Category Archives: Roberto Calasso


Brod, who could lend a touch of kitsch to anything, described Kafka’s stay in Zürau as an ‘escape from the world into purity’. He also viewed it – he wrote to his friend – as a ‘successful and admirable enterprise’. It would be hard to find two adjectives that irritated Kafka more. He replied to Brod with a closely argued letter in which he explained that the only sensible solution he had ever reached in his life was ‘not suicide, but the thought of suicide’. If he didn’t go beyond the thought, it was due to a further reflection: ‘You who can’t manage to do anything, you want to do this?’ And here was his closest friend speaking to him of success, of admiration, of purity.

— Roberto Calasso, K. (tr. Brock)

Spiritual decadence

The evolution was simple. When I was still happy, I wanted to be unhappy and drove myself, using all the means that my times and my tradition made available to me, into unhappiness, yet even so I always wanted to be able to go back. In short I was always unhappy, even with my happiness. The strange thing is that the whole act, if one performs it in a sufficiently systematic way, can become real. My spiritual decadence began with a childish game, however conscious I was of its childishness. For example, I would deliberately contract the muscles of my face, or I would walk down the Graben with my arms crossed behind my head. Annoyingly puerile games, but effective. (Something similar happened with the evolution of my writing, except that later the evolution of my writing came regrettably to a halt.) If unhappiness can be forcibly induced in this fashion, then one should be able to induce anything. However much subsequent developments seem to contradict me, and however much it conflicts in general with my nature to think this, I can’t by any means accept that the origins of my unhappiness were inwardly necessary, perhaps they had some necessity of their own, but not an inward one, they swarmed in me like flies and like flies could have easily been driven away.

— Kafka, Diaries (quoted in Calasso, K.)

Spiritual combat

It’s as if spiritual combat were taking place somewhere in a forest clearing. I enter the forest, find nothing and quickly, out of weakness, hurry back out; often, as I’m leaving the forest, I hear or think I hear the clanging of weapons from that battle. Perhaps the combatants are gazing through the forest darkness, looking for me, but I know so little about them, and that little is deceptive.

— Kafka, Diaries (quoted in Calasso, K.)

The higher circle

The higher circle, to which K. would like to gain access, where indeed he would like to take up residence, since he has ‘come here to stay’, is certainly not the home of the good, as benevolent interpreters say, nor is it the home of evil, as malevolent interpreters say; rather, it is the site where good and evil arrange themselves into shapes that can’t be recognised or distinguished by those who have encountered them only in other circles. The ancient Chinese would not be surprised by this; they would say that they are the two elements united in the Holy Place. But who nowadays is able to reason like the ancient Chinese?

— Roberto Calasso, K. (tr. G. Brock)

God is without name, for no one can say or understand anything of him… Hence if I say: ‘God is good’, this is not true. I am good, but God is not good… If I say further: ‘God is wise’, this is not true, I am wiser than he. If I say also: ‘God is a being’, this is not true; he is a being above being and a superessential negation. A master says: If I had a God whom I could know, I would not think him to be God.

– Master Eckhart

Like K., we alternate between flashes of lucidity and bouts of torpor, sometimes mistaking one for the other, with no one having the authority to correct us.

– Roberto Calasso, K. (tr. G. Brock)

The Castle’s communication

The murmur, the song that issues audibly from the phone as soon as any receiver is lifted in the village, is the Castle’s only acoustic manifestation. It is indistinct and, moreover, non-linguistic, a music composed of words gone back to their source in pure sonic matter, prior to and stripped of all meaning. The Castle communicates with outside world through a continuous, indecipherable sound.

— Roberto Calasso, K. (tr. G. Brock)

The invisible

The invisible has a mocking tendency to present itself as the visible, as if it might be distinguished from everything else, but only under certain circumstances, such as the clearing away of mist. Thus one is persuaded to treat it as the visible – and is immediately punished. But the illusion remains.

— Roberto Calasso, K. (tr. G. Brock)

The sick man

Kafka spent eight months in Zürau, in the Bohemian countryside […] The tuberculosis had declared itself a month before, when he coughed up blood in the night. The sick man didn’t hide a certain sense of relief. Writing to Felix Weltsch, he compared himself to the ‘happy lover’ who exclaims: ‘All the previous times were but illusions, only now do I truly love’. Illness was the final lover, which allowed him to close the old accounts.

— Roberto Calasso, K. (tr. G. Brock)