May 11, 2022

Words and Music: Franz Kafka’s “Aphorisms,” Charlie Parker’s Flights

By Stuart Mitchner

“A cage went in search of a bird.”

  —Franz Kafka, Aphorism 16

In his introduction to The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (Princeton University Press $24.95), Reiner Stach tells readers they may “wind up in unfamiliar, sometimes inhospitable territory, which can then turn terribly beautiful.” Stach quotes the aphorism designated number 17 as one that Kafka might well have placed at the beginning “as the motto for the entire collection” —  “I have never been in this place before: breathing works differently, and a star shines next to the sun, more dazzlingly still.”

Words and Music

In the terminology of the recording studio, “A cage went in search of a bird,” Aphorism 16 (A16), is the master take “recorded on November 6, 1917,” with “A cage went to catch a bird” as the unused alternate. Discussing why “search” prevailed over “catch,” Stach suggests that rather than depriving “the bird of its freedom,” an “act of overpowering, with the cage as perpetrator and the bird as victim,” Kafka reworded the sentence so that the premise of a search “could be projected onto any number of social relationships.”

Recordings, master takes, alternate takes, words and music are on my mind after weeks reading Kafka’s Aphorisms and listening to Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist the jazz world knows as Bird. The recording studio analogy to choosing “search” over “catch” doesn’t quite hold, since the commercial object is to both find and capture an audience. In the case of a player who brings you into the studio the way Parker does when he cuts a take short with a shout or a whistle, you save the alternate take as an example of the artist in the living moment, so that future listeners can compare it to the soaring and searching of the master take that has an effect comparable to Kafka’s A17 —  you’ve “never been in this place before,” your “breathing works differently, and a star shines next to the sun.”

Kavka and Kafka

However uninviting or “inhospitable” the term “aphorism” may seem, Stach’s introduction and commentaries and a fresh new translation by Princeton resident Shelley Frisch make you feel at home. In addition to excerpts from Kafka’s crossed-out or amended first drafts, there are quotations from the diaries and letters that are often equal if not superior to the aphorisms themselves. Stach ends A16 by referring you to A32, one of the best-known and most Kafkaesque: “The crows claim that a single crow could destroy heaven. That is incontestable but offers no proof at all against heaven, because heaven does signify the impossibility of crows.”

Leaving open the question of whether the “bird” in A16 alludes to Kafka’s name, Stach identifies the crow as “one of the many semi-private allusions Kafka liked to weave into his literary texts,” crows being “close relatives of jackdaws,” both belonging to “the corvid family” (kavka is the Czech word for jackdaw). Stach goes on to note that Kafka “seems to have regarded the image of crows against the backdrop of a bright, clear surface as aesthetically attractive and mysteriously significant,”


It’s hard to see “corvid” without thinking of “covid” and the ongoing, shape-shifting pandemic that has now claimed a million victims in the U.S. The website quotes a “crow enthusiast” claiming a corvid-covid connection going back to the era when during deadly epidemics physicians treated victims in a special regalia of a “dark cloak and beaked mask stuffed with aromatic herbs designed to repel the miasma, or pervasive stink thought to perpetuate the disease.”

Writing in Zürau

The collection’s first aphorism was composed on October 19, 1917, some two months after Kafka experienced a pulmonary hemorrhage that caused him to cough up blood. Although the bleeding lasted for only a few minutes, it was, as Stach indicates, a sign that Kafka was already infected with the tuberculosis that led to his death seven years later on June 3, 1924. The advantage of becoming a patient, however, was that he could rest, heal, and write in his sister Ottla’s cottage in the Northern Bohemian town of Zürau.

A commentary directly related to Kafka’s illness accompanies A68, “What is more joyous than the belief in a household god,” which was “recorded December 19 or 20, 1917.” The discarded version has a captivating second line: “There is a down-and-outness beneath true knowledge and a childlike happy rising up!” Stach notes Kafka’s hesitancy about the sentence: “initially he crossed it out, then he undid the deletion with a set of dots in the margin, yet when he copied the text onto the sheet he left it out all over again.” Now, thankfully, here it is in full, with Stach adding: “A few years later Kafka adopted a very different tone in speaking about household gods: ‘To every invalid his household god, to the tubercular patient the god of suffocation.” Stach comments, “Here again Kafka’s naturopathic outlook shines through. People fall ill only when they have prepared the ground for that illness in advance, psychologically as well as physically. He also interpreted his own tuberculosis in this vein, especially in his letters from Zürau.”


While I can only imagine that Kafka would have been responsive to Parker’s music, I have no doubt Bird would have found the image of the crows destroying heaven fascinating, and I’m pretty sure he’d have related to the “childlike happy rising up,” a phrase that conveys not only the ecstasy of playing but the brimming-over joy of hearing Charlie Parker in full flight. Discovering A32’s magical alternate take was one of the high points of this aphoristic journey, all the more so because “down-and-outness” offers a quick study of a whole school of American writers from Stephen Crane to Henry Miller to Jack Kerouac, not to mention the ambiance of the jazz life from Storyville to 52nd Street to Lenox Avenue.

“Parker’s Mood”

One of the most quotable commentators on Bird in flight, Gary Giddins compares two takes of “Parker’s Mood” in Visions of Jazz. While both begin with the same “heraldic two-bar overture,” the earlier take has “a marvelous eccentric quality, as Parker slowly pokes his way through the most familiar of jazz terrains, a B-flat blues.” The later take, the one originally issued, has “a relatively glossy perfection, as Parker brings together a lexicon of blues phrases, new and old, for a penetrating performance.” The “Parker’s Mood” overture became a musical password whistled or riffed by Parker followers and aficionados. In his memoir Raise Up On Me, pianist Hampton Hawes refers to members of this group as “keepers of the flame.”

Keeping the Flame

My submergence in Charlie Parker’s music over the past month has been in loving memory of an old friend, a poet, naturalist, and tenor-playing busker whose last message on the subject came in an email early last February, when we didn’t know he had only two months to live. Linking me to Bird’s  “My Old Flame” on YouTube, he said, “Every note of this is written on my soul. And it still sounds as if I’m hearing it for the first time. The sound of  mystery ….”

Last Thursday, on one of those days that make May and poetry seem synonymous, I wandered through Marquand Park thinking back on a half century of friendship, of a first meeting on Mykonos, of sharing the first glimpse of the Himalayas from the back of a truck bound for Kathmandu, of long talks in London and long walks on the Bristol Downs, of a voluminous correspondence continued through email. After visiting a section of Marquand near Mercer Street that always reminds me of the Downs, I found a bench and took out my phone, a device I rarely use except for minor emergencies and baseball scores. Realizing that what I held in the palm of my hand contained  all my friend’s emails dating back to 2013, I scrolled through a world of messages, finding numerous links to music, ranging from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier to Bob Dylan to “Parker’s Mood.” Suddenly I realized that I had magic at my disposal, and for the first time since I’ve owned the phone, I listened to music on it, eyes closed in the mild May air, mind at one with the friend of my life, here now, in the music and the sunny air, Charlie Parker playing, “the sound of mystery.”

The Kafka’s Connection

The experience at Marquand continued at home when I opened The Aphorisms and found lines linking me to the music of that moment. From A70/71, recorded in Prague, in December 1917, with a world war in progress: “The indestructible is one thing: it is each individual person and at the same time it is something common to all, hence the supremely individual connection among people.” Or A76, which sounds like a Parker solo translated from the German back into English: “A swerve. Lurking, skittish, hopeful, the answer prowls around the question, peers desperately into its unapproachable face.” Finally, from A84, recorded in Zürau, January 1918, which I read while listening to “Bird of Paradise,” recorded in New York City, October 1947: “We were created to live in Paradise and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered; it is not stated that this has also happened to the destiny of Paradise.”