Cage in Search of a Bird

Michael Wood

The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka; edited by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch.

In​ September 1917, having just discovered he had tuberculosis, Franz Kafka took a break from his work at an insurance company in Prague and spent eight months with his sister Ottla in the village of Zürau, now called Siřem. He also seemed to be taking a break from writing, or at least from the writing he was supposed to be doing. In fact, he was leading what Reiner Stach calls ‘a double, and even a triple life’, hanging out with the villagers, writing letters to his friends and recording reflections in large notebooks. One of Kafka’s diary entries, written three days after he arrived in Zürau, treated his illness and his engagement to Felice Bauer, which he was about finally to break off, as parts of one symbol. ‘Take hold of this symbol,’ he told himself. Taking hold meant, among other things, writing about writing, what it could and couldn’t do, what it ought to be addressing: a sort of journey into a country of the mind. In Franz Kafka: The Office Writings (2008), Stanley Corngold talks about a ‘ministry of writing’ in this context, and the double meaning (bureaucratic and pastoral) takes us a long way into Kafka’s worlds.

At the end of his stay in Zürau, or just afterwards, Kafka made a selection from his notes, and copied them onto separate sheets of paper. He didn’t give the selection a title. In 1931, seven years after he died, his friend Max Brod published it as Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way. A rather heavy loading, and Brod later described the pieces simply as ‘aphorisms’. That term has its problems too – mainly an implication of overconfidence that doesn’t fit with Kafka’s style – but the best aphorisms make their own case for doubting what they say, and Kafka’s selection unquestionably includes quite a few aphorisms. It also has parables, instructions, pieces of ironic biblical commentary, and notes that really can’t be called anything but notes. Paul North, in his book on Kafka’s ‘atheology’, prefers the terms ‘treatise’ or ‘pensées’ for the whole set.

Kafka’s parables are well known – in English mostly through Nahum Glatzer’s Parables and Paradoxes (1958) – and two of the most famous appear among the aphorisms:

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over; eventually it can be calculated in advance and becomes part of the ceremony.

They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers. And so there are only couriers. They rush through the world and, as there are no kings, they shout their now meaningless messages to one another. They would gladly put an end to their wretched lives, but don’t dare to because of their oaths of service.

A violent accident becomes a ritual; the messengers are busy but the sender is absent. These situations occur again and again in Kafka. And, though we may not like to admit it, elsewhere too. There are also some great not-quite parables in the selection:

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, that would have been allowed.

The crows claim that a single crow could destroy heaven. That is incontestable, but it offers no proof at all against heaven, because heaven does signify the impossibility of crows.

Kafka is what we might think of as a clinical specialist in what shouldn’t have happened or what never will. North offers a fine contemporary summary of the implication of this sort of move in Kafka’s thought: ‘No reason to deconstruct what does not exist; one must only remember not to practise it.’

Stach’s edition of the aphorisms, with an astute and subtle commentary on each of them, appeared in German in 2019. The intellectual risks of commenting on the comments of Kafka are enormous, but Stach takes them in his stride, and Shelley Frisch’s English version keeps pace admirably. She had already, as she says, engaged in an ‘extremely deep dive’ for her translation of Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka (2013-16). The title of Stach’s book in German is Du bist die Aufgabe. It’s a quotation from the text, part of a larger proposition: ‘Du bist die Aufgabe. Kein Schüler weit und breit.’ Translators here are very close to one another. Malcolm Pasley’s wording, in The Great Wall of China (1999), is exactly the same as Frisch’s: ‘You are the task. No pupil far and wide.’ Michael Hofmann, in The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (2006), has ‘task’ too, but adds the word ‘exercise’, and his pupil is a student. I did once read, though I can’t remember where and can’t find in any of the probable books, a more ordinary, less dignity-prone rendering: ‘You are the homework. No student anywhere near.’ The tone is too casual, but it does evoke more immediately the absent teacher as well as the missing student. In all versions, this is very lonely work.

One of the aphorisms I keep returning to is quoted by Walter Benjamin but not otherwise much cited as far as I can tell. It is very low-key, and discreetly funny, as so many of these pieces are. It was Benjamin who said that ‘the key to Kafka’s work is likely to fall into the hands of the person who is able to extract the comic aspects of Jewish theology.’ In Frisch’s translation the aphorism reads as follows:

‘But then he returned to his work as though nothing had happened.’ We are familiar with this kind of remark from any number of old tales, even though it may not be found in any of them.

Hofmann also has ‘any number’, which seems the best idiomatic translation. The literal phrase is ‘an unclear fullness’, and Pasley’s ‘a vague profusion’ catches this well. But what do we make of the claim about our familiarity with the sentence that may be absent, like the student? Many things are being said (and not being said) here. There is a sort of theory of memory and cliché, for example: we get the gist but can’t identify the text. Or even, as my example about the translation I can’t find shows, we remember the text but can’t find it anywhere. And more strongly, perhaps, Kafka offers a theory of genre – of the epic, for example, or of the western, or the novel where the character pretends nothing has happened. We need to feel we know the mode, or it won’t work. We hear the echoes, recognise the gestures, even if we get them slightly wrong. This is more than enough for successful reading or hearing or viewing, however lax it seems as scholarship. We could move these considerations to other fields too.

Quite often the attraction of the aphorism depends on a single metaphor. Or sometimes a single word, as in Kafka’s suggestion of what an answer does when invited to respond to a question. It ‘prowls’ around it (as Frisch and Pasley say), or ‘creeps’ around it (in Hofmann’s version). The German answer is just as evasive, but perhaps more unpleasant: it ‘slides’ or ‘slithers’ around (umschleicht) the question. Of course, the humanisation of the answer and the question – the first is ‘skittish’ and ‘hopeful’ and ‘peers desperately’ into the second’s ‘unapproachable face’ – is part of the game, and helps to make us feel we are reading some crazy adaptation of Aesop or Lewis Carroll. But the verb, whichever one we choose, and however we choose to hear it, steals the show.

Something of the same happens with another relatively unregarded aphorism, which really is a sort of fable. The key feature is a single anthropomorphic sensation signalled by three words (‘writhe’, ‘revulsion’, ‘indignant’):

Many shades of the departed are occupied solely with lapping at the waters of the river of death because it comes from us and still bears the salty tang of our seas. Then the river writhes in revulsion, its current flowing backwards, washing the dead back into life. But they are happy, sing hymns of thanksgiving, and caress the indignant river.

A new theory of immortality: we need to annoy the right agency. Is it far-fetched to think Kafka is inviting us to feel a slight sympathy for the river?

Several of the aphorisms engage with slips and blurrings of language, offering an interestingly direct and stern recall to logical duty. Like many others, they may seem to be addressed more to Kafka himself than to anyone else, though of course that doesn’t reduce their usefulness – and may enhance it.

Belief in progress doesn’t mean belief that progress has already been made. That would not be belief.

Stach cites Kafka’s late story ‘Investigations of a Dog’ (‘people often sing the praises of the overall progress of dogdom through the ages’) in connection with this remark, and suggests that ‘this narrator’ (of the story and the aphorism) ‘clearly accepts progress as a fact but does not “believe” in progress’. A persuasive reading, but perhaps a little restrictive. We could focus on the word ‘belief’, with or without quotation marks. There is a wonderful parallel aphorism which also reminds us that we can’t actually believe in what we already know (and points to how little we may want to acknowledge this):

There can be knowledge of the diabolical but not a belief in it, for there cannot be more of the diabolical than does exist.

Another aphorism offers a strange, domestic clarification of what ought to be a tautology:

To avoid a verbal slip-up: anything that should be actively destroyed must first be held quite firmly; what crumbles, crumbles, but cannot be destroyed.

This assertion, like that of many aphorisms, not just Kafka’s, doesn’t seem quite right, but seems right enough to trouble us.

The longest and most bewildering language aphorism is this one:

For everything outside the world of the senses, language can be used only by way of suggestion, but can never even come close to being used representationally because it is concerned only with possession and its associations, in accordance with the world of the senses.

I can’t do more than start to comment on this brilliant premise, which seems to wipe out the very idea of philosophy, to say nothing of theology. Stach remarks that this aphorism ‘is a meta-reflection in that it relegates language itself – and hence all the aphorisms language can form – to narrow confines of knowledge’. This is astute, but we could perhaps go further into scepticism and come out in a more open space. Language can be used for the world of the senses but surely even there the chances for deception and ambiguity proliferate. Everything will depend on who uses the words and in what context. A writer who knows as much about the devil as Kafka does (the devil figures quite a lot in the aphorisms) will be aware that he can cite not only scripture but empirical truths for dubious purposes. And ambiguity, if you’re not a lawyer with a very particular case, can be a source of richness and linguistic help.

In accordance with these views, Kafka’s language is extraordinarily plain and lucid – far more so than that of any other modern writer – but still full of mystery. We can be fairly sure that he is not quite saying what he seems to be saying (Stach asserts that the aphorisms ‘show nothing, demonstrate nothing’), but how do we know what else is happening? Kafka is not going to help. His ascetic method is to leave us to it. That is why his novels are themselves full of aphorisms, like these phrases from The Trial: ‘The text is immutable, and interpreters’ opinions are often only an expression of despair over this’ and ‘Officers of the law don’t seek out guilt, but are attracted by guilt.’ There is a conflicting, perhaps slightly less hypocritical version of the second claim among the aphorisms themselves: ‘A cage went in search of a bird.’

The most sustained topic of investigation among the aphorisms is the Fall as represented in the Book of Genesis. Kafka’s readings don’t always agree with one another, but they are all concentrated in their attention to the problems of the story. At a later moment, Kafka wrote to his friend Milena Jesenská with comic immodesty saying: ‘Sometimes I think I understand the Fall like no one else.’

In the first appearance, early in the collection, impatience creates the sequence that takes Adam and Eve out of Eden. ‘Perhaps, though, there is only one cardinal sin … Impatience got them expelled; impatience keeps them from returning.’ A later note introduces a truly mystifying possibility:

The expulsion from Paradise is in its principal aspect eternal: and so, although the expulsion from Paradise is definitive, and life in the world inescapable, the very eternity of the process nevertheless makes it possible not only that we could remain in Paradise forever but that we are indeed there forever, whether we know it here or not.

I think of Mephistopheles’s answer to Faustus’s question about what he is doing on Earth when he is supposed to be in Hell: ‘Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.’ If we are indeed in Paradise, as Kafka suggests, and always have been, we are the victims and creators of the worst form of wreckage of what was supposed to be an ideal.

Other aphorisms are more generous, or at least give Paradise a break not granted to us:

We were created to live in Paradise, and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered: it is not stated that this has also happened to the destiny of Paradise.

It is there to serve us, but we are not there to be served. This sounds rather like Kafka remarking to Max Brod that there was plenty of hope in the universe, but not for us.

The other riffs have more to do with knowledge, and consequence, and trees:

Why do we complain about the Fall? That isn’t why we were expelled from Paradise, but on account of the Tree of Life, lest we eat of it.

We are sinful not only because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge but also because we have yet to eat of the Tree of Life. The state in which we find ourselves is sinful, irrespective of guilt.

‘Have yet to eat’ is wonderful, as is the revision of the old doctrine. Adam and Eve were expelled not because of what they ate but so that they shouldn’t eat something else.

Kafka’s longest entry on the Fall provides a balance sheet of our knowledge of good and evil. The text seems ‘especially complex’, as Stach says, because it involves both knowledge and the idea of going beyond it. The key sentence appears in a parenthesis:

‘This is also the meaning of the threat of death accompanying the prohibition on eating of the Tree of Knowledge; perhaps this is also the original meaning of natural death.’

The suggestion that death has an ‘original meaning’ in addition to all its other attributes is astonishing, and could come only from a writer who is hungry for meanings he knows he can’t have. In anyone else’s work the idea that you die if you do and die if you don’t would sound like despair. In Kafka it feels like an invitation, if not exactly to relax, then to accept reality. Or invent something that will feel like acceptance. The language teacher Kafka would say that we can’t choose to accept the mess we already have.