I got a fantastic hoard of books yesterday from a friend who to my great good fortune works at a large publisher that does a lot of the things I like, I had a look through the catalogs and made a greedy wish-list and then had this sort of bonanza arrival that had my head spinning as I tried to figure out what to read (but I don’t have time to read anything that isn’t for work).
In any case I set aside a few immediately appealing ones for mealtime small-bite consumption, but for some reason the one I pounced upon and consumed at once was Roberto Calasso’s The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, translated from German by Michael Hofman (the translator for Calasso’s Italian commentary is Geoffrey Brock).
It’s a beautiful little book (or so I assume, I’ve only got the ARC but its proportions and type and so forth are all extremely pleasing), and includes some material from Calasso’s K. as additional commentary. I read it in a stolen moment last night but had to hold off blogging until I finished the latest spate of note-taking for my chapter: but now I’ve just had a very productive long stint of work, so that my late-night reward for sitting at the computer and typing up vast quantities of notes from books is--sitting at the computer and typing up more notes from books!
These aphorisms were written during the eight months Kafka (tubercular, invalid) spent at his sister’s house in the Bohemian countryside between September 1917 and April 1918. Identifying this manifestation of illness as having enabled “a provisional leave of absence from the torment of normal life,” Calasso also sees it as enabling “a kind of daring experiment made possible only under these conditions, the appearance of a new form: the aphorism.” This is Calasso writing:
New first of all in a physical, tactile sense: Kafka typically wrote, in pen or in pencil, in school notebooks, barely even marking divisions between one text and the next as he filled them; now, however, he puts together a sequence of 103 individual slips of onionskin paper, each measuring 14.5 centimeters by 11.5 centimeters, each containing, with rare exceptions, a single numbered fragment, generally aphoristic.
It would be pointless to seek, among twentieth-century collections of aphorisms, another as intense and enigmatic. If published one after the other, these fragments would occupy twenty or so pages and would be almost suffocating—because each fragment is an aphorism in the Kierkegaardian sense, an “isolated” entity, which must be surrounded by an empty space in order to breathe. This need explains the point of transcribing them one to a page. But even the definition of aphorism is misleading, if we understand that word as currently used to mean “maxim.” Some of these fragments are narrative (for example, 8/9, 10, 20, 107), others are single images (15, 16, 42, 87), and others are parables (32, 39, 88).
What strikes me about these aphorisms is their sheer alienness and also the way that they are so deeply un-novelistic. It seems to me very strange (but then Kafka is a very strange kind of novelist, if you can really call him a novelist at all) that they should be like this, especially as my very favorite aphorist (see maniacal post #1 below) is a philosopher rather than a novelist and yet writes the most deeply and wonderfully novelistic aphorisms. I suppose I prefer collections of aphorisms that are more like something out of a commonplace book, short bits and pieces of prose that don’t fit into a longer narrative or argument; I’ve thought a bit more about this in the other post.
My favorites here, in any case, the ones that set some train of associations going or seemed to speak to me:
Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incoporated into the ritual.
The animal twists the whip out of its master’s grip and whips itself to become its own master—not knowing that this is only a fantasy, produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.
The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows.
Believing in progress doesn’t mean believing in progress that has already occurred. That would not require belief.
Sexual love deceives us as to heavenly love; were it alone, it would not be able to do so, but containing within itself, unknowingly, a germ of heavenly love, it can.
No psychology ever again!
It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.
And that’s a good note to end on here, what a delightful endorsement of my maniacal and reclusive summer (I really do feel, by the way, as if the eighteenth century has been writhing before me in ecstasy for the last few weeks, it is a remarkably enjoyable sensation--I think the chapter I have been writing is the work of a lunatic, and I am secretly glad!).