Friday, 5 July 2013

Kafka


Kafka was crazy.

If you read his works you get the inexorable impression of a mind that was ruthlessly sardonic; a mind that hollowed out conventions with the deftness of a surgeon and the brute force of a sledgehammer – often in the same sentence. All of this in a backdrop that evoked a tinge of sadness or laughter – depending on how demented you felt while reading, say, The Castle or The Trial.

The above two works along with The Metamorphosis count as the most definitive examples of Kafkaesque literature among critics and general readers alike. My choice in celebration of his birthday week is titled Before the Law which achieves Zen-like profundity in its short, one page glimpse of life through the pen of a man who, to all outward appearance, was a lawyer and, from within, a peacock with the wildest flashes of insight wrapped in a coat of gloom and heavy irony.

It is only fitting that Kafka’s dying wish to never have his remaining stories and novels published was completely ignored by the custodian he chose for the task. The illusion of reason. The madness an inch beneath our veneer of civility. Kafka stood for this and more.

Here we go:
(translation by Ian Johnston at Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, BC)
Before the Law
Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud; later, as he grows old, he only mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has also come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

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