Aphorisms by Franz Kafka

Posted on June 16, 2010
Filed Under Aphorisms | 6 Comments

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog, read The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (Schocken Books, 2006), translated by Michael Hofmann, on a plane recently and sent these thoughts: “The original aphorisms, though known of and posthumously published but only partly, were discovered in a folder in an archive in the new Bodleian Library at Oxford University. It was evident from the care in which they were composed (carefully hand written, numerated and ordered on thin strips of paper) that they were meant to be read as a whole series. In the introduction and the concluding essay to the volume, the Kafka scholar Roberto Calasso gives context to these aphorisms and the period of their undertaking. They were composed by Kafka in 1917-18 during a convalescence and a time of relative ease (except for the torment of household mice), while he was living with his sister in the town Zürau.  As the introduction states, the aphorisms, though few in number (just over a hundred), are a varied lot. Some are short and pithy, as we expect of the aphorism. But quite few run to paragraph length. And some, but not the best of them, delve into theological issues based on Biblical themes. Others are sophisticated philosophical musings. A few are lovely collapsed parables, like this one:

The dogs are still playing in the yard, but the quarry will not escape them, never mind how fast it is running through the forest already.

Strangely, almost none of these aphorisms speak directly about fiction, literature or the practice of writing. This one comes closest:

‘And then he went back to his job, as though nothing had happened.’ A sentence that strikes one as familiar from any number of stories—though it might not have appeared in any of them.

And since that one comes very close to the end of the collection, it might serve as an apt summation for these fleeting illuminations written while Kafka himself was relieved for a time from the obligations and stresses of work; and fitting, too, because the aphorism, as genre, was a type of literary work he never returned to.”

Kafka is featured on pp. 372–374 of Geary’s Guide, but here are some Zürau aphorisms not in my book:

You can withdraw from the sufferings of the world—that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature—but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.

Theoretically, there is one consummate possibility of felicity: to believe in the indestructible in oneself, and then not to go looking for it.

He runs after the facts like someone learning to skate, who furthermore practices where it is dangerous and has been forbidden.

In the struggle between yourself and the world, hold the world’s coat.

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 incorporated into the ritual.

There is a destination but no way there; what we refer to as way is hesitation.

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