The Yield
Kafka's Atheological Reformation
Paul North



1. Atheology

When a historical category loses its meaning and threatens to disappear, an opportunity arises that has a strange consequence. The category “Jew” in middle Europe during the first quarter of the twentieth century is an example of such a threatened category with its strange consequence. While the term “Jew” certainly continued to refer to a group of living individuals and was used by lovers and haters of them alike, its meaning, for many complex reasons, had for some time—since the Jewish Enlightenment at least—been becoming too diverse to signify one thing. All sides clung to the category with renewed force, however, despite or perhaps because of its splintering meaning. In what David Suchoff has recently called “the hidden openness of the tradition,” the strange consequence was that it also became possible to reinterpret the category altogether.1 Since “Judaism” in Central Europe had become hard to parse, and many Jews who held on to the category often had, in point of fact, little or no experience with Judaism, their interpretations of it were precisely not grounded in the tradition. These Judaisms were not wholly, and often not even necessarily, “Jewish.”

Some got their Judaism from books, some from personal experience of particular sects, and some, or so it seems now, got it largely from their imaginations. Franz Rosenzweig was in part such a figure: he “converted” to Judaism from assimilation, and his conversion involved inventing a highly elaborate theological system with no real precedent in Jewish history so that he could go back to “his” religion via an imaginative reconstruction of some thought complexes from German idealism. Consciously or not, for some of these figures, the tradition became available all of a sudden as source material for recreating what never was, and the montage work of putting it together also often brought other traditions, other doctrines, even ones that had previously been sworn enemies, back onto the drawing board.

Rosenzweig is a conspicuous example of what you do in the strange event of historical weakenings and emptyings of categories, in this case the category “religion.” He ultimately rescues and reinvents a kind of religious practice by means of a highly formalized theology. We may find that all monotheisms contain somewhere within them a logic or logos of the divine, an attempt to justify by means of arguments or formulas the existence or preeminence of one God. Yet theology is a very technical activity, which is not always well developed and is hardly important at all moments. Theology, however it is construed, happily takes a back seat to practices, stories, political maneuvers, institutional habits, affective or mystical events, and so forth. Attempting to save religion or a religion, or secularity for that matter, from transformation or disappearance by means of theology is not a universal gesture; it has its own history, which is at key moments intertwined with the history of philosophy. To speak very generally, the first half of this history, which we might call “absolute theology,” begins with Aristotle and ends with medieval Aristotelianism—with many exceptions, of course—and the second half, in which theology became an attempt to salvage religious hopes by transforming them, often beyond recognition, begins with Luther and the Reformation, transits through Spinoza, the Enlightenment, and Kant, and issues into the early twentieth century where theological thinking, poorly disguised in Heidegger, toyed with in Walter Benjamin, and systematized in Rosenzweig, could seem the only salvation for a tradition—here, peculiarly, the tradition of secular philosophy—perceived as irrecoverable.

In this epoch, in the years when Heidegger was reading Saint Augustine, Benjamin was in conversation with Gershom Scholem, Rosenzweig was corresponding with his cousin Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and Carl Schmitt was calling for a recognition of the theological underpinnings of the modern state—Franz Kafka, responding to some of the same philosophical, cultural, and social forces, was planning a different reformation, this time not using theology to save religion or, conversely, to reformulate and re-entrench a set of nominally secular beliefs about power, existence, language, or history. Kafka sketched out a reformation of the theo-logic—not Judaic and not not Judaic—on which these activities depended.

We are used to classifying Kafka either as an extremely peculiar person or as a quintessentially literary writer or both. Literary writer par excellence was a post he held for the twentieth century’s foremost thinker of “the literary,” Maurice Blanchot. More than this, Blanchot’s Kafka was a writer of literature for whom literariness and writing were constant topics of concern. Even those critics who consider Kafka a “thinker” of this or that topic other than “writing” see his “thinking,” about the law, say, to give one example, as interesting precisely because it presents a literary viewpoint and not a legal one. Only recently has the fact that Kafka was not only a lawyer but a legal theorist in his own right begun to be taken seriously. Reading his legal writings, we discover that the government agency where he worked called upon him not only to defend this or that worker or to process claims under this or that insurance law. While grumbling about the time stolen from his literary writing, he also wrote elaborate briefs about how workers’ insurance laws should be conceived, written, and applied.

A handful of books and articles over the past two decades present the many spheres, law being only one, in which Kafka was thinking about something other than writing or his own personal life, and in a mode other than literature. Arnold Heidsieck, Barry Smith, Stanley Corngold, Benno Wagner, and Andreas Kilcher, among others, have contributed to this small library. To be sure, “other than literature” is a questionable phrase, especially given how many of these areas already involve literary strategies: law, phenomenology, Jewish thought, theology, and so forth. And yet in a few critical texts, like Heidsieck’s relatively unknown study, the reverse turns out also to be true. It emerges that the “literary” for Kafka in point of fact already involved elements from these other spheres: ideas about perception and consciousness from Brentanian “descriptive psychology,” recondite practices of language from jurisprudence, and from his theological reading concepts of time, being, the self, good and evil, and many others.

When Kafka began to think seriously about aspects of theology, in line with what some called Judaism, but few in his circle could define definitively,2 with reference to what some would have considered to fall well outside Judaism, that is, nominally Christian theological motifs—two things made his thinking along the lines, along the fault lines, of theology unprecedented. First of all, he used theology neither to rescue religion nor to condemn it, and he didn’t hope directly to improve anyone’s life in the world by means of it, including that of the Jews.3 From theology he sought a justification, not for changing the world, but for interpreting it differently, which, it seems to me now, he imagined would produce a much more fundamental shift than a revolution would have done. Unlike his friends, who found new justifications for action in religious motifs, Kafka was interested primarily in the logos of theology, which was interesting for him because it was flawed. So, secondly, Kafka engaged with theological themes, which included Jewish and non-Jewish, Christian, pagan, and animistic themes and other notions and scenarios, in order to demonstrate that what was called theology, which he believed was the main resource for our conceptual commitments, was precisely not logical; no divinely perfect logic stood behind it, and thus a stark opposition between the secular and the religious could not properly be asserted. In short, the prefix a- in “atheology” modified both theos and logos. He pursued this uncommon track, not because he believed that the secular was ultimately religious, although in many ways he might have agreed that it was, but because the only interesting thing about secular modernity was that its logic was a-logical in a variety of ways that could be explored, and exploited, and shown to correspond to theology, rightly understood.

We have an opportunity here to sketch out the parameters of a further possibility for theology that is neither its triumphant return nor its total demise at the hands of secular thought, that is, a path other than political theology (exemplified by Carl Schmitt) or theological politics (exemplified by Spinoza),4 a path that comes to us from Kafka’s writing of the late teens.5 The path emerges from perhaps the one work by Kafka that calls for a complete reconstruction, although it has never had one.6 In the winter of 1917–18, Kafka wrote more than three hundred pensées (he had read Pascal the summer before), which can be seen as “wisdom literature,” provided one credits “wisdom” with the potential to reveal the inconsistencies in a world system, to present, very wisely indeed, a world “dysstem.” In fact, these extensively small but intensively massive passages, often known as the Zürau Aphorisms, though they are better described as “thoughts” and not “aphorisms,” constitute Kafka’s only explicitly and thoroughly critical work, his “atheological-political treatise.” They cover almost every significant theologoumenon in the history of European thought. Each individual “thought” in Kafka’s treatise undertakes a complex linguistic and philosophical operation to reduce a theologoumenon to an original confusion, absurdity, inconsistency, or contradiction.7 In this way atheology, the procedure he undertakes, brings to language a set of specific alogoi that animate Kafka’s thinking work on the afterlife of the mono-god. In the Greek-derived terminology expressive of erudite scholarship, his atheology could be described as alogotheic.

It should go without saying that Kafka’s atheologic and alogotheics can’t be adjudged simply Jewish or Christian, pagan or animistic, although they draw into their fire elements that have been counted under each of these names at different historical moments. I make no attempt to class phenomena or doctrines rigorously under one or another such historical name.

Kafka’s response to political theology, which insists that secular concepts are at base theological, would be substantially the same as his response to theo-politics, which insists that theological concepts are at base all-too-human, interested, and political.8 He shows that the concept of theology—itself not theic but fallen—out of which both develop their arguments is ambiguous and frequently self-contradictory, and so it can neither become a foundation for thought and action, nor be criticized and negated as the basis for yet another God-free logic.9 Theology’s ambiguities are undoubtedly endemic to “Europe.” Kafka’s “thoughts” thus respond to the question “What to do?” in a Europe with ambiguous foundations and no pure “theology,” in which neither theism nor atheism are coherent options, when neither can be thoroughly negated or completely affirmed. What to do? Kafka’s response is summed up in the word “yield,” the central concept animating both his so-called aphorisms and this book. In this seemingly untenable situation, you might do nothing—or, in fact, less than nothing.

The mode and manner of “yielding,” a word that has no single German correlative, I describe as “atheological” in a special sense. I am not the first to use the term “atheology,” of course; it is being used increasingly often these days. Unlike “theology,” it has not, however, become a technical term; it does not name a body of argument that we could refer to and no branch of learning corresponds to it. The word appears early in a still not well-understood gesture by Georges Bataille—the title of whose projected series of five volumes, La somme athéologique (The Atheological Summa), was meant to signal, with no little irony, the conviction motivating a highly unsystematic corpus of writings. Bataille’s conviction was that lived experience had to be valued for itself, on the basis of the impossible. We might sum up theology—unfairly, no doubt, but not without some truth—by saying that it works to make transcendence acceptable to reason by means of reason. That is, from the perspective of human thought, theology makes God seem at least possible (that is, not contradictory) and at most real. Bataillean atheology does the converse: it works to make transcendence seem impossible, by means of non-knowledge. Non-knowledge is the proper attitude toward the impossible, and both correspond to life insofar as it is made up of chance occurrences and profanities such as bodily excretions—which break the frame of theology. At one point Bataille gives what he calls a “definition” of atheology: “the science of the death or destruction of God.”10 This shows in some sense why religion was crucial for Bataille to achieve his Nietzschean objective: because Abrahamic religions were the ones that paid serious attention to the profanities that hindered the progress of the faithful toward transcendence. Profanities offered perfect absurdities on the basis of which experience could, on good grounds, abandon anything higher or more explanatory than itself. God is dead already in flesh, for example, and more than “dead” in flesh’s putrid decay and waste, which makes spirit indeed seem ridiculous. “Atheology” was the name Bataille gave to the special non-science with special methods that described risible things such as waste, chance, laughter, and other phenomena.

Jean-Luc Nancy resurrects the word “atheological” in a project he calls the “auto-deconstruction of Christianity”;11 Nancy expects from this word a rise in respect for the “nothing” that Christianity brings into the center of “the world.” “Nothing” here takes the place of Bataille’s “impossible.” It is a Bataillean project; Nancy gives it this label himself. Yet unlike Bataille, Nancy believes that non-knowledge emerges within Christianity and has a special status there. Within nominally Christian theologoumena, Nancy finds an atheological moment, a moment in which one concept or another—faith, eternal life, the mono-god, messianism—is not only not affirmed but in fact turns out to be essentially nothing. From this essential nothing, Nancy wants to show, furthermore, that atheism is an essential component of mono-theism, or at a minimum that the two are mythical twins born from the same parent. When the capricious, humanoid, and plural gods of Greece are reduced to one, the divine effectively disappears. It vanishes behind all the new strategies that are suddenly needed in order to make a one—that may be an abstraction, a force, a principle, a unity, an alpha or an omega or both—thinkable. The way of this new singular god-principle, this first of firsts, is precisely to vanish behind the world, nature, knowledge, and so forth. For Nancy, atheism and theism operate within the same “horizon of a subtraction, of a retreat, an absence,” the primary phenomenological event of a nothing that makes both logics possible.12 And yet, this phenomenological “atheology” is quite reasonable; Nancy shows that the operations of the non-God are consistent, even in his retreat. Nancy’s conception is a-theos, and yet he seems to avoid anything too a-logos.

One of the most compelling “auto-deconstructions” Nancy discovers is that of the concept “faith.” The theologoumenon is special to Kafka as well. To Nancy faith is special because it preserves a conspicuous nothing at its core, a nothing that, furthermore, is not nihilistic. Nothing does not come from nothing, but we are surprised to discover that everything does. Nancy writes in the essay “Atheism and Monotheism,” translated and reproduced in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity: “That ‘God’ himself may be the fruit of faith, which at the same time depends only on his grace (that is, exempts itself from necessity and obligation), is a thought profoundly foreign—perhaps it is the most foreign—to the theism/atheism pair.”13 This sentence is a lesson in Nancy’s method and a clue to his hopes for atheology. He seeks to move beyond the theism/atheism pair by uncovering an identical moment in each of their structures. The reciprocal production of God by faith and of faith by God is the moment when both atheism and theism are born from nothing. The pivot on which everything turns is faith. “But faith?” he writes in the introduction, “Should it not form the necessary relation to the nothing: in such a way that we understand that there are no buffers, no halting points, no markers, no undeconstructible terms, and that disenclosure never stops opening what it opens (‘Europe,’ metaphysics, knowledge, the self, form, sense, religion itself)?”14 This list must go on, perhaps to infinity. Everything, in this new kind of genesis, derives from faith, which means that it is “grounded on nothing.” This idea of a generative and almost infinitely productive nothing whose conduit is faith,15 it should be said, is echoed avant la lettre in a theopolitical book by Kafka’s bosom friend Felix Weltsch: “Faith overcomes itself, by creating. For as soon as something is actually believed, it is no longer the case that: it is because it is believed; rather, it is believed because it is.”16 Faith is its own miracle: it reverses the order of things and makes an absolute out of a relative and an objective out of a subjective act. Weltsch does not say, as Nancy does, that with the act of faith, a nothing irrupts into perhaps the most meaningful modern moment, but he does, like Nancy, associate the moment of faith with a pure, incorrigible human freedom, the hope that I take it stands behind Nancy’s use of the same verb, “create.” In his book Gnade und Freiheit (Grace and Freedom), Weltsch calls the source of faith “creative freedom” (schöpferische Freiheit), and also “freedom with respect to grounds” (Freiheit zum Grund).17 The positive reference points in Weltsch’s argument are Jakob Böhme and Friedrich Schelling.18 For this reason, the similarity with Nancy is not fortuitous. In the era of neo-Kantianism and phenomenology, with his late work still largely unexplored, Schelling became an almost irresistible figure for Weltsch, not to mention for Rosenzweig, and soon also for Heidegger, whose Schellingian view of human freedom, sometimes called Freiheit zum Grund, resounds throughout Nancy’s work.19

Let us mark out Nancy’s Heideggerian-Schellingian position clearly so that we can see where it differs from Kafka’s, and how this difference might affect our understanding of the non-term and un-field “atheology.” In the middle of what is arguably the most important modern theologoumenon—faith, fides, Glaube, and Glauben—Nancy identifies an exclusive, necessary, foundational point of access to the “nothing” upon which all the European institutions of knowledge, politics, and so forth—what he often calls “the world”—are founded. It is a foundational nothing, a huge nothing, a substantial nothing, a nothing that makes everything possible—this is what is designated by the a- in Nancyan “atheology.” On a side note, a nothing by which one effectively obtains everything is not totally dissimilar to the way Luther describes faith in “The Freedom of a Christian,” or the way Kierkegaard follows suit in Fear and Trembling.

Kafka is perhaps closer to Bataille; indeed, he could be said to develop something like a system of non-knowledge, albeit without any knowledge of Bataille. Like Nancy, Kafka is attracted to the faith idea as somehow key to what we do beyond theism and its atheological converse, and yet he is unwilling to appropriate faith and accept its by now traditional powers, or by means of a nothing that is really something to exercise a great world-opening power and gain everything. He likes neither the possessiveness of “everything” nor the total productiveness of “nothing.” So, what then is faith? One of the thoughts in Kafka’s treatise indicates an answer: Faith means: emancipating the indestructible [das Unzerstörbare] within oneself or better: emancipating oneself or better: being indestructible or better: being.20 We notice right away in this thought that faith does not contribute to a deconstruction; it does not open a pathway to the nothing that decloses the world or lead us to its limits. Quite the contrary, here faith is a relation to what cannot be destroyed, to the impregnable fortress of being. The correct atheological account of faith is being.

Kafka is concerned with what the word “faith” conceals, with the commitments it causes to arise in us through its subterfuge, and with the subterfuge itself, through which being disguises itself as faith. This and other “thoughts” in Kafka’s atheological summa are supposed to help us in the end abandon certain words because of the hold they have on our imaginations. Belief (Glauben) is one such word.

We shouldn’t neglect the vocabulary of the schoolroom employed here. “More correct,” richtiger, is what a teacher tells a student. Our conceptual health improves as we read the sentence—our concepts get better and better, less and less deceptive. Faith is not a relation to nothing, but means “being,” not absence but full powerful presence and fullness—a theologoumenon that Kafka attacks mercilessly in an array of “thoughts”—and both these cornerstones of European self-confidence—faith and being—originate in a kind of freedom different from the Schelling-Heidegger-Nancy kind. Elsewhere in the treatise, the figure that Kafka associates with the indestructible (das Unzerstörbare) is “paradise.” Faith does not liberate us for the world or liberate the world for us, as Nancy and Weltsch believe: rather, it sets a paradise free within us (since we can’t find one on earth, or so the story goes), and chains us to this imaginary Eden for the duration of what Kafka calls “life.”

Freedom is a good point of difference between the two atheologies. In Nancy’s atheology, faith frees us from God for the nothing at the root of the world. He quotes Meister Eckhart approvingly, “I pray to God that he make me free of God,”21 and deduces from a strange phrase in the Epistle of James that faith proceeds according to a “law of freedom.”22 The law of freedom is, in Nancy’s reading of James, the necessity of the incommensurability of faith with its object, and thus the freedom of the faithful is freedom from parousia, freedom from the presence of God, freedom from being.23 In brief, what many of Nancy’s formulations show is a great belief in “faith” as the route to freedom, power, world-destruction, and ultimately to world-creation. In Kafkan atheology, faith does not defer the parousia; quite the contrary, the parousia is simply waiting for faith in order to get started. Faith liberates being in our most intimate interior and leaves us no escape from it.

Faith means: emancipating the indestructible within oneself or better: emancipating oneself or better: being indestructible or better: being.24 We cannot yet imagine a freedom, Kafka seems to be saying—and he corroborates this in other thoughts—that does not transplant the distant God into our innermost selves. This is what faith means: an interior, ownmost, incorruptible, paradisal fortress so deeply identified with its bearers that we cannot conceive of ourselves without it. Instead of asking about that-toward-which one has faith (God, world, soul), Kafka becomes suspicious about the apparent “nothing” out of which so powerful a capacity as faith could arise.

Other “thoughts” corroborate this line of argument. The human being cannot live without an enduring trust in [Vertrauen zu] something indestructible within himself, whereby the indestructible thing as well as the trust can remain enduringly hidden from him.25 You learn that the indestructible, standing between faith and being, is not valuable in and for itself. You don’t love paradise for paradise’s sake. You love it for what it gives you, for the permanence it lends to the intentional act of trust. Faith frees up the indestructible within you—be it a soul, a mind, a capacity, a “nature,” a language—so that you can then borrow permanence from it for yourself in the form of the capacity to trust.26 This feedback loop, what Hegel would call a Reflexionsbestimmung, gives faith a “lunatic strength” to go on even in the face of its total negation, even when it is properly “nothing.”

A dialogical thought informs us of this:

“No one can say we lack faith. The simple fact alone of our life can in no way have its faith-value used up.”

“There is a faith-value here? But no one can not-live.”

“Precisely in this “no one can not” hides the lunatic strength of faith; in this negation it gets its contour.”27

You could say that the thoughts in Kafka’s summa atheologica—almost all of them—are attempts to find moments in everyday practices, in idioms of language, in concepts that hold us, and in everyday thoughts where faith falters, weakens, loses some of its power. This thought is no exception. Here he presents a conversation in which a troublesome obstacle appears that could derail his own project of disempowering faith. Even life, even basic, sensorial, bodily, empirical non-theological experiences—like the ones Bataille holds up as an antidote to transcendence—depend on faith. In them its “lunatic strength” reveals itself, because once God withdraws, once the nothing or the impossible is exposed as the basis of all things, faith shifts its attention to sex, shit, and dirt, the imperfect, the low, the fallen—to God’s residue, if you will. Bataille intuits this in a note he makes under the rubric “execration”: “there might even be a systematic ‘experience,’ but this experience has only one end, the liquidation of experience, of all systematic experience. From this a taciturn valorization—without literature—of nonsystematic experience. Without any other literature than the construction in the human mind of atheological renunciation.”28 In his brief dialogue, Kafka reaches the limits of a systematically unsystematic experience like that proposed here by Bataille. Whatever would be achieved by “atheological renunciation” remains in the end still a valorization, and this belies a stubborn faith and an ongoing faith in that faith; no matter how taciturn one is with respect to the valorization, faith still affirms a total fact, itself included. In the Kafkan scene, two atheists are sitting and talking. One says faith no longer operates in the unsystematic sphere called “life”; the other reminds him that commitment to this sphere is also an act of faith.

There is, nonetheless, another kind of faith. Kafka imagines a faith thin enough that it could negate itself. A faith like a guillotine, so heavy, so light.29 The blade of this guillotine would be a hairline trust in faith’s opposite. Kafka lets the blade fall in several places. Whoever has faith cannot experience a miracle. By day one sees no stars.30 Let us understand by this that Kafka is not only calling for the darkest night of unbelief, but he is also claiming—a proposition that requires faith, it is true, but an infinitely thin one that cuts itself off, a self-severing faith—that faith merely punctuates a milieu in which faith no longer makes sense. Wherever faith implies the power to overcome negativity or to put it to use in the service of transcendence or immanence, fallenness or world, Kafka imagines powerlessness in its place. Or better: in place of nothing, the impossible and the fact of life, which remain powerful, Kafka imagines a field of weaknesses that cannot be converted into power. Or better: he rejects the hopes that underpin the free opening of worlds, rejects Freiheit zum Grunde (one imagines, with respect to this phrase, secret alliances between Schellingian/Heideggerian/Nancyan philosophy and some iterations of “Zionism,” political, territorial, cultural, and theological). It is time, rather, for much more humble prerogatives. One quick example of this: in response to grandiose plans to settle Palestine or build a Jewish state, it was in the summer after writing down these thoughts that Kafka went to the Pomologisches Insitut to learn gardening.31 We can only speculate as to what attracted Kafka to tending the earth; maybe it was the way soil, contrary to its political reputation, freely abandons its consistency, the way soil yields itself to alien growths.

2. Thoughts

One of the humble prerogatives that arises out of the weak new milieu of faithlessness is Kafka’s atheological-political treatise itself. That the small texts that make up the treatise, over three hundred scrawled in small notebooks, are thoughts in the style of Pascal’s Pensées means first and foremost that they are neither parts of something larger, fragments, say, nor stand-alone wholes such as aphorisms, the genre for which they are most frequently taken. Fragments and aphorisms are mirror images, both defined by the question of independence and completeness. If it is complete and independent, it is an aphorism; if incomplete and dependent, it is a fragment. These qualities, completion and independence, are precisely what are at risk and in question in atheology, and so Kafka’s thoughts are suitably skeptical of or even indifferent to both qualities. As thoughts, his texts are no more or less complete or independent than any thought may ever be considered to be.32 Thoughts are either the fallout from thinking, or better, as the unorthodox psychoanalyst W. R. Bion put it in 1962, thinking is a post-hoc maneuver for overcoming and domesticating the disturbances that are thoughts.33 In this light, the small passages are thoughts before the coming of a thinking that would tame them—and any attempt to reconsider them is fated to remain a contingent response that may be a thinking alongside, but never a thinking through, or better: a commentary on thoughts without thinking.

Even if we don’t accept that thinking is a silent conversation in the soul, we can, without any residual Platonism, recognize the conversational aspects of Kafka’s pensées. They call to one another, and to further unwritten passages, in the manner of a conversation, or rather several at once, a polylogue spoken from multiple positions, including—and this is perhaps the most important mode of positioning—the position from after a thought. Thoughts and afterthoughts, we could call them, insofar as when a word or question occurs in one, it often recurs in a later thought, with implicit reference to the former. We might guess that this is why Kafka left the small passages in the order in which he jotted them down when he selected a little more than one hundred of them and made a fair copy on slips of paper the editors call Zettel.34 The task of coming to terms with these thoughts, of thinking them—after the fact, in the manner of a synthesis that is not in them but in the posthumous thinking of them—is to bring out the conversation, the implicit inter-references, the calls and responses, without losing the shifts of intention, vocabulary, and context, through which a rich view of European intellectual and political history in all its contradictoriness is achieved.35 There is a whole here: it is the whole of the wholly scattered and contingent intellectual commitments that motivate the animal and human communities in their attitudes and behavior toward themselves and one another. It is a whole, the whole of Europe you might say, flawed as it is, whose flaws these thoughts set out to dramatize.

For the purposes of this book I don’t distinguish absolutely between thoughts from the “fair copy” and thoughts from the notebooks. This is not because I discount authorial intention, but rather because I prefer one of Kafka’s intentions to the other. The project of catching thoughts, writing them as they came, keeping them in the order of their occurrence is more important for us now, I would contend, than the effort to reshape their genesis, to remove some (but not all) traces of their occurrence, and, as with many of Kafka’s emendations in his fictions, to subtract the more obvious associations. Kafka’s self-editing is a complex topic, given his extremely conservative views about the quality of his own works. In short, a story had to be perfect, and perfection consisted of two requirements. A story had to be written in “a breath” and without what he called “errors.” These thoughts would seem to fulfill the first requirement but not the second. In fact, they fulfill the second, too, though in a different way. They came as they came, without second thoughts, as it were, and they correct themselves, but over the course of further thoughts, afterthoughts—and so in some way they are all “second” thoughts. Indeed, they arrive in a second coming, and this means they are not measured against any standard outside themselves.36 They come back and renew themselves; they become what they are. Thus the polylogue of thoughts and afterthoughts is not only best in the notebooks, it is also best when it includes the thoughts unchosen by Kafka. The fair copy and the notebooks are of course in conversation in a way that enriches the commentary and contributes to the reconstruction. Yet in effect I am taking the notebooks as my source text, in all their contradictions, revisions and re-revisions, with reference to the fair copy where helpful. A book like this could not be written either by one who believed that these were fragments or aphorisms or by one who believed that the final version was a whole unto itself. It could only be written by one convinced that the real story was the atheological reduction of “secular modernity” to original ambiguities that had to be written outside its major forms and logics, also between singular thoughts, in their progressive intrasyntagmatic distances, and in the reformulations, re-evaluations, and frequent contradictions that plague them.

Three moments of occurrence are reflected in the collection at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, or perhaps four, depending on how you count. As I’ve said, the original “composition” was not continuous or uniform; it was not a composition (like the legal writings) or a communication (like the letters), or even a daily writing practice (like the diaries), but a game of catch with thoughts as they happened to occur.37 Kafka dated many of the notebook entries and this gives them some relationship to calendric time. For one thing, we can say pretty accurately that they were written down between October 17, 1917, and the very end of February or the beginning of March 1918. This counts as one moment of their occurrence, a series of days and dates. Then at some point, either in the spring of 1918 or when he returned to work over the thoughts again in 1920, Kafka selected individual entries to copy onto small, numbered slips, the Zettel. And finally a typescript was made from these—it is not clear when or by whom—numbered in the same order as the slips. A further moment was the addition of lines to the notebooks separating “thoughts” and diagonal lines crossing out individual thoughts and at times whole pages. Even Roland Reuß, one of the meticulous editors of the historical-critical edition of Kafka’s writings, admits that the material evidence does not allow us to decide exactly when the dividing lines were inscribed: immediately after writing down one or more thoughts, or later as part of the selection procedure.38 What is clear is that the numbers printed with every edition were added at the time of the Zettel, but it is important to note that the numbers still express the exact order of occurrence in the notebooks, even though in the slips the majority of thoughts have been edited out.39 Thus this book is not only a reconstruction but also a restoration of the plurality in the original.

We can only speculate why Kafka recorded thoughts in this manner, at this time, and in secret. He tells his closest friend, Max Brod, in a letter that he is not writing at all.40 This deflection is telling. It belongs to a strategy Kafka had developed for disentangling himself from his friend’s grandiose expectations for his literary talent, which alternately uplifted and dismayed Kafka. On the other hand, it also gave him an opportunity to change his own expectations and commitments. “Writing” has a very different sense in these thoughts than it did in his literary endeavors to this point. He noted in 1913: “Everything that isn’t related to literature I hate.”41 And the same year in a letter to Felice, there is the famous declaration: “I . . . am made of literature.”42 When he says in the fall of 1917 that he is “not writing at all,” he brushes off Brod’s insistence that he write fiction and also sets aside his own early and rather grandiose pronouncements about his writerly essence. And he has a third objective as well: to take a stand against Brod’s current writing project. In fact, his best friends, Brod and Felix Weltsch, were both at work on theological-political treatises, each project closer to political theology than to a critique of religion. In Vienna at the time there was “a lively dominant interest in the epistemological and logical problems that are linked with the foundations of physics.”43 In Prague the interest was in the ethical, ontological, and political profit to be had from rethinking religion. It was a year of theological treatises elsewhere as well. Franz Rosenzweig was beginning his. Kafka knew that Weltsch was working on a treatise on religious ethics, and he read the manuscript at various stages of completion. It was Kafka who chided Weltsch that his apparently secular ethics had an obviously religious ground, so why should he hide it?44 Grace and Freedom (Gnade und Freiheit) were the poles around which Weltsch organized his theological refurbishing of European ethics. His book by this title presents a dialectical argument with debts to Schelling, which develops through stages, reversals, and syntheses toward the “redemption of God through human beings.”45 Without knowing it Weltsch had come very close to Rosenzweig, who was revolutionizing the same theological narratives at almost exactly the same time, also out of sources in German idealism.

Weltsch says of himself that he is seeking to formulate the “fundamental principles of the being of human beings [Urprinzipien menschlichen Seins].”46 Brod, in contrast, follows Max Weber in thinking of major religions as “thought systems.” Paganism, Christianity, and Judaism—so goes the title of his treatise—in his estimation are the only thought systems worthy of the name. Yet they are permanently at war with one another, and this conflict is perpetuated by contemporary political and ethical conditions.47 On a side note: the disparagement and dismissal of Islam in these “renewals” of theology are vehement, a tendency as prominent in Rosenzweig as it is in Brod. Brod thought of himself as adjudicating between the three warring factions in order to come up with a new mixture of ethical attitudes, drawn from the successes and failures of the latter two. Weltsch sees freedom, understood as decision or choice (Entscheidung), as the pivotal heroic concept of Abrahamic religions, whereas Brod chooses grace, by which he means, not the intervention of God, but a worldly accident. The differences aside, both champion the potential to act and criticize passivity, which they associate with Jewishness. Within this framework they produce sophisticated, historically focused, conceptual arguments for a new theological or religious foundation of ethical action. For Brod this culminates in an ethical world-nation based on the nation of the Jews. For Weltsch it issues in a religion of freedom (Freiheitsreligion) that inheres in the free decisions of individuals.

Kafka’s “thoughts” differ from these treatises in form, obviously, but also in assumptions and objectives. Kafka read Pascal in the summer of 1917. His diaries say little about France’s most negative theological thinker, and nothing on the subject shows up in his letters, but this is typical of Kafka. Nietzsche was the engine of his thinking from his teens on, and there is next to no mention of Nietzsche in the writings to which we currently have access. One could surmise that for Kafka the relationship of strongest attachment stands in inverse proportion to the number of explicit references. As a model for a method, Pascal is obviously more negative than either Brod or Weltsch. And Kafka’s intention was very different from the Buber-inspired “renewal” that motivated the two friends to construct their respective theologically inspired systems. What Buber was to Brod and Weltsch, we can surmise, Pascal was to Kafka, yet Pascal’s are systemless thoughts in view of the impossibility of a coherent ethical or ontological program. Thoughts occur in an unredeemed and unredeemable world. And yet, although the negativity for Pascal is not to be abrogated, it is also allegorical. Thought draws great power from the “end of life.” “The order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end.”48 In this directive on the alpha and archē of thoughts, Pascal also differs from Kafka, who refutes the idea of individual finitude, through this refutation attempting to disempower death as the origin of thinking. For the finitude of each Pascalian thought and their collective disorderliness are signs of the theological order that they negatively represent, and death represents in an inversion its own overcoming. Kafka takes note of the impulse within this theory of finite thinking toward orderliness and transcendence, when he writes his one diary entry on Pascal: “Pascal tidies everything up [macht . . . große Ordnung] before the entrance of God, but there must be a deeper, more anxious skepsis than this skepsis of the human being ascending the throne, who, with a miraculous knife indeed, but still with the calm of a butcher, cuts himself to pieces. Whence this calm? Certitude in his command of the knife? Is God a theatrical triumph chariot that someone, notwithstanding all the toil and despair of the workers, draws from a distance onto the stage with ropes?”49 We already hear a more anxious skepsis beginning to move through Kafka’s own description of Pascal. Cutting himself up with a miraculous knife, Pascal finds that the more he cuts, the more the riven body of his intellect indicates the divine totality. Each shard offers an isolated, abandoned image, and the absoluteness of the higher unity is reflected virtually in the potential infinity of shards.

Kafka recognizes the comforting nature of each of Pascal’s “thoughts,” and also of the portrait of the thinker who cuts himself to pieces before the one, the whole, the end. For this self-immolating thinker “order” saves the day, order—which has to include the orderliness of the thoughts themselves. Pascal’s ordre—a word that obsesses him in the Pensées—Kafka reads as Ordnung machen, cleaning up a mess. Pascalian skepsis is thus by Kafka’s lights already quite a calm doubt, tranquil in view of the ultimate entrance of God.50 Doubt is provisional uncertainty that is still certain about one thing: coming certainty—Kafka puts his finger on the residual Cartesianism here, which is as much in the idea as in the practice of Pascalian thoughts.51 Kafka thus takes something from Pascal but leaves something else behind. Thoughts in the mysterious order of their occurrence will be his medium, or better, his experiment, though we must begin to use a different word than “order” for their arrangement. You can see in one pensée how Pascal hedges himself against too free a disposition of thoughts: “As if the same thoughts did not form a different form of discourse by being differently arranged, just as the same words make different thoughts by being differently arranged.”52 This implies that orderability is the substitute for system, for a sinuous whole, for an all of thought and being. A deeper, more anxious skepsis would produce a less comforting outcome. Bion is right: it is already apparent in Pascal that thoughts out of order, or thoughts whose main question is not their ultimate orderability, are so disturbing that they give rise to thinking as a way to restore calm.53

The present commentary does not so much give order to the thoughts as bring to words the concrete and specific disorder or anorder, the shifts and jumps in the conversation among them.54 To this end I often pervert the order of occurrence and associate conversational sets—the calls and responses, echoes, stutters, repetitions, jokes, guesses and ripostes that crisscross the thoughts and that defy the march of calendric days over those few months.

Early in the experience of receiving these thoughts, Kafka thinks an astonishing question: Is it possible to think something that does not console?55 It is a dire question, an anti-Pascalian question, a question about the effects of thinking, one that points toward the very deeper skepticism than the shallow one he resisted when reading Pascal; moreover, it implies a negative answer. Unconsoling thoughts, we have them all the time, don’t we?—why did Kafka think they might not even be possible? This brief thought about the nature of thoughts stands like a preface to our reconstruction of his atheological polylogue.

When he writes down this question, Kafka may not yet know what he is saying, whether this thought should or can be continued, least of all whether it can become the test of a whole project. There is not yet any project. Like any true conversation, this one begins tentatively, without assurance that it will go on from where it has not begun. And like a true conversation, it often gives up and begins again from another point.56 Anyone reading these thoughts has to remain sensitive to the unconscious, tentative, risky steps out of which it will ultimately have been made, with the frequent culs-de-sac. This early thought is no exception. Yet it is difficult not to see in it, however futureless it may have been in the moment of its occurrence, a primary provocation, a pinprick of desperation or a thin shadow of hope that may have pushed him into a cycle of responses. “Can I discover a thought that does not console?” One way to honor this accidental program is to consider each thought, on one hand, simultaneously the first in a series and potentially the last, and, on the other hand, as such also potentially only ever a middle, as calling up more accidents and yet another thought, whose coming was not at all assured and which might well revoke or worse partially revoke the previous one.

Is it possible to think something that does not console? Or rather something not-consoling without even a whiff of consolation [Trost]?57 Kafka hits on a ruthless, one might even say reckless, possibility here: completely expunging consolation from thinking. We might notice that the term and concept “consolation” is at home in many nominally religious contexts and texts, but it also contains the seeds of a virulent atheism. In early days, Nietzsche imagined that his radically revised aesthetic religion would aim at “the art of comfort in this world.”58 Pascal thinks of this-worldly options as consolations as well: “The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is distraction, yet that is the greatest of our wretchednesses.”59 The dialectic of consolation shines in this thought. A distraction is still a distress, but, to Pascal, it transforms into a comfort when it is recognized as trivial, and this recognition happens in thought, in a thought, in this thought, where distraction is put in its place. The thought is the consolation for what is thought. Now, if any theologian teeters on the edge of the inconsolable, it is certainly Pascal. And this is for two reasons. To start with, the thought of the inconsolable, this extreme at which he several times almost arrives, also gives comfort. One soon realizes that in the Pensées everything distressing is converted to consolation through thinking. There is no human distress that cannot be overcome by the proper use of the method of having thoughts. At the same time, the Pensées as a whole completely neutralizes the effects of distress and suffering to the point at which there is nothing left to threaten us, nothing left to think—at least this is the project. And so it also moves past the need for thoughts, past the need for consolation, into a district in which consolation no longer has meaning—an atheological district. Secondly, even if one receives consolation by and through a negative movement such as Pascal’s, wherever consolation is the immediate and overarching goal, it threatens to become theology’s only justification. Consolation suspends the need for divinity, if momentarily. And so, while theological thoughts may console, theology and God also come to exist rather quickly in this light for the purposes of human consolation and only for those purposes. Through consolation, God comes to sit at man’s feet.

The strong implication of Kafka’s question is that even the thought of something that does not console us, by the very form of thinking, in the fact that we make a sentence about it or represent it to ourselves, provides solace. Even the thought of an unconsoling thought maintains a whiff of consolation insofar as it is a thought. We reach a limit here. It is not a limit to the content of thought, as though there were thinkable and unthinkable objects, as though we couldn’t in fact think of everything that pertains to our world. Instead here we reach a limit of what thinking is for, what it means and what it does, because of the inescapable soothing effect of thoughts on the thinker. Thoughts always console, even if it is the thought of thoughts’ own limits. What does not console would thus not be a thought. Everything that is “unthinkable” in Kafka comes from this insight into the limit of thought per se. To be sure, the main intuition of modern Europe, that there are limits to human thinking, has a comforting effect. If we can think the limit we cannot be surprised by the abyss beyond. Socrates is in this light a master consoler; Kant too, as well as Freud. In Pascal, the entire scope of the unknowable—the author and the end of thought—is contained and tamed in the miniscule thought that thoughts are inadequate, multiple, messy, temporal. This is the other sense in which thoughts console. They can embrace their own fallenness, imperfection, precarity, and the Pascalian word for this ability is ordre. Indeed all one has to do is think it consoles; if it thinks it, it does it. Possibility is actuality for thought when it comes to consolation. This is perhaps the greatest comfort, since nothing indeterminate, unactualized, unthinkable remains beyond its reach, even, as one can see, what is actually beyond it.

Consolation has been the center of the Western intellectualist project. One doesn’t have to minister to the afflicted; before any such practical activity one merely gives one’s attention to them, as Simone Weil recognized. Luther’s text “Fourteen Consolations” is presented to the gravely ill Frederick the Wise for his “contemplation.”60 It introduces thoughts in order to cover over or draw the thinking being away from a situation that cannot be resolved through acts. Thoughts give momentary asylum in a world of suffering. Descartes points in this direction when he conflates the thinking being with the doubting being. The power he discovers in doubt qua thinking alleviates his own suffering over the suggestion that his childhood experience was untrustworthy and his sensual experience, like wax, is plastic, so that deformation is not an aberration of experience but the norm.

Kafka finds the heart of this dialectic with one further turn or half-turn. A way out of this predicament could lie in the fact that knowing [Erkennen] as such is consolation.61 That is to say, apperceiving, attending to a fact—the fact of knowledge, the fact about knowledge that it is for the purposes of consolation—may open a route to a different mode. This, let’s say, is the first thought in a Kafkan “new thinking.” It should be rigorously distinguished from a fetishization of suffering, although it does aim to produce an experience that is inconsolable.62 Without a remedy in thinking or in thoughts, suffering “as such” cannot be conceived; it loses its meaning when it loses hope of conversion in thought, as one Kafkan sentence puts it, . . . in such a way that that which in this world is called suffering, in another world, unchanged and only freed from its opposite, is bliss.63 The opposite of suffering is consolation and a thought that does not console should indeed, by this logic, effect a happiness with no opposite. Kafka sometimes calls this beatitude (Seligkeit), a kind of holiness that we have to understand of course atheologically, and which it may well be the aim of the treatise to produce.

Possessed by the Pascalian paradigm, Kafka worries about the effects thoughts have on thinkers and on the world. There is scarcely an escape from the dialectic of consolation. Thoughts are those conversion loops in which the world becomes the sign of its ultimate unimportance, where what is distressing loses its value in comparison to the absolute and suffering becomes a comfort and a good through a gesture elsewhere. Consolation is a form of substitution: a thought for an experience, one thought for another, and at times one kind of thought for another kind of thought. Luther tells us the difference between the two kinds. How close his language is to the language of modern philosophy! True to the Augustinian presuppositions he shares with Pascal, Luther tells readers, and told them again and again through the many editions of this popular text, that consolation happens when the mind is diverted from the thing (res) that causes distress to another absent thing. What brings about this diversion is the word of God.64 This supplementary movement beyond cognition, this replacement of the thing thought with another thing, which will remind us, perhaps, of other rationalist or quasi-rationalist activities of the mind, the imposition of concepts, say, on intuitions, as well as a certain interpretation of interpretation, the replacement of the foreign text with the historical text, the corrupted with the true, “paraperience” with “experience”—these are all analogous to the operation of consolation within thinking. And yet the effect of thinking should also bring about a new distress—yes, precisely when it impinges, as it does when its purpose or effect is consolation, on the relationship of thinking to truth, which, in order to be truth, cannot be conditioned by the need for consolation. Indeed if it is for consolation, thinking moves away from truth. This is made clear in a note Kafka made in 1920 to the effect that consolation is always judged on its effectiveness, not on its truth.65

Is it even possible to think something that does not console, and would that be called thinking? The act of thinking, this substituting of one thing for another, is structurally identical to consolation as Luther describes it. The first answer that Kafka gives is negative. By worldly means thinking builds a shell or a burrow against the world, and yet, as soon as this thought comes to you, one thing penetrates the shell, an image of thinking as no more than a shell, as merely protective, and thus as delusional, misleading, and so forth—as consolatory but not true. Thinking toward truth splits off from thinking toward consolation. Ostensibly, however, this division and categorization is also another thought, another protection, another wall around the burrow. The scramble to escape digs us in deeper, and this quicksand effect is indeed the effect of what Kafka calls thinking. One could well think: you must do away with yourself, and still that you could, nevertheless, without faking this knowledge, derive comfort from the fact that you know it. But that really means pulling yourself up out of the swamp by your own hair.66 Thinking, even thinking without the consolation of a self, just here, where it imagines that it has escaped upward, sinks downward. Thinking is sinking. The precision of this “thought” is ferocious. As long as thinking means holding on to an image, a sentence, a formula, there is no “higher” thinking that transcends the lowly desire for comfort. The thought of another kind of thought is also comforting, and so on. And thus it is not our own personal limits that keep us from being able to pull ourselves out of the swamp. It is, rather, a fact of gravity, or the limits of a genre. In fact, moving toward truth is illusion: it really moves away. The more thought struggles toward truth, the more it consoles you with the thought that it is getting there. You can see this in Pascal: one simple thought—say that life ends—is not enough; soon he is buried under the weight of hundreds of them. Gravity is what Kafka calls the force that conditions us without our being able to claim that we ourselves set the ultimate condition. Thinking is sinking. And yet there may be a way of having thoughts, of letting them come without thinking them, where they do not accumulate, but, as it were, float in and float out, and away.

If we switch frames and imagine a world without conditions or with different conditions, the problem vanishes; for what is laughable in the bodily world is possible in the spiritual. There the law of gravity is not in effect, (the angels do not fly, they have not suspended gravity, we observers from the earthly world only know no better way to think), which in any case is not imaginable for us, or only at a higher level.67 Angels do not think. That is, they need no consolation, they do not recognize burdens as burdens. A consolatoria pro laborantibus et oneratis would not be written by them.

Can one think without consolation? Can one be an angel? Here is a question that by its nature cannot console us; perhaps it cannot even distress us, once we understand that it shifts the frame of reference. So Kafka is not looking for an anxious mode, an inconsolable thinking, but an unconsolatory one, one outside the parameters of the consolation of philosophy. In 1920 Kafka returns to this issue with a surprising conclusion: the way out of consolation is directly through it. “No consolation can console him, precisely because it is consolation.”68 Kafka asks whether there could be a thinking absolutely removed from the goal of comfort and solace. The answer involves as thoroughgoing a negation of the precepts of European thought as can be imagined. The precepts are not consoling to the very extent that they console us, since consolation, if it is the final cause and goal of thinking, supersedes the reason it gives. Consolation is an end in itself and thus is the most terrifying fact. This is, to be sure, the hole in the bottom of the tradition—that thought is for consolation, not for truth, with consolation as a by-product of truth’s abandonment. So thoughts console, but they can never truly console.

3. Four Circles

Kafka’s theopolitical thoughts cut across four circles. The circles are not concentric; in some cases it is only Kafka’s treatise that allows them to touch. In other cases the circles overlap historically or conceptually. First, the smallest circle: he writes within the most intimate combat with his friends Max Brod and Felix Weltsch (see 10, 12, 13, 18, 20, 22, 27, 35), contesting their theological interventions in Zionism without ever confronting them about it in person. They never knew during his lifetime that he was writing his treatise while they were writing theirs. Second, a larger circle: he swims in the sea of Zionisms about which he reads almost daily in the Jewish journals (5, 15, 18, 19, 32, 35). One can safely say that Kafka had read about and thought through a great number of the subtly different attitudes and possible solutions to the quandaries, real and perceived, of European Jews. Like Rosenzweig and many others, he was returning to a religion he had barely known, and this gave him the opportunity to make of it what he imagined it was, and, with and without a clear sense that he was doing this, also to make it what it never had been. Third, he opened a door that was not theo-politics in the pantheist tradition of Spinoza or the atheist tradition of Feuerbach, but was also not political theology in the sense that Carl Schmitt was developing it over the same span of years (5, 6, 8, 17, 19, 20, 28, 39). We must place Kafka near the path leading from Spinoza to Schmitt and Rosenzweig in order to point out his deviation from it. And finally, the fourth circle: he is in conversation with, in the circle of but departing from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. One can see the thoughts as an encounter between the long-standing Nietzschean pose of Kafka’s thinking and the Kierkegaard that Brod coerced him into reading that fall. A battle between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard was in the air in those years. Brod favored Kierkegaard; Rosenzweig obviously did too. Kafka favors Nietzsche but undermines certain of his convictions. If Nietzsche was the last metaphysician, Kafka is the first post-metaphysician—which is to say, in some deep sense, just a physician. In this respect also he grazes very close to Heidegger’s concerns, the early ontological ones in Being and Time and the ones Heidegger starts to discover in the 1930s after reading Nietzsche, by which I refer to the Heideggerian problematic of willing (20, 28, 39).

You might worry that these circles are circles of hell, and that Kafka tries to make his way out of them with weak instruments and little chance of grace. But this is not quite right. If anything he creeps along their radials toward the centers in order to note down the formulas from which they generate themselves. And all four of his contexts, in one way or another, pivot around motifs from the Book of Genesis that permeate these thoughts.69

The battle or Kampf (a key Kafkan term with clear Nietzschean overtones) between Kafka and Max Brod is as old as their friendship, and it can be expressed as a staged battle between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. They connected seriously for the first time on an evening when Brod, in a public speaking engagement, was supporting Schopenhauer against Nietzsche, and Kafka stood up to defend Nietzsche. Such an allegiance, between Kafka and Nietzsche, on the one hand, and Brod and Schopenhauer, on the other, and such a war, between Brod/Schopenhauer and Kafka/Nietzsche repeats itself in the period of the treatise. Kierkegaard is Brod’s new Schopenhauer; the transcendental tenor is all too similar. In this way the first circle, the intimate sphere of friends and the fourth, intellectual-formative circle are overlapping. The overlap we could describe as a hangover from not yet finished, perhaps not yet fully started nineteenth-century political, religious, and philosophical shifts that broke up Europe’s conceptual grounds, marooning some groups, such as the German-speaking Jews in Prague, raising some to mountaintops, such as Bismarck with his Realpolitik and his imperial welfare state, and, producing a Herzl, with his political solution for the future of the Jews. In his diary Kafka notes the “constant clamor” (ewiges Geschrei) at the Eleventh Zionist congress in Vienna, which he attended.70 The only thing constant about the meeting was its Babelian hubbub. Of the Bismarckian legal framework for the welfare state, we know Kafka’s opinion: he wrote official contributions to it in his day job and butchered it at night.

In the second circle belongs the larger event and wish and experience of a “return to Judaism,” although some embarrassing matters have to be admitted right away. As I have begun to explain, it wasn’t much of a “renewal,” since many of the homecomers of the period, such as Kafka, Brod, Weltsch, and analogous figures outside his circle, most saliently Rosenzweig, and to be sure also Walter Benjamin, were from long-assimilated families. Brod and Weltsch for instance both had Catholic primary educations. In a sense it was a truly paradisal moment in the history of an idea: the Garden of Eden could be planted anywhere, since the memory of the original had become beclouded. Jewish things had to be sought and found, selected, adapted, tried on like costumes; indeed, in the most interesting cases, it had to be cut from whole cloth. There is little doubt that Rosenzweig did this. Buber was doing it too, with his mythico-ecstatic cultural ideas. Hermann Cohen likewise, with vastly different assumptions. Brod and Weltsch were each at work, as I have noted, on definitive statements of their respective theologically inflected world philosophies out of the sources of Judaism.

The third context ignores the personal motivations for writing (the outbreak of illness; the final breakup with Felice; a very bloody period in the war; the sharp rise of Czech nationalism; the Balfour Declaration, which was publicized in all the Jewish journals Kafka was reading)71 and the genre (as if Kafka wrote “in genres,” as an objective decision, committing to them beforehand, treating them as sets of rules). It does, however, take account of the procedure of the thoughts, the thoughts as subtle, sometimes ironic, but always logically rigorous demonstrations of confusions in the basic theologoumena underlying Europe’s intellectual and practical commitments.72 The history of theopolitical critiques is thus the third circle. Neither Kafka’s treatise nor the letters and diary entries surrounding it, I must admit right from the start, mention Spinoza, Feuerbach, or Kant, let alone a contemporary like Cohen. Nevertheless the treatise contributes to this larger array of thoughts; it takes up the critique of the Hebrew bible from Spinoza; it concurs with Feuerbach that gods are images, even anthropomorphic ones, but it disagrees that revealing this will topple them from their false heights for the sake of an immanent divinity: the human being; it parallels Kant (and Nietzsche) in taking theology as in the service of morality.

Within each of these contexts the treatise has a singular position. Kafka is distant from and yet silently contesting his Zionist friends; he is reinventing Judaism without some of the traits that make it Jewish; he supports the critique of religion, yet he does not celebrate the coming of secularity or atheism. You will notice some tension, which perhaps approaches contradiction, in each of these positions. He is not and is not not a friend; he is not and is not not a theologian. Or as Kafka will put it about someone else a few years later, she is “not a Jew and not not a Jew.” This “not and not-not” is a logical category peculiar to Kafka, or so I believe, a nondialectical self-relation that he develops across the thoughts as an instrument for cutting a pathway through theology and philosophy.

4. The Fourfold Atheological Analysis

The tradition, as Kafka embroiders his thoughts onto it, has as its main threads a set of four concepts, best presented as a parallelogram (see Fig. 1).

Such a diagram is obviously overly schematic but some basic relationships nevertheless become conspicuous in it. Being and time define the pillar of the tradition. They are its main anchor points, but they also represent a tension. Time strains upward against the weight of being, threatening to uproot it, but also standing directly on being and extending out of it, just as in the same gesture being is a precipitate of time. That time and being are dependent on one another Kafka recognizes explicitly in the treatise. Two extremes that do not fall along the axis of being and time do however intersect with it and modify its tensed stability. Death does this: its line issues from time as the punctuating finitude of its infinity, at once threatening and aiding being in its claim to permanence and time in its claim to continuity. The line that joins being and time is transcendence. Being is no single being; it is eternal preservation, unchanging unity; time is no single instant; it is constant slipping away, perpetual motion. The key aspect of death, in contrast, is finitude, interruption, a direct challenge to perpetuity and eternity, on one hand, and the condition for transcendence on the other. Only insofar as beings and moments pass away can being and time be said to live on forever, to be deathless.


These knots in the philosophical and theological threads—being, time, and death—could also be called, respectively, God, world, and human being. Being/God, world/time, human being/death—these are often considered not only the major but also the only poles of European thought and practice. We name the pairs and hypostatize them, say that they are, are true, persist, and will continue to, and we orient ourselves by their light. Rosenzweig’s star has them at three of its points.

In this picture, being and time are stable, though in tension, while death is the greatest threat to them as well as the means of their repeated overcoming. You can see how the three support each other in deflection; a dialectic forms by which death contributes to the unity of being and time. This is equivalent to the Hegelian dialectic. Yet in this diagram there is a fourth vector, a trajectory coming from much lower than death and breaking the synchrony of the trinity; this is will. If anything could disturb the machine of survival and eternity it has been thought, since Nietzsche at least, to be willing. Willing, however, is precisely what ends in individual death, and so even this monstrous power is mastered and contained by the parallelogram.

If we look at this chart, this x-ray of fundamental commitments, from another position, the skeleton of European thought and practice changes its aspect. For in fact, each of these topoi admits of interpretation. What we mean when we say “being” is on Kafka’s mind in 1917–18, as is “our concept of time.” And once these poles are interpreted by him, a different diagram emerges (see Fig. 2).

These new, translated terms are the result of procedures Kafka carries out on the parallelogram: as he writes down his thoughts, the basic precepts and their relationship are changed, dragging the parallelogram out of shape. From the perspective of the yield—which we still must explain—being comes to look like an act or activity of belonging, to someone or to some greater impersonal power. Belonging, the meaning of being, has several corollaries in English: having, possessing, and finally and most developed, property. Being results from an act of taking possession, but more than this, from the conceit that it is somehow justified by a force beyond the act, by a primordial vectoriality of weaker toward stronger things, in the mysticism of “belonging-to.” Time, in turn, results from an act of faith, faith that . . . this or that will eventually come to belong (to me, to you, to him or her, or to Him). Faith positions an event of possession-taking in the future and projects a path along which it will be reached. Next, what had been the impediment to being and time, individual death, becomes, after Kafka’s procedures, the highest artifice in a continuum of images whose origin is ultimately the Book of Genesis.73 Human beings may have been created in God’s image, but this means that they were created as an image. Finally, there is what I am calling “the yield.”

In essence, the first three nodes or trajectories of Kafka’s treatise are radical interpretations—being is interpreted as belonging, time as faith, and death as artifice—of the pillars of European intellectual history. All three, however, belong, forgive the tautology, to belonging. What counts as a being, in the most fundamental terms, is what belongs to some proprietor, be it you or me, the world, a god or God. Faith at first asserts a suspension of belonging in the absence of the proprietor; yet it only suspends in view of a fuller future possession. The images of art are what give us a sense of that future, although and because it is distant. The yield, in contrast, is the gesture by which belonging is both created and ultimately abandoned. Yielding denotes both giving up or giving in and giving something away or going away, the pull between withdrawing and producing—yielding a yield—such that anything or anyone could belong to anyone or anything. Something must be given up in order for it to be given to—in order for it to be taken and finally to be considered to belong. This fundamental inequality will concern us, the disproportion between giving and taking. Yield gives by giving up. It also gives itself up. That is, it abandons all claims to self-possession.


And so there is a process, arising from this gesture I am calling “the yield,” by which it comes to look like what it isn’t. This isn’t sublimation; it isn’t loss or “lost time.” Rather, self-dispossession is a fact of yielding. Unlike being, yielding has zero staying power. It does not want or need to preserve itself. Indeed, its greatest tendency and its greatest danger to itself and its gift to the world is to give out.

And so, under the sign of yielding, belonging-to comes to seem like all there is. Being there, inert, preserved, identical with itself, independent—all aspects of entities and their relations appear, falsely, as prior to the yield. We have being when we don’t have the yield, though, we should add, only when we have given yielding up by means of yielding’s particular weakness. The next steps in the conceptual development of Europe follow from this one. Being is what “we have” when we are given up by the yield and when we give up yielding. Faith is then what we have when we recognize that we don’t have all of being—the suspension of possession in view of future total possession. Time is the medium invented to illustrate a means of carrying out faith’s promise, and it is also that which we are left with in our “secular” times, after faith has been discredited. So the yield yields itself and its opposite. This is worth remembering. In this light, “secular” means the concealment of an original moment of yielding that gives us both the theic and the atheic. The yield itself is pre- or a-theological. Walter Benjamin wrote in a note: “The relationship of three things, law–remembering–tradition, is to be explained. Kafka’s work is probably made out of these three.”74 Let us add in the fourth thing that Benjamin was hesitant to include because of the foibles of critics in his day: theology. The time has come to reincorporate what was never excluded by Kafka, during or after 1917–18, although Benjamin was surely correct in saying that the “theology” of the early interpreters, Max Brod and Joachim Schoeps among others, was “shameless.”75


1. David Suchoff, Kafka’s Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

2. Iris Bruce, Kafka and Cultural Zionism: Dates in Palestine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), 33, captures the idiosyncrasies of Kafka’s Jewish upbringing amid the Zionist, socialist, and anti-Semitic movements in Prague. For the crucial background, see chap. 1, “Kafka’s Jewish Prague,” 12–33.

3. For a description of the irony with which Kafka viewed religious practices, moods, and attitudes, see ibid., 88–91.

4. Spinoza’s theological politics seeks to free politics from the grip of institutional revealed religion by substituting natural theology.

5. This position is related to what Christopher Watkin calls “post-theological integration,” which he sees as a movement that follows, on one hand, “imitative” atheist writers (e.g., Feuerbach and Camus) who build on theological structures, concepts, and modes, and, on the other hand, “ascetic” atheists (e.g., Nietzsche and Derrida) who openly reject theology. The problems of theology identified in the Enlightenment and by natural science thus become surmountable “after God,” that is, after the imitation of theology and its strenuous rejection. See Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alan Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 11–16, and esp. 114–21 on Nancy’s atheologie.

6. Manfred Engel bemoans the critical oblivion into which Kafka’s “Zürau Aphorisms” have fallen in Kafka-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2010), ed. Manfred Engel and Bernd Auerochs, 287. Engel attributes this critical lacuna to the texts’ incompatibility with current research agendas, although without elaborating. Nevertheless, a few books focus on them, including Werner Hoffmann, Kafkas Aphorismen (Bern: Francke, 1975), a mildly interpretive text that takes a “religious” side to the pensées seriously; Sabina Kienlechner, Negativität der Erkenntnis im Werk Franz Kafkas: Eine Untersuchung zu seinem Denken anhand einiger später Texte (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1981), a complex analysis of the negative epistemology of the thoughts; Konrad Dietzfelbinger, Kafkas Geheimnis: Eine Interpretation von Franz Kafkas “Betrachtungen über Sünde, Leid, Hoffnung und den Wahren Weg” (Freiburg im Breisgau: Aurum, 1987), a commentary organized by thought that almost completely avoids theology and religion in favor of a quasi-psychological and Feuerbachian-mystical “revelation and development of the authentic essence of human beings, which is still a secret to them” (42); and Richard T. Gray, Constructive Destruction: Kafka’s Aphorisms, Literary Tradition, and Literary Transformation (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1987), a reconstruction of a European aphoristic tradition into which Kafka’s pensées are placed, showing Kafka’s shortest texts to be compatible with the “crises” of modernity experienced by Austrian authors from Musil to Rilke. Gray suggests a fascinating “hypothetical, experimental” (215) method for interpreting Kafka based on a principle of “the productivity of the inconclusive” (291), whose spirit I hope inhabits this book.

7. Shaul Magid, “Subversion as Return: Scripture, Dissent, Renewal, and the Future of Judaism,” in Subverting Scriptures: Critical Reflections on the Use of the Bible, ed. Beth Hawkins Benedix (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), argues strongly for “subversive biblicism” as the origin of the Abrahamic religions and the substance of their respective Bibles. For Magid, religions function by means of texts that are largely self-contradictory and continually dissent from their own propositions. He advocates a return to the Bible as it was “before Judaism and Christianity made it seamless” (223). This is similar to Kafka’s stance in his pensées, except that Kafka does not think that religion is strengthened by its inner self-subversion.

8. The patron saint of Prague philosophy, Franz Brentano, by 1864 already a Catholic priest, nevertheless took the Spinozan side in his habilitation defense in 1866. Brentano saw philosophy as antithetical to theology and its assumptions and method as akin to natural science. “Philosophy must protest against the presumption of taking its principles from theology and against the assertion that it is only through the existence of a supernatural revelation that a fruitful philosophy becomes possible.” Quoted in Barry Smith, Austrian Philosophy: The Legacy of Franz Brentano (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), 29.

9. Here I follow Ritchie Robertson: “It would be misleading, therefore, to discuss Kafka’s thoughts in theological terms, for he had no belief in God and hence no theology. Martin Buber’s claim that he had a characteristically Jewish faith in a deus absconditus can hardly be reconciled with Kafka’s own utterances. Still less is there any foundation for the strange notion, which crops up now and again in Kafka studies, that he had some sort of Manichean belief in an evil god. It would be more accurate to associate Kafka with Feuerbach’s view that God, with his omnipotence, perfection, etc., is a projection of the human potential from which man is at present estranged.” Robertson, Kafka: Judaism, Politics, and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 201.

10. Georges Bataille, The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 166.

11. Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 177n15, credits Bataille as the “creator and sole user of the word” “atheology” and criticizes Michel Onfray for ignoring this important source.

12. Ibid., 18. We should nonetheless distinguish this “nothing” from the “nothing” in Derrida’s remark: “nothing gets decided at the source.” Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002), 74. Gershom Scholem’s “nothing” (Nichts) of revelation might also be noted. In a poem he sent to Benjamin in 1934, Scholem writes: “So allein strahlt Offenbarung / in die Zeit, die dich verwarf. / Nur dein Nichts ist die Erfahrung, / die sie von dir haben darf.” Cited in Walter Benjamin, Benjamin über Kafka: Texte, Briefzeugnisse, Aufzeichnungen, ed. Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981), 73.

13. Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 26.

14. Ibid., 12.

15. The way Nancy turns the death of God and the end of metaphysics into the highest possibility is neatly described by Watkin in Difficult Atheism: Nancy is “faithful to something in Christianity that is deeper than Christianity itself” (40).

16. Felix Weltsch, Gnade und Freiheit: Untersuchungen zum Problem des schöpferischen Willens in Religion und Ethik (Munich: Kurt Wolff, 1920), 10.

17. Ibid., 13–14, 112.

18. The details of Weltsch’s philosophical training at the Charles University in Prague and involvement in the Fanta salon are given in Carsten Schmidt, Kafkas fast unbekannter Freund. Das Leben und Werk von Felix Weltsch (1884–1964) (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2010), 96–103.

19. See Martin Heidegger, Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz, GA 26 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1978), 70, 277–83.

20. NS, 2: 55 (November 31 or December 1, 1917); FKA, 7.95. All quotations are from the 1992 critical edition, Franz Kafka, Nachgelassene Schriften II (NS, 2), ed. Malcolm Pasley (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1992), unless a reading of the 2011 Stroemfeld facsimile edition, Franz Kafka, Oxforder Oktavhefte 7 & 8 (FKA, 7–8), ed. Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle (Basel: Stroemfeld / Roter Stern, 2011), is decisive for an interpretive decision. For readers’ reference, both editions are cited. Since this is a reconstruction of the thoughts as they were written down, I generally quote and interpret passages from the notebooks, even if they have been crossed out at a later stage. However, since this is also an attempt to draw out the implicit and esoteric inner conversation of the thoughts, I sometimes emphasize the edited version, if the underlying idea is more accessible or more precise there. In the notes, the quoted version is cited first, followed by the probable date on which it was written down in the notebook, and then an alternate edition is cited, should the reader want to compare editions. Dates are deduced from Kafka’s own notations in the notebooks, so they should be taken as approximations. Quotations from Kafka’s pensées are always in italics; quotations from other texts by Kafka and from texts by others are between quotation marks. The “Zürau Aphorisms” have been translated into English again recently by Michael Hoffmann (London: Harvill Secker, 2006), but the translations here are mine. All other translations from German are also mine unless otherwise indicated.

21. Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 36.

22. Ibid., 55.

23. Ibid., 58–59.

24. NS, 2: 55; FKA, 7.95.

25. Zettel #50; NS, 2: 124. Compare the notebook entry, which is missing “in sich,” NS, 2: 58 (December 7, 1917) and FKA 7.100.

26. One can associate the indestructible with the will, as does Robertson, Kafka, 200, on analogy with Schopenhauer. See also T. J. Reed, “Kafka and Schopenhauer: Philosophisches Denken und dichterisches Bild,” in Euphorion: Zeitschrift für Literaturgeschichte 59 (1965): 165–66.

27. NS, 2: 139–40; FKA, 8.87.

28. Bataille, Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge, 152.

29. NS, 2: 76 (between January 22 and 24, 1918); FKA, 7.148.

30. NS, 2: 49 (November 21 or 22, 1917); FKA, 7.76.

31. The desire to work the earth was not special to Kafka. Another Kafka, his sister, Ottla, moved to Zürau to rent a house in order to work a small subsistence garden. Moreover, gardening as good work for Jews, even in the Diaspora, was a frequent topic in the journals Kafka read regularly. The first line of Davis Trietsch’s article “Die Gartenstadt als Konzentrationsform,” Jüdische Rundschau 25 (1917), 207–8, asserts: “The main task of the Jewish world lies in the area of organization and concentration,” both of which one achieves best through gardening. Iris Bruce identifies Kafka’s interest in gardening with his cultural Zionism (Kafka and Cultural Zionism, 167–69).

32. There have been several attempts to class Kafka’s pensées in a traditional genre of writing. Most significantly, Gray in Constructive Destruction tries to show how they respond to and continue the tradition of European aphoristics. Karl Erich Grözinger, Kafka und die Kabbala: Das Jüdische im Werk und Denken von Franz Kafka (Berlin: Philo, 2003), 184, argues, with the same intention but a different conclusion, that the genre originates with the mystical “topoi” of Meister Eckhart and in the sayings of the Belzer Rebbe collected and translated by Kafka’s friend George Langer. Grözinger goes on to compare Kafka’s thoughts with the Maggid’s dicta, passage by passage (184–95). A list of the different possibilities for the mysterious genre can be found in the Kafka-Handbuch, 287. In Franz Kafka, Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer: Ungedruckte Erzählungen und Prosa aus dem Nachlaß, ed. Max Brod and Hans Joachim Schoeps (Berlin: Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1931), 253–54, the editors insist that the “thoughts” are closest to Pascal’s Pensées, and for more than stylistic reasons.

33. W. R. Bion, “The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 43 (1962): 306.

34. What to do about the order of the thoughts and how to assess their varied intensity or “value,” as he calls it, were questions that plagued their first editor, Hans Joachim Schoeps, to whom in 1931 some of them seemed not even worth publishing. See Julius H. Schoeps, Im Streit um Kafka und das Judentum: Max Brod, Hans-Joachim Schoeps Briefwechsel (Königstein: Jüdischer Verlag bei Athenäum, 1985), 55.

35. Gray, Constructive Destruction, 210, argues that we have to read the thoughts in such a way that “a single text or sub-set of texts are not taken as representative of the whole . . . the dynamics of the aphoristic group configuration is one characterized by counterpoint, one in which texts supplement, correct, retract, and contradict one another.” He goes on to name “interaction and dialogue” as their internal modality and their external relationship to tradition. An allusive way of describing the selective, asymmetrical inter-attraction of thoughts to one another is as a “conceptual community” (213). Writing about the late story “Der Bau,” Henry Sussman, in “The Calculable, the Incalculable, and the Rest: Kafka’s Virtual Environment,” MLN 127, no. 5 (December 2012): 1144–70, speaks of an “inventory of isomorphic interfaces and translations” (1151), which could just as well apply to Kafka’s treatise in thoughts.

36. The focus on internal relations here differs entirely from the theory of “thinking” proposed by Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, Anschauung und Begriff [Intuition and Concept] (Leipzig: Kurt Wolff, 1913). In their derivation of thinking from perceptual intuition, thinking means making the inauthentically conscious—i.e., you think you have an idea present but really do not—authentically conscious, by turning your inner attention on it in the mind (170–71). Thinking occurs for them in a continuum of grades of consciousness, from inauthentic to authentic, distraction to attention. In short, thinking is a variable psychological attention-state (Aufmerksamkeitszustand) that takes place totally within the psyche (169). For an exposition of their concept of “ostensive ideas,” see Arnold Heidsieck, The Intellectual Contexts of Kafka’s Fiction: Philosophy, Law, Religion (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994), 41–43.

37. In “Geisterschrift: Kafkas Spiritismus,” in Schrift und Zeit in Franz Kafkas Oktavheften, ed. Caspar Battegay et al. (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010), Andreas Kilcher, who has explored Kafka’s engagement with the spiritualism popular in his circles, says of the writing that emerged from a “psychograph,” an instrument that purportedly recorded the speech of spirits: “The one who writes is hence no author but a medium, his writing happens not deliberately but involuntarily, and what is written is not narrative, but disruptive and extemporal” (226–27). This also describes Kafka’s catching and scribbling down thoughts that winter.

38. Roland Reuß, “Die Oxforder Oktavhefte 7 & 8 und die Zürauer Zettel Zur Einführung,” in Franz Kafka, vol. 8, ed. id. and Peter Staengle (Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2011), 4n12.

39. The conclusion Reuß comes to about the meaning of the occurrent order is not supportable ex negativo. Of the numbers on the Zettel, he writes: “their significance is neutral with regard to weighting the contents, a result only of the history of its composition.” This may be factually correct, but it is not correct to assume that the order of occurrence and the meaningful order have to be two different things (ibid., 5).

40. Franz Kafka, Briefe 1914–1917, ed. Hans-Gerd Koch (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2005), 368.

41. Franz Kafka, Tagebücher, ed. Hans-Gerd Koch et al. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1990), 569.

42. Kafka to Felice, August 14, 1913, in id., Letters to Felice, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 304.

43. Otto Neurath, quoted in Smith, Austrian Philosophy, 15.

44. Kafka, Briefe 1914–1917, 372.

45. Weltsch, Gnade und Freiheit, 170.

46. Ibid., 55.

47. Max Brod, Paganism—Christianity—Judaism: A Confession of Faith (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1970), 4. Kafka writes to Brod about his book: “At the same time I cannot at all say that I agree with you or better said [richtiger gesagt]: the sympathy with “paganism” that for you is wholly private, I perhaps wear publicly. In general, where you speak from yourself, I am very close to you; where you begin to polemicize, I often also catch the desire to polemicize (as well as I can obviously)” (August 6, 1920). Franz Kafka, Briefe 1918–1920, ed. Hans-Gerd Koch (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2013), 285.

48. Pascal, Pensées, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), no. 513.

49. Kafka, Tagebücher, 816.

50. See Gray’s reading in Constructive Destruction, 195, of Kafka’s “profounder skepticism” than Pascal’s, whose terrible doubt was “mollified by [his] faith in the Christian redeemer” (196).

51. “Descartes had already established for himself the rules of the method. Among these one reads the second rule, to unravel every question to be investigated into as many simpler questions as possible and to move toward the better answer where appropriate. The third rule prescribes that order be maintained in the chain of thoughts, such that one begins with the simplest and easiest objects and ascends little by little to the complicated,” Kafka’s teacher Anton Marty writes in Deskriptive Psychologie, ed. Mauro Antonelli and Johann Christian Marek (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011), 6.

52. Pascal, Pensées, no. 575.

53. With skepticism, Ritchie Robertson notes that “the system of thought that can be pieced together from Kafka’s aphorisms” is just that, piecework that stands outside the thoughts themselves (Robertson, Kafka, 198).

54. There are two potential pitfalls to considering the composition of the thoughts significant for understanding them; one is formalism and the other is thematism. The latter asks the question how the “fragments” relate to one another thematically. Does a passage continue the previous passage’s theme or does it diverge from it? In essence this is also a formalism, since it asks whether there is “coherence” or “continuity,” and so in effect there is only one pitfall: formalism. One mark symbolizes this pitfall: the horizontal line that Kafka begins to use in the small notebooks, the Oktavhefte, and which becomes more frequent and more furious as the writing of the thoughts goes on. In order to discuss the marks—as lines, demarcations, separators, borders—we already have to presume an aesthetic schema to which we are committed: marks do this or that, mean thus. Interpreting the marks as interruptions, making the main concern a question of continuity, belies a general longing that infuses these traditional aesthetic categories. Discontinuity, it should go without saying, only makes sense with reference to a continuum.

55. NS, 2: 31 (October 19, 1917); FKA, 7.12.

56. To a great extent what Werner Hamacher writes about Kafkan parables in his interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s sayings about them is also true of Kafka’s pensées: “They are preparers and hinderers at the same time—and they prepare by hindering” (294). This means that it is to be expected that they produce a stop in thought, and that this stop is valuable for its own sake. Werner Hamacher, “Die Geste im Namen: Benjamin und Kafka,” in Entferntes Verstehen: Studien zu Philosophie und Literatur von Kant bis Celan (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998).

57. NS, 2: 31 (October 19, 1917); FKA, 7.12.

58. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and other Writings, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 12.

59. Pascal, Pensées, no. 33.

60. Martin Luther, “The Fourteen Consolations,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 42, ed. Martin O. Dietrich (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 124.

61. NS, 2: 31 (October 19, 1917); FKA, 7.12.

62. For all his traditionalism, Max Brod insists that Kafka was opposed to the consolatory aspects of religion. This was part of Brod’s response to Hans-Joachim Schoeps and the theology of crisis that the latter adopted from Barth and ultimately from Kierkegaard. On the one hand, Brod pushed Kafka to read Kierkegaard and interprets his atheological thoughts as Kierkegaardian (as Hans-Joachim Schoeps does later, writing: “All of those for whom the figure of Kierkegaard means something should not pass by their contemporary Kafka” [cited in Im Streit um Kafka und das Judentum, ed. Julius H. Schoeps, 36]); on the other hand, Brod rejected the idea that theology could be a balm for the wounds of war, as it was in Gogarten, Barth, and Tillich. Max Brod, Über Franz Kafka (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1966), 158. On the responses of Protestant theologians to the death of God issue and the modernists’ crisis mentality, see John H. Smith, chap. 8, “Dialectical Theology,” in Dialogues Between Faith and Reason: The Death and Return of God in Modern German Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), where the discussion of Barth makes clear how important time as “falling” is to these thinkers (223–25).

63. NS, 2: 83 (February 4, 1918); FKA, 8.15. Cf. Zettel no. 97. The passages about suffering in the New Testament that Kafka probably had in mind are listed in Bertram Rohde, Studien zu Franz Kafkas Bibellektüre und ihren Auswirkungen auf sein Werk (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002), 114–20.

64. “The diversion is best effected through the Word, by which our present thought is turned from the thing that moves us at the present moment to something that is either absent or does not move us at the moment” (Luther, “Fourteen Consolations, 124).

65. Kafka, Tagebücher, 858.

66. NS, 2: 31 (October 19, 1917); FKA, 7.12.

67. Ibid.

68. Kafka, Tagebücher, 851.

69. On Kafka’s numerous encounters with Bibles and on the edition of the Luther translation he most likely worked with, see the Introduction to Rohde, “Und blätterte ein wenig in der Bibel” (20–31). Rohde reminds us in many places how central motifs from the New Testament also were to Kafka in this period, and how thoroughly forgotten nominally Christian topoi have been in Kafka criticism.

70. Kafka, Tagebücher, 1063. See discussion of this moment in Bruce, Kafka and Cultural Zionism, 74–77.

71. E.g., Anon., “Eine Erklärung der englischen Regierung für den Zionismus” (A Declaration by the English Government on Behalf of Zionism), Jüdische Rundschau, no. 46 (November 16, 1917), 1. On the ripple effects of the declaration, see Leonard Stein, The Balfour Declaration (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), “The Response to the Declaration I and II,” 559–604.

72. An encompassing encyclopedia of Kafkan strategies, among which “producing confusion” is mentioned, can be found in Henry Sussman, “Kafka’s Aesthetics: A Primer: From the Fragments to the Novels,” in A Companion to the Works of Franz Kafka, ed. James Rolleston (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002). The strategies include: fragmentation, inversion, doubling, confusion, proliferation, suspension, transformation, and inscription. Sussman calls these “art-games” (142).

73. The contention that Kafka “found the hypothesis of Scripture as revealed truth alluring,” but had a tendency to “radical skepticism” is Robert Alter’s in “Franz Kafka: Wrenching Scripture,” New England Review 21, no. 3 (Summer 2000), an article on Kafka’s way of reading the Bibles. Although the remark is not directly about the “thoughts,” the contention that Kafka is writing “heretical midrash” is nonetheless alluring (8).

74. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, 2.3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 1200.

75. Ibid., 1210.