Thursday 3 March 2016

Franz Kafka’s Blue Period (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, 2016

Appreciating the Octavo Notebook Aphorisms
By Alex Stein

A lecture I gave at a college in California, on the relationship between art and mysticism, in conjunction with a recently published book, led to a request that I offer commentary on some of the aphorisms contained in Franz Kafka's 'Octavo Notebooks'. It has been my pleasure to do so. To meditate upon the works of Kafka (author of The Trial and Metamorphosis, among other high-water marks of World Literature) is to meditate upon the human condition. As the primitives did on their cave walls, so Kafka does in his writings: he expresses the quintessential.

Franz Kafka's Blue Octavo Notebooks aphorisms, written mainly in 1918, were first published in 1953, under the heading 'Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way.' That header, with its stair-stepping triplet of charismatic nouns-Sin! Suffering! Hope!-along with its deft note of plea, was one of the innumerable publicity tweaks that Max Brod, zealous agent of Kafka's literary estate, would, in time, perform on behalf of the spiritual reputation of his enigmatic friend.

It was Brod who had refused to destroy Kafka's writings after Kafka's death, in 1924. This was despite explicit instructions given by Kafka that he do so. 'I told him I did not agree to it,' Brod said. 'I told him I would never do such a thing'.

Kafka had culled some of his key ideas, in the form of aphorisms, from a pair of blue notebooks. He transposed these, slightly editing several, onto numbered slips of paper he had arranged at his bedside. It was these slips that Brod would recover, along with the notebooks, from Kafka's personal effects.

Illness had set Kafka free. He had just turned 34 when tuberculosis declared itself. It was August, 1917 and he had coughed up a little blood. Kafka would spend the next eight months, convalescing in Zurau, in the Bohemian countryside, at the house of his sister Ottla. In a letter from that time, Kafka compared himself to the 'happy lover' who exclaims:  'All the previous times were but illusions, only now do I truly love.'

Indeed, just three days into his stay, Kafka scribbled:  'You have the chance if ever there was one, to begin again. Don't waste it.'

The sequence he produced was a first, for Kafka, in at least two regards. It was, and would be, the only text in which Kafka directly confronted theological themes, and it marked, within the broad scope of his writings (that included novels, stories, and a voluminous intimate diary) the first appearance of a particular literary form: the aphorism.
Aphorism #33

Formerly I could not understand why I received no answer to my questions; today I cannot understand how I could have believed I could question. But indeed I did not believe, I simply questioned.

Aphorism #51

One must not cheat anybody, not even the world of its triumph.
Kafka had turned his affliction into a badge of honor. Being bed-ridden was Kafka's permit to dream. It was a special dispensation. Proust once wrote that the neurotics have given us everything. They are the ones who have saved the world, created the world, made the world worthwhile. Perhaps, invalidism had eased Kafka of the burden of himself. Eased him of the chattering fears that told him, 'You must do better!' That told him, 'It will always be beyond your abilities, whatever you choose. You will never be good enough or go far enough.'
Aphorism  #45

The choice was put to them whether they would like to be kings or the couriers of kings. Like children, they all wanted to be couriers. So now there are a great many couriers who post through the world, shouting to each other (as there are no kings left) their meaningless and obsolete messages. They would gladly put an end to their wretched lives but they dare not because of their oaths of service.
In the two slender notebooks, those two blue octavo notebooks, like those used by school-children, we get Kafka's private conversations. And in private conversations all of us tend to think more plainly, more directly, about hope and suffering, good and evil. If Kafka were to have translated those private conversations into public fictions or some other form that could have been folded twice and shot skyward under the cloak of literature, his style would have to have been more self-conscious, more ambiguous. But, because these were entirely private conversations, and because they were left so, they became perfect mirrors. Revelations. Beyond the fairy tales of the bardic. Verging on the estate of the vatic.
Aphorism #5

From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.
Aphorism #10

A first sign of nascent knowledge is the desire for death. This life seems unendurable, any other unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wishing to die; one prays to be conducted from the old cell that one hates into a new cell that one has yet to hate. There is in this a vestige of faith that during the changeover the Master may chance to walk along the corridor, contemplate the prisoner, and say: 'You must not lock up this one again. He is to come to me.'
One might call aphorism #10 a prose fragment. Or an anomaly. Or a dream page from The Book of Mysteries. I am perfectly content to call it a poem. But for me it is really a vision of Grace. And Kafka is a mystic.
Aphorism #12

Like a road in autumn: Hardly is it swept clean before it is covered again with dead
The novelist, J. D. Salinger, once wrote of Kafka that certain lines in his diaries could be used to usher in a Chinese New Year. Considering that, one might translate this aphorism as: After meditation, how quickly the thoughts begin again to arise.
Aphorism #27
Virtue is in a certain sense disconsolate.
This one had been crossed out by Kafka. It was Brod who restored it. This raises issues about authors, about editors and about intentions. Let us say you had the privilege to know him. Let us say you were Kafka's executor and you had seen that strike-through and read what was beneath. Do you publish Kafka's diaries? Do you publish Kafka's laundry list? Do you ask yourself: Where does Kafka end and literature begin? Where do you draw the line? At what he agreed not to burn?

I am with Max Brod. Everything Kafka wrote (or said, or did) is valuable because whatever he does, he is still doing the work. And even if the work is just self-work, so, too, could the same be said for any of us, of anything we do, in any capacity-from fence-mending, to love-making, to bridge-building-that it is just self-work. With Kafka we are given the opportunity to witness a self-work master seeking, with elegant precision, his own hinterlands, focused in a state of such contained urgency that it is almost a trance of clairvoyance . Kafka is us, without our illusions.
Aphorism #29

The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.
The 'crows' are a group of theologians, posing an ancient dichotomy. I would rephrase the aphorism like this instead: 'The theologians maintain that a single contrary revelation could destroy the heavens. Doubtless that is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of a single contrary revelation.'
Aphorism #36

It is conceivable that Alexander the Great, in spite of the martial successes of his early days, in spite of the excellent army that he had trained, in spite of the power he felt within him to change the world, might have remained standing on the bank of the Hellespont and never have crossed it, and not out of fear, not from infirmity of will, but because of the mere weight of his own body.
I adore this one. It is intractable without being obtuse. It brings an historical figure at the beginning of his destiny into contact with the scope of eternity and the mystery of his own free will. It is a portrait in the myth-making ilk of Leutze's famous 'Washington crossing the Delaware,' but drawn in ether upon the canvas of Time.
Aphorism #41

The hunting dogs are still playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may already be flying through the woods.
The novelist, Martin Amis, once referred to Kafka's prose as: 'dream-shaped.' This is a good example of that characterization.
Aphorism #46

Faith in progress does not mean faith that progress has already been made. That would be no faith.
This one rings for me like a joke one might tell between numbers at an old-fashioned music hall.

In his preface to an early edition of The Castle (Kafka's dream-shaped novel of alienation without redemption) the German essayist and short story writer, Thomas Mann, called Kafka a 'religious-humorist.'
Aphorism #66

Theoretically there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.
Sometime around 1420, the Indian mystic, Kabir, wrote, similarly: 'I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.'
Aphorism #75

Profane love can seem more sublime than sacred love; of itself it could not do this, but as, unknown to itself, it possesses an element of sacred love, it can.
I don't care much for this aphorism, or for its sentiment, but it does give me a chance to say some things about Kafka and his relationship to the world. In a letter to Milena, one of the two or three unfortunate woman who would care very deeply for him, Kafka will write: To try and catch in one night, by black magic, hastily, heavily breathing, helpless, obsessed, to try and obtain by black magic what every day offers to open eyes!

Imagine you are Milena! Imagine being the recipient of such a letter. 'Black magic?' Imagine being a young woman learning about her young man, and receiving such a letter. How could it not sting? And imagine being the one who had sent such a letter. Imagine being the young man. How can such a letter ever be lived down? It is too big to regret. It is Van Gogh's ear. It is too much to take back. Sometimes a voice, out from the chaos of spirits, cries and one finds oneself having written.

Can one say that? Or perhaps it is only poetry. The young man, in fear of the young woman, writing of sack-cloth and ash, wishing his body would be burnt away. Nothing more to it. Whatever is dammed must find another outlet. Whoever is damned must find another heaven.
Mystics from every tradition can be wildly erotic, but because they are addressing themselves to God they feel safe.

For Kafka, the mystic ritual he called 'writing' was his safe zone. Mysticism, like everything else, takes the shape of the desire by which it is summoned, and the desire behind Kafka's writing is an arrow launched toward union.

Much of what we read in Kafka is too personal. Transient neurotic contemplations. Documents for the doctors at the Sanitarium of Hypochondria. It is the repressed, surfacing, deviously, in masquerade. And part of what we read in Kafka is a universalized, lived, sensuality. Shy experience of the self as other. Veiled encounters with the beloved. Butt-naked tusslings. And why not? To get there means 'union', long longed-for (or, it may be, 'reunion,' long hoped for) and union induces bliss.

The 'impotent' who eroticises the world, some say he is the prophet. In his novel,Justine, Lawrence Durrell calls them, 'the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets...all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.' The statement lacks proportion, but there is some truth in it.

To be wounded in that way is to dam a furious river that begins, as the poet Rilke tells us, 'in the sky.' 'Making music is another way of making babies,' writes Nietzsche. And yes that is sublimation and yes it does color thought, but doesn't it color thought in wonderfully feverish flesh tones and isn't all that frailty and failure a living part of Kafka's legacy-a necessary aspect of its divinity? Isn't all that partly its sacrament? And isn't the chaos and aren't the death-thralls just autumn leaves in their season?
Aphorism #80

We were fashioned to live in Paradise, and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered; that this has also happened with the destiny of Paradise is not stated.
I think of this one as a trance message like those the sleeping prophet Edgar Cayce used to gather from the universal record books, where all thought and event, even our dreams, past and present and future, are collected and preserved.

The 'true artist' is a mystic. As to the 'true way,' here is a shrewd insight from Kafka.
Aphorism #1

The true way goes over a rope which is not stretched at any great height but is just above the ground. It seems more designed to make people stumble than to be walked upon.

Aphorism #13

A cage went in search of a bird.
A critic can quickly grow discouraged trying to categorize an author's writings. Aphorism #13 is obviously a puff of ephemera, but it is also like a mirror that is floating in the middle of space. One can look at this aphorism solely for the uncanny condensation of its phrasing. Each of us is a cage-a cage of bones. In poetry, birds signify creative imagination. (As: 'Flights of fancy.') Is this simply an aphorism that says: A poet went in search of inspiration? If so could one extrapolate from that and say: A pilgrim went in search of her soul?
Aphorism #17

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes a part of the ceremony.
One of the most famous of Kafka's aphorisms. Arguably one of the greatest aphorisms of all time. It combines story, idea, symbolic logic and a dense poetic construction. It speaks deftly of the human condition, and of how belief is constructed and defended. Plus, it has leopards in it, lapping up the sacrificial wine, 'repeatedly, again and again.' And that's just cute!
Aphorism # 19

You are the problem. No scholar to be found far and wide.
Meaning: You must solve yourself, if no one else seems to have taken up the task. If there is no scholar of you 'far and wide', you must become that scholar. If you are Kafka, you have not stinted that 'must,' and should it come to proof, you will be able to stand before any judgment seat clear of conscience. All those close written pages were for what if not to solve the problem that you were to yourself?

But, did you solve the problem of yourself? No, of course you did not. Thinking cannot solve the problems of thought. Thought only creates more thought. Thought cannot carry thought past itself. If you are Kafka, your voluminous writings are a good indicator of that. (But also of the positive qualities that thought returning to thought, over and over, do give rise to, namely: condensation of idea, excellence of conception, and brilliance of realization. In other words: poetry).
Aphorism #20

From a real antagonist, boundless courage flows into you.
The artist comes up against the limitations of his own understanding and does not shrink back but reaches through the darkness before him and if necessary climbs inside of it. All in order that he not fail in his duty to his art. Those who feel no duty to their art will never understand how those who do feel this duty believe they must render their services.
Aphorism #22

How can one be glad of the world, unless one is flying to it for refuge?
Recite a love-lyric that makes your heart ache more than does this aphorism. Imagine if Kafka had set about to present himself as a romantic figure. Once you have realized that Aphorism #22 is actually a love poem, a deepened understanding of it becomes inevitable. What refuge has the world? Where is that refuge to be found? Without worldly love, without the reality of worldly love, the idea of other-worldly salvation might never have been conjured.
Aphorism #23

There is a goal, but no way; what we call the way is only wavering.
Is there a way or is there no way? When we have reached our goal we understand there never was a way. We were already at our goal. Stop wavering. You have reached your goal, Kafka is telling himself. Just allow yourself to accept this understanding. But the wavering has its history and wants on that account to repeat itself. Can thinking tell thought that it must no longer waver? Oh, poet friends, would that it could. Only not-thinking can tell thought anything helpful about how to get out of the way of itself.

You may believe there is no such condition of mind as 'without thought'. But, there is no need to believe. Simply practice without expectation. You will come to experience this condition yourself. It has also been called, 'non-duality,' but I find that terminology provocatively metaphysical. The practice of 'no-thought' is not metaphysical. It is purely mechanical. Focus on breath. Or count by ones until you fall into a trance of forgetfulness. The mind is empty. Thought is nothing more than a habit.
Aphorism #34

His reply to the assertion that he POSSESSES perhaps, but never IS, was only a trembling and pounding of the heart.
There is a Zen Buddhist koan that may be apropos of Aphorism #34::
'Who is it that responds, when your name is called?'
Kafka is in the Zen Buddhist tradition (among other traditions) when he recognizes 'with trembling and pounding of the heart', that the self is just another purchase we have made on the way through this world. The worldly self is like a cupped handful of water. We have it for as long as we can hold it. What we truly are (and what the His of this aphorism 'never is') partakes of the eternal and cannot be reduced or constructed, let alone possessed.
Aphorism #42

You have harnessed yourself ridiculously for this world.
If one wishes to apply oneself fully to the task one has chosen, one must risk looking ridiculous. Or, as the great Japanese haiku poet, Buson, wrote:
Chrysanthemum grower,
you are the slave
of Chrysanthemums

This essay owes part of its thinking, and even some of its language, to a series of conversations I shared with the poet Yahia Lababidi. The edited transcripts of these conversations were collected and published in 2012 as The Artist as Mystic. We spoke of Kafka, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Rilke. Motui Vivos Docent, Lababidi toasted, when we first conceived that project: The dead shall teach the living.

About the author: Alex Stein, with James Lough, is the co-editor of Short Flights: 32 Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration and Wit. He is also the author of 'Made Up Interviews with Imaginary artists,' a hybrid including interviews and literary essays.

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