The Icy Wisdom of Franz Kafka

Kafkaesque, no?

From the review of Kafka's office writings, an elegant collection of Kafka's aphorisms, in modern English translation: 

The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy heaven. This is beyond doubt, but doesn’t prove anything against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.’

‘To believe in progress is not to believe that progress has already happened. That would not be a belief.’

‘There can be a knowledge of the devilish, but no belief in it, because there is nothing more devilish than what already exists.’

‘If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been allowed.’

‘In the battle between yourself and the world, support the world.’

‘Goodness is in a certain sense comfortless.’

And speaking of Kafka, his worldview, and his life, here are his thoughts on marriage, from a diary entry from 12 July 1912:

Summary of all the arguments for and against my marriage:

1. Inability to endure life alone, which does not imply inability to live, quite the contrary, it is even improbable that I know how to live with anyone, but I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague pressure of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone. I naturally add a “perhaps” to this. The connection with F. will give my existence more strength to resist.

2. Everything immediately gives me pause. Every joke in the comic paper, what I remember about Flaubert and Grillparzer, the sight of the nightshirts on my parents' beds, laid out for the night, Max’s marriage. Yesterday my sister said, “All the married people (that we know) are happy, I don't understand it,” this remark too gave me pause, I became afraid again.

3. I must be alone a great deal. What I accomplished was only the result of being alone.

4. I hate everything that does not relate to literature, conversations bore me (even if they relate to literature), to visit people bores me, the sorrows and joys of my relatives bore me to my soul. Conversations take the importance, the seriousness, the truth of everything I think.

5. The fear of the connection, of passing into the other. Then I'll never be alone again.

6. In the past, especially, the person I am in the company of my sisters has been entirely different from the person I am in the company of other people. Fearless, powerful, surprising, moved as I otherwise am only when I write. If through the intermediation of my wife I could be like that in the presence of everyone! But then would it not be at the expense of my writing? Not that, not that!

7. Alone, I could perhaps some day really give up my job. Married, it will never be possible.

Kafka never married.

[photo: staircase to the roof gallery of the Cathedral of Florence, November 2008]

Franz Kafka: Meticulous Insurance Lawyer

I guess you know you've achieved literary immortality when even the memoranda you produced in the course of your tedious office job as an analyst for the Prague Institute for Workmen’s Accident Insurance are translated into English and interpreted by professors:

We follow Kafka through reports and claims and arguments and petitions concerning building trades, wooden toys, quarries, farms, automobiles, trade inspections, risk assessments, accident prevention, the effects of the war on insurance premiums and practices, what to do about the apparitions the war has thrown onto the city streets: ‘men who could move ahead only by taking jerky steps; poor, pale and gaunt, they leaped as though a merciless hand held them by the neck, tossing them back and forth in their tortured movements.’ This is a pretty gripping image, but I can’t pretend the texts as a whole make for lively reading, or that they are full of secret literary treasures. They are dense, detailed, local, and they hold your (or my) attention because they really do give you a sense of consuming office work, a set of tasks where the spectre of boredom and a necessarily intense concentration go hand in hand. This is very much how Kafka, in his letters, talks about his job; but he was also, as the editors insist, often proud of it. He complained about it incessantly, but he took it seriously and he did it well. If he was just coasting, as one of his officials might say, he wouldn’t have complained so much.

For all their lack of literary merit, the memos do shed some light on the structure of Kafka's fictional worlds:

[I]n what the editors call ‘a core document among Kafka’s office writings’, he really does enter a logical realm very much resembling that of his fiction. This is a note of protest to the minister of the interior, written in June 1911, concerning the practices of trade inspectors, who make recommendations regarding premiums – recommendations favourable to the employers rather than the institute – when they are legally supposed only to be describing conditions. Every time the institute raised objections to these practices, Kafka says, ‘it was considered an exceptional case’ – ‘just Kafkaesque’, we might say. The plea for a ruling against the inspectors’ activities was ‘completely successful in principle’, Kafka then says. Such a ruling was obtained from the Royal and Imperial Trade Inspectorate. Completely successful in principle and ‘futile’ in practice, since the inspectors and everyone else forgot about the ruling as soon as it was issued. On the next page Kafka mounts the masterly argument that ‘these unfortunate conditions also have some welcome consequences,’ because they make the problems ‘glaringly clear’ – a hopeless arrangement, we might say, that is in other respects excellent.