Saturday, July 06, 2013

Patience in Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms

I came across Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms during my time home in Arkansas. Upon reading through them, I had some recollection of having seen some of the remarks about patience somewhere before, though I'm not sure where. Kafka writes:
2. All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.

3. There are two cardinal human vices, from which all the others derive their being: impatience and carelessness. Impatience got people evicted from Paradise; carelessness kept them from making their way back there. Or perhaps there is only one cardinal vice: impatience. Impatience got people evicted, and impatience kept them from making their way back.

109. […] It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.
I also found the following passages in Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka:
After the first hearing of my parents’ divorce case, I visited Franz Kafka.
                I was very distraught, filled with pains and therefore—unjust.
                When I had exhausted my complaints, Kafka said to me:
                ‘Just be quiet and patient. Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Do not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness.’

(p. 189): ‘Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forebearing,’ Kafka said to me, when we were walking one crystalline autumn day through the leafless Baumgarten. ‘There is no such thing as bending or breaking. It’s a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided. To abandon that path is always to break in pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself. The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love. One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, already see the young fresh green of spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait. Patience is the only true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true.’
                This was Kafka’s fundamental principle in life, and he tried to impress it on me with never-failing understanding. It was a principle, of whose truth he convinced me by his every word and gesture, every smile and every look of his large eyes, and [p. 190] by all his long years of service in the Accident Insurance Institution.
It has been too long since I've read any of Kafka's fiction carefully enough to comment upon how any of this connects to his work, though it seems to me that there is some kind of dissonance between the remarks above and the futility of waiting in a book like The Trail (as I dimly remember it; perhaps I'm not remembering enough). Nevertheless, these ideas about waiting and patient acceptance seem to make sense in the context of Kafka's art as a master observer. But then I find myself wondering whether this idealization of patience might seem too passive. Is this a way we should want to live? Just waiting for things to come to us? Not leaving home? (The complaint: doesn't this sound boring on the one hand and voyeuristic on the other?) Surely Kafka is right that to realize any grand plan we must persevere, often with patience, and that in impatience we can ruin things, break them into pieces, and miss the significance of what is right in front of us. (So perhaps: the complaint above itself belies impatience?)

Just thought I'd share these findings. My own writing plods along toward a tentative conclusion, with the hope that I can then start editing and revising what I've been writing into something worth calling a book on patience.


  1. The bit about the world writhing unmasked in ecstasy sounds voyeuristic, certainly, but I think that's just a good idea unfortunately expressed. He means something like heaven, and it's worth noticing how he identifies (or at least associates) patience with love and altruism. Sympathy for everything. "The barriers of the fear-ridden I can only be broken by love." That doesn't sound boring. And the complaint that it might be boring is itself egoistic and so a failure to surrender to everything. Not that I mean to sound critical: you're just asking a (perfectly reasonable) question. But I think his answer might be along these lines.

    Thanks for posting this, by the way. "Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness." That's a great line.

  2. Sure, the questions and concerns I raised were not so much me as the skeptical voice in my head, and I agree that the complaint about K's outlook (or method) being boring "is itself egoistic..." etc. I also somewhat had in mind something of an unapologetically ad hominem complaint about Kafka: here's a peculiar guy who works day in and out for the Accident Insurance Institution and who otherwise sits around with strange ideas in his head. What a strange, and little, life. Now perhaps the unfairness of that is transparent enough to deserve little comment or retort, except perhaps to point out that it involves a willful misunderstanding of the role patience (and loving sympathy with all things) is supposed to play in life, the mistaken thought that patience is passive through and through and leaves no room for worthwhile action. And that's wrong.