Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Number Fifty-Two

Im Kampf zwischen dir und der Welt sekundiere der Welt.

In the struggle between yourself and the world second the world. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

In the struggle between yourself and the world, hold the world's coat. [Hofmann]


Kaiser/Wilkins marks this one cancelled, while Hofmann does not. Huh?

The superficial and not particularly interesting meaning is obvious enough: the world is more powerful than you are, so a fight with the world is one you're bound to lose.

In a duel, however, the second's task is to bear witness; he is there to make sure the fight is conducted fairly. With that in mind, the aphorism would mean instead that, in your struggle with the world, it's your own cheating, not the world's, that you have to watch for.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Number Fifty-One

Es bedurfte der Vermittlung der Schlange: das Böse kann den Menschen verführen, aber nicht Mensch werden.

The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

It took the intercession of the serpent: Evil can seduce a man, but not become human. [Hofmann]


Both translations mark this aphorism cancelled.

So the indestructable part mentioned in the previous aphorism is actually what is human, and precisely this would be the divine endowment. Evil is never total, but must coexist with good.

This aphorism suggests to me that Kafka was trying to make sense of the story of the fall, specifically to account for the involvement of the serpent. If man falls through his own failing, then why include a seducer as well? Why complicate matters by making man the accomplice of an inhuman agency? It must be because goodness can't be goodness, nor can it be as innocent of any concept of evil as Adam and Eve were, and yet give rise to evil somehow. Evil requires contamination from an external source.

It's interesting that the word used here was Vermittlung, which can mean arrangement, and even translates to office on some occasions. Mediation or intercession are words that strike me as pretty strictly geometrical and abstract, touching only on the position of the serpent, but these other possibilities put the serpent in the position of an arranger or official. It is interesting to speculate what this perhaps unintended nuance might mean when we think of Kafka's courts and castles. There is in each case a mediation between a foreground figure, albeit one whose availability to us as readers should not be taken for granted simply on that account, and another agency so remote that it can't even be included in the farthest reaches of the background: the law, the judge, the castle. Between the attenuated foreground and utterly obscure background yawns a boundless middle ground of mediation, offices, messengers, specialist amateurs, other clients, support staff ...

It's tempting to say that everything gets lost in mediation, until you try to get a handle on the foreground or background figures; then you find they are so entirely lacking in anything of their own that it is only in mediation that they begin to take on outlines. Obviously, what lies beyond the court or the castle is so far off and obscure that its existence can only be taken on faith, but who was Josef K before he was accused? Even the details of his former life are revealed only in the oblique light of the court, and his existence after the accusation was made is understood entirely in terms of his connection to the court. The K of The Castle is even more of a sphinx; there is nothing even remotely like a satisfactory "psychological" accounting for his actions. Any adaptation of either novel that insists on casting these characters as protagonists in any way will fail.

Why was this aphorism cancelled? I think it must have been because Kafka doesn't want to make such a strong connection between the folkloric figure of the devil and the mediation that so interests him. Is mediation evil? Even if it doesn't set itself the task of destroying others, doesn't exhibit any malice? So perhaps this is something he wanted to work out a bit further.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Number Fifty

Der Mensch kann nicht leben ohne ein dauerndes Vertrauen zu etwas Unzerstörbarem in sich, wobei sowohl das Unzerstörbare als auch das Vertrauen ihm dauernd verborgen bleiben können. Eine der Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten dieses Verborgenbleibens ist der Glaube an einen persönlichen Gott.

Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructable in himself, though both the indestructable element and the trust may remain permanently hidden from him. One of the ways in which this hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A man cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructable within him, though both the faith and the indestructable thing may remain permanently concealed from him. One of the forms of this concealment is the belief in a personal god. [Hofmann]


Kaiser/Wilkins marks this one cancelled.

What is necessary in order to live, the practical, will be true from a human point of view, but whether or not it amounts to objective truth is not something that can be made to depend on its being necessary.

The word dauernd(es) is used first to express the constancy of belief, and then to express the constancy with which both the object of this faith and the faith itself are concealed. This might remotely imply a common actor in each case, making the belief and its concealment the work of one actor, "man." If not, then one would be doing the believing and another the hiding.

Both translators choose to keep god in the lowercase, although I believe the original wording would justify a capitalized God just as well; the lowercase god would be any god, while uppercase would indicate the God of monotheism.

This aphorism appears to say that man projects what he needs to believe indestructable about himself into another being, perhaps in order to put it out of reach of destruction; this also masks the true nature of the belief. One thinks one believes in God, but really believes in the self. What changes is made to depend on what doesn't change, while depending on change itself is apparently too alarming an idea.

Bergson wrote extensively about this problem, but I have no reason to think Kafka had read Bergson. In brief, Bergson maintained that the self exists solely as a continuous flux, but that it is more practically expedient to ignore this and think of it as fixed; change is understood as a succession of fixed impressions, rather than as a continuous flow, and so the continuity of one moment to the next, past and present, has to be supplied by another means, which is the fiction of the stable self as a kind of stage on which these fixed impressions come and go. The stage is beyond the reach of change, and so it is indestructable.

This is ultimately what is meant by the idea of the soul, and with that idea comes God too. Just as there are fixed impressions succeeding each other on a stage in the soul, so there are fixed souls succeeding each other in the greater unfolding of time, and the "stage" on which that happens is God. God is to the many distinct human souls, from this point of view, what the soul is to the many different fixed impressions of life. Same scheme.

This aphorism doesn't bear directly on the existence of God or even of what is indestructable since it only deals with what people need to believe.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Number Forty-Nine

A. ist ein Virtuose und der Himmel ist sein Zeuge.

A. is a virtuoso and heaven is his witness. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A. is a virtuoso, and Heaven is his witness. [Hofmann]


We could take this as an observation one person makes about another, but in that case, how would we be in a position to designate heaven a witness? I assume that virtuoso means more than an expert musician, but a virtuous person. For the Greek philosophers and mythologers, any excellence was the signature of some god or other; if we think of virtuosity this way, then you can't be a virtuoso unless the gods allow it. This is much like the weird Christian idea of grace. It amounts to saying that even moral excellence can't be imputed to you, but only bestowed on you from its source, which, at least to me, eliminates you from consideration altogether. You can't even argue that you received excellence because you deserved it, since deserving it would mean being excellent on your own; if it's possible for you to be excellent on your own, then any divinely-bestowed excellence would be superfluous, and if you can't be excellent on your own, then heaven bestows excellence on some other basis, or no basis.

How can you know that you are virtuous? You can try to be good, but how do you know if you're succeeding? Kafka doesn't say "virtuous," he says "A. is a virtuoso," which implies skill. If heaven witnesses skill, and if witnessing implies approval, then what matters isn't moral attainment but skillfulness, which is consistent with other aphorisms.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Number Forty-Eight

An Fortschritt glauben heißt nicht glauben, daß ein Fortschritt schon geschehen ist. Das wäre kein Glauben.

Believing in progress does not mean believing that progress has yet been made. That is not the sort of belief that indicates real faith. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Belief in progress doesn't mean belief in progress that has already occurred. That would not require belief. [Hofmann]


Post hoc ergo propter hoc. This disengages the idea of progress from the past entirely, showing how "progress" is a judgement, an interpretation, rather than an empirical observation. Simply because things have developed in the past, it does not follow that things will continue to develop in the future. This might then mean that belief in progress has to address all of time.

Applied to the idea of wayfaring, this means that going along the way is not a matter of clearing distance and making a certain amount of progress, but of being oriented in what one believes is the direction of improvement.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Number Forty-Seven

Es wurde ihnen die Wahl gestellt, Könige oder der Könige Kuriere zu werden. Nach Art der Kinder wollten alle Kuriere sein. Deshalb gibt es lauter Kuriere, sie jagen durch die Welt und rufen, da es keine Könige gibt, einander selbst die sinnlos gewordenen Meldungen zu. Gerne würden sie ihrem elenden Leben ein Ende machen, aber sie wagen es nicht wegen des Diensteides.

They were given the choice of becoming kings or the kings' messengers. As is the way with children, they all wanted to be messengers. That is why there are only messengers, racing through the world and, since there are no kings, calling out to each other the messages that have now become meaningless. They would gladly put an end to their miserable life, but they do not dare to do so because of their oath of loyalty. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

They were offered the choice between being kings and being royal envoys. Like children, they all wanted to be envoys. This is why there are so many envoys chasing through the world, shouting -- for the want of kings -- the most idiotic messages to one another. They would willingly end their miserable lives, but because of their oaths of duty, they don't dare to. [Hofmann]


Why is this childish? Don't children play-act at being kings all the time? But maybe that's the point; the messenger play-acts at being king insofar as he speaks the king's words in the name of the king. This reminds me of Nietzsche's criticism of Hegel's idea of power; Hegel wrote that man wants acknowledgement of his power by other men, that this basically is power. Nietzsche said this is to mistake the emblems of power for power itself, as if snatching the crown from off the king's head and clapping it on yours would mean everyone had to do as you say. It would mean that power had to ask permission from someone else, or to put it more accurately, from everyone else, in order to be power. Childish people, and there are no other kind, don't want real power but only its trappings. They turn going through the motions into the only form of motion, but it's a pointless dispersal of energy.

Who offered them the choice and extracted the oath from them? The oath is part of the emblems of power -- in adhering to it they are choosing to have no choice; they want to escape this life by committing suicide, but not by simply walking away. Their mistake is clinging to the emblems of power instead of giving it up. They're weirdly insisting on a subordination that doesn't exist, like religious fanatics who claim they act for God, not themselves, and so make God the author of all their misdeeds.

There is also a parallel with the law, which used to be considered a codification of God's will, and which came to be an independent power in its own right. The law as such is just an empty word that is used to justify the implementation of certain rules, but what justifies law as such is a mystery, or just a sham.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Number Forty-Six

Das Wort »sein« bedeutet im Deutschen beides: Dasein und Ihmgehören.

In German, the word sein stands both for the verb to be and for the possessive pronoun his. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The German word sein signifies both "to be there" and "to belong to Him." [Hofmann]


This is a reflection on the German language, perhaps implying that it tacitly equates existence with a kind of slavery, or at the very least that it conjures up for itself the idea of being in the form of a relationship to another. We have to wonder if one meaning is meant to subside beneath the other, if they are being strictly equated, or if they are two different meanings to be held side by side. If they are equated, then does that mean that the usual idea of being is somehow deconcretized into a relationship only, or that the relationship is made concrete?

As I said earlier, there are really serious quagmires to be waded into when it comes to the idea of "having."

What does belonging to him (or Him) entail? Duties, responsibilities, expectations ... But is this only a one-way relationship, or is there something binding on the other side, whatever that is? This aphorism noses a little in the direction of God without losing any ambivalence; Kafka knew Czech as well as German. There are other languages.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Number Forty-Five

Je mehr Pferde du anspannst, desto rascher gehts - nämlich nicht das Ausreißen des Blocks aus dem Fundament, was unmöglich ist, aber das Zerreißen der Riemen und damit die leere fröhliche Fahrt.

The more horses you harness to the job, the faster the thing goes -- that is to say, not tearing the block out of its base, which is impossible, but tearing the straps to shreds, and as a result the weightless merry journey. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The more horses you put to, the faster your progress -- not of course in the removal of the cornerstone from the foundations, which is impossible, but in the tearing of the harness, and your resultant riding cheerfully off into space. [Hofmann]


The more you strain to move the block, the faster you'll go when the straps break. So more force means more speed, but not more effectiveness.

It's comical to think of someone gaily zooming along, thinking he's dragging the block behind him all the while. What you really want here: that's the question. If you want to move the block, that's impossible, so why try? Only to prove impossibility? If you want to fly, why bother with the block? The desire, then, must be to be released from the block, to feel the maximum effort has been made. Wouldn't that be the same as achieving the point of no return? Having made the greatest possible effort, you are now free. The only question then is, whether or not you have made the greatest possible effort, or if you might be able to do more. How much is enough?

What is the block holding up? Why are you trying to pull it down? If the block is only an abstraction representing any arduous task, then the aphorism is more or less saying that the harder you try, the sooner you'll be done, one way or the other.

The addressee is the informal "you," so I imagine Kafka saying this to himself. You keep making these supreme efforts, he seems to be saying, but is that really because you want to succeed, or is it because you want to break down and be done with it finally? In that case, wouldn't the more correct course of action call for less effort rather than more? Even though the task is impossible anyway? Or is it that you need to think of effort differently, not in terms of greater force, more struggle, but some other way? Perhaps the greater effort is not made by pulling harder, but by paying more attention, and finding the right route?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Number Forty-Four

Lächerlich hast du dich aufgeschirrt für diese Welt.

A ridiculous way you have girded yourself up for this world. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

You have girded your loins in a most laughable way for this world. [Hofmann]


Is this an aphorism or only a bit of wry self-deprecation? It's interesting to note that in both cases the translators felt obliged to add the word way, making the manner of the girding into the topic, rather than the girding itself. This would mean that there is a non-laughable way to gird yourself up for this world.

Girding up, protecting yourself. Is this laughable because it's been badly done, or because you're fooling yourself, imagining that you can get through life without pain, or at least without serious injury?

I think the gist of this is self-reflexive; look at how you see yourself as separate from the world, standing off to the side in a little sanctuary, readying yourself to go out and face life like a soldier strapping on armor. It isn't clear from this, though, whether the problem is a mismatch between the attitude and the one taking it, or the attitude alone. Is it ridiculous for someone like Kafka to come at life this way, but not for someone else? Or is it always ridiculous? In the first case, this is an objection intended to restore someone from delusion to self-knowledge, while in the second case, this is a comment about life.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Number Forty-Three

Noch spielen die Jagdhunde im Hof, aber das Wild entgeht ihnen nicht, so sehr es jetzt schon durch die Wälder jagt.

The hunting dogs are still romping in the yard, but the prey will not escape them, however much it may be stampeding through the woods even now. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The dogs are still playing in the yard, but the quarry will not escape them, never mind how fast it is running through the forest already. [Hofmann]


The prey can't escape because it is prey, already. Kafka's stories return to the image of this kind of cancelled action, like the country doctor being whisked away from his house, and then hurtling through space at the story's end.

In a way, the prey is bringing its capture about, because you can't chase what isn't running away. By running away, it makes itself prey. The dogs would kill it even if it weren't running away, but this isn't about killing, it's about being hunted. If the quarry stays put, or even tries to fight, then, whether or not it's killed, it hasn't quite been hunted, because hunting means tracking down and catching in flight. This aphorism treats this as if it were a magic spell, that what is running therefore makes itself vulnerable to whatever runs down running things. Trying to avoid something still entails getting into a relationship with it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Number Forty-Two

Den ekel- und haßerfüllten Kopf auf die Brust senken.

Letting the head that is filled with disgust and hate droop on the breast. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

To let one's hate- and disgust-filled head slump onto one's breast. [Hofmann]


It's unclear to me whether or not it would be legitimate to identify the head with thinking and the breast with the heart and therefore with feeling; I don't think so, because there is nothing essentially rational about hatred.

The image of the head sunk on the breast indicates submission, contrition, or exhaustion. The head is weighed down with a burden of hate and disgust, and to let it sink is to stop supporting it. Hate and disgust are a burden. Allowing the head to drop is not the same as banishing hate and disgust, but perhaps it is a necessary first step in that direction.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Number Forty-One

Das Mißverhältnis der Welt scheint tröstlicherweise nur ein zahlenmäßiges zu sein.

It is comforting to reflect that the disproportion of things in the world seems to be only arithmetical. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The disproportion of the world seems fortunately to be merely numerical. [Hofmann]


Again, this one is marked cancelled in Hofmann but not in Kaiser/Wilkins.

What is a non-numerical disproportion? A qualitative disproportion would mean some truths are truer or some beauties more saturated with beauty, but, in order to conceive of this, it would be necessary to come up with a way of thinking in terms of more or less without thinking of number at the same time. If motion is indivisible, then there can be no disproportion there unless we think in terms of higher and lower. I'm not sure Kafka is thinking much about high and low.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Number Forty

Nur unser Zeitbegriff läßt uns das Jüngste Gericht so nennen, eigentlich ist es ein Standrecht.

It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of martial law. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

It's only our notion of time that allows us to speak of the Last Judgment, in fact it's a Court Martial. [Hofmann]


The Hofmann marks this aphorism cancelled, the Kaiser/Wilkins does not. No idea why.

Martial law seems to be the likeliest translation of Standrecht; the usual term for Court Martial is Kriegsgericht. Gericht alone means court, not judgement, so perhaps Hofmann wanted to extend this idea, from Latest Court to Court Martial. The use of "allows" instead of "makes" seems more true; the concept we have of time is not compelling us to do something but only permits for this mistake.

What is the difference between Latest Court and martial law? One is the end of all judgement, the other is the suspension of ordinary legal procedure. Ordinary legal processes are conducted in the name of the Law, which is transcendent; the last judgement is the manifestation of a transcendent principle in experience. Is it simply that what is transcendent in the first case is present and active in the latter, or is there a higher idea of Justice that has the same relation to Law as the Law has with us? If there is Justice above Law, then wouldn't the Last Judgement be the manifestation of Justice? In either case, however, whether it's Law or Justice that appears in the Last Judgement, how can Kafka equate these transcendent ideas with martial law?

The idea seems to be that martial law makes no appeal to anything higher than itself; it simply acts, without reference to a model. It doesn't act randomly or shapelessly; the operation of the army conditions it, but that military organization is a self-structuring, internal principle that doesn't seek to manifest some transcendent idea. The army may draw on ideas like the Nation, but soldiers don't fight for the Nation they fight for their country; it may invoke values like Valor and Honor but these are values, while the Law is not exactly a value.

Bringing time into it, I think Kafka means that we see the last judgement as final not because it is final, capable of rendering absolute decisions, but because we continue to think of time in metrical terms as something that ends. If we think of eternity, then what becomes of finality in any form, including final judgements? There were many church fathers, Origen for one, who believed that eventually even Satan himself would be redeemed, so where is finality of judgement? This would mean that martial law or the Court Martial is Kafka's conception of the principle of this kind of judgement under the aspect of eternity. It would also mean that the transcendent and the non-transcendent are already crashing into each other.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Number Thirty-Nine (b)

Der Weg ist unendlich, da ist nichts abzuziehen, nichts zuzugeben und doch hält jeder noch seine eigene kindliche Elle daran. »Gewiß, auch diese Elle Wegs mußt du noch gehen, es wird dir nicht vergessen werden.«

The way is infinitely long, nothing of it can be subtracted, nothing can be added, and yet everyone applies his own childish yardstick to it. "Certainly, this yard of the way you still have to go, too, and it will be accounted unto you." [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The road is endless, there are no shortcuts and no detours, and yet everyone brings to it his own childish haste. "You must walk this ell of ground, too, you won't be spared it." [Hofmann]


The Kaiser/Wilkins is closer to the text, although in both translations the English ending is slightly unlike the German, which says (as far as I can tell) "this will not be forgotten of you." This is a real ambiguity in the original; it could mean "it will be remembered that you did this," or it could mean "it will not be forgotten that you should do this."

Hofmann's translation emphasizes impatience, where Kaiser/Wilkins pays more attention to the idea of measuring and dividing. Again, the mistake seems to be the one identified by Bergson, the source of Zeno's paradox, the idea that motion can be divided into segments, the confusion that arises when measuring is mistaken for movement.

On the one hand, you can say that this means no cheating, no aggrandizing. On the other hand, not being able to subtract or add to the way, which is the more literal translation of the verbs, could be underscoring what eternity means. It doesn't mean the largest imaginable heap of seconds or the longest imaginable distance; it isn't measurable.

If the way is endless, that doesn't give you room to fool around. You still have to take every one of the endless steps, which more or less means you have to keep to the way at all times. You don't accumulate merit a crumb at a time; in fact, merit doesn't seem to enter into it. The merit is in being underway and maybe in heading in the right direction, if there's a difference, not in how far along you get. If we introduce "how far," we're talking in relative terms, specifically relating me to you, and now it's a race. The way isn't a racetrack.

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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Number Thirty-Eight

Einer staunte darüber, wie leicht er den Weg der Ewigkeit ging; er raste ihn nämlich abwärts.

A man was amazed at how easily he went along the road to eternity; the fact was he was rushing along it downhill. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

A man was astounded by the ease of the path of eternity; it was because he took it downhill, at a run. [Hofmann]


This suggests not only that there are different ways to take the path of eternity, but that the metaphorical topography of the path is a function of the way you take it, and not the path's own fixed property.

Kafka might mean only that the downward, and hence presumably evil, way is easier than the comfortless way of virtue, but it's still the path of eternity either way. So the way the path is taken, and not the destination, is what's good or evil? Or is there a good eternity and an evil one?

That he is running shows impatience, but also a lack of resistance; when you're facing down the slope, the lay of the land almost compels you to run. You have to lean back against the grade to avoid running. People don't stage races on downhill slopes because a slope would make anyone run faster than their strength alone would permit; arguably, the strongest runner would be the one who could manage to come in last.

Taken by itself, this aphorism gives us no reason to assume that there is another, upward way. It might be that the path to eternity is always a downward slope; if that were true, then the less impetuous and therefore probably more virtuous way would be to go downwards resisting, rather than heedlessly barrelling on.

Rushing towards eternity doesn't make sense, so perhaps this is the mistake we're being warned about: mistaking eternity for clock time.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Number Thirty-Seven

Seine Antwort auf die Behauptung, er besitze vielleicht, sei aber nicht, war nur Zittern und Herzklopfen.

His answer to the assertion that he did perhaps possess, but that he was not, was only trembling and palpitations. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

His answer to the accusation that he might possess something but didn't exist, consisted of trembling and heart palpitations. [Hofmann]


Asphyxiation is the symptom of being without having, and trembling and palpitations are the symptoms of possessing without being, or at least being told that this latter might be the case. This aphorism revisits both having and being on the one hand, and answering on the other.

There are two micro-scenes that could be spun out of this aphorism. In one, someone in a position of authority is making a statement about someone else. (Behauptung does not primarily mean accusation.) The former person could be a future father in law, a judge, the latter's own father. The other micro-scene is purely introspective; a man thinks this about himself, and the thought induces trembling and palpitations.

In either case, the idea of possessing without being elicits physical signs of distress, either fear or indignation, which indicate a visceral desire or need to reject it, but no refutation. He remains silent. The idea of inverting aphorism thirty-five might have prompted Kafka to try to imagine having without being, and then to see how he might go about dramatically framing the introduction of that idea. To possess without being would mean that there is no being, at least in his case, but only a kind of registered relationship to those things we think of as part of our being. If I do not exist, but only possess, then I'm like a demon inhabiting a body, living a life, that is mine only because of some kind of contract or receipt. It would mean that everything remains as it is, or seems, but that there is no basis for what is. There would be having, but no one to have.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Number Thirty-Six

Früher begriff ich nicht, warum ich auf meine Frage keine Antwort bekam, heute begreife ich nicht, wie ich glauben konnte, fragen zu können. Aber ich glaubte ja gar nicht, ich fragte nur.

Previously I did not understand why I got no answer to my question; today I do not understand how I could believe I was capable of asking. But I didn't really believe, I only asked. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Earlier, I didn't understand why I got no answer to my question, today I don't understand how I presumed to ask a question. But then I didn't presume, I only asked. [Hofmann]


Both this and the previous aphorisms must have something to do with Felice Bauer. How stupid of me not to notice earlier! On the other hand, these are gathered together among a set of numbered aphorisms, which suggests to me that there is a generalizable kernel in these passages. Kafka does not seem to want to answer a question of this magnitude using only this or that part of his being, but with his whole being, which includes his unparalleled ratiocinative power.

In number thirty-five, he must be speaking of Felice when he speaking of a Being. Marriage is not about "having a spouse," it is the presence of a being whose existence is fundamentally merged with your own. In that case, perhaps the desire for the last breath might be hers, and the aphorism would express his fear of destroying her in a marriage. Or that last breath, the Being, might be Kafka after all, anticipating his own destruction in marriage.

The Kaiser/Wilkins translation is more strictly literal. Hofmann conflates being able to ask with presumption, which is not necessarily the same thing. As far as a marriage proposal is concerned, it does however seem to be the same.

What matters, though, is the difference over time. Back then, it was the lack of an answer that I didn't understand, now it's my own asking that I don't understand. Kafka returns to the difficulty that arises when you try to relate two points of view. Kierkegaard, whom Kafka read, came back again and again to the idea that having a point of view entails having a blind spot. The presumption is an interpretation after the fact, not the motive.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Number Thirty-Five

Es gibt kein Haben, nur ein Sein, nur ein nach letztem Atem, nach Ersticken verlangendes Sein.

There is no having, only a being, only a state of being that craves the last breath, craves suffocation. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

There is no possessing, only an existing, only an existing that yearns for its final breath, for asphyxiation. [Hofmann]


This one sounds like a poem when you read it aloud.

Possession is a relationship, not a thing. Philosophy overflows with the topic of "to be," but it's stingy with its attention when "to have" comes up.

The idea is the exhaustion of being, but this could be read two ways, it could point to something negative, it doesn't matter whether it be the world overwhelming the self or simply ennui, or it could point to something else, and something more than a mere inversion of the negative. All these aphorisms have tended in the same direction in this respect, that the positive is not the inversion of the negative, that their opposition is different.

Kafka says that to be is to yearn; to be is to yearn for the last breath, which could mean that to be is to yearn not to be. By mentioning breath, he implicitly conflates being and living.

It could also mean that to be is to yearn to be until the end, which would mean suicide only if you meant willing your own life in its entireity, death included, by the word suicide. It might mean that the longing of the living is to be overcome by life, that death is being overcome by life and not a force that overcomes life. When I imagine the condition that craves the last breath, I imagine the overstimulated condition of someone at the limit of their endurance, whether that limit is as extensive as an athelete's or as narrow as an invalid's. When you are at that limit, begging for relief, you are also living at the summit of life's intensity.

There are two other things I notice. First, that being and having are strictly abstract, while the idea of yearning, the last breath, and suffocation, draw these abstractions into a particular, personal instant. Second, I wonder why he felt it necessary to negate having, and how that led him to being. Was he trying out the idea, "I have my life," and then did he reject it, with the thought, "I don't have my life -- I live" and then go on to say what life meant?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Number Thirty-Four

Sein Ermatten ist das des Gladiators nach dem Kampf, seine Arbeit war das Weißtünchen eines Winkels in einer Beamtenstube.

His exhaustion is that of the gladiator after the fight, his work was the whitewashing of one corner in a clerk's office. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

His exhaustion is that of the gladiator after the combat; his labor was the whitewashing of a corner of the wall in his office. [Hofmann]


Hoffman writes as if Kafka meant to specify himself; this is certainly true, but the reader should know that Beamtenstube does refer to a specific kind of office, belonging to a clerk or a civil servant, as opposed to a medical doctor or a private eye.

Two images of struggle. It seems to me that there is more and more evidence here pointing to a fixation on struggle in these aphorisms, which bears out a similar fixation in the fiction. This one refers to the disproportionate exhaustion that can be induced by ordinary tasks, their unseen heroism, describing the relationship to the world as a struggle. It isn't that even something as minor as this is a struggle; it's that precisely this kind of thing is at the heart of the struggle. Battles are typically decisive, but a mundane task like whitewashing, while it may be done or left undone, is not historic because nothing concludes or begins with it. You whitewash now and then. The moment the whitewash is freshened up it becomes a blank canvas to be smudged and sootied all over again. In a battle, men are killed, and while more men will probably come along, those dead men can't be restored to life.

So the effort involved is the same, even if the outcomes vary wildly in significance. If we value things according to the amount of effort they cost, then this would tend to level these two things, battling and whitewashing. But if we value things according to what was won or lost, then these two things are as far apart as possible. The contrast between the former equivalence and the latter incomparability is the object of this aphorism.

On the one hand, it's a dry joke about tedious workaday chores. On the other hand, it seems to elevate, in a way, that work -- unless the intention is to compare the gladiator with the whitewasher. If that's Kafka's idea, then the point is that the whitewasher is at the same time capable of a maximum effort, just like the gladiator, and yet this maximum effort gives a result that falls bathetically short of the accomplishment of the gladiator (glory doesn't necessarily enter into the question -- the gladiator may be a monster, but the result of his fighting is death, permanent and consequential and hence unlike whitewashing). There is an equivalence and an incomparability in this comparison as well.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Number Thirty-Three

Die Märtyrer unterschätzen den Leib nicht, sie lassen ihn auf dem Kreuz erhöhen. Darin sind sie mit ihren Gegnern einig.

Martyrs do not underrate the body, they allow it to be elevated on the cross. In this they are at one with their antagonists. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Martyrs do not underestimate the body, they allow it to be hoisted up onto the cross. In that way they are like their enemies. [Hofmann]


Kaiser/Wilkins marks this aphorism cancelled.

Martyrs are at one with their tormentors, whether the tormentor likes it or not. Martyrs are tactical.

Physical suffering is celebrated from two directions; as the vindication of the tormentors on the one hand, the tormented on the other. One has the power to inflict suffering, the other has the power to volunteer for it. This seems to me to proceed from the thirty first aphorism, involving the self-flagellation of the beast.

Suffering is strongly associated with the idea of recompense. The martyr is more or less creating his own posthumous recompense by suffering, using suffering as a way to compel it. The tormentor is trying to stop and destroy, while the martyr is trying to use this very act of destruction to create or redistribute something. It is not a confrontation of two sides, any more than there is a confrontation between the master and the animal that whips itself, not its master, or between the crows and the sky. One side confronts, the other does not. Time and again Kafka returns to asymmetry in values.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Number Thirty-Two

Die Krähen behaupten, eine einzige Krähe könnte den Himmel zerstören. Das ist zweifellos, beweist aber nichts gegen den Himmel, denn Himmel bedeuten eben: Unmöglichkeit von Krähen.

The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. There is no doubt of that, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for heaven simply means: the impossibility of crows. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

The crows like to insist that a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows. [Hofmann]


The purpose of this aphorism might be to set dialectical reasoning running round in circles until it falls exhausted.

I don't know how to approach this aphorism without taking the stupid interpretation as my starting point.

Stupid: the crows are the doubters who deny heaven, but, since heaven is faith-in-heaven, they end up denying it to themselves. So, believe etc.

What does Kafka do to prevent a stupid interpretation? For one thing, the crows aren't denying heaven, they are asserting they can destroy it. For another thing, why crows? The hallmark of bad readings of Kafka is the assumption that he writes allegories. The crows are crows, and he must have chosen crows because they live in the sky. The word Himmel means both heaven and sky.

From the point of view of the crows, they coexist with heaven. From heaven's point of view, there's no such things as crows. This is another stab at a model of good and evil, or the positive and the negative, of the kind Kafka has been working on in other aphorisms. He's trying out different terms for these two sides, and experimenting with alternative renderings of their relationship. Evil insists on its parity with good, but good does not insist on its parity with evil, in fact, good is the absence of evil, but only in thought.

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.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Number Thirty

Das Gute ist in gewissem Sinne trostlos.

In a certain sense the Good is comfortless. [Kaiser/Wilkins]

Goodness is in a certain sense comfortless. [Hofmann]


The Hofmann indicates this aphorism is cancelled, while Kaiser/Wilkins does not. Perhaps there is some uncertainty whether it falls under the cancellation of the second part of the previous number.

If evil is already inside, admitted and absorbed, and goodness does not consist in struggling with it, but with a kind of vigilant ignorance of it, then there is no respite for goodness. Goodness, knowing that evil stops drawing attention to itself once one has granted it admittance, must take evil's presence for granted. Even if that evil is induced to leave, goodness has no choice but to mistrust the apparent absence of evil, to mistrust itself. This means that goodness can't know itself; the recognition of evil, and its opposition to good, makes it necessary that the good be known, but goodness can never be taken for granted. Evil comes to you, but goodness is perennially elusive.

In that case, it's tempting to adopt the idea that goodness consists of the search for the good, rather than its discovery and possession, but then this requires us to accept the unsatisfactory notion of a hunt for something that doesn't exist. It may be a better statement of the case to say that goodness is attentiveness to direction, while evil is inattentiveness to direction or worse, self-deception about direction.