A new collection of strange, wise aphorisms
Franz Kafka gained a lot of insight into human nature during his relatively brief life, and nowhere is it more on display than in the aphorisms he jotted down in notebooks while staying with his sister Ottla in the town of Zürau, in what is now the northwestern part of the Czech Republic, for eight months beginning in September 1917.
For much of his life, Kafka’s health was precarious. He went to Zürau to rest after a pulmonary hemorrhage, and not quite six years later died from tuberculosis at the ripe age of 40. In his essay “Looking at Kafka,” Philip Roth reflects on the irony of wishing Kafka had lived longer. Kafka gave instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, and, Roth speculates, would have taken the task into his own hands had he lived into the 1930s and 1940s and faced the necessity of fleeing Europe to avoid the Nazis and the death camps.
“Looking at Kafka” imagines Franz as a 59-year-old Hebrew school teacher in New Jersey, a dull, doddering egghead with no published or unpublished writings to his credit and no love from Roth or his friends, who could be out playing ball if they did not have to study ancient calligraphy with the one they call “Dr. Kishka.” Roth considers the dilemma facing devotees of Kafka’s work. If he had lived, he would never have been, at least in anything close to the form that mesmerizes Roth and others all these years later. The absence of more mature work to read and consider is a precondition of our having any works of Kafka at all, Roth suggests.
But the aphorisms, assembled by biographer Reiner Stach and released in a handsome edition by Princeton University Press, with the aphorisms and Stach’s commentary translated by Shelley Frisch, help us bridge the divide in a speculative way between the Kafka who wrote The Trial and The Castle and other macabre and haunting works, and the older self. They recall the sayings of Heraclitus or Confucius in their distillation of the kind of wisdom gained over a lifetime of study and reflection, with no small amount of irony and contempt for the foibles of the more blinkered members of our species. Ranging from a few paragraphs to a few words, they seem to come from that older writer and thinker we never got to know. Stach’s commentary offers context and interpretations for each of the 109 aphorisms.
The Kafka we meet in the aphorisms might not make much of a diversity and inclusion officer today. He voices meritocratic ideas and implies that the role of a visionary writer is not for everyone. Aphorism #24 reads, “Grasping the good fortune that the ground on which you stand cannot be larger than the two feet covering it.”
In his commentary, Stach contrasts this utterance with Kafka’s use in letters and comments to other people of the more familiar trope of a writer lacking a more staid vocation and not having solid ground to stand on. In aphorism #24, Stach suggests, Kafka takes a new direction and revels in practicing an art for which not everyone has a gift. Here, Kafka takes a cliché and upends it, conveying his appreciation of what Stach calls “a new, utopian dimension: the opportunity of standing on solid ground without the obligation, much less compulsion, to share this ground with any group.”
But Kafka’s request to Brod to destroy his manuscripts tells us that he had not found a vocation that he hoped would win him success and acclaim, and aphorism #24 contrasts with others where Kafka gives voice to a sense of the difficulty or impossibility of knowing what to do in this life or, in a figurative sense, where to go. Stach suggests that the frequency of images of paths and walking in the texts may flow from Kafka’s having ample opportunity to take walks in the rustic setting of Zürau. That may sound like a pleasant pastime, but we get aphorisms such as #15: “Like a path in autumn: no sooner has it been swept clean than it is once more covered with dry leaves.”
Stach takes this to refer to the way that what may seem to people to be the right course in life can grow hard to discern. It is too bad that Stach does not expand on this interpretation a bit and ask whether aphorism #15 might allude to Kafka’s difficult relationship with his father, his legal training, his pursuit of a conventionally respectable career as an assessor at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, and the tensions between holding a so-called decent profession with extremely long hours, and yearning to plumb the depths of his subconscious as a writer.
From what we know of Kafka’s feelings about working long hours at the insurance firm, it is painfully clear that he fell victim to what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, which may explain the genesis of aphorism #28: “Once you have taken Evil into yourself, it no longer insists that you believe in it.” In other words, there may come a shock when you settle into the kind of career to which Kafka submitted, but then you either get used to the tedium and meaninglessness of it, or the role ceases to make the same demands on you and doesn’t care whether you accept it or not just as long as you do your job.
At least Kafka got to rest for eight months at a town in the country. Aphorism #77 reads, “Dealing with people engenders self-scrutiny.” Stach tells us that Kafka found his own tendency to self-scrutiny to be so excessive as to veer into the pathological and quotes an entry in Kafka’s diary stating that scrutiny by others forced him to examine himself.
He also quotes another entry making use of the metaphor of two clocks, i.e., the scrutiny of others and the writer’s introspection. “The clocks are not synchronized; the internal one races at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace, the external one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the two different worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least tear away at each other in a fearful manner,” Kafka writes. In remote Zürau, maybe he at least had a bit more control over the frequency and length of his contact with others and, to extend the analogy, a bit more ability to keep the clocks in sync.
Kafka could not get close enough to some people, he more than welcomed their attentions, and his letters to Milena Jesenská are full of longing and bile when he feels that Milena has taken too long to get back to him, along with anxious assurances regarding his health and his finances.
Kafka and Kierkegaard
During his time in Zürau, Kafka read the work of another writer who considered himself something of an outcast, a victim of ostracism, and a defier of conventional expectations, namely the existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard. Stach suggests that knowing this fact is important for our understanding of aphorism #17 which reads, “I have never been in this place before: breathing works differently, and a star shines next to the sun, more dazzlingly still.” The new place may well be Zürau, but on a figurative level, he may be describing the experience of reading Kierkegaard, whose name, Stach notes, comes up in connection with image of a star in letters that Kafka wrote to Max Brod and to Oskar Baum, respectively. In the latter missive, Kafka wrote, “Kierkegaard is a star, but one that shines over a region that is almost inaccessible to me.”
Much of Kafka’s work, from the enigmatic The Trial, with its unfathomable judicial bureaucracy, to the grotesque The Metamorphosis, where Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach, to the comic Amerika, in which Karl Rossman takes the subway from New York City to Oklahoma, is a realm where the most natural functions, like breathing, work differently and the configuration of everything whose place we thought we knew is radically altered.
Stach has done a worthy job of interpreting and placing in context the many cultural and historical references scattered throughout the aphorisms. It would take thousands more words to tease out and analyze all the nods and allusions to the Old Testament, Hasidic legends, Alexander the Great, Cervantes, and Kierkegaard. Having said that, Stach seems almost inordinately focused on sources of centuries past and not especially interested in placing any of Kafka’s musings within their social, cultural, and geopolitical context.
Kafka died in 1924 but he seemed to know exactly where things were going. In his analyses of evil and the role of ordinary people in abetting evil and letting it possess them, Kafka appears all too aware of the darkness that would engulf his nation and most of Europe in the next two decades. Reading any text as an attempt to predict the future may be suspect, yet it is hard to not to wonder whether a few of the aphorisms capture something of the character of men and women among whom Kafka lived, of what would make them susceptible to domination and complicit in atrocities.
The Coming Storm
Aphorism #16, which Stach calls the best-known of the lot, is to the point: “A cage went in search of a bird.” This could refer to Kafka’s pursuit of Milena—in one of his letters, he seems to want to apologize to her and tells her not to blame herself for her lack of freedom—or it could allude to the territorial designs of imperial Germany, which reached a nadir with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and the full-blown occupation that followed. Kafka says in aphorism #95 that evil is like a tool that people can set aside if they choose to do so.
This aphorism may seem positive but contains an implicit criticism of those who go along with or commit evil out of a lack of moral strength. Here indeed is what much of the young Czech nation did in the late 1930s and 1940s, though resistance was persistent enough that Berlin made the decision to transfer the brutal and ruthless Reinhard Heydrich in September 1941 from France and install him as “Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia. Vojtech Mastny’s book The Czechs Under Nazi Rule is subtitled, tellingly, The Failure of National Resistance, 1939-1942.
Why did it fail? Put simply, not enough Czechs were against the occupation. Mastny details how Czech workers gladly took advantage of free vacations offered through a program named after Heydrich and worked hard to procure winter clothing for German soldiers on the Eastern Front and to produce arms for the Wehrmacht. “In 1944, the armaments experts in Berlin estimated that work morale in Protectorate industry was even better than in Germany,” Mastny writes. Remember aphorism #28 above?
After a pair of brave Czech and Slovak paratroopers, Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčik, ambushed and fatally wounded Heydrich while the Nazi fiend rode in an open car through a Prague suburb on May 27, 1942, an event dramatized in the film Anthropoid, more than half of the 1,000 tips given to the SS about the identity of the resisters came from fellow Czechs. While the assassination itself was heroic, scholars like Callum MacDonald have suggested that the Czech government in exile was under pressure to find a way to prove to the world that the communists were not the only ones mounting serious resistance to the German occupiers.
Hence it is no surprise that not only Kafka’s aphorisms, but other fragments of his work that are the subject of renewed interest and have found their way into elegant new editions present an image of a populace unprepared for resistance and supine in the face of wickedness. In 2020, New Directions published a volume called The Lost Writings, derived from notebooks Kafka kept though not those of the Zürau period. In one of these fragments, a group of farm workers making their way home late at night come upon a old man lying prone in a ditch. He claims to be “a great general” who fell from the heavens. When one of the laborers asks if his army is in the heavens, he says no and does not wish to pursue the subject.
It is not clear whether he is drunk or sober or speaking literally or in riddles, only that he has abdicated his role as a defender of his land. Another fragment, entitled “Scenes from the Defense of a Farm,” details the elaborate systems in place on a farm to provide for the feeding of the defenders and the washing of their clothes. Lines extend from a tub to the trees and workers pour soup from a window into a wagon so it can make the rounds to the hungry men. They have developed protocols and honed their ability to do everything except fight and kill. Here Kafka is every bit as funny as David Foster Wallace said in a widely viewed talk, but the humor, as Wallace would acknowledge, may not be evident to all.
In what may be the most amusing, and dreamlike, of the lost fragments, a man and a woman sit in a box at a theater watching a play whose theme is jealousy. All of a sudden, a stranger in the audience begins speaking inappropriately and making moves on the first man’s wife. The husband tries to push the aggressor out of the box and make him fall into the stalls below, but the stranger is part of the parapet! The only course left is to find a knife to cut through the velvet upholstery and make the parapet fall. If only it were so easy to excise whatever part of a nation’s character might make people collaborate in their own imprisonment and humiliation. Not all birds want to avoid the cage.