Monday, September 19, 2022

Ultimate things: The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka

Although we are unmusical, we have a tradition of singing
    Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk

The first reason to celebrate Shelley Frisch’s new translation into English of Kafka’s short prose written in the village of Zürau, now Siřem in the Czech Republic, is that this is the first time they have been presented in book form alongside the German. The original is lacking from previously published translations into English: the Muirs’ in 1946, Kaiser’s and Wilkins’ in 1954, Malcolm Pasley’s in 1994, and Michael Hofmann’s in 2006. The second reason is that it is the first time they have been accompanied by a commentary, in this case by Kafka’s esteemed biographer Reiner Stach.

An exception to both is Michael Cisco’s blog and subsequent 260-page PDF made available in 2013, which is perhaps more faithful to the original as Kafka also never published them as a book. 

All this should remind us of the disorder in which Kafka’s work has been otherwise presented in English: multiple editions in multiple translations with only the occasional a sniff of scholarship. Germany has had a critical edition for over thirty years and in France this year a two-volume Pléiade boxed set was published in a new translation with everything Kafka wrote presented in chronological order. It is a minor scandal that an equivalent is lacking in English. Ross Benjamin's new translation of the diaries will provide some mitigation when it's published in January next year.

It is a disorder, however, that was there from the start: disordered chapters of unfinished novels, stories published and unpublished, sketches and parables, letters, doodles, the diaries of course, and, in the case of the aphorisms – Stach describes them as a "chaotic set of notes" – covered in corrections and crossings out. Or, rather, disorder was there from the end – of Kafka's life that is, although he didn't see it quite that way, as the aphorisms reveal. 

No doubt the disorder is why the Zürau aphorisms are nowhere near as well known as the novels and stories, though their brevity and generic uncertainty must be the main factor. In his preface to the Penguin Syrens edition pictured below, Gabriel Josipovici says the notes aren't really aphorisms, and while they may remind readers of "maxims, or parables, or reflections...or tiny stories", they aren't quite any of these either. Such labels, he adds, imply authority and control while the disorder in which they have come down to us and the biographical conditions under which they were written imply the opposite of both. This led to Maurice Blanchot's suggestion that Kafka instructed Brod to destroy his manuscripts because he saw his work “condemned to increase universal misunderstanding”. Destruction is itself a form of order and explains why our fascination with the instruction and its betrayal runs parallel to our fascination with finding order in the work.

The aphorisms were written in the aftermath of the bloody eruption of TB, the breaking off of his engagement to Felice Bauer, and in the shadow of a negligible literary career. On a visit back to Prague, Kafka told Max Brod that his task in Zürau was to "Become clear about ultimate things". Stach says this is an allusion to Otto Weiningers 1904 book Über die letzen Dinge "with which he was definitely acquainted" and which approaches "the pinnacles that defined western metaphysics", listed here as evil, truth, belief and the world of the spirit, and which he did by seeking, as Stach says, "the pithiest linguistic formulation".

Not that this creates an order, as many of the aphorisms don't obviously fit a metaphysical category. Here's Aphorism 2 in Kaiser's and Wilkins' translation:

All human errors are impatience, the premature breaking off of what is methodical, an apparent fencing in of the apparent thing.

I was very taken with this when I copied it into an exercise book during the excited naivete of youth. I don't know why it meant so much then, nor where I read it, as I had access only to the novels, stories and a disintegrating copy of the diaries. While the enchantment of those days has dissipated, the repetition of "apparent" has an appeal I recognise from my later discovery of Thomas Bernhard; a repetition acting, I suspect now, as a reflexive delay to interrupt impatience. Read in isolation like this, an aphorism can lodge in one's memory. Here's another, this time in Frisch's translation:

How can one take pleasure in the world other than when fleeing to it?

Wie kann man sich über die Welt freuen, ausser wenn man zu ihr flüchtet?

Which I need to compare to Pasley's:

How can one take delight in the world unless one flees to it for refuge?

The first translation is more accurate because the German for 'refuge' (Zuflucht) is not in the original. The second I had already memorised and without the extra words I have a curious sense of loss. I borrowed that part for the title of a post on re-reading Blanchot's The Space of Literature, as it challenged the rote understanding of literature as an unproblematic escape, thereby offering a renewed appreciation of the relation of book and world.

Here are the previous translations of Aphorism 2:

Michael Hofmann's:

All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.

The Muirs':

All human error is impatience, a premature renunciation of method, a delusive pinning down of a delusion.

And Malcolm Pasley's:

All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking-off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue. 

Perhaps instead multiple translations condemn a work to universal disenchantment.

Kafka in Zürau

What's new with Shelley Frisch's translation and Reiner Stach commentary is that the aphorism is given a precise context:

Alle menschlichen Fehler sind Ungeduld, ein vorzeitiges Abbrechen des Methodischen, ein scheinbares Einpfählen der scheinbaren Sache.   

All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking-off of a methodical approach, an apparent use of posts to prop up the apparent objective.

In this case, market gardening in Zürau, which Kafka had witnessed and taken part in during his eight months there. Einpfählen we're told is a word used in horticulture and means "to prop up and stablize young fruit trees ... or as posts to enclose a pasture". (Note the faint repetition of Fehler in Einpfählen in addition to the other one.) As a blogger, I'm well aware that a series of posts may well be an error as they likely prop up a tree of misunderstanding and misappropriation. Such facetiousness is meant not only in jest, as the appropriation of the double meaning leads back to ultimate things

When a historical category loses its meaning and threatens to disappear, an opportunity arises that has a strange consequence.

The first sentence of The Yield, Paul North's book on the Zürau aphorisms, to which he gives order by calling the notes a "treatise", refers to the category "Jew" in Kafka's time as "becoming too diverse to signify one thing" and prompted Kafka and others such as Franz Rosenzweig to rethink it. The general observation is not new: in 1938 Walter Benjamin told Gershom Scholem that "Kafka's work represents a sickening of tradition" and "Only the products of its decomposition are left", both of which echo Weber's notion of modernity's disenchantment of the world. The lack of metaphysical overtones in Aphorism 2 would explain my excited connection as it can be applied to any "apparent thing" of the moment, with the new context giving it a specific action. Aphorism 3, however, takes the theme to a pinnacle:

There are two cardinal human sins, from which all other derive: impatience and laxity. Impatience got them expelled from paradise; indolence keeps them from returning. Perhaps, though, there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Impatience got them expelled; impatience keeps them from returning.

This is certainly worthy of a commentary, but what can the category Paradise and those listed above mean to readers now if decomposition is complete and the presence of what constituted ultimate things in Kafka's time has disappeared in ours? We may imagine paradise via the old masters, but a tropical beach is more likely to be to the fore in our minds than the Garden of Eden. Reading Aphorisms 2 and 3 thereby encapsulates the experience of reading the 109 aphorisms together, oscillating between intimacy and rejection. 

In recalling my first reading of Aphorism 2, I associated it with Josipovici's essay An Art for the Wilderness written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Kafka's death (and published in The Lessons of Modernism). But it isn't there. Instead, decades after first reading it, I rediscovered his experience of such an oscillation. The essay begins by discussing the discovery of the books we love and those that pass us by because they came at the wrong time. With those we love, "there is always the sense of an instinctive understanding, an awareness that what is lacking is really only the ability to make such understanding fully conscious":

Kafka is the only author I know to whom this does not apply. My own experience may be special in this respect, but I have found that, from the moment I began to read him, I felt at once infinitely close to him and infinitely distant. And ever since that time, as I have read and reread his novels and stories and diaries and notebooks and more and more of the voluminous correspondence that is slowly being made available, I have never had any sense of a gradual growth in understanding.

This experience is one that deserves more attention, and not just in Kafka. The furthest we may find ourselves is in Aphorisms 6 and 54, incidentally closer to the traditional form of aphorism:

The decisive moment of human development is everlasting. That is why the revolutionary movements grounded in intellect, which deem invalid everything that has gone before, are correct, for as yet nothing has happened.

There is nothing other than a world of the spirit; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual realm, and what we call Evil is only a momentary necessity in our eternal development.

As with Paradise, we are far removed from Evil with a leading capital and that of an everlasting spirit, let alone the latter taking precedence over the world of the senses. The ultimate things present to us as literature only; echoes from words become hollow. We may move closer to Kafka if we follow what he expressed in Kafka's famous letter to Brod post-Zürau that writing is "the reward for serving the devil", which then becomes a lament about having spent so much of his life writing and not living: "I died my whole life long and now I will really die." What, we wonder, albeit silently, off the literary stage, is the point of writing in respect of living and dying? Our impatience to answer has become literary appreciation, commentary, interpretation, blogging indeed; a frantic search for labels to prop up what has long since withered. For Kafka, at the end, at the apparent end, writing is an engagement with the sickening categories, their meaning and lack of meaning. The "pithiest linguistic formulation" is then not so much a genre choice as an undoing of authority and control, his words and theirs. Benjamin highlights the form of when criticising hasty theological readings of Kafka's work, such as the castle in The Castle being the seat of grace: 

it is the fact that his books are incomplete which shows the true working of grace in his writings. The fact that the Law never finds expression as such – this and nothing else is the gracious dispensation of the fragment.

Reading the aphorisms and the commentary prompted me to wonder if this oscillation between infinite closeness and infinite distance, an oscillation that is a single experience, explains the comparatively immobile experience of reading much of contemporary literature. When I think of the new publications that have meant most to me over the years, those that prompted a need to speak in response, to understand what the experience meant for me, and by extension for writing, I recognise, despite my confusion about this need – embarrassment even – a pattern of opening onto "ultimate things" albeit in variously indirect and necessarily incomplete manner – Knausgaard's books are the prime example – when I was unmoved by those I supposed I ought to be given how similar they are in many ways (curiously, another author whose surname begins with K may be the prime example here). As modern readers, we are like the mouse folk in the final story Kafka prepared for publication gathering to listen to Josefine sing or, rather, apparently sing, because the narration tells us it may not be singing at all but a "piping" expressing nothing distinct from the common piping of the populace who nevertheless gather to listen in silence (Kafka is almost as explicit about questioning the value of art in his work as in his letters). We seek order and understanding to convince ourselves that the song is real and ongoing, even if both are proof of the opposite. In the aphorisms, nevertheless, we can sense something in the distance, not only in the otherwise decomposed nouns and in the play of images and ideas, but perhaps more deeply in the delay of impatience produced by apparent and apparentscheinbares and scheinbaren – and in the quiet echo of Fehler in Einpfählen, now in an English edition for the first time.


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