Quiet of the Now

Hannah Arendt on Kafka’s aphorism in “He”.


Between memories and daydreams, between the past and the future, the mind lingers.

It’s squished.

You have to fight the onslaught of time on two fronts before you can carve out a space in which to have a moment for rational, directed thoughts.

That’s how philosopher Hannah Arendt reads the following aphorism of Kafka. 

He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment—it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been—he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.

(From “He”, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and by Michael Hofmann)

“He” is the mind; the two antagonists are the two arrows of time: the past presses at the mind’s back, while the future presses at the mind’s front. The aphorism is told from the viewpoint of a man’s thinking ego struggling to carve out space for itself, as Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, and not from the viewpoint of a spectator observing the thinking process. To a spectator, time flows uninterrupted (as eternal change) or it is meaningless (the forces of past and future annihilate each other).

But in Kafka’s aphorism “he” dreams of becoming a spectator! A judge, in fact, who has jumped out of the fray and into a safe area—where? The spacial metaphor used to describe time becomes relevant. Would “he”, this thinking ego, jump to the side of the road? Or perhaps to a bridge above the road?

Arendt has a solution. The presence of “he” in the flow of time makes for a kink. The forces of past and future meet at an angle, instead of head-on. Witness the picture.

Hanna Arendt, The Life of the Mind
From The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt (p. 208)


Past along the X axes.
Future along the Y axes.
They meet at a right angle.

~ Apply Philosophy inspired by Physics to get: ~

A resultant diagonal within the embrace of the two infinite arms of time. Along this diagonal “he” can walk, or indeed, our thought-trains can run, in peace.

As Arendt says:

It is the quiet of the Now in the time-pressed, time-tossed existence of man; it is somehow, to change the metaphor, the quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it. In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of “umpire,” of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about.

Dare I suggest it may all be about a creative change of metaphor? And I don’t mean from road to storm, where Arendt slips from philosophy to poetry. I mean the switch she made before, from straight road in the middle of nowhere to road with a kink, bounding on one side a field of fertile soil where we go to grow our ideas.

Do not underestimate the power of an aptly conjured metaphor.

Elective Affinities by Rene Magritte (1933). What do you predict happens here as time passes?

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

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