The Kafka Sutra


In the beginning the Lord of Lords created men and women, and in the form of commandments in one hundred thousand chapters laid down rules for the proper governance of the Dharma, Artha, and Kama. Those rules which treated of Dharma were disclosed by Swayambhu Manu; those governing Artha were compiled by Brihaspati; and those that referred to Kama were, such is the mystery of mysteries, expounded by Franz Kafka in one thousand parables. It is said he composed them on days following his return to Prague from Berlin, where he traveled to visit his fiancé Felice Bauer. On such days Max Brod would often find Kafka brooding over a small black notebook and the remains of his modest breakfast. Kafka revealed the contents of the notebook only after unrelenting rib-jabbing and taunting by his friend, a service for which the literary world will forever be in Brod’s debt.

The original notebook being lost, the sutras were reproduced from notes and memory by Brod in abbreviated form in five hundred chapters. This work was again lost, but not before being prepared for publication in an abridged form of one hundred and fifty chapters by that notoriously renegade Hasid, Bohdan ben-Zalman, a kettle-maker and publisher of erotica, curiosa, and illicit literature. These one hundred and fifty chapters were then put together under seven heads or parts named severally:

1       Sadharana (on general topics)
2       Samprayogika (on rejected advances, etc.)
3       Kanya Samprayuktaka (on advances not quite made in the first place)
4       Bharyadhikarika (on rejection by one’s wife)
5       Paradika (on rejection by the wives of others)
6       Vaisika (on fear of approaching courtesans, and the memory of maternal injunctions regarding disease)
7       Aupamishadika (on the application of useless ointments)

The few copies of ben-Zalman’s proofs having been variously suppressed, lost, destroyed, found, thoughtlessly repaired, amended, corrupted, ignored, and otherwise removed from the historical record, we find only these few fragments of the Kafka Sutra survive. They are here rendered into English for the first time, that we may partake of their wisdom and vision.


The Great Wall and the Tower of Babel
from the Bharyadhikarika

He is to attain, through weeks of restraint, desire such that a tumescence is achieved scarcely inferior to the unruined glory of the Tower of Babel and, as regards divine approval, not entirely at variance with that edifice. He lies supine, that the monument of his desire towers above him.

She lies next to him, on her side, her back toward him, her curves and lavish limbs and silken surfaces forming in their long extension a Great Wall. She begins, softly, to snore.

He sees now that the tower failed because it was bound to fail.


An Imperial Message
from the Paradika

She is an empress and sends him a message from the divan where, after the luxury of her bath, she stretches the magnificence of her flesh to be powdered by a favorite handmaiden. Her message, a summons of desire, is for him and him alone, her pathetic subject, a tiny shadow hidden at the farthest distance from her imperial sun. She orders her eunuch herald to kneel down beside the heat and delicate scent of her breast, and drawing him near strokes his shaved head with a hand whose soft tautness itself promises fulfillments undreamed of by even the most jaded rakes among the courtly aristocrats. She whispers in the eunuch’s jeweled ear words that cause him, a veteran of many years service and witness to countless debauches of the court, to blush. At her command the messenger whispers the message back to her, that she may confirm its accuracy. The words bear such promise of pleasure that he trembles in memory of his lost manhood. And there, in front of the attendant harem of handmaidens and silken ladies in waiting, she dispatches her herald with a commanding gesture of her bejeweled and opulent arm.

The messenger starts off at once, a powerfully built and tireless servant. Eyes and jaw set in determination, he elbows his way through the crowd of nubile bodies. Where he encounters resistance, he points to his breast, which bears the glittering sign of the imperial sun, and the crowd parts for him. But the crush of bodies is immense; the imperial dwelling infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon the intended would hear the pounding of his fist on the door. But instead, look how futile are all his efforts, how vainly he wastes his burly strength. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the broad imperial steps, and, even if he managed to do that, still nothing would have been achieved, for the palace, which lies within the infinite city, has no end.

Out in the provinces the intended lies supine and contemplates with sorrow the Tower of Babel.


from the Kanya Samprayuktaka

He is offered the choice of becoming a husband or the lover of another man’s wife. Men being as they are, he wants to be a lover, as do all the others. Therefore there are only lovers hurrying around the world, near-rabid with ardor and bearing their secret letters of desire. There being no husbands, though, there are no wives, so there is no one to receive their amorous messages. Secretly they would all like to put an end to this miserable way of life, but fear commitment.


Before the Door
from the Vaisika

Before the seedy entry to the brothel he finds a fat, greasy man on a discarded barstool. Having come from the countryside in great and urgent need, he asks the fat guard for entrance. But the guard says that it is not possible to admit him at just this moment. The man reflects briefly, then asks if he will be allowed to enter later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “just not at the moment.”Since the door to the brothel stands open, as always, and the guard has turned toward the wall a little to shield the cigarette he’s lighting from the wind, the man tries to catch a peek inside.

Seeing him, the guard laughs. “If you are so strongly tempted, try getting in despite my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am but the lowliest of the guards: from hall to hall wait guards at every door, each more terrifying than the last. By the time I get to the third door I can hardly stand to look at them myself.” The countryman has not expected this — the brothel should be open to anyone prepared to pay. But when the man looks more closely at the guard and his coat trimmed with fake fur, his floppy hat, his gold-capped cane, his pointed eelskin boots and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, it becomes clear that it would be better to wait for permission. The   guard has given the countryman a little three-legged stool, much shorter than the barstool upon which his own bulk is massed, and gestures for the countryman to sit there at his side. There he sits for days and years, as the cold wind blows trash through the city’s gutters. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey to the city, slowly parts with everything he has, attempting time and again to bribe the gatekeeper. The latter accepts it all with a world-weary gaze, each time saying “I only take this so that you won’t think there’s anything you forgot to try.”


attributed to the Kanya Samprayuktaka

He complains that the words of the sutras are merely parables and of no use in real life: “When the sage has written ‘there she is, go get her, they’re never happier than when they’ve got one up in ’em, etc.’ the wise man does not mean that you should approach some actual hottie, but speaks of a philosophical Other, some transcendent object of ontological desire, something that the sage cannot designate any more precisely than we can. I mean, he can’t actually help us at all. All these parables really set out to say is that the ineffable is ineffable, and we knew that already. But the aches of earthly desire: that’s something else entirely.”

She lies next to him, on her side, her back toward him, with her curves and lavish limbs and silken surfaces, and starts to snore.

Translated from the German by Robert Archanbeau; original illustrations restored by Sarah Conner

Robert Archambeau (© 2007)