Franz Kafka

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

Franz Kafka (3 July 18833 June 1924) was a Bohemian-Jewish novelist, and was one of the major German-language fiction writers of the 20th century.

Sourced

  • I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
    • Ich glaube, man sollte überhaupt nur solche Bücher lesen, die einen beißen und stechen. Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch? Damit es uns glücklich macht, wie Du schreibst? Mein Gott, glücklich wären wir eben auch, wenn wir keine Bücher hätten, und solche Bücher, die uns glücklich machen, könnten wir zur Not selber schreiben. Wir brauchen aber die Bücher, die auf uns wirken wie ein Unglück, das uns sehr schmerzt, wie der Tod eines, den wir lieber hatten als uns, wie wenn wir in Wälder verstoßen würden, von allen Menschen weg, wie ein Selbstmord, ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich.
    • Letter to Oskar Pollak (27 January 1904)
    • Variant translations:
      If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.
      What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.
      A book should be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.
      A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.
      A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.
  • Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence... Someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never.
    • "The Silence of the Sirens" (October 1917)
  • There is hope, but not for us.
    • Statement to Max Brod, quoted in Franz Kafka: A Biography [Franz Kafka, eine Biographie] (1937) by Max Brod, as translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston (1947; 1960)

The Metamorphosis (1915)

Full text online
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
  • As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
    • Original: Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.
    • First lines.
  • "Hey, there’s something falling down in there," said the chief clerk. Gregor tried to suppose to himself that what had happened to him might some day also happen to the chief clerk. There was no denying that anything was possible.

Aphorisms (1918)

Many of these statements in Kafka's notebooks were later published posthumously in Parables and Paradoxes (1946), and The Blue Octavo Notebooks (1954) as translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, Original German text
  • The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.
    • 1
  • All human errors are impatience, the premature breaking off of what is methodical, an apparent fencing in of the apparent thing.
    • 2; Variant translation: All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue.
  • There are two main human sins from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence. It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise; it is because of indolence that they do not return. Yet perhaps there is only one major sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return.
  • 3, (20 October 1917); as published in The Blue Octavo Notebooks (1954); also in Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings (1954); variant translations use "cardinal sins" instead of "main human sins" and "laziness" instead of "indolence".
  • Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.
    • 5; variant translations:
      From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.
      • As quoted in The Unfinished Country: A Book of American Symbols (1959) by Max Lerner, p. 452; also in Wait Without Idols (1964) by Gabriel Vahanian, p, 216, and in Joyce, Decadence, and Emancipation (1995) by Vivian Heller, 39
    • There is a point of no return. This point has to be reached.
  • The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual. That is why the revolutionary spiritual movements that declare all former things worthless are in the right, for nothing has yet happened.
    • 6
  • One of the first signs of the beginnings of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to be moved from the old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will only in time come to hate.
    • 13
  • A cage went in search of a bird.
    • 16
  • If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been permitted.
    • 18; (9 November 1917) a slight variant of this was published in Parables and Paradoxes (1946): If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.
  • Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.
    • 20 (10 November 1917)
  • From the true antagonist illimitable courage is transmitted to you.
    • 23
  • Hiding places there are innumerable, escape is only one, but possibilities for escape, again, are as many as hiding places.

There is a goal, but no way; what we call a way is hesitation.

    • 27
  • When one has once accepted and absorbed Evil, it no longer demands to be believed.
    • 28
  • The ulterior motives with which you absorb and assimilate Evil are not your own but those of Evil.
    The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.
    • 29
  • In a certain sense the Good is comfortless.
    • 30
  • Self-control is something for which I do not strive. Self-control means wanting to be effective at some random point in the infinite radiations of my spiritual existence.
    • 31
  • Martyrs do not underrate the body, they allow it to be elevated on the cross. In this they are at one with their antagonists.
    • 33
  • His weariness is that of the gladiator after the combat; his work was the whitewashing of a corner in a state official's office.
    • 34; variant translation: His exhaustion is that of the gladiator after the fight, his work was the whitewashing of one corner in a clerk’s office.
  • Previously I did not understand why I got no answer to my question; today I do not understand how I could believe I was capable of asking. But I didn’t really believe, I only asked.
    • 36
  • The way is infinitely long, nothing of it can be subtracted, nothing can be added, and yet everyone applies his own childish yardstick to it. “Certainly, this yard of the way you still have to go, too, and it will be accounted unto you.”
    • 39
  • It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of martial law.
    • 40
  • Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made. That is not the sort of belief that indicates real faith.
    • 48
  • Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden from him. One of the ways in which this hiddenness can express itself is through faith in a personal god.
    • 50; Der Mensch kann nicht leben ohne ein dauerndes Vertrauen zu etwas Unzerstörbarem in sich, wobei sowohl das Unzerstörbare als auch das Vertrauen ihm dauernd verborgen bleiben können. Eine der Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten dieses Verborgen-Bleibens ist der Glaube an einen persönlichen Gott.
  • The mediation by the serpent was necessary: Evil can seduce man, but cannot become man.
    • 51
  • In the struggle between yourself and the world, second the world.
    • 52, Im Kampf zwischen Dir und der Welt, sekundiere der Welt.
    • Aphorism 52 in Unpublished Works 1916-1918
    • Variant translations:
      In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world.
      In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.
      In the fight between you and the world, back the world.
  • One must not cheat anyone, not even the world of its victory.
    • 53; Variant translation: One must not cheat anybody, not even the world of one's triumph.
  • There is nothing besides a spiritual world; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call Evil is only the necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.
    One can disintegrate the world by means of very strong light. For weak eyes the world becomes solid, for still weaker eyes it seems to develop fists, for eyes weaker still it becomes shamefaced and smashes anyone who dares to gaze upon it.
    • 54
  • There are questions we could not get past if we were not set free from them by our very nature.
    • 56
  • One tells as few lies as possible only by telling as few lies as possible, and not by having the least possible opportunity to do so.
    • 58
  • The fact that there is nothing but a spiritual world deprives us of hope and gives us certainty.
    • 62
  • Expulsion from Paradise is in its main aspect eternal: that is to say, although expulsion from Paradise is final, and life in the world unavoidable, the eternity of the process (or, expressed in temporal terms, the eternal repetition of the process) nevertheless makes it possible not only that we might remain in Paradise permanently, but that we may in fact be there permanently, no matter whether we know it here or not.
    • 65; a slight variant of this statement was later published in Parables and Paradoxes (1946):
      The expulsion from Paradise is in its main significance eternal:
      Consequently the expulsion from Paradise is final, and life in this world irrevocable, but the eternal nature of the occurrence (or, temporally expressed, the eternal recapitulation of the occurrence) makes it nevertheless possible that not only could we live continuously in Paradise, but that we are continuously there in actual fact, no matter whether we know it here or not.
  • What is gayer than believing in a household god?
    • 68
  • Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible element in oneself and not striving towards it.
    • 69
  • 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.
    • 71
  • If what was 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.
    • 74
  • Test yourself on mankind. It is something that makes the doubter doubt, the believer believe.
    • 75
  • Association with human beings lures one into self-observation.
    • 77
  • Sensual love deceives one as to the nature of heavenly love; it could not do so alone, but since it unconsciously has the element of heavenly love within it, it can do so.
    • 79
  • Truth is indivisible, hence it cannot recognize itself; anyone who wants to recognize it has to be a lie.
    • 80
  • Why do we complain about the Fall? It is not on its account that we were expelled from Paradise, but on account of the Tree of Life, lest we might eat of it.
    • 82, a slight variant of this was later published in Parables and Paradoxes (1946):
      Why do we lament over the fall of man? We were not driven out of Paradise because of it, but because of the Tree of Life, that we might not eat of it.
    • "Paradise"
  • The whole visible world is perhaps nothing more than than the rationalization of a man who wants to find peace for a moment. An attempt to falsify the actuality of knowledge, to regard knowledge as a goal still to be reached.
    • "Paradise"
  • We are sinful not only because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we are is sinful, irrespective of guilt.
    • 83, a slight variant of this was later published in Parables and Paradoxes (1946):
      We are sinful not merely because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we find ourselves is sinful, quite independent of guilt.
      • Also quoted in this form in The Parables of Peanuts (1968) by Robert L. Short, and Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy: The Zen Teachings and Translations of Nyogen (2005)
  • Evil is a radiation of the human consciousness in certain transitional positions. It is not actually the sensual world that is a mere appearance; what is so is the evil of it, which, admittedly, is what constitutes the sensual world in our eyes.
    • 85
  • The whole visible world is perhaps nothing other than a motivation of man’s wish to rest for a moment — an attempt to falsify the fact of knowledge, to try to turn the knowledge into the goal.
    • 86
  • A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.
    • 87
  • Two possibilities: making oneself infinitely small or being so. The second is perfection, that is to say, inactivity, the first is beginning, that is to say, action.
    • 90
  • Towards the avoidance of a piece of verbal confusion: What is intended to be actively destroyed must first of all have been firmly grasped; what crumbles away crumbles away, but cannot be destroyed.
    • 91
  • The first worship of idols was certainly fear of the things in the world, but, connected with this, fear of the necessity of the things, and, connected with this, fear of responsibility for the things. So tremendous did this responsibility appear that people did not even dare to impose it upon one single extra-human entity, for even the mediation of one being would not have sufficiently lightened human responsibility, intercourse with only one being would still have been all too deeply tainted with responsibility, and that is why each things was given the responsibility for itself, more indeed, these things were also given a degree of responsibility for man.
    • 92
  • There can be knowledge of the diabolical, but no belief in it, for more of the diabolical than there is does not exist.
    • 99
  • We too must suffer all the suffering around us. We all have not one body, but we have one way of growing, and this leads us through all anguish, whether in this or in that form. Just as the child develops through all the stages of life right into old age and to death (and fundamentally to the earlier stage the later one seems out of reach, in relation both to desire and to fear), so also do we develop (no less deeply bound up with mankind than with ourselves) through all the sufferings of this world. There is no room for justice in this context, but neither is there any room either for fear of suffering or for the interpretation of suffering as a merit.
    • 102
  • Humility provides everyone, even him who despairs in solitude, with the strongest relationship to his fellow man, and this immediately, though, of course, only in the case of complete and permanent humility. It can do this because it is the true language of prayer, at once adoration and the firmest of unions. The relationship to one’s fellow man is the relationship of prayer, the relationship to oneself is the relationship of striving; it is from prayer that one draws the strength for one’s striving.
    • 106
  • "It cannot be said that we are lacking in faith. Even the simple fact of our life is of a faith-value that can never be exhausted.” “You suggest there is some faith-value in this? One cannot not-live, after all.” “It is precisely in this ‘Cannot, after all’ that the mad strength of faith lies; it is in this negation that it takes on form.”
    There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.
    • 109; Variant translations: It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.
      You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
      You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

The Trial (1920)

Published as Der Prozess (1925) Full text online]
  • Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. His landlady's cook, who always brought him his breakfast at eight o'clock, failed to appear on this occasion. That had never happened before.
    • First lines, Ch. 1; variant translation: Somebody must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
  • This question of yours, Sir, about my being a house painter — or rather, not a question, you simply made a statement — is typical of the whole character of this trial that is being foisted on me. You may object that it is not a trial at all; you are quite right, for it is only a trial if I recognize it as such. But for the moment I do recognize it, on grounds of compassion, as it were. One can't regard it except with compassion, if one is to regard it at all. I do not say that your procedure is contemptible, but I should like to present that epithet to you for your private consumption.
    • Josef K. in Ch. 2; Variant translation: Your question, Mr. Examining Magistrate, as to whether I am a house-painter — although you did not ask a question at all, you made a statement — typifies exactly the kind of proceedings that are being instituted against me.
  • The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.
  • Logic may indeed be unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who is determined to live. Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the High Court he had never reached? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers. But the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.
    • Ch. 10

Parables and Paradoxes (1946)

Many statements from this work are in the earlier section "Aphorisms" (1918)
  • The whole visible world is perhaps nothing more than than the rationalization of a man who wants to find peace for a moment. An attempt to falsify the actuality of knowledge, to regard knowledge as a goal still to be reached.
    • "Paradise"
  • The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last day.
    • Variant translation: The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but at the very last.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1923 (1948)

Edited by Max Brod
  • * I can prove at any time that my education tried to make another person out of me than the one I became. It is for the harm, therefore, that my educators could have done me in accordance with their intentions that I reproach them; I demand from their hands the person I now am, and since they cannot give him to me, I make of my reproach and laughter a drumbeat sounding in the world beyond.
    • (1910)
  • Life's splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.
    • (18 October 1921)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks (1954)

  • The history of mankind is the instant between two strides taken by a traveler.
  • The thornbush is old obstacle in the road. It must catch fire if you want to go further.
  • There was once a community of scoundrels, that is to say, they were not scoundrels, but ordinary people.
  • Anyone who believes cannot experience miracles. By day one does not see any stars. Anyone who does miracles says: I cannot let go of the earth.
  • (21 November 1917) Variant translation: Anyone who believes cannot experience miracles. By day one cannot see any stars.
  • Religions get lost as people do.

The Complete Stories (1971)

  • "Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible," she said, "but that alone doesn't make it true."
  • How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at bottom! When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes, but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.
  • All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog. If one could but realize this knowledge, if one could but bring it into the light of day, if we dogs would but own that we know infinitely more than we admit to ourselves!
    • "Investigations of a Dog"
  • Ours is a lost generation, it may be, but it is more blameless than those earlier generations.
    • "Investigations of a Dog"
  • So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.
    • "Investigations of a Dog"
  • "You asking me the way?" "Yes," I said, "since I can't find it myself." "Give it up! Give it up!" said he, and turned with a sudden jerk, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Variant translation: The Policeman said to me, "You want to know the way? Give up! Just give up!" And he turned away like a man that wants to be alone with his laughter.

Letters

Unsourced

  • Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate... but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins.
  • Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within.
  • Books are a narcotic
  • Death confronts us not unlike the historical battle scene that hangs on the wall of the classroom. It is our task to obscure or quite obliterate the picture by our deeds while we are still in this world.
  • Don't despair, not even over the fact that you don't despair.
  • "Don't you want to join us?" I was recently asked by an acquaintance when he ran across me alone after midnight in a coffeehouse that was already almost deserted. "No, I don't," I said.
  • Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.
  • Evil is whatever distracts.
  • I am free, that is why I'm lost.
  • I am nothing but a mass of spikes going through me.
  • I do not read advertisements — I would spend all my time wanting things
  • I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy.
  • I was so insecure about everything that all I was really sure of was what I already held in my hands or my mouth or what was well on its way there.
  • If the French were German in their essence, then how the Germans would admire them!
  • In argument similes are like songs in love; they describe much, but prove nothing.
  • In theory there is a possibility of perfect happiness: To believe in the indestructible element within one, and not to strive towards it.
  • It is the thousandth forgetting of a dream dreamt a thousand times and forgotten a thousand times, and who can damn us merely for forgetting for the thousandth time?
  • It is your people who make the ultimate difference. You put the investment into training the people and then, when you get invited to the party with the big boys, that is a unique selling point.
  • It's often safer to be in chains than to be free.
    • Variant: It is often better to be in chains than to be free.
  • 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 part of the ceremony.
  • May I kiss you then? On this miserable paper? I might as well open the window and kiss the night air.
  • My fear... is my substance, and probably the best part of me.
  • My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.
  • My life is hesitation before birth.
  • My peers, lately, have found companionship through means of intoxication — it makes them sociable. I, however, cannot force myself to use drugs to cheat on my loneliness — it is all that I have — and when the drugs and alcohol dissipate, will be all that my peers have as well.
  • Now I can look at you in peace; I don't eat you anymore.
  • Paths are made by walking.
    • Wege entstehen dadurch, dass man sie geht.
  • Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.
  • Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.
  • The dream reveals the reality which conception lags behind. That is the horror of life — the terror of art.
  • The experience of life consists of the experience which the spirit has of itself in matter and as matter, in mind and as mind, in emotion, as emotion, etc.
  • The meaning of life is that it stops.
  • The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.
  • There will be no proof that I ever was a writer
  • This inescapable duty to observe oneself: if someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observe me, I have to observe myself all the closer
  • This little woman, then, is very ill-pleased with me, she always finds something objectionable in me, I am always doing the wrong thing to her. I annoy her at every step; if a life could be cut into the smallest of small pieces and every scrap of it could be separately assessed, every scrap of my life would certainly be an offense to her.
  • We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood. When you stand in front of me an look at me, what do you know of the grief's that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and tell you, what more would you know about me that you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.
  • We are sinful not merely because we have eaten of the tree of knowledge, but also because we have not eaten of the tree of life.
  • What does the court want with you? It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go.
  • What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.
  • Who has the gift to recognize beauty, will not live long
  • Writing is a form of prayer.
  • Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward.
  • You are free and that is why you are lost.
  • You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.
  • Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.

Quotes about Kafka

  • The only way Kafka could envisage of creating his in every respect impossible writing possible was to demarcate the area of impossibility by making a language without a particular color, without a local tone, without qualities, as it were.
    • Marthe Robert, As Lonely as Kafka (1953)
  • He is interested in the feelings of the squash ball, and of the champagne bottle that launches the ship. In a football match his sympathy is not with either of the teams but with the ball, or, in a match ending nil-nil, with the hunger of the goalmouth.
    • Alan Bennett Writing Home p. 336
  • Kafka described with wonderful imaginative power the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state Apparat.

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