Edited, introduced and with commentaries by Reiner Stach

Translated by Shelley Frisch  ISBN 978 0 691 20592 2  Princeton £20

Reviewed by Alan Dent


Northrop Frye wrote that literature is words used disinterestedly. Arguably no  modern writer exemplifies this more than Kafka. His work is bereft of ulterior impulses. It’s impossible to imagine writing for money or fame having entered Kafka’s head. His work is reverential. He approaches the world and words with awe and a sense of overwhelming responsibility. These qualities are everywhere in his writing but perhaps nowhere more than the aphorisms written in 1917 and 18 in Zürau. In his introduction, Stach questions whether all published here falls under the definition of aphorism. Kafka certainly breaks with tradition; but whatever name they go by these one hundred and ten short pieces are remarkable in their search for what he calls “the ultimate things”. Kafka is always driving towards this ultimate, which he knows is unreachable. Failure is written into his enterprise. This book is no more likely to entertain than Einstein’s world-shaking works; but like them it is impressive in its honesty and endeavour, even if some of it is baffling.  

The first entry begins Der wahre Weg (The true way). Kafka is obsessed, perhaps tormented, by the need to find the right way to live. The aphorism is an image: ein Seil, das nicht in der Höhe gespannt ist, sondern knapp über dem Boden (a rope, not high in the air, but barely above the ground). The rope appears made for stumbling rather than walking along. Kafka loves to condense a thought into an image. We walk, not on a high wire over an abyss, but  on a rope we won’t kill ourselves if we fall from. Yet it’s a true obstacle: it makes us stumble over and over. The high wire would have been a trite image: life as a perilous balance between two chasms. Kafka’s is original and nearer the truth: our moral failures are often small but they happen all the time. The price of failure is not perdition but one petty humiliation on another. There is no escape. We can’t step off the rope because then we lose our way. Our nature is moral, but in trying to fulfil it we can’t help but trip  endlessly. Kafka offers no glib reassurance. There are no simple answers. History provides no ready-made solutions. Living is an indefeasibly difficult matter. There are no grounds for self-congratulation or sense of success. Rather, to think yourself a success is a sure sign of being on the wrong path.  

Alle menshchlichen Fehler sind Ungeduld begins aphorism two; all human errors are impatience. The third entry amplifies: there are two human sins – impatience and laxity. The first got us expelled from paradise (he often uses religious imagery) the second prevents us returning. Impatience is the greatest fault however. It both got us expelled and prevents our return. The aphorisms were copied onto sheets of paper from notes made in octavo books. There he says that god was wrong in believing the consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge was death. Hardly a conventional view of the deity. Kafka’s impatience with impatience comes from his view that it involves “breaking off a methodical approach”. Aphorism five says Von eimen gewissen Punkt an gibt es keine Rückkehr mehr (From a certain point on, there is no turning back). He is acutely aware of how we are forced to choose, sometimes between almost impossible alternatives (the choices are always fraught because they are moral-in Kafka’s world there are no choice which aren’t; he is utterly at odds with the prevailing view that abstract forces make choices for us; to be human is to be faced moment by moment with moral choices whose consequences we can never be sure of). The fifth entry goes on to say that this crucial point from which retreat is impossible has to be reached. Stach relates this to some of the torturing difficulties of Kafka’s personal life: breaking off with Felice Bauer; wriggling free of his father and discarding his middle-class life to follow his way as a writer (it’s interesting that the two should be incompatible; they are because middle-class life involves perpetual dishonesty). However, the idea is a matter of principle. We have to press on to the difficult moral choices even though we do so like someone lost in the dark.  

Kafka believed we had something indestructible within us and we develop eternally. He seemed not to believe in god (doing so is barely compatible with the idea of him making mistakes and in adolescence he declared his atheism). Did he believe in life after death? It’s likely this was simply part of his cultural inheritance. Born in 1883 he belonged to a generation in which it was almost invariably taken for granted. However, his idea of the eternal might be contained within our more realistic time-scales. He makes a repeated distinction between the spirit and the senses. Once we again, the former doesn’t necessarily have to be interpreted in a mystical way. The difference could be taken to be between inner and outer. Kafka is constantly focussed on his inner world. His self-scrutiny is legendary. Characteristically he sees himself negatively. Even as a boy he believed he came through at school only because of the kindness of his teachers. He seems to have experienced profound self-mistrust from an early age, perhaps thanks to his bombastic, arrogant father. Without doubt he was beset by inner conflicts, but the psychological speculations and retrospective attribution of personality disorders are of little importance. They are less about understanding and more about control through labelling. What matters about Kafka is his literary genius.  

The most common subject in these aphorisms is evil. Kafka seems to have associated this with ulterior motives: 

Die Hintergedanken, mit denen Du das Böse in Dir aufnimmst, sind nicht die Deinen, sondern die des Bösen (The ulterior motives with which you take evil into yourself are not your own but those of evil). 

It’s an odd idea that evil is a free-floating force, an external power. Yet Kafka seems to have conceived it as something invasive, rather than arising from within or being a matter of relationships. Kafka wrote elsewhere of ulterior motives: 

At a certain state of self-knowledge…You will realize that you are nothing but a rat-hole of wretched ulterior motives.” 

Kafka was unable to lie. He suffered mental torment at the thought of even a white lie, for which Felice Bauer upbraided him. His self-scrutiny and discipline may appear pathological but perhaps they are a means of fighting off external forces which drove him towards acceptance of moral compromise he was unable to make. He was a regular visitor to brothels, which clashes violently with his search for moral viability. According to Max Brod, he was tortured by his sexual desires. In this he was no different from many men of his time, forced by convention to keep their intended spouses virgins while descending to  a cash transaction to satisfy their needs. It isn’t possible to accuse him of hypocrisy. He was open about his sexual behaviour and if he didn’t write frankly about sex it was principally because it just wasn’t done in serious literature. He did write about his tortured relations with women. Aphorism fourteen, which distinguishes between moving backwards while intending to walk forwards across a plain and doing so while attempting a steep slope, is related to his falling in love with a girl in Italy in 1913 and still having her on his mind while on holiday with Felice in 1916. Kafka wasn’t a sexual hypocrite. He was incapable of easily bringing together his affectionate and erotic impulses.  

Das Negative zu tun, ist uns noch auferlegt, das Positive ist uns schon gegeben (Doing the negative is imposed on us; the positive is already within us.) 

The notion of the positive as inherent appears to be a conviction that we can find all we need to discover the “true path” or to understand the “ultimate things” within us. The conflict between the senses and the spirit is, in a certain way, that between inner and outer, or in more psychological terms (Kafka had little truck with psychology – zum letztenmal Psychologie psychology for the last time, says number ninety-three) autonomy and heteronomy. Aphorism six says the revolutionary movements based in intellect are right in refusing validity to everything that has gone before, because as yet nothing has happened. There is nothing political in these formulations in any conventional sense, yet here he seems to be hinting at the radical convictions he embraced as a young man: we have not yet begun to live out our human nature because we are stuck in an animalistic phase. All previous history is a falsehood. The true awakening of our nature is yet to come.  

Probably the most famous aphorism is number sixteen: 

Ein Käfig ging  einen Vogel suchen (A cage went in search of a bird). Originally it read, “to catch a bird”. The alteration shifts some of the responsibility to the bird, in keeping, as Stach argues, with Kafka’s view that people who suffer oppression or injustice are in some way responsible (he also believed that illness was in some way the sufferer’s fault). This suggestion is found throughout Kafka’s work. It’s very unfashionable and possibly utterly wrong. What is true, is that being a victim entails a sense of guilt. As Kundera says of Kafka, he reverses an ancient relationship: while the fault used to seek the punishment, in Kafka, the punishment seeks the fault. No doubt Kafka was driven to seek the fault in himself in response to his loud and arrogant father’s bullying and dismissal. In his work, doing so becomes a cultural characteristic. Yet the search is endless. Once put yourself in question and there is no limit to self-doubt. Perhaps this is close to Orwell’s view that the way to control another person is to make them suffer. A cage, however, is a cage. It takes away freedom. In Kafka there is always this tension: freedom is desired, its removal is negative, yet people may lose it partly through their own attitudes or actions. In spite of his rejection of what he called “the nature theories” without defining just what he meant, a bird is born to fly. Flying is what it must do to be a bird. To be caged is to be robbed of its nature and, therefore, the cage is a denial. Further, he is clear here that the cage seeks the bird. It is the cage which needs to enclose. Its purpose is to do so. The nature of the cage and that of the bird can’t be reconciled. For the cage to fulfil its purpose, the bird must be trammelled. What the bird must do to remain free, that is to live according to its inner laws, is avoid the cage. However attractive the cage may seem through its offer of protection and perhaps also of food and care, the bird must resist or lose an essential part of its nature. Likewise, there is no reason for the cage to exist except to enclose. Freedom or entrapment are always a relationship.  

Das Böse ist manchmal in der Hand wie ein Werkzeug..lässt es sich, wenn man den Willen hat, ohne Widerspruch zur Seite legen (evil in sometimes like a tool in your hand..it can be laid aside without opposition if one has the will to do so), asserts aphorism ninety-five. It’s akin to number one hundred which argues a belief in the diabolical is impossible because it can’t exceed the amount which exists. Presumably Kafka saw evil as a lesser quantity than good, if they can be thought of as quantities. His suggestion is that good prevails. He is hopeful, though never optimistic in the sense of relying on the best outcomes. He thinks it’s possible to perform many evil acts without becoming evil. The question of the severity of such acts seems to be left open, but what is at the core of his conviction is perhaps the conflation of the indestructible core of humanity and the good. That out of his continual torment he could conclude that laying aside evil can be accomplished, if not easily, at least without resistance if we are only strong enough, is remarkable.  

In his notebooks Kafka observed that we crush ourselves if we impose too a great a responsibility on ourselves. Aphorism ninety-two reflects on animism and the question of responsibility, by which he implies of a moral kind. He seems to tilt towards shared responsibility as the means to avoid the crushing of the individual. In aphorism eighty-five he says evil is a product of human consciousness at “certain transitional points” which is hard to reconcile with his notion of it as an external force. Just what he means by the transitional points is intriguing; maybe that it’s when our interests are challenged, when we are forced to make a choice between the narrow interest and a matter of principle, that a choice of evil becomes possible. As he tends to identify evil with ulterior motives, it would make sense that the protection of an ulterior motive provokes evil.  

Wahrheit ist unteilbar (Truth is indivisible) says aphorism eighty and for that reason it can’t know itself. Anyone who claims to know the truth is a lie (is a lie rather tells a lie). Stach points out how ethical and epistemological categories overlap for Kafka: the true is also the good. Obviously, the untruth is not necessarily evil: it’s untrue that the sun orbits the earth, but those who believed it weren’t therefore evil; they merely lacked the means to know otherwise. Is Kafka right that the truth can’t know itself? It can know a lie, but does its  nature as integral to itself prevent it from self-reflection? Perhaps this is the origin of the torment of truth, that it is insulted and assaulted by lies, but can’t be separate from itself, can’t grasp its own nature and therefore suffers under the blows of lying. 

It’s reasonable to argue there’s some confusion in Kafka’s thinking because of his inheritance from religion, Plato and other sources. His belief that the sensory world is but a pale reflection of the spirit world is hard to take in the twenty-first century. He might have benefitted from reading David Hume. Kafka’s seriousness, high-mindedness and honesty, however, are never in doubt. Nor is his commitment to writing, which made him feel all other urgencies must recede. His diligence as a writer, his search for the most telling image, are a superb inheritance. It’s almost difficult to take him seriously when he says his memory is terrible, he can recall nothing, not even the simplest facts; but maybe that was how his mind worked.  

This is a remarkable, unique book. It offers no solutions and nothing simple but in its astringency and  restraint  brings into focus the indefeasibly moral nature of being human and the requirement that each of us finds the “indestructible” within us. It is a marvellous antidote to the glib verbalising which permeates our culture and will be read when the purveyors of dishonest simplifications are long forgotten.