End of the month. Jobs finished, invoices sent, dishes done and now a free, sunny afternoon stretches out before me. Bliss! I bring two translations of Kafka’s aphorisms and the laptop out to the garden, where I can barely get the wifi signal, and sit amid buzzing bees and floating hawthorn blossoms. After the workers’ lunch break the construction work on the old farm starts again. I go back in to find my earplugs, sit down, copy out and make notes on some of those glacial, enigmatic sayings that have been with me for so long, turning and returning in my head.
‘Grasp the good fortune that the ground on which you stand cannot be any larger than the two feet that cover it.’ An elementary lesson, perhaps, a starting point: learn to stand before you can walk, like a child.
‘The true way is along a rope that is not suspended high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.’ The way is very close to the ground, not high up. It’s not the ground, but neither is it unreachable, impossibly abstract. We may trip over it while we’re looking for it up high, stumble onto and off it. It can be an obstacle as well as a way.
‘You are the task. No student far and wide.’ You’re the problem to be solved, the experiment that must come into its own. No student in sight to work on you. No curriculum or method. If there’s a teacher or taskmaster he isn’t mentioned. You’re the task and the student, then. The material you’re given to work with is what’s closest to hand – so close it’s hard to see clearly, and impossible to see from a neutral vantage point.
‘There are only two things: the truth and the lie. The truth is indivisible, so cannot know itself. Anyone who seeks to know it must be a lie.’ You can’t know the truth because you’re in the way of it. Moreover: ‘Only evil has self-knowledge.’ You couldn’t know yourself even if you were in the truth. This would seem to make the task that you are impossible.
‘There is nothing but a spiritual world; what we call the sensory world is the evil in the spiritual, and what we call evil is only a requirement of a moment in our everlasting development.’ This is Kafka at his most Gnostic. The world and the body are transitory prisons which must be escaped if we’re to attain eternal life, but from which escape seems impossible since we’re enmeshed in them – in lies. Only through self-destruction can the lie of the world be escaped: ‘If, having gained knowledge, you want to attain eternal life – and you cannot do other than want to, for knowledge is this desire – then you must destroy yourself, the obstacle.’ Not unlike Beckett, this version of Kafka counsels absolute failure in the face of the world: ‘Fail to know yourself! Destroy yourself!’
‘In the struggle between you and the world, second the world.’ Sekundiere der Welt. One translator writes: ‘hold the world’s coat’. Assist the sensory world in its duel against you. Help it destroy you in order to spiritualize yourself.
‘How is it possible to rejoice in the world except by fleeing to it?’ You can’t rejoice in the world except by fleeing from your true responsibility, your spiritual fulfilment.
But as Ritchie Robertson suggests, ‘There is a counter-current in Kafka’s thought: the idea that possibly the world of the senses can after all be made acceptable.’ How? ‘Anyone who seeks to know the truth must be a lie.’ But is there a way to seek the truth and be in the world at once?
One of Kafka’s diary entries reads: ‘Contemplation and activity have their apparent truth; but only the activity radiated by contemplation, or rather, that which returns to it again, is truth.’ Thinking and being: looking on from the outside, acting in the world… Both have their place, their apparent truths, but only in their continual return to each other and their mutual illumination can truth itself happen, in an interweaving of the spiritual and the sensory. (And isn’t writing a space in which contemplation and activity can come together as an event or even weapon of truth?)
In a handful of aphorisms Kafka speaks of ‘the indestructible’. ‘Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible in oneself and not striving towards it.’ Not looking for it but trusting implicitly in your connection to it and going humbly about your life. (In a letter he rewrites this sentence, replacing ‘the indestructible’ with ‘the decisive divine’.) This Unzerstörbare is impersonal yet individual: ‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him, though both the faith and the indestructible thing may remain permanently concealed from him. One of the forms of this concealment is the belief in a personal god.’ The indestructible, and the possibility of free and true being, is in each person, concealed but as real as our bodies, a force both individualizing and uniting. It’s not unlike the Hindu idea of atman, the spark of the divine hidden in each person: ‘The indestructible is one: it is each individual human being and, at the same time, it is common to all, hence the incomparably indivisible union that exists between human beings.’
But what if for whatever reason this trust, this connection to the indestructible in oneself has been severed, as it had for Kafka? (‘The way to my neighbour is very long’, he writes elsewhere.) How to recover it? There’s no technique for attaining true being in Kafka’s idiosyncratic theology. Despite its affinity with Gnosticism, it’s not a hermetic teaching or a path for the elect. There are no secret Kabbalistic rites whereby the initiated can access the indestructible (he never defines the word). Nor can it be commanded by reason, though sometimes the ‘right word, the right name’ may summon it: ‘This is the essence of magic, which does not create but calls.’
Kafka links the indestructible with ‘life’s splendour’, with paradise: ‘If what is supposed to have been destroyed in paradise was destructible, then it was not decisive; but if it was indestructible, then we are living in a false belief.’ This false belief, in Roberto Calasso’s words, has to do with a basic misunderstanding about why we were expelled from paradise: ‘Humans are convinced that they were kicked out of that place for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But this is an illusion. That wasn’t their sin. Their sin lay in not yet having eaten from the Tree of Life.’ Our trial is continual. It’s the conflict between our limited, deceptive knowledge and the veiled essence of being within us. But if being is indestructible, says Kafka, then it’s possible that our expulsion stems from our own illusions and that in fact we’re still in paradise ‘whether we know it or not’. And that the way to return to where and who we are, to bridge contemplation and activity, to find the way back to our neighbour, goes through the ‘mad strength’ of faith, which he does define: ‘Faith means: freeing the indestructible in yourself or better: freeing yourself or better: being indestructible or better: being.’