Franz Kafka? Max Brod? Jonathan Franzen? Josef Paul Hodin? Georg Lukács? Harold Bloom? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: In 2019 acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay in “The New Yorker” that began with the following remark of despair attributed to the influential Prague-born writer Franz Kafka.
There is infinite hope; only not for us.
Here are two longer versions I have seen:
(1) Oh, hope enough, infinite hope, — just not for us.
(2) Plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope—only not for us.
Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: Max Brod was a friend and a biographer of Franz Kafka. In 1921 he published a piece titled “Der Dichter Franz Kafka” (“The Poet Franz Kafka”) in the literary journal “Die Neue Rundschau”. Brod described a conversation he held with his friend in 1920. Below is an excerpt in German followed by one possible translation into English. Boldface added by QI: 1
„Wir sind,“ so sagte er, „nihilistische Gedanken, Selbstmordgedanken, die in Gottes Kopf aufsteigen“. Mich erinnerte das zuerst an das Weltbild der Gnosis: Gott als böser Demiurg, die Welt sein Sündenfall. „O nein,“ meinte er, „unsere Welt ist nur eine schlechte Laune Gottes, ein schlechter Tag.“ — „So gäbe es außerhalb dieser Erscheinungsform Welt, die wir kennen, Hoffnung?“ — Er lächelte: „Oh Hoffnung genug, unendlich viel Hoffnung, — nur nicht für uns.“
“We are,” he said, “nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that rise up in God’s head”. This reminded me of the worldview of the Gnostics: God is an evil demiurge; the world reflects his fall into sin. “Oh no,” he said, “our world is just a bad mood of God, a bad day.” — “So outside of this world manifestation, which we know, would there be a world that knows hope?” — He smiled: “Oh, hope enough, infinite hope, — just not for us.”
The correctness of this quotation is dependent upon the veracity of Max Brod. In addition, the precise phrasing in English varies because of the inherent imprecision of translations.
Below are additional selected citations.
Max Brod first published a biography of Kafka in 1937. New editions appeared as the text was revised and translated. The following dialog is from the 1954 German edition. Brod stated that his conversation with Kafka occurred on February 28, 1920. Interestingly, this dialog differed somewhat from the version published in 1921: 2
Er: »Wir sind nihilistische Gedanken, die in Gottes Kopf aufsteigen.« Ich stellte damit die Lehre der Gnosis vom Demiurgen, dem bösen Weltschöpfer, von der Welt als Sündenfall Gottes in Entsprechung.
»Nein«, sagte Kafka, »ich glaube, wir sind nicht ein so radikales Hinabsinken Gottes, nur eine seiner schlechten Launen, ein schlechter Tag.« »So gäbe es außerhalb unserer Welt Hoffnung?« Er lächelte: »Viel Hoffnung — für Gott — unendlich viel Hoffnung —, nur nidit für uns.«
Brod’s Kafka biography was translated into English and published in 1960. The key dialog was rendered as follows: 3
He: “We are nihilistic thoughts that came into God’s head.” I quoted in support the doctrine of the Gnostics concerning the Demiurge, the evil creator of the world, the doctrine of the world as a sin of God’s.
“No,” said Kafka, “I believe we are not such a radical relapse of God’s, only one of his bad moods. He had a bad day.” “So there would be hope outside our world?” He smiled, “Plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope—only not for us.”
God (Gott) was directly mentioned within this version of the last sentence about hope ascribed to Kafka by Brod. Once again, the correctness is dependent upon the veracity of Max Brod. Also, the phrasing varies in different translations.
In 1948 art historian and literary critic Josef Paul Hodin published a piece about Franz Kafka in the London journal “Horizon”. Hodin presented the following version of Kafka’s response: 4
In Kafka’s case it is the interpenetration in reality of a human world and a divine one which is hostile to him. To the question whether there is any hope outside this world, since life in this world seems to be without hope, Kafka answers: ‘Plenty of hope—for God—an infinite amount of hope—only it is not for us.’ That is the basic note of his whole work.
Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács discussed Kafka and Brod in the 1971 book “Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle”. Lukács stated that Brod attempted to interpret Kafka’s writings as religious allegories, but Kafka disagreed: 5
Kafka refuted any such interpretation in a remark he is said to have made to Brod himself: ‘We are nihilistic figments, all of us; suicidal notions forming in God’s mind.’ Kafka rejected, too, the gnostic concept of God as an evil demiurge: ‘The world is a cruel whim of God, an evil day’s work.’ When Brod attempted to give this an optimistic slant, Kafka shrugged off the attempt ironically: ‘Oh, hope enough, hope without end—but not, alas, for us.’
In 1989 prominent literary critic Harold Bloom published “Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present” with the following version of the dialog: 6
Max Brod, responding to Kafka’s now-famous remark—“We are nihilistic thoughts that came into God’s head”—explained to his friend the Gnostic notion that the Demiurge had made this world both sinful and evil. “No,” Kafka replied, “I believe we are not such a radical relapse of God’s, only one of His bad moods. He had a bad day.” Playing straight man, the faithful Brod asked if this meant there was hope outside our cosmos. Kafka smiled, and charmingly said: “Plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope—only not for us.”
In 1996 “The Great Thoughts” compiled by George Seldes included an entry for the saying: 7
[There is] plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.
Conversation with Max Brod, quoted in Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, 1934
In 2019 Jonathan Franzen published “What If We Stopped Pretending?” in “The New Yorker”, and he referred to Kafka’s statement: 8
“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.
In conclusion, QI believes that the November 1921 German text is salient because it was published less than two years after the February 1920 conversation. The German version in the Brod’s biography of Kafka is also important. The fidelity of the either instance is dependent on the memory and veracity of Max Brod. The English language translations are unavoidably imprecise.
Image Notes: Public domain picture of a candle cradled in two hands representing hope from Myriams-Fotos at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Sandra Ikuta whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Ikuta saw the article by Jonathan Franzen.)
- 1921 November, Die Neue Rundschau (The New Rundschau), Der Dichter Franz Kafka (The Poet Franz Kafka) by Max Brod, Start Page 1210, Quote Page 1213, Fischer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1954, Franz Kafka: Eine Biographie by Max Brod, Quote Page 94 and 95, S. Fischer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960, Franz Kafka: A Biography by Max Brod, Translated from the German by G. Humphreys Roberts (chapter I to VII) and by Richard Winston (chapter VIII), Second edition, Chapter 2: The University, Quote Page 75, Schocken Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1959, The Dilemma of Being Modern: Essays On Art and Literature by J. P. Hodin, (Josef Paul Hodin), Part One: The Voice of Pioneers, Chapter 1: Franz Kafka – Reflections on the Problem of Decadence, (Reprinted from January 1948 issue of London journal “Horizon”), Quote Page 6, The Noonday Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1971, Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle by Georg Lukács (György Lukács), Translated from the German by John and Necke Mander, Chapter 1: The Ideology of Modernism, Quote Page 43 and 44, Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1989, Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present by Harold Bloom, Series: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1987-88, Chapter 6: Freud and Beyond, Quote Page 166 and 167, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1996, The Great Thoughts, Compiled by George Seldes, Revised and Updated, Entry: Franz Kafka, Quote Page 245, Column 1, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- Website: The New Yorker, Article title: What If We Stopped Pretending?, Article author: Jonathan Franzen, Date on website: September 8, 2019, Description: Website of weekly magazine based in New York featuring essays, fiction, and cartoons. (Accessed newyorker.com on October 4, 2021) link ↩