28 May 2020

Kafka Swims

The champion of the impossible

Aaron Schuster

The starting pistol is fired to start the final of the men’s 100-meter freestyle event at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. American Duke Kahanamoku in lane 5 won the final. Norman Ross in lane 3 was disqualified, but went on to win gold in the 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter relay, and the 1500-meter freestyle, the latter referenced by Kafka in the first draft of his story.

There is a passage from Franz Kafka’s notebooks that reads:

I can swim just like the others. Only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten the former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, being able to swim is of no help to me; and so, after all, I cannot swim.[1]

By all accounts, Kafka was a good swimmer. In his diaries and letters, he mentions swimming outings and looking for places to swim during his travels. His father took him to a swimming school on the Vltava river from a young age. This was the cause of some angst since he felt ashamed of his skinny body, especially compared to his father’s bulk, but Kafka enjoyed the water. (He was also an avid rower.) His biographer Reiner Stach notes that “the Civilian Swimming School became one of the most important urban spots to which he remained devoted throughout his life and to which he thought back wistfully, even in the final hours preceding his death.”[2] Swimming makes an appearance in a well-known diary entry where the self-destruction of European civilization and Kafka’s preferred sport float dreamlike on the same sea: “2 August. Germany has declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon.”[3] And in a letter to his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer, Kafka complains about his doctor’s recommendations to treat his exhaustion and possible heart palpitations, due in part to “swimming too much”: “He suggests that I take my vacation now (impossible), take some medicine (also impossible), sleep well (also impossible), not go south, not swim (also impossible), and lead a quiet life (least possible of all).”[4] To swim is impossible, not to swim is impossible: is there any way out of—or maybe deeper into—this Kafkian conundrum?

The swimming paradox is brought to its greatest expression in another fragment, a short story about not just any swimmer but an Olympic champion who has broken a swimming world record. Returning from the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp to his unnamed hometown, the hero is greeted at the train station by a throng of people cheering, “Hail the great swimmer!”[5] Then—the first strange detail—he is draped in a sash reading, “The Olympic Champion” but in a foreign language. Afterward, he’s whisked to a banquet hosted by the mayor, where he’s surrounded by dignitaries and beautiful women. The evening’s events are marked by a series of oddities. The guests stand up and shout in unison “a phrase that I didn’t exactly understand”; he is seated next to the mayor’s buxom wife and a minister—when introduced to the latter, the word “minister” horrifies him; the room is bright, even “too well illuminated,” yet it’s hard to make out the guests’ faces, everything is a blur of commotion. He also notes a “certain disorder”: some of the guests, especially the ladies, are sitting the wrong way so that they’re straddling their chairs, with their backs almost touching the table. Finally, a fat man opposite him stands up and gives a speech, but he is very sad, and feigning to wipe sweat from his face, he actually wipes away tears. While speaking, the fat man stares straight at the swimmer like he was looking at a corpse: “It was as if he weren’t seeing me, but rather my open grave.”[6] The fat man finishes, and the swimmer rises to give his victory speech:

Honored guests! I have, admittedly, broken a world record. If, however, you were to ask me how I have achieved this, I could not answer adequately. Actually, I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but have never had the opportunity. How then did it come to be that I was sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is, of course, also the question I ask of myself. I must first explain that I am not now in my fatherland and, in spite of considerable effort, cannot understand a word of what has been spoken. Your first thought might be that there has been some mistake, but there has been no mistake—I have broken the record, have returned to my country, and do indeed bear the name by which you know me. All this is true, but thereafter nothing is true. I am not in my fatherland, and I do not know or understand you. And now something that is somehow, even if not exactly, incompatible with this notion of a mistake: It does not much disturb me that I do not understand you and, likewise, the fact that you do not understand me does not seem to disturb you. I could only gather from the speech of the venerable gentleman who preceded me that it was inconsolably sad, and this knowledge is not only sufficient, in fact for me it is too much. And indeed, the same is true of all the conversations I have had here since my return. But let us return to my world record.

Here we have an interesting variation on the Kafkian theme of failure. Instead of the loser, the victim, or the schlemiel, this is the story of a champion, the Great Swimmer. But what kind of success is this? You win an Olympic medal, then you’re back home, giving a victory speech, except you’re not home, and no one speaks your language, and you don’t know how to swim. This is what it means to be a winner in Kafka’s universe.

Like many of his stories, the swimming fragment has a dreamlike quality. The atmosphere is strange and disorienting, full of minor disturbances and incongruent details that suddenly become magnified, like the fat man’s tears and his deathly gaze. But at the same time, a kind of equanimity reigns; no one is freaked out by these freak occurrences, which makes it all the stranger. Normality is perturbed and the perturbations are part of normality. We are suspended in a liminal space, an interval where the usual rules do not apply and yet are not entirely eliminated, where the hard contours of reality are loosened but not completely volatilized.

“Hail the great swimmer!” Norman Ross at the Antwerp Olympics.

Into this twilight zone slips the great swimmer. The least one can say is that he delivers one of the best award speeches of all time. Prize winners occasionally try to subvert the official proceedings, using them as a platform for proselytizing their own cause, or, very seldom, questioning the legitimacy of the awarding institutions themselves; but no one has sabotaged the culture of awards quite the way that Kafka imagined. Kafka’s champion turns the occasion of recognition into an acknowledgment of the unrecognizable, the celebration of mastery and achievement into a profession of alienation and impossibility. This overturning is key to Kafka’s comedy, and with the right delivery, it could sound like an excellent stand-up routine, or a piece of performance art. Thus the great swimmer declares, “Actually, I cannot even swim,” and asks why he was ever selected for the Olympics, as if it were a mix-up or a case of mistaken identity. But there’s no mistake; it’s his name, and the talentless Olympian is undeniably the record-breaking champion. One wonders, who were his competitors? How did this hapless athlete achieve his world triumph? The swimmer speaks about not being a part of the society that has put him on a pedestal, of not belonging to the nation he represents; he is a foreigner, an outsider, despite the public counting him as one of its own. He doesn’t even share a language with his countrymen; strangely, this mutual incomprehension seems to bother no one. Is the swimmer even alive? The fat man sees right through him, to his open grave—maybe that’s why he’s so sad, he is mourning the dead swimmer. Mastery, homeland, language, even life itself—all fall away, though they are not exactly negated. He’s still the record-breaking swimmer, only he cannot swim; he’s back in his country, but it’s not his fatherland; he’s alive and in top form, yet a corpse. He is, and is not, who he is. With the last line, however, the spell is broken and normality comes rushing back in: “But let us return to my world record.” In other words, it’s time to get down to business, to perform the necessary ritual, to celebrate the triumph for him and his country. His preceding remarks retroactively appear as a weird digression, an oddball non-introduction, and now the great swimmer remembers his place. It’s as if a breach in the order of things miraculously opened up, and just as quickly closed.

The swimming champion who doesn’t know how to swim: would it sound less crazy coming from the mouth of a philosopher? This was Socrates’s great line, his famous irony—I know only that I don’t know. Is Kafka’s triumphant yet incapable swimmer the sporty equivalent of the ignorant philosopher? An ironical Olympian, an aquatic Socrates calling into question our finely honed bodily skills and fitness programs? (Socrates himself was likened to an electric torpedo fish who “stunned” his interlocutors.) After all, who can say what swimming really is and how one ought to do it? “Our generation has witnessed a complete change in technique: we have seen the breaststroke with the head out of the water replaced by the different sorts of crawl. Moreover, the habit of swallowing water and spitting it out again has gone. In my day swimmers thought of themselves as a kind of steam-boat. It was stupid, but in fact I still do this: I cannot get rid of my technique.”[7] Marcel Mauss describes a particular experience of estrangement. A sporting ironist, he understands the diversity and contingency of the seemingly natural “techniques of the body.” He can laugh at himself, he can poke fun at the stupidity of his own deep-seated practices (the steamboat method), he can regard himself with the eyes of a foreigner.

Kafka points to a different, more profound kind of estrangement. Certainly there are a variety of swimmers and swimming techniques, differing and mutating across time and space, with none as the natural model. But behind this multiplicity lies something more disorienting and abyssal: a radical lack at the heart of technique, an unfitness at the core of fitness, that cultural training and formation don’t so much do away with as conceal or allow us to forget. In the great swimmer’s declaration “I cannot even swim,” swimming betrays an inherent deadlock or impossibility.

This is why Kafkian humor (the swimmer who can’t swim) is more radical than Socratic irony (the philosopher who doesn’t know). However provocative Socrates’s gesture is, the knowledge that is not known is still safeguarded somewhere, and this is what is specified in Plato’s theory of memory. According to the doctrine of anamnesis, the soul is endowed with a plenum of knowledge that is erased at birth, so that the process of learning consists in undoing amnesia (an-amnesis), in remembering the knowledge that was previously possessed and then forgotten. Kafka’s memory works in exactly the reverse way: it is a paradoxical memory of amnesia. There is a priority of not-knowing over knowing, of incapacity over capacity, of impossibility over possibility, which knowledge, skill, and power can never totally vanquish. This is what Kafka explains in the note I cited at the outset: the memory of the former inability to swim is the recollection of an absence, a lack, a non-knowledge older than any knowledge and any learning. Indeed, if there’s a prize to be won here, it is the world record for memory. Kafka is plagued by a memory that is too good; he gets the medal for neurotic excellence. Like the Freudian hysteric, he too suffers from reminiscences, but his is a reminiscence of the void—it’s as if what returned to haunt consciousness was not this or that repressed content but the unconscious as such, in this case a primordial “unswimming” that undoes the capacity to swim.[8] The swimming paradox is a superb example of what might be called Kafka’s neurotic scholasticism. It’s an exquisite proof of the impossibility of swimming, to paraphrase “Proof of the Impossibility of Living,” the title of the last section of his early story “Description of a Struggle.”[9] In its logical form, Kafka’s proof is on a par with Zeno’s paradoxes, the ingenious and fantastical refutations of motion that so inspired and occupied ancient philosophy. It was Jorge Luis Borges who first pointed out the proximity of Kafka and Zeno, calling Zeno one of “Kafka’s precursors.” His characters also find motion to be impossible; they cannot make it from point A to point B, they fail to progress or attain their goal. If “the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature,” the swimmer plagued by the memory of his former inability to swim is the first pre-Socratic neurotic.[10]

Let us pursue this thread a little further. Kafka elaborates the notion of impossibility in a letter to Max Brod written during his stay at the sanatorium in Matliary, located in present-day Slovakia. He distinguishes his own sense of the impossible from that of his friend: “You want the impossible, while for me the possible is impossible.”[11] Brod’s is the more readily understandable position: he is married, has loved and been loved by women, and although he doesn’t have children he could if he wanted to. Brod is well installed in social reality, firmly grounded in the world of possibilities. But this is not enough, he wants something more, something beyond the possible. This excessive desire is manifest in Brod’s recent affair with a chambermaid in Berlin: “Your Berlin experience strikes me as distinctly impossible.”[12] Brod takes the relationship seriously but not the girl, and “when one takes something not entirely seriously, but wants to love seriously, doesn’t it mean that one desires the impossible?”[13] Brod wants something and doesn’t want it at the same time; his desire is fraught with tensions and contradictions that make its satisfaction impossible. (This very impossibility generates a surplus enjoyment beyond satisfaction, but that is another story.) Kafka’s libidinal predicament is different: he lacks the sure ground from which the impossible could appear as desirable, as something to reach for and tragically, deliciously, fail to grasp. Impossibility for him is not the forever-unattainable goal of desire, its terminus ad quem, but rather its thwarted and vertiginous origin, its terminus a quo. Kafka explains his situation as follows:

Like a person who cannot resist the temptation to swim out into the sea, and is blissful to be so carried away—“Now you are a man, a great swimmer”—and suddenly for no particular reason he raises himself up and sees only the sky and the sea, and on the waves is only his own little head and he is seized by a horrible fear and nothing else matters, he must get back to the shore, even if his lungs burst. That is how it is.[14]

Fear of drowning is the truth of the great swimmer. It’s as if the swimmer were always out of his depth, lost at sea, lungs bursting, the shore out of reach. This anxiety is Kafka’s never-surpassed starting point. Using another image, Kafka compares himself to a schoolchild who’s stuck repeating the same grade, unable to pass to a higher level. “In this matter I behave toward you as a first grader who has been flunked eight times behaves toward an eighth grader who stands on the verge of the impossible: graduation.”[15] Kafka is like a remedial student of life, always held back a grade, never acquiring the competence needed to pass the graduation exam and enter the so-called real world. Or a third image: “Lightning struck me one step before it did you, even before I reached the possible.”[16] He is frozen in his tracks, struck down before the entrance to the possible. Kafka’s fiction is usually associated with transcendence, the sense of being dominated by an obscure agency lying beyond this world (the unreachable Sovereign, the inaccessible Law, an absent God). But the problem ought to be stated differently. This world is the beyond that Kafka cannot reach. The mystery he is unable to penetrate is the banal, everyday, socially recognized reality that Brod takes for granted (and whose confines he seeks to escape by desiring the impossible). From a Kafkian perspective, the failure to fully enter into the logic of mutual recognition, to assume one’s place in the symbolic order, to be thrown always-already into the world—this botched entry is not merely a defect, it is the subject. Or along the lines of the swimming paradox, the subject is the irrepressible memory of its anterior impossibility. This also yields a potential formula for the Kafkian death drive: “I can live like the others, only I have not forgotten my former inability to live, and so life is of no help to me; therefore I cannot live. My life is an open grave...”

Now, despite the “great difference” between Brod and Kafka, Kafka specifies that there is “hardly a difference in our essential natures.”[17] In the final paragraph of the letter, he goes on to sketch a more sweeping contrast between the old-style pathos pertaining to the impossible and the new modern sensibility:

Swimming enthusiasts Franz Kafka (right) and the writer and doctor Ernst Weiss holidaying on the sea at Marielyst, Denmark, in 1914. Kafka and Weiss had a strained friendship, which appears to have been thematized by Weiss in his novel The Aristocrat (1928), in the relationship between the protagonist Boëtius and his friend, the frail and sickly Titurel. When Titurel is drowning in the lake, Boëtius swims out and rescues him. “The rule,” Boëtius explains, “and this has been drummed into us, is: hold the drowning person from behind. Expect a struggle in the water.” The struggle is indeed brutal: “I ducked my friend under the milky, clouded water, spurting up in the rain, so that he lost consciousness completely, making rescue possible.” Afterward, Boëtius is spurned by an ungrateful Titurel. See The Aristocrat, trans. Martin Chalmers (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1994), pp. 70, 72.

But now let’s compare your way and mine—or rather be considerate and let’s leave my way out—with the great days of old. The only true misfortune then was women’s barrenness, but even if they were barren, fertility could be gained by prayer. I—I must necessarily speak in personal terms—I no longer see any barrenness of this sort. Every womb is fruitful and smirks uselessly at the world. And when one hides one’s face, it is not in order to protect oneself from this smirk, but not to let one’s own smirk be seen. Compared to this, the struggle with the father doesn’t mean much. After all, he is only an elder brother, also a scapegrace son, who from jealousy is merely pitifully trying to distract his younger brother from the decisive struggle and moreover does so successfully.—But now it is quite dark, as it must be for the final blasphemy.[18]

“Compared to this, the struggle with the father doesn’t mean much”—an incredible line coming from Kafka, for whom one could be forgiven for thinking that the struggle with the father meant absolutely everything. It would be interesting to reread Kafka’s work from the perspective of this little remark. Maybe “the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority” isn’t so larger-than-life after all.[19] What if we were to relativize the importance of the father in our understanding of Kafka, to view the father in light of the problematic of impossibility rather than the other way around? Kafka here even sympathizes with this otherwise terrifying figure: after all, the father is himself a mischievous son, as well as a jealous older brother who, with his theatrics, wants to shield his younger sibling from a greater danger. The whole paternal drama of guilt and debt, law and authority, rivalry and transgression is revealed as a ruse, a sideshow masking a more “decisive struggle.” As Jacques Lacan put it, it’s the father or worse, le père ou pire. What is this worse?

Here we get, in a highly compact and metaphorical manner, a remarkable piece of social criticism. I would call it a parable of capitalism, though Kafka doesn’t use the word. In the “great days of old,” impossibility, in the form of female infertility, could be countered through prayer, which gave a certain hope against hopelessness. What is not possible on earth may be granted by the heavens. One might think that the difference with modern times is that, since God is dead, there is no longer anyone to pray to: we are left alone with the impossible, mired in an inconsolable solitude. This is not what Kafka argues. It is not God that is missing, but the impossible. Nowadays, nothing is impossible, or “impossible is nothing,” as the advertising slogan goes. Impossibility has become impossible: everything can and must bear fruit. “Every womb is fruitful and smirks uselessly at the world.” The smirking womb—a truly novel partial object, to be ranked with Melanie Klein’s feeding penis—is Kafka’s emblem for the new times, combining obscene glee with overripe productivity, and a certain air of futility. Indeed, what does it mean to smirk “uselessly”? Is this uselessness apparent only in the gaze of outsiders who can’t understand the point of total productivity? Is it rather the sign of a gratuitous enjoyment secreted by the world of hyper-utility? Or perhaps the smirkers themselves are ultimately shadowed by a sense of vanity: What is all this fruitfulness for?

Everyone is happy, wink-wink, everything is productive, but this is not without provoking a certain repugnance, a certain sense of shame. “And when one hides one’s face, it is not in order to protect oneself from this smirk, but not to let one’s own smirk be seen.” You are also smirking, but secretly, inwardly. You conceal your face, not to shield yourself from the others’ smirks, the disgusting sight of their self-satisfaction. Rather, it’s to hide the fact that you are smirking just like them—it’s your own smirk that repulses you, that you cannot bear to have be seen. This shame is a paradoxical shame over one’s own shamelessness, the last gasp of shame one feels when losing one’s capacity to be ashamed. If shame is a kind of inner flight reaction, an impossible flight from an inescapable situation, it’s as if by hiding one’s face one could flee from oneself or what one already had become: a person who, with a perverse grin, no longer needs or wants to flee from anything. Again, it is not the impossible that is a nightmare; it is a world where nothing is impossible that is the ultimate Kafkian dystopia, the “final blasphemy.” The struggle with the father, which was fundamentally a struggle over one’s place in the world—which, in Kafka’s case, meant to be condemned to a non-place—has been surpassed. The deeply problematic questions of place, belonging, and identity, anchored by guilt and debt and with the father serving as gatekeeper of the symbolic order, are no longer the essential ones. Another authority has taken over, with another injunction, although the son, or the younger brother (Kafka himself?), is “distracted” from this shift by the older struggles. To put it a bit differently, if the father’s curse was “You are unfit for life,” then the “final blasphemy” is to be robbed of this very unfitness, that is, to be condemned to fitness.[20] This is the “decisive struggle,” and Kafka delineates the metaphysical battlefield in terms of three distinct impossibilities: on the one side, desire for the impossible (Brod) and the possible is impossible (Kafka); on the other, nothing is impossible, the impossible is impossible (smirking wombs).[21]

Sigmund Freud famously spoke of three impossible professions: governing, educating, and psychoanalysis. But what about swimming? Is swimming another of these impossible professions? Swimming, an impossible profession? The travails of the great swimmer echo in Kafka’s other protagonists, like Josephine the singer who cannot sing, and the investigative dog with no scholarly skill. (The dog himself lists his failings: “my incapacity for scientific investigation, my limited powers of thought, my bad memory, but above all my inability to keep my scientific aim continuously before my eyes.”)[22] Along these lines, I would propose a Kafkian trio of impossible professions: not governing, educating, and psychoanalysis, but swimming, singing, and research. If the swimmer is the champion of the impossible, and the singer the artist of the impossible, the dog is the theorist of the impossible. It’s in the dog’s funny and failed but courageously non-dogmatic philosophical system, the canine “system of sciences,” that the impossible receives its proper conceptualization, is raised to the level of the concept—the ultimate name of this concept being, for Kafka, “freedom.”[23]

  1. Quoted in Daniel Heller-Roazen, Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language (New York: Zone Books, 2008), p. 146. Translation by Heller-Roazen. The original can be found in Franz Kafka, Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II, ed. Jost Schillemeit (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1992), p. 334.
  2. Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Early Years, trans. Shelley Frisch (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 105.
  3. Franz Kafka, Diaries, 1910–1923, ed. Max Brod, trans. Martin Greenberg with Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), p. 301.
  4. Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 296. Letter of 4 August 1913.
  5. Franz Kafka, “Fragments,” trans. Daniel Slager, Grand Street, no. 56 (Spring 1996), p. 118. To my knowledge, Slager’s was the first English translation of the piece; the original can be found in Franz Kafka, Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II, pp. 254–257. Reiner Stach included the story in his Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, where he provides valuable information on its background: “This fragment was probably composed on August 28, 1920, in Prague. It was preserved in the so-called ‘Konvolut 1920’ (‘1920 Bundle’), which consists of fifty-one unbound pages. Kafka’s corrections to the beginning of the text are particularly notable. Instead of ‘I had come from the Olympiad in X, where I had set a world record in swimming,” the manuscript initially read: ‘I had come from the Olympiad in Antwerp, where I had set a world record in the 1500-meter swim.’ The 1920 Summer Olympic Games really did take place in Antwerp, and the final round of the swimming competition was held from August 24 to 26. That means that Kafka probably wrote the fragment as soon as the results were announced. The winner of the 1500m and 400m freestyle was the twenty-four-year-old American Norman Ross, who was later disqualified in the 100m freestyle.” See Stach, Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, trans. Kurt Beals (New York: New Directions, 2016), p. 175. Curiously, Slager’s translation restores Antwerp to the text, but leaves out the race’s length. Subsequent quotations are from Slager’s translation.
  6. This line, like the deleted information about Antwerp and the length of the race, is also from the original version of the text. See Franz Kafka, Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II: Apparatband, ed. Jost Schillemeit (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1992), p. 269.
  7. Marcel Mauss, “The Techniques of the Body,” trans. Ben Brewster, Economy and Society, vol. 2, no. 1 (1973), p. 71.
  8. Daniel Heller-Roazen compares the swimming paradox with Freud’s analysis of aphasics. See Heller-Roazen, Echolalias, pp. 146–147.
  9. Frank Ruda gives a very insightful analysis of this peculiar “proof” in “Description of a Struggle,” in his essay “Kafka’s Proof: The Impossibility to Live” (unpublished).
  10. Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors,” Labyrinths, trans. James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 190.
  11. Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), p. 249. Letter of 13 January 1921.
  12. Ibid., p. 249.
  13. Ibid, p. 250.
  14. Ibid., pp. 250–251.
  15. Ibid., p. 250.
  16. Ibid., p. 249.
  17. Ibid., p. 249.
  18. Ibid., p. 251.
  19. Kafka, Letter to the Father, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), p. 13.
  20. The phrase “You are unfit for life” is from ibid., p. 119.
  21. Though I cannot develop it here, this opens up a possible response to Georg Lukács’s criticism of Kafka as a nihilist and non-realist. (Beckett, for Lukács, is Kafka’s great inheritor in this regard.) Perhaps the alienation and anxiety expressed in Kafka’s stories are not simply a reflection of “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it.” Rather, capitalism should be seen as a specific expression and exploitation of this alienation, involving a suppression of the impossible. See Lukács, “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?,” The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John and Necke Mander (London: Merlin Press, 1962), p. 77.
  22. Franz Kafka, “Investigations of a Dog,” The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 315.
  23. Ibid., p. 316. Of course, the main impossible profession for Kafka is writing—swimming, singing, and research may be considered three privileged modes of impossibility that appear within this (impossible) writing. He explains this in a well-known (and fittingly, unfinished) passage from another letter, as a fourfold struggle: “The impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently. One might also add a fourth impossibility, the impossibility of writing ... Thus what resulted was a literature impossible in all respects, a gypsy literature which had stolen the German child out of its cradle and in great haste put it through some kind of training, for someone has to dance on the tightrope. (But it wasn’t even a German child, it was nothing; people merely said that somebody was dancing) [BREAKS OFF].” Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, p. 289. Letter of June 1921.

Aaron Schuster is currently working on How to Research Like a Dog: Kafka’s New Science (MIT Press). He is the author of The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis (MIT Press, 2016), and co-author of Sovereignty, Inc.: Three Inquiries in Politics and Enjoyment (University of Chicago Press, 2019). He lives in Amsterdam.