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This is the problem: Many years ago I sat one day, in a sad enough mood, on the slopes of the Laurenziberg. I went over the wishes that I wanted to realise in life. I found that the most important or the most delightful was the wish to attain a view of life (and ―this was necessarily bound up with it― to convince others of it in writing), in which life, while still retaining its natural full-bodied rise and fall, would simultaneously be recognized no less clearly as a nothing, a dream, a dim hovering. A beautiful wish, perhaps, if I had wished it rightly. Considered as a wish, somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: “Hammering a table together is nothing to him,” but rather “Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,” whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real and, if you will, still more senseless.

But he could not wish in this fashion, for his wish was not a wish, but only a vindication of nothingness, a justification of non-entity, a touch of animation which he wanted to lend to non-entity, in which at that time he had scarcely taken his first few conscious steps, but which he already felt as his element. It was a sort of farewell that he took from the illusive world of youth; although youth had never directly deceived him, but only caused him to be deceived by the utterances of all the authorities he had around him. So is explained the necessity of his “wish.”

The Great Wall of China. Stories and Reflections by Franz Kafka, tr. by Willa and Edwin Muir, New York: Schocken Books, Third Printing, 1936]1948, p. 267-268. See below for the original German text and a French translation as well.

This entry is from Kafka’s notebook (in German: Heft) for the year 1920. However, is not included in his Diaries: not in the English translation edited by Max Brod (New York: Schocken), nor in the French edition presented by Marthe Robert (Paris: Grasset). The reason is that they constitute a separate collection of aphorisms entitled “He” (“Her” in German). This collection is clearly distinct form the rest of Kafka’s diaries by the use of the third-person form:

Kafka apparently returned to the aphorisms of the octavo notebooks in fall 1920, a period in which he began composing further aphoristic texts. The collection “Er” (“He”) was written at this time, as were the Paralipomena to this series. The “Er” aphorisms are distinguished by the third-person form in which they are composed. Critics have tended to interpret the “he” persona in the texts as a cipher for Kafka himself. However, even if one accepts these meditations as personal statements of their author, the objectifying, fictionalizing tendency inherent in the third-person form makes them remarkable, for it gives a formal, stylistic indication of the proximity between aphorism and parable in Kafka’s literary production. In fact, the majority of Kafka’s short parables and parabolic stories were composed at precisely the same times as the aphoristic collections, in fall and winter 1917-18 and in automn 1920. Kafka’s parables can be seen as aphorisms extended by the elaboration of a metaphor and cast in the diction of narrative fiction. Moreover, the parables borrow from the structure of the aphorism the tendency to culminate in a surprising pointe or an unresolvable paradox. (A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia by Richard T. Gray, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2005, pp. 17-18)

I don’t know exactly why Richard T. Craig speaks only of the fall of 1920 when the above aphorism was written in February. Perhaps it has to do with its hybrid form: it starts in the first-person (“Many years ago I sat one day…”) but switches to the third-person at the very beginning of the second paragraph (“But he could not wish in this fashion…”).

For more information about Kafka’s aphorisms, see also “Compositional History and Compositional Strategies of Kafka’s Aphorims” in Constructive Destruction: Kafka’s Aphorisms: Literary Tradition and Literary Transformation alson by Richard T. Gray, Walter de Gruyter, 1987, p. 216 sq.

In the book The Great Wall of China, the aphorism form February 15 is thus classify in a section titled “Aphorisms” under the title “‘He’. Notes from the year 1920”. This aphorism is not included in The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (tr. by Geoffrey Brocks and Michael Hofmann, New York: Schocken Books, 2006; Google Books). However, I believe it is also included in The Collected Aphorism (Penguin Books, 1994; see the description over at Amazon). A French translation can be found in the German/French bilingual edition of Kafka’s aphorism:

Il s’agit de la chose suivante: j’étais assis il y a quelques années, sans doute d’humeur assez sombre, sur les pentes du mont Saint-Laurent et je passais en revue les souhaits que je formulais pour ma vie et le plus important ou le plus attirant s’avéra être celui de me forger une vision de la vie et –cela va nécessairement de pair– d’être capable de convaincre les autres par mes écrits de sa validité. Que la vie certes conserve la lourdeur naturelle de ses hauts et de ses bas mais que l’on y décèle tout aussi nettement un rien, un rêve, l’effleurement d’une aile. Un bien beau souhait, je je l’avais vraiment fait. Un autre souhait? Frapper à coups de marteau sur une table avec la rigueur et la minutie de l’artisan et en même temps ne rien faire, sans que l’on puisse dire: “Donner des coups de marteau ne représente rien pour lui” mais que l’on dise plutôt: “Donner des coups de marteau a un sens réel pour lui, mais en même temps cela ne représente rien”, ce qui eût conféré à cette activité encore plus de hardiesse, de résolution, de réalité et, si tu veux, de folie.

Mais il ne pouvait formuler un tel souhait, car son souhait n’en était pas vraiment un, ce n’était qu’une défense, une manière de se garantir du néant, un soupçon de gaieté dont il ne voulait pas faire cadeau à ce néant où il osait alors à peine hasarder ses premiers pas, tout e sentant déjà que c’était là son élément. C’était alors une sorte d’adieu au monde des apparences de sa jeunesse qui, d’ailleurs, ne l’avait jamais directement trompé mais s’’était contenté d’en confier le soin aux discours des autorités qui l’entouraient. De là émanait la nécessité du “souhait”. (Aphorismes, Joseph K. editors, translation by Guy Filion, 1994, pp. 64-67)

The original German text can be found at the Kafka Project website, under “Heft 12” where it is dated from February 15, 1920:

15 II 20 ― Es handelt sich um folgendes: Ich saß einmal vor vielen Jahren, gewiß traurig genug, auf der Lehne des Laurenziberges. [Ich prüfte die Wünsche, die ich für das Leben hatte. Als wichtigster oder als reizvollster ergab sich der Wunsch, eine Ansicht des Lebens zu gewinnen (und – das war allerdings notwendig verbunden – schriftlich die andern von ihr überzeugen zu können) in der das Leben zwar sein natürliches schweres Fallen und Steigen bewahre aber gleichzeitig mit nicht minderer Deutlichkeit als ein Nichts, als ein Traum, als ein Schweben erkannt werde. Vielleicht ein schöner Wunsch, wenn ich ihn richtig gewünscht hätte. Etwa als Wunsch einen Tisch mit peinlich ordentlicher Handwerksmäßigkeit zusammenzuhämmern und dabei gleichzeitig nichts zu tun undzwar nicht so daß man sagen könnte: “ihm ist das Hämmern ein Nichts” sondern “ihm ist das Hämmern ein wirkliches Hämmern und gleichzeitig auch ein Nichts”, wodurch ja das Hämmern noch kühner, noch entschlossener, noch wirklicher und wenn Du willst noch irrsinniger geworden wäre. Aber er konnte gar nicht so wünschen, denn sein Wunsch war kein Wunsch, er war nur eine Verteidigung, eine Verbürgerlichung des Nichts, ein Hauch von Munterkeit, den er dem Nichts geben wollte, in das er zwar damals kaum die ersten bewußten Schritte tat, das er aber schon als sein Element fühlte.] Es war damals eine Art Abschied, den er von der Scheinwelt der Jugend nahm; sie hatte ihn übrigens niemals unmittelbar getäuscht, sondern nur durch die Reden aller Autoritäten rings herum täuschen lassen. So hatte sich die Notwendigkeit des “Wunsches” ergeben

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The following artwork was created by David Ope for the 129th anniversary of Franz Kafka birthday (on July 3, 1883).

“Franz Kafka” by David Ope, July 3, 2012. © David Ope

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Previously here: Kafka’s Aphorisms: Believing in progress and Incommunicability: Kafka’s “On Parables”

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