The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka.
Edited by Reiner Stach.
Translated by Shelley Frisch. Princeton University Press 2022.
When you think of the name Franz Kafka those famous and familiar titles, The Trial, The Castle, America, In the Penal Colony and Metamorphosis are the first to be hung round the nervous neck of Franz. Maybe a few more letters, parables and short stories have also helped define him in the public consciousness. But what of Franz Kafka’s aphorisms scattered throughout his writings? Can you bring them to mind?
Kafka’s style and obsessions have been designated, for the modernist movement, with the now universal term, Kafkaesque. It has passed into our language to convey how our 20th and now 21st sense of identity struggles within the moral indifference of a bureaucratically diseased world. How interesting that we identify with such deep pessimism about authority: that a writer’s anxiety should echo ours too. But no joy in our age. We don’t have a feeling of stability in which for example we can envisage a Chekhovian or Tolstoyian mindset – one hoping that history will still optimistically advance our progress in the face of war and the suffering of individual lives.
No. Kafka just gives you a wonderful existential disquiet: one that can be funny and bleakly absurd. Yet can Franz ‘console’ us? Impart advice or wisdom? Reading these puzzling aphorisms I felt them reaching out, far beyond any Kafkaesque sense of Franz. You will find his typical anxiety but also insight and fortitude (not exactly hopeful) into realising a spiritual life (but not religious). The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka is the first annotated bilingual volume of these writings. Many of the aphorisms are between 1-3 lines. Occasionally they are longer. Sometimes two aphorisms are grouped together. In total we have 109.
Aphorism 1. We begin on a precarious note.
‘The true path leads along a rope stretched, not high in the air, but barely above the ground. It seems designed more for stumbling than for walking along it.’
Aphorism 109. And end on a cautionary note.
‘It is necessary for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen; just wait; be utterly still and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.’
Alongside of 109 is a partnered aphorism about belief. This is not a religious conviction more a need to fully live and not negate “a well spring of belief?” Belief may be followed by a question mark testing the effort you make and require. However like aphorism (b) is Kafka being deeply ironic when he describes the world as writhing in ecstasy? I think he means that to arrive at this state you have to remain in solitude and contemplate what existence means for you. Kafka’s requirement that you “Stay at your table and listen.” reminds me of Flaubert who once said in a letter that all your troubles start after you leave the house, walk along the street and meet worried men and women.
I don’t intend in this review to crack open aphorisms. Editor Reiner Stach is doing that with far more words than Kafka has written. This is both admirably lucid and also exhausting. There were times when I didn’t want to refer to his notes but only savour the mystery of Kafka’s prose. Yet a guide is supplied and what Stach does excellently is place the aphorism in context. We learn what other Kafka texts it alludes to and the source of Kafka’s reading (Such as The Bible or Kierkegaard) whilst he was jotting down his thoughts.
In between the bookends of aphorism 1 and 109 (Supporting the continuity of the project and suggesting that Kafka intended the set to be published) are inviting and forbidding remarks – gnomic, cryptic, hermetic, amusing, depressing, hopeful and always illuminating. They cover the nature of evil, love, deception, freedom and much more.
I have to admit to being an enthusiast for the aphorism. Its condensed ‘truth’, brevity and philosophic message (Either as an aside or direct statement) is a necessary and healthy antidote to the cliché, platitude or over-worked proverb. My favourite writers of aphorisms are Oscar Wilde, Nietzsche and Theodor Adorno. Kafka can now join their great company. If there’s one aphorism that struck me as being appropriate for Kafka, in his examination of the self, to get at the truth, or heart of the matter, given how much knowledge we could bare to take, then it must be aphorism 63.
‘Our art is one of being bedazzled by truth: The light cast on the recoiling, contorted face is true, and nothing else is.’