächeln für ihren Geliebten auch noch ein besonders hinterhältiges Lächeln für den ganz bestimmten Zuschauer auf der letzten Galerie hat. Das heißt zu weit gehen.

How much more oppressive than the most inexorable conviction of our present sinful state is even the weakest conviction of the coming eternal justification of our temporality. Only strength in the endurance of this second conviction, which in its purity entirely comprehends the first, is the measure of faith.
>> Many people assume that besides the great primal deception there is also in every individual case a little special deception provided for their benefit, in other words that when a drama of love is performed on the stage, the actress has, apart from the hypocritical smile for her lover, also an especially insidious smile for the quite particular spectator in the top balcony. This is going too far. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

How much more oppressive than the most implacable conviction of our current state of sin is even the feeblest contemplation of the once eternal justification for our ephemerality. Only the strength fixed in bearing the second conviction -- which in its purity completely encloses the first -- is the measure of faith.
There are some who assume that next to the great original deception, another, smaller deception was practiced specifically for them. It's as if, when a romantic comedy is performed on stage, the actress, in addition to the lying smile for her beloved, keeps a further, particularly cunning smile for a certain spectator in Row Z. This is going too far. [Hofmann]


The second half of this aphorism is marked cancelled in Kaiser/Wilkins only.

There is a real mystery here around the use of einstigen: our former, eternal justification -- before what? In any case, the idea here is straightforward: that faith has a much heavier task in bracing up against time than against faithlessness. Faith is perseverence in belief through time, and it is a way of facing up to the fact that we are creatures with a finite amount of time. It's contemplation of eternity, and of consequences through time, that frame moral calculations.

But what does this have to do with the idea of deception, which is not denied, and the idea that there is an additional, personalized imposture? Perhaps the Urbetrug is the former idea of eternal justification, while the second deception is a pose of indifference projected by the crafty selfishness of a human being, who wants to believe they are favored, and that justice or some other good reason requires that the cosmos not reveal who its pets are. This would be an example of hiding yourself outside your own orbit.

Number Ninety-Eight

Die Vorstellung von der unendlichen Weite und Fülle des Kosmos ist das Ergebnis der zum Äußersten getriebenen Mischung von mühevoller Schöpfung und freier Selbstbesinnung.

The notion of the infinite expanse and copiousness of the cosmos is the result of the mixture, carried to the extreme limit, of laborious creation and free self-determination. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The conception of the infinite plenitude and expanse of the universe is the result of taking to an extreme a combination of strenuous creativity and free contemplation. [Hofmann]


Marked cancelled in Kaiser/Wilkins only.

Conception here implies that Kafka is speaking of people, and not the creator. If this is so, then Kafka is here trying to account for the idea among mankind that the cosmos is infinite (as opposed to, for example, trying to explain the guidelines along which the cosmos was formed by its creator).

This means that human beings attribute to the cosmos an infinity that we necessarily find in ourselves, as we interminably produce different explanations and possibilities. This is not to say that the universe is not physically infinite, but infinity is not something that we can see as such. It's only the absence of anything we would want to recognize as a limit. If we go looking for the medieval crystal boundary of the universe, and don't see it, we say there's nothing there. In fact, it may be there, for all that direct observation can tell us. In order to tally up the plausibility of the existence of such a thing, it's necessary to turn to theory, which is always an anticipation and a generalization from the perspective of experience. What needs to be determined here is whether there exists any relationship between the infinity we conceive and the infinity we perceive, and what kind.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Number Ninety-Seven

Nur hier ist Leiden Leiden. Nicht so, als ob die, welche hier leiden, anderswo wegen dieses Leidens erhöht werden sollen, sondern so, daß das, was in dieser Welt leiden heißt, in einer andern Welt, unverändert und nur befreit von seinem Gegensatz, Seligkeit ist.

Only here is suffering suffering. Not in such a way as if those who suffer here were because of this suffering to be elevated elsewhere, but in such a way that what in this world is called suffering in another world, unchanged and only liberated from its opposite, is bliss. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Only here is suffering really suffering. Not in the way that those who suffer here are to be ennobled in some other world for their suffering, but that what passes for suffering in this world is, in another world, without any change and merely without its contrariety, bliss. [Hofmann]


Again I don't think it's wrongheaded to see something wilfully perverse in this interpretation. The answer to the problem of suffering is not to eliminate suffering, but to eliminate its opposite or contrariety, which is what -- nonsuffering? Is nonsuffering bliss, or pleasure, a positive element, or is it only the negation of suffering? In any case, salvation delivers us from non-suffering, so that we can enjoy our suffering without having to feel bad about it, since there's no choice.

This is a highly perceptive rendering of a masochism.

Number Nintey-Six

Die Freuden dieses Lebens sind nicht die seinen, sondern unsere Angst vor dem Aufsteigen in ein höheres Leben; die Qualen dieses Lebens sind nicht die seinen, sondern unsere Selbstqual wegen jener Angst.

The delights of this life are not its own, but our fear of the ascent into a higher life; the torments of this life are not its own, but our self-torment because of that fear. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The joys of this life are not its joys, but our fear of climbing into a higher life; the torments of this life are not its torments, but our self-torment on account of that fear. [Hofmann]


Our fear of a higher life is our delight in this life, and without that higher life, this life would have no delight; the latter translation clarifies matters by making it clear the delights are our own no less than the torments. Sounds a bit Swedenborgian. What makes it arresting is the idea that our delight in this life is rooted in fear of our own salvation, rather than the more common ascription of the cause to negligence, lack of faith.

In fact, this superficially conventional admonition hides a very serious malfunction: it makes our delight in this world, which is always regarded as a distraction at best, into a consequence of belief in salvation. It follows that someone who doesn't believe in a higher life takes no delight in this one either.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Number Ninety-Five

Das Böse ist manchmal in der Hand wie ein Werkzeug, erkannt oder unerkannt läßt es sich, wenn man den Willen hat, ohne Widerspruch zur Seite legen.

Evil is sometimes like an instrument in the hand; recognized or unrecognized, it lets itself be laid aside without protest if one so wills. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Evil is sometimes like a tool in your hand; recognized or unrecognized, you are able, if you have the will to do it, to set it aside, without being opposed. [Hofmann]


If it's your will, who could oppose you?

What is being laid aside? The desire to harm others, selfishness, indifference, or some other motive or psychological state? Or is it an action, or a state of affairs? Kafka might be pointing to the moment of decision, when one really renounces something; then, there is no struggle, the act is simple and easy. Where there is a struggle against evil, there is evil. Evil is not separable from the struggle against Evil. I'm not sure that Kafka would say that the absence of struggle necessarily means the absence of Evil, though.

Perhaps contracting the circle involves not straying from the vigilance, which is not only about keeping watch, but about making sure that what there is to keep watch over doesn't become so ungainly, oversized, complicated, murky, that you can't see it. I think Kafka was intrigued by things, particularly man-made things, like the Law, which become so vast that no one person can know them anymore. Individual specialists may know a corner very well, but no one can know what all those corners add up to. So contracting the circle is mainly, I would say, about not losing track.

Number Ninety-Four

Zwei Aufgaben des Lebensanfangs: Deinen Kreis immer mehr einschränken und immer wieder nachprüfen, ob du dich nicht irgendwo außerhalb deines Kreises versteckt hältst.

Two tasks at the beginning of your life: to narrow your orbit more and more, and ever and ever again to check whether you are not in hiding somewhere outside your orbit. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Two tasks of the beginning of life: to keep reducing your circle, and to keep making sure you're not hiding somewhere outside it. [Hofmann]


This seems to be a rewriting of Number Ninety, and, as it isn't cancelled, it seems safe to assume that this is to be preferred to the latter. Kafka seems to have dispensed with the distracting possibility of simply being as small as possible. I find this one especially cryptic.

Is Kafka changing his model from a line (path, rope) to a circle? Keeping the circle narrow is like keeping balanced on the rope, however. Kreis is circle, and it can also mean district or area as well as circuit, so either orbit or circle are likely translations. In both cases, there seems to be an idea of centering, since the narrowness of a circle or orbit is a matter of how far away it is from its center. Perhaps the idea here is that you need to make sure, if we are to think of the circle as an orbit, that you are doing the orbiting, rather than being its center, but that seems a more clever than profound idea.

Is the narrowness a matter of concentration? In Number Ninety, Kafka identified smallness with activity. This could mean "keep things simple" or "beware hubris" or "don't bite off more than you can chew" but it hardly seems necessary to devote an aphorism to commonplaces like these.

That this should be done at the outset of life to avoid big deviations is obvious, but does life have only one start or does it keep on starting? Is narrowing the circle like trying to reach the point of no return?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Number Ninety-Three

Zum letztenmal Psychologie!

Never again psychology! [Kaiser/Wilkins]

No psychology ever again! [Hofmann]


Both translators mark this one cancelled.

Sometimes I wonder if the cancellation isn't part of the meaning, as in this case, which seems to capture a gesture that renounces and then renounces that renouncement. That's probably over-subtle, but it doesn't refuse to work.

Dostoevsky was consistently skeptical of psychology because it stripped humanity of its responsibility. He saw directly that this was a clash of two world orders, and a historic development in the works. I think Kafka may have some similar idea here, that psychology tends to deprive us of ultimate responsibility for what we do, making us generic figures re-enacting a biologically inevitable dramaturgy, or otherwise laying our actions at the end of a protracted series of causes and effects that originates somewhere in the remote past and which unfolds into us through our parents.

So why cancel this one? The only way is the way forward, which would entail taking psychology to its end, causing it to evolve into something new, at which point the old psychology would drop away. Or one could create an alternative, but it would still have to involve the issues and problems of psychology in order to function as an alternative. Simply banishing pyschology is not only impossible, as what's done can't be wished away, but it would also mean an attempt to go backwards, which is always impossible in Kafka.

Kafka is all about getting to the point of no return. This is why no one ever goes back in Kafka. All his departures are final.

Number Ninety-Two

Die erste Götzenanbetung war gewiß Angst vor den Dingen, aber damit zusammenhängend Angst vor der Notwendigkeit der Dinge und damit zusammenhängend Angst vor der Verantwortung für die Dinge. So ungeheuer erschien diese Verantwortung, daß man sie nicht einmal einem einzigen Außermenschlichen aufzuerlegen wagte, denn auch durch Vermittlung eines Wesens wäre die menschliche Verantwortung noch nicht genug erleichtert worden, der Verkehr mit nur einem Wesen wäre noch allzusehr von Verantwortung befleckt gewesen, deshalb gab man jedem Ding die Verantwortung für sich selbst, mehr noch, man gab diesen Dingen auch noch eine verhältnismäßige Verantwortung für den Menschen.

The first worship of idols was certainly fear of the things in the world, but, connected with this, fear of the necessity of the things, and, connected with this, fear of responsibility for the things. So tremendous did this responsibility appear that people did not even dare to impose upon it one single extra-human entity, for even the mediation of one being would not have sufficiently lightened human responsibility, intercourse with only one being would still have been all too deeply tainted with responsibility, and that is why each thing was given the responsibility for itself, more indeed, these things were also given a degree of responsibility for man. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The first case of idolatry was surely fear of things, and therefore also fear of the necessity of things, and therefore also of responsibility for them. This responsibility seemed so vast that people didn't even dare to lay it at the feet of a single divine being, because the intervention of one such being would not sufficiently lighten the weight of human responsibility, the negotiation with one being would have remained too much stained with the responsibility, and therefore each thing was given the responsibility for itself, or more, the things were also given a measure of responsibility for the human. [Hofmann]


Fear not simply of disasters, but of the idea that these disasters had some kind of reason behind them, and were not merely random happenstances -- man cannot accept the idea that he suffers for nothing, but this introduces the terror of a will behind the greatest disasters, which in turn means that man must fear also that this will does not act capriciously, which would not be so much different from randomness but only a displacement of that randomness onto an agency outside nature, but rather that this inimical will is only reacting to human actions, thus ultimately making human beings liable for what happens to us -- hence the idol, which is therefore a technology by means of which we solace ourselves with the idea that we are ultimately in control of our own destinies.

So God is an intensification or collection, like a focal point, for man's responsibility, but also a free agent who acts without being susceptible to human influence. To have only one God to handle everything would mean mankind has an intercessor, and this makes things too easy to be plausible. This also roots religion in fear, weakness, and reproach.

Responsibility seems to require proliferation and the existence of channels, tiers, a whole system, which has the attributes Kafka gave to the court and the castle. The implication is that this byzantinism must be seen as something the people subject to these institutions seem to require or have a use for; so Kafka is never well understood if all we see is a burlesquing of bureaucracy in his work. The institutions produce these elaborated systems of themselves; there is no corrupt master official in either case, no center, and no outside, no place from which to view the bureaucracy as a means to an end.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Number Ninety-One

Zur Vermeidung eines Wortirrtums: Was tätig zerstört werden soll, muß vorher ganz fest gehalten worden sein; was zerbröckelt, zerbröckelt, kann aber nicht zerstört werden.

Towards the avoidance of a piece of verbal confusion: What is intended to be actively destroyed must first of all have been firmly grasped; what crumbles away crumbles away, but cannot be destroyed. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

To avoid the solecism: Whatever is to be entirely destroyed must first be held very firmly: if something crumbles, it crumbles, but resists destruction. [Hofmann]


Both translators mark this aphorism cancelled. While I think there is something of interest in number ninety, which might have been cancelled because of cynical overtones that were not intended, here I think I can see why this aphorism was discarded.

Kafka distinguishes between two kinds of selection. One is artificial selection of something to be destroyed, while the other is a natural selection. Destruction is designated as exclusively active, which produces a reversal very characteristic of Kafka's thinking: what crumbles is immune to destruction. What falls apart of its own decrepitude or weakness can't be destroyed. So Bloch the tradesman will go on dragging out his days in court forever, while Josef K., who tries to do battle with the court, must be killed, although even then he seems to be given the opportunity to kill himself as the knife is passed to and fro between his executioners, and the killing is entirely unceremonious and unlike an official execution, carried out in a nondescript place.

Kafka seems to be intrigued by the idea that weaknesses can become strengths without ceasing to be weaknesses; weakness, failure, waiting, hestitating, all have their rights, too.

This aphorism also reminds me of the Penal Colony story, which depicts this kind of seizing and active destroying.

The problem is that there is a kind of active destruction that sweeps away old rubbish without noticing or caring what it's doing. It's a scandal, but it's also for that reason more innocent, because it isn't negating an existing thing so much as it's entirely preoccupied with presenting something new, like someone who dashes this and that off a table in order to set down a new acquisition on it and show it off.

Meanwhile, crumbling is distinct from the kind of vigilantism needed to maintain a stable identity, which can only be done by suppressing inevitable changes. Crumbling is not all that simple and unambiguous. Matter crumbles, but it remains matter and can be reorganized into something else. People crumble differently, although they don't stop being people, but, if crumbling is understood as a metaphor for the loss of some important aspect of self, then it is a way for the self to stop being the self. So matter can crumble and stay matter, while the crumbling self ceases to be a self at all.

Number Ninety

Zwei Möglichkeiten: sich unendlich klein machen oder es sein. Das zweite ist Vollendung, also Untätigkeit, das erste Beginn, also Tat.

Two possibilities: making oneself infinitely small or being so. The second is perfection, that is to say, inactivity, the first is beginning, that is to say, action. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Two alternatives: either to make oneself infinitesimally small, or to be so. The former is perfection and hence inaction; the latter a beginning and therefore action. [Hofmann]


Both translators mark this one cancelled.

Kafka here understands action to be movement in the direction of inaction, as a goal realized. He also equates acting with growing smaller, which follows from the idea that action moves toward inaction, as long as we assume that inaction is a reduction.

If these are both possibilities, then it must be possible simply to choose to be perfect, utterly small, inactive. You can either choose to be in this state, or you can choose to be trying to be in this state.

So, if I try to make myself endlessly big, then I would be moving from action to action. The more I do the more imperfect I am. This would be a stupid observation if Kafka only meant that more activity means more opportunities for mistakes. He isn't talking about possibilities or occasions, he's talking about all times. Therefore activity is imperfection by definition, and this could have two interpretations at least; one is cynical, and I don't assume that Kafka would never write a cynical word, namely that action is always a hallmark of some insufficiency in the actor. The other interpretation would be that all real action is unrecognizeable at first because it's so new. The imperfection of an action would be that incommensurability of the action to any expectation, while the perfection of inaction would be its easily circumscribable smallness.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Number Eighty-Nine

Ein Mensch hat freien Willen, und zwar 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 einmal wieder sein wird, den Willen hat, sich unter jeder Bedingung durch das Leben gehen und auf diese Weise zu sich kommen zu lassen, und zwar 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.

A man has free will, and this is of three kinds: first of all he was free when he wanted this life; now, of course, he cannot go back on it, for he is no longer the person who wanted it then, except perhaps in so far as he carries out what he then wanted, in that he lives.
Secondly, he is free in that he can choose the pace and the road of this life.
Thirdly, he is free in that, as the person who will sometime exist again, he has the will to make himself go through life under every condition and in this way to come to himself, and this, what is more, on a road that, though it is a matter of choice, is still so very labyrinthine that there is no smallest area of this life that it leaves untouched.
This is the trichotomy of free will, but since it is simultaneous it is also a unity, an integer, and fundamentally so completely integral that it has no room for any will, free or unfree. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Man has free will, and of three sorts:
First he was free when he wanted this life; now admittedly he cannot take back his decision, because he is no longer the one who wanted it then, he must do his own will then by living.
Second he is free inasmuch as he can choose the pace and the course of his life.
Third he is free in that as the person he will one day be, he has the will to go through life under any condition and so come to himself, on some path of his own choosing, albeit sufficiently labyrinthine that it leaves no little spot of life untouched.
This is the triple nature of free will, but being simultaneous, it is also single, and is in fact so utterly single that it has no room for a will at all, whether free or unfree. [Hofmann]


The Hofmann translation occurs as number 104 in his edition, while Kaiser/Wilkins identifies this one as number 89. The corresponding number in Hofmann, as noted in the previous post, is combined with number 88.

The first freedom is responsibility or even guilt, setting oneself on a path. The second freedom is in degree of application and in direction of path, but does not extend to the possibility of ceasing to continue down any path. Does this mean that we are not free when we commit suicide?

The third freedom involves a choice of route that is indifferent from the point of view of the terrain, since every route covers the terrain entirely and consequently varies from every other route only in terms of things like order in which various locations are visited, number of times revisited, rate of travel and so on, which seem to fall under the second freedom. This third freedom seems to invoke the idea of eternal recurrence, that I freely choose myself with the understanding or at least as if I understood that I would one day have to be this one again, because choosing to be myself once, if I am really being myself and not just playacting, means committing to being myself in a way that affirms that choice for all time. When I choose something forever, or with maximum commitment, then I am choosing never to make any other choice, choosing to renounce further choice.

These freedoms are necessarily the case, which means we can't choose not to have them, nor can be say that the choices are determined by anything outside us. So we have no choice but to choose, but the choice we make is our own choice.

Number Eighty-Eight

Der Tod ist vor uns, etwa wie im Schulzimmer an der Wand ein Bild der Alexanderschlacht. Es kommt darauf an, durch unsere Taten noch in diesem Leben das Bild zu verdunkeln oder gar auszulöschen.

Death is in front of us, rather as on the schoolroom wall there is a reproduction of Alexander's Battle. The thing is to darken, or even indeed to blot out, the picture in this one life of ours through our actions. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Death is ahead of us, say in the way in our classrooms we had a picture of Alexander the Great in battle. What must be done is by our actions to blot out or obscure the picture, in our lifetimes. [Hofmann]


In the Kaiser/Wilkins edition, this aphorism is followed by another, much longer one, numbered 89, while, in the Hofmann translation, this aphorism is marked 88/89 and the longer aphorism is presented as number 104.

This one seems to say that we go through life with some ideal before us, and that our life's purpose is to efface that goal insofar as it is a matter of imitating some hero of the past, by achieving some accomplishment which is heroic in its own right, and so may stand on its own as a new painting on the wall for the generation that comes after.

The difficulty with that reading is that the image is not replaced by a new image but darkened and blotted out, which invokes the idea of forgetting more readily than it does the idea of memorializing.

Es kommt darauf an means something like, the thing that really matters is ... There is no "must" in the sense of a moral imperitive or practical necessity. The issue is what matters, and what matters is not the battle or the Alexandrian ideal, but taking action.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Number Eighty-Seven

Ein Glaube wie ein Fallbeil, so schwer, so leicht.

A belief like a guillotine -- as heavy, as light. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A faith like an axe. As heavy, as light. [Hofmann]


I think Hofmann uses the word "axe" here to establish a connection to Kafka's famous words about breaking the ice, but idiomatically the word Fallbeil, which is "falling axe," refer to the guillotine.

Heavy as it falls and light as it rises?

Hard to lift and easy to drop?

A faith or belief that severs, which is an execution machine separating people fatally from their heads.

A weight that is a menacing potential rather than a burden.

What does it mean that faith is understood here as something that is not a part of you or of any one person? Who owns their own guillotine? It is a property of no one and everyone, it stands, in theory, above everyone.

Is this simile extended to all faith, or to a certain kind; if so, how else can we identify this certain kind, and what value are we to place on it? Is this the purer kind of faith, the kind of purity that every religion, one way or another, demands? Meaning, I suppose, a faith that efficiently overcomes every doubt.

If that's the idea, then we have to think about how faith deals with doubt. There is the kind of faith that rejects doubt reflexively, without thinking, like a poison. This kind of faith may seem more naive or crude, but then again, it may be that this kind of faith is the kind that really takes doubt seriously, that sizes it up as a dangerous opponent.

The other variety of faith, which admits doubt without any sense of scandal, and deals with it by a weighing and measuring, may seem more sophisticated or mature, but there's also something about it that seems to fall short of the total commitment that faith requires. Faith isn't supposed, generally speaking, to be understood in terms of probabilities.